There’s a reason Psalm 23 has been vulgarized through the years. It’s because of its soothing yet violent imagery. Particularly verse 4.
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of death I will fear no evil, for I am
the meanest . . . [SOB] . . . in the valley.”
(Credited to author Joel Rosenberg. I’ll leave you to decipher the acronym.)
Or this slightly more vulgar option orated by Sean Penn in 1989 film Casualties of War.
For reference, here’s Psalm 23 as it reads in the KJV
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
Both of these boorish examples really butcher the beauty of the psalm, but they do convey its true intent. Which is, that when a Christian is walking through their own metaphorical “valley of the shadow of death” they need not fear because God has their back.
The psalm always brought comfort to me when I believed its words, but its verses still conjure up the image of God as a rather vengeful beast, (certainly much more powerful than any other evil beast in the valley) who is ready to kick ass on behalf of his chosen disciples.
Wisdom sayings that sooth and inspire us
Psalms, proverbs, wisdom sayings, mantras, self-help catchphrases, mottos, business slogans, our favorite quotes. We all use them at some point in our lives because they work like touchstones to our soul. They speak to our values and aspirations. They keep our minds focused on the kind of people we want to be.
I’ve uttered many myself through the years. There’s one taped on the bottom of my computer that helps me set the tone for when I write. I also have three familiar words I focus on during my morning meditation. I don’t repeat these words like a mantra. I merely focus on them, and they take my mind along a symbolic journey that helps me stay grounded throughout the day.
The particulars of my quote and cue words aren’t important. These are personal and may not be relevant for others. However, I did want to talk about one of these words as it relates to Psalm 23.
If you’ve read my posts in the past, you know I like to contrast the differences in how freethinker’s think as opposed to how Bible believer’s think. Psalm 23 offers a great example to highlight these differences. Many believers have committed this psalm to memory and use to calm their mind. One of my own cue words is “calm,” but its meaning for me as a freethinking atheist is quite different from the thoughts Psalm 23 invokes.
A quick overview of Psalm 23
The first thing to note about Psalm 23 is that it’s an imaginative allegory. None of the details are true. What’s true is that it encapsulates the mindset of many believers, which helps explain why it’s so popular. Overall, the psalm appeals to those who seek a father figure to meet their needs, a supernatural being that will protect them when they’re afraid, and an arbitrator who will also reward them for their devotion.
The most disturbing part of the allegory is that it makes believers feel they have enemies. Which when you think about it, are really just everyday people perhaps like you and I. But believers are encouraged to regard some people as enemies, simply because these people don’t worship God as they do. Consequently, the intent of the psalm helps to channel believer’s thoughts along a sinister path. A path in which they can draw comfort from the idea that the Lord will one day avenge them, by punishing all their enemies whom they think have mocked their faith.
As a Christian, Psalm 23 soothed me with the same devilish notions. I’m embarrassed to confess how I once thought about people who did not believe as I did. I felt sorry for Christians who did not belong to my Adventist denomination because they weren’t in the “true” church. As for the heathens around me who did not worship God and seemed to be having the most fun in life, I thought they were all going to hell. Some of these people even mocked me personally or ridiculed my church’s teachings. So, yeah, I relished the idea that God would one day vindicate my reputation too!
Contrast this with an atheist’s sense of tranquility
Like a child who has lost his father, however, an atheist isn’t able to draw comfort from the idea that a supreme being is going to meet their needs or protect them from harm. Nor can he rely on the notion that no matter whatever happens in his life—be it good or bad—that God orchestrated these events and will adequately compensate him for any trials and tribulations he’s gone through.
Christians may feel sorry for non-believers who can’t rely on this source of comfort, but the feelings may be mutual. From an atheist’s vantage point, a believer’s source of comfort is not real because Psalm 23 is an allegory. The feelings the psalm elicits are not based in reality. They are feelings triggered by scenes conjured up in the mind, and so they function more like a psychological placebo.
This is not to say that the words in Psalm 23 don’t have real psychological effects. They do—but should they, and who would want to experience these effects anyway? I mean, if I’m imagining a scene where I’m dining with fellow members of the human race whom I classify as my enemies . . . and then I imagine God vindicating me so that these people are punished for not believing as I do . . . then what does this say about my values, that I gain satisfaction in thinking my enemies will suffer?
Moreover, the feelings generated by Psalm 23 are self-centered. Nearly every verse is about fulfilling the needs of I, me, and mine. There are no references in the psalm to indicate that the tranquility it offers can be experienced by everyone. So, any peace of mind the psalm offers isn’t universal. The feelings it entreats can only be experienced by believers, who believe that the imagery provided in the psalm mirrors their own life experiences.
So, whatever mental processes are involved with providing a sense of calmness, (OKA peace of mind, tranquility, or wellbeing), these states of mind should not just be reserved for followers of religions. There must be a way of achieving these mental states which is not based in religious dogma, myths and allegories.
Overall, the metaphors expressed in Psalm 23 don’t generate a sense of calmness in my mind. I don’t rely on a father figure to provide for my wants and needs. This is a satisfaction I can earn myself by taking care of my own needs. Nor do I need a spiritual bodyguard to save me if I’m attacked in a dark alley one night. Awful things happen to believers all the time, so I know disciples are not being protected by God or any other supernatural beings. And I have no enemies among fellow members of my species, because I don’t consider people who hold different beliefs than I to be my enemy. So, the expectation that God will one day avenge me in the presence of my imaginary enemies does nothing for me. If anything, I find this belief repulsive, not comforting.
What’s it going to take?
Experiencing a sense of calmness and tranquility in life—especially given all that’s going on in the world, isn’t easy. I find tranquility easier to understand when I think about it in two general terms: As a sense of calmness that can be experienced on a personal level, and as a source of peace that applies to the human race which is more universal in nature.
In other words, we all want to experience lasting tranquility, but what’s it going to take for everyone all over the world to be at peace with themselves and with one another?
Obviously, there’s no clear formula that applies to everyone, but we all recognize that there are basic requirements in life that need to be met for everyone to feel secure and peaceful. Having enough food to eat, a home to lay one’s head, to live in a politically conducive environment, and to feel safe and protected are all key factors no matter where you live in the world. If we have all these factors working in our favor, then feeling calm and secure comes easily. Even if we are feeling anxious, sometimes just refocusing our attention on all the goodness in our lives is enough regain composure.
Yet, because we are conscientious beings, we know that in many parts of the world all these elements aren’t present in a way to allow people to live peaceful lives. Some quick examples . . . We are living in the time of a global pandemic. Political and civil unrest reigns in many countries. Additionally, poverty, climate change, famines, wars, racism, and a host of other modern ills have made it impossible for everyone to experience perpetual tranquility.
This is part of the reason why religions thrive. Religions are created by people, and people intuitively know that it’s impossible to establish a utopia on earth. So, people create imaginary places like heavens in which they think peace of mind can be achieved. Since religions teach that real peace of mind can’t be obtained on earth, religions offer something called “hope” instead. It’s a flimsy kind of hope, though, because disciples have to work really hard in order to experience the kind of tranquility that’s promised.
So, it amounts to little more than a manufactured contingency plan—and a pessimistic one at that. You see, having “hope” permits believers to forego finding personal happiness in life in the here and now. And for those who have really bought into the concept that humanity is doomed, then this “hope” makes it far too easy for disciples to not even try and make life better. After all, if God has indeed cursed life on earth, then God’s made it quite clear Himself that He’s tipped the scales. He never really intended that every soul on earth would experience peace and serenity.
A fresh dose of reality
There’s nothing more mind-blowing than a fresh dose of reality, and the reality is this: There will never come a time when everyone can live in a perpetual state of calm-filled tranquility.
I think most atheists could agree with this premise. The problems we face as a species are simply too ginormous to allow us to conclude that humans will eventually build a world in which everyone can be happy. But does this mean we can never be at peace with ourselves? My conclusion is yes, although some may find my parting thoughts to be unsettling.
If we set aside all the grandiose beliefs that religions have to offer about finding peace in an afterlife, then the only source available for us to determine of tranquility is real is reality itself. Cold, hard, facts that is. Frankly, facing reality head-on is the only way an atheist—or anyone—can assess all the problems in life and come up with real solutions. And the reality is, not everyone in the world is going to have a tranquil, peaceful and fulfilling life.
As strange as what I’m about to say may sound, there’s a certain amount of comfort that can be experienced by acknowledging this disturbing fact about human existence.
As I mentioned above, we are conscientious beings. Almost everyone from every country wants to do their part in building a better world. It’s an aspect of human nature. If it’s within our reach, each one of us is willing to help others. But, along with this self-imposed burden feelings of inadequacy may arise and perhaps even guilt. We would like to do more, we try are hardest to do more, but we will always come up short.
Since we are apt to fail, we need to grant ourselves some latitude. The reality is, there is very little any one of us can do to effect any noticeable changes in our world. And acknowledging this reality is what will permit us to steal a little peace of mind in the process.
I like the way Ghandi puts this truth:
“Whatever you do in life will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it because you can’t know. You can’t ever really know the meaning of your life. And you don’t need to. Every life has a meaning, whether it lasts one hundred years or one hundred seconds. Every life, and every death, changes the world in its own way. You can’t know. So don’t take it for granted. But don’t take it too seriously. Don’t postpone what you want. Don’t leave anything misunderstood. Make sure the people you care about know. Make sure they know how you really feel. Because just like that…It could end.”
I liken it this way . . .
- There is a natural ebb and flow to life, and swimming against its currents may only drown you.
- There are erroneous religious and philosophical beliefs permeating our cultures that we cannot change no matter how sound our logic.
- There are adverse political and legal processes at work—and even if we were willing to fight them at all cost—this would fill our days with anxiety at best, or land us in prison at worse.
And the people who know that these kinds of unstoppable forces exist are much more able to experience tranquility than those who disregard these realities.
This all comes down to maintaining a humble perspective about one’s abilities and influence. Think about it as a license to chill. This is not to say that we stop fighting and resisting the things in life that are wrong, unfair, unjust or just plain cruel. It’s about knowing when and how we can best change our world; when it’s wiser to leave the fight for another day; or when we should let others more qualified and influential than us have the opportunity.
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