If you ask the typical atheist why s/he does not believe in God, you are likely to be provided with a list of intellectual objections to theism: the presence of evil is incompatible with a loving and powerful God, science demonstrates the irrelevancy of God, etc. Others will cite a lack of evidence for God’s existence. In either case, atheism is presented as, and perceived to be a purely intellectual conclusion.
James Spiegel begs to differ with this assessment and perception of atheism. In his book, The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief, Spiegel argues that the root cause of atheism is immorality, not intellectual skepticism; disobedience, not evidence. While atheists offer intellectual arguments in support of their position, Spiegel claims that such arguments are not the cause of their unbelief, but mere symptoms of their moral rebellion—the real cause of atheism. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in the struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.”
Spiegel does not expect for atheists to agree with his assessment, but he is not attempting to persuade atheists; he is simply attempting develop a Christian account of atheism. The Biblical data is his starting point, but he offers other supporting data as well. In support of Spiegel’s contention that unbelief is caused by disobedience and moral rebellion, consider the following Scriptures:
Psalm 14:1 The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good. (ESV)
John 3:19-21 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (ESV)
Romans 1:19-20 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. … So they are without excuse. (ESV)
Ephesians 4:17-19 Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. 19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. (ESV)
Hebrews 3:12-14 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (ESV)
Immorality affects our ability to reason properly regarding moral and spiritual matters. We begin to reason in ways that supports what we want to be true, rather than what we know to be true. For example, to avoid the conviction of our conscience when engaging in immorality, we first attempt to justify/rationalize our behavior as an exception to the moral law. Eventually, however, we find it easier to deny the moral law-giver Himself. If there is no moral law-giver, there is no moral law; and if there is no moral law, then we are not moral law-breakers, so the guilt we feel for doing X can be safely ignored, suppressed, or explained away. Such reasoning leads to self-deception, and ultimately deadens one’s awareness of God.
While Spiegel does not discuss it, Jesus’ own diagnosis for unbelief is found in the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:3-20). As the sower scattered his seeds, some fell on the beaten path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good ground. Only the seed that fell on good ground yielded fruit. In the parable the path, rocky ground, thorns, and good soil represent different kinds of individuals. According to Jesus, the reason some people do not believe has nothing to do with a lack of resources, and everything to do with their own response to the evidence. Those whose hearts are open to God will recognize Him. As Jesus said in John 17:7, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know about my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak from my own authority.” If one is not willing to acknowledge God as Lord of their life, they will be blind to the evidence for His existence—evidence that those who are willing to submit to God see plainly.
Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love: Some Christian Reflections in the Form of Discourses, trans. Howard and Edna Hong (New York: Harper and Row, 1962), 11.