1 Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God.
3 They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one.
4 Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread, and do not call upon the Lord?
5 There they shall be in great terror, for God is with the company of the righteous.
6 You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is their refuge.
7 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.