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Do any people in the Bible self identify as atheists?

Or are they all theists, differing in which god they follow?

Apparently at least some atheists existed, since David had heard of them:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

Psalm 14:1 and Psalm 53:1.

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Interesting question; a minor note, not quite answering the question, though - in many ancient cultures, including Greece and Israel, atheism was treated as a crime and punished accordingly (wiki - even Plato had a view). As such, an openly atheist position would have been rare (and dangerous), so it may not be surprising that the NT doesn't cover it. –  Marc Gravell Mar 15 '12 at 13:36
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As another note, if I am not mistaken, Christianity was considered atheism at one point: they didn't have a pantheon. –  cwallenpoole Mar 15 '12 at 15:42
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+ at @cwallenpoole, Christianity was consider atheism because God died. They were also considered evil because they drank blood and ate the flesh of their God. Interesting perspective if you think about it. –  user1054 Mar 15 '12 at 16:34
    
Interesting note, re Psalm 14:1/54:1 - see Matthew 5:22... –  Marc Gravell Apr 25 '12 at 13:37
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@Wikis the last part of 5:22... just an interesting note on calling "fool" –  Marc Gravell Apr 25 '12 at 14:00

3 Answers 3

up vote 2 down vote accepted

King Sennacherip and his general Rabshakeh come closest to being self-proclaimed atheists in the Bible. Rabshakeh says in the name of the Gentile king to King Hezekiah:

Where are the gods of Hamath, and of Arpad? where are the gods of Sepharvaim, Hena, and Ivah? have they delivered Samaria out of mine hand? Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?

2Ki 18:34-35

Here Sennacherib denounces all supernatural intervention to save, not just of Yahweh, but of the dozens of Canaanite gods around Israel. He essentially is saying that the gods spoken of here, are not gods.

Besides this example, I must conclude that the answer to your question is no. There are no self-identified atheists in the Bible.

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+1 great quote. But I wonder if he was doubting whether these gods existed or whether they were powerful enough to prevent him. Kings around that time (eg Pharoahs) tended to believe they were gods. –  Wikis Apr 26 '12 at 20:39
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I think you make a great point, Wikis. I must conclude that besides Sennacherib, the answer to your question is no. There are no self-identified atheists in the Bible. –  dleyva3 Apr 26 '12 at 20:49
    
If you add that to your answer that I will accept it. –  Wikis Apr 26 '12 at 20:53
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Thanks. This really is a great question. There should be more like it, however simple the answers may be. –  dleyva3 Apr 26 '12 at 20:57

Not exactly the answer you are looking for, but Paul clearly understands humanity to be functionally atheistic, if not in practice. From Romans 1:

18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

In practice, to be a-theistic in the ancient world was to invite destruction upon the whole community. In Rome, in particular, for example, legally they didn't care which god you worshipped, as long as you worshipped one. I don't have the quote handy, but I remember David Bell in Many Mansions making the case that atheism was like "poor hygenie or a public health hazard," meaning that impiety would invite needless retribution from someone, so if everybody was worshipping what they thought, at the least the "true gods," would forgive them.

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The Paul quote is very apt - but does it not strike you as a huge ad-hominem? i.e. because they have a different position, let's demonize them and invent insults ("fools", "foolish", "wickedness"). If a person today answered like that here on SE, we would not accept it as a constructive answer (or at least, without qualifying those claims)... just saying! –  Marc Gravell Mar 15 '12 at 14:12
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To be candid, I tend to see this as a huge attack on Christians - not atheists. I oppose homosexual behavior (I know, no surprise) based on Rom 1:26, but following the logic back, it is because people who knew God chose not glorify him as God. In other words, to the extent that a society is saddled with homosexuality, it is because those who know God are being functionally atheistic. These things are symptoms of the real problem, namely Christians not acting on what they know. –  Yuletide Geek Mar 15 '12 at 14:15
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@MarcGravell, while it may be harsh or offensive, that does not imply that it is an ad hominem argument. He is not calling them fools, or wicked in order to argue that God should be acknowledged. Rather, he is arguing that God should be acknowledged because God had made it plain. Calling these people fools was not a point in this argument - it was the consequence of the argument he made. In other words, he is arguing that (A) "God made it plain" => (B) "He should be acknowledged" => (C) "They did not acknowledge" => (D) "They are fools". He is not arguing (D) => (C) => (B). –  Eric Mar 15 '12 at 14:54
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@MarcGravell I twisted my knee pretty bad early Feb. and it was in bad non-ceasing pain up until a couple days ago, I couldn't sleep because it hurt. So remembering Luke 1:37 and Matt. 17:20, I prayed and it was instantly healed, and it hasn't hurt since. To me, that is empirical evidence. Why don't you try praying? I'm sure God will give you the evidence you need too. –  Shredder Mar 15 '12 at 21:13
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@Shredder congratulations on not knowing the single first thing about how medical research works. That has absolutely no evidentiary value whatsoever. That is not empirical data; it is anecodetal, with an irrelevent sample size, a biased patient, zero-blind, no "control", no discussion on case history, and unqualified analysis. In more qualified research on the power of prayer, it has shown zero (or sometimes marginally negative) impact. –  Marc Gravell Mar 15 '12 at 21:35

The NET Bible notes:

“There is no God.” The statement is probably not a philosophical assertion that God does not exist, but rather a confident affirmation that God is unconcerned about how men live morally and ethically (see Ps 10:4, 11).

and:

Heb “they act corruptly, they do evil [with] injustice.” Ps 14:1 has עֲלִילָה (’alilah, “a deed”) instead of עָוֶל (’aval, “injustice”). The verbs describe the typical behavior of the wicked. The subject of the plural verbs is “sons of man” (v. 2). The entire human race is characterized by sinful behavior. This practical atheism—living as if there is no God who will hold them accountable for their actions—makes them fools, for one of the earmarks of folly is to fail to anticipate the long range consequences of one’s behavior.

If you read through the text of these nearly identical Psalms, you will notice they concentrate almost entirely on moral foolishness rather than any sort of intellectual foolishness. The phrase "There is no God" seems more like hyperbole than a statement of fact. Nearly everyone in the pre-modern word would have been classified as theist in the broadest sense. A perhaps more representative verse would be:

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers  
    who eat up my people as they eat bread  
    and do not call upon the LORD?

—Psalm 14:4 (ESV)


My interactions with atheists (both online and off) suggest that this particular Psalm doesn't apply to everyone who says there is no God. Many people who claim the title "atheist" believe their actions have consequences. They do their best to raise their children lovingly and ethically. They support worthy causes and give of themselves to make the world a better place. They refrain from wicked deeds and mistreating others. In fact, this Psalm applies much better to certain people I know who claim to love God, but by their actions show they don't believe He exists.

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Thanks, Jon, but did you mean to post this on the Hermeneutics site? –  Wikis Apr 26 '12 at 20:18
    
Btw, I like this because this is also what I read in the text. Now that I've read your answer, I see that the text says that the fool says in his heart, not in his head, implying not atheism as such but, as you say, someone who might claim to love God but are hypocritical in their actions. –  Wikis Apr 26 '12 at 20:22
    
@Wikis: Actually, I answered there too. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Apr 26 '12 at 21:27
    
Yes, I saw, thanks. But I think this answer should be combined and placed there since, whilst I really like it, I cannot upvote it because it is not answering this question. –  Wikis Apr 27 '12 at 7:25
    
@Wikis: Well, you are by far the best judge of that. Consider this a supplement to dleyva3's answer. (And my answer on BH is really a supplement to Frank Luke and Kazark's excellent answers.) I'm not sure I would upvote either answer myself. ;-) –  Jon Ericson Apr 27 '12 at 16:01

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