The “new atheists” are the anti-god, anti-religion gunslingers who make a lot of money by telling people in their books about the delusional, harmful nature of religion and belief in God. However, these would be god-assassins do not offer any new ideas about atheism. In fact, the title “new atheists” is misleading. The “new atheists” hold to the old atheism. Their weapons are not new ideas but amped-up rhetoric taken to a new and popular level of vitriol. Maybe they should simply be called the “ticked off atheists.”
Whatever we call them, they have commanded the attention of the reading public and evangelicals. They are articulate, forceful, and on the attack. Many good books have been written to deal with their reheated arguments, but little has been offered to provide insight into their unbelief. James Spiegel fills the gap in his new book with the intriguing title, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief.
This short book by James Spiegel is important, but not because it is a great work on apologetics, defending theism from these angry atheists. Nor is it an important book because it engages with the so-called “new atheists” at a philosophical level. Spiegel’s book is important because it explains a truth about epistemology (how we know what we know) that we often forget when dealing with unbelievers. He offers insights and research on the moral and psychological dynamics of atheism. He convincingly shows that atheism is not ultimately about arguments and evidence, it is about sin. However, there is another reason the book is important and that is the truth Spiegel unfolds is applicable to us as believers. As I read, I found myself seeing more and more how Spiegel’s thesis, which is biblical to the core, affects my walk with God and understanding of the truth.
Right out of the gate, Spiegel clearly states his thesis: The real causes of unbelief and skepticism have more to do with the will than with reason. These causes are moral and psychological in nature. He says, no doubt to the ire of atheists everywhere, “For the atheist, the missing ingredient is not evidence, but obedience” (11). Spiegel shows from Scripture and other sources that the more a person indulges in sin, the more his mind is corrupted and the consequence can be that one’s awareness of God is deadened. Spiegel then demonstrates from other studies that even scientists, the supposed objective observers, are skewed due to moral assumptions and presuppositions. He pointedly concludes that atheism is “the cognitive consequence of immorality. In short, it is sin that is the mother of unbelief” (18).
Spiegel sets forth a brief, yet excellent analysis of the two major atheistic objections, the problem of evil and the “positivist pipedream” of goodness and enjoyment in this world apart from God, thus making God irrelevant, followed by a discussion of Anthony Flew’s conversion to theism. Spiegel does a good job of showing how atheism is irrational and borrows from Christian capital to make its arguments. Although these two chapters are brief and non-technical, they are filled with biblical insights and expose the folly of atheism.
Chapter three is peculiar in some ways. Spiegel attempts to make a connection between absent or negligent fathers and unbelief. He draws from Paul C. Vitz’s work, The Faith of the Fatherless. Spiegel states, “Whether we call it a psychological projection, transfer or displacement, the lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith” (70). Spiegel then draws from Paul Johnson’s book Intellectuals and reveals that “so many leading intellectuals were self-serving egotists, whose ostensible interest in humankind generally was belied by their callous disregard for those nearest to them, especially family members” (70–71). His point is that unbelief does not occur in a psychological vacuum, there are always motives and desires underlying unbelief.
His next chapter, “The Obstinacy of Atheism” shows the power of self-deceit. The atheist is a dogmatist, with a closed worldview and he dare not open it to anything that would confront his sin. “First, atheists suffer from a paradigm-induced blindness, as their worldview inhibits their ability to recognize the reality of God. Second, atheists suffer from damage to the sensus divinitatis, so their natural awareness of God is severely impeded. Both of these mechanisms are aspects of the noetic effects of sin” (114). His final chapter addresses “The Blessings of Theism.” This is an excellent chapter and a fitting conclusion to the book. Spiegel points out the apologetic power of virtue and love. He also importantly explains why sin moves us toward unbelief. Behavior influences cognitive health! He ends with the wonderful insight that it is only the theist who has the privilege of complaining about injustice as well as thanking and praising God.
In the end, this little book will not satisfy those who want a blow by blow defense against the new atheists. Nevertheless, its apologetic value is immense because Spiegel deals with one of the main planks of worldview apologetics, how we know what we know and why we don’t believe. If Spiegel’s aim was a primer that analyzes the impact of sin on our understanding, then he has achieved his goal. If there is any criticism it would be that some of the points he makes are so powerful, it seems that further biblical support and development would have been helpful. Other than that, Spiegel has offered to the church a cogent analysis of unbelief.
This book is very relevant for Christians. In some ways it serves as a great reminder to us that our own knowledge of God and understanding of his word is influenced by indulging in sin or obedience. It occurred to me that many Christians who have lost sight of Christ have lost that sight because they have blinded themselves with sin and corruption. Jesus himself teaches us that understanding and spiritual perception are directly tied to a commitment to obey (John 7:17). For those who pick up Spiegel’s book, I offer one suggestion: Read not only for the sake of understanding unbelief among atheists, but read with a view of examining your own heart. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).