Friday, February 26, 2010

Book Review: The Making of an Atheist by James S. Spiegel


Book Review: The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to

Introduction

Author Jim Spiegel is not impressed with the arguments offered up by the media named “New Atheists,” such as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins:

“The new atheists do offer arguments to back up their proclamations-at least their less inflammatory claims. Unfortunately for them, they merely rehearse the same tired objections that have been offered up by skeptics many times before-arguments that have been repeatedly rebutted by philosophers and theologians, both Christian and non-Christian. There is really nothing new about the new atheism, except the degree of bombast in their claims.” [p.10]

However, Spiegel’s approach to the new atheism is quite different than that of Ravi Zacharias, William Lane Craig, or Alister McGrath. These scholars saw fit to offer critique on the intellectual level; and while Spiegel’s book does offer up some quality arguments, he strives to demonstrate that atheism is not the intellectual pursuit that many would claim it to be:

“Could it be that their opposition to religious faith has more to do with the will than reason? What if, in the end, evidence has little to do with how atheists arrive at their anti-faith? Perhaps we should consider the possibility that skeptical objections are the atheists’ facade, a scholarly veneer masking the real causes of their unbelief-causes that are moral and psychological in nature. That is precisely my aim in this book. Atheism is not at all a consequence of intellectual doubts. Such doubts are mere symptoms of the root cause-moral rebellion. For the atheist, the missing ingredient is not evidence, but obedience.” [p. 11]

As the Bible declares, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 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].

Spiegel notes:

“The biblical message is that there are moral dynamics involved in the abandonment of faith. The human mind does not neutrally observe the world, gathering facts purely and simply without preferences or predilections. On the contrary, what one believes about the world is always deeply impacted by one’s values. People are inclined to believe according to their desires; we tend to believe what we want to be true…it is important to note that this is true for the theist as well…Scripture breaks the tie, and quite decisively…according to the Bible, God’s existence is clearly evident in creation, while atheism is the product of moral corruption.” [p. 15]

It is with this foundation that Spiegel sets out to demonstrate that:

“Atheism is the suppression of truth by wickedness, the cognitive consequences of immorality. In short, it is sin that is the mother of unbelief.” [p. 18]

The Making of an Atheist is laid out in 5 easy-to-read chapters that are as follows:

  • Atheistic Arguments, Errors, and Insights
  • The Irrationality of Atheism
  • The Causes of Atheism
  • The Obstinacy of Atheism
  • The Blessings of Theism

Atheistic Arguments, Errors, and Insights

In this chapter, after taking some time to clarify his terms, Spiegel goes on to briefly cover two common arguments put forth by old and new atheists alike 1) the problem of evil 2) and positivism.

Spiegel does a sound job of pointing out the fatal flaws in the objection from evil:

“Even if successful, it [the objection from evil] only undermines certain beliefs about the nature of God…at most evil should prompt us to reconsider what kind of God exists, not whether God exists. To give up belief in a world creator because of the existence of evil is a blatant non sequitur.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, from a naturalist standpoint the objection from evil is incoherent… “good” and “ought” are values, not physical facts. But naturalists only believe in physical facts. They have no foundation for a standard of goodness, without which the naturalist cannot judge any state of affairs, even the Nazi Holocaust, to be “wrong” or “evil." And without a standard for goodness, the problem of evil cannot be posed.” [p. 27]

Positivism is the view that all knowledge must be scientifically verifiable. However, Spiegel demonstrates the absurdity of this view as well:

“The trouble is that the positivist thesis is actually self-refuting. The notion that all beliefs must be scientifically verifiable is, well, not scientifically verifiable. So by the positivist’s own standard, positivism must be rejected as unknowable.” [p. 29]

One of the likable aspects of this work is its fair mindedness. Not only does Mr. Spiegel call the atheists out on their inconsistencies and hypocrisy, but he also challenges Christians with what the new atheists are right about:

“…it is important to note that there are aspects of atheists’ complaints that are reasonable and should be affirmed, even though they fall far short of justifying atheism. Specifically, atheistic objections are correct insofar as they critique many human failures that often occur in the context of religious belief and practice…it is a truism that countless evils have been done in the name of religion. Theists of all kinds have acted in ways inconsistent with their confessed moral standard.

There is also the related problem of moral complacency. Christians- or those of us who so name ourselves- do not practice self-denial as our Lord taught us to. We are often greedy and stingy (only 6 percent of Christians tithe), slothful (how much television do we watch?), gluttonous (obesity is as much a problem in the church as outside it; and whatever happened to fasting as a basic spiritual discipline?), and lustful (the divorce rate among Christians is comparable to that of unbelievers, and pornography addiction is a problem in the church too).” [p. 35-36].

Spiegel goes on to challenge the body of Christ:

“…we should be willing to repent of these errors, on behalf of the church if not ourselves individually; and we should guard against making the same mistakes in the future.” [p. 39]

I could not agree more.

The Irrationality of Atheism

Spiegel begins the next chapter recalling British philosopher Anthony Flew’s change of mind from his 50 plus years of atheism to belief in God in 2004. Flew shocked both theists and atheists when he declared that he had come to believe in a Creator God by strictly “following the evidence wherever it lead.”

Spiegel continues by briefly revisiting the three main arguments that convinced Flew that a Divine Creator must exist- 1) the laws of nature 2) the existence of the cosmos 3) the presence of life.

After presenting some evidence for each of these arguments, largely drawing upon Flew’s work, There is a God, Spiegel proceeds to highlight some other problems the atheist must address; but then changes gears and faces head-on an oft repeated charge made by atheists and non-believers- “Theists are idiots for believing in God!”

“Let’s admit that both theism and atheism have their fair share of smart and not-so-smart devotees. As Christopher Hitchens observes, “There have been at least as many credulous idiots who professed faith in god as there have been dolts and simpletons who concluded otherwise.” [p. 51]

The suggestion here is clear- something other than intellectual objections lies at the heart of the atheist’s rejection of God.

He writes:

“The root of the problem, apparently, is not a lack of intelligence but rather a hardness of heart that is itself caused by immoral behavior.” [p. 52]

Here, Spiegel once again calls upon the writings of Paul in Romans 1:18-23 to sustain his argument:

“In this passage Paul makes clear that the problem with those who don’t believe in God is not lack of evidence. On the contrary, God has made His existence and attributes so “plain” and “clearly seen” from creation that unbelief is inexcusable. He also explains how, in spite of this, some reject the truth, specifically through immoral behavior. The evidential cause is not ambiguous, according to Paul." [p. 53].

At this point, the reader may be thinking, “Hey, Spiegel can’t use the bible to prove the bible!” However, this is not the author’s intent. The author begins the book by laying his foundation using the bible and then proceeds to demonstrate that his observations, research, and claims are parallel to what scripture says. Further, on his blog, Spiegel has made it clear that the main thrust of this book is to discover the root causes of atheism, not to prove it true or false.

Finally, Spiegel calls upon the arguments of philosopher Alvin Plantinga to demonstrate the self-defeating nature of the naturalist’s worldview:

“Given Darwinism, even our cognitive faculties must be the result of natural selection. Every aspect of human brain physiology and psychology was entirely fixed by its survival value. This means that nowhere along the human evolutionary path did a concern for truth necessarily come into play. So long as an organism’s cognitive apparatus enables it to stay alive, its beliefs need not be true or even reasonable. There is no necessary connection between the survival potential of a cognitive system and the truth of the beliefs it produces...this means that if naturalism is true, then we have no reason to be confident that any of our beliefs are actually true, and the includes our belief in the truth of naturalism.”
[p. 58-59]

The Causes of Atheism

Fatherlessness

It was Sigmund Freud who hypothesized that belief in God was simply the product of a psychological need of a loving father. However, as Spiegel notes, calling largely upon the research of Paul Vitz’s The Faith of the Fatherless (1999), Freud provides a basis for suspecting that atheism, in many cases, is actually the result of the resentment the atheist harbors toward his or her own father, in turn, justifying his rejection of a God.

Vitz’s work is highlighted throughout this chapter to sustain the large list of atheists who had lost their father early in life (David Hume, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus) or who had fathers that we abusive or weak (Voltaire, H.G. Wells, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Ludwig Feuerbach, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Ellis).

One of the most interesting sections of this chapter centered around the new atheists and their relationships with their fathers:

“What about the new atheists? Do they confirm this thesis? We know that Daniel Dennett’s father died in plane crash in 1947, when Dennett was just five years old…Christopher Hitchen’s father appears to have been very distant…tragically, when Hitchens was twenty-four, his mother killed herself in a suicide pact with lover. After his mother’s death, Hitchens says, “I no longer really had a family,” which is an especially sad statement considering his father was still alive. As for Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, there is very little information available regarding their relationships with their fathers.” [p. 68-69]

The author admits that “the psychological dynamics of atheism are very complex, but the impact of the father relationship does appear to be profound…Human beings were made in God’s image, and the father-child relationship mirrors that of humans as God’s “offspring.” We unconsciously (and often consciously, depending on one’s worldview) conceive of God after the pattern of our earthy father.” [p. 68-69]

Moral Depravity

I found this section to most fascinating. Spiegel challenges the reader with the idea that many of the most intelligent men and women reject God because of their moral depravity. Moreover, he makes the astute connection that an intellectual’s work is clearly impacted by one’s personal conduct. In fact, in many cases, the intellectual’s work is often the muse in which he or she attempts to justify his or her repugnant behavior.

Spiegel proceeds to quote E. Michael Jones to sustain this point:

“There are ultimately only two alternatives in the intellectual life: either one conforms desire to the truth or one conforms truth to desire. These two positions represent opposite poles between which a continuum of almost infinite gradations exist.” [p. 74]

The author then continues by providing numerous examples of many well-respected intellectuals of the past that clearly have “conformed the truth” to their largely sexual desires and in turn have corrupted their scholarly work as well:

“God delivers the sexually immoral over to a depraved mind. Jones sums it up well: “Sexual sins are corrupting…The most insidious corruption brought about by sexual sin, however, is the corruption of the mind. One moves all too easily from sexual sins, which are probably the most common to mankind, to intellectual sins, which are the most pernicious.” [p. 80]

As this chapter closes, the topic of faith is freshly revisited by considering the works of nineteenth-century Harvard philosopher William James.

Spiegel writes:

“James makes his point by using the illustration of a mountain climber who is unsure as to whether he can make it safely across a difficult pass. If he succeeds, he will go on to safety. But if he fails, death awaits. Can he make it? He will never know either way until he actually ventures. James makes a similar point about many philosophical issues, where the evidence alone is inconclusive. The lesson he draws is that faith is practically necessary. He concludes, ‘In the average man…the power to trust, to risk a little beyond the evidence, is an essential function…We cannot live or think at all without some degree of faith.’” [p. 83-84]

Indeed; this is true for the theologian, philosopher, and the atheist.

The Obstinacy of Atheism

Admittedly, many times when I am dialoguing with an atheist, I feel like I am talking with someone from another world. And I certainly realize that they most likely feel the same way about talking to me!

Drawing upon the now famous work of physicist Thomas Kuhn in his classic book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Spiegel attempts to use Kuhn’s concept of a “paradigm” to help the reader understand the atheist position better. He notes that the atheistic paradigm (a set of assumptions, definitions, laws, and techniques) must “reject as false…all references to miracles, souls, divine authority of Scripture, or personal experience of God.” Further, Spiegel admittedly writes that:

“…theists and atheists, in a sense, live in different worlds. God is at the center of the theist’s worldview, and this colors his or her every experience and value judgment. On the other hand, the axis of a worldview without God is necessarily the self, and the atheist’s values and personal experience are shaped accordingly.” [p. 101]

Spiegel continues by stating:

“The difference in perspective is compounded when we consider the concept of spiritual discernment, which is granted only to those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. As Paul writes, “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14). [p. 102].

As this chapter ends, Spiegel assesses John Calvin’s sensus divinitatis. According to Calvin, the sensus divinitatis refers to every human’s natural awareness of God that is inborn or innate.

Spiegel notes:

“Somehow, each of us comes into this world equipped with what we might call a spiritual “antenna,” to use yet another analogy. As one matures, this antenna becomes operational, usually beginning in early childhood. Many parents, like myself, can attest to the natural ability in children to understand and respond to the reality of God.” [p. 107]

The author believes that this concept of sensus divinitatis provides insight into the reason that many atheists seem incapable of sensing or thinking clearly about God. Simply put, their minds are suffering from the effects of sin. Drawing upon the argumentation of Plantinga once again, Spiegel explains that the non-believer’s mind has a type of “cognitive malfunction” that hinders their mind from working in the way it was created to.

Spiegel goes on to explain:

“What causes malfunction in any system always comes back to the fall. Sin and its consequences have wreaked havoc on the world, and human cognition is no exception. In short, sin disrupts our ability to think straight…discussion of such issues is outside the scope of this book, but it is worth noting that the noetic effects of sin extend far beyond theological matters. Cognition about God is only the most immediately impacted by sin.” [p. 111]

Spiegel ends this chapter by summarizing the overall case made in the book:

"The descent into atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheistic paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors, some of which are psychological and some of which are moral in nature…

The hardening of the atheistic mind-set occurs through cognitive malfunction due to two principal causes. First, atheists suffer from paradigm-induced blindness…second, atheists suffer from damage to the sensus divinitatis, so their natural awareness of God is severely impeded. Both of these mechanisms are aspects of the noetic effects of sin.” [p. 113-114].

The Blessings of Theism

In this closing chapter, Spiegel reminds the believer what a powerful apologetic his or her life can be:

“The point is that there is apologetic power in a life well-lived. As it was in the early church, when Christians won converts by simply demonstrating their love for one another, so it is today. Perhaps virtue and self-sacrifice are the most effective tools of persuasion, able to overcome gargantuan obstacles of doubt and lure even the most skeptical minds. When it comes to proving religious truth, an ounce of love is worth a ton of argument.” [p.117]

This is a point that has sadly been forgotten by many of those who claim the name of Christ.

Once again calling upon the arguments used prior regarding the effects of sin on the mind, Spiegel reminds us that the reduction of sin in our lives will actually improve our cognitive abilities and how we must consider our entertainment habits and how they have the ability to enhance or hinder our spiritual progress.

He continues by pointing out some of the more familiar benefits of an active faith:

  • Relief from the burden of guilt for one’s sins
  • The hope of eternal life after death
  • The psychological release found in offering praise and thanks to God

However, Spiegel also notes some less familiar benefits of faith such as:

  • Complaining to God; however, the atheist’s complaints seem absurd because he or she must accept, on their worldview, that things “just happen” without any purpose. [p. 121]
  • Thankfulness for blessings- Spiegel writes, “But what of the “natural” blessings we enjoy? Whom do we thank for our good health, intelligence, and innate physical and artistic talents? Again, the atheist can only point to eons of blind evolutionary forces that have culminated in endowing us so richly.” [p. 123]

As a follower of Jesus Christ, it is not unusual to find myself wondering how Jesus Himself would react or respond in different situations. While reading the closing paragraphs of The Making of an Atheist, I couldn’t help feeling that I caught a glimpse of just how Jesus may respond to the new atheists:

“As Christians, we need to demonstrate our love for God, as an encouragement and as a testimony of faith both to believers and unbelievers…This is the first and last order of business for any Christian, whether one is a scholar or a layperson. And if we improve in this area, then we will improve in all areas, especially in making the case for God and Christian truth.

Let’s not give atheists moral ammunition for their skeptical cannons. Let’s demonstrate patience and long-suffering with them. Let’s affirm them where they are correct (e.g., on church hypocrisy and the problem of evil). Let’s open our minds to their truth claims and interests as much as possible…and where we cannot agree, let’s resolve to listen anyway and give them the last word or paragraph. Let’s remember that they live with pains and disappointments as the rest of us, if not more so…Let’s be willing to be shortchanged, belittled, ridiculed, and scorned, and not return the same. In short, let’s live the Golden Rule as effectively as we can in their midst and not just because it might persuade them to believe, but because it’s the right thing to do. After all, that’s how Jesus did it.”
[p. 127-128]

In the words of comic creator and atheist Stan Lee- “Nuff said!”

Conclusion

I am grateful to Jim Spiegel for not only writing what I believe to be an important book, but also for giving me the opportunity to review it.

His thesis is a brave one that will undoubtedly spark much discussion regarding the root causes of atheism.

I was impressed with Spiegel’s willingness to build his case upon the Scriptures and then proceed to demonstrate how what is known of many modern atheists confirms what scripture has said all along.

It is evident throughout the book that Spiegel is carefully building his case while trying not to overstate his conclusions. He simply outlines his arguments, supports his premises, and allows the reader to agree or disagree with his analysis.

It is a demonstrable fact that there are many intelligent people who believe in God and many intelligent people who don’t believe in God. Logically then, we can conclude that there is more to disbelief than simply the evidence. Spiegel provides strong direct and in-direct evidence that the main cause of disbelief in God is not an objective assessment of the available evidence, but a desire for there to be no God.

Admittedly, the atheist could find this book offensive, but I would encourage the unbeliever to see the book through to the end and accept or reject it’s hypothesis on it’s own merits.

I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to the Christian who may be struggling to reach an unbeliever in their life or the atheist who truly desires to know God, but can’t seem to find Him. This book could prove most helpful.

Courage and Godspeed,
Chad

Note to Readers: Please don't forget that Jim will be answering a few of your questions via the blog so please feel free to ask away! For more details, see here.

Resources:

  • All quotes were directly taken from The Making of an Atheist by Jim Spiegel (Chicago, IL., Moody Publishers, 2010).

3 comments:

Lavinia4truth said...

Thank you for the book review. I respectfully wish to ask the author a question regarding atheism. How can followers of Christ effectively reach atheists with God's truth if one of the primary reasons that they have become atheists is because they have rejected that truth? If atheists choose their worldview not because of lack of evidence of God but because they desire to do so, then what is your perspective on how to effectively reach them?

Chad said...

L4truth,

Hello; I wanted to let you know that I have submitted your question to Jim and hope to hear from him soon.

Godspeed

Retha said...

Jim Spiegel said: "Let’s be willing to be shortchanged, belittled, ridiculed, and scorned, and not return the same. In short, let’s live the Golden Rule as effectively as we can in their midst and not just because it might persuade them to believe, but because it’s the right thing to do. After all, that’s how Jesus did it.”

We should remember that Jesus did scorn sometimes. His criticism was often aimed at the Pharisees, since they did not want to convert, blindly thought their world view was cleverer and more informed, kept others away from God, and asked questions not to learn but to trick. In many ways, the new atheists resemble Pharisees in their attitude toward Jesus and his followers. Yes, the Pharisees were "religious" and the New Atheists are "not religious" but Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees because of religiousness. I think Jesus knew people who are wrong, but proudly believe they are right, need to hear the truth without softening. And I think Jesus would have done it that way for new atheists too.