The Tentative Apologist
2/10/10 at 05:40 PM 0 Comments

Are atheists all fools?

text size A A A

It would seem that Psalm 14:1 and 53:1 are both pretty clear: "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.'" If fools say in their hearts there is no God, and atheists say there is no God, then atheists must be fools, right?

So perhaps I should go out and buy a "April 1 is Atheist Day" bumper sticker for my car.

On the other hand, maybe this is a bit hasty. Yes, I am afraid I have to be a party pooper, for it seems here that Christians who read the passages as a condemnation of contemporary atheism are engaging in a dangerous prooftexting that steam rolls context in order to score some cheap rhetorical points.

(Not that this is a problem unique to Christians. Human nature being what it is, we're all pretty adept at scoring cheap points.)

All fools may be atheists, but are all atheists fools?

First a dilemma straight up. Even if we assumed that the position "There is no God" described in the psalms was the exact view held by contemporary atheists, you would still have a problem. Remember that the passage reads: "Fools say in their hearts, 'There is no God.'" To formalize this reading, the passage would essentially be saying that "All fools are atheists."

That leads to a real problem because even if we accept that "All fools are atheists" it does not follow that "All atheists are fools." If you don't believe me, try this one: "All cows are mammals" does not entail that "All mammals are cows."

So even reading the text in the tendentious way of many contemporary Christians (i.e. as a distillation of contemporary atheism), it still wouldn't mean that all atheists are fools.

Atheism as a relative charge

But there are even more significant problems to come.

To begin with, we need to deal with an anachronism of staggering proportion. "Atheist" understood as an unqualified denial of any creative intelligence in the universe is a modern phenomenon. Granted you can pick the occasional figure of antiquity who some people suspect was an atheist in something approximating the unqualified sense current in the post-Enlightenment. (Was Lucretius an atheist? Perhaps Democritus?) But in the vast majority of cases, "atheist" was a relative charge meaning "I don't believe in your God." Actually, it was more often a slight where a person was called an atheist because "You don't believe in my God." It was in this sense that early Christians were called atheists by their Roman neighbors, not because they didn't believe in any God but because they didn't believe in the Roman Gods.

With this in mind, one could read our two psalms as condemning those who fail to believe in the Jewish God rather than those who are atheists in the modern sense. And with that reading, the passage would be condemning all sorts of people including Buddhists, Hindus, scientologists and agnostics as well as atheists.

The Real Point: Practical Atheism

But alas, rereading the atheist charge in this relativized way also misses the point. You see, a simple consideration of the context of these passages makes clear that the point is not cognitve assent to or dissent from either the proposition "God exists" or "Yahweh exists." In other words, the psalmist's concern is not with intellectual atheism at all.

So what is the point? (Drum roll please.)

The problem is with practical atheism which concerns those who live in a way inconsistent with their moral convictions and as if they were not accountable for their conduct. Again, the issue here is not whether or not you affirm God's existence intellectually (in your head) but rather whether you live it out volitionally (in your heart). Do you live as if there is a God? Sadly, the psalmist seems to say no. "All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one." (14:3) And so "they never call on the LORD." (14:4)

The danger of focusing these two passages on poor contemporary atheists is that the real focus is on followers of God who do not live out the beliefs they confess.

Now how about putting that on a bumper sticker?

CP Blogs do not necessarily reflect the views of The Christian Post. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author(s).