Psalm 14:1 – Has this Verse Been Inappropriately Weaponized?

Does God say only fools do not Believe in Him?



The last time I wrote, I closed out my post with the following:
The Bible is a book filled with deep meaning on many levels, and in all sincerity I have grown rather weary of sparring with Atheists over the Bible when they are reading it like it has no more depth than Harold and his Purple Crayon. But what else should I expect from those who the Bible rightfully calls fools (and not in the shallow sense that most Atheists take that to mean)?
For those unfamiliar with that reference, the Biblical passage I paraphrased was from Psalm 14 which states in the opening verse:
The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.
So, what do I mean when I say that most atheists don’t take that verse in the sense that it was meant to be taken? On its face, it seems pretty apparent – only fools believe that there is no God. It is my contention that the prior sentence I just wrote actually misrepresents what the Psalmist (and hence, God) is saying in that verse. And to investigate this verse, I turn to an old foil, Austin Cline. Mr. Cline wrote on Psalm 14:1 in an article for LearnReligions.com entitled Myth - Atheists Are Fools Who Say "There Is No God": Are Atheists Foolish? Are Atheists Corrupt? Do Atheists Do No Good?

Mr. Cline, who is certainly not a follower of Christ, has created an Internet presence of writing articles misinterpreting the Bible, turning inconsistencies into hard contradictions, and generally pushing the Atheist point of view. He can be, however, quite persuasive, so what he writes has the unfortunate but intended byproduct of leading people to misunderstand what the Bible actually teaches. So, it is not surprising that his take on Psalm 14 is wrong in many respects.

Does it apply to all atheists?

At one point in his short article, Mr. Cline makes the obvious point that this verse is not directed only at atheists (which is undoubtedly true so I won’t dispute it here), but also says that this verse does not apply to all Atheists. He says, “Some atheists merely reject believing in gods, not necessarily the possible existence of any gods - including the Christian god. Atheism isn't the denial of any and all gods, just the absence of belief in gods.” This is just rhetorical nonsense; an attempt to split theological/philosophical hairs to no purpose. Psalm 14:1 clearly says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” When a person rejects believing in gods – what Mr. Cline concedes is the “absence of belief in gods”-- that person is necessarily saying in their heart (the place where our core beliefs are held) that there is no God. Holding out the possibility that a god, gods or God exists while rejecting the belief in any gods is still saying in one’s heart that “there is no God.”

Do Christians weaponize Psalm 14:1?

Mr. Cline begins his article with the following:
Christians seem to love to quote the above verse from Psalms. Sometimes, I think this verse is popular because it allows them to call atheists "fools" and imagine that they can avoid taking responsibility for doing so - after all, they are just quoting the Bible, so it's not them saying it, right? Even worse is the part they don't quote - but not because they don't agree with it. They often do, but I don't think they want to be caught saying it directly because that's harder to defend.
Later, Mr. Cline comments:
It's been my experience that Christians choose to pick out this particular verse (and just the first portion of this verse, too) in order to get a free pass at insulting atheists without having to be held accountable for their insults. The idea seems to be that since they are quoting the Bible, the words ultimately come from God, and thus it's God who is being insulting - Christians are simply quoting God and thus can't be criticized in terms of ethics, civility, tolerance, etc.
Here's one place that I partially agree with him. Many Christians do love to quote Psalm 14:1, and they often quote it too much and inappropriately. They use it as a basis for dismissal of the concerns or attacks (usually attacks) of the atheist. The Christians want to say, “You can disregard whatever an atheist says because it is said by a fool.” That is not how this verse should be understood, and to use it in that fashion seems to be an error by the Christian.

However, contrary to Mr. Cline’s assertion, I do stand firmly behind Psalm 14:1 (as I do every verse in the Bible) when correctly understood. The verse says that the person who says in his heart that there is no God is a fool, and that person is a fool as the Bible is using the word. Simply because Mr. Cline and others take offense does not mean it isn’t true. On the other hand, just because it is true doesn’t mean that Christians should use it as ad hominem attack or a cause for dismissal of everything that atheists say.

Is the verse an Insult?

Mr. Cline says that Christians use this verse as a “free pass at insulting atheists….” Insulting? I agree that it is taken as an insult, and the word “fool” certainly isn’t complimentary. But the Psalmist didn't write it to be an insult. The problem is that most people are reading 21st Century American preconceptions into the word “fool.” This is perfectly understandable because the 21st Century connotations have even been incorporated into the modern definitions of the word. For example, Dictionary.com defines the noun form of the word “fool” as follows:
1. a silly or stupid person; a person who lacks judgment or sense. 2. a professional jester, formerly kept by a person of royal or noble rank for amusement: the court fool. 3. a person who has been tricked or deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid: to make a fool of someone
The common elements are stupid, silly, a jester. But that is how we look at "fool" now. I don't believe that the Hebrew word being translated "fool" carries the same connotations. So, how should “fool” be understood in Psalm 14:1? I will give my understanding of the word and my reasoning for that understanding next time.

Comments

The Pixie said…
You may well think atheists are fools for disagreeing with you, just as atheists may well think you are a fool for being a Christian!

BK: Mr. Cline says that Christians use this verse as a “free pass at insulting atheists….” Insulting? I agree that it is taken as an insult, and the word “fool” certainly isn’t complimentary. But the Psalmist didn't write it to be an insult. The problem is that most people are reading 21st Century American preconceptions into the word “fool.”

Clever. You give the impression you are addressing what Cline said, but actually address something else.

Cline's claim: Modern Christians use the verse to insult atheists

Your straw man: The Psalmist uses the verse to insult atheists
BK said…
Either you can't read or I didn't make myself clear. I am agreeing that many modern Christians use this verse to insult atheists. I did not say that the Psalmist uses this verse to insult atheists. But when we get to part 2, you may see why I say that I agree that non-believers are fools in the sense that the Psalmist (hence, God) uses it.
BK said…
BTW, Pix, when you say "atheists may well think you are a fool for being a Christian," please explain what you mean by "fool." I would be very interested.
Anonymous said…
BK: Either you can't read or I didn't make myself clear. I am agreeing that many modern Christians use this verse to insult atheists. I did not say that the Psalmist uses this verse to insult atheists. But when we get to part 2, you may see why I say that I agree that non-believers are fools in the sense that the Psalmist (hence, God) uses it.

Sorry, my bad. I thought you were arguing against Cline, not agreeing with him.

by "fool." I would be very interested.

BK: BTW, Pix, when you say "atheists may well think you are a fool for being a Christian," please explain what you mean by "fool." I would be very interested.

Your definition 1.

Pix
BK said…
So, you are using it as an insult, and you have no problem with that?
The Pixie said…
If Alfred strongly believes X is true, and Bert disagrees, then I think it is generally the case that Bert will conclude Alfred lacks judgement or sense, or even that Alfred is silly or stupid for holding to the belief. The alternative is for Bert to conclude that he lack judgement himself for not believing X, and I would guess that that is extremely rare.

That would be true whether X is "Christianity is true" or "there is no god", or even "Aliens abducted me" or "fairies live at the bottom of my garden".

Do you think I have good judgement and sense when it comes to the issue of Christianity?
that is a simplistic reading of the situation. you are not accounting for a group of hostile anti=believers who are bent on destroying the belief of others.

Pix:"Do you think I have good judgement and sense when it comes to the issue of Christianity?"

In some ways yes in some ways no
BK said…
Pix wrote: "If Alfred strongly believes X is true, and Bert disagrees, then I think it is generally the case that Bert will conclude Alfred lacks judgement or sense, or even that Alfred is silly or stupid for holding to the belief." Wow, that strikes me as extreme. If I say, for example, that the US should attack Iran for its attacks on the US's drone and you disagree, I wouldn't think that you lacked judgement or sense or that you were being silly or stupid. I would think that you hold a different opinion than I do or perhaps you have information that I don't have. (BTW, that's not my actual opinion, just using it as an example.) To assume someone is silly, stupid or lacks judgement for merely disagreeing suggests you think a little too highly of yourself.

Pix: "Do you think I have good judgement and sense when it comes to the issue of Christianity?" No, but that doesn't make you silly or stupid or even lacking in judgement as a general matter. It just means that you have accepted as true a proposition that I think (in this case 'know') is totally wrong. Making a mistake does not make someone stupid. But because I have come to a different conclusion than you, you are saying I am stupid and silly. Again, sounds like you think a little too highly of yourself. But then, I plan to address that in a future part of this short series.

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