Christians may believe in God and still act like he doesn’t matter. Some have called this “practical atheism.” In practice these persons are atheists, though they would say otherwise if you asked them. I’m not sure who coined the phrase. The earliest mention I have found was from Russian philosopher Nicolai A. Berdyaev (1874-1948) who said, “we find the most terrible form of atheism, not in the militant and passionate struggle against the idea of God himself, but in the practical atheism of everyday living, in indifference and torpor.”
Moses displays his own streak of practical atheism in his early encounters with God. Though God reveals himself in the unquenchable burning bush and gives Moses miraculous powers, the prophet still tries to back out of God’s calling. His excuse? “I’m not a good speaker.” Even when God reminds him who made Moses’ mouth, he still asks God to send someone else.
Along the road back to Egypt, Moses has another encounter with God, and this time God threatens to take Moses’ life. Moses has not circumcised his son, the one action which unites all Hebrews and marks them physically as God’s people. Moses’ wife steps in and does what Moses should have done. Another example of Moses’ practical atheism.
After Moses asks Pharaoh to let the Israelites travel outside of Egypt to worship God, Pharaoh refuses (as God said he would) and makes life miserable for the Israelites. Once again, Moses and the Israelites show their lack of faith in God by their doubting and despair. Moses even brings back his original excuse when God encourages him to press on.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go, tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his country.” But Moses said to the Lord, “If the Israelites will not listen to me, why would Pharaoh listen to me, since I speak with faltering lips ?” Exodus 6: 10-12
If I seem too hard on Moses, let me confess that I often live out this same form of practical atheism. When I doubt God has given me what I need, I practice it. When I do only the things that I can do in my own strength, not venturing to attempt that which would require God’s intervention, I become an atheist. When I fail to surrender more of my possessions to God, believing that I have more need of them and that I won’t receive a greater reward in eternity for letting go of them, I also show my lack of faith.
God is patient with Moses and continues to encourage him. Moses learns to trust God and overcomes his lack of faith. The children of Israel are slower to come around, but that is a story for another day. Here are some quotes from others about practical atheism:
According to the teaching of our Lord, what is wrong with the world is precisely that it does not believe in God. Yet it is clear that the unbelief which he so bitterly deplored was not an intellectual persuasion of God’s non-existence. Those whom he rebuked for their lack of faith were not men who denied God with the top of their minds, but men who, while apparently incapable of doubting him with the top of their minds, lived as though he did not exist. –John Baillie (see his wonderful devotional, A Diary of Private Prayer)
God is dead not because He doesn’t exist, but because we live, play, procreate, govern, and die as though He doesn’t. –Chuck Colson
I’ve always believed in God, just not enough to trust him with my whole life… I knew God could fulfill his promises, but I was never sure he’d do it for me. My selfish Christian Atheist view was that God existed for me, rather than I for him. If he’d do what I thought he should, I’d trust him more. If he’d come through for me, I’d give him more of my life. If he made my life better and pain-free, I’d believe him more passionately. But anytime God didn’t meet my expectations, we had a problem. God created me in his image. I returned the favor and created him in mine. The kind of God I wanted to believe in was this: if he’s not what I want, then he can’t have my whole life. –Craig Groeschel, author of The Christian Atheist
They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. Titus 1:16