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.