Because of Psalm 14:1 (“Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God’”) there are jokes about April Fools’ Day being “Atheist Day.”
The problem is, the psalmist likely had no concept of the modern idea of atheism. Ironically, the earliest Christians were called atheists because they didn’t worship the gods of the nations around them.
But look closer at Psalm 14: “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds; there is no one who does good.”
The psalmist isn’t angry about a vague generalized disbelief in a divine being. The psalmist’s anger is aimed directly at those whose attributed disbelief in God leads to wicked actions. (Besides, as I said earlier, it’s not clear that those evildoers were in fact atheists anyway.)
Beyond that, it’s not clear that religion in general – or Christianity in particular – automatically makes a person moral. I grew up hearing that atheists couldn’t be moral because they don’t believe in a divine moral lawgiver.
It was a very concerning argument until I learned that some atheists are more moral than some Christians, and that Christians commonly use the Bible to justify evildoing.
I’ve known a number of people I think would be kinder if they weren’t Christians. I’ve even wished they would leave the faith in hopes that it would make them kinder.
This isn’t only my experience: Escaped slave Frederick Douglass wrote, “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst,” and described one slaveholder as “a much worse man after his conversion [to Christianity] than before!”
The late Christian author Rachel Held Evans wrote, “I once heard someone say he became an atheist for theological reasons, and that makes sense to me.”
It makes sense to me, too.
When you open the newspaper and read about Christians who use the Bible or their Christian faith as a justification for unkind behavior – whether it’s “done in love” or not – it becomes clear it’s not only unbelievers who can be “corrupt [and] do abominable deeds.” It can start to seem like “there is no [Christian] who does good.” Then the rise of atheism and the “religious nones” starts to make a lot more sense.
Rose City Park United Methodist Church in Portland, Ore., posted on their church sign, “God Prefers Kind Atheists Over Hateful Christians.”
I don’t think any but the most extreme Christians would identify as “hateful,” so I might amend that sign to say “God prefers kind atheists over unkind Christians.”
None of this is to say “Christianity is bad and atheism is better.” I am a Christian pastor, after all, with a bias for Christianity! This is only to say that meanness, cruelty and causing harm to others is bad, and kindness is better – whether one is an atheist or a Christian.
And hurting others, not atheism, is folly.
This column appeared in The Herald-Palladium on July 24, 2021.