An explanation as to why people become atheists that has a biblical nature through a recap of parts of Dr. Speigel’s book “The making of an atheist”:
Dr James S Spiegel The Making of An Atheist
The following are my notes from the lecture video below:
Dr Speigel rejects the idea that people become atheists or agnostics because there is some kind of ambiguity regarding the evidence that it is not clear in creation that there is a God. He thinks it is abundantly clear, in looking at a few biblical passages. The Bible tells us that it’s clear, so that begs the question: Why are there atheists?
Does Scripture speak to this issue? It does. Paul writes, “18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men 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 men are without excuse. Romans 1:18-20
It seems pretty clear there that Paul is saying you don’t have any excuse to be an atheist or even an agnostic. Paul’s not talking about a “flu orbed Christian Trinitarian Theism“, we need special revelation for that.You need Scripture to get a doctrine of the trinity or to know that Jesus is God incarnate. Ah, but you don’t need special revelation to know there’s a God. Even Helen Keller, who could not hear and she could not see, when her teacher, Annie Sullivan, taught her the name of God, Helen said, “Now I know the name of Him whom I’ve known all along”. So, there’s a general revelation that even she was able to become aware of and somehow become aware of the God behind all of her tactile sensations. How much more so are we without excuse if we see and, or hear all the beauty of creation.
Here’s another passage that speaks to this Ephesians 4:17-18, Paul again says: 17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Before I unpack this, here’s a passage from one of the Gospels. This is Jesus speaking: This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of lightbecause their deeds were evil. John 3:19
Again, you have this terms of behavior impacting belief and attitude. Usually we think about it the other way around. We usually think that because a person loved darkness, they did the evil deeds. Well, it works the other way around too, apparently, according to Jesus and the other biblical writers. John 3:20- Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. Again, deeds preceding this discovery that whoever lives by the truth will come into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what has been done has been done in the sight of God.
This is the core claim of my book “The making of an atheist”, is that unbelief, when it comes to God, unbelief is the consequence of disobedience. It is a kind of rebellion that results in atheism. And, to borrow a theme that Alvin Plantinga has been developing in recent years, particularly in his book “Warranted Christian Belief“, it is a contemporary philosophical classic. He talks about the cognitive consequences of sin, you know the fact that sin has an effect on the body, we get sick and we die. The fact that human beings die a death at all is a consequence of sin. But, we don’t immediately think of the effect of sin on the mind, the so called noetic effects of sin, but sin has had an assault on or minds as well. It corrupts us cognitively. It screws up the way we think and this is especially the case when it comes to moral and spiritual matters.
Plantinga also talks about something the reformer John Calvin talks about in the Institutes of the Christian Religion. That is the “sense of the divine”, we’re all born with a kind of innate sense or awareness of God. I am sure a lot of you are parents and some of you with small children are going through this right now, kind of introducing them to the very idea of God, telling the Bible stories, starting when they are very young. It certainly (also) bears out the idea that if we are image bearers of God that we would have a special awareness of God.
But, this is something that like all of our cognitive abilities it can be damaged, it can be corrupted, it can be warped. And it can be undermined by various factors, not the least of which is indulgence in sin. And so, all of the clear evidence for God and creation when we sin and we indulge over and over in certain sins and we are unrepentant, we’re going to be less likely to perceive the clear evidence for God because our sense of the divine has been dampened and tampered.
And, so I will explore some of the psychological research to unpack this thesis and there is a very provocative claim that was made by a psychologist, a former atheist Dr. Paul Vitz and other former atheists I have had discussions with, colleagues of mine at Taylor, I have asked if this tailors to their experience and I haven’t met anyone that said “No”. Paul Vitz says that there is a unique dynamic here, or a kind of correlation between atheistic belief or attitude and a certain broken relationship with his father. He is really taking the cue from Feuerbach and Freud. Freud is well known for trying to reduce religious belief and belief in God, to try and explain it away in a cosmic projection of one’s feelings or thoughts about one’s father. But could it be that it’s actually atheists who are making sort of projections to the absence of God because of a significantly broken father relationship? He calls it a defective father hypothesis. Atheism is precipitated by broken relationships with fathers. One needs the nuance to be very careful here. He is not saying, he makes it clear over and over in his book. He is not saying that anyone who has a broken father relationship is going to be an atheist. But rather, those who are atheist, and particularly the more militant sorts, in every one of those cases, apparently there is some sort of broken relationship with the father either because the father died, the father was abusive, the father left home, some significant break. And the reason he comes to this conclusion, he looks at dozens of major atheists in the modern period, all the way up to the 20th century and in every case- Hume, Feuerbach, Camu, Dewey, Russell, Freud, Marx- all of these guys, either their dad died when they were very young or their dad left or was extremely abusive, everyone of them.
And then as a kind of control he looks at the major theists, in particular, Christian theists of the period and everyone of them had a decent father relationship or if their dad did die, there was a really strong, positive male father figure in their life. And again, this is not saying that if you have a defective father it’s guaranteed or that it’s even likely that you’re going to be guaranteed that you will be an atheist. But, rather that if anyone is an atheist, then there is some sort of causal connection with a defective father situation. At least food for thought; it’s a very interesting thesis.
Then, there is Paul Johnson’s “Intellectuals”. It, too is very provocative. He looks at a number of intellectuals in the modern period, notes that in so many cases where you have scholars that are often presented as authorities on how human beings should live, so many of them were absolutely debauched in their personal lives, from Russo, to Shelley, to Ibsen, to Hemingway that their philosophies, their moral ideals were in so many ways attempts to kind of try to rationalize their own behavior. E. Michael Jones said the same things in degenerate moderns. He picks up where Johnson leaves off. The books are important studies of some of the leading figures in western thought. Even as disturbing as they are, in reading both of these books I felt almost dirtied learning about the person and the lives of these people, but it helps you understand why their thinking is so skewed on so many issues that they researched and wrote upon. It’s the whole range: political, philosophers, poets, novelists, theologians, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists like Margaret Mead, etc.
So the lesson here is that what appears to be rational inquiry may actually be rationalization of one’s own bad behavior. Again, provocative and even controversial idea, but I really think that their data and their arguments are sound and it certainly helps to fill out this biblical model of atheism, or even more generally, skepticism about the existence of God as being the result of bad behavior.
William James is my all time favorite philosopher. He is an American pragmatist, late 19th, early 20th century and he wrote the classic “Varieties of religious experience”. You wanna read something that’s scholarly, but riveting? It will keep you up, it’s a page turner. He’s got all these accounts of people who have had these amazing mystical experiences, not just within the Christian tradition, but in others as well. This guy was open minded because he came to believe very fervently (that) there had to be some kind of supernatural reality that Christianity and other religions are informed by.
There’s another essay he wrote called “The will to believe”, where he argues that in many cases, our beliefs are the result of a kind of willing, active desire. In many cases, people don’t arrive at their beliefs as a result of dispassionate review of the evidence, it’s a result of willful choice and this can be on the positive side or on the negative side.
How is it that atheists become so obstinate? Some are more open minded, but others don’t want to take seriously or engage with the evidence in a fair minded way. Here I borrow from philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn and his idea that we all are operating in light of theoretical paradigms or models, and I say worldview. He is the one that introduced the concept of paradigm into the now popular parlance, but this was a strictly philosophical term up until the 1980′s. His idea is that scientists always view their data through their theoretical paradigm and so they are blind to evidence that might undermine their theory. And this is why theoretical paradigms hold on so long and why, in spite of counter evidence, old paradigms die hard because people are passionate and emotional and not just hawk like totally objective scientists.
Kuhn talks about this: you can get hardened into a paradigm where you are really blind to counter evidence and I call this paradigm induced blindness. I am not saying it just applies to the atheists either; it applies to the marxist, it applies to the hindu, it applies to the Christian and everybody else. I tell my students I am closed minded on at least the creedal points. In fact, at this point in my worldview career I can’t even imagine a world without God; I can’t even imagine life without Jesus as Lord and without Him having risen from the dead. So, I suppose my mind is closed on those things too. I think that’s paradigm induced insight.
On self deception – there’s a lot of interesting research that’s been done on this phenomena and there’s a number of different paradigm theories on models of self deception. The one that I find most convincing is the one that says that self deception is a kind of motivated bias where someone believes that in some sense they know it isn’t true because they have a motivated bias against the truth. So a classic example of this would be the mother or the father whose son or daughter has been arrested for dealing drugs, not for the first time, but for the 3rd or 4th time, and they’re still saying,”Oh, it’s just the crows they’re running with, the drugs were planted in the car again”. You would say that he or she is self deceived; they have a motivated bias to believe their son or daughter is innocent. Who wants their kid to be guilty of such a thing? But this can apply to a level of worldview and if you are so devoutly indulged in a sinful lifestyle, whether it’s sexual or otherwise, they would not want to give an account to a God who exists.
The positive side of all that is, if we obey as Christians and live virtuously, we will experience a kind of cognitive benefit. And the Scriptures, particularly in the Wisdom literature refer to the fact that, as we obey God He will grant us wisdom and understanding. That God grants wisdom and understanding to the simple. This is just a fulfillment of the biblical promise that if you obey God He grants understanding and insight. Even Jesus says, “If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will (and here’s the cognitive fit) find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak of my own”, and there are other passages that point in this direction. As you read Scripture, keep an eye out for their recurrent theme that obedience brings insight and understanding, cognitive benefits.
Lastly, if you are a theist, you have a right to complain to God about things that go wrong and Psalms are full of them. We are blessed with the privileges to ask, “Why o Lord?…is this happening in my life” and we have the privilege to thank Him for all the beauty and the wonder of nature and that’s something the atheist doesn’t have, but can have, of course, if they come to God and repent and find forgiveness in Him.