Sunday favorites

Psalm 14

To the leader. Of David.
Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

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

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.

  • Fusina

    There are yet

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

    Look, I’m sorry.  I know Fred did a piece about how this bit isn’t really anti-atheist, if you squint real hard and tilt your head and think good thoughts. 

    But my quick Google survey reveals only Christians sneering at atheists, and the occasional atheist rebuttal to the “morals” “argument.”

    If God is indeed all-knowing, he clearly doesn’t care about how this psalm affects those who haven’t already signed on with him.

  • Mira

    “all the evildoerswho eat up my people as they eat bread” -

    that is a gorgeous line.

    (and it is so obviously about oppression, not atheism.)

  • Slow Learner

    I’m afraid this was exactly my reaction. This passage is one I have *only* ever seen used to abuse atheists, to the extent that I can’t see it otherwise at this point.

  • Slow Learner

    “so obviously”? If it is obvious to you, could you please explain (or link me to an explanation), because it is the opposite of obvious to me.

  • Water_Bear

    “(and it is so obviously about oppression, not atheism.)”

    Yes, you’re right, using atheism as a metaphor for a lack of empathy and a synonym for selfish acts of evil is clearly not something atheists should be upset about. What a bunch of unreasonable jerks, it’s too bad they don’t “get” the bible like we do. If they did they might even convert, and then they could be good people like us!

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

    Sorry if “so obviously” sounded smug, I didn’t mean it that way. I didn’t grow up in a very religious household and have not heard this used to bash atheists, so this is my immediate reaction upon reading it *without* a lot of prior exposure, not my reaction as someone who “knows better.”

    The reason I think it is obvious is that people are called evil for “eating up the people as they eat bread” and for “confound[ing] the poor,” specifically. Those sound like oppression issues, not atheism issues. Also, my knowledge of the ancient world leads me to think that atheism was not a recognizable intellectual/spiritual position in the way it is today, and people had very different assumptions than we do, so this translates as more of a “not following moral wisdom” than a “not believing in correct metaphysical propositions” critique.

  • vsm

    Isn’t it a bit absurd to use a biblical passage to insult atheists? Or
    is this one of those “even atheists admit the Bible is divinely
    inspired!” things?

  • Water_Bear

    It opens with “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.” There’s not a lot of wiggle room there; either you take the clear reading and atheists are scum, the metaphorical meaning where atheism is a stand-in for being scum, or you focus on the “in their hearts” and thus perpetuate the old stereotype of the atheist secretly believing in god.

    And the cultural relativism schtick falls a little flat when you see that a) charming passages like this in the bible have informed quite a bit of the world’s culture for millenia, and b) it was supposedly written by a timeless omnibenevolent being who really ought to be able to choose it’s words a little more carefully.

  • vsm

    it was supposedly written by a timeless omnibenevolent being who really
    ought to be able to choose it’s words a little more carefully.

    This passage comes from the Psalms, many of which are attributed to David, a human. Others are written from a human perspective, such as my Psalm 137, my personal favorite. You need to be a pretty hardcore fundamentalist to think they were personally written by God.

  • Fusina

     I don’t know if this will help, but I see it as saying that believers are not those who say they are, they are the people who do what is right because it is the right thing to do. And that people who say they believe and yet mistreat others are liars. Fools, if you will.

    I’ve heard this verse used to bash atheists. I’m sorry it was. This should not have happened. It is not, in my opinion, what the bible is for. I saw a tee shirt saying that I like, “Everyone is an example.” And to me, that is what I use the bible as–examples of what happens. For instance, to use a recent example, it is a really bad idea to openly favor one child over another. It does not end well.

    So for me, I honor someone who does what is right because it is the right thing to do over someone who does it because s/he is afraid of being sent to hell. I don’t know if this will help any, but anyway, that is how I feel.

  • flat

    A good psalm.

    It reminds people what being a christian really means,by showing  you can’t fool God when you are pretending to be a christian.

  • Keulan

    Like Ruby Tea, I have seen this psalm used almost exclusively to bash atheists. I’m aware of the fact that progressive Christians have other interpretations of Psalm 14, but even a metaphorical reading of it is still not very kind to atheists.

  • Münchner Kindl

    As usual with bash verses, they only work when taken out of context. If you read further on, it’s obvious that the Psalm itself means “fools who say There is no God” = “people who do evil without fear of judgement” and not “atheists who decide against God but live a good life”.

    Because the evil deeds are listed. In most of the Bible, God is on the side of the poor and disenfranchised, and if you break his laws, you get punished. (Not always 100% direct relation, see Hijob; but enough to figure in the prophets speech recurringly: because Israel broke the laws, you will be punished. Repent – like in Jonah – and you will be spared).

    Most people don’t get much beyond the moral stages of 6-year-old, which is “I will do good things so I will be rewarded, and refrain from bad things so I’m not punished”. This is of course regrettable and it would be much better if people progressed to the adult version of “I will be good because it’s nice and decent, and I will not harm because it’s not nice to harm others”. But in reality, fear of punishment keeps the majority of people from doing bad things best, so God and his prophets work with that.
    Therefore, the psalms talk about how living a good life is rewarded, and Jesus tells of the rich guy who burns in hell because he didn’t help the beggar Lazarus. Or the prophet who tells that the kind of sacrifices God wants are not burnt offerings but helping the poor and forgiving debts. (And that’s why in Jesus parable about goats and sheep, the people on his right who were decent say “We don’t know you”. It’s not about saying the right words and being jerks, but doing the right thing, regardless what you say. Kind of opposite of Pascals wager: Be decent, regardless of belief. If there is no afterlife, you had a decent life. If there is an afterlife, you will get rewarded, too.)

    Nothing at all about people who don’t believe in God but are decent. And it also doesn’t follow that all menkind is one step away from doing perverted things. It means that some people act like Jerks as if they don’t know there will be a reckoning, or that God told them to be nice instead.

    That the verse torn out of context was used for bashing is not the fault of the verse – everything can be misused if out of context. The whole story is about not being a Jerk to the poor, and atheists can get behind that, too.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani Sharmin

    I have to agree with the people pointing out the anti-atheist message of the psalm. Yes, it says to help the poor … and it also suggests that it’s people who don’t really believe in god who hurt the poor while people who believe in god help them. Like Water_Bear says above, of course people are going to be upset if their stance on whether god exists is used as a metaphor for selfishness and lack of empathy.

    Think of it this way: If someone wrote a poem about helping the poor, but suggested that people who believe in god are the ones who hurt the poor while those who don’t are the ones who help them, wouldn’t people who believe in god be upset about that?

    And it’s like this throughout the Bible. So many of the passages about justice or helping the unfortunate are linked to discrimination against anyone who doesn’t share the religious beliefs of the authors.

  • Anton_Mates

    If you read further on, it’s obvious that the Psalm itself means “fools
    who say There is no God” = “people who do evil without fear of
    judgement” and not “atheists who decide against God but live a good
    life”.

    Well, yes, because the Psalm doesn’t acknowledge the existence of “atheists who decide against God but live a good
    life.”  That’s precisely the issue.  Its author(s) may have privately believed that there are lots of virtuous atheists–although that’s rather unlikely, historically speaking–but they sure didn’t bother to mention that here.

    That the verse torn out of context was used for bashing is not the fault
    of the verse – everything can be misused if out of context. The whole
    story is about not being a Jerk to the poor, and atheists can get behind
    that, too.

     Honestly, there’s one line in there which is unambiguously about not being a Jerk to the poor.  There’s a lot more about not being a Jerk to one particular ethnic group, and there’s a whole lot more about needing to accept/call upon/seek after God.  All three of these messages are fairly omnipresent in the O.T., not just the first one.

    There’s nothing wrong with a modern reader universalizing the psalm’s message into a global, religiously neutral condemnation of oppression; we do something like this almost any time we draw inspiration from another culture’s texts.  I don’t think it makes much sense to say that such a reading amounts to putting it back in context, though. 

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    Well, yes, because the Psalm doesn’t acknowledge the existence of
    “atheists who decide against God but live a good life.”  That’s
    precisely the issue.  Its author(s) may have privately believed that
    there are lots of virtuous atheists–although that’s rather unlikely,
    historically speaking–but they sure didn’t bother to mention that here.

    “atheism” in the modern sense is kind of an enlightenment-era concept. It’s frankly a stretch to suppose that the authors believed in “virtuous atheists” or “nonvirtuous atheists” in anything resembling the modern sense. You certainly wouldn’t have, as described in Fred’s next post, “People who reject God out of empiricism” because empiricism hadn’t been invented yet.

    It seems unfair to hold it against the psalmist that, writing thousands of years before Kant, they failed to stop and invent a rational basis for morality so that they could propose it as an alternative they did not hold but which they would be okay with other people holding, which other people did not hold, because it hadn’t been invented yet.

  • AnonymousSam

    Tribalism. Tribalism tribalism tribalism. Underlined, bolded, italicized and written in size=+3.

    “The Bible tells us we’re right. The Bible tells us they’re wrong. If they weren’t fools, just like the Bible says, they’d know that we’re right and they’re wrong just by reading the Bible. Then they’d join us, because we’re right. Did I mention we’re right and they totally suck?”

  • AnonymousSam

    Well, the idea wasn’t completely foreign even a little before that. Dante’s Inferno is 14th century and dedicated a circle of Hell to the virtuous pagans which could be described as “the next best thing to Heaven.” One might argue that the only reason he wrote of such a thing is because of his own issues with homelessness, though, and not wanting to imagine a group of people who belonged to neither Heaven nor Hell.

  • Anton_Mates

    “atheism” in the modern sense is kind of an enlightenment-era concept.

    Well, yes and no.  There were Hindu, Buddhist and probably (we don’t have enough of their work to be 100% sure) Greek philosophers who categorically rejected all gods.  You might have to duct-tape Epicurus, Strato and Diagoras together to get a perfect match for Bertrand Russell, but the ideas of empiricism, the nonexistence of personal gods, the preference for nonbelief over false belief, and the rejection of divine instruction as a basis for behavior were all there.

    Not that the psalmist was familiar with classical Greek culture either, of course.  And you’re probably right that they didn’t know anyone who openly rejected all gods, if only because blasphemy was a capital crime for both the Hebrews and their Assyrian conquerors.  But they definitely did know about people who didn’t believe in their God, and the OT judges those folks as inferior pretty consistently.  Modern atheists certainly fall in that general category.

    I mean, there are plenty of modern conservative Christians that don’t believe in “virtuous” or “nonvirtuous atheists” either; they deny that it’s actually possible not to believe in God, so all atheists are just doing the rebellion thing.  In some sense such Christians aren’t actually talking about me or most real-world atheists, since we don’t fit their definition–but I think it’s still fair to judge them as generally prejudiced against atheism.

    It seems unfair to hold it against the psalmist that, writing thousands
    of years before Kant, they failed to stop and invent a rational basis for morality so that they could propose it as an alternative they did not hold but which they would be okay with other people holding, which other people did not hold, because it hadn’t been invented yet.

    I…don’t really see why.  If you mean that it’s unfair to condemn the psalmist as being a particularly bigoted or obtuse person for their time, or to conclude that their psalms can’t possibly have any redeeming value, well, sure.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize their position from our PoV.  Blindness to alternate worldviews is a problem even if it’s unintentional and unavoidable.

    Analogously, take the Merchant of Venice.  Shylock’s depiction is…problematic, to say the least.  That doesn’t mean that Shakespeare was particularly antisemitic for his time, nor that the play is a treatise on how Jews suck. Quite the contrary, I think he does an extraordinary job of making Shylock a complex and sympathetic character, given the culture that produced the playwright and his audience.  But Shylock’s still problematic, and if someone dislikes the play because of its antisemitic elements, I wouldn’t tell them that they’re just reading those elements out of context.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    I…don’t really see why.  If you mean that it’s unfair to condemn the
    psalmist as being a particularly bigoted or obtuse person for their
    time, or to conclude that their psalms can’t possibly have any redeeming
    value, well, sure.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t criticize their
    position from our PoV.  Blindness to alternate worldviews is a problem
    even if it’s unintentional and unavoidable.

    That’s fair, but it sounds to me like the original complaint boils down to “The clear and obvious intended meaning of this passage is ‘fuck you, modern-style atheists; you can not be moral’.”  Which is impossible if the author could not have had a conception of the modern sense of the word ‘atheism’ (a word that doesn’t even appear).  It’s unfair to say “The fool says in his heart there is no god?  The writer is deliberately talking about ME!” when the historical context makes it clear that the writer *could have had no conception of the thing _you_ are talking about when you describe yourself as a person who doesn’t believe in god*.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which is an entirely fair thing to say if the only meaning we are considering is the one that the psalmist was thinking of when composing the psalm.

    Trouble is there are present-day Bible-thumping types quoting the psalmist to present-day atheists. What do they mean by the psalmist’s words? ‘Cause I’ve a suspicion that ‘fuck you, present-day atheists, you cannot be moral’ is right on the money.

  • Anton_Mates

    That’s fair, but it sounds to me like the original complaint boils down to “The clear and obvious intended meaning of this passage is ‘fuck you, modern-style atheists; you can not be moral’.”

    I took the original complaint more to be: “A very plausible meaning for this passage is ‘it’s bad to deny God’, and a lot of modern Christians leverage that for their message of ‘fuck you, modern-style atheists,’ so I don’t have much use for it.”  But I certainly agree that the complaint as you phrase it wouldn’t make much sense.

  • Slow Learner

    Can’t speak for anyone else, but this is pretty much exactly my problem with this passage.

    Well, that and the added “this usage of this passage is so common, I am surprised that any modern Christian can look at it and not go ‘oh, that anti-atheist clobber verse.’”

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Well, that and the added “this usage of this passage is so common, I am surprised that any modern Christian can look at it and not go ‘oh, that anti-atheist clobber verse.’”

    I’m a modern Christian and my personal exposure to “clobber verses” is much, much more often the bible being quoted to demonstrate how full of shit Christians and their God are than the inverse. I’ll happily admit to this being very different to the US experience but it’s about time for my semi-regular pointing out that religion in the US is not universalisable.

  • Slow Learner

    Haha. I live in the UK. 25-50% non religious, depending on which survey you believe, and I still see fire and brimstone preachers or evangelicals with their pamphlets a lot more than I see atheists playing gotcha with Bible horrors.