Atheism by a Different Name

A sermon from Psalm 14 and Luke 15:1-10 (preached on September 11, 2016).


I remember sitting in a college and young adult church class years ago when the topic of atheism was put into conversation with Psalm 14:1, “Fools say in their heart, ‘There is no God’ ” (NRSV). I don’t recall details of the discussion, but at that time in my life, I think I viewed this verse as a slam against atheists and atheism. Those fools! I didn’t understand why people would say that there is no God. Growing up in church, faith in God made sense in my life and made sense of my world. Why did some people reject what, for me, was so obvious?

I now believe that Psalm 14 is not speaking against atheism, despite how the words “There is no God” may strike us. My understanding of this psalm has changed for a few reasons. First, in ancient Israel’s immediate context, so far as I understand it, all people believed in a god or gods of some kind. They might believe in one god and not believe in another, but I am not aware of any total atheists in ancient Israel’s immediate setting. Thus, I cannot imagine the words “There is no God” meaning that the person did not believe in any god at all.

Second, the rest of the words in Psalm 14 influence how we should understand the meaning of “There is no God.” The fools of this psalm are “corrupt, they do abominable deeds” (14:1b); “there is no one who does good” (14:1c, 3); humans “have all gone astray” (14:3); “evildoers . . . eat up my people as they eat bread” (14:4); they “would confound the plans of the poor” (14:6). In light of the entire psalm, it sounds like the fools are not people who refuse to believe in God, but are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


The fools … are people who believe in God and think that God must approve of the way they are treating other people, since God is not interfering to stop their actions.


Such theology works as follows: God gives me free will to act; if, in my freedom, I start to do something that God does not like, God will stop me from doing it; if God stops me, then I was wrong; if God does not stop me, then he approves of my actions. When we put this theology on paper, we can identify problems with it. But how many people who believe in God take every action as if the action either made God more present or more absent as a result? How many actions done by people of faith are so intentional? How many believers practice the presence of God in every action, and how many practice atheism by a different name?

Now, this application is broader than the situation to which our psalm seems to speak. Yes, the psalm sees a comprehensive problem: “The LORD looks down . . . on humankind” as a whole, and “there is no one who does good” among them (14:2-3). That is, all humans (including Israel) who believe in any god do wrong. If this is so, then Israel contributes to the larger human problem, when they were meant to address that problem.

But then the psalm gets more specific about the problem: “the evildoers . . . eat up [the psalmist’s] people . . . and do not call upon the LORD,” the God of Israel (14:4). This suggests that the fools and evildoers may be a neighboring culture who believes in other gods and does not think that Israel’s God is powerful enough or caring enough to stop them from harming Israel. What we have here are different theists (with correlating nationalities) operating within their theologies and drawing conclusions about their actions and their gods as a result of their interactions with each other. In particular, the foreign antagonists with their foreign gods “say in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’ ” meaning “There is no god in Israel who is stopping us and our gods from what we are doing, either because he will not or he cannot.”

The psalmist considers this belief foolish: Just because our God is not stopping you does not mean that he is not able or with us. The psalmist will go on to express hope that the LORD, the God of Israel, would deliver them and restore their fortunes (14:7), but I cannot help but believe that his theology would not crumble if the deliverance he preferred to see never took place. Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be. To base one’s faith on the requirement that God orchestrate the world in a way that conforms to one’s own vision of how the world should be is arguably, yet again, atheism by a different name. It is a refusal to let go and let God be who God is, to trust that God knows what he is doing.


Someone who does not think that God has to keep harm from coming to him is in a logical position to think that God does not have to make his situation the way he wants it to be.


And so, it turns out that Psalm 14 is about atheism, but not in the ways we might be tempted to think. The Church should not march out of its buildings for name-calling: calling atheists, agnostics, and skeptics “Fools!” For my part, I have developed a healthy respect for many atheists, not least those atheists who deny God because of the shallow, pathetic versions of God they have seen expressed and worshiped by many people of faith. That is, I think the Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


The Church is implicated often enough in pushing people to the position of atheism.


But Psalm 14 was written by Israel for Israel to address their life from their point of view. For the Church, then, the psalm becomes a prophetic mirror, reflecting back our view of God to us and asking us about our beliefs. I can imagine several applications here, and I think you can, too. For instance, when the psalm implies that Israel is part of the larger “humankind” among which “there is no one who does good,” can we identify the ways in which we contribute to the larger human problem?—and not so much pointing out flaws in other Christians, but being able to identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God.” How are we promoting atheism by a different name?


Can we identify attitudes and actions in ourselves that make the world a place where it feels more and more like “There is no God”?


Or when the psalm implies that God’s power and presence are not determined by Israel being protected from all harm, does our faith get shaken up when harm comes to us or to people we love? Christians elsewhere in the world are much better positioned to address this question—those Christians who are harmed precisely because they are Christians. Nevertheless, hostilities abound in our world, and not infrequently in the name of a god. When those hostilities occur, am I tempted to believe that “There is no God” in those places and events? Can God be God when the carnage and wreckage of human violence litter the landscape all around him?

Is there no God where airplanes are seized and skyscrapers destroyed? Is there no God where diseases become epidemics and cancers evolve novelties that frustrate us? Is there no God where the abused become the abusers and prolong the cycle of violence? Is there no God where wildfires, hurricanes, and earthquakes destroy human homes and human lives? Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


Or is God there in all of those places and events in ways that both comfort us and haunt us?


In Luke 15, and perhaps contrary to the beliefs of the Pharisees and scribes, God was there “welcom[ing] sinners and eat[ing] with them” (15:2). Jesus calmed storms, but he did not calm all storms and recreate a world without storms. Jesus healed people with diseases, but did not transform the world into a place where disease was no more. Jesus multiplied loaves and fish, but he did not force a society or world where the poor would always be fed. When a sheep was lost, God was there in the effort to find it. When a coin was lost, God was there in the search to recover it. God was there at a meal with sinners, rejoicing when they repented in response to someone actually caring enough to enter their world, their house. On the flip side, God was not there in the efforts to stand apart from tax collectors and sinners and criticize and judge them.

Where is God today? The God who is there where hostility and harm occur, permitting these things to happen, is the same God who permits us to do good in our world, and who is there in those efforts. It is not tidy, but it places tremendous dignity on us and how we choose to use our lives in this world. In a world where people have lots of reasons or motives for saying “There is no God,” may we enact the life, character, and image of God by our words and deeds.