Psalms 14 and 53: Practical Atheism   Leave a comment




Psalms 14 and 53


Psalms 14 and 53 are nearly identical, hence their pairing in this blog post.  The record of interpretation provides a list of proposed geographical and temporal origins of Psalms 14 and 53.  According to the most likely hypothesis, Psalm 14 comes from the southern Kingdom of Judah and Psalm 53 comes from the northern Kingdom of Israel.  The textual evidence of YHWH in Psalm 14 and Elohim in Psalm 53 supports this theory.

Sometimes a literal translation does not convey the meaning of the words in a different context.  A meaning clear to a Jew millennia ago in the Near East may not be obvious to a Gentile Christian in North America in late 2022.

The scoundrel has said in his heart,

“There is no God.”

–Psalm 14:1a and Psalm 53:2, from Robert Alter’s translation

The point Alter makes in a note is a matter that TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures (1985, 1999) makes partially clear in translation:

The benighted man thinks,

“God does not care.”

I will take each line in order.

The standard English translation describes this person as a fool.  Alter’s “scoundrel” is a better rendering, based on the following verses.  Yet I prefer “benighted man.”  As a note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition (2014) tells me, “benighted” carries moral overtones, as in the rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13:13) by her half-brother, Amnon.  “Scoundrel” seems like a tame understatement.

The fool/scoundrel/benighted man is a practical atheist, not a dogmatic one.  Psalms 14 and 53 come from a time and a place in which dogmatic atheism was rare yet practical atheism was commonplace.  For evidence, consult the Hebrew prophetic denunciations of the poor and other vulnerable people, O reader.  Such malefactors still exist.  The attitude that leads to senseless violence and exploitation is timeless, sadly.  Such malefactors do not fear retribution.

Psalms 14 and 53 are about people who think of God as an apathetic and absent landlord.  Thus, we can read Mitchell J. Dahood’s translation of Psalm 53, in which the fool thinks in his heart that

God is not present.

TANAKH:  The Holy Scriptures gets more to the point; this malefactor imagines vainly that

God does not care.

A note in The Jewish Study Bible, Second Edition gets to the point:

The claim of this benighted individual would invalidate two of the basic assumptions of Psalms:  the ability of God to hear prayers, and the ability of God to hear prayers, and the ability of God to punish the human wrongs that various psalmists lament.


And, as Alter tells us in one of his notes, the scoundrel lacks a conscience and acts with impunity.

As the entirety of the Jewish Bible and the various Christian canons of scripture attest, God cares deeply and is present.  God can also hear prayers and punish human wrongs.

Nobody can flee from the reality of God.  Hence it is foolish to attempt to do so.  Such an attempt must necessarily end in moral corruption; for it is the fruit of disobedience which results in the inability to do that which is good.  Where there is no sense of duty to God, there man goes astray and experiences already by that very fact that the hand of God the Judge is upon him, and he cannot escape.

–Artur Weiser, The Psalms:  A Commentary (1962), 165

My cultural context is one of the rise of fashionable agnosticism and atheism, accompanied by the decline in religious observance.  Meanwhile, bigotry, fascism, and Christian nationalism are openly part of vocal segments of the church.  The rise of agnosticism and atheism are partially backlashes against the latter point.

An Episcopal priest I know has a positive method of responding to people who tell him that they do not believe in God.  Father Dann asks them to describe the God in whom they do not believe.  He always hears a version of God in which he does not believe either.

I do not pretend to have formulated the definitive concept of God.  My faith is complicated, for I am complicated.  I cannot fathom having a simple faith, for I am who I am.  Anyhow, I affirm with the authors of Psalms 14 and 53 that God is present, that God cares, that God hears prayers, and that God can punish human wrongs.  And I have a conscience.  I pray that God may direct and, as necessary, reshape that conscience, for I have moral blind spots.






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