Unbelief in Our Culture Is More Serious Than Most Imagine – A Reflection on the First Commandment

We live in times when many people make light of the fact that others do not believe in God. Many have relegated faith to a purely personal and largely irrelevant aspect of one’s life. This attitude even exists among many Catholics who, though believers themselves, don’t seem to be overly concerned that many others do not believe. The assessment of others seems to be a rather vague evaluation of whether they are “nice” or not. Once most people, Catholics included, decide that a person is “nice,” little else seems to matter.

But, frankly, all of us should be concerned at the rise of unbelief in our culture, whether it is atheism, agnosticism, indifference, or the rampant secularism that relegates God to a marginal place. We should be concerned because unbelief on a wide scale (as we are seeing today) is not only unhealthy for a culture, it is dangerous to it.

This danger is fairly obvious when one considers that, in the end, unbelievers think they answer to no one. When one no longer acknowledges that God exists and that He sees everything, when one doesn’t understand that he will ultimately have to answer to God for what he has done or failed to do, important aspects of the moral life can easily be ignored.

Realizing that we will one day answer to God is an important reminder that we are not a law unto ourselves. Knowing that we will not ultimately escape if we treat others with contempt, engage in serious injustice, live unchastely, or indulge greed is an important curb on sin, or at least a call to repentance.

This observation does not mean that every atheist lives a reprobate life. There are atheists who live exemplary lives, who exhibit natural virtues, whether they do so because it is to their benefit or simply because they have some ethical sense which comports with the right reason.

But, other things being equal, having large numbers of unbelievers who do not think they are ultimately accountable for what they do or fail to do is never healthy to good order, morals, or virtue.

Further, when belief is lost by many, so too is a common moral reference point. The Judeo-Christian moral view formed the basis for modern law, justice, constitutional rights, and ethics. While sectarian differences obviously existed in the country for 200 years before this rise of unbelief, there was a basic, biblical worldview that agreed on the essential moral issues. But with the rise of unbelief, this moral consensus has broken down. In its place there has arisen a tyranny of relativism, in which numbers matter more than reason; the one who wins is the one with the loudest megaphone, the most power, and the greatest influence.

This, too, is dangerous to a culture. Without a shared cultus, there can be no real culture. The word cultus refers to a reference point (God and His revelation) that is above and outside a culture, that is bigger and more lasting. Without that shared cultus, that devotion to someone higher, there can be no culture.

When we cannot even agree on what makes a marriage or even on something as obvious as whether one is male or female, the tyranny starts to resemble anarchy and nihilism. No culture can withstand such a basic undermining. Problems of this sort are civilization killers.

Thus, belief is important; it is critical. And we cannot go on relegating such a matter to the space of the purely personal and largely irrelevant. Being “nice” is not enough. We must be accountable to God and see Him as authoritative in our life. If we are to survive we must do this, both individually and collectively.

The First Commandment says, I am the Lord your God, you shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:2). This is not some egocentric God demanding worship and that He have no rivals. This is our loving Father, who knows what unbelief does to us. When we reject Him and/or turn to other gods we are harmed immeasurably. We lose our way and inherit a lawless and confused world in which the tyranny of relativism holds sway and no one thinks or acts as if he is accountable and will one day answer for what he has and has not done.

Do not make light of the rampant unbelief in our world today. It is far more serious than most imagine. God commands the most serious things for our well-being. The First Commandment is that we believe and that we call others to do the same. It’s Commandment number one for a reason!