Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Atheism in the Bible

Yesterday, the Times featured a story on Jerry DeWitt, a one-time Pentecostal preacher who lost his faith and "converted" to atheism a few years back. What's interesting about Dewitt, however, is that he hasn't stopped preaching.  Today, he travels the circuit of atheist conferences (and who knew there were such things?) sermonizing for godlessness.

A visitor to one of his talks speaks to his unique allure: “Then Jerry got up, and he was just, you know, preaching the message. Most other atheist leaders are academics and intellectuals, and Jerry’s not like that. He’s just talking to your heart.” That his "heart talks" draw crowds speaks to the fact that the feisty atheist movement still clings to some of the elements that animate the old-time religion it rejects: ritual and community.

We often think of atheism as a relatively modern movement that gains steam in the nineteenth century and only blooms fully in the twentieth.  But there are pre-modern examples.  I think first of Lucretius, the Roman poet who channeled the anti-religious fire of his Greek precursor Epicurus in writing On the Nature of Things.

And one can also find evidence of atheism in the Bible, perhaps most notably in Psalm 53.  That poem opens with bile-spitting critique:

Fools say in their hearts, "There is no god."
They are corrupt, they commit abominable acts;
there is no one who does good.  (53:1)

That a Biblical author would reject atheism is unsurprising.  That he would attribute to the unbeliever "abominable acts" is also unremarkable.  Of course, secular humanists argue energetically that unbelief does not entail unethical behavior--and that atheism may indeed breed good works.  But the Psalmist disagrees: those who deny God's existence must be corrupt.

What is surprising is the author's testimony in the following verses that unbelief is so widespread in his time:

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

They have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one. (53:2-3).

The psalmist's pronouns are telling.  God looks to see if "any" are wise--if any attest to God's presence and goodness.  But "all" have fallen away.  "All" are perverse.  "No one" seeks the good.  "Not one" does righteousness.  Though his diction is hyperbolic, it seems as if there are quite a few in his audience who would say in their hearts, "There is no god."

Of course, unbelief among the ancient Hebrews would have been a very different animal from contemporary atheism, which is very much the modern child of post-Enlightenment skepticism.  But it's also not totally new, and perhaps Jerry DeWitt might have drawn crowds in Israel 2500 years ago, just as he does in Louisiana today.


1 comment:

  1. The Bible seems unsurprised by the number of God's people that either choose other gods to depend upon or who lose sight of God's acts of historic salvation. It is often a faithful remnant that remains after all others have disappeared or fallen away. But God is unsurprised, and often acts through the remnant for the salvation of all people. Inferior numbers are simply evidence that it is God's faith in humanity that saves us, not our faith in God. So God is convinced to save Ninevah if only one can be found that has not turned away.

    Contemporary religious trends illustrate that God's Word to God's people is still heard but in unsuspected places and from lips unconsecrated by sacraments yet speaking words consecrated by wisdom which was with God at the creation.

    I would rather be among the remnant should I be able to choose, or be blessed to hear their words and see their actions. It could come from atheists these days in their growing desire to "preach."

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