Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Are atheists just in denial? Hellish motives behind a misguided notion

I remember it vividly. It was after my first visit to my then-girlfriend's church, and I found myself out to lunch with her pastor--a forceful personality whose every word radiated a kind of aggressive conviction. You got the sense that, whenever he said something, there was an unspoken addendum that went something like this: "By the way, if you disagree with this, then you are spitting in the face of God and have proved yourself to be a dangerous servant of Satan whom I will do my best to convert or silence so as to make sure that you do not endanger anyone's immortal soul."

Or maybe that was just my imagination. In any event, I found him quite intimidating.

I was reminded of that lunch the other day while I was reading Stephen Law's recent post, "Do atheists know God exists? " Law's post is a response to another post by Randy Everist. Both are considering a claim commonly made by conservative Christians--namely, that atheists really know that God exists but are engaged in some sort of deception, including self-deception. Put another way: they're in denial. Both Law and Everist have some trouble with this claim, but Everist tries to salvage a version of it. Law--I think quite convincingly--shows why Everist's salvage job fails.

But I don't want to talk specifically about the merits of Law's arguments here. Instead, I want to think in a somewhat different way about this idea that all atheists and agnostics are in denial.

My girlfriend's pastor, lo those many years ago, asserted this idea over lunch. And when my face began to inch, ever so slightly, towards an expression that may have hinted at skepticism, he quickly invoked the Bible--specifically, Romans 1:18-20, in which Paul writes, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For 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 people are without excuse."

The man said that last bit more than once: "They're without excuse." This piece was important to him. It was important that non-believers be without excuse. And I remember that an old woman at a nearby table overhead him (the pastor had a resonant voice--he was preaching even in the restaurant), and she felt the need to voice her earnest agreement.

When the preacher said this, I wanted to respond with vocal incredulity. I might have said "Are you nuts?" if I'd had more courage. You see, I knew lots of atheists and agnostics. Some were close friends. Others were loved ones. And it was quite apparent to me that their lack of belief in God wasn't about denying what was plain before their eyes. 

Even though this happened years before The God Delusion hit shelves, I'd met atheists a bit like Richard Dawkins. And say what you will about Dawkins, it's pretty clear that he believes what he says about the absurdity of belief in God. I think it's clear to most followers of my work where I stand on this matter: We live in a world that is like that famed duck-rabbit image, a world that can be seen in different ways. And, contrary to Dawkins, I think one reasonable way in which to see the world is theistically. But in such a world, belief in the existence of God isn't a matter of knowledge but of faith--by which I mean it's a matter of choosing to see the world in terms of a hoped-for possibility. And this means that those who don't see it this way aren't denying something that they "really know in their heart is true."

But let's set aside such philosophical ideas and simply look at actual atheists and agnostics.

The reason I couldn't take that preacher seriously that day was because of the atheists and agnostics I'd known. Some had once been believers but had lost their faith--and they'd lost it kicking and screaming. They'd fought tooth and nail to preserve what had for so long helped to define who they were...until, finally, they had to admit that they just didn't believe anymore.

This doesn't smack of denial. In fact, I've know people who quite clearly were lying to themselves while they avowed belief in God, who really had already stopped believing and just weren't ready to admit it yet.

And I've known people who were perfectly open to the idea of God, but who neither found a compelling internal drive to believe nor saw any compelling evidence for God's existence when they looked at the world around them. And so they remained agnostic--friendly to believers, but honest enough to say, when pressed, "You know, I just don't have any beliefs about that." And these were not people full of "godlessness and wickedness," but rather people with a strong moral center, a noble heart, deep compassion and kindness.

I'm speaking, specifically, of my father. 

The preacher at that restaurant table announced, in effect, that my father was without excuse. That he was willfully denying the truth--this man whose character I knew as well as I've known the character of anyone. And I can tell you this: Anyone who met my father, paid any attention to him, and then insisted that he "knew in his heart that there is a God but lied to himself and others about it"...well, such a person would have to have been doing what that preacher claimed nonbelievers do: Refuse to acknowledge the obvious. 

More broadly, the notion that all atheists and agnostics are in denial is one that you can persist in clinging to only if you either don't pay attention to your atheist and agnostic neighbors, or if you willfully distort the evidence that pours in when you do pay attention. This notion operates as a way of blocking or impeding honest appreciation of other human beings. It is, in that sense, an impediment to love--because love begins with attention and the effort to understand.

So why do some Christians, like this preacher from my past, insist on clinging to this notion?

There are probably a number of reasons. Three in particular come to mind: First, because they cling to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and it sounds as if Paul endorses this notion in Romans. Second, because they cling to the doctrine that nonbelievers are damned to eternal hell at death, and they're astute enough to recognize that such a fate doesn't seem just if the person who is being thus damned is, well, exactly like my father in fact was. Third, because the level of certitude that they long to invest in their beliefs is hard for them to preserve in the face of sincere, authentic disagreement, thus leading them to want to deny that any sincere disagreement really exists.

And so, when they meet decent atheists and agnostics whose views are obviously sincere, views that express personal integrity as opposed to denial, they have to lie to themselves and others about those people, and declare them to be without excuse, in order to be able to cling to their infallibilist and hellish certitude.

In the process, they lose sight of what may be the deeper message of Romans 1:18-20--a message about paying attention to what's plain, about being honest with oneself about what one sees; a message about how those who fail to do this risk becoming alienated from the source of truth and love.


  1. Excellent post, Eric! Nice twist at the end - I do know some conservative Christians who think the existence of an invisible God is more obvious and impossible to deny than the sincerity of their agnostic/atheist acquaintances. And this certainly seems a watered-down spirituality to me.

  2. It's certainly a strange argument. As someone who has been both an atheist and a believer in God, I can attest that this "you knew it deep down all along" theory is totally at odds with my personal experience.

    My first 20 or years were as an atheist; I saw no evidence of anything beyond the material world, so I saw no reason to believe in it. At 25, I had an unexpected supernatural encounter with a higher power, that I believe to be God. It was tangible, it was amazing, and it turned my world upside down. Naturally, atheism became an obsolete notion that I discarded.

    But my experience was very much one of discovery - not 'rediscovery'. I've never felt that 'I had known that God was there all along', any more than Columbus could have 'known that America was there all along'. Perhaps I might have had some sort of intuitive connection to God since birth, that I perhaps grew away from as I grew up and my understanding of the world became more cerebral and less instinctive. But either way, when I did finally meet God, it was very, very surprising.

    The thing I find puzzling about your pastor using that Romans quote is that it refers to a very broad conception of God: an omnipresent divine power, who created the universe. The thing is, there are scores of people who believe in that God, without at all believing in a Christian God, who is a much more particular type of God.

    That Fundamentalist pastor would have undoubtedly stressed the importance of believing that God was a Trinity, that he had a single Son, that he punished sinners, that he requires belief in Christ for salvation, that he wrote the Bible, and many other things. Knowledge of these things requires aquainting oneself with theological teachings; none of these things are apparent by simply looking at the world around us. Paul doesn't seem to claim that they are either, and I doubt even that pastor would have.

    So, this verse seems satisfied with a very broad belief in God (one that would include, for example, Muslims, Hindus, New Agers and even some agnostics). An odd verse then to be used as a lynchpin by a pastor who would have probably found such non-specific beliefs deeply unsatsifactory, if not heretical.

  3. Are you sure about the "choosing" part, Eric? Can one really choose to believe something, as opposed to deceiving oneself about what one does actually believe? How does one interpret "I believe; help my unbelief"? It has always read to me like someone who does not believe, but wants to very badly. If belief were simply a matter of "choosing to see the world in terms of a hoped-for possibility," why would the help be necessary?

  4. Meg, You're right that the matter is more complex than the quick gloss on my stance suggests. It is certainly the case that some beliefs "happen to us," if you will. And there's a difference between something that just seems right to you based on your experience, your intuiton, etc., and something that you decide to affirm for practical reasons--that is, something you decide to treat as true because of the pragmatic implications of doing so. But even with respect to the former, decisions of attention--decisions about what to attend to--can play an enormous role in determining what seems right. And this means that even if I'm not choosing the belief as such, my choices can affect how I see things, and hence affect my worldview. I think the role of choice is especially significant when confonted with an ambiguous experience that, as a whole, can be seen in contrasting ways and there is something each way has going for it--especially when how you see it shapes your life in non-trivial ways. But unpacking these complexities probably requires a separate post.

  5. Let me take as a given that Paul was exactly right that whatever it is that can be known about God is clear to everyone, AND that there exist sincere atheists/agnostics. From that it follows that the "obvious" thing about God ISN'T her existence. So what could it be? Maybe it's how important love as exemplified by Christ is, maybe it's that we SHOULD at least WANT there to be more to life than an indifferent, pitiless universe. I can imagine there being people who recognize that they OUGHT to be rooting for that the kind of hopeful religious attititude Eric has written about, but that because they are current moral condition they excuse their own selfish indifference. If my proposal here is right, then I know a fair number of atheists who are on the "right" side of the Pauline divide.

  6. Hi Eric,

    This post caught my attention because I had a similar experience.

    I recall from my Bible College days in the 1980s when a professor powerfully and then convincingly said:

    1. Psalm 14:1 "A fool says in his heart, 'There is no God'" means that only fools are atheists.
    2. A social science survey indicated that all atheists had bad relationships with their fathers.

    In hindsight, I suppose those two points were an attempt at apologetics. However, logical analysis of Psalm 14:1 indicates that belief in that verse never necessitates that all fools disbelieve God and that all disbelievers of God are fools. And I later discovered exceptions to the respective social science survey.

    I also recalled admonishments from many saying that we should have no atheist friends. But on the other hand, I heard admonishments from many that we should befriend the lost, which I understood as the possibility of befriending atheists.

    After graduating Bible College, I lived over a decade near Penn State and took a few graduate classes. I had some awesome professor-student relationships with some professors who were atheists/agnostics. I also had many engaging conversations students who were atheists/agnostics. Since then, I had many engaging online dialogues with atheists and agnostics. What did all of this do to me? In my opinion, this helped me to develop some kick-ass theology and apologetics that I probably never would have developed apart from my dialogues with atheists and agnostics, which includes polished skills in writing and informal logic.

    Okay, back to Romans 1:18-20. I suppose that Paul never believed in the doctrine of irrevocable hell, so the "no excuse" part had nothing to do with irrevocable hell. And this passage focuses on pagan rejection of monotheism but could extend to any rejection of monotheism.

    I also see these verses teach that all unbelieving adults have rejected some degree of natural theology pointing to monotheism. And I agree with that. But does such a rejection mean that all non-theists and pagans are disingenuous about faith? Or that most Christians are free from denial about some aspects of their faith? The answers are no. Similarly, I find many problematic interpretations based on a doctrine of rigid infallibility of scripture.

  7. The pastor's opinion is one that shuts down reason and denies argumentation by fiat. It is not unusual among Christians. Even annoying Christian debaters such as William Lane Craig (who worms through every possible loophole of reason he can find) will resort to this tactic:

    “The Bible says all men are without excuse. Even those who are given no good reason to believe and many persuasive reasons to disbelieve have no excuse, because the ultimate reason they do not believe is that they have deliberately rejected God’s Holy Spirit.”

    Aquinas had a simple version of this logic for dealing with heresy in Summa Theologica (second part of the second part, Question 11, article 3): execute the heretics lest the heresy spread.

    Those who use such dismissive reasoning allow it to infect the legitimacy of their discipline, as (again) does William Lane Craig:

    “The ministerial use of reason occurs when reason submits to and serves the gospel. In light of the Spirit’s witness, only the ministerial use of reason is legitimate. Philosophy is rightly the handmaid of theology.”