Are Atheists ‘Fools’?

A while ago I was taking part in a discussion on another blog about the question of the existence of God and how we handle the arguments offered by atheists.

At one point in the discussion, someone quoted Psalm 14:1:

‘Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good’ (NRSV).

There it is, he said; the Bible says that atheists are fools; they deny the obvious so that they can throw off the chains of morality and just do what they like. There’s no point in trying to engage with their ridiculous arguments. Atheists just need to accept the fact that they are wrong – that God says in the Bible that they are foolish – turn to God and learn a new way of thinking.

This is, of course, not an argument that is designed to convince atheists; it’s an argument to make Christians feel better. It reminds me of the joke Bishop Maurice Wood shared long ago at a conference I attended, in which he told us about the preacher who had scrawled these words in the margins of his sermon notes: ‘Argument weak: shout a bit here!’ Atheists are not going to be convinced by this argument, for the simple reason that it’s an argument from the authority of the Bible, and atheists, obviously, do not accept the authority of the Bible.

Furthermore, I think we even need to ask whether the author of Psalm 14 was saying what this commenter thought he was saying. It seems clear to me that the ‘fool’ in Psalm 14 is a person who has turned away from God in order to be able to cast off the claims of morality and do whatever they like. This, by the way, is also the meaning of the word ‘fool’ in the Bible; a ‘foolish’ person is a person who has foolishly abandoned God’s commandments and chosen to live an immoral life.

However, to claim that all atheists reject belief in God in order to escape the claims of morality is to fly in the face of the facts. Many atheists, curiously, are highly moral people (for the reason I use the word ‘curiously’, see this blog post). And for those of the who were once believers, the chances are that a desire to live in debauchery was not their main reason for abandoning their belief in God.

I have a confession to make; I’m quite fond of atheists. I enjoy reading their books, and I enjoy conversations with them. I have a couple of atheist friends; they are intelligent, witty, honest, and just plain fun to be around, and I enjoy their company. And atheist authors have done me a good turn, too; they’ve helped me re-examine, and discard, some of the bad arguments I’ve used in favour of my Christian faith. They’ve forced me to face some of the difficult issues that we Christians like to avoid – the uncomfortable ones that make it hard at times to believe in God – and they’ve made me, perhaps, just a tiny bit more humble about my beliefs. And that’s all to the good, I think.

The truth is, there are all sorts of good reasons for not believing in God.

Some people just find the problem of evil too disturbing. Why do good things happen to bad people? Why doesn’t God answer the prayers of righteous people? I know this one well; I prayed for several years that my Dad would be delivered from the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease, and he wasn’t.

Some people just don’t find the evidence for God’s existence compelling. They believe that the universe can be quite adequately explained by natural causes, without invoking the existence of a God. And some of the sharper atheists also point out that the traditional argument from design isn’t as strong as we once thought it was. The late Christopher Hitchens used to enjoy pointing out that somewhere in outer space there is a galaxy on a collision course with ours. True, it won’t hit us for a few million years yet, but one day…!

Some people find some elements of traditional Christian belief to be somewhat outdated. I’m not just talking about the whole creation versus evolution debate. I mean, for instance, the traditional Christian belief that through the evil choices of the first human beings, evil came into the world. It is very hard for an intelligent person to believe this nowadays, given that we know that dinosaurs were ripping each others’ throats out millions of years before human beings ever arrived on the scene. Three centuries ago it might have been possible to argue that God created an idyllic, pain-free universe, but that the sin of Adam and Eve caused it to fall from God’s purpose, and thus pain and death entered into the world. But looking at the world now, it seems obvious that a large part of the chain of life is based on stronger creatures killing and eating weaker ones, and that many diseases are simply microscopic life-forms struggling to survive by preying on their hosts (rather like human beings on the face of the earth, actually!).

These are just three examples of the reasons why intelligent people might in all sincerity arrive at the conclusion that they just can’t believe in God. I use the word ‘can’t’ advisedly, because I think that often times we do not choose our beliefs – they choose us. What I mean by this is that we don’t usually weigh up two competing arguments and then make a conscious choice to accept one or the other. Rather, we find that one of the arguments just grabs us; it seems obvious to us that it is true, and we can’t imagine ourselves taking the opposite opinion.

So I don’t think Christians do themselves any favours by ridiculing atheists. In fact, I would go even further and say that I think we have absolutely no hope of leading atheists to faith in Christ unless we respect them, unless we engage with them and take their views seriously, and unless we do our best to find out why they believe what they believe, and to discover the story of the journey that has led them to those beliefs.

In case anyone is worrying that Tim is wavering in his faith – don’t! I’m not a secret atheist, nor am I going to become one. But it has become clear to me that it is entirely possible for two people to examine exactly the same evidence and come to different conclusions. Ridiculing and browbeating people is not a very good way of persuading them to change their minds. Respect, friendship, prayer, faithful witness, and a basic humility that doesn’t claim certainty where no certainty is possible – these are, I believe, far more likely to be effective.

3 thoughts on “Are Atheists ‘Fools’?

  1. Tim, thank you so much for this. I do agree. And I was touched by your saying that atheist authors have helped you re-examine your faith and discard what’s unhelpful and untrue. When atheists talk about the God they don’t believe in I want to say “you know what? I don’t believe in that God either” and that’s a challenge to my images of God – ultimately a healthful thing.

    I read of an atheist scientist who said that without a belief in [I think, a simplistic notion of a Creator] God she had found more of a sense of wonder in considering the universe. Isn’t that a shaming indictment of us as Christians – that we’re often more concerned with our arguments and point-scoring than nurturing our sense of sheer wonder at the majesty of God, to which the only response is often a loving, awe-filled silence.

    And yes, ridicule should have no place in our dealings with any of our fellow humans, if we believe them too to be children of God. Didn’t Jesus have something to say about calling people “fool”?

    Sorry for such a long comment – you’ve made me think! Blessings.

  2. Fr. Philip (Speranza)

    Dear Tim,

    Just a quote from the late Dr. Peter Marshall to the effect that “Christianity is a matter of perception, not of proof.” The most one can do in terms of argument is try to demonstrate that it is rational to posit the existence of an ontologically transcendent being (i.e., God). But even there, the acceptance of that argument, not just in the mind, but in the heart, is the work of the Holy Spirit. So spending less time arguing and more time praying seems to me the wiser course.

    And that leads to the point that too often the “believer” is, in functional terms, the atheist, behaving as if there were neither God nor grace, but that it all depends on us and/or that governing another’s heart and conscience is within our power. Your call to humility is well-taken.

    Fr. P.

  3. I don’t have time to do more than skim this today. I have bookmarked the blog, and if I can subscribe, I will. I need to come back and read your whole Anabaptist series, at least. I love the 16th century Anabaptists. Anyway, I am writing this to say thank you for wrliting the above. I cringe every time I hear Christians call an atheist a fool. I had wondered about Ps 14 & 53 meaning fool as in immoral person (thanks to Garry Nation’s book _Fool_), and that’s how I would interpret it, too. Thanks for saying this all so well.

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