Monday, February 1, 2010

The Making of an Atheist - A Review 1

Before I started this book I thought I was going to get a smattering of Bible verses that were referenced but not seriously treated. Instead the emphasis would be on psychology. Perhaps I would also find a few arguments in response to the New Atheists. I was wrong. James Spiegel is very serious about what Scripture says but finds some intriguing evidence from psychology which offers additional support for what he thinks makes an atheist.

In the introduction we are greeted with some of the main characters of the New Atheism: Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Thomas Nagel. Spiegel explains that there is really nothing new from these chaps “except the degree of bombast in their claims.” (10) The reason that this is nothing new is because the biblical writers have long recognized that some reject the existence of God. Psalm 19:1 says “the fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” The New Testament is equally clear. Paul says in Romans 1 that creation is a witness to God’s invisible qualities “so that men are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20) Spiegel says the purpose of his book is “not to defend the Christian worldview nor even theism” but rather “to present a Christian account of atheism.” (14) Spiegel introduces us to Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga and a Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn. He briefly notes that Plantinga argues that our cognitive faculties are designed to function in a certain manner. However those faculties do not always function properly because of sin. “Immorality hampers our ability to reason correctly, especially regarding moral and spiritual matters. And the more a person indulges in sin, the more his or her mind is corrupted, sometimes event to the point that one’s awareness of God is deadened. If Plantinga is right, atheism is a product of malfunctioning cognitive faculties.” (14-15) Thomas Kuhn’s landmark book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions demonstrates that “scientists do not observe the world objectively but always interpret what they see in light of the scientific theory to which they are committed.” (15) If Kuhn is right, Spiegel says, “then it is no surprise that hard-core atheists should be so confident in their disbelief. Their atheistic paradigm ensured that they see no trace of God, despite the fact that His fingerprints can be seen everywhere in the world.” (16)

Chapter one addresses atheistic arguments, errors, and insights. Spiegel cites two main arguments that are advanced for atheism: the problem of evil and the scientific irrelevancy of God. The former has been sufficiently answered by either the free will defense or the greater good defense. But, Spiegel contends, the problem of evil can never disprove the existence of God. At best it can only “undermine certain beliefs about the nature of God. . . 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.” (26-27, emphasis his) Furthermore, atheists have “no grounds to call anything evil.” They have no basis for any sense of goodness apart from God’s existence. The natural end of atheism leads only to pessimism, bleakness and despair. Hardly a life worth enjoying. But Spiegel says the atheists have made some accurate complaints. Among those are the problem of hypocrisy, moral complacency, and the “pretext for shoddy scientific methodology.” (35-36) Spiegel adds two of his own observations; namely the tendency of Christians to divide over peripheral doctrinal matters and the all too common “refusal to admit mystery when it is clearly appropriate to do so.” (36-37) But even these “correct” observations do “not constitute reasonable objections to theistic belief per se” rather these “arguments accuse us of theistic malpractice.” (38 emphasis his)

Chapter two starts with the conversion of the prominent atheist Anthony Flew to deism (note: the whole issue of Flew's "conversion" is contested by some.). Spiegel outlines the reasons why Flew turned to deism. 1) Why are the laws of nature the way they are? 2) The fact of the universe. And, 3) the question of the origin of life. He notes that each of these categories of evidence for God “is immune to the evolutionary objection.” (48) With all of this evidence for God then why are there atheists? Spiegel does not think the problem is intellectual. There are many smart atheists. This suggests that something else is the cause. Here we find a Biblical diagnosis for atheism. Spiegel notes that Psalm 14:1 says the fool says there is no God. But here “fool” means someone who is “morally deficient.” (51) He continues on to the New Testament with Romans 1. We saw both of these texts in the Introduction. Here Spiegel spends a little more time fleshing out the meaning of the passages and the defense of his interpretation. He also provides anecdotal evidence from his own personal life of friends who have changed their mind about God. He says that “invariably, their ‘change of mind’ about God was precipitated by some personal rebellion.” (55) The biblical evidence suggests that the arguments of atheists are “an intellectual ruse masking their rebellion.” (56)

In a future post I’ll look at the second half of the book where Spiegel deals with the causes and obstinacy of atheism as well as the blessings of theism. It is here that psychological plays a major role in Spiegel’s thesis.

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