Read Psalm 14
The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
Psalm 14 begins with this declaration that appears rather confrontational. Calling people “fools” is not the best way to get them to listen to your point of view. Of course, much of social media is predicated on such insults which garner support from your side with no interest in any sort of real conversation. We might wonder, is the Psalmist just an ancient YouTube or Twitter troll?
Clearly there is something else going on here…
The first thing is to recognize that how this sounds to us today and what it meant them then are two quite different things. We live in a world where the possibility of nonbelief – from the agnostic who makes no claims whether or not God exists to the atheist who declares there is no God – is clearly apparent. Even if you’ve been raised in a Christian family and never doubted your faith, you know there are people around who do not share your beliefs. This is a trait, by the way, of the Secular World we live in, one where even if we believe, we believe in a different way then our ancestors, as the philosopher Charles Taylor has noted.
The Psalmist is not referring to is a sort of ancient, ahead-of-his-time, atheist. The fool here is not someone sitting in a philosophy class, or commenting on a subreddit, with arguments against God. Not believing in some sort of supernatural divinity – whether one all-powerful God or many gods – was simply not on the radar in which this ancient Psalm first appeared. So again, this person cannot simply be equated with a contemporary skeptical person.
“Fool” is a common term in the wisdom literature. The Book of Proverbs contrasts the way of the fool with the way of the wise. It is not two different belief systems, as if what pops into our minds matters, but two different ways of life. The way of the fool leads to death, the way of the wise leads to life. I think it is with this in mind that we can get what Psalm 14 is saying: The Fool is not someone who does not believe in God, but someone who lives as if there is no God and thus sets themselves on a path to self-destruction.
The fool lives a life of greed, lying, deceit, lust and basically, being totally self-centered. In the life of the fool, the most important person is self. Even any choice to help or be kind to others is merely pragmatic, knowing the other person may be in your debt and owe you.
Here’s the vital thing: this passage is not about other people, its about us!
It would be too easy then to look at this passage and scoff, “oh, those godless atheists.” This passage is about those who live as if there is no god and take this as license to get away with wicked and evil. It is not about the people who think you can be good without God. That question – can you, or ought you, be good without God – is a good and vital question. But I think pursuing that question might lead us on a rabbit trail away from what is even more vital. Remember, Jesus told us to take the plank out of our own eye before looking towards others. Before we use this passage to scoff at others, maybe we should apply it to ourselves?
The real question is: how many of us live our lives as if there is no God?
How many of us go through our lives living functionally no different than people who claim no faith?
Other than the hour we spend in church or CSF, is our life – our dreams and goals – that different from those we might look down on?
If you read the Bible and immediately think how this applies to others, you are already missing the point. The question is, what is challenging for me today?
Do we live like fools? Would our lives be that different if we rejected God?
Why or why not?
*On the question of being good without God, well it all comes down to how we define “good”, doesn’t it. Our culture has inherited a broadly Christian definition of good, rooted in beliefs that all humans are created in God’s image. If we move away from such a foundation in God we may keep the morals for a while, but can the building stand without the foundation? The question is not “can” you be good without God, but without God, how “ought” you live? What should you do?