Why There Are Still Atheists
A lot of ink has been spilled over whether God exists. Within this context, some theists like to point out that "God has made it plain" that he exists, that "God's invisible qualities … have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (Rom. 1:19-20). They urge us to remember that the "heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (Ps. 19:1). In a recent Christianity Today article, Jim Spiegel cites these passages and writes: "This naturally prompts the question: If the evidence for God is so abundant, then why are there atheists?"
Spiegel asserts that for many atheists, it's not "cool, rational inquiry" that led to their atheism. Rather, in many cases it's complex moral and psychological factors that produce atheism. For example, Spiegel points to research suggesting that some prominent atheists had broken, defective relationships with their fathers. Others live in perpetual disobedience and rebellion—resisting lifestyle changes required upon adopting theism. And still others confess that they just don't want there to be a God. Spiegel contends that immorality has cognitive consequences—it impedes one's ability to recognize that theism is true.
No doubt he's right. Surely some people accept atheism due in part to such powerful motivational factors. For some atheists, it's not merely a matter of evidence. Yet, as Spiegel grants, these motivational explanations don't hold for all atheists. Consider some of the personal essays found in Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, edited by Louise Antony. Some testify that their move from theism to atheism came at tremendous personal cost and required significant, and painful, existential reorientation. A few even express a deep longing for Christian spirituality. Apparently, these philosophers had plenty of strong psychological motivation to retain or embrace theism. Yet they didn't. Their atheism really did seem to be a matter of evidence and argument.
It's certainly not always a matter of evidence and argument for us theists. We have our own powerful moral and psychological causes of theistic belief. Many desperately want God to exist in order to give meaning and purpose to the universe and to their own lives. Others want God to exist so that order and justice are ultimately restored, so that the wicked get what's coming to them in the end. Still others deeply yearn to be reunited with loved ones in heaven, and belief in God allows them to think that will happen. This is hardly theistic belief resulting from "cool, rational inquiry."
Much more disturbingly, some people are powerfully motivated to retain their theistic convictions because those convictions seem to provide them with a theoretical framework or justification for oppressing other people groups, taking another group's lands, or advancing their own sinister social agendas. (Examples abound. Consider nineteenth century U.S. slavery and Manifest Destiny in addition to some contemporary white supremacist ideologies.) Theism provides them with power. As Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it, theism allows some "to throw bigger and better tantrums … to ventilate and amplify emotions of fear, self-righteousness, vengefulness, bitterness, hatred, and self-hatred." According to the apostle Paul, some atheists "suppress the truth by their wickedness" (Rom. 1:18). Unfortunately, some theists seem to affirm the truth for their wickedness.