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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Atheism as a Psychological Crutch: A Review of James Spiegel's The Making of an Atheist

I've always believed that the best defense is a good offense. Culturally speaking, however, the New Atheists have been the ones on the offensive in their attacks on religious belief in general and Christianity in particular. Christian apologists have made some very good replies to most of their attacks on Christian belief (which are really nothing more than the same old tired arguments that we've had to put to rest before). Yet, the New Atheists are getting a lot of rhetorical mileage in the popular culture with their incessant charge that religious belief is inherently irrational, without evidence, motivated by psychological needs.

How refreshing, then, to read Jim Spiegel's new book, The Making of an Atheist, in which he makes an end run around all the lame anti-theistic arguments and baseless psycho-analyses of believers, and goes on the offensive by exposing the nonrational, psychological and (im)moral foundations of atheism. In this work, Spiegel shows that, contrary to the pretensions of contemporary atheists, their unbelief is not based on evidence (or a lack of evidence for theism), but is ultimately the result of sin and rebellion as indicated by the apostle Paul in Romans 1.

In chapter one, Spiegel briefly reviews two of the major lines of argument utilized by the New Atheists in their critique of theism: "the problem of evil and the scientific irrelevancy of God" (p. 24). Concerning the former, Spiegel mentions the major theodicies employed by theists in response, but notes that the evidence of evil can never really count for atheism because (1) it doesn't nullify all of the abundant positive evidence for the existence of God, and (2) the whole idea of evil is incoherent unless God exists (since values like good and evil presupppose God). As for the scientific irrelevancy of God, Spiegel rehearses the well-known problems with positivism and scientism, and points out that naturalism can account neither for the existence and design of the cosmos nor for the value and meaning of human life.

Interestingly, Spiegel ends chapter one with a discussion of the positive insights of atheism. For instance, atheists are right to point out that numerous evils have been done in the name of religion. Also, the moral complacency often displayed by professing believers as well as their tendency to engage in God-of-the-gaps reasoning in science are places where unbelievers are correct to raise concerns. These and other problems Spiegel call "theistic malpractice," and he notes that while they do call Christians to greater consistency in Christian living, they actually confirm the Christian doctrine of sin, being what we would expect to be the case if Christianity were true.

Chapter two demonstrates the irrationality of atheism in two ways. First, by outlining the abundant evidence for the existence of God found in the laws of nature, the incredible fine-tuning of the universe for life, and the origin of life. Second, by describing Alvin Plantinga's argument to the affect that naturalism, coupled with Darwinism, proves to be self-defeating by undermining the very possibility of knowledge. But if atheism is so clearly false, why are there atheists at all? Spiegel offers a biblical diagnosis, namely, that atheists are morally deficient (Ps. 14:1; Prov. 18:2; Eph. 4:17-19; Rom 1:18-23, etc.). The problem is not a lack of intelligence or of evidence, but "the 'wickedness' of the unbeliever works to 'suppress' what is manifest in nature. Consequently, the unbelievers's capacity for rational thought is compromised" (p. 53). This diagnosis finds some anecdotal confirmation in the bitterness and rage displayed toward God by some of the New Atheists as well as in Spiegel's personal observation of atheists who fell into unbelief after some episode of personal rebellion. These observations seem symptomatic of nonrational factors at work in producing atheism.

The heart of the book is chapter three. Here Spiegel provides empirical evidence to support the biblical diagnosis of atheism that he offered in chapter two. First, he sketches the research of Paul Vitz who has shown that atheists typically suffer from what he calls "the defective father syndrome." Surveying the lives of many renowed atheists, Vitz revealed that in each case they had either a father who died when they were very young, a father who deserted the family wheny they were young, or a father who was abusive or ineffectual, or otherwise unworthy of respect. Spiegel extends Vitz's research to show that those New Atheists who we have enough information about (Dennett and Hitchens) also suffer from the defective father syndrome. Apparently, having a defective father provides a necessary condition for atheism. A person with a poor relationship with his earthly father is disposed to project the bitterness and resentment he has toward him onto his "heavenly Father" as well.

Of course, a necessary condition is not a sufficient condition. Combined with the defective father syndrome, Spiegel points out, there is also "a persistent immoral response of some sort, such as resentment, hatred, vanity, unforgiveness, or abject pride. And when that rebellion is deep or protracted enough, atheism results (p. 81). The most egregious of these moral defects that lead to atheism is "chronic sexual misbehavior." To prove his point, Spiegel surveys the works of Paul Johnson and E. Michael Jones who demontrate that prominate atheist and agnostic intellectuals lived egotistical, callous (ignoring or abandoning children), sexually promiscuous lifestyles. And it seems evident not only to Speigel, but to many of these intellectuals themselves, that there was a direct connection between their lifestyles and their unbelief. For example, P.B. Shelley remarked that "the philosophy of meaninglessness was esentially an instrument of liberation," and Aldous Huxley admits, "Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless."

Spiegel closes chapter three by discussing the role of the will in the production of atheism. Appealing to William James's concept of the "will to believe," Spiegel argues that atheists, though traumatized by defective fathers and motivated by perverse sinful desires, ultimately choose to disbelieve in God. The arguments and "evidences" offered by atheists for unbelief are simply smokescreens and facades. The real reason for atheism is rebellion.

In chapter four, Spiegel deals with the "obstinacy of atheism," the fact that atheists can be deeply and dogmatically entrenched in their unbelief (in the same way that believers can be entrenched in religious belief). He helpfully explains this entrenchment in terms of worldviews and Thomas Kuhn's scientific "paradigms." Appealing to Kuhn's notions of the incommensurability of paradigms, the near-impossibility of falsifying them, and the nonrational factors that play a role in paradigm shifts, Spiegel shows why believers and unbelievers seem to live in different "worlds," and why atheists cannot seem to see what appears so obvious to believers, namely, the overwhelming evidence for God. Atheist can't see that evidence because the worldview paradigms in which they have entrenched themselves (materialistic naturalism and relativism) prevent them from seeing it--Spiegel calls this "paradigm-induced blindness."

Spiegel takes the reader at this point to Calvin's notion of the sensus divinitatis. All human beings are born with an innate capacity for direct and personal awareness of God. This "sense of the divine" is primarily what explains the pervasiveness of theistic belief. What is it, then, that leads to the paradigm-induced blindness that the atheist suffers from? Following Plantinga, Spiegel answers that it is the congnitive malfunction of the sensus divinitatis. With this, Spiegel's analysis if the psychology of atheism is complete. He summarizes it thus: "The descent into atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors. . . . The atheist willfully rejects rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. . . . The hardening of the atheistic mind-set occurs through congitive malfunction due to two principle causes. First, atheists suffer from paradigm-induced blindness. . . . Second, atheists suffer from damage to the sensus divinitatis, so their natural awareness of God is severly impeded" (pp. 113-14).

In the fifth and final chapter, Spiegel calls "The Blessings of Theism." Perhaps a better title would be "The Blessings of Virtue." He begins by pointing out that the life of virtue lived by Christian theists is a powerful apologetic tool, especially for atheists who, because of their paradigm-induced blindness, may be incapable of appreciating the merit of our apologetic arguments. Movever, living the virtuous life helps to maintain faith and theistic belief because it helps avoid those vices that can give one a motive for unbelief. Also, given the truth of theism and the connection between virtue and truth acquisition, "the more viruously one lives, the more truths one is able to access, including truths about God and how to obey him" (p. 117). Spiegel goes on to show that theistic belief has some special emotional benefits unavailable to the atheist, such as the right to complain in the face of injustice and the privilege of thanksgiving. He concludes with an admonition to Christians to live virtuously for the sake of reaching atheists with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Making of an Atheist is a welcome addition to the growing literature responding to the New Atheism. Its unique contribution lies in its head-on attack on the root causes of atheism, turning the tables by showing that it is not the theist who suffers from an irrational psychological wish-fulfillment, but the atheist who is in fact in the grip of a powerful, self-induced delusion. The book is written in a popular style and at a level for the lay reader. It will no doubt be criticized for its lack of philosophical rigor in places (places where Spiegel summarizes the more detailed work of others), but Spiegel effectively throws down the gauntlet before the atheist and challenges him to respond to the charge that his unbelief is unjustified and motivated by sin. It will not do for him to simply reply that Spiegel's attack is just an ad hominem one. Spiegel has provided ample evidence that not only are atheists guilty of sinful, rebellious behavior, but that this sinfulness affects their arguments. Christians need to read this book for the encouragement it gives them and the insight it provides into the psychology of unbelief. Atheists need to read it because of the serious challenge that it makes to their unbelief, a challenge that confirms Paul's assertion that unbelievers "are without excuse" (Rom 1:20).

Reviewed by Steven B. Cowan

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Blogger Paul said:

This was an insightful book with a unique thesis. I'm surprised that Spiegel did not invoke Pascal's wager. See my The Making of an [A}Theist for how he could have done so.

By Blogger Paul, at April 12, 2010 at 5:46 AM  

Blogger Arizona Atheist said:

Hi! This is a very well written review, though despite that I still disagree very much with Spiegel's thesis. I just have one question about his claim that immorality is the reason for atheism. How can this claim be true when there are many studies that do well to show that atheists are just as moral as theists, if not a little more so? For example, in 1934 Abraham Franzblau found a negative correlation between acceptance of religious beliefs and three different measures of honesty. As religiosity increased, honesty decreased. In 1950 Murray Ross conducted a survey among 2,000 associates of the YMCA and discovered that agnostics and atheists were more likely to express their willingness to aid the poor than those who rated themselves as deeply religious. In 1969 sociologists Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark reported no difference in the self-reported likelihood to commit crimes between children who attended church regularly and those who did not. In 1975 Ronald Smith, Gregory Wheeler, and Edward Diener discovered that college-age students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on a test than their atheist and agnostic counterparts in nonreligious schools.

I'm curious what are your thoughts are about this.


By Blogger Arizona Atheist, at April 29, 2010 at 5:26 PM  

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