Tuesday, 23 February 2010

so who's irrational?

A common accusation of atheists is that christians are irrational, preferring faith to evidence. To some christians this is not an insult, for they choose faith over logic. But other christians find this accusation both insulting and untrue, for they believe faith is based on reason and evidence.

I cannot recall anyone providing any scientific evidence for this claim. The evidence generally offered is simply that christianity involves faith, faith is not based on evidence and that is irrational.

I have just come across a book which turns this argument on its head. The Making of an Atheist by James Speigel (a professor of philosophy) argues that many atheists come to their beliefs by non-rational means. I have not read the book, but I have read parts of it and several reviews.

The book is based on scriptural teaching, but it uses evidence from psychology, the philosophy of science and atheists' own words, to establish this conclusion. The author argues that experiences in childhood, unwillingness to submit to God and immorality are all psychological factors leading to disbelief.

I'm sure there is truth in all this, although I feel some atheists I have "met" on the internet also have other, more honourable, reasons for their lack of belief in God. And I don't think I'll be using this book's conclusions to press any atheists to believe - I have objected often to atheists making unbased psychological explanations for my belief, so I don't think I should return the "compliment".

But it may be helpful to know what is in this book. At least it provides a counter to the old "christians are delusional" argument should I ever be really pressed on the matter.


  1. This sounds like an interesting read. Psychological explanations can be argued both ways, so it's intriguing to finally see theists return the favor.

    I think you are also right, it's clear that there are irrational atheist types(it seems pretty clear to me that teenage atheism is a product of their rebellious nature), but I agree this certainly isn't true of all atheists.

  2. For what it's worth, I actually came across the book at the bookstore the other day, and I must say I wasn't very encouraged by what I saw on my skim-through. It's more or less just a general apologetic; there's stuff about morality, pascal's wager, intelligent design, etc. more or less everything you can find on William Lane Craig's website. There is some psychology stuff towards the end, but I don't think it's enough to justify buying the book.

  3. This book sounds like smug, self-indulgent nonsense and an exercise in monumental strawman-building. Apparently I'm an atheist because I'm "immoral" and I want to do naughty things without worrying about God getting angry. Really? Strange, because I am, if anything, more consistently moral in my behaviour since I became an atheist that I was as a theist - there is only one person responsible for my actions and choices - me - and I would be letting myself and everything I believe in down if I acted against my principles.

    And apparently I rejected God because I wanted to rebel and chose to do so. Strange - I recall struggling desperately to find some way of retaining some kind of belief in God in the face of increasing evidence that he was a human creation.

    Finally, this clown claims I became an atheist because I had no good father figure in my life. Really? Odd then that my good, kind and devout father was the most loving and stable parent a guy could ask for and the most noble and admirable man I have ever known.

    This guy is an idiot.

  4. G'day Tim, thanks for your comment. I haven't read the book, and I'm guessing you haven't either. If that's the case, I think calling the author an idiot is as unjustified as suggesting everything he says applies to all atheists. If he suggests that, I have already said I would disagree with him. But if he has based his comments on genuine interviews and research (which is apparently the case for some of it), then perhaps his conclusions are true for those people, and maybe some others. Applying them to yourself may or may not be fair to him, just as it isn't fair to you.

    The problem is, I don't know if I'll ever bother to read the book to find out, and I'm doubtful you will either! : )

    Best wishes.

  5. I think Tim really nails home both the problem AND the need for this book. He is absolutely correct(although a touch polemic as usual!) in stating that these psychological speculations can hardly make for a slam-dunk argument, because there is always going to be plenty of exceptions. At the same time though I can at least see the need for this book... in many ways it's a response to the long discredited but still overly abused atheist psycho-analyzing theists have had to endure. Freud(was it Freud?) says that we look to God because we need a father figure, so folks like Speigal are saying "well alot of the big name skeptics of years past didn't have very good relationships with their fathers so what does this say about this argument?" It's Tim's very complaint but from the theists' POV. Of course it'd be nice if there wasn't this sort of tit-for-tat approach to the discussion, but at the same time if theists responded to Freud by simply saying "that's not true!" instead of providing a counter-example then no one would buy their defense. I think it's a bad idea to make a general assumption on an entire belief system from psychology, and as Unklee says if that is what Speigal is doing then this book is a failure, but I think there is certainly a need for the reminder that there is a motive for any ideaology.

  6. "The author argues that experiences in childhood, unwillingness to submit to God and immorality are all psychological factors leading to disbelief."

    Kind of turns things on their head if:
    1. infanticide is immoral
    2. Yahweh commanded infanticide in the Bible (cf: 1 Samuel 15:3)
    3. One rejects Yahweh because he commanded infanticide
    4. One rejects Yahweh because Yahweh is immoral.

    But the author is being a little tautological if he explains atheism by "unwillingness to submit to God."

    That would be like me explaining your unbelief in Zeus by your.... unwillingness to submit to Zeus.

    I think "popular" apologetics are hurting Christianity more than helping these days.

    I wonder if ol' Clive Staples (C.S. Lewis) was as polemical in his day as folks in the apologetics gig are today.

  7. Yeah, I'm ambivalent towards it, as I've said. But at least it appears to be an attempt to apply some reasoning based on evidence, which seems to be more than the Dawkins and delusional arguments seek to do.

    Not having read the book, I don't see why the author is tautological necessarily. I spent a year of my life believing in God but refusing to submit to him.

    I think the infanticide argument is powerful, even though it claims a bit too much certainty. But why do non-believers always pick on the worst aspects of a belief that is clearly revealed progressively? I'm not a Jew and I don't believe in the Yahweh of the Old Testament, I'm a christian and I believe in the God Jesus revealed.

  8. "But why do non-believers always pick on the worst aspects of a belief that is clearly revealed progressively?"

    I think the idea is that.... if the Old Testament revelation is not veridical, why would one think that the New Testament is any more than its predecessor? I think most people assume there should be continuity between the O.T. revelation and the N.T. revelation - rather than having a mutable God or an unreliable revelation. I think there is a foundationalist belief that if the OT is undermined, the NT falls as well.

    So there are a few options....
    1. The entire Bible is inspired by God, including the infanticide parts
    2. Some of the Bible is inspired by God, excluding the infanticide parts
    3. The Bible is a book made up by men with no divine inspiration

    The reason atheists tend to attack 1 is that it is the strongest version of Christian theism.

  9. "So there are a few options...."

    If unbelievers want to merely talk among themselves, then choosing their favoured option (for whatever reason) among a list of options they think are most likely is fair enough I guess. But if they want to "attack 1 .... Christian theism" they might be better advised understanding the full range of belief and attacking the strongest and most thoughtful one. (Mike Tyson didn't become world champion by smashing me in the ring, but by smashing the best!)

    I can think of several other options, not all mutually exclusive ...

    4. Jesus taught that he replaced or re-interpreted the OT ("You have heard it said ... but I say".
    5. Inspiration by God may mean something more nuanced than unbelievers assume.
    6. The Bible (for a believer) is clearly a mix of human and divine. Perhaps the mix is different to what unbelievers assume, and perhaps it changes with time.
    7. Progressive revelation.
    8. Truth can be presented in ways other than literal scientific statement.

    There is some overlap between all of them, and most thoughtful christians I know would hold at least to some degree to one or more of those options.

    The point here is that if anything like them is true, your simple argument fizzles and has to be replaced by something more subtle. And as I believe primarily in Jesus, I am forced to consider these options in coming to terms with his teachings.

    So #1 may be the "strongest" in some hairy-chested sense of "toughest" or "most literal", but not (IMO) in terms of the evidence and thoughtful understanding.

    If unbelievers want to engage with thoughtful believers (and I think many actually don't), then they should change their approach. And of course the same applies vice versa to many believers.

    Thanks for your comments.

  10. 5-8 would all be denied by Christian fundamentalists - and I think those are the sorts the New Atheists (who represent the "fundamentalist" movement within atheism) are locked into battle with.

    They also tend to be the most vocal and politically motivated sect here in the U.S. - I don't think they hold as much clout in Europe or Oz.

    Regardless of what one religion one claims for herself - fundamentalists can leave a bad taste in anyone's mouth.

    If you can get my e-mail off my blogger profile let me know - I've been toying with the idea, if you'd be interested, of having a "dialogue" blog or something of that sort.... just a conceptual idea....

    I often wonder if the biggest threat to Christianity (as well as Judaism and Islam) is fundamentalist orthodoxy.

    Drop me an e-mail sometime if you'd like.

  11. First, my apologies for my number scheme overlapping yours - we have two #4!.

    I think most evangelicals would accept some degree of my #4, 7 & 8, but I don't know about the varieties you have met.

    I think it serves the NAs' purposes to misrepresent all christians as if they were the NA caricatures of fundies, but I don't think it serves the cause of truth.

    I'm interested in discussing your idea but I haven't been able to find an email on your blog. Perhaps you could contact me via the contact form on my website, here.

  12. I visited and will continue to do so because I have read your comments on Barb's Following Oswald blog. I downloaded your pdf on prayer and will read it during the coming week. I have been praying with my husband every day for nearly 30 years and with my girlfriend for 22 years. Prayer makes all the difference in my life, it is a powerful spiritual tool.


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