‘The Right Club’ and what offends God

Hemant Mehta tells us about an atheist billboard in Kentucky and the tribalist response from a local church.

“Don’t believe in God?” the atheist billboard reads, “Join the club.”

So a local Nazarene church put up a sign that says, “We believe in God. Join the right club!”

So much wrong there in the multiple meanings of that word, “club.”

The church’s pastor said Christians like him were offended by the billboard. He seems to assume we’ll all understand why such offense is appropriate, although it’s not obvious to me.

The sign’s message, essentially, is: 1) Atheists exist; and 2) If you are an atheist, you’re not alone. Both of those things strike me as unremarkably and inoffensively true. And yet, for some reason, Pastor Jared Henry of the Lafeyette Church of the Nazarene finds these unremarkable statements of fact offensive.

Henry also said that God “was probably offended” by the billboard, because God, apparently, was unaware of the existence of such unbelievers until one day recently when God was stuck in traffic on Wilhite Drive in Lexington and then looked up in horror to see this billboard.

Henry, of course, isn’t really worried about God so much as about Team God — the tribal clique to which he pledges his allegiance. The sad comeback he rushed to put up on his church sign — “the right club,” oh snap! — has nothing to do with defending God, of course, but only with scoring points for Team God.

Unfortunately for the team, Pastor Henry trips over his clobber verse in discussing the sign with a local news crew: “Proverbs says a fool says in his heart there is no God.”

Thanks for playing, pastor, but that’s not Proverbs.

It’s Psalm 14, actually. The first verse of that psalm — “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’” — is often invoked as a rebuke to atheism, but this psalm isn’t really about that. It’s not about what we “believe,” but about how we live. And specifically, about how we live in relation to others.

The psalm is a rebuke to those who live as though there is no God. And what does that look like? According to Psalm 14, that means devouring the poor (“treating people like a fast-food meal,” in Eugene Peterson’s translation) and “confounding the plans of the poor.”

For the psalmist here, to say “there is no God” means thinking you can treat people like objects with impunity. Belief in God, in this passage, mainly entails accountability for how we treat others. The “fools” denounced here are not condemned because of any intellectual “beliefs” about the existence or non-existence of God. They are not condemned for joining the wrong “club.” They are denounced because they foolishly think they’re going to get away with preying on the weak.

Here’s a bit more of Psalm 14 from Peterson’s “The Message” translation:

Don’t they know they can’t get away with this—
Treating people like a fast-food meal over which they’re too busy to pray?

Night is coming for them, and nightmares, for God takes the side of victims.
Do you think you can mess with the dreams of the poor?
You can’t, for God makes their dreams come true.

It has nothing to do with joining “the right club.” It has to do with how we treat others, regardless of what “club” they do or do not belong to. The psalmist is saying, essentially, that Instant Karma’s gonna get you.

Pastor Henry doesn’t seem to have read any of Psalm 14 except that first verse. He also got it mixed up with Proverbs.

As it happens, the book of Proverbs does have quite a bit to say about what God finds offensive. It doesn’t mention anything about billboards or tribal disputes between clubs, but it does say this “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.”

 

  • SisterCoyote

    Um. I don’t think that’s what he was saying… I think it’s more that the psalm condemns people who then use their disbelief in God as an excuse to treat those around them like dirt.

  • Sigaloenta

    I’d say that the continued use of thou in the KJV and formal Christian contexts while it died out in most dialects of English is a primary reason for it now having connotations of formality and grandeur.

    But — if I may put on my pedant hat: it looks like it was never as simple as “formal = you; informal = thou”  (see, e.g., this very interesting book: ).  The fact that  thou was fading from formal/public discourse among the elite and much more associated in some contexts with the lower classes woudn’t prevent it from also having a connotation of archaic simplicity and grandness in the overall elevated context of the KJV.”  Also, of course, Ancient Greek and Hebrew did not have a “formal” pronoun available, and there was a general awareness that “thou” was the ‘real’ singular form in English as well (cf. the Quakers’ refusal to use “you” as part of a program of equality and rejection of artificial social distinctions).

    Even into the 19th century, one finds classical texts translated into apparently “modern” English still hanging onto those singular thous.  At that point, though, it’s just silly!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Charity-Brighton/100002974813787 Charity Brighton

    I thought he was saying, “the psalm isn’t really about theism vs. atheism; it’s about people who think that they can prey on the weak.” The God aspect comes in because the psalmist was making an argument along the lines of, “The only way anyone can get away with preying on the weak is if there isn’t any God, so if you’re preying on the weak it’s like you’re saying, ‘I can do this and get away with it, because no one (ie God) is going to stop me.’”

  • Lori

     

    Fred corrects him, pointing out that the psalm says atheists are jerks, not stupid.   

    No. Fred said that people who claim to believe in the God of the Bible, but mistreat the poor are jerks. The verse isn’t actually about atheists at all, it’s about hypocritical “believers”. That’s Fred’s whole point.

  • SisterCoyote

     Ah yeah, that’s way more clear and accurate.

  • Fusina

    My best friend is an atheist. And she is a caring person. I am a christian, for what that is worth. She says I am a caring person. In my world view, she is probably better than me, she doesn’t have a reason for being nice, she just is. I think the psalm was more to admonish people who followed G-d than those who didn’t.

  • vsm

    That’s how I understood it too. If you look at the whole psalm, the second verse says that when looking at humankind, God sees that “all have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one” (NIV, Psalm 14:3). Unless we’ve missed a large upsurge of atheism in Ancient Levant, I think the writer is speaking of something other than people who find the existence of gods improbable.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marta-Layton/100001373579092 Marta Layton

    I agree with a lot of this, but one point needs clarifying. Fred says the “join the club” message just means that atheists exist and that if you are an atheist, you’re not alone. But I see a subtler message implied. “Join the club” has this connotation that, if you’re not already an atheist, you’re slow or stupid or some such thing. All the more so if you’re still not an atheist.

    I can see getting offended by that, at least a little. The church’s response is way more offensive for all the reasons Fred mentions, but I can definitely see why they wouldn’t like this message.

  • The_L1985

    Not “One golden apple for the fairest?”

  • The_L1985

     And I cried out unto the Lord, “Deliver me from clear skin and perfect teeth!  Deliver me from Swedish furniture!!”

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    But this is my point: people say that about atheists all the time–”you don’t have any real reason to be good.”  As though a god watching over you, just waiting to smite, could be the only reason people could possibly be good.

    The psalm is a rebuke to those who live as though there is no God. And what does that look like? According to Psalm 14, that means devouring the poor (“treating people like a fast-food meal,” in Eugene Peterson’s translation) and “confounding the plans of the poor.”

    The psalm defines people who don’t believe as people who are jerks to the poor.  I don’t think that’s any better than defining people who don’t believe as fools.

  • http://www.facebook.com/chrisalgoo Chris Algoo

    Could I ask where the “if you’re not already an atheist, you’re slow or stupid” implication comes from?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marta-Layton/100001373579092 Marta Layton

    Now that I think about it, I’m not entirely certain; it simply was the first connotation that jumped to mind. If I told you (for example) that I used to be against gay marriage but I’d now changed my position, and you said “join the club” or “welcome to the club,” I’d read that as implying I should have had that position all along – that I was somehow stupid. It works similarly to telling someone “welcome to the twenty-first century”, at least where I grew up. The implication is that everyone else is already in the club and you’re now joining the overwhelming majority with this new position.

  • Carstonio

    Of course not. When a passage in scripture appears to allude to lack of belief in the god described (and this could entail belief in a different religion’s god), then it’s defensible to question the premises involved. I appreciate Fred’s point that the passage is really about people who profess belief while treating the poor shabbily. I’m not sure how Fred concluded from “in his heart” that this is about how one lives and not about what one believes.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The Revised Standard Version of Psalms 14.

    [4] Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
    who eat up my people as they eat bread,
    and do not call upon the LORD?

    This sounds more like it’s lamenting that the people who do evil against others are justifying it by not “call[ing] upon the Lord”.

    On this basis RubyTea’s interpretation has some validity.

  • Lori

     

    The psalm defines people who don’t believe as people who are jerks to
    the poor.  I don’t think that’s any better than defining people who
    don’t believe as fools.   

    But it doesn’t. It defines people who are jerks to the poor as people who don’t believe, which actually isn’t the same thing.

    I feel like this conversation could benefit from some Venn diagrams, but I’m not the person to produce them.

  • Lori

    Because the rest of the Psalm is about how one lives and mentions nothing about what one believes?

  • Dash1

     Your link doesn’t work, and I’m not having any luck finding your reference by googling. Could you give us the name of the book, please?

  • Fusina

     I’m sorry, I didn’t explain well. I am a christian, but I have no idea what happens to us after we die (I do hope death is not the end, as there are a lot of things I haven’t tried yet that I am getting to old/ill to try, and I would like another chance), but the only person who is alleged to have come back just said that there was lots of room there, and we knew how to get there. Um, yeah.

    I do nice stuff–but not because of rewards I may or may not be getting. I do it because it is the right thing to do. Same reason as my atheist friend, actually. We had a good laugh about that. I figure we are all in this together, so if the boat needs bailing, we should all get a bucket, regardless of beliefs about whether or not there is an afterlife. Like leaving a smaller ecologic footprint. I’d like to think that centuries after I die, the earth continues to house humans, but I am beginning to think that there are those who want the human race to die off. Sadly, an awful lot of them are christians. Yeesh.

  • Carstonio

    The context seems even worse to me. Verse 3 all but says that humanity is deserving of Armageddon.

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    Exactly!  (As to the doing good things because they are the right things to do.)  I just don’t think that this OP is a better-for-atheists interpretation of the psalm–in the psalm, people who don’t believe just so happens to mean people who are assholes to the less fortunate.

  • Lori

     

    -in the psalm, people who don’t believe just so happens to mean people who are assholes to the less fortunate.  

    Eh,
    I really don’t think the Psalm has anything to do what we would call
    atheists (for one thing, that wasn’t really a thing at the time the
    Psalm was written). The Psalm isn’t about us, so I don’t think there’s
    really an issue of a better- or worse-for-atheists interpretation.  It
    seems to me that looking at it that way is simply buying into the
    framing used by the people who quote the first verse to “clobber”
    atheists while ignoring the rest of the Psalm. I’ll pass on that.

  • EllieMurasaki

    the only person who is alleged to have come back [from death]

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resurrection –ahahaha no. Even if you confine yourself to the Gospels, there’s three others. I will admit that Jesus raised all three and none of the three said anything recorded about the other side, so of the four he’s probably the authority, but the Gospels are far from the only place that record alleged resurrections.

  • Albanaeon

    I think your right.  Considering the context, I think a fair translation could be “I don’t believe in right and wrong.”  It would make the rest of the passage on make a lot more sense.

    Of course this is a Taoist talking and we can be a bit vague on definitions…

  • AnonymousSam

    I read it more as if your justification for doing evil is a lack of belief in god (and thus in lasting consequences for evil actions), then you’re a fool.

  • Ben English

    It’s a Bronze Age Hebrew text. The words ‘there is’ are not even in the original but added by translators for clarity. It’s not discussing people who, knowing what we know today of the natural world, conclude that they don’t believe in God. It’s talking of those people,  thousands of years ago who, in their hearts, declared “NO GOD for me! I can do what I want, exploit the poor and prey on the weak.” I don’t know anything about the atheist group that put up that billboard, but I sincerely doubt that they fit the description given in this Psalm.

    Also recall that this is a Psalm, which often deal with very personal emotions and ordeals on the part of the writer/speaker–such as the Pslams of David lamenting his sin in murdering a man and taking his wife.

  • Keulan

    I don’t know how some of you are coming up with these interpretations of Psalm 14, but upon rereading it I agree with Ruby Tea. It’s saying that people who don’t believe in god are assholes to the poor and do no good. I honestly don’t get how you can twist that around to mean something else.

    I really don’t get how the pastor’s interpretation of what this psalm says is any better than Fred’s understanding of its meaning. However, I am glad that Fred’s not offended by atheist billboards that basically say “Atheists exist, you’re not alone.”

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Ah, that was you?  I did find that blog quite interesting… I was sad when it stopped posting, but, yeah, I’m sure not one to talk.

  • Jurgan

    Peterson said his main objective was to get people to read it.  He said a lot of people revere the Bible without ever have read much of it, and he wanted them to be able to breeze through it quickly with his version.  Study Bibles can come later- for now, let’s just read the whole thing straight through.  And it worked for me- I’d wanted to read it straight through for years, but that was when I finally succeeded.  I never would have been able to make it with a KJV version.

  • Fusina

     By himself? Would you accept by himself? There are also the graveyards with people that rose after he died. Dunno how many there were.

    But I don’t know that I believe in the “virgin” birth either–I’ve read enough myths to know that story is bloody well everywhere. Along with floods and famines and extra long days/nights (Maui caught the sun and kept it from rising) to suspect that at least some of these were women keeping from getting in trouble–seeing that back then, loss of virginity could lead to loss of life–maybe Jesus had a good reason for having a soft spot for “adulteresses”. Note, I am NOT saying that is what happened, only that it is a possibility. Does it make what he said less important to me? No! He came down firmly on the side of the helpless and hopeless, fighting for their rights against the authorities of the time.

    As someone who was bullied in school to the point that I have PTSD, along with other problems, I _like_ a God who is on the side of the downtrodden.

  • Madhabmatics

    The purpose of translating from Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic is to allow people who do not understand the original languages to understand the texts. The purpose of paraphrasing those things into the vulgar argot is to allow people who don’t understand the high language of academic translators to understand texts.

    Or, since a direct translation of a religious message seems more respectful:

    “Make things easy for people and do not make them difficult. Give good
    news to people and do not frighten them away.” (Reported by Anas)

  • Sigaloenta

     Sorry (that’s what I get for trusting google!).  The book is “Thou and You in Early Modern English Dialogues” by Terry Walker.

  • Carstonio

     I’ve read it three or four times since yesterday, and I’m having trouble parsing it. Unclear whether it’s slamming all of humanity or a specific group of evildoers.  But then, I’ve never been clear what “I shall not want” in the 23rd psalm means, either – it could mean that the lord in question satisfies all the narrator’s wants or that the lord saves the narrator from self-destructive desires.

  • The_L1985

    Ditto.  I got a lot farther with the TEV than I ever did with the KJV.

  • The_L1985

     It means “I shall not want for anything” i.e., “I will have all I need.”

    Archaic definition of “to want” there, meaning “to lack.”

  • Dash1

     

    The book is “Thou and You in Early Modern English Dialogues” by Terry Walker.

    Thank you!

  • http://hummingwolf.livejournal.com/ Hummingwolf

    It’s saying that people who don’t believe in god are assholes to the poor and do no good. I honestly don’t get how you can twist that around to mean something else.

    It’s saying that people who are assholes to the poor are people who don’t believe in God.  That’s different from saying that all people who don’t believe in God are people who are assholes to the poor.  “All A are B” is not the same as “All B are A.”

    If it’s hard for you to grasp in the abstract, think of these two statements:

    All Christians are oxygen-breathers.
    All oxygen-breathers are Christians.

    The fact that the second statement is false doesn’t make the first statement untrue.  All Christians are oxygen-breathers, as are all Hindus, all Buddhists, all Pagans, all Muslims, all Jains, all agnostics, all atheists, and all other people on this Earth.

  • LL

    RE  “Belief in God, in this passage, mainly entails accountability for how we treat others.”

    Well, then, I can understand why people choose not to interpret it this way. Because it’s way easier to just look down on people than it is to help them. 

  • http://heathencritique.wordpress.com/ Ruby_Tea

    If we try it with other groups, how does it sound?

    “All people who are assholes to the poor are Jews.  But don’t worry, not all Jews are assholes to the poor.”

    Changing the wording to “oxygen-breathers” makes the statements sound nicer, but the whole problem is that the statements are rude in the first place. 

  • Nick

     Not really. The point of the psalm is “If you are cruel to the poor, you cannot truly believe the faith you claim to believe because they are mutually exclusive.” So it’s not really about atheism as a school of thought — it’s about hypocrisy more than anything. Whereas “Jews” is just some random group that isn’t actually associated in any way with the matter at hand.

  • Marta L.

    When I hear someone say “join the club,” the association I draw is that everyone (or at least most everyone, the people who have their act together) already have accepted the position you’re inviting the person you’re talking with to join. For example, if I came out in favor of gay marriage and you told me to join the club, I might read that as effectively asking what took me so long to come around to that position.

    Btw, did you really reply to this eight months ago? Disqus just showed me the notification today; sorry for taking so long to reply.


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