When I was a boy Soviet Russia and Red China were the great atheistic superpowers. It was part of their avowed plan to stamp out religion in all its forms. Seminaries and religious schools were closed. The printing of Bibles and religious books was banned. Christian leaders were thrown into jail, tortured and often martyred.

That form of explicit, aggressive atheism may have faded, but atheism is still going strong, and in contemporary America it is stronger than ever and growing. However, American atheism is far more subtle than the old communist forms of atheism. Atheism in America is masked. It hides under a range of different ideologies and philosophies that are part of America’s foundation and therefore, like all foundations, largely hidden from sight.

There are sixteen ideologies or “ism’s” that a huge number of Americans take for granted as being true, but which are actually disguises of atheism. The way to battle them is first to be aware of their existence and understand their powerful influence.

The great grandaddy of them all is materialism. Materialism is not simply “shopping til you drop” That is the symptom of materialism. Beneath that behavior is the belief that the material world is the only reality—there is no heaven, no hell, no angels or demons and it logically follows that there is also no God.

Many Americans are therefore atheistic by default. They don’t declare their atheism, but because they live as if the material world is the only reality they are atheists.

Following on from materialism is scientism. This is the widespread belief that science has disproved religion. While many Americans still attend church, within many hearts and minds is the secret suspicion that religion is just a respectable fairy tale and the science really has disproven it.

How should a believing Catholic counter these subtle forms of atheism? By living a radically Christian life. The word “radical” means “To the roots” so a radical Christian life is one that gets back to the basics. In my book Beheading Hydra- A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age  I outline the practical remedy for each of the forms of popular atheism.

Materialism, for example, is countered by tithing. When we give generously of our wealth we are saying by our actions that money and material possessions are not where we are putting our trust. Giving sacrificially means our intentions and priorities are on higher things.

Scientism is the belief that the only form of knowledge is scientific knowledge, but living a sacramental life provides an antidote to this false ideology because the sacraments are a physical connection to the spiritual realm. Scientism says “Only the physical realm—known through science is real.” The sacraments are a real link between the physical realm and the spiritual and therefore provide a different kind of knowing—an experience of the spiritual that comes to us through the physical.

Although most American atheists are hidden behind the sixteen masks of atheism, an increasing number are declaring their disbelief in God. The best way to engage an explicit atheist is to ask questions. One of the best questions is to point out that the vast majority of human beings in every culture in every place in every age of history have had some form of religion. They have believed in a god of some sort. They have built temples and shrines and offered worship. Does the atheist really think it is smart to deny an aspect of human life that is virtually universal? The spiritual longing in humanity is undeniable, and it is this longing which seeks to be satisfied. Is it possible that a person would be thirsty if there was no such thing as water? Is it possible to hunger and thirst for the divine if there is no God?

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s new book  Beheading Hydra is published by Sophia Institute Press.

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