A number of years ago Dr. George Gallup, president of the American Institute of Public Opinion, wrote a report of his research into the religious beliefs of Americans entitled “Is America’s Faith for Real?” He was struck by a strange anomaly. On the one hand, the answers to his questions indicated that America is unusually religious. But on the other hand, the same research showed that America’s religious beliefs make little difference in how people actually live and act.
Here is the positive side. Eighty-one percent of Americans claim to be religious, which places them second only to Italians, whose rating is eighty-three percent. Seventy-one percent believe in life after death. Eighty-four percent believe in heaven. Sixty-seven percent believe in hell. Large majorities say they believe in the Ten commandments. Nearly every home has at least one Bible. Half of all Americans can be found in church on an average Sunday morning. Only eight percent say they have no religious affiliation. Most say that religion plays an important role in their lives. One fourth claim to lead a “very Christian life.” Ninety-five percent believe in God.
But look at these percentages. Although ninety-five percent believe in God and four out of five say they are religious, only one in five says that religion is the most influential factor in his or her life. Most want some kind of religious instruction for their children, but religious faith ranks far below many other traits parents would like to see developed in their sons and daughters. Only one in eight says he or she would consider sacrificing everything for religious beliefs or God. Gallup records “a glaring lack of knowledge of the Ten commandments,” even by those who say they believe in them. He observes “a high level of credulity…a lack of spiritual discipline” and a strong “anti-intellectual strain” in the religious life of most Americans. Only one in eight Americans says that religion makes a significant difference in his or her life.1
This is practical atheism. It is the religion of most of today’s Americans–and the philosophy of the wicked who are described by David in the psalm to which we come now.
There are two kinds of atheism in the psalms. One is a theoretical atheism, the kind we normally think of when we use the words “atheist” or “atheism.” It is described in Psalms 14 and 53, for instance. These psalms are almost identical. They begin with the well-known words, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” This person really believes that God does not exist, though the psalmist says he’s a fool to think so.
The other kind of atheism is a functional or practical atheism. The practical atheist might acknowledge that there is a God. “Of course there is a God,” he might say. “Only a fool would deny it.” A person like this might go to church and even take an active role in church affairs. But so far as his or her life is concerned, God might as well be nonexistent. Peter C. Craigie, the author of the Word Biblical Commentary on Psalms 1-50, says rightly, “The functional atheist is not concerned so much with the theoretical question as to the existence of God; rather, he lives and behaves as if God did not exist.”2 It is this person that Psalm 10 describes. According to David, “In all his thoughts there is no room for God” (v. 4).
What a description this is! Martin Luther was correct when he said, “There is not, in my judgment, a psalm which describes the mind, the manners, the works, the words, the feelings and the fate of the ungodly with so much propriety, fullness and light, as this psalm.”3
1George Gallup, Jr., “Is America’s Faith for Real?” in Princeton Theological Seminary’s Alumni News, vol. 22, no. 4, Summer issue, 1982, pp. 15-17.
2Peter C. Craigie, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 19, Psalms 1-50 (Waco, TX: Word, 1983), p. 126.
3Cited by C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of David, vol. la, Psalms 1-26 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1968), p. 115.