Book review of R.C. Sproul’s “If there’s a God, why are there atheists?”

I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery
I have a key that will unlock a puzzling mystery

Brian Auten has a book review posted up at Apologetics 315.

The book is “If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?”, by theologian R.C. Sproul. R.C. Sproul is one of my favorite theologians. The book in question has a very, very special place in my heart, because I think that it is one of the major reasons why I was able to resist pernicious ideas like religious pluralism and postmodernism for so long. Once you put on the glasses of Romans 1 and see for the first time what man is really doing with respect to God, you can never see things the same again. I’ll say more about this at the end, but let’s see what Brian wrote first.

The review

So often, you hear atheists complaining about religion is nothing but wish-fulfillment or some sort of crutch for people who are frightened by a variety of things. They think that God is invented to solve several problems. 1) how does the world work?, 2) is there meaning to suffering and evil?, 3) why should I be moral?, and 4) what will happen to me and my loved ones when I die?. On the atheistic view, God is just a crutch that people cling to out of weakness and ignorance. But is this really the case?

Sproul starts the book by investigating three atheists who sought to explain religious belief as a result of psychological factors.

Brian writes:

Before tackling the psychology of atheism, Sproul spends a chapter on the psychology of theism, from the perspective of Freud’s question “If there is no God, why is there religion?”11 What follows is an overview of various psychological explanations of theistic belief: Feuerbach’s “religion is a dream of the human mind.”12 Marx’s belief that religion is “due to the devious imagination of particular segment of mankind.”13 And Nietzche’s idea that “religion endures because weak men need it.”14 The author properly reiterates: “We must be careful to note that the above arguments can never be used as proof for the nonexistence of God. They can be useful for atheists who hear theists state that the only possible explanation for religion is the existence of God.”15 That being said, Sproul also reveals what these arguments presume:

Their arguments already presupposed the nonexistence of God. They were not dealing with the question, Is there a God? They were dealing with the question, Since there is no God, why is there religion?16

Sproul points out the weaknesses of each of these approaches and says “there are just as many arguments showing that unbelief has its roots in the psychological needs of man.”

Wow, could that really be true? What are the real reasons why people reject God? Does the Bible have anything to say about what those reasons are?

Brian cites Sproul’s contention:

The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God.

[…]Man’s desire is not that the omnipotent, personal Judeo-Christian God exist, but that He not exist.

In Romans 1:18-23, the apostle Paul explains what is really going on:

18The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness,

19since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.

20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

22Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools

23and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

On this blog, I regularly present many, many arguments for theism in general, and Christian theism in particular:

Sproul explains why atheists cannot allow themselves to live according to the evidence that is presented to them:

The cumulative effect of this knowledge that is clearly seen is to leave men ‘without excuse.’ Herein lies the basis of the universal guilt of man. No one can claim ignorance of the knowledge of God. No one can cite insufficient evidence for not believing in God. Though people are not persuaded by the evidence, this does not indicate an insufficiency in the evidence, but rather an insufficiency in man.

[…]The basic stages of man’s reaction to God can be formulated by means of the categories of trauma, repression, and substitution.

[…]If God exists, man cannot be a law unto himself. If God exists, man’s will-to-power is destined to run head-on into the will of God.

And this is the force that is animating atheists today. They don’t want to be accountable to God in a relationship, no matter what the evidence is. They have to deny it, so that they can be free to get the benefits of a universe designed for them, without having to give any recognition or acknowledgement back. If they have to lie to themselves to deny the evidence, they will do it. Anything to insulate themselves from the Creator and Designer who reveals himself in Jesus Christ.

The rest of the book review, and the book, deals with explaining in detail how atheists respond to an all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing Creator/Designer. I encourage you to click through and read the whole book review. You can read the review, and the book, and then investigate for yourself whether atheists really are like that.

My survey of atheists

By the way, did you all see my survey of atheists that I did a while back? It’s relevant because one of the questions I asked to my volunteers was “How you begin to follow Christ if it suddenly became clear to you that Christianity was objectively true?”. I got some very strange responses that dovetail nicely with Sproul’s book.

Here are a few of the responses:

  • I would not follow. My own goals are all that I have, and all that I would continue to have in that unlikely situation. I would not yield my autonomy to anyone no matter what their authority to command me.
  • I would not follow, because God doesn’t want humans to act any particular way, and he doesn’t care what we do.
  • I would not follow. Head is spinning. Would go to physician to find out if hallucinating.
  • I hope I would be courageous enough to dedicate my life to rebellion against God.
  • I would not have to change anything unless forced to and all that would change is my actions not my values.  I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran.
  • He would have to convince me that what he wants for me is what I want for me.

This is all part of my series discussing whether morality is rationally grounded by atheism.

Well Spent Journey did a similar survey of atheists, inspired by mine, and got this result on the relevant question:

12. How would you begin to follow Jesus if it became clear to you that Christianity was true?

– Would follow (5)
– Wouldn’t follow (6)
Might follow the teachings of Jesus, but that isn’t Christianity (2)
– It would depend on how this truth was revealed (3)
– Christianity can’t be true (3)
– No answer given (4)

…What would be the hardest adjustment you would have to make to live a faithful, public Christian life?

– Adjusting wouldn’t be that difficult; would eagerly welcome knowing that Christianity was true (2)
– Praying, since it seems weird, creepy, and strange
– Trying to figure out how the Bible became so corrupted

– Trying to convince myself that the God of the Bible is deserving of worship (2)
– Don’t think it would be possible to adjust

– No clear response, or not applicable (16)

Yes, they really think like that! Just ask an atheist questions and you’ll see how “objective” they really are. Atheism is entirely psychological. It’s adopted in order to feel sufficient and to operate with autonomy, with the goal of self-centered pleasure-seeking above all. Evidence has nothing to do with it.

UPDATE: Greg Koukl  responded to concerns by Ed Feser, and Ed Feser posted his response here. I agree with Koukl.

29 thoughts on “Book review of R.C. Sproul’s “If there’s a God, why are there atheists?””

  1. I got into apologetics because of one of R.C. Sproul’s books. I had to re-read and re-read it until I finally understood the language but once I did, it kicked open the philosophy door in my brain.

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      1. I think that response goes for me, as well. I guess I would just add that a person doesn’t have to be doing immoral things in order to be in rebellion. For example, they can be promoting immoral things in opposition to the moral law, and that would count as rebellion as well. And it would also be causing harm indirectly, by encouraging others to come to the point where they act immorally. That’s why Romans 1:32 is interesting – it points out that part of the rebellion is encouraging others to sin. I think this encouragement is rebellion whether or not one is personally sinning. It certainly causes harm to encourage someone to do a sinful action X even if one does not do it oneself. Even voting to keep abortion legal, or to redefine marriage so that more children grow up without their mother or their father, or to promote single mother welfare which causes more children to grow up fatherless, would be destructive behaviors even if the person encouraging them did not do the sinning themselves.

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        1. “For example, they can be promoting immoral things in opposition to the moral law, and that would count as rebellion as well.”

          You just described me, WK, in my first 42 years. Trying to do right, mostly doing wrong.

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          1. Yeah, I think it can feel good for an atheist to encourage others to sin and to make war on Biblical morality, even if they are not sinning in the ways they encourage themselves. And does that support for other people sinning (e.g. – celebrating when your state legalizes same-sex marriage), then color their ability to assess the evidence for God’s existence rationally?

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          2. Yes, spot on. The one place where Rauser may be close to right with me is that I really WAS trying to do right, but was in darkness about what right was. But, there is no question in my mind that the darkness that I was in was because of my rejection of the Creator. Absolutely no doubt. I was my own “god.” So, it was not a direct one step link, but a two step link.

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          3. Yes. It is so tempting to want to tear down the rules that make people who break them feel ashamed, even if one does not break the rules oneself. But this is, of course, rebellion against God. And it does, of course, result in destruction, e.g. – 57 million dead unborn children, an epidemic of children separated from their mothers and fathers, etc. Can a person committed to promoting sin weigh the evidence for God fairly, even if they are not committing the sins they encourage others to commit?

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          4. “Can a person committed to promoting sin weigh the evidence for God fairly, even if they are not committing the sins they encourage others to commit?”

            Wow – that is an incredibly brilliant question!. I just am thinking of where I was when in utter darkness and how the Holy Spirit made me open-minded through the observations and practice of homeschooling and the apologetic evidence that science and math are fully consistent with Christian theism. Even having gone through it, it is still VERY confusing to me. It seemed to me like I was being rational before (even though I wasn’t). I think the only thing I had going for me is that I have always been really open-minded to the pursuit of truth and knowledge, realizing that those two things are not isomorphic.

            I was a “trinitarian polytheistic atheist:” my “god” was me, myself, and I, but I also served the lesser “gods” of money, degrees, and status. (And many others too, I am sure.) In that sense, I do not think that there is any question that I was indeed rejecting any God bigger than myself. I don’t think I was a consistent atheist though – I’m not even sure that it practically possible: I somehow believed my life had an objective purpose or meaning, but it was through money, degrees, and status that I acquired that meaning. It was not long after the logical realization, on atheism, that all of those things would not only be gone in 100 years, but it would be as if they had never existed, that the scales really started to come off my eyes. That may have been the only truly logical philosophical thought that I had BC. Of course, all of these things I now know were through God and His Spirit, to Him be the praise and glory.

            I don’t think I have answered your question well, nor do I know if I have given you evidence for or against your position. I think that there was open rebellion against a Creator, yes, but I was still trying to do the right thing (which does not exist objectively on atheism) and failing. I also knew I was failing – does that help?

            I am not even sure that, deep down, I was rejecting the existence of a Creator more than I was rejecting being accountable to anyone but myself. I used the Lord’s Name in vain early and often and daily, and I KNEW that was wrong, but could never stop – that is surely a major sin and knowledge of it. Not only that, but it is absolutely self-refuting for an atheist to use the Lord’s Name at all – or to tell someone to go to Hell! (Despite the silly excuses I keep hearing from the New Atheists.) On the other side of things, I was pro-life the last 13 years of my atheism, but certainly not to the extent that I ever would have spoken out against it, much less been as involved as I am now. So, that is a case where I (by logic, accident, or the Holy Spirit) was correct on a sin, and was not encouraging it.

            Perhaps you can psychoanalyze what I have written? Does this experience fit in at all Biblically?

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      2. Thanks for that link, Scott! Like Koukl, I am inclined to turn this around into an argument for the existence of God from evil – although his main point about suppression of Truth seems valid too.

        I once had an atheist tell me that if God existed, then the term “pediatric oncology” would not. I replied that if God did not exist, then pediatric oncology hospitals would not. The point being that, on atheism, infant and child cancer is a “good” thing that weeds out the bad “specimens,” and keeping them alive longer, even into remission, is “bad” on evolutionary naturalism. The opposite is true on theism, most notably, Christian theism, based on the historical data.

        BTW, Rauser replied in the comment section of your link.

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  2. Hmmm…In my life time I have experienced very different atheists than the ones you cite.

    Strangely, many of the atheists I’ve read and/or talked with in the last 50 years, especially recently, actually have a philosophical stance similar to R.C. Sproul.

    Of course, they don’t think God exists, but they do think, like Sproul that hard determinism is true, that no human has any choice.

    Have you read Sproul’s book , Willing to Believe? I’ve read it twice as well as other books by him. Very hopeless and no Good News there.

    While I am a committed theist, I am surely a hard atheist when it comes to the God that Sproul believes in.

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    1. Oh my gosh, I don’t agree with him on his hard determinism regarding predestination. I’m for middle knowledge, which I think is more fair to the text. But I do think that God must initiate, and then humans have a choice to respond. However, on Romans 1, we are not talking about rocket science hermeneutics here. It’s very straightforward what it means. There is no such thing as rational unbelief. However, I don’t think it is required that ALL atheists ground their rebellion in dastardly acts of evil, it’s sufficient that they simply don’t want God being the one in charge of how they ought to live, don’t want to have to stand up to their non-Christian friends on moral issues, don’t want to have to waste their time with moral oughts that are virtuous, don’t want to have to take unpopular positions in order to protect the unborn, or children’s right to a mother and father, etc. Letting God own morality is the issue.

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  3. I am wondering if Randal Rauser and WK are defining the term ‘rebellion’ differently? If both of you 2 agree that rebellion is sin, then it doesn’t matter what type or kind of sin. It is still sin.

    I also am wondering about the survey, particularly the responses. How many atheists would really ignore Jesus if he appeared in their doorway? Sometimes people would make a statement, but once presented with the ‘ugly truth’ (for lack of better words), they would have a different perspective?

    Or maybe I am wrong and the book of Revelation 9:20-21 states it better:

    “The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone, and wood-idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.’

    Or maybe I am wrong and Jesus said it correctly in Luke 16:29-31:

    “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
    ‘No, father Abraham, he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
    ‘He said to him, ‘if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”

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    1. Your post makes a lot of sense, particularly the part about Scripture.

      I have actually had some atheists admit that if they saw the words “This is God, Jim, and I am here” written in the sky, they would assume that there was a naturalistic explanation. It has been conjectured that some atheists, if they rejected the naturalistic explanation, would resent the advertising God is doing. If Jesus appeared in the doorway, based on the loose description of Him, I doubt that any of us would recognize Him, barring the miracles He is willing to perform. Now, on His next return, I think we will ALL recognize Him, believer and unbeliever alike.

      I’m just guessing that God has the optimal level of hiddenness down perfectly – to bring the most into the Kingdom without overcoming free will.

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