At Christianity Today this past week, the following explanation was offered by philosopher Jim Spiegel for why atheists are atheists:
According to Scripture, the evidence for God is overwhelming. The apostle Paul says that “God has made it plain” that he exists; his “invisible qualities … have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). And the psalmist writes, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (19:1). This naturally prompts the question: If the evidence for God is so abundant, then why are there atheists? Paul provides at least part of the answer in the same Romans passage, noting that some people “suppress the truth by their wickedness” (1:18). . . . Our conduct affects the way we think. On the positive side, as Scripture’s wisdom literature tells us, obedience and humility lead to insight and understanding. Negatively, as we indulge in immoral behavior, our judgment will be skewed. Or, as Paul notes, disobedience hardens the heart, which in turn yields futile thinking, darkened understanding, and ignorance (Eph. 4:18-19). In other words, sin has cognitive consequences.
I see two things that are fallacious here, and two that I can agree with. The fallacious things, in my view, are the following:
- The evidence for God’s existence is “overwhelming”; and
- atheists are characteristically more wicked in their dispositions and behaviors than theists.
What I can agree with, however, is this:
- Beliefs are motivated; and
- atheists, because of their atheism, suffer from diseases of perception. (But, of course, this is also true of theists: because of their theism, they too suffer from diseases of perception.)
In any case, here’s the thesis that Jim Spiegel is advocating (as best I can put it in one sentence): atheist sinners suffer from diseases of perception, and they aggravate that sick condition by their ongoing disobedience and absence of humility.
This, of course, is also Alvin Plantinga’s patronizing view, and Jim Spiegel does an admirable job summarizing his argument:
Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga has developed this idea in some depth. He notes that, like everything else about us, our belief-forming faculties were designed to work a certain way. And given the appropriate conditions, we tend to form true beliefs about the things we perceive or reason about. But some things can impede cognitive function, and sin is one of these. The more we disobey and give ourselves over to vice, the less reliable our belief formation will be, particularly regarding moral and spiritual matters. Borrowing from some of the great Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, Plantinga proposes that all humans have a sensus divinitatis, an innate sense of the divine. This natural awareness of God prompts us to reflect on him as we experience various facets of life. But the sensus divinitatis, says Plantinga, can be “damaged and corrupted by sin,” even to the point that a person denies God altogether. According to this model, atheists suffer from a kind of cognitive malfunction or disease.
Here’s how I would translate this into secular terms: if human beings ceased to reason under the influence of bad habits and dark desires–maliciousness, envy, thanatos, etc—their belief-faculties (their innate powers to perceive the truth when it is presented to them) would function better; they would arrive at conclusions nearer reality.
Plantinga and Spiegel, of course, think the ultimate reality—the ultimate truth—is God. But whether this is where truth leads or not, the observation about the belief-faculties functioning better without the static of clouding habits and desires is well taken. Who can argue with it? George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort.” And science is a method (for example) of removing as much subjectivity from analysis as humanly possible, and bringing reason into the realm of the publicly verifiable and objective.
But here’s where I believe that Plantinga and Jim Spiegel fall off the rails: they assume that religiously pious dispositions assist clarity of thought (habits like obedience to certain authorities and attitudes like deference, love, and humility). I would argue the opposite: conventionally positive habits, emotions, and longings can distort perception too (as anyone enamored by, say, romantic love or beauty can attest).
Much, for example, as I love the poetry of John Keats, I think he was not being a very good critical thinker when he wrote the following famous lines (from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”):
Beauty is truth; truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
It would be lovely if this were true, but sometimes the truth is ugly; sometimes the truth doesn’t go where you want it to. Truth is not just you, looking out at Yosemite Valley from Half Dome, and concluding that God must surely exist; it’s also you walking around Auschwitz and wondering whether God can really exist at all. Then it’s stepping back from such experiences (and first intuitions) and asking hard questions like these:
- Is there any real evidence for my religious (or irreligious) beliefs?
- If I don’t have direct physical evidence or data that supports my claims, do I at least have other good reasons for believing what I do?
- Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to me at this time, how strongly should I actually hold to my beliefs?
- Are my religious (or irreligious) views coherent with my background knowledge (the things I think I already know about the universe and how it works)?
- Have I actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments?
- Have I weighed alternative explanations and really come to the best explanation on offer?
- What role is desire—desire of any sort—playing in my conclusions?
And this is where critical thinking comes in. Critical thinking is tonic to the diseased perception—the perception diseased by prejudice and desire (whether of the eros variety, the thanatos variety, the pious variety, or the impious variety).
Critical thinking is a method for getting at the truth absent desire.
It’s why so many people really can’t be bothered with critical thinking. They don’t want the truth; they want a conclusion that matches a desire. This is not something that either atheists or theists are unusually heir to; it’s something that flesh is heir to.
The below cartoon illustrates this perfectly:
Notice that the bird-human embrace is born of a non sequitur (a conclusion that does not follow from the premises). A human woman cannot be the mother of a baby bird and abandonment in Central Park proves nothing of the bird’s maternity—you can be abandoned in a park under all sorts of circumstances. Thus the woman’s triumphant “You must be my little boy!” is, on analysis, a badly supported claim that is almost certainly false.
But formal rationality is not what is at work here: the bird and woman are lonely. The non sequitur, treated as a revelation, gives them an excuse to eliminate their loneliness and be a family. We can forgive the error in logic that brings them together because we recognize that their desire is actually rational at a very deep level. It is wholly understandable—even moving.
And to be moved in this way, and have perception distorted or diseased by it, is not an atheist thing or a theist thing; it’s a human thing.