Posted on April 12, 2010
The Making of an [A]Theist
In his fascinating The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief Jim Spiegel offers a unique thesis. It goes something like this: Rather than denial of God’s existence leading atheists to immoral behavior, immoral behavior leads atheists to denial of God’s existence. Spiegel claims
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 isn’t evidence but obedience. [Emphasis his.]
Clearly “there are moral dynamics involved in the abandonment of faith” (Ps. 14:1; Rom 1:18). But (and this is a large, theoretically-laden “but”), I wonder if this is backwards or even a non sequitur. Could it be first that most atheists have honest intellectual doubts and, as a result, see no reason to justify their moral behavior to a god he/she does not believe exists? After all, it makes little sense to live according to moral guidelines issued by a non-entity! If there is no moral Lawgiver, then, on an eternal scale, everyone is free to live however they choose. Naturally there are temporal consequences to going against the accepted moral guidelines of a given culture, but if the atheist’s beliefs are true she has nothing to fear beyond death.
Supporting his thesis, Spiegel marshall’s Alvin Plantinga’s findings (see Warranted Christian Belief) showing that atheists cannot know their beliefs are true given a priori commitments to Darwinian naturalism, which has no mechanism for discerning the truth of beliefs. Consequently, atheists are “cognitively handicapped…[and] genuinely desensitized to truth such that they cannot perceive it even when they encounter it” (p. 57). The God-given spiritual receptors are deadened by a life lived in rebellion. Thus, the atheist is condemned to a kind of self-defeating epistemic futility.
If Spiegel’s thesis is correct, could this angle work for the making of a theist? Can good conduct result in enhanced cognitive abilities that lead to belief in God? Could our spiritual receptors be enlivened by living a life of obedience? Immediately Blaise Pascal‘s famous Wager comes to mind. Although Spiegel did not bring up the Wager (nor did he show how Romans 2:14-15 might bear on his thesis!), at least an endnote acknowledging this angle would have been nice. Perhaps he plans a sequel “The Making of a Theist.”
Sidebar: The Making of a [Pascalian] Theist
Pascal’s Wager has a rich history and not a little controversy surrounds its meaning. Essentially, it goes something like this. When a person insists that it is prudent to remain on the fence about belief in God, Pascal asserts a wager must be made. If one wagers that God exists, and in fact he does exist, there is everything to win including an eternity of happiness as well as the prudential benefits of living a morally upright life. Alternatively, if one wagers that God exists, and in fact he does not exist, then there is no eternal happiness to lose yet the prudential benefits of living a morally upright life can still be realized. While every wager carries a degree of risks and rewards, the benefits of living as if God exists far outweigh a life lived as if there is no moral Lawgiver. Therefore, betting that God exists is both a reasonable and prudent commitment. [There are many other permutations to Pascal’s Wager, but I’ll not explore those here.]
As Pascal insists, one cannot suspend a commitment to the existence of God and remain on the fence indefinitely. When the fence-sitter recognizes that a wager must be made (since failing to wager is itself tantamount to wagering), Pascal calls on her to enter into a kind of “spiritual experiment.” In fact, it is at this point that Spiegel’s thesis is aided by Pascal who claims that unbelief is “because of your passions, since [prudential] reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so.” That is, one’s passions (i.e., moral behavior) gets in the way of what is prudent to believe. Instead, Pascal enjoins his skeptic to curb their passions so as not to “counteract the clear command of prudential reason” (see Groothuis, p. 80 On Pascal). Upon doing so, “the doubter will end up believing quite naturally and will become more ‘docile,'” which means a kind of “neutralizing of these inhibiting passions such that belief becomes possible” (Groothuis, p. 84).
Following Augustine, Pascal maintained that one is either motivated by “concupiscence or charity—in other words, by one’s fallen nature or by grace. If one is dominated by concupiscence, religious truth is unavailable. If one is willing to suspend or at least attenuate foul passions, charity may break through and faith ensue” (Groothuis, p. 85). Thus, the making of a theist could involve a kind of challenge or wager to enter into a “spiritual experiment” by living as if there is a moral Lawgiver thereby increasing one’s chances to believe that God exists. Pascal’s charge to his skeptic is telling for the making of a theist:
“I would soon have renounced pleasure,” say they, “had I faith.” For my part I tell you, “You would soon have faith, if you renounced pleasure.” Now, it is for you to begin. If I could, I would give you faith. I cannot do so, nor therefore test the truth of what you say. But you can well renounce pleasure and test whether what I say is true. Pensées, 240
Back to Spiegel
Why Pascal was not invoked remains a mystery, since the Wager would have enhanced Spiegel’s thesis. Whether or not he sufficiently tells the whole story of unbelief, Spiegel has contributed some important insights on the relationship of moral psychology to atheism. And, despite my spin on the book’s thesis and excursus (rant?) about Pascal, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief is worthy and deserves a careful and thoughtful read. Check out this site to download the introduction, discussion questions, and more.