Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who is the "fool"?

Following up on the last post, this statement in the Psalms comes to mind:

"The fool says in his heart,'There is no God.' "
(Psalm 14 and 53)

People today might tend to read this as saying that atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Antony Flew (before he became a deist), etc. believe what they believe because they're stupid or morally deficient. Many a preacher will quote this verse to that effect, but no biblical scholar I know of would see that as the intent of the verse.

Psalm 53 goes on to say: "Will the evildoers never learn—those who devour my people as men eat bread and who do not call on God?" Psalm 14, another version of the same psalm, adds: "You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor, but the LORD is their refuge."

The psalm, then, is not a word to philosophical atheists, per se. It is a word to people who DEVOUR others. At issue in this psalm is the relationship between what we put our ultimate hope in and how we treat other people. What does the rich oppressor take refuge in? In his agenda, in his clever schemes of oppression, in his retinue of advisers and co-conspirators, not in God. The poor have nothing to depend on but God, thanks to the injustice inflicted on them by the powerful. But because the one on whom they depend is in fact the God of the universe, these psalms are saying, the poor really have the better end of the stick in the end. Jesus, with this pervasive Old Testament theme in mind, makes this same point about misplaced confidence in the temporal advantages we can procure for ourselves through cunning scheming in this life: "But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep." (Luke 6:24-25)

What's being said, I think, is that all of us really know deep down that we live our lives before a divine audience, as it were. We all know there are consequences to our actions. To repress this knowledge with our self-talk, to throw ethical caution to the wind, thinking it doesn't really matter if we expropriate some poor bloke's land, is the height of folly.

Now I think it's very ironic that power mongers who exploit religious sentiment to their ends, the very people that modern philosophical atheists like Dawkins and Harris decry, are really saying the same thing as the "fool" in this psalm. They're saying to themselves and everybody else, "There's a God all right, but surely he backs my agenda. There is no God who is really beyond me, who is truly outside of me, who is capable of weighing my thoughts and actions in the balance and finding them wanting." How is that any different from saying, "There is no God to whom I'm accountable"?

And I would submit that it is just this sort of formally religious but practically atheistic leader that the psalmist has in mind. Don't think for a minute that evil, oppressive kings in the psalmist's day did not make a show of religious adherence. Bob Dylan's song "With God on our Side" is not about some new phenomenon. The oppressors didn't go around preaching philosophical atheism to people as a justification for their actions. No, they formally adhered to the conglomeration of the worship of Baal and Yahweh that was popular in their time, just as Hitler's PR machine tried to make him out as a religious man but launched a campaign of stealth to subvert the churches' doctrines and imprisoned those who resolutely opposed him. The oppressor's atheism is not public, philosophical talk, it's practical self-talk. He says it "in his heart." So the psalmist is really talking about the same sort of people Richard Dawkins and others are talking about: People who claim to believe in God and do horrible things.

But the psalmist and today's atheist writers take quite a different approach in dealing with this phenomenon. The atheist writers are essentially saying, "These people say they believe in God, and they enlist masses of followers who believe in God to support them. Therefore, belief in God is the problem. Let's get rid of that."

The psalmist, and all the biblical prophets, and Jesus himself, tell the oppressor, "Actually, there really IS a God, and he's a whole lot bigger, he is far more beyond you, than you ever thought. He is not blinded by your self-serving interests, and he is scrutinizing your actions. Maybe you should do the same."

I think the latter approach is more reasonable and certainly more effective for combating evil. For all the times power mongers have misappropriated religious sentiment to serve their interests, I have to wonder how many times people in power have at least been given momentary pause by the thought that there might really be a God, a God who really acts like God and not like some politician's servile publicist speaking from the clouds. And how many times has conviction of the reality of God in the public led to pressure being brought to bear in the halls of power? It seems exactly that is what led the British Parliament to finally abolish the slave trade, after years of William Wilberforce being a voice in the wilderness, even though abolition had significant economic ramifications that every citizen felt the brunt of for a time. It's not often that good triumphs that clearly. But I wonder how much more bad might have triumphed throughout history if atheism had prevailed. I can't help but wonder, if Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins succeed in convincing everybody that God does not exist, if they might get more than they bargained for, by reducing that residual level of restraint in society that we take for granted and that comes from belief in the One Who Weighs our Actions who, on some level, I think we all really know is there.

So who is the fool the Psalms are talking about? I think he's all of us, whenever and to whatever extent we put ourselves, our ideologies, our interests, rather than God, at the center of the universe, and so fail to love our neighbor.
Hi e. peevie,

Great to hear from you!

If I may chime in with what you wrote, it seems to me that atheists like Josef Stalin have done their share of terrible things too! Not to suggest that atheism MAKES people into Stalins. Rather, I think the darkness in the heart of a Stalin is left quite unrestrained by a belief that no one is watching who will call to account.

Yet, there's no escaping it, religious beliefs can easily become a tool of POWER of some people over others. "You're going to hell, unless you tap into God, by means of the way that my fellow priests and I have been exclusively entrusted by God to show you."

But if there really is a God, do you think he would author a religion that would put that kind of power in the hands of people?

The biblical approach, I think, is to relativize the human role by exalting the ultimate power and importance of God. The Bible says, yes, Israel is God's chosen people, for the purpose of blessing the world (Genesis 12, 17; cf. Romans 11), but, look what a bunch of schmucks they are, their status surely isn't due to their own merits, and this promised blessing is only going to work if God himself brings it about through and in spite of them. Likewise, Peter and the apostles hold, in some sense, the keys to the kingdom, and yet Peter is portrayed in the New Testament as having said all sorts of stupid things and denied his master three times, so this role that God is assigning him can only work in spite of the man himself as God works through him.

The potential for religious leaders to abuse the power of religious beliefs is certainly there. And yet, if God is also really there, is it not those religious leaders themselves who ought to fear the most (yet really believe the least), because they will have to answer to God for their abuse?

Much depends, I think, on what kind of God you believe in, and on what level you really believe. I think the worst kind of God you can possibly believe in is one that you think you can control or make subservient to your earthly interests. That is indeed the God of much of what passes for Christianity and many other religions, and I think it is our natural tendency to convert biblical religion into this by means of a highly selective reading of the Bible. Such a person thinks of himself as pretty OK, and certainly not in need of being delivered from any dire predicament like "sin," even if he holds himself out to be a necessary instrument of deliverance to all the poor blokes around him who hang on his every word. Such people have indeed committed every kind of atrocity.

But how about belief in a God who is the high and majestic King, and yet humbled himself to serve his unworthy subjects, and paid an incomprehensible price to deliver them from their sins? What kind of behavior does that belief engender? Can anyone who deep down really believes in that kind of God maintain pride and arrogance and act mercilessly to fellow human creatures? When I say "believe" I don't mean the beliefs you formally profess, but the ones that really drive your actions. What this means is that, whenever we fail to "act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8), it is evidence that, at that moment and to that degree, our professed belief in the biblical God is not really driving us.

Does Dawkins explore the distinctions between varieties of God concepts, and the kinds of behavior they motivate? For example, one of the most moving examples of Christian compassion I have ever read about was that of Charles Wesley, who visited condemned criminals on death row. In his day it was a popular pastime to gather around and jeer at prisoners as they were being led in procession to the gallows. Charles ran up behind a cart that was carrying a condemned African slave whom he had visited in the prison, and hopped on the cart to comfort this new believer as he was led to his death. What I would want to ask Richard Dawkins is what kind of belief in what kind of God motivated that behavior? Is it the same idea of God that lay behind the actions of religious people that he decries? And would an atheist be likely to do what Charles Wesley did? In actual fact, skepticism and ridicule of religious "enthusiasts" was very much in vogue among the aristocratic classes of the 18th and 19th Centuries, who opposed the efforts of Evangelicals like William Wilberforce and Hannah Moore to abolish the slave trade, educate the poor, etc. Wilberforce et al did what they did because they really believed that all people were "created in God's image" and that all people would in the end have to give an account of their actions before a just and holy God. The rich fashionable atheists who routinely oppressed others had no such belief in their hearts.

Both atheists and believers in controllable gods have left tremendous misery and oppression in their wakes. But I would invite people like Richard Dawkins to open their minds just a crack and take a careful look at Jesus as he is presented in the New Testament, and ask what kinds of behavior does a deep and genuine belief in him really lead to.

Response from e. peevie

Thought I'd move this exchange from the comments section to the main blog page....SJ

E. Peevie said...

Interesting post. I'm slowly making my way through The God Delusion by Richard Dawson. In the first few chapters, I agreed with almost everything he said, but as I kept reading, what was most striking to me was his his hostility toward belief in God.

It seems to me that a scientist making a case for or against something should make a solid effort to put his emotions out of the picture.

Obviously, bad things are done in the name of religion, and it's right to be angry about those things, and at those people. But it's a little telling, don't you think, that he lumps all people of faith together in one ignorant, hateful lump.

I haven't finished the book, so I don't know if he has anything to say about people motivated by faith to do great works of compassion, not to mention art.

June 29, 2008 8:06 PM