What is the difference between a nominal Christian and an atheist. On a clear day, with good light, they look very much the same. Other than some peripheral academic ruminations on the existence of a god of some sort, their practical lives are startlingly similar.
Both have very little commitment to a belief system. Nominal Christians really know very little about Christianity and very little about the Bible. Just as atheists seem to know very little about the deeper implications of atheism. One atheist contributor to this blog apparently has never heard about the connection between atheism and moral nihilism (go to Wikipedia and find the article on “atheism” and click on the link for “moral nihilism”), got a simplistic and inadequate definition of nihilism from a dictionary (one of HWA’s favorite exegetical techniques) and then cluelessly asserted that I was “ignorant”.
Nominal Christians claim they believe in God but behave as if they did not. In pragmatic daily life, this places them very near to atheistic point on the spectrum. Atheists claim they do not believe in God but then inexplicably demonstrate a predilection for broadly accepted morality, which, like nominal Christians, they are willing to violate without conscience if a practical need arises. (The easily made observation that humans are the only creatures on the planet that moralize seems to be totally lost on them — something that Dawkins, with his fertile and sometimes droll imagination, has yet to explain.) The combined effect is to make nominal Christians and atheists neighbors, not at the level of philosophical cosmetics, maybe, but pragmatically.
And, of course, both like to practice a little religious behavior when it suits them. On Sunday for the nominal Christians and in debate for atheists. It usually amounts to a sanctimonious dedication to principle and commitment to a noble cause even in the face of persecution, etc. Like the wish expressed here that all the atheists would come out of the closet. In our society this would be the biggest non-event in history. After all, our science lecture rooms at every level of education are already dominated by atheistic teaching. But its nice to pretend, I guess. Makes you feel religious.
If there were a zoo dedicated to all the species of non-believers, I think the habitats for atheists and nonimal Christians would be right next to eachother. Maybe for the typical zoo-goer the markings on the two species would be so similar, an astute and experienced guide would have to point out the subtle and inapparent distinctions.