Do atheists simply want to know the truth? Does anybody?

Posted on 06/12/13 23 Comments

A few years ago I undertook an extended review of the volume The Christian Delusion edited by John Loftus. I find that with the topic of culpability and non-belief having arisen, this would be a good time to repost the second part of that extended review. So here it is:

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When I enter an important art museum like the Tate Modern or National Gallery I don’t aim to be out in twenty minutes. Rather, I linger over the displays, biding my time as I seek to extract every ounce of juice from the rinds of canvas and marble. (Ugh, that’s a rather tortured idiom, is it not?)

Anyway, I carry the same attitude with important books. Forget the Coles notes folks. Let’s linger. That is my justification for spending the last post devoted to a back cover blurb of The Christian Delusion and this present post just on the Foreword. Yes, I will get to the body of the work eventually, but there are nuggets of discussion to be had here too. So let’s squeeze the pages and see what kind of juice oozes out. (Ugh the idioms become more tortured yet.)

The Foreword to CD is written by one time evangelical evangelist now atheistic evangelist Dan Barker. Mr. Barker begins by quoting pop Christian apologist Lee Strobel reflecting on his own experience back when he was an atheist. As Strobel analyzes his own disbelief, it was motivated largely by the desire to live a certain kind of lifestyle and not be accountable to a higher power.

I take Strobel’s analysis to be correct. Surely he is a reasonably reliable guide on his own past disbelief. I take it as well that others may be in a similar boat. But many Christians assume more strongly that all disbelief is evidence of sinful rebellion. Many find an advocate for those conclusions in the Apostle Paul:

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature-have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Rom. 1:1-21)

On this reading Paul is taken to be saying that the atheist suppresses universally available knowledge of God (AKA general revelation) because they want to justify wicked, licentious behavior. (By my reading Christian ethicist J. Budziszewski provides some very candid analyses of the sinful motivations of disbelief.)

There are big problems with such Pauline exegesis. For one thing, while it is directed most forcefully against atheists, the post Enlightenment atheist who rejects any and all higher powers was a virtual unknown in the ancient world and thus was no where near Paul’s target here.

Not all Christians accept that the atheist opinion is a matter of rebellion. Thus in the Foreword to atheist Hemant Mehta’s I Sold My Soul on eBay, Christian writer Rob Bell comments: “As you try to figure out what exactly his agenda is, you’ll probably arrive at the same conclusion I did. I think he’s [that is, Mehta] simply after the truth.”

Barker is clearly on the same page as Rob Bell:

“what unites the authors of this volume is not revenge for having been victimized by the deceptions of religion, but a burning desire for actual facts. If we doubters do have a psychological motivation, perhaps it is the mental hunger, the intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge. As you read the following chapters, you will sense-almost palpably-the searing human drive to understand.” (11)

Here I find myself caught in the middle. On the one hand, I heartily agree that it is untenable to dismiss all those who take a particular view of the world that dissents from mine, be they atheists, Mormons, or Chicago school capitalists, to be morally suspect simply in virtue of dissenting from my opinions.

But I am also a bit cautious about saying that anybody, be they atheists, Mormons, Chicago school capitalists, or me, is ever simply after the truth.

There is a popular notion that academics – philosophers and especially scientists – are driven by the pure desire to know. That’s baloney. As an academic, you stake a claim that a certain set of propositions is true, or more likely true, than another set (even if that set is the skeptic’s set which advocates withholding belief in other sets).

The more time and effort you put into developing and defending your chosen set of claims, the more you have a vested interest in it, the more it becomes part of your identity, and the more that an attack on it becomes an attack on you. Career, pride, fear, and innumerable other factors all shape the way that we assess the evidence.

(Illustration: Mr. X tells you that your nation is an oppressor, your spouse is a jerk or your child is a monster. It is the rare patriot, spouse or parent that will respond to such a charge with a pure, dispassionate quest to know the truth. Most of us in at least some of these circumstances will feel the fire under our collar as we formulate our supposedly “dispassionate rebuttal”. Just as we identify emotionally with nations and persons, so we identify with truth claims, theories and ideologies.)

So to sum up: are any of us motivated simply by a burning desire for actual facts, an intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge? I doubt it. But then if atheists are no better off on this count, neither can we say they are categorically any worse off. And with that, let’s all concede that we begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know, more or less.

  • John Grove

    [[are any of us motivated simply by a burning desire for actual facts, an
    intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge? I doubt it]]

    It’s a shame you feel this way. You should read the upcoming book by ex-pastor Jerry DeWitt which I have just finished. Additionally, I simply do not agree with your conclusion that people are not driven to facts. I think some people are. I recall Christopher Hitchens said to WLC in a debate, “I am willing to accept, based on the available evidence, conclusions that may be unwelcome to you, I’m sorry I have to spell that out to you.”

    I would agree. Facts should move us. And I do believe there are others who believe this too.

    • ImRike

      I agree with you, John; but you have to realize that Randal speaks from a christian view which he points out clearly:

      [[are any of us motivated simply by a burning desire for actual facts, an
      intense craving to truly fill in the blanks of knowledge? I doubt it]]

      I can honestly say that I know very few Christians who would be motivated by facts – they might say they are searching, but once they find them, they prefer to “keep looking” rather than filling in the blanks.

      As to myself, I have to honestly say that I did not become an atheist because I was looking for facts: I was born into a catholic family, went to catholic school, but even as a child, I never identified with my religion or seriously believed in a “father in the sky”. Now as an atheist, I do have a desire for facts and if anybody was able to fill in the blanks with a proven truth about god – any god – I would no longer be godless!

  • David_Evans

    Your post made me think. I decided I’m not so much motivated by a search for truth as by a desire to understand the world. It gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to follow (for instance) the arguments that show how Newton’s laws of dynamics lead to Kepler’s laws of planetary orbits. I feel that having done that, I understand the world a little better than I did before.

    I also enjoy following and trying to understand philosophical and theological arguments. But at the end I seldom feel that I have understood the world any better. I think because (unlike Kepler’s laws) there is seldom any independent corroboration of the conclusions.

    • John Grove


      That is very insightful. With science, you feel like you learn so much about the universe. I love going to the Science Museum in LA or visiting the Griffith Observatory. And I love reading books on science, especially books on the brain. You always feel like you have learned something.

      But theological talks and debates, all I ever seem to learn is that Christians can have such stark differences amongst even themselves that there is no real consensus on much of anything. Additionally, it never adds real understanding to our world. The focus on the metaphysical, the obfuscation of religious talk, merely show me the man made nature of the thing. I think the awareness we are seeing in the world made by atheists is like a sleeping giant has awoken us and I don’t think religion will ever be the same again.

  • David

    Your last section reminds me of something I read in Tim Keller’s The Reason for God. I believed he quoted Thomas Nagel or another popular atheist who had remarked about how none of us really approach the question of “Is there a God” with pure objectivity — we all want the answer to be one way or the other. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me it is definitely true.

    • David

      I think this concept also brings back the importance of sharing dissenting views respectfully as to avoid pride being a barrier to a person considering your viewpoint.

  • josephpalazzo

    I’ve spent all my life studying Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, Quantum Field theory and other related topics. But since I’m an atheist, I’m not interested in the truth because I have a vested interest in some “absurd position of not knowing the truth” and an attack on that becomes an attack on me?!? Great.

    • John Grove

      Gotta love that Christian rhetoric. In Stephen Law’s book on Bullshit, this is what is called, “Going Nuclear”. If Randal can bring all beliefs down to the same level, he can then begin to make his look good.

      Rational people can see through this, people on the “inside” of a religion are incapable.

  • Stephen Maitzen

    One potential obstacle to truth-seeking that we can’t ignore is
    institutional. Anyone who earns his living teaching at an institution
    that takes an official, institutional stand on some controversial issue,
    such as God’s existence, faces potential or actual constraints on his
    freedom to seek and profess the truth on that issue. I would never
    submit to such constraints, and it’s therefore fortunate that I’m not asked to by the secular
    institution where I teach.

  • Matt DeStefano

    Randal, I originally wrote a comment but it went on a for a long time so I decided to post it on Secular Outpost:

    • Randal Rauser

      Thanks for counting me worthy of refutation. I’ll take a look…

      • John Grove

        [[Thanks for counting me worthy of refutation. I'll take a look...]]

        Randal, for the record, you are one of the few Christians that are worthy to be refuted! So cheer up brother.

      • Matt DeStefano

        Refutation is a strong word. I prefer “worthy of disagreement”.

    • Jeff

      Just read it–nice response Matt.

    • David

      Very interesting response. Thanks.

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  • brad lencioni

    A past professor of mine at Sacramento State, Matt McCormick, recently made a blog post – titled “Problems with Faith”– which reminded me of this post of yours, Mr. Rauser.

    You concluded here “…let’s all concede that we begin on the same ground, a self-interested desire to know, more or less.” But I don’t think this is true. For many Christians are playing an entirely different game (and to their own admission) than that of philosophy and science; the beliefs and motivations are simply not of the same ground–there are very different epistemological ideals motivating people of faith and people practicing science. And I think McCormick does an excellent job elucidating this in a piece that is very germane to your topic here.

    I hope you can check it out!


    • Randal Rauser

      Thanks Brad.

      I have some past interaction with Matt McCormick and I didn’t find that he was particularly interested in the truth.


      • brad lencioni

        Hmmm, interesting. I’m sorry you think that way of him.

        Can you cite any scientist or philosopher (outside of theism) who formally bases his study or some particular formal conclusion of his work upon (anything like) an appeal to faith, the Holy Spirit, a sensus divinitatus, etc.? Don’t you think that the idealized epistemic standards of someone who makes such appeals and someone who rejects them are fundamentally different? And that these different idealizations produce different intellectual characters?

        I don’t think that the grounding of theistic and scientific thought are as similar as you are suggesting.

        • Randal Rauser

          What do you mean by “an appeal to faith”?

          • brad lencioni

            I think my comments would make more sense (and it would save me a lot of time explaining) if we both shared the background knowledge of having watched McCormick’s short video on W. L. Craig’s Faith and Witness of the Holy Spirit—a viewpoint which I don’t think is fundamentally different from Plantinga’s sensus divinitatus, nor Moser’s Volitionalism, etc., and which does represent a distinct way of “pursuing truth” from secular fields of study.

            If you would rather not invest your time in this, that is fine. Also, I only recently stumbled onto your blog, and I know nothing of your ideas about epistemology; hence, when I have some time, I’ll read up and let you know what I think (if you don’t mind).

            Thanks for your time.

        • Randal Rauser

          Let me add: you write as if you haven’t read any Christian epistemologists — people like Michael Bergmann, William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, Robert Audi, and Paul Moser. In none of these cases do these epistemologists engage in the special pleading that you suggest. Instead, each presents a general epistemological theory and embeds the justification of particular theological beliefs within the general theory. That’s what I do in my published writings as well.

          So it would help matters greatly if you were informed about my epistemological views so that we could have an informed discussion. I’d be happy to answer specific questions about my views. Apart from reading my books you can just search terms like “epistemology,” “faith,” “foundationalism” and “proper basicality” on this site.