When he got closer, I greeted him respectfully. Bless you, father! His holiness handed me the icon to kiss it. I apologised, saying I was not orthodox. What are you then? –I am a protestant. –Okay, good! he responded. As long as you’re not an atheist!
Back in 1989, I watched the revolution (or whatever you wish to call it) live, on a TV in the window of a shop, as we did not have this useful device home at yet. I bowed my head in the prefecture square when the Lord’s Prayer was uttered for the first time, together with everyone who had gathered there at the invitation of the city’s most beloved priest. It felt like a new era of our world had begun (even in my mind it was just a change of government, not of regime, and at the time I wasn’t particularly interested in the difference between the two). I just wanted the existing atheist dictatorship to disappear and for human rights to be recognised. Communism as a socioeconomic structure did not bother me, although I admit it’s an impossible utopia, designed more for angels than for flawed and errant people.
On Christmas Eve I went out. A priest, armed with an icon and accompanied by a verger, was passing by our street, waiting for honour from passersby, as tradition required it. When he got closer, I greeted him respectfully. “Bless you, father!” His holiness handed me the icon to kiss it. I apologised, saying I was not orthodox. “What are you then?” “I am protestant.” “Okay, good!” he responded, “As long as you’re not an atheist!”
As long as you’re not an atheist? The years that followed taught me that, in this world, you may believe in all sorts of silly things, from the most antique and most worshiped things, to the most modern concoction of Belial, “embellishing” the millennial syncretism of Christianity, and no one would label you as bad. On the contrary! But when the first post-revolutionary Romanian president publicly presented himself as a “free thinker” (which does not necessarily mean atheist, just unreligious), his declaration rocked the boats of believers throughout the country.
The atheist in the Old Testament
What is an atheist, really? From a historical point of view, we have several meanings of the term. Jewish antiquity does not have a term for this category, which, at the time, did not exist philosophically. The Bible does not treat the unbeliever as a thinker, but as a bad man, without moral principle when it comes to how he gets rich, mocks his fellow man and thinks of himself as being secure due to his wealth (see Psalm 10).
Why would this person necessarily be an atheist? Because he “says to himself God does not see”, does not hear. It’s like God does not exist to this, and therefore he thinks he will never be judged according to his deeds. To live as though God does not exist—despite a possible public declaring of faith—is what the Bible would call a situation of practical atheism. In Psalm 14 (repeated in Psalm 53), which could be called the Atheist’s Psalm, King David’s verse denounces this specimen, calling him “nabal” (“good for nothing, vile, godless”), a term which is usually translated as “fool”.
The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
Do all these evildoers know nothing?
They devour my people as though eating bread;
they never call on the Lord.
But there they are, overwhelmed with dread,
for God is present in the company of the righteous.
You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.
Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion!
When the Lord restores his people,
let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!
This refrain about the evil, unwise and self-confident man—who disregards others to build a life for himself here below, saying to himself God does not meddle in social and economic relations—is prominent throughout Scripture. In the mind of this man, God governs only nature, beyond the sapphire skies (Job 22:12-18). This type of man is a mere secular (“worldly”) cynic. He might display a form of faith in order to look good in the eyes of the public, but he feels most at home among agnostics, deists and other modern believers who do not abide by any kind of Scripture, because Scripture obliges and holds one accountable.
The atheist in the New Testament
It is thus possible to have one god, or several, and still be an atheist. The term atheos, of Greek origin, means “godless”. In Scripture we come across it just once, as an adjective, in its plural form “atheoi” in Ephesians 2:11-13:
“Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called ‘uncircumcised’ by those who call themselves ‘the circumcision’ (which is done in the body by human hands)—remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
In other words, atheist means being without the real God, to wonder through the world without a map or compass, guiding yourself by anything which seems to offer a fleeting hope, including a series of auxiliary divinities. The true God is the One revealed in the promise’s testaments, in which we have eternal life through Jesus Christ. This truth is revealed in the Jewish and Judeo-Christian Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, which we call the Bible (Books).
The atheist in ancient society
At some point, the world was presented with a false image of God, either by a multitude of straw-like divinities being made up, which one can easily deny, or by drawing a theologically impossible image of the Creator God. In such circumstances, even the atheist is somewhat justified in his beliefs.
Materialist atheism emerged as a philosophy in India, in the 6th century B.C. In the following century, atheist philosophers appeared in ancient Greece and Rome: Diagoras, Democritus, Critias, Philodemus, Theodorus of Cyrene, Straton, Euhemerus, and Epicurus, Lucretius are the most known. Even some who were merely agnostics, or denied the gods of idolatrous religions, could be considered atheists according to ancient criteria, because the religious authorities criticising this trend were not interested in the truth. They were aware that pagan religions were based solely on popular tradition. An “atheist” was a dangerous man, who did not worship the gods of the city or of the country, etc. The temple servants had every reason to be disturbed by such opinion leaders who endangered the entire lucrative purpose of pagan religions.
Therefore, the people who did not worship the public images of the ancestral religions were suspected of atheism. Jews and the first Christians had this reputation in the Greco-Roman society. They refused to burn incense on the gods’ altars, to worship and bring sacrifices to the gods. They even declared publicly that there is only one true God, the Creator, and that ancestral divinities were lies. Unlike the Jews, who were protected by the law, Christians were mercilessly stripped of their possessions, tortured and murdered for “blasphemy crimes” against the accepted religion. According to the biblical definition of atheism, however, the atheists were the ones on the other side of the fence, among the religious fanatics of a system that was protecting their economic resources.
Modern and pragmatic atheism
These days, only 13% of the world’s population identify as atheists. But, from a biblical perspective, if you are without the Book, without hope, without the true God who has revealed Himself through Christ, you are a poor atheist, in a practical way, although you might wrap that up in the cloak of “humanism”, “spiritualism” or “Christianity”. There are even nontheistic religions, like Hinduism and its offshoots (Buddhism and Jainism), Raëlism, Neopagan movements (Wicca and other forms of magic), which accept atheists as good practitioners. Even in Judaism, an atheist or theosophical Jew is more acceptable than a Jewish Christian. Is this the direction modern religion is headed? Simon Liebling from New Jersey wrote the following in 2003:
“From this point forward, I consider myself a humanist secular Jew. I believe in both types of atheism, both the rationalist (scientific) one and the Marxist one, but I feel it’s more important for me to maintain my Jewish identity, following its millennia old traditions.”
If, in the quote above, we replace the words “Jew” and “Jewish” with “Christian”, the statement would hold for many Christians. A way of identifying ourselves as ‘Christian’ predominates today, simply because we like the traditions that have enriched our lives—but we never forget to point out that we are not practitioners or ‘religious’. We just believe in our hearts, or we don’t know if we can still believe; hopeless and godless in the world. We might be good people (something one does not come across often), but beyond a somewhat decent survival and the small materialistic or socio-cultural adventures we can afford, the nearing horizon lacks any substantial future.
Disregarding the Middle Ages, in which atheism could not exist because of the religious totalitarianism, obscurantism and illiteracy, the “century of lights” (18th century) reintroduced the theist problem and suggested various solutions. The main philosophy developing for the first time as a political force was deism (natural religion), faith in a Creator God, which denies any form of biblical religion. The French Revolution between 1789-1797, and the revolutions in 1848, gradually introduced a secular mentality to Europe, allowing citizens of different confessions, agnostics and atheists to coexist peacefully.
We should be ashamed to admit that it was not the Church that promoted the ideas of tolerance and peaceful coexistence in the state, but rather certain forms of secularism and radical Protestantism (humanists, Baptists and others). Due to the modern spirit of promoting human rights, the current right to a Christian faith in God is easier to defend.
However, when atheism became a political ideology and the red revolutions created an empire which threatened to engulf an entire hemisphere, the anti-Christian totalitarianism we experienced for two generations taught us that, for the state, no ideology is safe. The one ideology a state should hold is to serve its citizens, religion, and human rights. Wherever there are “superior interests”, the devil is prowling to regain his totalitarian reign.
In modern Romania, atheism is rather camouflaged or combined with other troubles. We do not present ourselves as atheists; we have a huge percentage of Christians. But we are still wayward.
The image of the outlaw stealing from rich men to restore justice in a no-man’s society was the precursor of the “new man”, stealing from the richest of them all (the communist state) to do justice to himself. From outlaws, our admiration started to shift towards ‘wise guys’ of all sorts, walking around carelessly in the country where churches flourish while schools and hospitals are collapsing.
What does the future hold? Classic atheism or red atheism is not found here. But pragmatic atheism, called apatheism—the one the Bible incriminates as the attitude of the vile, good-for-nothing man—has never spared Christians. This apatheism goes well with older and newer superstitions, but especially with our daily sins. The state should be neutral to serve all citizens, even if the people governing have the same religion.
As a citizen, you have the right to adhere to a certain faith, or to none. But as a human being you have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to know God, make peace with Him to receive eternal life—an invaluable gift. If the apatheism you live with does not allow you to sacrifice everything for this purpose, you may have it all and be whatever you want and still be nothing and have nothing. If you do not have peace with the One who died and was resurrected to save us from our sins, you are still an atheist, even if you know how to correctly make the sign of the cross. Jesus launched a two-millennium-old but still-valid appeal:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.