Friday, March 05, 2010

Book Review: The Making of an Atheist by James Spiegel

The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to UnbeliefThe Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief by James Spiegel is a book that addresses the moral and psychological factors that play a role in one’s rejection of God. Spiegel’s goal is “to show that atheism is not ultimately about arguments and evidence.”1 Instead, according to Spiegel’s thesis, the unbeliever is influenced primarily by personal moral reasons.

Contrary to the public stance of many disbelievers, Spiegel argues that the real reason for 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.”2 The author takes his cue from scripture: “The biblical message is that there are moral dynamics involved in the abandonment of faith.”3 His case is a theological one: “…my purpose is to present a Christian account of atheism – an account that draws from the Bible, as any Christian doctrine properly does.”4

The author admits that this is not a popular argument to make, calling his thesis “an uncomfortable one. To suggest that religious skepticism is, at bottom, a moral problem will likely draw the ire of many people. But my goal is not to provoke or make people mad.”5 While many recent books have dealt with the intellectual obstacles to belief, Spiegel points out the core issue: “Atheism is the suppression of truth by wickedness, the cognitive consequence of immorality. In short, it is sin that is the mother of unbelief.”6

The author clearly describes his goal and clarifies the parameters of his investigation:

My purpose in this book is not to prove the existence of God or even to show that theism is more rational than atheism. […] …but the ultimate point will be to encourage us to look elsewhere besides appraisal of the evidence for the real explanation of atheism. My concern is to explain why some people don’t believe in God, whether they deny God’s existence outright or simply confess to not knowing whether God exists. How does such unbelief arise? My answer, as I made clear in the introduction, is that the rejection of God is a matter of will, not of intellect.7
Early in the book Spiegel describes what he calls the irrationality of atheism. He presents some of the most compelling common arguments for the existence of God (such as those from cosmology, fine-tuning of the universe, etc.) and then points out the flaws that are found in atheism. “If the evidence falls so clearly on the side of theism, then how does one explain the phenomenon of atheism?”8 The author then proceeds to offer a Biblical diagnosis, building a case from the scriptures (such as Psalm 14:1, Prov. 182, Prov. 1:7, Prov. 10:23, Prov. 14:16, Eph. 4:17-19, Romans 1:18-23, 24, 28-29, and John 3:19-21.) “Note also Jesus’ point that evildoers do not simply ignore or reject the light but actually ‘hate’ it. If this is so, then we should expect some atheists to display a certain amount of bitterness and even rage toward the idea of God.”9 The Biblical case seems to comport with many common experiences as well:
 The path has been roughly the same kind in each case: moral slippage of some kind – involving, for example, infidelity, resentment, or unforgiveness – followed by withdrawal from contact with fellow believers, followed by growing doubts about their faith (sometimes involving reading some of the new atheists), accompanied by continued indulgence in the respective sin, culminating in a conscious rejection of God. As this pattern would unfold, the anger and bitterness would also grow, both toward God and those who continued to believe in Him.10
When exploring the causes of atheism, Spiegel also points to the work of psychologist Paul Vitz (Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism). Vitz’s thesis, in a nutshell, is that one of the common psychological influences that predisposes one to embrace atheism is the role of a father in one’s life: “Whether we call it psychological projection, transfer, or displacement, the lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith.”11 But Spiegel points out that this alone is not a sufficient condition leading to atheism:
It appears that the psychological fallout from a defective father must be combined with rebellion – 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.12
Spiegel continues to explore the atheistic paradigm in chapter four The Obstinacy of Atheism. Here he talks about the mechanism of self-deception. He also describes the process one goes through in their “journey” to atheism:
A person’s will must also assert itself, voluntarily rejecting God, perhaps explicitly but more likely implicitly through God-defying attitudes such as resentment, unforgiveness, and hatred as well as through other ongoing immoral indulgences. Then, after a period of time, a person finds himself or herself in a state of genuine disbelief regarding God, and the gestalt switch from theism to atheism is complete.13
The author also refers to philosopher Alvin Plantinga’s concept of properly functioning cognitive faculties and describes how sin can affect one’s thinking. In this chapter Spiegel draws together the threads of his overall case and lays out some summaries:
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.14
Spiegel concludes the book with a final chapter, The Blessings of Theism, in which he explores a number of blessings that theism offers, ultimately pointing to its truth. There are also lessons to be drawn for the believer: “The less vice in one’s life, the fewer ulterior motives one will have to disbelieve such truths, whether they concern ethics or the reality of God.”15

The Making of an Atheist is a small (130 pages) book, yet the content is engrossing and thought-provoking. Perhaps the main point to be emphasized while reading it is that is not a book setting out to disprove atheism. Rather, it is a book that presents a sort of theology and psychology of atheism; an account of disbelief and its causes from a Biblical perspective. In effect, this turns the tables on those who, like Richard Dawkins, would assert that belief in God is simply a delusion. Psychological and personal volitional factors are clearly involved in all belief formation, and this applies to atheists as well as theists. Perhaps it is the atheist who is deluded and self-deceived.

1 James S. Spiegel, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010), p. 10.
2 Ibid., p. 11.
3 Ibid., p. 13.
4 Ibid., p. 14.
5 Ibid., p. 16.
6 Ibid., p. 18.
7 Ibid., p. 24.
8 Ibid., p. 50.
9 Ibid., p. 55.
10 Ibid., p. 55.
11 Ibid., p. 70.
12 Ibid., p. 81.
13 Ibid., pp. 103-104.
14 Ibid., p. 114.
15 Ibid., p. 118.


Anonymous said...

Hey Brian,
Thanks for the thoughtful and comprehensive review. I haven't heard your audio interview yet, but it's in my queue. I hope you'll have some good discussions on your sites related to these interviews.

Jordan said...

Hi Brian,

On the topic of book reviews, will you be reviewing Dembski's "The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World"?

Brian said...

I don't have it in my book queue, so I don't see it on the horizon for another six months at best. But eventually I hope to get it!

Anonymous said...

FWIW: My review (with a twist) is up titled The Making of an [A]Theist

creation said...

very nice article. Thanks for sharing. God bless.

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