In a recent online debate with an atheist, I was arguing that folks involved in such debates need to work hard to maintain a respectful attitude with their dialogue partners. It is easy and tempting to fall into contention and animus, and so all the more important to guard against it. My atheist friend challenged me with Psalm 14:1, which declares that the fool says in his heart there is no God. His suggestion was that my commitment to be respectful in dialogue was at odds with this biblical revelation, which, as applied to him, an atheist, was rather less than respectful.
Faced with this challenge, I responded along such lines as these: Although it's true that the Bible features some verses to suggest that there's a serious issue going on with atheists, I don't think this means that in a discussion today with an atheist, a Christian is obliged to think his interlocutor a fool. The Bible features quite a number of teachings, after all, including to love one's neighbor as oneself. This seems to imply, among other things, giving them the benefit of the doubt, being patient, hoping for the best for them, building friendships with them, paying heed to their perspectives, interpreting them charitably, listening to understand and not just critique. This is where I think it makes great sense prima facie from a biblical perspective to treat atheists as intellectually honest and authentic, sincere searchers for truth. They may not all be, but surely many of them are, at least in my experience.
Beyond that, isolated verses need to be understood contextually, which can take some serious investment of time—and I’m far from an exegete. Nonetheless I might identify a few mitigating factors as we interpret and apply such verses. On a biblical perspective, God is thought of as the source of reality, the locus of value, life and light and more besides. The true "unbeliever" would be, I might suggest, in light of this, not one who simply entertains intellectual doubts about the existence of a personal God, but one who rejects all that the biblical writers thought God represented—and to do so at the level of the heart. To reject God would include rejecting light—deep convictions about rightness and wrongness, for example, issuing in corrupt actions. On the classical picture of God, aspects of which came into clarity later but were built on solidly biblical ideas, as opposed to the idea of a mere contingently existing demi-god or Demiurge, God is the Ground of Being; his being and goodness are interchangeable. To deny God's being is to deny goodness itself, both metaphysical and moral.
This is all obviously relevant to the question about how God and morality are related, and relevant in numerous senses—ontological, epistemic, performative. If one takes God as the foundation of moral truth, the locus of value, the Ground of Being, to deny God is naturally to be interpreted as rejecting foundational truths, axiomatic moral ones among them. As one commentator discussed Psalm 14:1: “This is hardly to be understood of a speculative denial of the existence of God; but rather of a practical belief in His moral government.” So to someone shaped by such an understanding, a worldview according to which God functioned thus foundationally, what would be the natural way to characterize, say, someone vicious and altogether corrupt who rejected moral strictures or constraints altogether? It might be natural, frankly, to dub such a person an "unbeliever." More than natural, it might be the most accurate way to put it, as part of what true atheism entails is just such moral corruption. This is, again, not to say all professing atheists are this way, or even will inevitably be this way; rather, quite to the contrary, it is to suggest that exactly because plenty of atheists are not this way, it may take more than intellectual metaphysical speculations of atheism to qualify as true unbelief.
The point is that this language about unbelief can't simply leap the huge hermeneutical gap and be applied today with complete casualness. I am not inclined to see such verses as applying to someone like my internet interlocutor: a self-professed humanist with a deep concern for others, a love for humanity, a passion for reducing suffering in the world. I could be wrong, but I see such values as rooted in God, and his embrace of such values as a disqualification for being a full-fledged unbeliever. That he wouldn’t agree isn’t relevant; if he’s right, I’m wrong, of course; but if I’m right, he’s wrong—and not the skeptic he thinks he is. Maybe being an unbeliever is less a binary question than a continuum; or maybe it is a binary issue, but the point of no return requires more than voicing intellectual doubts about God’s existence.
As another commentator put it, “We ought . . . carefully to mark the evidence on which the Psalmist comes to the conclusion that they have cast off all sense of religion, and it is this: that they have overthrown all order, so that they no longer make any distinction between right and wrong, and have no regard for honesty, nor love of humanity. David, therefore, does not speak of the hidden affection of the heart of the wicked, except in so far as they discover themselves by their external actions.”
So, from my perspective—and this is the argument I’m trying out—I don't see my friend as having fully "rejected God," as I see (rightly or wrongly) many of those values to which he remains adamantly committed as rooted in God. Likewise with the biblical writers, for whom God represented ultimate reality and, as such, true unbelief would include such a thing as rejection of moral light. The Bible needs to be read and interpreted and applied carefully and sensitively and with profound discernment, according to sound principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. Folks have misinterpreted it before, and if someone were to interpret it today to suggest that dismissing all professing atheists as evil and foolish (more so than the lot common to men), I would respectfully suggest that he is not being sufficiently attentive to sound principles of interpretation. Intellectual speculative denial of God’s existence may not be enough to make one a true unbeliever in the sense of Psalm 14:1.
Photo: "Cross section of a trees' roots" by A Escobar. CC License.