The Making of an Atheist

James Spiegel’s The Making of an Atheist is a curious book in that it seeks to articulate a Christian view of atheism, that is, an explanation of atheism according to Christian theology. While plenty of Christian thinkers have offered up assessments of atheism so as to defend the rationality of Christian belief, not many spell out a cogent theology of atheism in systematic terms. The burden of any theology of atheism will be to explain why, assuming their is  overwhelming evidence for God’s existence, there is obstinate disbelief in God. Basing his case on Romans 1:18-24, Ephesians 4:17-19, and Psalm 14:1, Speigel argues that atheism is not the result of a lack of evidence for God, but a lack of obedience to God. Along the way, he argues that the atheist has no evidence for the nonexistence of God from the argument from evil, and that disbelief in God is caused by emotional problems with a cosmic authority figure, which stem from an absent or abusive father and the desire for sexual liberation. In short, atheists are atheists because they are bad people. While they may be very smart, it is their defective will, not their rationality, that leads them to their self-deceived conclusions.

I came to this book with some interest, because I am convinced that our attitudes towards obeying God (if he exists) deeply influence whether or not we do in fact believe in God. I’ve explored some of these things in my review of Paul Moser’s work, namely how a cosmic authority problem functions as a non-rational factor in religious belief formation. That authority problem is best articulated by Thomas Nagel (who Spiegel also quotes):

I am talking about something much deeper—namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.

It seems safe to assume that there is a kind of “cognitive rebellion” or at least an intellectual vice, which refuses to entertain any search for God’s existence or an honest evaluation for theistic evidences, that must be overcome before there can be any genuine belief in God. This is because God is identical with the greatest possible being who is utterly worthy of worship. Belief in God entails a duty to worship and obey God, and that is something we may not want to deal with if we are honest with ourselves.

I was expecting Spiegel’s book to explore this fascinating tension between the authority of God and the autonomy of human beings in greater detail, but I was disappointed. To be sure, some of that was there and this is the better part of the book. But most of its pages are dedicated to a heavy-handed psychological analysis of adherence to Kuhnian “paradigms” buttressed by clumsy apologetic arguments . Here is one example:

The objection from evil does pack some punch, and it is a genuine problem for theists. But it could never count as grounds for atheism. Even if successful, it only undermines certain beliefs about the nature of God. It does not—nor could any argument—disprove the existence of a world creator and designer.

At most, evil should prompt us to reconsider what kind of God exists, not whether God exists.

Suppose he is right about this and the problem of evil provides evidence not for the non-existence of a creator-God, but only a not-so-good God. Would such a God be worthy of worship? Of course not, and it would be perfectly within our rights (or perhaps our duty?) to rebel against such a God. Anyone who fails to be good is not worthy of worship, and if the argument from evil provides evidence for the badness of God, then Spiegel shouldn’t be so hard on atheists for failing to obey God.

Another odd feature is that the Spiegel often vacillates between giving a Christian account of atheism and defending the obviousness of theism. But these projects are quite different as he presupposes the truth of Scripture for one and appeals to natural theology for the other. Conspicuously absent from the “clear” and “obvious” evidence for God’s existence is any appeal to evidence for Christ’s resurrection, which would make his account more distinctively Christian. The fact that Spiegel doesn’t include this shows that the paradigm of “theism” is quite different from the paradigm of “Christianity.” It would then seem that the “immorality leads to unbelief” thesis would be true in Jewish and Islamic thought as well. Perhaps this is enough to satisfy Spiegel, but if he was trying to give a Christian account of atheism, there is nothing distinctively Christian about it.

I’ve been looking for a helpful introduction to non-rational factors like the cosmic authority problem and the will to believe so as to recommend it to lay people who might interested, because Moser’s work can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated (as I was told by my poor father). Sadly, Spiegel’s work is not it.

Is Certainty Necessary for Knowledge?

The answer is “no.” Consider the argument from Jason Stanley’s Knowledge and Certainty:

“If knowing a proposition requires that proposition to be true, we would expect (7) to sound like an assertion of a trivial conceptual truth and (8) to sound like an assertion of an obvious falsity:

“(7) Everything anyone knows is true.
“(8) There is something someone knows that isn’t true.

“(7) is obviously true, and (8) obviously false. Similarly, if knowing a proposition requires believing that proposition, then we should expect (9) to be a trivial truth and (10) to be obviously false:

“(9) Everything someone knows she believes.
“(10) There is something someone knows that she doesn’t believe.

“Finally, if knowing a proposition requires having evidence for that proposition, we would expect (11) to sound like a trivial truth and (12) to sound obviously false:

“(11) If someone knows something, she has a reason to believe it.
“(12) There is something someone knows that she doesn’t have any reason to believe.

“An assertion of (11) certainly seems true, and (12) seems false. If it is intuitively obvious that knowledge requires subjective certainty, we should expect (13) and (14) to seem like banal truths and (15) to seem obviously false:

“(13) I’m certain of everything I know.
“(14) Everyone is certain of everything she knows.
“(15) There are some things I know, of which I’m only fairly certain.

“However, (13) and (14), unlike (7), (9), and (11), do not sound like banal truths. An utterance of (15) also does not share the obvious sense of falsity of (8), (10), and (12). Similarly, if knowledge requires epistemic certainty, we should expect (16) to be a banal truth, on a par with (7) and (9), and we should expect (17) to seem clearly false, on a par with (8), (10), and (12):

“(16) Everything I know is certain to be true.
“(17) There are some things I know, which are only fairly certain to be
true.

“But (16) does not seem like a banal truth, and (17) seems perfectly in order.”

From page 4 (37). Here’s more:

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Tim O’Connor on the Libet Experiment

Does neuroscientific findings eliminate free will? Some think so based on an experiment by Benjamin Libet that revealed evidence of neural activity linked to volitional acts before they were consciously felt by the subject. Here is a video explaining how the experiment works:

Timothy O’Connor (Indiana University) offers some criticisms of the inference that the experiment shows we have no free will:

For more on neuroscience and the soul check out Biola’s Center for Christian Thought.

My Favorite Excerpt from Are Women Human?

From Dorothy Sayers essay The Human-Not-Quite-Human

God, of course, may have His own opinion, but the Church is reluctant to endorse it. I think I have never heard a sermon preached on the story of Martha and Mary that did not attempt, somehow, somewhere, to explain away its text. Mary’s, of course, was the better part-the Lord said so, and we must not precisely contradict Him. But we will be careful not to despise Martha. No doubt, He approved of her too. We could not get on without her, and indeed (having paid lip-service to God’s opinion) we must admit that we greatly prefer her. For Martha was doing a really feminine job, whereas Mary was just behaving like any other disciple, male or female; and that is a hard pill to swallow.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man–there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronised; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as “The women, God helpus!” or “The ladies, God bless them!”; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unself-conscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything “funny” about woman’s nature. But we might easily deduce it from His contemporaries, and from His prophets before Him, and from His Church to this day. Women are not human; nobody shall persuade that they are human; let them say what they like, we will not believe it, though One rose from the dead.

Answers for The Swedish Atheist

The first time the rationality of my Christian belief was challenged was in high school; I was ill-equipped to handle the objections. Flustered by being unable to answer the hard questions posed by my exceedingly clever friends, my dad took me to the local Christian bookstore to buy an apologetics book. “Apologetics” was a new word in my limited vocabulary, and all I really knew about it was an ostensive definition–CS Lewis did something like that. I don’t remember why, but I didn’t buy Mere Christianity, a book that had a profound effect on my father and my grandfather before him. Instead, I bought Answers for Atheists, Agnostics, and Other Thoughtful Skeptics by E. Calvin Beisner. The big red-lettered words ANSWERS grabbed my attention: “Hey! That’s just what I’m looking for,” I thought!

I was not a savvy book buyer then (why didn’t I read the first chapter before buying it, I don’t know), but when I got it home, I was sorely disappointed (you can read the Amazon reviews to get a sense of why). The book was written as an imaginary dialogue between two friends, one a believer, the other a “skeptic”–if you could call him that–which was supposed to model how certain knock-down, drag-out arguments for the Christian faith were supposed to go. It was awful. First, the sorts of answers I was looking for weren’t there; second, I felt as though I had to learn how to manipulate a conversation to go the way the author did and then remember how to deploy a form of reasoning I did not fully understand; third, I realized that if I was ever going to learn how to talk confidently with smart friends, I would have to learn some philosophy, something I thought would be impossible.

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God or Godless?

Many thanks to Baker Books for supplying a copy to review!

As the subtitle explains, God or Godless? is the product of one atheist, John W. Loftus, and one Christian, Randal Rauser, taking on “twenty controversial questions.” Both Loftus and Rauser are popular bloggers who inspire vigorous disagreement among their respective readers, and it appears their book is the result of a friendship that was formed through occasionally sparring with one another. While both have published book-length arguments in the past, this volume exhibits a pattern only bloggers can appreciate. Each author submits ten theses, which they either affirm or deny with 800 words of prose. They are then allowed 150 words of rebuttal, which is then followed by another 50 words of closing statements. Every exchange reads like a blog post with two follow-up comments. The skill of each author is on display as they both jam a lot of content into a short space, and for that I can appreciate how much I have to learn about the art of dialoguing with few words to spare (sadly, this introduction is already over 200 words).

Instead of giving a blow by blow account of each argument, I want to make a few observations about the general strategy of the contenders along with some commendations and criticisms of what I took be the heart of their main arguments.

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What Is Marriage?

As an extension of their 2010 Harvard Law Review article, Girgis, George, and Anderson (G&G&A, hereafter) articulate the most careful, secularly grounded argument against the view that the members of the same-sex can be married. This is because their argument rests on a a metaphysical claim: marriage is constituted by the permanent and exclusive union of only two complementary members of the natural kinds male and female for the purpose of sharing a domestic life that is conducive to the rearing of children. In this view, which they call the “conjugal view” of marriage, procreation is not necessary for the marriage to exist; but since the marital act is oriented towards reproduction, and any resulting children find their natural habitat and flourish best in families of which their biological parents are stable parts, the state has vested interest in protecting it. The fact that the unions of two men or two women inherently lack this biological fecundity is sufficient to disqualify them as marriages. If we were to legalize same-sex marriage, we would embrace what the authors call the “revisionist view” or marriage: the union of (two?) adults who commit to loving and caring for each other as well as sharing the burdens and benefits of domestic life; the requirements of permanence and exclusivity depend on the mutual consent of the partners.

G&G&A begin their book with a story about a pair of wealthy socialites from New York who met, fell in love, and got married. They were a man and a woman who each felt they had met their soul mate. But in order to tie the knot, they had to divorce their spouses! This, says G&G&A is the outcome of the revisionist view of marriage, and it is a blight on an institution that historically has been understood as a conjugal relation. Even in ancient Greek culture when same-sex relationships were acceptable, the union of one man and one woman for life was thought to be the norm. But why? According to G&G&A, it is because the act of coitus was the only sex act that was truly marital; in it male and female become one reproductive unit oriented towards the creation of children. Again, since same-sex couples cannot engage in coitus, they cannot exemplify the type of bodily union necessary for marriage.

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