apologetics, atheism, Book Reviews

Book Review: “The Making of an Atheist” by James S. Spiegel

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.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

Discussion

13 thoughts on “Book Review: “The Making of an Atheist” by James S. Spiegel

  1. I do believe the very people that should be converting others to their belief are the best at turning one away. Maybe not to be atheists but close as. Rather than write it all out again you may find some things here of interest, pure observation and a then a knowledge of what the Bible actually says.
    http://waynebisset.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/religion-and-knowledge-worlds-apart/
    Regards
    Wayne

    Posted by waynebisset | March 23, 2010, 3:44 PM
    • Thanks for stopping by my site.

      I must say I disagree with your interpretation of these verses (on your site, linked). I see this is a classic case of eisegesis rather than exegesis.

      Examples:

      “Prov. 1:7 “The fear of Jehovah is the beginning of knowledge. Wisdom and discipline are what mere fools have despised.

      You say: “(Through discipline one may obtain wisdom?)”

      –Where does this verse say that we obtain wisdom through discipline? It clearly doesn’t actually say this. Even so, it seems that it is possible to do so, disciplined study, for example, would lead to one gaining wisdom.

      “Ecc. 9:10 “All that your hands find to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising, nor knowledge nor wisdom in She’ol, the place to which you are going.

      You say: “(Scripture shows we ALL go to Hell!)”

      –Knowledge of what this actually says is helpful. The Hebrew word She’ol can also mean “grave” (Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon, Strong’s Lexicon). We are all actually going to the grave. Again, you are reading a meaning into the text.

      “Ro. 3:20 “Therefore by works of law no flesh will be declared righteous before him, for by law is the accurate knowledge of sin.”

      You say: “(We admit sin by knowing the law, and thereby appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice completely. If we have not got accurate knowledge of the law we could use the excuse, “But I lived a good life.” Without having the law of faith.)”

      –I counter with Romans 1:20 ” For his [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. ” Taking verses out of context doesn’t make your interpretation valid.

      That’s from only 5 minutes of reading. Perhaps looking at what Jesus did actually say may be helpful:

      “Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”- John 14:6

      Again, thanks for stopping by my site. I’d love to have dialogue sometime.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 23, 2010, 4:15 PM
  2. Ah, the age old old art of attempting to attribute why someone would say something to anything besides that they believe it is true. From your description, it sounds like 150 wasted pages.

    People believe things because they are true. Freud has been discredited largely for this exact reason. To attempt to daddy issue atheism out of the debate without addressing any actual reasoning at all is silly, and doomed to failure. It can only ever convince anyone who already believes such trash.

    And seriously, a five year old could tell you what is wrong with Spiegel’s defense against the problem of evil.

    The problem of evil is a reducto ad absurdum. It demonstrates that if you actually hold all religious beliefs to be true that they are self contradicting, and therefore patently false. Of course there is no objective good and evil in naturalism, but there is in theism.

    Spiegel’s objection is exactly the same as the man who believes that the ball is all green, and that the ball is all red defending himself by pointing out that if it’s not red they don’t contradict. Pointing out the inherent contradiction proves the man is wrong, but proves nothing else, and of course at least one of his premises is faulty, because that’s the point.

    There are ways of dealing with the problem of evil, but claiming that if god doesn’t exist, then the problem of evil doesn’t apply is not a way for dealing with the problem of evil that still includes a god.

    Finally, The problem of evil is like four thousandth on the list of reasons not to believe in god(s). It’s not even very important, and Spiegel’s “concession” that believers can (do evil) [edited by site owner] too is not a concession at all, everyone already knows that. A concession would be admitting something about whether or not god did exist, since that’s the topic under discussion by atheists. Admittedly, Spiegel never once apparently mentions that at all, taking his belief as axiomatic and going from there.

    The only worthwhile conversation to have about ideas is whether or not they are true, not why you think someone believes them.

    Posted by Kaelik | March 25, 2010, 7:31 AM
    • “And seriously, a five year old could tell you what is wrong with Spiegel’s defense against the problem of evil.”

      Irrelevant and false.

      “Spiegel’s objection is exactly the same as the man who believes that the ball is all green, and that the ball is all red defending himself by pointing out that if it’s not red they don’t contradict.”

      What? That’s not analogous at all. Further, I was not outlining Spiegel’s defense. I merely said exactly what I did, “For this and other reasons, the most “powerful” objection to theism is dismissed and avoided.” I did not focus on this, as it is not central to Spiegel’s book.

      “Finally, The problem of evil is like four thousandth on the list of reasons not to believe in god(s).”

      This demonstrates either a complete lie or a misconception of what philosophy of religion has focused on since Epicurus. Not only that, but atheistic philosophers seem to think that the problem is actually the chief argument against the existence of God (see Hume, Mackie, Draper, Rowe for a few examples). Please refrain from simply making up “facts” in order to support your view.

      “Admittedly, Spiegel never once apparently mentions that at all, taking his belief as axiomatic and going from there.”

      No, I just left it out of the review, as that’s not Spiegel’s central point. I figured I would focus on what he is arguing, which is exactly what you have not addressed at all.

      “People believe things because they are true. ”

      Really? I don’t know if you realize the implications of what you’re saying. Are you saying that every belief is based upon some objective “truth”? What does this statement even mean? People believe things because they [believe] they are true? But then that of course does revert back to the “why” do they believe these things are true? But if you meant just that, that “People believe things because they are true”, then it seems as though there are a great many “truths” that are self-contradictory.

      In the future, please abstain from language (see edit), ad hominems, and/or making things up to support your view (see example with the problem of evil).

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 25, 2010, 9:54 AM
  3. 1) I like how you skip over the part about what the problem of evil actually is, because the description of it being an example of reducto ad absurdum applied to religious beliefs would completely negate the entirety of his defense against the problem of evil:

    “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.”

    Once again, of course the objection is incoherent to a naturalist. Because naturalism involves no gods or evil, so any talk of gods or evil at all is going to be incoherent.

    But the thing is, it’s not incoherent to religious people who say:

    1) God is all good.
    2) Evil exists.
    3) God is all powerful.

    To anyone who makes those claims, the problem of evil is just demonstrating the fact that those three premises are self contradicting. And therefore, at least one of them is false.

    2) People believe things because they think they are true. People believe different things that contradict things other people believe because they are ill informed. People do not believe that gods do not exist because they had daddy issues. Just like people do not believe that an all powerful sky daddy exists because they had daddy issues. People who believe one or the other, believe it because they think it is true.

    Why must believers always attempt to invent reasons why someone would (say they?) believe X even though they know for a fact it is false, instead of actually addressing the reasons that lead to someone to believe X?

    I mean, are you capable of believing something irrespective of thinking it is true?

    3) Really, The problem of evil does not even guarantee the lack of all powerful supernatural entities, just that any that exist cannot be all good.

    It’s not even important, as all it does is falsify something we already know is false. The Main reason to not believe in supernatural beings, is because there is no evidence for supernatural beings existing.

    In fact, if you just read the philosophers you listed, you could see that all of them point to the Problem of Evil positively negating specific god claims, but do not use it as a basis for unbelief, Draper and Rowe even point out explicitly that the Problem of Evil only applies to beneficent entities, and indifferent gods are not affected at all.

    To claim that the problem of evil is the main reason not to believe in gods is demonstrative of a serious lack in understanding of both atheistic philosophers and atheism in general, which, believe it or not, expands beyond people who happen to hold the title philosopher.

    Posted by Kaelik | March 26, 2010, 8:04 AM
    • “To anyone who makes those claims, the problem of evil is just demonstrating the fact that those three premises are self contradicting. And therefore, at least one of them is false.”

      Only if you think that they actually are contradictory. Notice first that there is actually no contradiction. Symbollically:
      Take P to be “all Good”
      Take G to be “God”
      Take Q to be “evil”
      Take R to be “all powerful”

      Now the three statements you list are:

      1) G is P
      2) ∃Q
      3) G is R

      How is this incoherent? How is this even an argument? It’s not. It’s just some statements thrown together with the claim that they are incoherent. That’s not the case.

      Perhaps the argument could be something like
      1) If ∃Q, then ~(∃G)
      2) ∃Q
      3) Therefore, ~(∃G)

      But this is just question begging. It makes the assumption that God and evil cannot exist together. I see no reason to take that assumption with anything more than a grain of salt.

      But to be more on point, Spiegel does not really go into this, because that’s not what the book is about. If he wrote a book on the problem of evil, this would be a flaw, but the book isn’t about that. He skims over it. That’s okay. He doesn’t want to focus on it, it’s the topic for other books.

      I must admit I’m not sure what your argument in “2)” is. I’d be happy to address it, but I can’t sort it out as it stands. What are you arguing?

      “Really, The problem of evil does not even guarantee the lack of all powerful supernatural entities, just that any that exist cannot be all good.”

      An assumption without argument. I have no reason to accept this.

      “It’s not even important, as all it does is falsify something we already know is false. The Main reason to not believe in supernatural beings, is because there is no evidence for supernatural beings existing.”

      Question begging.

      “In fact, if you just read the philosophers you listed, you could see that all of them point to the Problem of Evil positively negating specific god claims, but do not use it as a basis for unbelief, Draper and Rowe even point out explicitly that the Problem of Evil only applies to beneficent entities, and indifferent gods are not affected at all.”

      Let me ask: Are you suggesting the problem of evil is not a reason for people not to believe in the God of theism? I often see “deconverted” Christians saying that this is, indeed, their primary reason for losing faith: evil. It is the “problem” most often pressed home against the theistic philosopher.

      Also, I take offense at the implied suggestion I have not read the philosophers I listed.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | March 26, 2010, 9:19 AM
  4. Great review, thanks – I must read the book at some point.

    Incidentally, I recently attended a debate between two philosophers (one Christian, one atheist) which was held during the Global Atheism Convention. Both were highly regarded professors in the Philosophy Department at the University of Melbourne.

    The debate was unmoderated and very easy-going, and the format allowed a lot of discussion: each philosopher chose an argument to present, and they discussed them in turn. The Christian chose the “fine-tuning” of the universe as an argument that, as he put it, “a creator deity is the most likely explanation for the observed universe”. The atheist philosopher chose, as his most convincing argument against the existence of God: “The problem of evil”.

    Posted by Sentinel | April 20, 2010, 12:20 AM
    • I’m not a big fan of the “fine-tuning” argument personally. I think it is an “okay” argument, but not as good as other theistic arguments, such as the moral argument or my personal favorite, the ontological argument. Though, I have written about the teleological argument (“fine tuning” argument) favorably.

      Other theistic philosophers seem to really be favoring the teleological argument, so maybe there’s more to it than I see, but I just don’t like it as much as the others.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 20, 2010, 1:55 PM
      • Yep, it wouldn’t have been my first choice either – for one thing, to really get a grasp on the details and impact requires and a reasonable grasp of statistics and the scientific background.

        I think one reason that philosophers like it is because it is strongly in favour of logical appeal to the most parsimonious explanation: when compared to an infinite multiverse, postulating a single creator God instead is philosophically compelling.

        On scientific grounds, it’s very compelling as an indication of the divine nature of Creation, but reading that requires a decent grounding in scientific theory.

        Posted by Sentinel | April 21, 2010, 9:21 AM
      • Indeed. Of course, an “infinite multiverse” scenario has been rejected by many philosophers and scientists now (cf. the teleological argument article in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology), though a Christian could accept the multiverse theory in regards to a theodicy (as Plantinga ingeniously does, see here).

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | April 21, 2010, 1:07 PM
  5. When you understand why you reject all the other gods, you’ll know why I reject YHWH (edited to YHWH by site owner). We’re all atheists. We all lack countless beliefs.

    Posted by Don Severs | May 22, 2010, 8:11 AM
    • Ah, the classic “one step further” argument. I used to have a post about it but took it down as I wanted to rework it. I’ll need to get that updated more quickly and move it up the docket.

      The problem with saying “We’re all atheists” is that it is patently self-contradictory and false. I am not an atheist, as I actually have theistic belief. Because I am a theist, I am, necessarily by the law of non-contradiction, not an atheist. Such atheistic wordplay to try to assimilate others into their camp is utterly meaningless. You are an atheist. I am not. You could attempt to rephrase the statement by saying “you’re an atheist to the Muslim, the Hindu, etc.” but this is also false, for to the Muslim, Hindu, etc. I am not an atheist, but a Christian–one who believes a rival theistic religion as opposed to their theistic, pantheistic, deistic, etc. religion.

      So please, don’t use such obvious self-contradictory phrases.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | May 22, 2010, 9:18 AM

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