Practical Atheism

For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
~ Psalm 73:3

A brutish man knoweth not; neither doth a fool understand this.
~ Psalm 92:6

Fools because of their transgression, and because of their iniquities, are afflicted.
~ Psalm 107:17

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
~ Proverbs 1:7

The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.
~ Psalm 10:4

To the chief Musician, Maschil, A Psalm of David, when Doeg the Edomite came and told Saul, and said unto him, David is come to the house of Ahimelech. Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man? the goodness of God endureth continually. Thy tongue deviseth mischiefs; like a sharp razor, working deceitfully. Thou lovest evil more than good; and lying rather than to speak righteousness. Selah. Thou lovest all devouring words, O thou deceitful tongue. God shall likewise destroy thee for ever, he shall take thee away, and pluck thee out of thy dwelling place, and root thee out of the land of the living. Selah. The righteous also shall see, and fear, and shall laugh at him:
~ Psalm 52:1-6

And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient;
~ Romans 1:28

That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:
~ Ephesians 2:12

Practical Atheism, by Jonathan Edwards.

The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. Psalm 14:1

He who has infinite wisdom, who sits in heaven and from thence perfectly beholds all things as they are and knows better than any other what is wisdom and what is folly, has in his Holy Word stigmatized the wicked as the greatest fools. So that we find ’em there called fools, as though they were so in the most eminent manner. And so wisdom is used for holiness commonly in the Scriptures, as if the word were synonymous or exactly of the same signification.

The wicked are called fools in this verse:

1. As a general appellation that belonged to them, as they are called elsewhere; Psalms 107:17, “fools because of their transgressions”; and Proverbs 13:19, “it is an abomination to fools to depart from evil”; and Proverbs 13:20, “a companion of fools shall be destroyed”; and in many other places.

2. With a particular eye to that part of their folly here mentioned, viz. that they say in their hearts, “There is no God.” This is a chief influence of the strong stupidity and sottishness of their minds.

Some do suppose that by the expression of “saying in their hearts, There is no God,” is meant chiefly in their inclination. But by “heart” in the Scriptures is often very commonly meant the whole soul, including all the faculties. Thus we read of pondering things in the heart, by which is principally intended the act of the understanding. And it seems here to be meant of the whole soul. As sin has dominion over the whole soul, so atheism is what taints all the faculties.


A principle of atheism possesses the hearts of all ungodly men.

By atheism is commonly meant the disbelieving or denying the being of a God, as extending no further than to the act of the understanding.

But by the word “atheism” in the doctrine, I would be understood in a sense something more extensive: for any kind of rejecting, renouncing, or opposing the divine existence or the being of a God with whatever faculty. Which sense we suppose to be parallel with the expression in the text of “saying in the heart, there is no God.” And accordingly we shall show,

I. That there is an atheistical inclination.

II. There is a principle of speculative atheism or atheism of judgment in every ungodly man.

III. They have a disposition practically to deny God or to live as if there were no God.

I. There is an atheistical inclination that possesses the heart of every ungodly man; i.e. they have such an inclination and nature that it would suit them if there were no God. They have nothing in them that makes them incline that there should be a God, but they could be glad if there were none. It would mightily suit and please them if they could be assured that there was none.

There is such a spirit of enmity in their hearts against God; everything that is in God is disagreeable to ’em. Their natures are entirely contrary to the nature of God. In the first place they hate the holiness of God. And then they hate all the other attributes because his holiness does, as it were, influence and actuate all his other attributes, as his power, wisdom, and mercy.

They easily perceive that ’tis not for (their) interest as sinners that there should be a God. If there be a God, then they are sensible that he is their enemy, unless they take up a wrong opinion of themselves and think themselves to be God’s friends.

This belief of the being of a God, they perceive would be a thing very much cross to their strongest inclinations and appetites. It would disturb them and create them a great deal of uneasiness in their pursuit of their pleasures, to think that there is an almighty Being that has them and all things in his3 hands, and that perfectly hates sin, and will revenge it; that beholds them continually and sees their hearts and all their secret actions. They have no inclination that it should be thus. It is what they could heartily wish for, that they could be assured it were otherwise, that there was no supreme Being to take notice of their behavior and call them to an account. They have disposition enough to dethrone God or to kill him if it lay in their power.

II. A principle of speculative atheism, or atheism of judgment, possesses the hearts of all ungodly men. The natural blindness of the children of men extends so far as to darken their understandings with respect to the very being of God.

Men’s judgments are naturally so depraved. The principle of unbelief that is in the heart extends to everything that is divine; it respects the whole of religion. They have not only unbelief with relation to the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness to satisfy for their sins and recommend them to God, and with relation to those divine doctrines of the gospel about the incarnation and mediation of Christ that are so much above the light of nature, but they have in their hearts a principle of unbelief4 of the very first principle of natural religion.

Here we shall take notice of the ways wherein this atheistical principle expresses itself. But I shall first observe that, however there is such a principle of atheism in all ungodly men, yet ’tis very questionable whether there ever was any man that ever was able to satisfy himself that there was no God.

There have been many that, finding that the belief of the being of a God would not suit with their sinful pursuits or agree with their carnal pleasures, have labored to free themselves from this encumbrance, and entirely to throw off the yoke of religion, and to get rid of all restraint from the apprehensions of a supreme judge to call them to an account. But ’tis very questionable whether any of them ever so far obtained their end, or by objecting and caviling to free themselves from all sense of the being of a God, so as to get rid of fears and jealousies and terrifying apprehensions of his being, and especially at times.

However perverse and depraved some men’s reason is, being blinded and misled by their sinful prejudices and made headstrong by their pride, yet studying and reasoning is not the way to make men perfect atheists, though they set themselves about it for that very end, to ease their own minds of the burden of a jealousy of it.

But the likeliest way for men to bring themselves to it, or to come as near it as men can come, is not to consider at all: to exercise their reason as little as ever they can, and make haste and make themselves every way as much like beasts as lies in their power, to be as inconsiderate as beasts and stupefy their minds and darken their understandings with beastly lusts as fast as they can. That is the readiest way to arrive at atheism or to arrive at perfection in it.

But if men set themselves to study, though it be on purpose to cavil and object, men can’t that way so blind themselves but that the evidences of God’s existence will discover themselves. The discoveries of it are so numerous and so obvious that ’tis difficult for a man to turn his eyes off from them, or so to blind himself that he shall not see them. And the evidences are so direct that it’s difficult to reason so little or so wrong as not to see the dependence of the conclusion on the premises.

Though there be a principle of atheism in the heart of all ungodly men, yet there is also a natural faculty of reason, and the atheistical principle never can so far prevail against the principle of reason as so far to hinder its exercise or wholly to put out the light of nature in this particular.5 God hath showed to every man his own existence by the light of nature; Romans 1:19–20, “Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:18). So that the heathen held the truth in unrighteousness; Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”

That natural conscience that is in every man will make him at least suspicious of a supreme judge. For that tells every man, when he has committed wickedness, that he deserves punishment, and makes it manifest to him that it is most fitting and suitable that there should be a supreme governor of the world and judge of men to assign to every one according to his works; and therefore men naturally expect it. And therefore it has been observed of some of the most atheistical and those that professed atheism, that they have at times been greatly terrified with apprehensions of God’s being and vengeance, and especially on a death bed.

But this atheism that is in the hearts of ungodly men appears and expresses itself these ways.

First. The minds of ungodly men are not susceptive of a certain conviction and realizing apprehension of the being of God. They may give way to the arguments that they hear for it and give their consent to the thing, as being that which is upheld by arguments that they can’t answer, but after all they are not completely convinced of it. It don’t seem as a thing real to them. It don’t make that impression upon them that things which they apprehend to be real do, but rather such as some fable. Things that they have seen with their eyes and conversed with by their bodily senses make another kind of impression upon their minds.

Wicked men don’t thoroughly realize it, that there is an eternal, almighty Being that they “live and move and have their beings in” (Acts 17:28) and that sees them and takes notice of all their actions. It is a thing, it may be, that they have been taught from their childhood, and a thing they have heard many arguments for and that they can’t answer, and so what they are wont to allow. But it is one thing to do so and another to have a realizing sense and conviction of it.

Second. Ungodly men have a principle in them that makes them very prone to call the being of God in question. They are ready to listen to objections and to imagine that there is much in them. A little objection will take much faster hold of ’em than arguments on the contrary of far greater strength.

They are ready to say with themselves oftentimes, “How do I know that there is any thing as a God? It may be there is nothing in it. It may be the Scriptures and the scheme about a creator and judge and a future state is only an invention of men. How do I know but that when I die I shall return to nothing; that there will be an end of ’em as there is of the beasts? Them that are gone before don’t come back and tell us whether they find it true. It may be ’tis all a mere notion.”

And there is a principle and nature that is very apt to fall in with such surmises. The corrupt nature of man is such as they very much suit with. Man is prone to infidelity and to catch at arguments for it.

And though sometimes they may seem to be convinced and silenced, yet when once those arguments are a little out of the mind, then that (thought) will return again: “How do I know but that the world is all this while deceived about the being of God and there is no such?” All the while there are many in the world that love to be caviling and objecting against it, and there have been some that have openly denied and renounced the being of God, and others that have not gone so far have denied a providence: denied that God has anything to do in governing the world, or that he takes any notice of the affairs of mankind, which is very much equivalent with denying the being of God itself.

Though it be a general thing to profess a belief of the existence of God, yet there is the same principle naturally in us as in them, the same proneness to unbelief of God’s existence. These following things seem to be the causes of it.

1. The dullness and sloth of the minds of wicked men. Sin is a thing that is of a benumbing, stupefying nature. It renders the soul insensible and indolent and restive; it exceedingly disposes it to sloth and inactivity. Atheism, as we observed before, is most firmly founded in inconsideration. Men are naturally exceedingly inclined to be inconsiderate and unthoughtful of things of a spiritual nature. It makes the mind exceeding inattentive to those clear and bright evidences that we have of the being of God in the works of God.

The minds of carnal men are so clogged and overcharged with the world and so immersed in senses that they are, as it were, lulled asleep thereby, and the understandings are held down and kept from soaring aloft to spiritual and divine objects.

2. It arises from their aversion to divine and spiritual things. The atheism of the understanding arises in great measure from the prejudices that possess the hearts of men against the belief of the being of a God. They hate that there should be a God. They wish that there was none, and so they are very ready to hearken to any objections against his being, because what is aimed at in those objections is what suits them, and the contrary way disagreeable to them.

And then their aversion to spiritual objects leads ’em to atheism another way, viz. as it indisposes them to think about them. If men thought more about God and his word and works, and if they dwelled upon such things with greater fixedness, they would be more likely to be convinced of the being of a God. But the objects being disagreeable to them, they seldom think of them. Many of them scarce ever think of God with any attention. Such thoughts ben’t at all apt to stay in their mind; the ideas make no impression scarcely upon that that is of so contrary a nature, and resists them and endeavors to throw them out as soon as possible; Psalms 10:4, “God is not in all his thoughts.”

3. It arises from an habitual dependence on their senses. Wicked men are so immersed in sense and so enslaved thereto that they’ve become habitually dependent upon them, so that they believe nothing, they realize nothing, but what is the object of sense.

Men having lost their relish for spiritual enjoyment, they seek their pleasure and happiness only in sensual enjoyment, and so are wont to employ and exercise their souls wholly about sensitive things, till what is sensible seems to be all to them. And that which is not the object of sense seems to be nothing; that which they can’t see or feel don’t seem real to them.

And this is the principal reason that men can give why they are apt to question the being of God: because they never saw him with their bodily eyes. They see this world, and the things of the world, and therefore they can realize them. Man has a nobler way of perception than that of sense, but it has been disused, and men have so devoted themselves to sense that it has taken the place of reason and the nobler powers. The souls of carnal men, the understandings as well as inclinations and wills, are become slaves to sense.

III. Ungodly men are prone practically to deny the being of God; that is, to live as if there was no God, to live without any respect or regard to him, as if he were not, or had nothing to do with them, or were any way concerned about the government and ordering of the world. They practically deny that God is their creator, in that they refuse to acknowledge him and to pay him those regards which are due to him as such. They violate those obligations that immediately result from the relation of a creature to a creator.

They deny God as their owner, in that they refuse to devote themselves to him. They deny God as their disposer, in that they refuse to submit to his disposal. They deny him as their lawgiver and judge, by showing no regard to his commands or threatenings.

They practically deny all the attributes of God and consequently his being. They deny his holiness, in that they live as if there were no superior Being that hated sin. They deny his wisdom, by living as though God did (not) behold them and see their secret actions and thoughts. They practically deny his power; they live as if God were not able to punish them and make them miserable for their sins. They deny his mercy, in that they have no regard to the offers and tenders of it.

But especially is there one sort of wickedness that is a practical denying the being of God, which is profaneness, or a behavior that shows a contempt or disregard to those things whereby God makes himself known or that relate to his more immediate worship.

Thus wicked men by living prayerless lives, they live like atheists. (They do not practice) secret prayer; (they) profane (the) sabbath; (they neglect gospel) ordinances; (and they do not attend) public worship.6


I. Hence we may see one cause why there is so much wickedness in places of light. It is mysterious how men dare go on in wickedness, and give themselves such a license as they do, where they are taught that there is a God that is infinitely holy, that will surely call them to an account, and that he will punish all the ungodly with eternal burnings. But this doctrine will do something towards explaining the mystery. They have a principle of atheism in their hearts: a principle of infidelity whereby they deny the reality of these things. They ben’t really and thoroughly convinced, after all that is said, that there is any such thing as heaven or hell or any such being as God. There is none of all the talk about another world and a future judgment that seems real to them. And this is the reason why they can hear about the wrath of an almighty Being, about weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, about eternity, and about despair in hell without being much disturbed by it. This is the reason that they can hear such things on the sabbath and go right away and commit wickedness as they used to do, the same wickedness that they have been hearing so terribly threatened.

So if men were not in a considerable measure atheists, it would be utterly impossible that they should go on and live so peaceably and quietly in every wickedness and commit sin so boldly as they do under such warnings as they have. We may as well suppose that it is possible for man to love misery and hate happiness, that he can choose pain and torment, as foremost and for its own sake.

II. Hence we learn the dreadful wickedness and sottishness of the heart of man naturally.

(First Inf.) Hereby appears firstly the dreadful wickedness of the hearts of natural men. It shows the great enmity that is in man against God, that they are so prejudiced against his being.

(Second Inf.) It shows this exceeding stupidity, folly, and sottishness of the hearts of wicked men. Well might the Psalmist call them fools. The folly of it appears from these three considerations, viz. first, that the being of God is so exceeding manifest; and second, that our inquiring into the truth in this matter is that which so much concerns (us); third, the weakness of their main objection.

1. The being of God is a thing abundantly manifest. God has so ordered that there is nothing whatever that is more manifest to reason than his own being. The evidences of his being are exceeding, plain, direct, obvious, and numerous. The being of a God is not only a thing that is discoverable by reason, by a long train of ratiocination, but the arguments are direct and immediate. There is no need of any long and intricate argumentations to argue the Creator from the creature.

Neither is (there) only one or two or a few things from whence the being of God is discoverable, but everything shows it.

I shall not pretend to particularly enumerate all the ways by which the being of God is evident, but the consideration of these two things may be sufficient to show what stupidity of mind it argues in a person endowed with the faculty of reason to question the being of a God.

(1) That men carry such abundant evidence of the being of God in their own beings. There is no need of going far for it. Every time we behold ourselves, look upon our own bodies, or exert any of our bodily powers, and exercise and find the benefit of our senses, or are so much as conscious of any thought in our souls, there is abundant demonstration that we may see of the being of God.

There is no part of our bodies, from the crown of our heads to the bottom of our feet, but that the being of God might be made exceeding evident. Nothing can be more evident, then, than that the wisdom and contrivance of some being had the formation of the human body. (Think of our) eyes, (which could) not (have been contrived by) the wisdom of (our) parents.7

(It is) not the less in evidence of the being and wisdom of God because we ben’t immediately formed out of the dust of the earth but the wombs of our mothers, but more; for that is one instance of the wisdom and contrivance of God, that such a body of so wonderful a frame should be so propagated.

Or (what) if a man should make an inquiry (about what it is) to propagate others of like kind, from the consideration of our souls? Our souls are certainly more wonderful pieces of divine workmanship than our bodies. And how obvious is the argument, if we put the question to ourselves, “How came we into being? Who made our souls (and) gave us something that thinks and understands?” Men can’t make such things as souls.

How sottish are men, that when they perceive their own beings, they can’t argue their own author from thence: that they don’t consider how they came to be.

(2) There is nothing else that we behold or converse with but that the being of God is evident from it. The very being of any of them (is evidence): creation, daily providences, sun, moon, (and) stars. Their motion and why (they) move thus and not thus (is evidence); if you say (that they move) from (the laws of) nature, (then you must ask), “Who gave them those laws?”

The rain from heaven (is evidence), the growing of corn and grass, the self-evidency of one thing to another.

2. This folly appears from the vast importance of inquiring into the truth in this matter, and attending to the evidences we have of it. This shows their folly, that they do no more consider, and that they do no more diligently and impartially inquire. Atheism, as we have observed once and again, is founded in inconsideration. The evidences are such that the least degree of consideration without a sottish blindness would be sufficient to convince. So that if with consideration they are unbelieving, that argues the great stupidity and blindness of their minds; and if it be because they don’t consider, that argues monstrous folly and imprudence, that they will say, “There is no God.”

3. Their folly appears in the weakness of their main objection, that they can’t see God, as if there were nothing but what they could see. Why don’t they question the being of men? They don’t see their souls. They don’t see that he thinks and reasons; yet they believe there is something in men that they converse with, that doth so (exist). And they see God as much (as they see men’s souls).

(Third) Inf. The dismal waste that the fall has made in man’s soul: that he should be so separated and removed from God that he should question his being, that the light of his mind should be so put out, that he should question the very being of that only being and author of all things, that he should be without that knowledge that is the main end of the faculty of reason.


1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (2 vols. Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960), Bk. I, ch. 3; Bk. II, chs. 1–2.
2. See John Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion: The Age of Enlightenment in England, 1660–1750 (Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1976). For a sustained, later critique of atheism by JE, see his sermon on Romans 1:20, dated June 1743, with the doctrine: “The being and attributes of God are clearly to be seen by the works of creation.”
3. MS: “their.”
4. The following phrase, excised by JE, specifies the first principle of natural religion: “of the very being of a God.”
5. I.e. in this particular case: the existence of God.
6. As JE neared the end of the Doctrine, he sketched in only phrases, upon which he most likely would have expanded extemporaneously in preaching.
7. Bracketed phrases here and throughout the rest of the Application mark places where JE provided only a few words upon which he probably would have expanded extemporaneously in preaching.