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.

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

  1. Dunno if by any chance any reading this blog might be up to reading an article in French? It’s just that I recently put online an article that underscores the intellectual dead-end that one ends up in when one coherently applies the materialistic logic that the mature phase of the Enlightenment applies to all human behaviour. This directly taps into Freud’s question WN raised, “If there is no God, why is there religion?”

    Here’s the article:

    Génétique de la croyance religieuse ou les effets inattendus d’une logique hypocrite…
    http://www.samizdat.qc.ca/cosmos/sc_soc/genetiquedelacroyance_PG.htm

    In English that would translate to “The Genetics of Religious Belief or the Unexpected implications of a Hypocritical Logic”. This all got started a while back when a contact asked me “what do you think of this article?” I expect others here get these sort of questions from time to time too…

    SNYDER, Solomon H., M.D., D.Sc. (2008) Seeking God in the Brain — Efforts to Localize Higher Brain Functions. pp. 6-7 The New England Journal of Medicine Volume 358: January 3, 2008 Number 1
    http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp078206

    Lately going through my email archives (looking for something else) I bumped into my response and realized there was more to this issue than what I’d dealt with in my initial off-the-cuff response. Going over this issue again, I realized that the quest among evolutionists and Enlightenment-influenced intellectuals to find a materialistic “explanation” of religious belief is a predictable, cyclical phenomena. In the post-genetics period, genetics is often referred to for such “explanations”, but others may refer to brain structure as the “answer”. In the pre-genetics period, Sigmund Freud claimed that religious belief was a side effect of sexual neurosis, the Oedipus complex. The objective, as always, is to find a MATERIALISTIC explanation of religious belief.

    But there’s a built-in hypocrisy involved in this argument because if belief is in fact genetically (or whatever) determined, then ALL belief is determined and logic is dead. As a result, this ALSO applies to evolutionists, who, as a result, believe in evolution NOT because of logic or facts or truth, but simply because their genome programmed them to believe such materialistic origins myths. Basically the evolutionists apply this kind of argument (of the materialistic determination of belief) to “religious belief”, but are VERY careful NOT to apply this logic to their own beliefs.

    C.S. Lewis famously nailed this logical dead-end in his Religion Without Dogma essay (1947/2002: 138)

    “It is like that with naturalism. it goes on claiming territory after territory: first the inorganic, then the lower organisms, then man’s body, then his emotions. but when it takes the final step and we attempt a naturalistic account of thought itself, suddenly the whole thing unravels.
    The last fatal step has invalidated all the preceding ones: for they were all reasonings and reason itself has been discredited. We must, therefore,
    either give up thinking altogether or else begin over again from the ground floor.”

    LEWIS, C. S. (1947/2002) God in the Dock. (Walter Hooper ed.). Eerdmans Grand Rapids MI 347 p.

    There’s more VERY interesting material in Lewis’ RWD article, but Lewis may well have been inspired by a very brief, yet VERY pointed comment, made a hundred years previously by the famous Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell at the end of an article entitled Analogies in Nature (1856):

    ” the only laws of matter are those which our minds must fabricate, and the only laws of mind are fabricated for it by matter.”

    MAXWELL, James Clerk Essay (1856) Analogies in Nature (February) reprinted in The Scientific Letters and Papers of James Clerk Maxwell: 1846-1862, volume I, edited by P.M. Harman, p. 376 Cambridge University Press 1990 (the quote appears on p. 383)

    But in Maxwell’s time materialism was so prestigious, even he seems to have been shy of pushing the matter “too far”.

    In the article I have added material from Nietzsche, David Hume and Francis Crick that strongly hints that these thinkers were aware of logical dead-end that Enlightenment principles lead to. Enlightenment propagandists often hint that Christianity leads to anti-intellectualism, anti-reason and anti-scientific attitudes, when in fact the shoe fits better on their own foot… Their Cinderella’s and don’t know it…

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    1. Responding to Paul Gosselin:
      I met the late Harvard Medical School professor of psychiatry Armand Nicholi, who wrote a book “The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life,” which is reviewed by fellow apologist Doug Groothuis: http://www.arn.org/docs/groothuis/dg_lewisandfreud.htm

      As per Dr. Groothuis’ review: “Freud contended that religion could be explained by strictly psychological factors. God was nothing more than a “projection” of a benevolent father image onto the screen of a hostile and uncaring universe. Religion was, to Freud, an “illusion” and “a universal obsessional neurosis,” a pre-scientific superstition. Freud reduced love to biological, genital urges…

      Lewis, too, wrestled with evil in the world. He grieved deeply over the death of his wife. But he did not believe evil disproved God; rather, God used evil for good purposes not otherwise attainable. Lewis argued that the desire for God and heaven was not neurotic, but provided evidence that God has given mortals a need for the divine. Just as the hunger for bread does not insure that one will be fed, the hunger for heaven does not mean one will find it. However, as hunger for bread in a world without bread makes no sense, so hunger for heaven in a world without heaven makes no sense. Lewis saw love not as mere biology, but as a doorway into the realities of divine love. He argued that conscience was a witness to an objective moral law and its Lawgiver, and that Jesus Christ could not logically be viewed as a mere moralist or a sage.”

      There’s a youtube video on Nicholi’s lecture: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ub4-3GYlHTw

      I believe (at least 10 years ago), Walden Media published a study guide and I see is available for free: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/questionofgod/guide/index.html

      Of course, Dr. Nicholi’s work is a fictional encounter between the two intellectual giants. (This was of course, turned into a play, “Freud’s Last Session” e.g., http://www.wbur.org/artery/2016/05/05/new-rep-freuds-last-session )

      On a different matter, I met one of Francis Crick’s granddaughters (we overlapped at the time Crick passed away). Since it was work, I was always polite/cordial and never controversial. I found it amusing that Crick espoused eugenics (very convenient when your son and grandchildren went to Harvard/Princeton), although his granddaughter distanced herself (and by implication, her immediate family) from Francis Crick’s views.

      I don’t think we got very deep into her grandfather’s views (besides, nobody likes to be a spokesperson for her grandfather), other than Crick was a naturalist (as you noted in your article) leaning towards being an atheist.

      As his granddaughter is now into something … creative, I wonder how atheists or naturalists explain creativity? I was just remarking to a coworker (part-time technical writer, part-time pastor) I find it amazing humans try to create order out of chaos — for instance, look at architecture or how towns are built or even Christmas lights. As a Christian, we say that this mirrors the activity of God.

      As a naturalist or an atheist, how would one explain creativity? Just curious. And I do know that WLC has mentioned that aesthetic judgments cannot be assessed by the scientific method because “the beautiful” cannot be scientifically proven (WLC’s debate with Peter Atkins).

      And not just to Paul Gosselin:
      In John Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel of John (John 3:3), “…by the term ‘born again’ [Jesus] means not the amendment of a part but the renewal of t he whole. Hence it follows that there is nothing in us that is not defective.”

      Sin affects our emotions: on a popular dating blog today, a married middle-aged lady who is having a 7 year affair to a married-with-yet-another-girlfriend-narcissist contemplated whether she should end her affair. Yet she feels like she loves her husband and she has a wonderful marriage. And her close friends who know of this affair haven’t confided in her husband yet?

      Wow. Some friends. Just so you know I’m not making this up: https://loveletters.boston.com/2017/11/time-end-affair.html

      Sin affects our emotions. We may experience envy (i.e., wanting what others have — especially the more similar another person is). We are discontent with what we have.

      We can’t fully trust our emotions, especially if they are sinful. We must examine them in light of God’s Word.

      Sin affects our rationality. We can rationalize our sin. “He pushed my buttons; it’s his fault.” We blameshift. Atheists cherry-pick their favorite arguments and data that fit their worldview.

      Even some online skeptics (some of which are actually intellectually lazy or dishonest) aren’t even skeptical of certain materials generated by their camp. As long as it attacks Christianity…

      See for instance: https://www.quora.com/Are-Christians-aware-that-essentially-every-part-of-Christianity-is-copied-from-pagan-mythology/answer/Andy-Kaminski-1 (the question on quora questioned whether Christians knew that their faith is a copy of pagan myths, I am not Andy Kaminski for the record).

      And of course, sin also affects our volition. If we are atheists, we may not want to submit to God. Even if we are not atheists, we may not want to do the right thing. (Of course, the atheists can’t even objectively define what is “the right thing.”)

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  2. The book of romans is brilliant and should be essential to deeper study of Christian life. Because it does an excellent job of laying out Grace vs law. Our rebellious nature as you noted. Many bad Christian doctrine stems from not knowing the book of romans

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