This week on the Trinities Podcast Dale Tuggy interviewed James Spiegel on his 2010 book The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief.
Since my new book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? is one long rebuttal to folks like Spiegel, I listened to the interview with some interest. (You can read my earlier review of Spiegel’s book here.) And after listening, I wrote the following response.
The Rebellion Thesis
Spiegel and Tuggy begin with a discussion of Alvin Plantinga’s epistemology which has been formative in the development of Spiegel’s ideas. Spiegel observes that for Plantinga,
“sin is one of the important ways that our cognitive faculties get hampered and things can become so hampered by sin that we find ourselves even denying what should be clear to everyone regarding the reality of God…” (3:21)
So the claim is that God’s existence should be clear to everyone, and the reason it isn’t is due to sin. Note that Spiegel didn’t simply attribute that lack of clarity to original sin (a state of cognitive malfunction brought about in the past which affects all current human beings). Rather, he attributes it at least in part to personal sin, i.e. the morally culpable actions of human beings who somehow sabotage their own cognitive faculties (or the deliverances thereof).
Spiegel summarizes his core thesis in two parts:
“atheism is not the result of a lack of evidence or a failure on God’s part to make him clearly enough known in creation and human experience such that … everybody can see that it’s so.”(14:06)
“the atheistic position is the product of, to some degree, immorality, … that immorality somehow leads to unbelief” (14:26) “in some way the will is involved” (14:28)
Later in the interview, Tuggy presses Spiegel by asking about the hypothetical 9th grader in Sweden who has simply never had an opportunity or inclination to consider God as a live option for belief. Is that 9th grader’s atheism also the result, to at least some degree, of the sinful, morally culpable will of the child to reject God?
Spiegel insists that yes, this child is also in rebellion against God. As he put it earlier in the interview: “I intend it as a universal thesis.” (18:35) To be sure, “For some people it may be less willful than for others, but I do think the will is involved to some degree in every case” (19:20)
In short, Spiegel believes that in all instances, atheism is attributable at least in part to a sinful, rebellious human will which refuses to acknowledge the clear revelation of God.
What is an atheist?
Spiegel defines “atheism” broadly as “the denial of theism”. Note that this definition is sufficiently broad to encompass both belief in the non-existence of God (in other words, that which is typically called “atheism”) and a failure to believe in the existence of God (a cognitive state which encompasses agnosticism as well). As Spiegel says, “The biblical diagnosis … applies to all forms of rejection of theism” (15:32)
“Atheism,” Spiegel says, is “a rejection of theism, a definite disbelief in God”. (16:29) And that rejection can be expressed either as atheism or agnosticism. In other words, any failure to accept the proposition that God exists is explicable at least in part due to sinful rebellion.
An extraordinary claim in search of extraordinary evidence
So that’s the claim. Now let’s talk about the evidence for it.
Imagine that you encountered a book titled The Making of a Welfare Recipient: How laziness leads to welfare. Intrigued, you read the description on the back. And you discover that the author is arguing that in all cases welfare recipients are on the dole because they are, to some degree, lazy. This is an extraordinary thesis! And one would expect that the author better have some good evidence to back it up.
Similarly, if Spiegel wants to argue that every instance of atheism and agnosticism — every instance of a person failing to affirm the proposition “God exists” — is due at least in part to morally culpable, sinful rebellion, he better have some good evidence to back it up.
So what kind of evidence does he provide?
To begin with, Spiegel recounts anecdotal reports that Christian converts from atheism report that they were culpably suppressing belief in God while they were atheists. This is how Spiegel describes these folk accounting for their own previous state of unbelief:
“I was lying to myself, or I knew God was there all along. I just didn’t want to accept this. It was a kind of suppression of that belief or truth that I was aware of.” Often this is because “I didn’t want to acknowledge that I was going to be accountable.” (20:53)
This kind of testimony may support the thesis that some atheists are in rebellion against God. By the same token, the testimony of some former welfare recipients that they were on welfare because they were lazy provides evidence that some welfare recipients are on welfare because they are lazy.
But Spiegel is not merely arguing about the state of rebellion in some atheists. Rather, he’s arguing a universal thesis that all instances of atheism are the result of sinful rebellion. And in support he cites some personal anecdotes.
Can you imagine if the hypothetical author of The Making of a Welfare Recipient attempted to justify his thesis with vague personal anecdotes about former welfare recipients? Would Spiegel think this was evidence for a universal claim about all welfare recipients?
Later in the interview Spiegel also references Paul Vitz, the Christian psychologist who argued in Faith of the Fatherless that atheistic belief could be attributable to the poor relationships that people had with their fathers. Once again, this may be the case for some atheists, but it provides perilously weak evidence for a universal thesis about all atheists (and agnostics).
Citing Romans 1
The only other evidence Spiegel proffers for his rebellion thesis is found in his appeal to Romans 1 where Paul writes:
“18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, 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.”
As Spiegel puts it, this reference to “the suppression by wickedness” provides “The biblical evidence” to justify the universal thesis.
In fairness, during the interview, Spiegel also makes passing reference to Ephesians 4. And in his book he includes a smattering of other biblical texts. But none of these passages justify his universal thesis. In fact, the only passage that would seem to provide that direct evidence comes here in Romans 1.
Consequently, Spiegel ultimately argues that all instances of atheism and agnosticism are rooted in sinful rebellion based on this single passage from Romans 1.
Let’s put this in some perspective.
This is akin to arguing that no woman should be allowed to deliver a university lecture to any males based on 2 Timothy 2:
“11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
It’s also like claiming that Christians will not be harmed by the consumption of antifreeze based on a citation from Mark 16:18:
“17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
In all three cases, an extraordinarily ambitious, high stakes thesis is justified by a single biblical citation. If Spiegel would reject the latter two citations as grossly inadequate to justify such an extraordinarily ambitious, high stakes thesis, why does he think the single citation of Romans 1 is adequate to justify his extraordinarily ambitious high stakes thesis?
The Making of a Doubter
Spiegel calls his book The Making of an Atheist. But as he notes above, his argument extends to agnostics as well. Indeed, anybody who fails to affirm that God exists is in rebellion against God, “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.”
As a result, Spiegel would have been clearer had he titled his book The Making of a Doubter: How immorality leads to doubt, since his ultimate target is not belief that God doesn’t exist, but rather failure to believe that God does exist.
And that’s where the problems get worse. As I point out in Is the Atheist My Neighbor?, the problem at this point is that this reading of Romans 1 indicts not merely the failure to believe that God exists, but also the failure to believe with adequate conviction that God exists.
Consider the following illustration. Imagine that Dave says the neighbor’s convertible is blue, but Scott says it is orange. After some heated discussion, Dave and Scott walk outside to settle the debate. Dave is right: the convertible is bright blue. Now imagine Scott responds by squinting and reluctantly saying, “I guess it probably is blue, but one could certainly mistake it for orange.”
Maybe this is the best concession Scott can muster, but it appears to indicate a sore loser. After all, the evidence for the car’s blueness is overwhelming for any honest observer. Scott’s grudging concession is simply inadequate in light of the overwhelming evidence that he is wrong.
The person who agrees that God exists, but who grants the truth of that proposition less conviction than the evidence warrants, is culpable like Scott with his qualified admission of the car’s blueness.
And who might that be?
Well consider, for example, any Christian who has ever harbored doubts about the nature or existence of God. Consider any Christian who has ever dared ask “God, are you really there? Do you really care?” Consider any Christian who has worried that God might not be there. That’s a lot of Christians.
And according to the consistent application of Spiegel’s reading of Romans 1, at that moment every one of those doubts is due at least in part to sinful rebellion against the plain and clear divine revelation to God’s existence and nature.
James Spiegel seems like a genuinely amiable person. But he wrote a book that defends an extraordinary thesis which suffers from a dearth of evidence and morally indicts every person who has ever harbored a doubt about God’s existence and/or nature.
In the interview Spiegel notes that the reaction to his thesis from the atheist community has been largely hostile. No surprise there. I said above that Spiegel might better have titled his book The Making of a Doubter. But where the atheist community is concerned, he might best have called it The Making of an Enemy.