James Spiegel explains what really causes atheism

I spotted this sample chapter from James Spiegel’s new book “The Making of an Atheist” at Apologetics.com.

Here’s the part I found the most interesting:

The eminent twentieth-century historian Paul Johnson describes his Intellectuals as “an examination of the moral and judgmental credentials of leading intellectuals to give advice to humanity on how to conduct its affairs.” Thus begins a 342-page historical expose that recounts behavior so sleazy and repugnant that one almost feels corrupted by reading it. Most disturbing are not necessarily the details of the sordid lives described by Johnson but the fact that the subjects are often regarded as intellectual heroes. Not merely successful people of letters in their day, they were scholars whose influence was, and continues to be, felt worldwide. They mastered their crafts as novelists, poets, playwrights, and philosophers and set forth ideals and values for ordering society.

So for most readers it comes as a bit of a shock to learn that so many leading intellectuals were self-serving egotists,whose ostensible interest in humankind generally was belied by their callous disregard for those nearest and dearest to them, especially familymembers.

The upshot of Johnson’s book is that not only do many leading modern intellectuals fail to live up to their billing as moral visionaries, but their moral perversity should cause us to question the legitimacy of their ideas. This is because one’s personal conduct impacts one’s scholarly projects. And, as Johnson shows, the works of these intellectuals were often calculated to justify or minimize the shame of their own debauchery.

Among the diverse vices that characterize the intellectuals studied by Johnson, brazen sexual promiscuity is the one recurring theme. So it is not surprising that most of these men explicitly rejected the Judeo-Christian worldview. Indeed, many of their scholarly and creative works openly challenged the values of this tradition, which condemns the sorts of lascivious behavior that dominated their lives.

Aldous Huxley, another significant modern intellectual, had much to say on this point. In the following quote he refers to a nihilistic worldview, but this could as easily be supplanted by Marxism, Sartrean existentialism, or Shelley’s vision of a religion-free society:

For myself as, no doubt, for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation.The liberation we desired was simultaneously liberation from a certain political and economic system and liberation from a certain system of morality.We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.

Elsewhere in this same essay, Huxley is even more candid:

Most ignorance is vincible ignorance.We don’t know because we don’t want to know. It is our will that decides how and upon what subjects we shall use our intelligence. Those who detect no meaning in the world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their books that the world should be meaningless.

As Paul Johnson argues, the philosophical systems and social ideals of many modern intellectuals were decided by their will to be immoral, not their quest for truth. They wrote the books they did to suit their personal lives, not vice versa.

The interesting point from the sample chapter here is that for atheists, the sin comes first, especially sexual sin. Now, pretty much everybody has some trouble with sin. No one can be perfect all the time. But atheists try to lie to themselves and others by re-imagining the world in such a way as to remove God as moral lawgiver. And it doesn’t matter how far they have to go to speculate, assume or imagine their way out of reality. If they have to deny the big bang, they will. Deny the fine-tuning, no problem. The origin of life? Aliens did it. The resurrection? Unknown identical twin of Jesus. It’s brute facts all the way down.

Consider this quote from an honest, respectable atheist philosopher named Thomas Nagel:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”
(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)

They don’t want to admit that they are doing anything wrong, and they don’t want to be bothered by God’s design for them. They don’t think there is any way they ought to be other than “happy”. Their new alternate universe allows them to do whatever they want (however destructive) while trying to make themselves happy for a few years apart from God. And their new moral standard requires that everyone call that selfishness “good”, or else. And finally, if anything goes wrong, then the government is right there with someone else’s money to fix it, so they never feel any shame or guilt.

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5 thoughts on “James Spiegel explains what really causes atheism”

  1. Hi W. K.,

    Those are interesting and valuable observations. Most of us want to imagine that we reason in a purely logical vacuum, but there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes: Our intellectual and moral environment, our psychological makeup, our will and desires, what our friends think, etc. It’s nice when someone is honest enough to come out and admit these factors — like Huxley and Nagel.

    An awareness of this should make us all more cognizant of our potential biases. If we’re strongly opposed to belief in God, it’s worth asking what else is going on besides intellectual doubts. Maybe a lot.


  2. At my university, the ideas of seminal atheist philosophers were presented without biographical background.

    Not a few women in my political philosophy class would have been less impressed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, had they known that he begot several (five?) children by his common-law wife and sent them all to certain death in the poorhouse.


  3. To be fair, isn’t it more the theist who has the wishful thinking problem? Could it not be said that theists want to believe in God because they don’t want to face the horrific possibility of death being the true end of an individual’s existence? Or that without God evil people will avoid justice? There are plenty of reasons why theists would want there to be a God. So why can’t these personal reasons for belief taint the honesty of their search for truth as much as an atheist’s?


  4. WK: The interesting point from the sample chapter here is that for atheists, the sin comes first, especially sexual sin.

    Not in my case – never really been a believer.
    If you’re thinking a small child can seriously sin, especially in a sexual fashion, and only/mostly because that child wants to avoid, then you REALLY should get out more, as should the author you quote :-)


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