Stephen Charnock, a clergyman who lived in the 1600s, said this: “Men may have atheistic hearts without atheistic heads.”
In other words, a man who only believes in his mind that there is a God may not agree in his heart.
An overt atheist, one fully committed to his unbelief, might indulge in moments of speculation, even though in his head he knows better. I once knew an atheist who asked me to pray for him. In his head, he was an atheist, and in his heart, too. But moments of despair or fear, even enlightenment or amazement, may have led him to consider the prospect of God.
I’ve also known a few who’ve asked for prayer, not expecting that it will be done, or if it is done that it won’t accomplish much. The request from this sort of person is not so much a longing for God, but a grasp at pity. No answer is needed, only acknowledgement that the person’s life is not the way he wants it to be. He’s been cosmically cheated out of what he thought was due him.
In his head, he believes. He assumes God is there, or at least he hopes it. He follows certain rules, but others he ignores because they aren’t easy for him. Maybe he goes to church. He gives something of his money and time and attention. In his mind, he finds the notion of God necessary. But in his heart, God is unknown.
A fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” Psalm 14:1
The overt atheist denies God because he sees no option. Nothing proves God’s existence to him. In both heart and mind, God is absent. But an atheist in practice—a practical atheist—finds it hard to let go of what God has become to him. The head belief may be built on tradition. It might come from a childhood acceptance of a religious order. Or it could just be fear of the proverbial zap by a lightning bolt for admitting doubt. The practical atheist says there is a God, but he has no desire, or ability for that matter, to love Him or live for Him. He may call on divine rescue from time to time, but he’s practically noncommittal about the ultimate rescue, even if he says otherwise.
Who’s to blame for the practical atheist’s predicament? Did he attend a church which did not fervently preach the gospel? Was he wrongly led to believe that God would grant him a life of good wishes and happy endings? Perhaps he clings to God in his head because deep in his heart he wants God to be true, but he has never experienced God’s truth. So he goes on living as if there is no God, and what a fool he is for it. He lives as he pleases, not caring for God or others. Not abiding in God’s word, even though he says he agrees with it. Not filled with gratitude, but with self-indulgence.
If he keeps up his act within the church, he might be spotted by a discerning brother. He might be outed by a gospel-centered body of believers. He might be called by God. If so, God will win him, and his practical atheism will let him go.
The overt atheist who asks me for prayer will get prayer. Whether or not his request is genuine, I don’t know. The practical atheist who asks for prayer will get it too. Whether or not his request is genuine, I don’t know. God knows, and God is able to rescue heads and hearts from both atheist camps. From the one that declares there is no God, and from the one that presumes there is a God.