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.