The Making of an Atheist by James S. Spiegel is a dangerous book. The subtitle illustrates this well: “How Immorality Leads to Unbelief”. Spiegel’s thesis is that “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” (11, his emphasis). Just above this statement is this similarly strongly worded proposal: “Perhaps we should consider the possibility that skeptical objections are the atheists’ facade, a scholarly veneer masking the real causes of their unbelief–causes that are moral and psychological in nature” (11, his emphasis).
I call the book dangerous for a few reasons. It is dangerous because Spiegel dares to assert something that Scripture holds to be quite true: there are cognitive consequences of sin. It is dangerous because the book unapologetically argues that atheism’s core tenants can be turned about; rather than atheism being a rationally superior view to theism, Spiegel argues that atheists are subject to the very objections they often raise against theism: it arises from psychological and moral deficiencies. Spiegel knows this book is dangerous. He writes “My thesis is an uncomfortable one. To suggest that religious skepticism is, at bottom, a moral problem will likely draw the ire of many people” (16).
Anyone who makes claims like these had better be prepared to back them up. Spiegel points to the oft-quoted passage from Thomas Nagel as a beginning for this discussion. Nagel writes “I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. 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” (quoted in Spiegel, 10-11). This powerful quote serves as a backdrop for much of the book.
Spiegel starts off with an analysis of atheism. He points out that the “objection from evil” (the problem of evil) may not be so strong after all. He (rightly, I think) notes that “from a naturalist standpoint the objection from evil is incoherent” (27). This is because naturalism cannot have objective right and wrong. For this and other reasons, the most “powerful” objection to theism is dismissed and avoided.
This chapter has an important concession on Spiegel’s part. He notes that some of the things atheists point out (immoral activity in the church is one example) are indeed problems. Malpractice of believers is indeed something to point out and condemn. But the point is that these things are not objections to theistic belief, rather commentaries on the believers (38).
After a brief argument against atheism and an introductory level explanation of the teleological argument, Spiegel gets into the meat of his book: the causes of atheism. Following Paul C. Vitz, Spiegel argues that one psychological reason for the rejection of theism is a broken relationship with one’s earthly father (64). Spiegel forwards this as a kind of psychological argument against atheism. Just as Freud (and others) would like to argue that theism is mere wish-fulfillment put into practice with the “father figure in the sky”, so, here, Spiegel argues that atheism could be (in some cases) due to a rejection of that true father figure in the sky, as broken relationships are projected onto (and against) the Heavenly Father. “Human beings were made in God’s image, and the father-child relationship mirrors that as God’s ‘offspring'” (69).
Spiegel follows this interesting argument with an equally enlightening discussion in the (im)morality of many top atheistic scholars. He quotes Aldous Huxley, who states “Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because… it suits their books that the world should be meaningless” (73). This rejection of meaning allows immorality. If God exists, there is clearly an objective moral standard. Thus, by rejecting God, this standard doesn’t exist. Immorality can proceed freely.
There is another important point later in this same chapter: “one may willfully refuse to believe certain truths, even when there is strong evidence for them” (83). This is followed by an exploration of what this can mean. He quotes William James, who states, “If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one” (84). Ultimately, Spiegel argues, atheists choose not to believe (86).
This choice is made against a presupposed backdrop. Simply put, everyone has a kind of “paradigm” of background beliefs that filters and limits their selection of propositions to believe. Spiegel demonstrates that this happens even among the venerated field of science. There is no such thing as a truly objective human being (92-93). What this means to his thesis, then, is that by selecting a paradigm in which the standard of truth is such that it excludes theism, an atheist will never accept theism on any amount of evidence. Rather, they must make a complete paradigm shift that allows for such a reality (100ff).
This section of the book ends with Spiegel’s assertion that the descent into atheism is a willful rejection of God, made apart from evidence (or a perceived lack thereof). Further, sin can harden one’s heart against God, thus enforcing a paradigm that is anti-theistic in nature (113-114).
The Making of an Atheist closes with a section on the “Blessings of Theism.” Here, Spiegel simply lays out the blessings spelled out in Scripture that are ours in theism. He argues we should live a virtuous life. We have the right to thank and praise God. We can live as humble believers in Christ. I wish that Spiegel had included some of the blessings of Christ in this section, but I suppose that’s not the thesis of his book. One final important point Spiegel makes actually takes place in the endnotes in this last section. Spiegel states that “we should constantly examine and reform these beliefs in light of Scripture and sound reasoning” (141). I think this is an excellent point.
Overall, The Making of an Atheist is a fast read. It’s definitely written for the lay person, though it has enough philosophy in there to keep those looking for a bit of a deeper read engaged. It’s short (less than 150 pages), so it won’t take long to finish. Spiegel’s points are solid and I will explore his conclusions further. Spiegel’s “dangerous book” is very successful.