I’m always surprised when I see those food products with the labels stating what would seem to be the obvious. Take a carton of milk, for example, where the label says it contains “real” milk. What is it suppose to contain? Not so obvious I guess. In a consumeristic society you can’t always expect that you are really getting what you think you are buying.
The same can occur in Christian life. There exists the temptation to think that one really believes in God, but lives as if he didn’t exist. This is called practical atheism, something both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have spoken about as one of the major obstacles to the New Evangelization stating that “many live “etsi deus non daretur” — as if God did not exist.
Practical atheism can seem very convenient. You apparently calm your conscience convincing yourself that you believe in God, but then your actions have nothing to do with that belief. It is putting into practice the phrase which is usually used to sum up Ivan Karamozov’s view in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: “If God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.” Sound familiar? There is no problem in God existing, as long as he remains outside of my world, as long as he doesn’t impose anything on me. In order to do whatever I want to do, I need God to be absent. The mind or the heart might not say this literally, but the actions speak loud and clear. Thus we can conclude that if for someone everything goes, God doesn’t exist for that person at least in the moment the person acts that way.
The error behind practical atheism is that it creates a false dichotomy, an existential rift, making you think you can believe, but that your actions do not have to be conformed to what you believe. A 12th Century Abbot, William of St. Thierry, thought otherwise. In helping his monks acquire a greater authenticity of life, he would explain to them the strong relation between what we think and what we do. When something becomes a constant object of our thoughts, it affects our actions. For example, the more you hear about a product you don’t have, you will probably end up buying it. The opposite is also true. If you constantly carry out actions that are not right, you will end up justifying those actions.
When we allow ourselves to act against the truth, we end up creating a different truth. And if our truth is not really true, then we will believe lies.
Pope Benedict, in his Apostolic Letter, Porta Fidei, goes directly against this principle of practical atheism when he states: “Faith implies public testimony and commitment. A Christian may never think of belief as a private act. Faith is choosing to stand with the Lord so as to live with him. This ‘standing with him’ points towards an understanding of the reasons for believing. Faith, precisely because it is a free act, also demands social responsibility for what one believes.”
Christianity does not consist in living our faith in an external or merely formal way, but in loving God to the point of showing that love in one’s personal and public behavior.
If a practical atheist says he believes in God, but lives as if God doesn’t exist, then does he really believe in God? For Pope Benedict true faith is not mere belief. Faith is both a content we believe and an act by which we believe what we believe. “Knowledge of the content of faith is essential for giving one’s own assent, that is to say for adhering fully with intellect and will to what the Church proposes. Knowledge of faith opens a door into the fullness of the saving mystery revealed by God. The giving of assent implies that, when we believe, we freely accept the whole mystery of faith, because the guarantor of its truth is God who reveals himself and allows us to know his mystery of love.”
How well was this understood by the first Christians. A man whose faith was not mere content he believed but a life he lived, Saint Ignatius of Antioch, prayed: “That I may not merely be called a Christian, but really be one.” Every Christian should avoid the temptation of practical atheism and make St. Ignatius’ prayer their own.
Note: You can see some interesting videos on who the Practical Atheist is at http://www.lifechurch.tv/watch/practical-atheist/1