“Atheists in the Bible”

  1. Psalm 14/Ephesians 3

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

A recent poll has gotten a lot of church leaders worried.

The poll by the Pew Research Center claims that the percentage of Americans who don’t profess any faith or who claim to be atheists has increased dramatically in the last few years.

Researchers were surprised to learn that 23% of our citizens classify themselves as not believing in any religion. The percentage of atheists and agnostics doubled from 3.5% to 7% of the population. Equally worrisome for the future of the church: the younger persons polled tended to be more skeptical than the older ones.

Many explanations have been offered for these poll results. I would speculate that some people who have always been indifferent to religion now feel free to admit that they are unbelievers. In these cases, people aren’t becoming more unreligious—just more honest about what they don’t believe.

Researchers have suggested that other respondents may have been swayed by the anti-religious arguments of some recent best-selling authors. Still others may simply be turned off by the violence and extremism of the religious fanatics who are now in the news. In these cases, declining church affiliation is predictable, and it shouldn’t surprise us.

But whatever the cause, “atheism” has become a more common word than it used to be. Those widely-read authors I mentioned—such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins–are now sometimes referred to as the “New Atheists.”

Yet it’s questionable just how “new” this skepticism really is. For example, today’s Psalm—which is at least 2,500 years old—talks about an atheist. And it happens to have some very interesting things to say about unbelief.

Psalm 14 begins, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Of course the Psalms are written from a religious point of view. For Hebrews, God certainly did exist. Theism is taken for granted, so from the Hebrew perspective, saying in your heart that there isn’t any God is indeed foolish!

But if we look further at the text, we see that it has something to say to teach modern people, whatever their belief or non-belief. For example, according to the text, the fool says there is no God. That is, he states it as a fact. The non-existence of the divine is therefore a conclusion that the fool has reached in his mind.

Yet, also according to the text, the fool says there is no God “in his heart.” The Psalm writer thus suggests that a person can disbelieve in two ways: mentally in his mind, or emotionally in his soul. The atheist can think that God is an impossible concept. Or she can feel indifferent to religion.

This distinction is important for us who have faith and want to share it. It implies that we should adopt different strategies to approach intellectual atheists than we employ to address emotional atheists.

For instance, we could respond to the intellectual skeptic by referring to the arguments of the many Christian philosophers writing today. These thinkers present a coherent defense of belief in God that incorporates modern logic and scientific research.

Take the belief in life after death. Some Christian philosophers have argued that the idea of immortality that the Bible talks about can now be described as taking place in another dimension – like those described in modern physics.

Physicists contend that there may be 6 or 7 dimensions beyond the three dimensions of space and single dimension of time that we now know. Perhaps our souls go into one of these dimensions when we die. That seems possible.

Life in Heaven would still be a mystery—but it wouldn’t be a total mystery. Eternal life with God would remain a hope for Christians.

What, then, about emotional atheists? How could their doubts be overcome?

Well, they might be moved by forms of worship. Many people attend our carol services at Christmas even though they’re not regular churchgoers. These visitors often respond to the services at the level of feeling. For emotional atheists, worship suggests warmth and community and transcendence – gifts that are hard to find in a purely secular environment.

Today’s Psalm also has some advice for those of us who already possess religious faith. For the Psalm goes on to say, “The LORD looks down from heaven upon us all, to see if there is any who is wise, if there is one who seeks after God.”

The wise person, unlike the fool, searches for the divine. Notice that, on this view, it isn’t achieving some high level of belief that pleases God. Rather, what’s important is the attempt you make to “seek after God.”

If you’re smart, you’ll know what’s good for you. And it’s good for you always to be looking for more spiritual knowledge. For that spiritual knowledge helps you figure out what’s important to you at any given moment – what will make you content with your life.

In that regard, it’s interesting that the same polls that have charted a decline of religious belief have also noted a trend that goes in the opposite direction. Surveys of believers and non-believers have consistently indicated that believers are happier.

It’s not clear why. Perhaps because religious people have more control over their appetites, so they don’t abuse their bodies like the unreligious. (I myself don’t find this argument persuasive. All human beings are tempted by self-indulgence. Religious people may be happier than non-religious but I don’t think we’re morally superior.)

Nor does religion necessarily make life easier. Christians have a responsibility to care for the poor, for example. According to our ideals, as long as there is someone suffering, somewhere in the world we are bound to care for that person. This is who we are, and if the suffering of others makes us feel guilty until we do something about it—well, that guilt comes with the territory. That’s part of bearing the Cross of Christ in a fallen world.

Still, it really shouldn’t surprise us that religious people are happier. If indeed there is wisdom in the religious quest, then there should be benefits to that wisdom. So we may gain an increasing sense of God’s care for us. And we may have fewer anxieties as we become more confident that God is on our side.

As the Bible also says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” Atheists come and go. And there are always fools who rush to follow them.

Fortunately, there is an option for those who search for spiritual truth. As St. Paul says, we can “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” And in that love, we “may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

Amen.


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