Jim Spiegel Answers Your Questions

The following are four questions posed by readers to Jim Spiegel in response to his interview here this week.  Jim kindly agreed to answer these follow-up questions, and his comments are below.

Thanks again for your thoughtful questions and opinions, both pro and con.

The winner of the free copy of The Making of an Atheist is J. W. Wartick!

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Ranger:

Jim,
It seems to me that in various beliefs, both simple and major, that often the head follows the heart.  Augustine, Edwards and various other Christian theologians have emphasized the role of desire in leading someone to hold certain beliefs.  I’ve wondered if this might be what Luther had in mind with his statements such as “reason is the devil’s whore.”  Would you mind discussing the role of desire in the life of the mind?  Thanks.

In my book I discuss this very issue, noting that, as William James once noted, a person’s will often prompts one to believe certain things, particularly where reason cannot decide an issue one way or another.  However, I would go a step further than James and note that a preference for a particular position or worldview may tempt a person to believe something against the evidence.  This is “motivated irrationality,” as some scholars have phrased it, and it constitutes a form of self-deception.  I think this is just the sort of thing that Luther had in mind with that phrase about reason being the “devil’s whore”—reason can be co-opted to serve just about any desire or predilection.  This is why it is so important that the Christian scholar actively submit her/his intellect to God and the authority of Scripture.

Rob:

(1) Why should an atheist accept your account when it presupposes the truth of precisely what the atheist denies the existence and authority of?

I grant that my specific account of atheism presupposes the truth and authority of Scripture, but my intent in the book is not to persuade the atheist of the truth of my account based just on premises that s/he presently accepts.  That would necessitate my first demonstrating the existence of God, and that’s not the purpose of my book.

Having said that, as I show in my book, there are many insights from diverse academic fields (e.g., history, psychology, and philosophy) that confirm the reality of many of the causal dynamics to which I appeal in my explanatory account of atheism.  So I do think that my account would still enjoy a certain amount of evidential warrant even when considered in isolation from the Scriptural considerations that inspired it.

(2) Your claim that cognition-distorting sinful behaviors and wickedness underline atheism is an empirical one for which, as far as I can tell, there is little evidence.  Presumably, more secular or irreligious communities and nations should have higher rates of wickedness and immorality.  What evidence are you relying on?

The evidence for my view is both empirical and non-empirical (philosophical and theological).  Specifically, the case for my thesis can be made by appealing to:

· Theology:  passages such as Romans 1:18-20, Eph. 4:17-19,  John 3:19-21, and  John 7:17, which confirm that beliefs are impacted by behavior, whether moral or immoral.

· Psychology:  specifically, “motivated bias” models of self-deception (such as those defended by James Peterman and Alfred Mele) and the “cognitive redefinition” belief-change theory of Edgar Schein.  Such models are built upon, and aim to explain, behavioral data from empirical studies.

· History:  studies of atheist scholars which reveal significant non-rational factors connected with the paradigms one chooses, including atheism (Paul Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless, Paul Johnson’s Intellectuals, and E. Michael Jones’s Degenerate Moderns)

· Insights from philosophy and history of science:

o Thomas Kuhn—paradigms are typically selected because of non-rational factors

o Michael Polanyi—all theorizing, even in science, is ultimately personal, dependent on desires

This is just a sampling…

As for your claim that my thesis implies that unbelieving peoples should have higher immorality rates, I suppose that might be true.  But this would be hard thing to assess, since not all immorality is publicly observable, because various forms of conceit, hatred, hubris, lust, etc. would (on a Christian view of ethics) be immoral but not necessarily behaviorally evident, much less ascertainable via a formal study.

J. W. Wartick:

You suggest in the interview that you think current apologetics is lacking in ethical and psychological insights. How do you think we can go about filling in this hole within Christian apologetics? What role can sin play as a concept within philosophy of religion in explaining the desire to rebel against the moral concepts inherent in God?

In writing my book I have addressed his lacuna, at least vis-à-vis the phenomenon of atheism.  I tried to do something similar with my first book, which was on the subject of hypocrisy.  I think it’s just a matter of apologists being more willing to bring moral and psychological insights to bear on their defense of the faith and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Christian ethicists and psychologists speaking to apologetic issues.

As for your second question, that’s essentially the question that drove me to write The Making of an Atheist.  Obviously, my discussion pertains to the rebellion against God generally (in the form of disbelief), rather than merely rejecting God’s moral nature.  But it would be interesting to see whether, and to what degree, deists and heterodox theists might opt for their view—when it involves subtraction of the notion of divine moral perfection and moral demands on humans—precisely because of a distaste for all that entails (e.g., moral judgment, requirements for self-control, etc.).

* * * *

Jim’s blog tour continues for the next several weeks.  You can find the complete schedule here.

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Interview with Jim Spiegel – Part Two

Today we continue with the second half of our interview with Jim Spiegel on his new book, The Making of an Atheist.  We’re continuing to collect questions for a follow-up Q&A post, and everyone who submits a question is entered into the drawing for a free copy of the book.

* * * *

Chris Reese: Your approach to apologetics in the book seems to have a lot in common with a presuppositional stance. Do you find much that you agree with in that method of apologetics?

Jim Spiegel: I’m not a presuppositionalist, but I do appreciate the insight of this approach that sin has a warping effect on the mind, that there are, as Alvin Plantinga puts it, cognitive consequences of sin. And it is just this dynamic that I think explains both a person’s descent into atheism and the ongoing obstinacy of atheists when faced with clear pointers to God. Having said that, I believe the study of the evidences for the faith is profitable in many ways, as it can quell believers’ doubts and clear away obstacles to belief for those who are sincerely investigating the Christian faith.

CR: Mainstream apologetics has tended to pass over issues of psychology and morality in relation to belief in God or Christianity. Why do you think that’s been the case?

JS: There are probably several reasons for this. For one thing, it might seem like a distraction to explore the psychological determinants of false beliefs about God when there are so many positive evidences to discuss, not to mention skeptical objections to refute. Also, it might appear to be an ad hominem fallacy to theorize about the moral-psychological roots of disbelief. But, to be clear, my thesis commits no such blunder, because an explanatory account of atheism, such as I give in my book, is different than an argument against atheism. My book does not aim to prove theism or disprove atheism (though I do mention many noteworthy evidences along the way). Instead, I aim to explain how atheistic belief arises.

CR: What do you see that’s promising as well as lacking in apologetics or Christian philosophy of religion today?

JS: It’s hard not to get excited about all that is happening in the area of intelligent design, both at the cosmic and organismic levels. The data regarding the fine-tuning of the universe is becoming more astounding every day, as is the evidence for design in cellular biology. (That such data prompted the theistic conversion of Antony Flew should make even the most hardened atheist think twice.) As for what is lacking, we badly need to see more work connecting ethical and psychological insights (e.g., about self-deception, moral weakness, the role of the emotions in belief-formation, etc.) to skeptical attitudes toward God and religion. And I would like to see work connecting aesthetics to philosophy of religion (e.g., developing arguments for God and/or against naturalism based on the reality of beauty in the world).

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Interview with Jim Spiegel – Part One

It’s a pleasure to welcome Jim Spiegel to Cloud of Witnesses to answer some questions about his recently released book, The Making of an Atheist.

I will post the second half of the interview tomorrow, and as mentioned last week, I will collect a few follow-up questions from these posts for Jim to respond to.  So, we welcome your questions related to the book or the interview.  In addition, everyone who posts a question will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of The Making of an Atheist.

* * * *

Chris Reese: What prompted you to write The Making of an Atheist?

Jim Spiegel: As I’ve followed the new atheist movement and Christian apologists’ responses to atheists’ arguments, I’ve been dismayed at the lack of attention to the moral-psychological roots of disbelief. Since this is so heavily emphasized by the biblical writers, I thought someone needed to address it. Also, I wanted to confirm an intuition shared by many Christians who read the new atheists—that their books are more the product of anger and bitterness than an even-handed, dispassionate look at the facts.

CR: What has the response been so far to the book and website?

JS: The response has been largely positive. In fact, I have never received so many encouraging notes from strangers who wrote to thank me for writing the book. But there have been some negative responses as well from some atheists and agnostics who insist that their rejection of God has been purely an intellectual matter.

CR: Many atheists will be offended at the thesis of your book. What would you say to an atheist like this who claims he grew up in a basically normal home and is a decent person, but just doesn’t feel there’s good evidence to believe in God?

JS: I would note that growing up in a basically normal home doesn’t preclude moral rebellion. And regarding those who insist that they are morally “decent,” I would be curious as to what they mean by this. Before I was a Christian there were many things that I considered to be morally permissible—from sexual promiscuity to resentment and certain forms of revenge—which I now recognize to be immoral and even distorting of one’s perception of reality. The fact that a person passes his or her own test for moral decency is hardly reliable as a gauge for their actual virtue.

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The Making of an Atheist Blog Tour

Cloud of Witnesses is pleased to be one of the stops for the newly launched Making of an Atheist blog tour.

I’ll be posting a two-part interview with Jim Spiegel beginning next Monday (2/15), and I welcome your questions and comments in response.  I’ll collect three or four of the most interesting follow-up questions, and ask Jim to respond to them.

In addition, everyone who posts a question (and supplies their email address to be contacted) will be entered into a drawing for a free copy of The Making of an Atheist.  I’ll look forward to hearing from you!

You can learn more about Jim by visiting his blog, Wisdom and Folly, or his website.

Other blog stops on the tour include:

Apologetics.com

Truthbomb Apologetics

Triablogue

Mike Austin’s blog

The Seventh Sola

EPS Blog (Up now here)

Doug Geivett’s Blog

Apologetics 315

Just thinking…

Oversight of Souls

Constructive Curmudgeon

A-TeamBlog

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Book Review – The Making of an Atheist

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  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers (February 1, 2010)
  • Official Website (Introduction in PDF)
  • Amazon
  • Christian Book Distributors
  • First, I should disclose that I agree with Spiegel’s thesis that “atheism is caused by a complex of moral-psychological factors, not a perceived lack of evidence for God’s existence. The atheist willfully rejects God, though this is precipitated by immoral indulgences and typically a broken relationship with his or her father. Thus, the choice of the atheist paradigm is motivated by non-rational factors” (113-114). I noticed the patterns first in the lives of Nietzsche (whom Spiegel mentions) and Foucault (whom he does not) prior to this reading.

    Spiegel expects that the idea will encounter resistance (and it probably will). He compiles previously released information and packages it for popular consumption, drawing significantly from Alvin Plantinga, Antony Flew’s “conversion,” and Paul C. Vitz. In fact, Spiegel does Plantinga the honor of dedicating the book to him as “a gigantic intellect with a humble heart.” Moreover, Spiegel maintains a humble tone throughout which honors Plantinga and is often lacking in apologetics.

    Spiegel’s goal is unique. He is not making a case for theism or defending it against the attacks of atheists. His argument is a flanking attack that responds to the “New Atheists” by calling into question the source of their unbelief.  Even though they claim their unbelief is rooted in reason, Spiegel sees the rational component of their unbelief secondary to their immorality or broken paternal relationships.

    He blends biblical ideas (Romans 1, Ephesians 4, etc.) and virtue epistemological concepts to produce an account of how behaving badly and thinking badly decay into a downward spiral of moral and intellectual blindness (particularly in the areas of ethics, theology, and human nature).

    For the link between atheism and broken paternal relationships, Spiegel draws heavily on  Paul C. Vitz’s Faith of the Fatherless. “The lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith (70),” but not an insurmountable barrier. While this link will likely be unpopular or attacked as irrelevant on ad hominem grounds, let’s not forget that non-theists have already applied similar psychoanalytical criticisms against theists. Furthermore, enough examples are given to give us pause to reconsider the role of a paternal relationship in shaping our perceptions of God.

    I think the value of this book is really threefold. First, it helps encourage believers that matters of belief and unbelief are not purely a matter of the intellect, but are issues of the heart and will. Secondly, it should remind believers to be sensitive to the things which may be going on in the hearts of the unbelievers they want to reach with the gospel. Thirdly, it is a call to unbelievers to consider non-rational factors that may be barriers to their belief in God.

    It is a witty, quick read and is worth the couple of hours invested. I hope it is read by many. If you are strapped for time, but the concept interests you, please check out the author’s blog post on the topic here.

    – Reviewed by (polymath) Adam Reece

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    Philosophy Word of the Day – Aristotle’s Natural Philosophy

    Aristotle had a lifelong interest in the study of nature. He investigated a variety of different topics, ranging from general issues like motion, causation, place and time, to systematic explorations and explanations of natural phenomena across different kinds of natural entities. These different inquiries are integrated into the framework of a single overarching enterprise describing the domain of natural entities. Aristotle provides the general theoretical framework for this enterprise in his Physics, a treatise which divides into two main parts, the first an inquiry into nature (books 1-4) and the second a treatment of motion (books 5-8).

    In this work, Aristotle sets out the conceptual apparatus for his analysis, provides definitions of his fundamental concepts, and argues for specific theses about motion, causation, place and time, and establishes in bk. 8 the existence of the unmoved mover of the universe, a supra-physical entity, without which the physical domain could not remain in existence. He takes up problems of special interest to physics (such as the problem of generation and perishing) in a series of further physical treatises, some of which are devoted to particular physical domains: the De generatione et corruptione (On Generation and Perishing), the De caelo (On the Heavens), and the Meteorology, which lead up to the treatises on biology and psychology. (Continue article)

    (Via Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Bust of Aristotle. Marble, Roman copy after a ...

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    Philosophy Word of the Day – The Knowledge Argument Against Physicalism

    The knowledge argument is one of the main challenges to physicalism, the doctrine that the world is entirely physical. The argument begins with the claim that there are truths about consciousness that cannot be deduced from the complete physical truth [i.e., a complete physical description of the world]. For example, Frank Jackson’s Mary, learns all the physical truths from within a black-and-white room. Then she leaves the room, sees a red tomato for the first time, and learns new truths—new phenomenal truths about what it’s like to see red. The argument then infers that, contrary to physicalism, the complete physical truth is not the whole truth. The physical truth does not determine or metaphysically necessitate the whole truth about the world.

    (Via Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

    Yes, I’d wager there’s more going on inside of us than “accidental collocations of atoms.”

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