Continuing discussion.

EPS Blog

This is the blog area for the Evangelical Philosophical Society and its journal, Philosophia Christi.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Making of An Atheist: Interview with Jim Spiegel

Taylor University Philosopher, Jim Spiegel, just released his book, The Making of An Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Moody Publishers, 2010). Below is our interview with Spiegel about his book and the implications of his thesis for the debate between atheism and theism.

How did this book come about for you?

Like any philosopher of religion, I’ve followed the new atheist movement with interest.  But after reading numerous responses from Christian apologists, I noticed a conspicuous lack of attention to the moral-psychological roots of atheism.  Given that the biblical writers emphasize this dimension of unbelief, I thought someone needed to address it.

How does this book uniquely contribute to critiques of atheism and the “new atheism”?

Most Christian apologists’ responses to the new atheists challenge their arguments and reveal the many fallacies in their objections to religious faith.  This is helpful, of course, and I applaud the work of Ravi Zacharias, Alister McGrath, Dinesh D’Souza, Paul Copan, William Lane Craig, Tim Keller, and others for their superb contributions to the debate.  What they so well demonstrate is that atheism is not the consequence of any lack of evidence for God.  So the question naturally arises, What is the cause of atheism?  That is the question I address in my book.

The “noetic effects of sin” (as it’s sometimes called) plays an important conceptual and explanatory role in your book. In general, can you briefly explain your view on this matter?

I take my cue from Scripture, specifically such passages as Romans 1:18-32, where the Apostle Paul asserts that no one has any excuse not to believe in God. Rather, he says, some “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Rom. 1:18).  In my book I develop a model for how this happens, tracing the suppression of truth to a willful rejection of God, prompted by immorality and self-deception.  Thus, I argue, sinful behaviors cloud and distort cognition.  The notion that volitional factors impact belief-formation has been forcefully argued by thinkers as various as John Calvin, Soren Kierkegaard, William James, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, and Alvin Plantinga.  In terms of a specifically Christian application of this dynamic, I’ve been especially inspired by Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief.

Given the realism of human finitude and fallenness, how should we view the effectuality, if not fruitfulness, of the role that arguments can have for God’s existence or of the role for arguments against objections to God’s existence?

I believe in the usefulness of apologetics to encourage those who struggle with doubts and to persuade those who have sincere objections to aspects of the faith.  Even in the case of some former atheists, such as Antony Flew, the role of evidence seems to have been critical in his change of perspective.  But I don’t think such persuasion happens in a moral-spiritual vacuum.  The Spirit is always at work on people’s hearts, and in many instances He uses arguments and evidences as He prompts belief and acceptance of spiritual truth.

Why might there be a tendency among some Christian philosophical critiques of atheism (or any other worldview for that matter) to under-represent or downright avoid how the sinful tendencies of the human heart figure into the formation of a worldview?

One reason for avoidance of this issue might be a concern for decorum.  I suppose it could appear unseemly or offensive even to suggest, much less to present as a thesis of a book, that a person’s lack of belief in God is, at bottom, a form of rebellion.  And I must admit that at times I felt uncomfortable writing the book for this reason.  However, the fact that it is a clear biblical truth compelled me to write it anyway.  But I was careful to be as generous and winsome as I could manage, given the subject matter.

Given your view of how atheists are formed with regard to their worldview, how does the “problem of evil” figure into an atheist’s desires and motivations to know what is true?

In the book I discuss the principal objections of the new atheists, and the problem of evil is perhaps the most significant of these.  But, as some philosophers have rightly argued, the very notion of “evil” presupposes a standard for goodness which atheism cannot provide.  Any notion of evil or, for that matter, how things ought to be, whether morally or in terms of natural events, must rely on some standard or ideal that transcends the physical world.  Only some form of supernaturalism, such as theism, can supply this.  So to the extent that atheists acknowledge the reality of evil, they depart from their own commitment to naturalism.

Besides a theology of the heart and its sinful tendencies, another non-philosophical source of your critique of atheism is drawn from an examination of the psychology of atheism. How does the evidence for the “faith of the fatherless” figure into a theology of the heart and reasons that might be offered for atheism?

In his provocative little book, The Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz surveys the major, and many of the minor, atheist scholars of the modern period.  He finds that the one thing these thinkers—e.g., Hobbes, Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, Russell, Freud, Sartre, etc.—have in common is a severely broken relationship with their father.  In accounting for atheism, Vitz turns the tables on Freudians who aim to explain away theistic belief as a cosmic projection of one’s father image.  In fact, the opposite seems to be the case:  atheists’ broken father relationships prompt their refusal to recognize the reality of God.

How does one become “entrenched” in an atheist’s mindset?

In my book I expound on two aspects of this process, which explains something of the obstinacy of atheists.  There is a phenomenon that I call “paradigm-induced blindness,” where a person’s false worldview prevents them from seeing truths which would otherwise be obvious.  Additionally, a person’s sinful indulgences have a way of deadening their natural awareness of God or, as John Calvin calls it, the sensus divinitatis.  And the more this innate sense of the divine is squelched, the more resistant a person will be to evidence for God.

You say that right living contributes to the perseverance of faith. How is that perseverance related to Christian virtue and the “cognitive health” that it brings?

Just as sinful thoughts and behavior corrupt us cognitively and warp our perspective on the world, obedience and virtue benefit us cognitively in a number of ways.  Not only do we avoid the intellectual warping and deadening of the sensus divinitatis that sin causes, but Scripture also makes clear that God grants special insight and wisdom to those who obey him (cf. Ps. 19:7, Ps. 25:9; Pr. 1:4, Pr. 11:2).  So you might say that the life of Christian virtue enhances our ability to think and reason, especially about moral and spiritual matters.

Given your approach to atheism in this book, how would you like to see this area further explored and developed by Christian philosophers?

I would like to see Christian philosophers do more to explore the relationship between personal ethics and the psychology of belief-formation. And, generally, I'd like to see more work done on various aspects of the negative side of the moral life—the phenomena of sin and vice. This have been underexplored by Christian philosophers.

More about Jim Spiegel can be learned at www.jimspiegel.com. The website for The Making of an Atheist, also has discussion questions and other important info.

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Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel: Love of Wisdom (part two)

We continue our interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel concerning their latest book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman, 2009). In part one, Steve and Jim talked about the uniqueness of their textbook and its approach, including a brief overview of the book's scope. Below is the second and final part of our interview.


As professors, how has your extensive teaching experience shaped what you say and the manner in which you communicate your ideas in this book?

SPIEGEL: More than twenty years of college teaching in philosophy has confirmed to me the need for a text that is clearly written and engages students’ interest without sacrificing accuracy in discussing views and arguments. Also, students are bugged by imbalance and bias as much as we professors are. So the ideal of fairness and humility in presentation of views was also paramount for us as we wrote the book.

COWAN: I think students like to see the big picture first before they get to the nitty-gritty details of an issue. They need to know how the topic at hand fits in with other questions and concerns, and they need to see the relevance of the issue for real life. When one gets to the details, there need to be clear and concise explanations of the philosophical problems and their answers, and it doesn't hurt if there is some way to make the discussion interesting and fun. Also, I try to approach topics systematically so that we deal with questions in an order that makes sense, so that what is said later builds on what's gone before.

Regarding the need to make things interesting, I have found in my teaching and writing that using lots of illustrations, examples, case studies, and thought experiments are indispensible pedagogical tools. So, as in my teaching, I included in the book lots of illustrations from film, novels, comic books, and so on in order to help explain tough issues in a fun and relevant way. For example, in discussing the Gettier problem in chapter two, I chose to present the problem not by using Gettier's own rather plain counterexamples but by telling a story about an imposter Spider-Man showing up at a public event where Peter Parker, the real Spider-Man's alter ego, was present. Likewise, in the section on free will, I explained Frankfurt-type counterexamples by telling a story about Dr. Doom planting a computer chip in the brain of Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four. The students love it!

At the beginning of each chapter you intentionally introduce your discussion with a literary, film or pop cultural illustration or allusion. What are you trying to communicate or show by introducing a chapter’s topic in this way?

SPIEGEL: In addition to making the text more readable and interesting, these illustrations underscore the fact that Philosophy is not a remote, esoteric discipline but rather a field of study that can be, and should be, applied to literally all aspects of human experience and interest. This includes film, music, sports, literature, television, and everything else in our lives. Also, as Christians, we are called to apply our worldview to all that we do, and providing these links to everyday experience, including arts and entertainment, should remind readers of this fact.

COWAN: As I see it, these illustrations communicate two things. First, they tell readers who have never engaged in any formal study of philosophy that they are already familiar with many philosophical issues whether they know it or not. In the films, TV shows, and books they have read, philosophical concepts and problems are already a part of the experience. In this way, we take the edge off the strangeness and apparent irrelevancy with which philosophy is often perceived by newcomers. Second, and this is closely related to the first point, we hope to show the reader that philosophical ideas can and do influence people even if they have never studied them academically. I tell my students often that even though philosophical ideas often originate in the ivory tower, they never stay there. They always find their way down to the street where people live. And they typically make this transition by means of art—film, literature, etc.

Based on your assessment of the progress of Christian philosophers engaged in philosophical work, what areas of philosophical study remain under-developed or weak? Please list these areas and briefly explain why you think they are under-developed or weak and how might they become more developed and strong.

COWAN: Since the resurgence of Christian philosophy in the last few decades, Christians have done extensive and profitable work in the philosophy of religion and epistemology. Some areas in metaphysics have also received significant attention such as the mind/body problem and free will and determinism. But I think we have only recently begun to have an impact on key issues in general metaphysics or ontology. And, as far as I can tell, we have seen very little work on political philosophy and aesthetics. We seem rightly to be working our way outward from issues of central apologetic concern to Christianity (God's existence, divine attributes, problem of evil, religious epistemology) to broader areas relevant to the larger Christian worldview.

SPIEGEL: I agree with Steve here and would add that Christian philosophical aesthetics is especially in need of some strong work. It is telling that our book is the first Christian introductory philosophy text to feature a chapter on aesthetics.

How do you like to teach a philosophy or apologetics class? How do you use a textbook or other readings in the class?

COWAN: In my philosophy classes I take what I call a mixed Socratic approach. I usually begin a topic with a lecture that explains, say, a particular philosophical problem and then sketches some of the major strategies for solving that problem. Then I ask the students questions that lead them to evaluate the problem themselves and draw out the strengths and weaknesses of the various proposed solutions. I also ask questions designed to help them draw implications and practical consequences from given ideas and views. I like my textbooks to facilitate this method by providing summaries of philosophical issues and discussions of the various positions that can be taken on them. In my apologetics classes, I take a similar approach, though I usually seek to lead the students more directly to particular answers given that apologetics (at least as I conceive it) is designed to train students to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints. So here I prefer apologetics textbooks that state and defend traditional views which I supplement with additional lecture material and evaluative questions.

SPIEGEL: My teaching style is much like that described by Steve. As for my use of textbooks, I prefer to use an anthology of readings and supplement this with a secondary text which provides commentary, thoughtful discussion of key arguments and, if available, a Christian orientation. Our text provides all of these features I desire in a secondary text, thus making it ideally suited for a course in which it is coupled with an anthology of some kind. But, of course, The Love of Wisdom can be profitably studied on its own, in or out of the classroom.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Interview with Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel: The Love of Wisdom (part one)

We are pleased to announce the latest book by Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel, titled, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman, 2009). Steve and Jim are members of the EPS, contributors to Philosophia Christi, and professors of philosophy at Southeastern Bible College and Taylor University (Indiana), respectivelly. Look for future content from them to appear at the EPS blog. Below is part one of an interview with Steve and Jim about their latest offering.


What is unique about your intent, approach, and features in this Christian introduction to philosophy?


COWAN: We set out to produce a book that avoided two shortcomings we found in other Christian philosophy texts. On the one hand, we did not want to treat issues in a superficial and cursory way. We wanted to provide significant depth so that the reader could come away with a good grasp of the issues and the range of answers that have been given to major philosophical questions. On the other hand, we did not want our discussion to be limited to only a narrow range of topics. We wanted to introduce the reader to all the main areas of philosophy.


Secondly, we wanted the text to be as friendly as possible to the needs of teachers. This required that we include pedagogical aids like diagrams, illustrations, study questions, recommended reading lists, and the like. It also required that we leave a lot of philosophical discussions open-ended rather than stating and defending our own preferred answers to every question. So on issues where Christian philosophers are deeply divided, we resisted the temptation to come down firmly on one side. This way, no matter what view a teacher holds, he or she can comfortably use the text to inform students about the debate and generate classroom discussion.One unique feature of the book, as has been widely touted, is that it includes chapters on subjects that usually get shorted or ignored in other texts, namely political philosophy and aesthetics. Jim and I wanted our treatment of value theory go beyond the requisite chapter on ethics and include these other subjects as well. It is a much better book because of it.


Your text intends to take the acquisition of wisdom as a serious matter when “doing philosophy.” How is this intention realized throughout the book?


SPIEGEL: The two primary ways we do this are methodological and substantive. As a matter of method, we explain and apply the “Socratic method,” which emphasizes humility in inquiry, as well as defining terms and using well-constructed arguments. Substantively, at various places in the discussion we explain how a particular view or acquaintance with an issue will help readers to understand to make wise judgments regarding a wide range of practical issues in ethics, politics, and aesthetics. In addition to standard moral issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and animal rights, we address such issues as civil disobedience, religion in the public square, and how to assess artworks which are aesthetically admirable but morally problematic.


COWAN: Where possible, throughout the book, we try to bring out the practical implications of the views we discuss. Even in philosophical areas that are seen as more abstract we want the reader to see that whatever position he takes, it will have practical and ethical consequences. For example, it's hard to imagine a more abstract topic than the metaphysical debate between Platonism (the view that universals exist) and nominalism (which denies the existence of universals). We show that nominalism has adverse implications for the objectivity of moral values. If there are no universal essences, say, then there is no such thing as humanity. And this makes it hard to make sense of the concept of human rights. So even abstract philosophical topics can contribute to our ability to navigate wisely through life.


Who do you have in mind to most benefit from this book?


SPIEGEL: We wrote the book in such a way that Philosophy students at all stages would have much to gain by reading it. Beginners will appreciate the clear presentation of issues and definitions of terms, while intermediate and advanced students will appreciate the thorough review of arguments for and against the major positions on the issues. As Philosophy teachers ourselves, we appreciate texts that allow for flexibility in use. Professors will benefit from the thorough coverage of topics, which will enable them to tailor reading assignments according to the specific structure and aims of their courses.


Walk us through a brief overview of the three main parts of this book and their significance of content and organization.


SPIEGEL: The book is divided into three parts: knowledge, being and value. The first part contains chapters on logic, epistemology, and philosophy of science. The section on being features chapters on metaphysics, human nature, and philosophy of religion. And the last section includes chapters on ethics, political philosophy and aesthetics. Perhaps our Trinitarian Christian theology impacted our decision to go with all of these triads :), but the book really just seemed to make the most sense this way from an organizational standpoint. The early chapters on logic and epistemology provide readers with conceptual tools that are valuable for reading the other chapters. And understanding several issues in metaphysics, human nature, and philosophy of religion is critical for properly addressing a number of questions in value theory taken up in the last section of the book.

You can learn more about the work of Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel by visiting their websites: Cowan Chronicles and JimSpiegel.com

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Welcome Steve Cowan and Jim Spiegel

We are pleased to have Steven Cowan and Jim Spiegel as contributors to the EPS blog. Stay tuned for a forthcoming interview about their recently released book, The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Broadman & Holman).

Steve Cowan is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Apologetics at Southeastern Bible College. He is also the Associate Director of the Apologetics Resource Center and the Editor of the Areopagus Journal. Within the EPS, he oversees our regional meetings and he is a frequent contributor to Philosophia Christi. For example, see his recent discussion on molinism in our Summer 2009 issue. More of Steve can be found at his Cowan Chronicles blog. We are pleased to have his thoughtful and unique contribution at the EPS blog in the areas of philosophy of religion, ethics and apologetics.

Jim Spiegel is a professor of philosophy at Taylor University. He has written, edited or contributed to a range of books and articles at the intersection of philosophy of religion, theology, ethics and aesthetics, including break-out titles like Faith, Film and Philosophy (with R. Douglas Geivett), Hypocrisy and his award-winning How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad. Jim is also a contributor to Philosophia Christi and a member of the EPS Executive Committee. In addition to his scholarly work, Jim is a devout music and recording enthusiast. More about Jim can be found at www.jimspiegel.com and also at his blog where he and his wife contribute. We are pleased to have his perspective and creative thinking at the EPS blog.

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