We think of atheists as people who reject God’s existence. If we are religious, we would never count ourselves among the atheists.
However, atheism is seen essentially through its operational beliefs: “This world is all that exists, and worldly pleasures are all that matter. These pleasures can be pursued in any way, for there is no absolute standard of morality or absolute authority.”
But isn’t that the way many theists operate practically? They do religious activities like going to temples, but in their remaining life, they are just like materialists, chasing worldly pleasures by hook or crook. Sometimes, they are more materialistic and judgmental than materialists because they think that their religious performances entitle them to material prosperity and moral superiority. Their theism is a window-dressing on their materialism – they never say that God doesn’t exist, but they live as if he doesn’t matter.
And this was the attitude of the Mahabharata’s villain, Duryodhana. In the Bhagavad-gita (01.04), he assessed the opposing armies, mentioning various game-changers, comparing them with the two foremost warriors: Bhima and Arjuna. Yet despite continuing his assessment over several verses, he never mentioned Krishna. For him, Krishna was a non-entity.
The Mahabharata narrates that Duryodhana sometimes performed religious rituals. Yet his nominal religiosity didn’t stop him from seeking power immorally and violently. And it didn’t stop him from attacking Krishna’s devotees or even Krishna himself.
Though we won’t be as brazen as Duryodhana, we too may be atheists practically, if material considerations alone drive and determine our life.
When we center our life’s decisions on what will please Krishna or will at least harmonize with him, only then do we become actual theists. And when he becomes the guide and goal of our life, our devotional practices spiritualize our consciousness and prepare us for ultimate liberation.