An article of mine, entitled “Unreasonable Doubt,” appeared in last month’s issue of Christianity Today.  It is now available on-line here.  In the article I discuss the major themes of my book, The Making of an Atheist, which aims to explain and apply the biblical account of atheism.

With the publication of the CT article, a few more folks have written me to say that I commit the ad hominem fallacy or that my book is offensive or that my argument is circular because I assume that the Bible is divinely inspired.  (Perhaps the next issue of CT will run some readers’ letters that make such protests.)  These were the main complaints among my atheist critics when the book was first published last year.  Because I’ve grown weary of rebutting these objections one by one in emails, I’ve decided it would be a good idea to address them in a blog post.  So here you go.

As regards the ad hominem fallacy accusation, my book may contain its share of mistakes, but this is surely not one of them.  The ad hominem fallacy is committed when one insists upon the rejection of a position because of some fact (or alleged fact) about the person who holds that view.  I do not argue that we should reject atheism because of any facts about atheists.  In fact, in my book I review many of the objective evidences for theism.  Rather, my thesis concerns the moral-psychological roots of atheism.  So, to use an analogy:  It would be ad hominem to say that we should reject Capitalism because Adam Smith was a bad guy.  But it would be perfectly appropriate to argue that Smith came to affirm his view because of X, Y, and Z.  The argument in my book is like the latter, not the former.

As for the supposed offensiveness of my book, well, that depends on what one means by “offensive.”  If this is intended to mean that I am insensitive, cruel, or have attacked others without justification, the charge is unfounded, even ridiculous.  I simply offer a moral-psychological account of the roots of atheism, and I do so as fairly and sensitively as I can manage.  In fact, my account parallels what Feuerbach and Freud proposed in suggesting that belief in God is a sort of psychological projection.  (I argue that atheists, as it were, “project” the absence of God, due to a combination of moral and psychological factors.)  While deeply mistaken, I would never say—nor have I ever known a fellow theist to claim—that the Feuerbach/Freud account is offensive (in the sense defined above).

Now if my critics’ claim is that my account is offensive in the sense that it is likely to be met with anger or resentment on the part of some people, then I plead guilty.  Of course it bothers atheists to be told that their worldview is irrational and that, furthermore, it is a consequence of willful rejection of God rather than an objective assessment of evidence.  So why defend the thesis at all?  Why write a book that will incite atheists?  Well, because it is an important and biblical truth that has many significant practical implications with regard to ministry, apologetics, and personal spiritual formation.  My account of atheism is really just an unpacking and filling out of what Scripture says in Romans 1:18-32, Ephesians 4:17-18, and John 3:19-21, among other passages.

So, then, in building my account of atheism on the Bible am I guilty of arguing in a circle?  No, because I am not appealing to Scripture to build an argument against the truth of atheism (or in favor of theism).  I would never cite any biblical passage as an argument for God, as this would indeed be blatantly circular.  But, assuming that God exists and that the Bible is divinely inspired, it seems appropriate to consider what, if anything, Scripture says about the causes of atheism. This is all I do in my book.  Offensive to some it may be, but it’s an important truth that needs to be heard.

8 Responses to “Unreasonable Doubt—Answering Some Critics”

  1. Aaron


    What I object to (and what most atheists are going to object to) is that you proceeed from the assumption that god exists.
    Yes, if it were self-evident that this were the case, then obviously atheists must be misguided. However, you present no rational evidence for said existence, and then proceed to label everyone who doesn’t share your belief as defective in some way.
    If the existence of god could handily be proved, if it were so self-evident as you suggest, then surely some apologist would have proved it by now? Would said evidence not also apply equally to those who aren’t Christian but who are people of faith? Do those who follow other gods/religions also do so out of some willful disrepect for Christianity and your “One True God”?
    Your suggestion that all atheists are either morally corrupt or mentally deficient is indeed offensive, and also completely illogical. I was raised in the faith, and I met many people who claimed to believe in god who were also morally corrupt or mentally deficient. It would appear that these qualities, indeed, have nothing to do with whether or not one believes in a god or gods. This doesn’t disprove your premise, but it does cast doubt on your conclusions. The belief in god appears to have little influence on morality, if any.
    You present the existence of god as fait accompli – I put it to you that if it were, you would be out of work, theology would be unneccesary, and Christianity would not be evangelical. As it stands, however, no apologist has ever provided empirical “rational evidence” for the existence of god in the millenia since the founding of the christian religion. To suggest that such evidence exists is intellectually dishonest, since you can’t prove your assumptions.
    Also, I would put it to you that atheism is the default state of the human mind. Belief in god requires indoctrination – surely if your obvious “rational evidence” existed, indoctrination would be unecessary?

  2. Chris


    Out of curiosity, if belief in god requires indoctrination, where did religion come from in the first place?

    • Steve


      You are assuming belief in god (theism) and religion are mutually exclusive. Belief in god can occur without prescribed religion and prescribed religion can occur without a belief in god.

      There is little doubt that religion occurred prior to a belief in god or gods (animism) and slowly evolved ever more prescribed and paternal characteristics as cultures became more complex.

  3. Joel


    @ Chris: The same place that Scientology came from, A bunch of stories that people took far too literally, also governments need some way to keep the masses under control.

    and @Aaron: Mate, i couldn’t have said it better myself!

  4. Marc Belcastro



    Hello. Hope you don’t mind if I interact with some of your comments. My brief remarks, I should note, will be offered from the perspective of someone inclined to endorse Dr. Spiegel’s main thesis, not, however, from the perspective of someone attempting (and undoubtedly failing) to speak for him.

    1. To my knowledge, most Christian philosophers (including Dr. Spiegel) don’t hold that God’s existence is self-evident—indeed, I doubt that most philosophers hold that the existence of other self-conscious minds is self-evident—and one needn’t presuppose that God’s existence is self-evident to affirm the biblical account of atheism.

    2. It doesn’t seem to me that Dr. Spiegel merely assumes, without argument, that theism is true and then proceeds to defend his thesis on the basis of that assumption. I believe he briefly presents some arguments in favor of theism in the book, such as versions of the cosmological and design arguments. And if I’m not mistaken, he also presents some reasons to think that atheism is false, though this isn’t the purpose of his thesis.

    3. The extent to which an argument is sensitive or insensitive is, I think you’d agree, unrelated to its being true or false, plausible or implausible. Suppose that Dr. Spiegel’s central argument were unspeakably insensitive with respect to atheists. That certainly wouldn’t entail that his argument is false or implausible. (To clarify, I don’t think that Dr. Spiegel’s is insensitive.) Further, it’s not uncommon for atheists and naturalists to advance theories—e.g., psychological, biological, etc.—concerning the alleged non-rational factors behind religious belief. So, since it appears (to some) to be a perfectly acceptable approach to explaining religious belief, why suppose that it’s an unacceptable approach to explaining disbelief?

    4. You suggested that Dr. Spiegel’s position is illogical because even (some) theists are morally corrupt or suffer from some cognitive malfunction. If I understand the form or nature of your claim, it seems problematic. There are some women who smoke frequently during pregnancy and deliver healthy babies, but this doesn’t mean it’s illogical to advise pregnant women not to smoke. Similarly, many people don’t wear seatbelts and never get hurt, but this doesn’t mean it’s unreasonable to recommend that people wear seatbelts. I don’t think that Dr. Spiegel intends to argue or suggest that moral corruption and cognitive malfunction are themselves sufficient conditions for a person’s being an atheist. Rather, according to the thesis, it appears that these things are usually operative when a person willfully rejects or suppresses the truth of theism, but not because there aren’t good reasons for theism but because the person desires theism to be false.

    5. I’m unclear on why we should suppose that the obviousness of God’s existence would render theology unnecessary. After all, many of the objects of scientific inquiry are assumed to exist, yet the relevant scientific fields seem unaffected. Additionally, theology is concerned with considerably more than just God’s existence.

    6. Several theistic apologists offer (and have offered) empirical evidence for God’s existence which they take to serve as rational grounds for affirming theism. The fine-tuning argument is a good example.

    7. There appears to be empirical evidence suggesting that atheism isn’t the default disposition of the mind, and that belief in God doesn’t require indoctrination. (If you’re interested, try googling “Born Believers: How Your Brain Creates God” by Michael Brooks, and “Out of the Mouths of Babes” by Justin Barrett. I’d provide some links, but this post might thereby get consigned to the flames by the spam filter.) Suppose, however, that atheism were (or is) the mind’s default disposition. What follows from this, or what does it suggest? Selfishness and greed appear to be a defaults of the mind—to name just two of several vices—yet we generally encourage people not to be selfish and not to be greedy. Realism about the external world seems to be the epistemic default, but there are and have been capable philosophers who maintain that this is a mistaken impression. Lastly, if atheism’s being the default is what one would expect if atheism were true, then perhaps theism’s being the default is what one would expect if theism were true. And the current evidence seems to suggest that theism is the default.

    8. Sorry about the somewhat lengthy comment. =)

  5. Arizona Atheist


    Mr. Spiegel,

    I would agree with you that you did not make the errors that have been attributed to you, however, I believe you’ve made a gross error in your methodology. Put simply, how can you argue that atheism is the result of immorality when 1. Your list of “immoral” atheists and those who had an absent father figure was a mere 38 individuals, which is hardly a decent sample size to determine anything about atheists in general? To put it in perspective how can 38 people give you any reliable information about a total of the roughly 268 million atheists in the world? 2. How can you argue that atheists are led to disbelief due to immorality when many studies conclude that atheists are just as moral as theists, if not a little more so? Such examples include the following:

    In 1934 Abraham Franzblau found a negative correlation between acceptance of religious beliefs and three different measures of honesty. As religiosity increased, honesty decreased. In 1950 Murray Ross conducted a survey among 2,000 associates of the YMCA and discovered that agnostics and atheists were more likely to express their willingness to aid the poor than those who rated themselves as deeply religious. In 1969 sociologists Travis Hirschi and Rodney Stark reported no difference in the self-reported likelihood to commit crimes between children who attended church regularly and those who did not. In 1975 Ronald Smith, Gregory Wheeler, and Edward Diener discovered that college-age students in religious schools were no less likely to cheat on a test than their atheist and agnostic counterparts in nonreligious schools. Another study done by Gary Leak and Brandy Randall in 1995 and published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion “found that those who score high on the Right-Wing Authoritarianism scale have several tendencies. They are likely ‘to aggress against unpopular or unconventional groups, feel morally superior and self-righteous,’ and ‘possess a mean-spiritedness that is coupled with vindictiveness.’ They often take ‘secret pleasure’ when others experience misfortune and appear prejudiced toward out-groups.'”

    Because of these facts it seems to me that your case isn’t standing on a firm foundation. Would you care to give your thoughts about this?


  6. Jim Jones


    “But, assuming that God exists and that the Bible is divinely inspired, it seems appropriate to consider what, if anything, Scripture says about the causes of atheism.”

    Assuming that the Flying Spaghetti Monster exists, it seems appropriate to consider what, if anything, Scripture says about the causes of world wide starvation.

    Might we ask when, and if, Christians will finally sell all they have and give it to the poor? Might the current presidential candidates lead the way?

  7. TristanVick


    I’ve been with my secular Buddhist/nonbelieving wife for 9 years. All my Christian family and friends are twice and thrice divorced. I must be immoral to some arbitrary Christian standard. Maybe if I get divorced a few times I can be moral like all these Christian examples we have!


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