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.


Doc Op said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Doc Op said...

(typo revision) Oh why don't they include spell check for the comment box!

Steve, I understand your thought when you say:
"The psalm, then, is not a word to philosophical atheists, per se."

As you have noted, the kind of unbelief described in this passage would apply not only to philosophical atheists, but also to "practical atheists." In the end then, the category of fools could include any of us who fail to consider God as we make choices.

Steve said...

Yes. Take a modern professed atheist, on the one hand, who nevertheless listens to a still small voice that restrains his actions, and a professed theist, on the other hand, who perpetrates injustice. I'm not sure the former would even register on the psalmist's folly detection radar screen, while the latter would be all over it. I don't think the psalm is about theism or atheism per se (in the psalmist's original milieu it might have been unlikely to even conceive of modern philosophical atheism, much less consciously address it), but about acting contrary to what you know deep down inside. What do you think?

Doc Op said...

Steve, your comment suggests that there is a kind of noble "professional" atheism, which is different in character god-suppressing immorality. But I must wonder if the first category also involves suppression of knowledge in unrighteousness. It may be that the "professional atheist" lives a more noble life, but it is not without violence to his soul as he kills those thoughts which should lead to thanksgiving and worship.

Steve said...

I certainly agree that atheism is spiritually harmful. And you and I agree that there is an innate knowledge of God that we all suppress when we seek to justify our wrongdoings. The psalmist in this passage and Paul in Romans, I believe, are making this same point.

I'd like to pose this question: Who is suppressing the knowledge of God more? The professed atheist who listens to conscience? Or the professed theist who dresses up his mistreatment of others with religious justifications?

And what matters more? The beliefs we profess, or the beliefs we are not even always aware of but which really drive our actions?

Doc Op said...

I think most folks are hypocrites at some level. I certainly am. However, I do think of the predatory kind of "evangelists" who bilk money from the folks they manipulate as the worst of the worst. So I should think the God-touting bilker to represent real perversion, and a far greater blindness than a casual atheist.