Atheism and folly

One of my strong beliefs is that both atheists and theists can be reasonable, intelligent, well-meaning people. I get irked when Christians assume atheists are just being stupid or hypocritical, and I get annoyed when atheists assume evangelicals are irrational or brainwashed.

For that reason, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Psalm 53:1 NIV.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Doesn’t this verse say that atheists are being irrational? I’ve heard Christians use it that way, but I believe they are misunderstanding the verse.

I’d like to explain how I think this verse should be interpreted. I’m going to post this in the category of “general audience”, which is posts aimed at people who are not necessarily believers, because if you are an atheist and someone uses the verse against you, I think you should be able to say, “You know, that’s not what that verse really means”, and then point them to this post. 🙂

Let me emphasize that I believe strongly in the inspiration of Scripture, so I take this verse seriously. If it really means that atheists are automatically irrational then I am prepared to believe that. But that’s not the meaning of it, in my opinion.

So let’s start out with four clarifying observations.

  • First, note that this does not say,

    The one who says in his heart, “There is no God,” is a fool.

    Technically, that would imply that every atheist is a fool, but not that every fool is an atheist. Instead, the verse says,

    The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

    Technically that implies that every fool is an atheist, but not that every atheist is a fool.

  • Second, the word “fool” in the wisdom literature of the Bible (Psalms, Proverbs, etc.) has practical and moral connotations. If someone is called a fool, it doesn’t mean that he is unable to reason, but that he makes bad decisions. Foolishness is not the opposite of logic; it’s the opposite of moral and spiritual wisdom.
  • Third, note that it says the fool says in his heart that there is no God. It is focusing on what the fool believes inside, not what he claims to believe.
  •  Fourth, note that in the culture in which this was written, hardly anyone claimed to be an atheist. The Israelites weren’t surrounded by atheists, they were surrounded by polytheists.  So “the fool” in this verse was unlikely to be referring to someone who claimed there was no god. It was almost certainly referring to someone who did claim there was a God (or gods) but who in his heart didn’t believe.

Putting all that together, we get the meaning of the verse: when someone acts wickedly instead of righteously, they show that they don’t really believe, down deep, that God is watching and will judge them. In fact, ignore whatever they tell you about their religious beliefs – in their heart, they are saying to themselves that God does not exist.

So there you have it. Every fool (in the moral sense) really is an atheist deep down. But his atheism does not make him foolish; his folly makes him an atheist.

Does that mean that some atheists are atheists because they secretly are fools? Because they want to do what is wrong, and don’t want to be held accountable for it by God?

Of course. And it shouldn’t offend anyone that I said so. In just the same way, some professing Christians only believe because deep down they are afraid of a universe without God in it. Neither side is immune to silly reasons for belief. So if that’s you – if your atheism is merely a defense mechanism against having to be moral – then stop it! But if you’ve considered the evidence, and decided against believing in a God, then this verse does not say you are irrational because of that.  I’ll pray that God will show Himself to you, but I’ll respect your intellect in the meantime.

(Now, atheists, please stop assuming in turn that everyone who believes in God is a fool. That’s not true either.)

2 thoughts on “Atheism and folly

  1. So many Christians quote passages they are taking at face value. The ones I have interacted with don’t realize/care that the original text ( new testament) were written in Koine Greek and haven’t survived, the ones that have were copies done by scribes with notes on the side for errors, they have also been translated into different languages a few times and due to the 2000 years that have passed some world have different meanings.
    Trying to explain what agnostic means is bashing your head against a brick wall, they cannot get passed the word ( unknown/unknowing) of the existence of God/deity, to the Theist part I have a belief a deity… God. Which is basically Faith. the same as theirs, except they proclaim to have knowledge of the existence instead of a belief. But to them I am a Hell-bound, God hating atheist, and the only way to be saved is to agree with them.
    Can you please give me a simple answer to them that will get them to see the differences.

    • Agnostic Theist Girl:

      Most of those who call themselves Christians don’t just believe in God: we believe very specifically that Jesus died for our sins and rose again and that the only way to find forgiveness and escape hell is to put our full trust in what he has done for us.

      So I don’t think people get hung up nearly as much on the word “agnostic” as on the question of whether you personally are trusting Jesus alone for salvation. When you say “I believe in a deity” they haven’t heard what they are listening for yet. It won’t matter to them whether you believe in “God” but whether you believe in Jesus specifically. If you said “I’m agnostic, but I’m counting on Jesus’ dying for my sins to save me”, you’d get a very different response from most of them. (Still puzzled, but different.)

      In general, of course, you are right: people don’t listen or read carefully, and when they see a word that triggers a response in them (like “agnostic”), they never get past it to what is really being said. I can’t think of any advice to give you about that. Of course, it’s even worse on the Internet than in person.

      Personally, I like to understand what people believe, so I find your description of yourself intriguing, but if we talked further, we’d probably still disagree on lots of things, don’t you think? That doesn’t bother me — I like having differences of opinion because it makes the conversation interesting — but it sounds like you and I probably don’t have basically the same faith. It probably depends on this: what do you mean by “having faith”?

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