James S. Spiegel claims we have a morality problem. His new book, The Making of an Atheist, proposes that atheism is really just rebellion against God’s morality.
He admits that it could appear unseemly or offensive to suggest that a person’s lack of belief in God is a form of rebellion. But he said in a recent interview with the Evangelical Philosophical Society that he was compelled to write the book because he is convinced that “it is a clear biblical truth.”
Well, this is a real problem, isn’t it? This paragraph illustrates very clearly just how faith based reasoning facilitates and exacerbates irrationality. If someone wanted to test the theory that atheists have a moral problem, they could easily do so. There are data everywhere in the scientific literature. But that’s not what Spiegel and his believers want to do. Instead, they go to their preconceived facts and reinforce them under the guise of scholarship. I mean… James Spiegel is a professor. So this book is about facts, right? If a professor says atheists have a problem, then he has good reasons for saying so.
It’s a neat little psychological trick. I used to do it all the time, so I’m quite familiar with it. If you read my post, Us and Them, you know the first part of the maneuver. I was afraid of other people because I believed they were evil, and my subconscious converted the fear to righteous piety. In my mind, my refusal to integrate myself into the social scene was not fear — it was piety. Once righteous indignation had taken a firm hold, it became easy to see any “evidence” that I was wrong as an elaborate deception, either from those nasty atheists or Satan himself.
On the other hand, it was easy to embrace what I already believed. And there were plenty of books whose authors had solid credentials. When this majority opinion was parroted by everyone I knew and by respected Christian authorities, it was nearly impossible to voice disagreement, either intellectually or emotionally. In fact, it became kind of a foregone conclusion. Why even question it? It was so obviously true that it would be a waste of time to question it.
And in a nutshell, this is what Spiegel is either doing or facilitating. By citing the Bible as his authority, he is giving the distinct impression that evidence doesn’t matter. He’s promoting the acceptance of what feels right as opposed to what the evidence says.
“The rejection of God is a matter of will, not of intellect,” he asserts.
And here we are again. The assertion of free will. I’ve shown before that Free Will of the sort that would be useful for Christian theology is impossible. The nutshell version goes like this: We are our brains, and our brains are essentially algorithms that process what we experience. We cannot help but believe what seems to be true. So what Spiegel is suggesting is one of two things. Either atheists are aware that there is a god, and that he dictates morality, and are choosing to go to hell, or atheists don’t believe in god.
Do you see how emotionally appealing this choice is to Christians who already believe atheists are awful people? Again, I’m familiar with the reasoning because I used to use it. It goes like this:
“It’s obvious that there’s a god. The evidence is everywhere. All you have to do is look at life and its complexity, and all the miracles, and the evidence from the Bible, and the fulfilled prophecies in the Bible. So since it’s so obvious that god exists, atheists can’t really believe there’s no god. So they must be willfully rebelling against him. Which is either evil or insane. And in either case, it’s good for me to keep my distance from them.”
Clever, isn’t it? Do you see how the faith based reasoning builds upon itself, reinforcing itself against any evidence whatsoever? Once this belief is ingrained, it’s easy to justify it further. Sin, it is claimed, is a poison that builds up in the unbeliever. The more they sin, the more they become ingrained in their sinful ways, and the harder it is to see the truth of god’s creation. Eventually, their sin accumulates to the point that their whole being is pervaded by evil, and they are incapable of coming to Jesus. They will twist anything they see so that it is literally impossible for them to see the truth. That’s why it’s really, really important that the true believer not give them the opportunity to poison his mind with their lies. Better to just preach to them and stop listening when they start talking.
I’m not kidding, by the way. I was taught this stuff as a teenager.
“Atheism is not the result of objective assessment of evidence, but of stubborn disobedience; it does not arise from the careful application of reason but from willful rebellion. Atheism is the suppression of truth by wickedness, the cognitive consequence of immorality.
Except… it is the result of objective assessment, and anyone who cares to study the natural sciences and a little bit of logic will be able to reach the same conclusion if their emotions allow it. But readers of this book aren’t going to compare the evidence. They’re not going to learn how to evaluate scientific data because scientific data is always wrong when it contradicts what is obviously true.
This is how FOX News and Christianity™ and Rush Limbaugh sell their wares. They simply say what is “true” loudly and often. Loud is a sign of emotion, folks. Repetition without explanation is a sign of a weak foundation.
“In short, it is sin that is the mother or unbelief.”
Isn’t this familiar? We should be afraid of atheists because they’re evil. And since 80% of the most successful and prominent scientists in the world are atheist, we should definitely not trust them. (That’s a colloquial statistic, not a real citation. I’m speaking for the Christian.)
Drawing from Scripture, Spiegel says the atheist’s problem is rebellion against the plain truth of God, as clearly revealed in nature. The rebellion is prompted by immorality, and immoral behavior or sin corrupts cognition.
I have a confession to make. I had not read this article when I started writing today’s entry. I’ve been reading, quoting, and making my comments as I go along. I have just read the previous quote for the first time, and I’m patting myself on the back a little bit for being able to predict everything in the article just from the first paragraph. Like I said, I’ve already lived this. It’s nothing new.
The author explained to EPS, “There is a phenomenon that I call ‘paradigm-induced blindness,’ where a person’s false worldview prevents them from seeing truths which would otherwise be obvious. Additionally, a person’s sinful indulgences have a way of deadening their natural awareness of God or, as John Calvin calls it, the sensus divinitatis. And the more this innate sense of the divine is squelched, the more resistant a person will be to evidence for God.”
Scary how I nailed it, isn’t it?
Spiegel, who converted to Christianity in 1980, has witnessed the pattern among several of his friends. Their path from Christianity to atheism involved: moral slippage (such as infidelity, resentment or unforgiveness); followed by withdrawal from contact with fellow believers; followed by growing doubts about their faith, accompanied by continued indulgence in the respective sin; and culminating in a conscious rejection of God.
And here’s where it gets really nasty. Any evidence he sees in any atheist around him will just continue to bolster his belief. Never mind that half or more of his Christian friends have had affairs or held grudges. Whenever an atheist “sins,” it is clear evidence that they are morally depraved. It’s just obvious. In a particularly nasty bit of pretzel logic, the theist will impose his own morality on atheists who do not share it. If an atheist woman has had an abortion, she has sinned in the eyes of the believer, even if she believes abortion is the moral thing to do in her situation. If she has premarital sex, it’s evidence.
Of course, there’s an out when the atheist points out that Christians do these things just as much if not more than Christians. It’s a neat little variation of the No True Scotsman. Whenever a member of the flock does something morally reprehensible, they are “backsliding.” They are reverting to their unsaved ways when they were blinded by the poison of sin.
This is a really awesome defense. It’s better than the more familiar NTS Defense, where it is claimed that the offender was not a “true Christian.” That defense is good when it’s another denomination, or the church across town, but it gets stickier when the sinner is a respected member of the apologist’s own flock. With the modified NTS Defense, any Christian’s immorality, no matter how horrifying, can be explained as backsliding, thus avoiding pesky theology debates. Instead, the collective ire of the community can be focused on those damnable atheists who insist on putting their sin all over tv and billboards and the liberal media.
Examining the psychology of atheism, Spiegel cites Paul C. Vitz who revealed a link between atheism and fatherlessnes
And then the “evidence.”
Some of the atheists whose fathers died include David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. Those with abusive or weak fathers include Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire and Sigmund Freud. Among the New Atheists, Daniel Dennett’s father died when Dennett was five years old and Christopher Hitchens’ father appears to have been very distant. Hitchens had confessed that he doesn’t remember “a thing about him.
This is a very clever half-ad-hominem. Part of the mythology of American Christianity is the belief in a strong “Biblical Family” in which the father is the lynchpin that keeps everything flowing in a godly direction. Most evangelicals and fundamentalists are strongly opposed to the feminist notion that children can be raised in single parent families without suffering undue psychological or financial distress. (Of course, there are real consequences to being raised in single parent families, but that’s another issue.) They often look down on divorced women, and strongly encourage them to remarry for the sake of the children. (Again, I’ve lived this. It’s a fine description of my own family.)
It’s not really much of an argument when you think about it. When we remove the assumption that god and Biblical morality are true, the connection between atheism and fatherlessness — if it exists — becomes rather banal. Since we’re talking about science now, we don’t have a connection between atheism and immorality, so things break down quickly. But for the Christian, the connection is very clear.
- Atheists are immoral.
- Atheists don’t have fathers.
- See?! Atheists are immoral.
It’s not quite an ad hominem, but it’s another way of reinforcing a faith based belief with “evidence.” Since it’s obvious (Biblically) that the father is supposed to be the head of the Christian household, it stands to reason that families without fathers would have problems with morality. Since there are lots of atheists who come from fatherless families, or “morally deficient, ungodly fathers,” we have just validated our theory.
“These moral-psychological dynamics make it possible to deny the reality of the divine without any (or much) sense of incoherence in one’s worldview.”
Projection, anyone? I hope I’ve done a good job of explaining the typical rationalizations that allow a believer to hold onto the image of an atheist as a degenerate evil monster. This is what we’re fighting against. In my previous three entries, I’ve tried to examine the uphill climb we atheists are facing. We don’t just have one misconception to defeat. It’s really a web of dogma and faith based belief, and each tenet has its own self-reinforcing mechanism for preventing the intrusion of contradictory evidence.
This is why I think it’s largely futile to try to change social reality with reasoned arguments. The Christians we’re trying to convince already have built in defense mechanisms against reason and science. And the cornerstone of these defenses is the deeply rooted fear of atheists and atheism. So long as this belief persists, any reasoned argument we make will be perceived as the work of the devil. Literally.
So we’re back to the old catch-22. So long as faith based reasoning persists, science based reasoning will have no foothold. That, as I have said over and over, is what is so dangerous about faith. The proof that atheists aren’t monsters is all over the world. There’s plenty of data. We really shouldn’t even have to debate this. There is no debate at this point. But because of faith, there is still plenty of belief.
A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about how fear makes it extremely difficult for Christians to even begin to question their faith in a meaningful way. Of course, this little presentation is another angle of the same story. The xenophobia that accompanies piety isn’t buried very deep. The belief in the moral depravity of atheism is a very convenient facilitator for the fear of atheism and pretty much anything else that doesn’t line up with an individual Christian’s view of what constitutes Biblical morality.
So I think we’re right back where we’ve been for the last several entries. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and bloggers like me are here for the atheists. Most of my readers are atheists, and most of the people who’ve read the big name atheist authors were probably at least leaning towards atheism before they picked the books up. Sure, there will be a few people whose minds will be changed by the logic. Mine was, after all. But in the long run, the Christian existence is dominated by emotion and emotional reasoning. We atheists have to find ways to make it emotionally difficult for the Christians around us to think of us as monsters.
It’s a tough uphill climb. There’s a double standard attached to us. When a Christian is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists. When an atheist is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists. So there will be a lot of the more authoritarian Christians who just aren’t going to be swayed. But the data indicates that the majority of Christians in America are not dyed in the wool fundamentalists. They’re at least somewhat moderate. These are the people we need on our side. We need them to realize that even though our ideas may be threatening to them, it’s not fair or moral to portray us as evil. I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do on this front. I’m not really sure how we need to go about doing this.
What about you, fellow atheists? Any ideas?