Even for Christians who worship God on Sundays, it’s hard not to give in to promises that our doctors, or our politicians, or our favorite celebrity preachers, or our organic vitamin regimen, or our purity rings will fix the world, or at least allow us to control all the scary stuff in it. And, we too, are tempted to look for someone (or someones) to blame for all that seems out of control with our world, whether a global pandemic or election results.
Today, nine months later, the predictions of this particular panel of experts have turned out like most other COVID-19 predictions: right on some things, wrong on others. It’s not clear just how effective all of the quarantining, lock-downing, social distancing, and masking has been in reducing the number of infections, or why, despite more data, our assumptions about COVID-19 remain largely unchanged. And, of course, we’ve yet to reckon with the economic, educational, and mental health consequences of the policy paths we’ve chosen.
What is clear, more clear than ever in fact, are the base set of assumptions we now operate from as Westerners and Americans. Catastrophes like COVID always reveal worldview. To borrow a phrase philosopher Craig Gay uses in his book The Way of the Modern World, we are “practical atheists.” A subtle, operational-level form of secularism, practical atheism is not necessarily to believe that God does not exist. Rather, it’s to live as if God does not exist.
Professor Gay identifies two features of a culture operating from a deeply engrained practical atheism. First, there is an illusion of control. If there is no Higher Power determining the course of human events or judging the morality of our actions, the world is a place for us to make and remake according to our wishes. Grand leaps in science, medicine, and technology only deepen the faith we put in ourselves.
At the heart of our illusions of control is the assumption that world is totally understandable. We actually believe, Professor Gay says, not only that we can “comprehend reality in its totality,” but that “we are capable of rendering it stable and predictable.” In other words, we will ultimately make the world “work for us.”