I appreciate the discussion here. It is in many areas over my head, I think. I appreciate Randal Rauser’s (a Christian, randalrauser.com) book dispelling many prejudices against atheists in “Is the Atheist My Neighbor”? GK Chesterton had one of his atheist characters in his Father Brown stories lament, “I wish to God there was a God; but there ain’t. It’s just my luck.”
Here’s Rauser’s discussion of the way we evangelicals often misuse the Bible to malign atheists:
Who is the Fool? How Christians misread the Bible to attack atheists
February 14, 2018 / / The Tentative Apologist / 8 Comments
RandalRauser_Is-the-Atheist-my-Neighbor_200x300This article is an excerpt from my 2015 book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Rethinking Christian Attitudes Toward Atheism. It’s a book that J.L. Schellenberg, one of the leading atheist philosophers of religion, recommended as “brief and lively but remarkably full and acute” and “impressively fair”. You can decide whether this brief excerpt lives up to those descriptions.
Let’s begin by considering Psalm 14:1, a text with which we are already well familiar from our survey of Christian attitudes toward atheism in chapter 2. Beginning with the “Atheist’s Day” anecdote, we saw that Christians have repeatedly appealed to this verse to support the Rebellion Thesis. But is that really a correct reading? James Spiegel certainly believes so. He speaks for many when he writes:
When smart people go in irrational directions, it is time to look elsewhere than reasoning ability for an explanation. And Scripture gives us clear direction as to where we should look. Consider the psalmist’s declaration that “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 14:1). The Hebrew term rendered “fool” here denotes a person who is “morally deficient.” And elsewhere in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature we learn of various symptoms of this moral deficiency. The book of Proverbs says “a fool finds no pleasure in understanding” (Proverbs 18:2), that “fools despise wisdom and discipline” (Proverbs 1:7), that “a fool finds pleasure in evil conduct” (Proverbs 10:23) and is “hotheaded and reckless” (Proverbs 14:16).
As with several other Christian writers surveyed, Spiegel simply assumes the text applies to atheists and he infers from this that it supports the Rebellion Thesis. But are these assumptions justified? I will argue that they are not.
Let’s begin by conceding for the sake of argument (and only for the sake of argument) that the text is addressing intellectual atheists. In other words, when the psalmist speaks of the individual who “says in his heart there is no God,” what he is, in fact, referring to is the individual who denies that God exists (i.e., the atheist). On this interpretation, Psalm 14:1 reduces to the following:
(1) All fools are atheists.
However, that is not what the Rebellion Thesis claims. In fact, on the Rebellion Thesis the order is reversed:
(2) All atheists are fools.
And this is where the problem arises, for any attempt to infer (2) from (1) commits the logical fallacy of illicit conversion. To illustrate, all Ford Mustangs are cars, but it doesn’t follow that all cars are Ford Mustangs. By the same token, even if (1) all fools are atheists it doesn’t follow that (2) all atheists are fools, for it may be that other atheists are not fools (i.e., that they are intelligent, reflective people). Since the Rebellion Thesis does claim that all atheists are fools, one cannot appeal to Psalm 14:1 to justify it.
Thus far I’ve granted for the sake of argument that when the Psalmist refers to the one who “says in his heart there is no God” we should understand that to mean “is an atheist.” Even with this assumption, I’ve demonstrated that the text does not logically support the Rebellion Thesis. Now it is time to go further and challenge the assumption itself, for I believe it to be demonstrably false. In order to see why, we can begin with an important hermeneutical truism: In any reading of a text, attention to context is of paramount importance. As Aaron B. Hebbard observes with only a touch of hyperbole, “Conceivably the three most important rules in interpretation are context, context, context.” There are different levels of context relevant to understanding a passage, and we shall consider two here, the broader cultural context and the immediate literary/textual context.
We begin with the broader cultural backdrop (or worldview) in which this text was originally written. Our starting point is to recognize that intellectual atheism as it has been understood since the seventeenth century played no part in that cultural backdrop. As we saw in our survey, intellectual atheism is a phenomenon which belongs in large part to the modern world. While intellectual atheists in Europe were exceedingly rare prior to the seventeenth century, they were simply unheard of more than two millennia earlier in the Ancient Near East (ANE) when the psalms were written.
One simple way to illumine the radical difference between the ANE and the modern West is by recognizing that ancient peoples did not maintain the distinction familiar to our age between nature (the natural world of mundane human experience and scientific enquiry) and supernature (the spiritual world of God and created spirit beings). In our modern age, we clearly distinguish these two spheres. And so today theists attempt to conceive how God and the supernatural realm interact with the natural realm while atheists aim to do away with the supernatural realm altogether.
The crucial point to appreciate is that this whole debate is a modern one and thus it was simply not on the horizon of ancient peoples. While ancient peoples recognized there were aspects of reality inaccessible to them, they didn’t have a neat division between nature and supernature. Instead, they perceived reality to be a unified whole such that the natural world of daily life was freely explained in terms of the activity of divine beings. For example, natural events like floods, storms, droughts and earthquakes were all explained seamlessly as the actions of God or the gods. The ANE world lacked the conceptual space to conceive the world apart from the reality of supernatural beings. Given this vast difference in worldview, it is hopelessly anachronistic to read back into Psalm 14:1 a modern atheistic position that conceptually distinguishes nature from supernature and then denies the existence of the latter.
So if the psalm is not addressing intellectual atheism, then what is it concerned with? At this point, we can shift our attention from the ancient cultural context of Psalm 14:1 to its literary context. To get a handle on that context we will expand our view beyond verse 1 to encompass the next two verses as well:
1 The fool says in his heart,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile;
there is no one who does good.
2 The Lord looks down from heaven
on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand,
any who seek God.
3 All have turned away, all have become corrupt;
there is no one who does good,
not even one.
One thing becomes clear when considering the wider context of this psalm: The psalmist’s ultimate target is not intellectual atheists or any other subset of the human population. Instead, it is the whole human race. The point, as the psalmist makes luminously clear, is that all human beings have turned away, all are corrupt, and not one does good. This bleak picture provides us with the key to what is meant in the first verse. While everybody in the ANE professed belief in God (or gods) with his or her mouth, the psalmist observes that nobody lived consistently with that confession. While the entire human race may be the ultimate target, the immediate target is the community of Israel which confesses faith in Yahweh and yet fails to live up to that faith. (Covenantal faithfulness, like charity, begins at home.) Consequently, the psalmist is most immediately concerned to indict the rampant hypocrisy of those in ancient Israel who live as if God doesn’t exist, even while they profess that he does.
Given the fact that Psalm 14:1 is so commonly used as an indictment of atheists, it is surely ironic to observe that it is, in fact, an indictment of devotees of Yahweh who fail to live up to their professed belief. Indeed, the use of this text as a proof-text to smear atheists calls to mind Jesus’s strong words against the sin of (religious) hypocrisy. Consider as an example the following sober warning in Matthew 23:2-3: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’s seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” Needless to say, it is the height of hypocrisy for religious leaders to enforce standards of observance on others that many in their own community (and perhaps they themselves) fail to maintain. To put it another way, how ironic it is that a text which was intended to warn against religious hypocrisy is instead proof-texted as a rhetorical bludgeon against atheists who make no such faith confession in the first place.
And just who is the fool exactly?
 Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist, 51.
 Even worse, (1) is itself false because some fools are theists. In fact, I argue below that the real force of this passage is to serve as an indictment of, and warning for, those foolish theists.
 In case you’re wondering about the context of Hebbard’s statement, see Reading Daniel as a Text in Theological Hermeneutics, 142.
 See Saunders, Divine Action and Modern Science, chapters 1, 2.
Here’s another good post:
Christian Apologetics, Quality Control, and the Credibility Problem
March 23, 2018 / / The Tentative Apologist / 8 Comments
My relationship with the wider Christian apologetics community can best be described as awkward. A big reason for that is because I aim to spend as much time critiquing bad Christian apologetics as seeking to do good Christian apologetics. The reason for this division of labor is simple: I believe that credibility with one’s target audience is arguably the single greatest commodity the apologist has. And bad apologetics eats through credibility like alien acid-blood through Ripley’s body armor.
As a case in point, consider a recent article featured at major Christian apologetics website crossexamined.org titled “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Atheists.” The article begins with a shameless proof-texting of Psalm 14:1:
“The psalmist David wrote, ‘The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.” They are corrupt; they do vile deeds. There is no one who does good’ (Psalm 14:1, CSB) The psalmist claims that it is irrational for one to deny God’s existence whether it be by atheism or by alternative worldviews. Atheism has become popular in recent years. But, the pressing question is, why?”
As I point out in Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, this kind of proof-texting is a gross abuse of the biblical passage. Unfortunately, things get worse from there. The author, “Brian Chilton,” (who is currently enrolled in a PhD program in theology and apologetics at Liberty University) then makes the following claim: “Normally, people become atheists for four major reasons.” And the rest of the article is devoted to summarizing those four reasons:
1.The person desires moral independence.
2.The person holds emotive reasoning.
3.The person desires global unity.
4.The person desires intellectual neutrality.
I’m not going to bother analyzing any of these reasons. Instead, I’ll focus on Chilton’s claim that people “normally” become atheists for these reasons. While the range of normality is inevitably vague, it is safe to assume that for a state of affairs to be considered normal would require that this particular state of affairs obtain in the significant majority of relevant cases (e.g. perhaps north of 70%). By that reasonable interpretation, Chilton is claiming that in the significant majority of cases, people become atheists for one (or more) of these four reasons.
Okay, so here’s the obvious question: what evidence does Chilton provide that it’s so? Incredibly, he provides a single data point, i.e. his personal experience. He writes:
“I was influenced by some of these reasons to become a theist-leaning-agnostic for a period of time.”
Of course, a “theist-leaning-agnostic” is not the same thing as an atheist. Setting that point aside, Chilton would seem to be reasoning like this:
(1) I became a “theist-leaning-agnostic’ for a subset of reasons drawn from 1-4.
(2) Therefore, the significant majority of atheists become atheists because of one or more of the reasons in 1-4.
I’m not claiming Chilton literally reasons in that fashion. The point, rather, is that he provides us with literally nothing in terms of supporting evidence for his claim. More specifically, he fails to provide any relevant social scientific data (e.g. sociological surveys of atheists) which would support that claim. Presumably, his claim is based on nothing more than his intuition that these four reasons are widespread.
I know many atheists, and I can say emphatically that I rarely encounter individuals whose atheism can plausibly be attributed to those four factors. On the contrary, in my experience, some of the main reasons people become atheists include the problem of evil and suffering (often as personally experienced) along with the failure of Christians to act in a Christlike manner. To take an extreme case that I have talked about on several occasions, Bob Jyono was once a faithful Catholic but he became an angry atheist after discovering that his daughter was repeatedly raped by the family priest. Seriously, can you blame him?!
Imagine if the shoe were on the other foot so that an atheist wrote an article titled “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Christians.” And in this case, the article claimed that people “normally” become Christians due to one or more of the following reasons:
1.They fear death.
2.They hate science.
3.They want a god to ■■■■ their enemies to hell.
4.They like feeling superior to other people.
And then imagine that the only reason the atheist author of this article provided to support his claim is his own recollection that he once considered that Christianity might be true due to some of the reasons listed in 1-4.
You can bet that Chilton and his friends at crossexamined.org would be among the first to criticize this absurd bit of reasoning. And of course, they’d be right to do so. The same point applies to Chilton and his reasoning.
This fact leads me to ask: who vets the material that gets posted on a website like crossexamined.org? After all, this isn’t some mom and pop apologetics outfit: Crossexamined.org is among the main Christian apologetic websites; it is run by leading Christian apologist Frank Turek and it features many other leading Christian apologists like Bill Craig and Sean McDowell.
To sum up, articles like “4 Major Reasons Why People Become Atheists” undermine the credibility of crossexamined.org and Christian apologetics more generally. That’s why it behooves all Christian apologists to up their game, apply consistent standards, and work to earn and then retain their intellectual credibility