The Fool Says in His Heart, “There is No God”–What Did the Psalmist Mean?
In Psalm 14:1, we find the statement, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Thomas Aquinas and many others have used this verse to talk about atheism versus theism. But what did the Psalmist really have in mind? I doubt it was an intellectual, highly theoretical and abstract disputation about the existence or non-existence of a transcendent Absolute Entity we call “God.”
First of all, the Hebrew word translated as "fool" is not primarily someone who lacks intelligence but who is morally deficient. Second, and in line with that, the whole Psalm is about "evildoers" who "devour" God’s people and oppress the poor. Therefore, the statement about the fool saying in his heart that there is no God is meant to convey: People who suppress their conscience and mistreat other people say to themselves, "There is no one who will take me to account. There is no ultimate justice. I will get away with my crimes."
But neither does the Psalm assert that atheists are necessarily morally deficient. In my understanding, the Psalmist does not say, "All those who deny God’s existence are morally deficient." Rather, he means to say, "All those who blatantly mistreat other people cannot, in their heart of hearts, really believe that there is a God who will hold them accountable."
He does not say, "He who does not believe in God is a fool," but, "The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’" Note the phrase, "The fool says in his heart …" The "fool" may outwardly proclaim quite loudly allegiance to God. But if he acts in such a way that it shows utter disregard to others, his outward confession of faith belies what is in his heart.
Of course, by interpreting Psalm 14 in this way I do not deny that there is a long Western tradition about atheists not being morally upright—a tradition that several morally upright atheists of the past few centuries have tried to dispel.