Starting with Sacred Scripture, we immediately note that there is no mention of “theoretical” atheism, while there is a concern to reject “practical” atheism. The psalmist calls foolish anyone who says in his heart: “There is no God” (Ps 14:1), and behaves accordingly: “They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none that does good” (ibid.). Another psalm condemns the wicked man who “boasts, ‘He will not avenge it’; ‘There is no God'” (Ps 10:4).
Rather than atheism, the Bible speaks of wickedness and idolatry. Whoever prefers a series of human products, falsely considered divine, living and active, to the true God is wicked and idolatrous. Lengthy prophetic reproaches are devoted to the impotence of idols and likewise of those who make them. With dialectical vehemence, the emptiness and worthlessness of man-made idols is countered with the power of God, the Creator and Wonderworker (cf. Is 44:9-20; Jer 10:1-16).
This doctrine is most fully developed in the Book of Wisdom (cf. Wis 13-15) which presents the way, to be recalled later by St Paul (cf. Rom 1:18-23), to the knowledge of God based on created things. Being an “atheist”, then, means not knowing the true nature of created reality but absolutizing it, and therefore “idolizing” it, instead of considering it a mark of the Creator and the path that leads to him.
Atheism can even become a kind of intolerant ideology, as history shows. The last two centuries have known currents of theoretical atheism which denied God in order to assert the absolute autonomy of man, nature or science. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes: “Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God” (n. 2126).
This systematic atheism has been widespread for decades, giving the illusion that by eliminating God, man would be freer, both psychologically and socially. The principal objections raised, especially about God the Father, are based on the idea that religion has a compensatory value for people. Having repressed the image of the earthly father, adults are said to project onto God the need for a greater father from whom they must free themselves because he hinders the growth process of human beings.
What is the Church’s attitude to these forms of atheism and their ideological justifications? The Church does not scorn serious study of the psychological and sociological elements of the religious phenomenon, but firmly rejects the interpretation of religiosity as a projection of the human psyche or the result of sociological conditioning. In fact, authentic religious experience is not an expression of immaturity but a mature and noble attitude of acceptance of God, which in turn gives meaning to life and implies a responsibility to work for a better world. – from the pope’s General Audience, April 14, 1999