Do Atheists Suffer from Diseases of Perception? Philosopher Jim Spiegel Says Yes. Is He Right?

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.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to Do Atheists Suffer from Diseases of Perception? Philosopher Jim Spiegel Says Yes. Is He Right?

  1. Spiegel can call himself a philosopher all he wants, but if he’s a philosopher in any objective sense, then I’m a squirrel. I attempted to read his “The Making of an Atheist” and demolished this bigoted and thoroughly illogical book in my own blog, so will not go into detail here. Suffice it to say I couldn’t finish it. My criteria for accepting his thesis that atheists are nonbelieving because they have “daddy issues” was the same as if I had been reviewing a scientific paper for publication. Did he have a control group? Did he use sound methodology to generate his data? And so on. The answer to these questions is a resounding “No.” As such, he would score a perfect zero.

    In fact, substitute “Muslim” or “Jew” for the word “atheist” in his book and I think Spiegel would be hard-pressed to stay out of the defendent’s seat. It certainly would have generated a huge amount criticism that would probably have had him fired from his position. But atheists are everyone’s whipping horse, so it’s okay. Whatever.

    I’m going to take issue with some of your questions. Some are good, some are irrelevant or even bad. Let’s look at them in turn….

    ■Is there any real evidence for my religious (or irreligious) beliefs?
    ■If I don’t have evidence, do I at least have good reasons for believing what I do?
    ■Is my view coherent with my background knowledge?
    ■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?

    The first question for me is the only relevant one. Throw all the arguments you want at me, but if there is no grounding in evidence they are nothing more than puffs of air.

    The second, however, demonstrates the effects of wishful thinking. If there is no evidence supporting any belief, what possible reason can you have to believe it? An Argument from Ignorance? An Argument from Consequences? I would respond to this with Clifford’s Credo:

    “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

    With the third question we are back on track. This is part of a never-ending process of self-examination. Science has adopted this concept because we can never be 100% certain of any knowledge as being knowledge, so acceptance of hypotheses is always provisional. The fourth question is also a good one.

    Then you blunder with the fifth. Who says that you must always have an explanation for a phenomenon? A hypothesis generated to explain something must have evidence in support. Your question is framed implicitly with an argumentum ad ignorantium. Say something occurs that you don’t have a ready and testable hypothesis for. The proper answer in this case is “I don’t know”, not “I don’t know therefor God.” Now that’s a non sequitur. In such a case where “I don’t know” prevails there is no warrant for any other response.

    The last question is an excellent one, and one that in Science we have learned to deal with quite well. People used to believe the bleeding of patients was helping people till it was tested in controlled clinical trials (crude ones, done before the far more rigorous ones designed these days, but effective nonetheless) and found to be killing patients. George Washington was one of its victims, after having been bled of more than half his supply. But don’t assume that because we know from studying psychology that bias can produce serious effects in drawing conclusions that there are no effective ways of dealing with it.

    And with that we now come to the topic of the blog post and the erroneous assumption that there is a symmetry between theistic and atheistic views which introduces biases. Sorry, there is no symmetry here in general. I’m sure there are atheists out there that dogmatically disbelieve. I’m not one and don’t know any. If strong evidence came to light I would accept it and believe. But there’s a reason almost all (if not all) cosmologists are atheists.

    For the first time in history we are in a position to be able to answer the question of origins, whether we’re talking about the universe or life, and the answers we are getting are that no supernatural being is required. The very fact that the sum total mass/energy of the universe is damning evidence against a creator god (and hence why cosmologists are atheists). There is nothing special in the chemistry of life, as was once assumed till urea was synthesized, and scientists like Jack Szostak are creating protolife in the lab using processes which can be found all over nature.

    So, this idea that atheists such as myself have put blinders on to view everything in such a way as to sustain nonbelief like Ken Ham confirms his bias towards creationism is crap. When there is no evidence in support of even a “deadbeat dad” style of deist god, nonbelief is the only rational position. For some gods, like the Abrahamic god that is typically believed in, belief in its non-existence is the only rational position, since we can actually test its attributes and all such tests falsify such a god.

    To fall back on the “you can’t prove it doesn’t exist” canard doesn’t help the believer, particularly when it is often not even true – many types of gods are falsifiable. If one uses this as the fall-back position then that person might as well be a solipsist, a position I have no patience for.

    • santitafarella says:

      Shamelessly,

      A quick comment on your assertion that there is no symmetry between atheist desire distorting perception and theist desire distorting perception. I disagree. I have talked to a lot of atheists (through threads, etc) and my own take is that they are very, very good at projection and rationalizing their hostility (as are all humans). Owning up to the things in ourselves that we project onto others is tricky emotionally, and most people refuse to do it—atheist or theist—but I think that if we try to be self-aware of our own deeply human foibles, we’ll be more cautious in our reasoning. I completely include myself, as a self-professed agnostic, in this observation. I don’t think that my impulses to reason have ever been emotionally neutral.

      It’s an ancient observation that, if there was no death and suffering in the world, there would be no belief in gods. Humans would be indifferent concerning them. But I would extend this observation to reason as well: the desire to reason is also born of the consciousness of human death and suffering. What atheist and theists have in common, I’ve read elsewhere, is the quest for meaning. This is because both atheists and theists are mortal and suffering beings. If these did not haunt the human condition we might well not bother to reason all that much at all.

      —Santi

  2. santitafarella says:

    Shamelessly,

    You take issue with the second and fifth question, so I’d like to see if my clarification persuades you that they are still relevant.

    Between question one and question two I’m simply trying to distinguish between physical evidence and public data v. other good reasons to believe things (deductions, inductions, analogies, learning about expert consensus on a matter, hearing eye witness testimony that you have good reasons to believe is reliable, etc). For example, the argument from design is an argument by way of analogy (the universe is complex like a watch, and the watch has a human designer); it’s not based in physical evidence or data, but it is considered (by some) a good reason to suspect that a mind—God—is behind the universe. We make inferences and arrive at inductions all the time that are not, strictly speaking, accompanied by direct evidence. Yet we offer them as good reasons for believing things.

    I suppose I should revise my wording between one and two to make the distinction clear. Any suggestions?

    As for question five, I was trying to say that ABDUCTION (competing hypothesis testing; reasoning to the best explanation) is central to critical thinking. You don’t agree? If the truth is the whole, then what we choose to believe should be the most comprehensive and coherent of the explanations on offer (and not just any old one). It should be the best explanation.

    Trivially, I agree with you that not everything has an explanation, and it’s okay to say “I don’t know” about things. But, ultimately, everything should be intelligible and fit into a plausible story. If not, then the world does not hold together; it is not rational, and all bets are then off. To the degree that theism, for example, fails to explain the Holocaust under theistic assumptions, it reveals a weakness in the “God hypothesis.” To the degree that atheists account for the universe’s anthropic physical constants with an “I don’t know” or via appeal to multiverses dicing without end (but not subject to any actual evidence gathering by us), this too is a weakness in explanation.

    —Santi

    • Between question one and question two I’m simply trying to distinguish between physical evidence and public data v. other good reasons to believe things (deductions, inductions, analogies, learning about expert consensus on a matter, hearing eye witness testimony that you have good reasons to believe is reliable, etc).

      To reiterate, there is no good reason to accept a belief as true except via physical evidence. Ungrounded philosophical arguments are not evidence. Eye witness testimony (!) is the worst kind of evidence, even for far more mundane claims like murder. (Do you have any idea how many people on death row based on eyewitness testimony have been later exonerated by physical evidence?) For extraordinary claims, I consider eyewitness testimony to be interesting, but not valid for determining whether the claim is true. Physical evidence is the ONLY kind of evidence I am willing to entertain. This should be sufficient to establish the existence of any god that interacts with what we call reality – as the Abrahamic god is claimed to do numerous times.

      As for consensus thinking, it is only a guide – it is not evidence. And I would also suggest that there are many groups for which a consensus is irrelevant. Theologians, for one. I can not differentiate what theologians say from what mentally ill people who make claims – neither can be substantiated and are for all practical purposes identical. I find the arguments of theologians to be totally vacuous and based on premises for which we have absolutely no reason to accept as true.

      So any argument for the acceptance of the claim that some sort of god exists must be grounded in physical evidence. Since we have no physical evidence for the Abrahamic god (where evidence there should be!), we can be quite confident in saying that this type of god does not exist. This does not preclude a deist god, but since the existence of such a god is identical to its nonexistence, why on earth believe in such a thing?

      As for question five, I was trying to say that ABDUCTION (competing hypothesis testing; reasoning to the best explanation) is central to critical thinking.

      Indeed it is, but you have made an implicit assumption that all possible explanations are known and that from the available ones you would accept an the best one regardless that it is a bad one. This is why Paley’s teleological argument reigned for a considerable amount of time even though it is fundamentally flawed (a false analogy and an argument from ignorance). If there are no good arguments to choose from that are testable and falsifiable, and have been tested, then such explanations are completely speculative and aren’t of much value. In other words, the best available explanation may still be insufficient to accept and the position “I don’t know” – regardless of how uncomfortable it is – must be maintained. I don’t see this as a weakness at all. I do, however, see accepting explanations on the basis of insufficient evidence to be very weak. To do so is to cave in to the irrational need to have an explanation for everything. And the teleological argument (which you are misconstruing as the anthropic principle – do read the wikipedia entry on this) is a poor argument. In a multiverse scenario (almost certainly true, since inflationary big bang theory essentially demands it), even random changes in fundamental constants will produce universes that support life, not to mention that computer simulations show that in a large fraction of such universes stars and galaxies still form. So the teleological argument holds no water. But you actually buy into it without seeing just how horrid an argument it is. Why am I wasting my time on this? If you want to understand where the laws of physics come from, whu the fundamental constants are the way they are, listen to a physicist not an argument from a theologian or an apologist! Get one of a number of books written by Victor Stenger for instance. (Don’t get anything by Paul Davies – he writes the physics very well, but his deism is based on arguments from ignorance and even promotes a form of solipsism in The Cosmic Jackpot.)

      Now that I think about it, I take some issue with your first question as well. It presents a false dichotomy. Acceptance of either of the two claims – the existence and non-existence of gods – do indeed require evidence in support. However, nonacceptance or either (the null hypotheses) does not require evidence in support. Rather, it is the position that must be taken until such time that evidence in support of the claim comes to light.

  3. Overwhelming evidence of god? LOL, really? How about ANY evidence of god – real, solid, credible evidence. It is pretty amusing that he equates lack of humility to those who do not accept god. What is more arrogant, to assume that you know the answers to the universe based only on your belief and no real evidence … or accepting that you have little understanding of the universe. Not only does he get the basic idea of evidence wrong, he cannot understand the concept of humility.

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