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The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief Paperback – February 1, 2010
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"The Making of an Atheist is a helpful book that introduces the reader to a biblical analysis of the nature and roots of unbelief. While not disparaging the use of apologetics in laying out a case for theism, Spiegel shows that the central issues influencing disbelief are often more a matter of a commitment to moral and spiritual independence than to an objective assessment of the evidence."
Greg Ganssle, Yale University department of philosophy and the Rivendell Institute
"Most of the work being done today in response to atheism focuses on intellectual issues and arguments against belief in God. In The Making of an Atheist, James Spiegel has crafted a clear, crisp, compelling case that there are non-rational moral and psychological dynamics that lead to unbelief. Rooted in Scripture and argued with the precision of a trained philosopher, this powerful little book is a must read for theists and atheists alike!"
Chad Meister, Bethel College philosophy professor, author of Building Belief and co-editor of God Is Great, God Is Good
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Spiegel wastes no time describing the New Atheists' opposition to Christianity. At the beginning of the book, he cites the belligerent quotes of three prominent players in the movement. Sam Harris declares, "The biblical God is a fiction, like Zeus and the thousands of other dead gods whom most sane human beings now ignore." Christopher Hitchens said, "Religion poisons everything." Richard Dawkins calls God a "delusion" and labels Him "a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, blood thirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully." Spiegel points out that the only new thing these men offer the atheist position is their "degree of bombast" and a prose that "seethes with outrage." Though their intellectual arguments have been repeatedly rebutted by Christian and non-Christian philosophers and theologians over the centuries, they present themselves as having arrived at their conclusions by intellectual inquiry. Spiegel's central thesis contradicts this very idea.
Spiegel explicitly states, "I want to show that atheism is not ultimately about arguments and evidence." He elaborates further, "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 (emphasis his)." This is Spiegel's central thesis, that atheism is a consequence of moral rebellion and not intellectual doubt.
Before continuing, a possible objection already exists. Is this central thesis a false dilemma? Spiegel does use the phrase, with emphasis, "not at all" when denying intellectual doubts as a cause of atheism. To show that there is a false dilemma, however, one would have to show that there exists an additional third possible conclusion to the following two: (1) atheism is entirely the result of intellectual doubt, or (2) atheism is entirely the result of moral rebellion. Is there a third possible conclusion? Could it be both? Spiegel points to Romans 1:18 and 20 as evidence that conclusion (2) is universally applicable to all unbelievers and there exists no defense or justification for their "refusal to accept it." I agree with his conclusion. According to God's Word, there is no excuse for unbelief, and there is no false dilemma.
Spiegel sets out to support this thesis in the first chapter by demonstrating the errors of atheists' arguments. He gives the reader a definition of "atheist" for the sake of the book. He states, "To simplify my language in this book, I will use the term "atheist" to refer to anyone who does not believe in God. This allows me to just use the term "atheist" rather than repeatedly referring to "atheists and other non-theists" throughout our discussion."
Therein lays, in my opinion, the major flaw in the book. Is Spiegel's central thesis referring to disbelief in monotheism or the God of the Bible? Noteworthy is the fact that Spiegel capitalizes "God" in this quote. I took that to refer to the God of the Bible. Furthermore, there are forms of monotheism, such as deism, that also reject the God of the Bible. Would that not also be a rejection based on moral rebellion consistent with Romans 1:18 and 20? It would seem so, but Spiegel turns to the conversion of Anthony Flew from atheism to deism as an example of rational evidence persuading someone away from atheism. Spiegel says, "...Flew explains his reasons for recanting atheism and affirming the reality of God." There is that capital G again. I disagree with Spiegel on this point. Flew did not affirm the reality of God. He merely affirmed the reality of monotheism. His conversion is still a very valid point that supports Spiegel's central thesis as it is, but he could have been clearer about what Flew actually affirmed. Furthermore, I believe Spiegel's central thesis should have been more clearly that the rejection of the God of the Bible is the consequence of moral rebellion.
This disagreement aside, the first chapter does well to address the objections of atheists. Spiegel points out that "the common objection from evil does pack some punch, and it is a genuine problem for theists." He rightly goes on to explain that it is a blatant non-sequitur to conclude from this problem that there is no God; and it merely follows that, if true, the problem only undermines our beliefs about the nature of God. Spiegel also points to the deathblow to the atheists' positivism, self-refutation. He also offers a compelling argument that moral values and the belief that life is meaningful are "borrowed capital for the atheist." This is indeed a glaring inconsistency for the positivist.
Spiegel concludes the first chapter by ceding that atheists are correct in some of their common objections. There are hypocritical believers. There are morally complacent believers. Religion has been used "as a pretext for shoddy scientific methodology." Spiegel even adds two more complaints that he has encountered among those who have left the faith. First, there is the divisiveness of non-essential doctrinal matters. Second, there is "distaste for some believers refusal to admit mystery when it is clearly appropriate to do so." I agree that these are valid complaints. I also agree, as Spiegel points out, that they do not constitute reasonable objections to theistic faith. At most, they accuse us as believers, not the belief itself.
In chapter two, Spiegel, as previously mentioned, cites the conversion of Anthony Flew from atheism to deism. By illustrating the teleological arguments that convinced Flew, Spiegel aims to show the "irrationality of atheism."
I think Spiegel missed an opportunity to clearly level at least two additional powerful arguments for the existence of God. The cosmological argument and the moral argument are commonly compelling arguments. Not everyone finds the teleological argument compelling, though perhaps one of the others they would. I perceive that Spiegel's intention was not to provide an in depth argument for the existence of God. It seems that the brevity and curtness of his central thesis and its support are rhetorical tools. I think those tools served him well, but they would not have been compromised with these additional arguments. To be fair and clear, Spiegel does present components of the moral argument in other parts throughout the book. I am merely suggesting that this chapter could have included these arguments in a clear, and even syllogistic, way. If these arguments for the existence of God were in the book, and the central thesis was narrowed to refer to all non-believers in the God of the Bible, I would have rated this book with five stars. I believe these are its two major weaknesses.
Spiegel also elaborates, in this chapter, on a biblical diagnosis for atheism. He points first to Psalm 14:1, "the fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" Spiegel notes that the Hebrew word for "fool" used here denotes a person who is "morally deficient." Spiegel puts the quotation marks on "morally deficient," but does not cite a source for this claim. Because Spiegel's area of expertise is in philosophy and religion, and not biblical languages, I would expect him to cite a source for this. Minor and nit-picky perhaps, but important to me.
Despite that weakness, he goes on to illustrate the scriptural evidence of the cause for disbelief with compelling passages. Most compelling to me in support of Spiegel's central thesis was John 3:19-21. Here, Jesus emphasizes the role of wickedness in rejecting the Truth. Jesus even makes the point that evildoers do not simply reject the light, but actually "hate" it. Spiegel also accurately cites Romans 1:18-24, 28-29, and Ephesians 4:17-19 to support his thesis.
Chapter three was to me the most intriguing. Spiegel stands up three causes for atheism. He cites the work of Paul Vitz in Faith of the Fatherless to show that a look at the lives of numerous renowned atheists have shared a common link of having abusive, perverted, or absent fathers. Spiegel is quick to follow this with the point that having a defective father does not guarantee one will become an atheist. This psychological consideration is both compelling support for Spiegel's thesis and most intriguing to me.
Another cause that Spiegel points to is a self-serving depravity. He points to several leading intellectuals and their accompanying egotistical perversions as evidence that atheism is self-serving. For example, Karl Marx was fiercely anti-Semitic, unfaithful to his wife, and sired an illegitimate son whom he refused to acknowledge. Jean Jacques Rousseau sired five illegitimate children and abandoned them to orphanages, which in his social context meant certain early death. Ernest Hemingway was a pathological liar, misogynistic womanizer, and self-destructive alcoholic. These are but a few of the examples Spiegel cites. His point is taken from Intellectuals by Paul Johnson, which Spiegel describes as "a 342 - page historical exposé that recounts behavior so sleazy and repugnant that one almost feels corrupted just by reading it." Spiegel best makes his point when he quotes Johnson thus, "the works of these intellectuals were often calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery." This is exactly what one should expect to find if one considers the scriptural truths previously cited.
The third cause Spiegel points out is the "will to disbelieve." This he gives as a subtitle to this section, playing on the words of William James' influential essay The Will to Believe, which he cites often. A quote of James best sums up Spiegel's point: "If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one." He brings up the quote from Thomas Nagel, which he introduced earlier in the book, as evidence for this position. Nagel said, "I want atheism to be true...It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." Nagel's moment of honesty strikingly confirms this part of Spiegel's support for his thesis.
Chapter four introduces us to a concept Spiegel calls "paradigm-induced blindness." Of the person who suffers from this, Spiegel says, "Their theoretical framework prevents them from seeing the truth, even when it is right in front of them." Spiegel cites Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to illustrate that it is a naïve notion to believe that scientists are immune to confirmation bias. Using the illustration of geocentric beliefs verses heliocentric beliefs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Spiegel asks, "Why couldn't those geocentrists, including both church leaders and scientists, see the truth?" This is an example of opposing paradigms. The centers of the two paradigms of theism and atheism are expressed by Spiegel when he says, "God is the center of the theist's worldview, and this colors his or her every experience and value judgment. On the other hand, the axis of a worldview without God is necessarily the self, and the atheist's values and personal experience are shaped accordingly."
This atheist paradigm naturally prevents one from seeing certain sinful practices as immoral. In turn, their repugnance at a "narrow" or "repressed" Christian ethic, especially regarding sexual morality, serves to reinforce their atheist paradigm. Add to the mix the noetic effects of sin, and paradigm-induced blindness becomes a vicious cycle that entrenches the atheist in blind disbelief. This total causal pattern, Spiegel dubs "the psychological machinery of self-deception."
I think Spiegel has presented a compelling case in this chapter. I further believe that the biblical concept of the noetic effect of sin strongly supports this conclusion. The atheist might charge that the same can be said about Christianity, that the Christian paradigm induces blindness. While I believe this is a weak argument, I wish Spiegel had taken the time to address that possible objection.
In the last chapter, chapter five, Spiegel makes a positive claim for "the blessings of theism." He makes the point that there is apologetic value in the life well lived, and that the most effective tools of persuasion are personal virtue and self-sacrifice. I agree that these are indeed effective tools for persuasion in regards to Christianity, which I think is Spiegel's point. Considering that Matthew 7:13-14 teaches us that the road is narrow and the gate is small that leads to eternal life, and few find it, I don't agree with this statement in general. The most effective tools of persuasion, in general, seem to be self-indulgence and the justification of immorality. Perhaps that is why the road to destruction is wider?
As importantly, Spiegel gives three reasons why virtue is beneficial to one who is already a believer. First, one avoids the deadening of the sensus divinitatis. Second, virtue prevents motives for willful disbelief. Thirdly, living according to a true paradigm has the power to enlighten, clarify, and sharpen one's experience of the world.
Spiegel also points out that, in addition to the benefits of hope in eternal life and relief by forgiveness of sins, we also have "the right to complain and the privilege to thank." Because negative emotions are often the first steps towards doubt and disbelief, the right to complain to God is important. Because offering thanks can be profoundly satisfying and a form of psychological release, thanking God is important. Furthermore, Spiegel claims that the failure to be adequately thankful can cause one to have a distorted perception of pride and autonomy. These are indeed beneficial and compelling because the atheist worldview is left with the challenge of showing how this is not the case, while seeming axiomatic.
Spiegel concludes this chapter, and the book, with an eye to the grace that God showed us. With a reminder that, while everything we do warrants God's judgment, He intervened when we did nothing to deserve it. This love is a matter of virtue and should be "the first and last order of business for any Christian."
Spiegel has provided the Christian with a concise and effective resource to respond to the intrepid hostility, baseless conclusions, and deceptive irrationality of the New Atheists. While there is room for improvement, and I do not think this book provides the complete essentials to equip the Christian to respond to intellectual objections of atheists, I think this is a must read for Christians confronted with New Atheism in our society. Spiegel has supported his central thesis, that atheism is the result of moral rebellion and not intellectual doubt, very well. At 128 pages, it is such a profoundly powerful message in a small package, that atheists are guaranteed to hate it.
He begins by referencing the atheists themselves, such as Thomas Nagel who has said that he doesn't want God to exist. They are willing to accept wild theories rather than accepting the evidence for God. For example, both Francis Crick and and Richard Dawkins are open to the notion of directed panspermia, which is that life appeared because aliens planted it here.
He also argued that certain factors, specifically fatherlessness and immorality, predispose people to reject God. I suspect that these factors led to significant resistance to Spiegel's hypotheses, though probably for emotional, rather than logical reasons.
At the end of the book, he concludes with a short chapter on The Blessings of Theism. A common ploy from many of the new atheists is to talk about how theism is bad for society. Reality proves otherwise.
If you have an interest in why people think the way they do, this may be a good read for.
But what about those of faith? To my mind that is the bigger question here. Does a lifestyle which rejects the basic tenants of Biblical morality lead to a rejection of God by those of a Biblical world view? Does moral compromise through generations insidiously erode the foundations of faith? After reading The Making of an Atheist, I believe you’ll find the answer to that question is an unfortunate yes.
I think the history of higher education in this country is a good example of Mr. Spiegel’s premise. Who doesn’t know that Harvard, Yale and many of the most prestigious institutions of learning in the US were started by those of a Biblical world view to promote not just higher education but a Biblical moral standard? And today? Those very same institutions are bastions of secular humanism which is the very antithesis of their founder’s intentions.
Morality by its very nature is a God attribute. Without God mankind’s competing self-interests are ultimately destructive. Without God each of us becomes merely the next meal in an endless evolutionary food chain. Is that really how we want to see the beauty and mystery of the world around us?