A Christian colleague ran across the term "Practical Atheist" recently and brought it to a group I'm in for definition and discussion. I wasn't familiar with it, and as probably the only thing close to an Atheist in the group (for the record, I call myself an Agnostic), offered up that it might be about a distinction between declared Atheists and default atheists (those who have not made a sort of declaration of atheism, but have no belief in God). Other Christian colleagues in the group went with a definition of those people who might profess a belief in Christ, but live a Godless lifestyle. Turns out, it seems they were right according to some definitions. And that makes sense, because it's not a term that would make sense within the Atheist community, but makes sense in the Christian community. And no term is likelier to drive Atheists hopping mad, now that I understand it better.
So here's the Wikipedia definition, which would be closer to my definition: "In practical or pragmatic atheism, also known as apatheism, individuals live as if there are no gods and explain natural phenomena without resorting to the divine. The existence of gods is not rejected, but may be designated unnecessary or useless; gods neither provide purpose to life, nor influence everyday life, according to this view."
However, I found this definition which matches my Christian colleagues' definition exactly on About.com: "This is a category used by some religious theists to describe all those theists who technically believe in a god, but who behave immorally. The assumption is that moral behavior follows automatically from genuine theism, thus immoral behavior is a consequence of not genuinely believing. Theists who behave immorally must really be atheists, regardless of what they believe. The term 'practical atheist' is thus a smear against atheists generally."
The other top results of my Google search show that this term is generally being used in the About.com way, rather than the Wikipedia way. For example, LifeChurch.TV says, "Practical Atheist -- You say you believe in God. Do you really? Do you live your life as if God is in the room, or do you assume He’s not paying attention? You call yourself a Christian. Are you who you say you are?" There's a video there that I chose not to watch. If you watch it, let me know how awful it is. Or take this article in the Christian Post as an example, about the guy behind the LifeChurch.TV video: "S.C. Pastor Exposes 'Practical Atheists' among Christians." It says, "Practical atheist, or Christian atheist, is defined as someone who believes in God but lives as if He doesn't exist."
The use of the term "Practical Atheist" in this way assumes morality is from God, and so those who are living amorally are atheistic, at least in practice, even if not in belief. And it's a slam on Atheists. But, as we've seen, people generally believe that Atheists don't have morals, because Atheists don't believe in God.
For the record, then: living as if there is no God does NOT mean living immorally. More on that in my next post.