The Politics of Foolishness—Psalm 14 (D. Mark Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Psalm 14:1, though popularly employed to dismiss non-theists as foolish, is principally targeted against practical atheism, against those who believe that justice is without force in the universe and that all that matters is power.

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion! When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people, Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

Nothing delights Christian apologists more in their never-ending battle against atheists than to cite the first verse of Psalm 14, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” What follows is usually a gleeful exposition that could be reduced to, “Ha!” “Snap!” Or, “In your face!”

It certainly appears that “the biblical answer” to atheism is nicely summed up in this memorable verse and that everything else is simply commentary. There is the wisdom of God and there is human foolishness, which rejects God’s wisdom. Within those terms, any argument propagated by those who do not believe in God is simply wrong from the outset, despite any merits it might have on its own.

I believe the idea that Psalm 14:1 is the open-and-shut case against atheism and atheists everywhere is wrong-headed. To put it briefly, this verse is more about injustice than atheism.

Atheism today comes in many forms. It might be a rejection of religion as anti-scientific, an oppressive form of power, a manipulative opiate of the masses, a projection based in fear, or simply a primitive pre-enlightened frame of mind. In many cases, atheism is rooted in a personal story, perhaps of a tragedy that raises questions of theodicy or of a church or family that is so intolerant of questions that one has to reject religion itself to be freed to think. And there are forms of atheism that are not rejections or reactions at all, but simply begin with an encounter of the world within which an entity like “God” has no place.

I have tremendous sympathy for almost all of these expressions of atheism, or at least for the kinds of questions and protests that I perceive lying behind many of them. And I say that as a believer, whose first axiom of theology is that God is essentially greater than anything the human mind can behold.

Whenever I hear a person defending the Christian faith cite Psalm 14:1 as an argument against atheism, what I hear is a quest for certainty that is ill-fitted to the God who lies beyond safe and certain human categories. More to the point, when biblical writers ascribe to others the phrase “There is no God,” what they have in mind is not a scientific, philosophical, or ideological critique of religion.

The kind of atheism I have described above, what I call ‘theoretical atheism,’ is the progeny of the Modern era, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and their descendants. For the biblical writers, the phrase “There is no God” refers to what I call ‘practical atheism,’ where—regardless of what one might believe theoretically, one lives as if there is no God. And for biblical writers, that means living as if there is no ultimate sense of justice, no sense of “right and wrong” that transcends “might makes right.”

The “Fools” indicted by Psalm 14:1 are those who live as if there is no moral fabric to the universe, certainly no “arc of the universe” that bends toward justice. In that case, “justice” has no substance; it is simply an assertion of power dressed in respectable clothing.

While the exercise of justice has always been embedded in particular cultural forms, the idea of justice is that those particular forms are expressions of a deep and abiding truth about the world.

They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast.
They crush your people, O Lord, and afflict your heritage.
They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan,
and they say, ‘The Lord does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.’
Understand, O dullest of the people; fools, when will you be wise?

Psalm 94:4-8, cited above, is the indictment of such “Fools.” Their synonym is not “skeptics” or “doubters,” but “the arrogant” and “evildoers,” who imagine that their deeds ultimately can go unseen and the intentions of their hearts unperceived. Understood this way, practical atheism is a type of hubris that is incredibly democratic and no respecter of one’s theoretical profession.

For biblical writers, the alternative to practical atheism is to “Fear God,” which is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). Biblical wisdom is to embrace that God’s justice matters in the way one lives—particularly in the way one treats the disempowered like the widow, the orphan, or the alien.

This kind of life is often cast in very culturally and religiously particular terms in the Scriptures—including admonitions to fear YHWH above all gods or to follow the commandments of Moses. But, the language of wisdom and foolishness points to a larger, more universalistic level of discourse often called “Wisdom literature.” The significance of wisdom literature is that it directly connects the particular expression of following YHWH to a trans-cultural conversation that is larger than Israel’s own expression.

Wisdom literature leaves open the possibility that the “Fear of God”—that is, practical wisdom that exercises justice—can be present among those whose cultural expressions of God are different. It also leaves open the possibility that practical atheism can be present among those who profess to follow God.

And that is what makes Psalm 14 pertinent to modern exercises of power. The challenge facing people of God is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism, less a matter of propositional doctrine and more a matter of justice. We must ask whether we trust more in the power of the “unseen hand” of the market, or the collective voice of a majority vote, than the call to do justice, love kindness and walk with humility. That is the challenge that Psalm 14 poses as the matter of wisdom or foolishness.


D. Mark Davis is pastor and head of staff for St. Mark Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California.  Ordained in 1996, he holds a PhD. in theology, ethics and culture from the University of Iowa and a D.Min. from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Virginia. He is the author of two books: Talking About Evangelism (May 2006) and Left Behind and Loving It (Fall 2011), and he blogs intensive Bible studies regularly at http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.com.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Foolishness—Psalm 14 (D. Mark Davis)

  1. I think I have an objection to the philosophical vs. practical atheism concept here, unless I’ve misunderstood.

    It seems like your definition of practical atheism is couched in sin defined as lawlessness, not simply a single sin defined as lack of belief in God. You do say that this is “what biblical writers mean” but I’d suggest that it is exactly what the average person thinks about atheism today. It retraces a typical question and knee jerk reaction that believers have about someone who doesn’t believe in God (and which drives us atheists crazy) — the often asked question “well if you don’t believe in God then what stops you from going out and raping, stealing, murdering and committing all kinds of crimes?” (e.g. living as if you don’t believe in God) It always strikes me, when I am asked this question, that it seems to tell me more about what the questioner thinks they would like to do if they thought there were no god than it does about any temptations that I or my atheist friends struggle with. I reject the idea that the practical opposite of faith in God is lawlessness. It makes no sense. There are immediate consequences for antisocial behavior in this life that do not require the intervention of a God or waiting until an alleged after life for punishment. If the opposite of faith in God were lawlessness, then prisons should be predominantly filled with atheists, but atheists are instead severely underrepresented in prisons.

    So this definition of practical atheism seems to me to be a strange but common pivot that assumes that the only thing driving prosocial behavior, or rather preventing antisocial behavior, is faith. I contend that opposite of faith in God is simply a lack of God belief. The only practical behavior associated with atheism is not participating in the practices and rituals that demonstrate such faith. I don’t attend church. I don’t read scripture or at least not “religiously”. I don’t pray. I am not preoccupied by concern about an afterlife, or the purported activities of angels or demons or other unseen entities. None of that predisposes me to engage in crimes against my fellow human beings.

    I think my objection is epitomized in an argument I make about 1 Corinthians 15 where Paul is making the case about faith, that if there is no God and no resurrection then believers should be pitied above all and that ultimately, if there is no god, we should “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This scripture defines this problem of perception that I’m after here– because, I defy anyone to really think about this concept and tell me that they actually believe it. It is perfectly untrue and is terrible advice. The problem with the scripture is that tomorrow you don’t die. Tomorrow, most likely, you will live, and if you have not spent some time to make provision for yourself or if you rape, steal, murder and deceive the people in your family and community, then there will be consequences tomorrow and you will live to experience them. You can’t live in hedonistic disregard or lawless selfishness without consequence.

    I’m pretty sure that if asked directly, you don’t believe that a non-believer is automatically and necessarily a criminal, but I think that this concept is implicit and uncorrected in this essay. Meanwhile, I live as if I don’t believe in God every day but commit no crimes.

  2. Hi Bill,

    Thanks for the comment. I do think you have misinterpreted my distinction between theoretical and practical atheism. In your comment, you are describing atheists in terms of not believing in God, an afterlife, a punishment after death, angels, or practicing prayer – all of which falls under what I stipulated as ‘theoretical atheism.’ And then you contend that theoretical atheists are not practical atheists, if by that I mean immoral, unlawful, criminal, etc. and make the statement, “I reject the idea that the practical opposite of faith in God is lawlessness.”
    Here’s where I think the misinterpretation lies:
    I do not believe that theoretical atheism necessarily leads to practical atheism or, for that matter, that theoretical belief in God necessarily leads to living toward justice. I am not saying that practical atheists necessarily do not believe in “God,” making them theoretical atheists as well. I tried to describe ‘practical atheism’ as not believing in a moral fabric to the universe, or an ultimate sense of right and wrong. As you contend and as you embody, one can be a ‘theoretical atheist’ and still live a moral life. In that case, I would not say that you are a “practical atheist” in the sense that the psalmist is speaking of the fool who says in his heart there is no God. Likewise, one can embrace belief in God and live as if justice does not matter. In that case, even a professing God-fearer would be described that the fool who says in his heart there is no God.
    I do not see a necessary connection between theoretical and practical atheism. And I am not saying that people who are atheists – in the way that you are using it – are necessarily criminal. In fact, my whole point is that I do not believe the psalmist is saying that either. Those whom the psalmist calls “fools” are those who are immoral – driven by a heart that does not see beyond its self-interests – regardless of what they might profess with their mouth.
    Please know also that I do not pretend to speak on behalf of persons who profess to be atheists. What you might believe about justice and morality is probably as varied as what people who profess to be Christians believe. I don’t think the psalmist is talking about belief, even if that is how many people read this verse.
    What I would like to have a conversation with you about is your sense of justice – because I know that you have a strong one. I’ll bet in that respect (when it comes to practical atheism or practical justice), we have a lot more in common than not.
    After that, we can talk about the practical religion/atheism of the Roman Empire, which might give us a better sense of what Paul is up against in his letters to the Corinthians.
    Thanks again for your note.

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