Thursday, April 01, 2010

Book Review: The Making of an Atheist - Part 1

Making of an Atheist
TITLE: The Making of an Atheist
SUBTITLE: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief
AUTHOR: James S. Spiegel
PUBLISHER: Moody Publishers, Chicago
YEAR: 2010
ISBN: 978-0-8024-7611-1
PAGES: 141 (including notes and acknowledgements)

Apologetics, especially in the face of blunt, dare I say "blind", atheism, is never
easy. The question of their "blindness" always intrigues me. How could they not see God's handiwork all across creation? How could any rational person believe the fairy tale of goo to the zoo to you? How could a thinking person deny that what so clearly looks like design is not design? If an alien (of the grey extra-terrestrial variety) lands on our moon, would their first thought really be, "I wonder how many million years it took for this flag to evolve on this moon?" (The flag mentioned here is the one that the Apollo 11 crew planted on the moon.) Why do these atheists not believe? Why are the New Atheists like Dawkins so acerbic towards any belief in God, especially Christianity?

This is exactly what James Spiegel set out to do, in his own words:

"Perhaps we should consider the possibility that skeptical objections are the atheists' façade, a scholarly veneer masking the real causes of their unbelief--causes that are moral and psychological in nature. That is precisely my aim in this book." [emphasis the author's] p11

But, before we get into the contents of the book... What struck me about this book was how easy it was to read. One would expect a book on atheists to be just as dreary as you would expect the people of the subject to be. Yet, to my surprise, I finished the book in 5 days. That was in the midst of a full day's work, assisting the children in homework, ensuring that they are prepared for their 2 weekly scheduled tests and other fatherly duties. I am generally about an average reader when it comes to speed, so I am not a fast reader at all.

Yet, even though this book is an easy read, it is certainly worth reading it. When one is used to reading books such as the Puritan Papers by J.I. Packer, or The God Who Justifies by James R. White, or A History of South Africa by Frank Welsh, one would expect such an easy read to be light on content. Yet,  this is not the case. The author used a style of writing and volume of content to produce a book that is not laden to death with facts and studies, but just enough to pique the interest of readers that do not usually read the "heavy" stuff. Jim Spiegel definitely wrote this book for the everyday type of reader and not for academics.

One caveat to the casual peruser of this book, especially if such a person is looking for a book with  answers against atheism, is that this is not that type of book. This book does not give answers to the difficult questions that atheists can sometimes throw at Christians, although it touches on them here and there. This book seeks to tell us where atheists come from, how these people become atheists.

Apart from the Introduction, this book only has five chapters as follows:
  1. Atheistic Arguments, Errors, and Insights
  2. The Irrationality of Atheism
  3. The Causes of Atheism
  4. The Obstinacy of Atheism
  5. The Blessings of Theism


This book will give us an overview of why atheists do not believe, as James Spiegel says:

"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." p10

Spiegel points to the irrationality of atheists such as Richard Dawkins who would even appeal "to little green men as the creators of life on Earth, yet he calls theists delusional?" (p12) One's values have great impact on one's beliefs.

One of the points that Spiegel highlights in the Introduction is that scientists are not as objective as they would have us believe, and so many of us naïvely believe. First, he brings to mind the fact that humans are also "cognitively fallen," and that immorality "hampers our ability to reason correctly, especially regarding moral and spiritual matters." (p14) This, Alvin Plantinga calls a product of "malfunctioning cognitive faculties." Second, Spiegel gleans some information on this from Thomas Kuhn, a philosopher of science. Kuhn wrote that scientists are not really objective in their observation of the world, but rather interpret what they observe according to the scientific theory which they are committed to. Scientists, like us ordinary mortals, see what they expect or even want to see.

We are encouraged by Dr. Spiegel  not to be intimidated by the new atheists and that we must not be deceived into thinking that atheism is primarily an intellectual endeavour. "It is little more than rebellion cloaked in academic regalia." (p16) Atheism is simply false at the most basic level and is a distortion of reality as it really is.

A fitting closure to the Introduction is:

"In short, it is sin that is the mother of unbelief." [emphasis the author's] p18.

The Introduction sums the book up very succinctly. It is possible to read the Introduction without having to read the whole book and still get the gist of the book. However, the necessary detail just will not be there to flesh out the skeleton that was set before us here.

1. Atheistic Arguments, Errors, and Insights

In this chapter, Dr. Spiegel first lays some definitions down as he uses them. This is very important, since  it is so easy to create misunderstanding between people when they do not use common definitions of terms. In naturalism, the existence of all so-called supernatural beings are denied, since all that is "real can be fully described in terms of matter." (p22) There is nothing apart from matter and space. In terms of atheism, atheists are those that deny the existence, or disbelieves in the existence, of the divine. In the book, Spiegel uses the common meaning of the word atheist, as someone who does not believe in the existence of God.

The usual suspects in the world of atheism that write, debate and appear on television are Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and Harris. Jim Spiegel says that

"two principal lines of argument emerge: the problem of evil and the scientific irrelevancy of God" p24

Based on this, Dr. Spiegel sheds some light on the issue of evil, writing that he does so not because the

"theism/atheism debate really boils down to a contention over evidence, but rather to show that something other than the quest for truth drives the atheist." p24

From this point Dr. Spiegel deals with the issue of evil in terms of moral evil and natural evil. Moral evil is perpetrated by human beings in the form of lying, murder, rape and more. Natural evil concerns  diseases, natural disasters, etc. Here Dr. Spiegel spends a short time on why evil exists. Of course a full treatment of the subject cannot be expected at this point in the book, so we won't. The objection by non-believers and especially atheists based on the problem of evil is important and is a real problem to explain. However, this objection "could never count as grounds for atheism." (p26) Although it  undermines certain ideas about God's nature, it certainly does not prove that God does not exist. All that it really does is "prompt us to reconsider what kind of God exists, not whether God exists." Further,  Spiegel calls the objection from evil incoherent. Why does he say this? Well, naturalists have no grounds for calling something evil. Since naturalists only believe in physical material facts, "[t]hey have no foundation for a standard of goodness." (p27) DNA has no moral leg to stand on. It only exists and does not know the difference between good and evil. Experiments and equations do not know moral values.

At the start of this chapter Dr. Spiegel quoted the statements from the ads on many British buses in 2009:

There's Probably No God.
Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.

A similar campaign in the U.S. stated:

Why believe in a god?
Just be good for goodness' sake.

Although atheists/naturalists speak of being happy and enjoying their lives, with no belief in an afterlife, and no lasting meaning or value to their existence, there can only be destruction and no more  consciousness after death, leaving them "with grounds for despair, not happiness." (p30) One of the most  famous atheists, Bertrand Russell, spoke of this despair.

Can atheists really speak of being good in the absence of God? Dr. Spiegel poses two questions on this:

"Can human beings find sufficient motivation to live morally without religious belief? And even more fundamentally, does the concept of goodness even make sense in the absence of God?" p32

Immanuel Kant raised the point that there can not be any real moral responsibility without God. In  essence, if there is no final judge there can be no moral responsibility. With Nietzsche stating that there are no moral facts, the author writes:

"Without God there is no inherent purpose or meaning to human life, and without such meaning there can be no morality or ethical standards." p33-34

As a result, happiness and goodness are not really possible for atheists. The fact is that atheists do not have their own category of goodness because it does not exist. As a result they borrow moral capital from theists to launch their attacks on theists.

Are some atheists' complaints against theists, especially Christians, reasonable? Dr. Spiegel says yes! Firstly, there definitely is a problem with hypocrisy, "under the general category of evil." (p35) Many evils have been done in the name of religion. People do not always live consistently with their confessed moral standards. Dr. Spiegel quotes Sam Harris from his Letter to a Christian Nation:

"Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible." p35

Although I do not want to minimise Spiegel's response to what Harris accuses Christians of doing, statements like these should also be put into perspective. Dr. Spiegel could have made a response to the accusations of Christian abuse like Greg Koukl has in his online article, God Is Not Responsible or like Dr. Peter Hammond's article The Black Book of Communism. The fact is that atheism has killed more people in the 20th century then any other ideology has in any other period of recorded time. Dr. Spiegel could also have written something about Harris' unfounded statement that these atrocities were committed by Christians "on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible."

Second, among those who name themselves Christians, there is a definite problem with moral  complacency. Christians do not practice enough self-denial, and become greedy, stingy, slothful, gluttonous, lustful, etc. Thirdly, the atheists are correct in saying that religion has often been used as a pretext for bad science. Dr. Spiegel adds two of his own commonly heard complaints next. Fourthly, there is divisiveness based on peripheral doctrine. Lastly, some believers refuse to admit the existence of mystery when appropriate to do so. We try too much to have all our doctrinal t's crossed and i's dotted, and do not want to admit there are sometimes things that we just do not know.

While I agree with Spiegel to a degree on this point, I hardly see this as a serious problem in the modern evangelical church. The New Evangelicals are hardly contending "for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints." (Jd 1:3) We certainly see more of over-mystifying their experiences and creating so-called mystery out of every verse they read from the Bible. Further, they allow all kinds of false teachers to teach their people, from Word-of-faith heresy to Oneness Pentecostals. Beyond that we also have the Emergent Church that is walking the same liberal road that the mainline churches walked during the time of Machen just a century or so ago. I would say the more pressing problem is that "Christians" no longer know what Christianity is all about.

Spiegel goes on to say that atheists speak out about the abusers of religion and reject the belief instead of its abusers. Throwing out the baby with the bath water?

With this we come to the end of the first chapter.

Next, we will cover chapters 2 and 3.

Please also read my interview with Dr. Spiegel.

Read the following:
Interview with Dr. Jim Spiegel
Review of The Making of an Atheist Part 2
Review of The Making of an Atheist Part 3

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