The recent publication of Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow's The Grand Design has reignited debate over God's existence. The ironically titled book proposes that the cosmos was spontaneously generated "from nothing," with no God (or gods) required to make sense of existence. Never mind the question-begging: How can nothing produce something, let alone hundreds of billions of galaxies? Many atheists celebrate this bestseller as further grounds for dismissing religious belief.

Most atheists would have us think they arrived at their view through cool, rational inquiry. But are other factors involved? Consider the candid remarks of contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel: "I want atheism to be true …. It isn't just that I don't believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I'm right about my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." Could Nagel's attitude—albeit in a more subtle form—actually be common among atheists?

Christian apologists have responded to the New Atheists' arguments—which are often nothing more than a rehashing of traditional objections—with rational arguments of their own. However, they have not talked much about non-rational causes of unbelief. We humans are not only reasoning beings. We also have emotions, desires, and free wills, and these influence our beliefs. As important as it is to remind atheists of the rational evidence for God, the real problem in many cases is moral and psychological in nature.

Such a suggestion is potentially offensive to unbelievers. But we still need to ask if it is nonetheless true. According to Scripture, the evidence for God is overwhelming. The apostle Paul says that "God has made it plain" that he exists; his "invisible qualities … have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Rom. 1:19-20). And the psalmist writes, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" (19:1). This naturally prompts the question: If the evidence for God is so abundant, then why are there atheists?

Paul provides at least part of the answer in the same Romans passage, noting that some people "suppress the truth by their wickedness" (1:18). We all suffer from intellectual blind spots created by personal vices and immoral desires. To the extent that we succumb to these, we may be tempted to adopt perspectives that enable us to rationalize perverse behavior.

Article continues below

In this regard, scholars are no different from anyone else. The 20th-century ethics philosopher Mortimer Adler (who was baptized quietly at age 81) confessed to rejecting religious commitment for most of his life because it "would require a radical change in my way of life, a basic alteration in the direction of my day-to-day choices as well as in the ultimate objectives to be sought or hoped for …. The simple truth of the matter is that I did not wish to live up to being a genuinely religious person."

Historian Paul Johnson's fascinating if disturbing book Intellectuals exposed this pattern in the lives of some of the most celebrated thinkers in the modern period, including Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Ibsen, Hemingway, Russell, and Sartre. In their private (and often public) lives, these Western intellectual stars were moral wrecks. Could their rejection of God—and, in particular, Christianity, with its exacting moral standards—have been entirely intellectual and dispassionate? Or might the same desires confessed by Nagel and Adler have played a role in their atheism?

As children of the Enlightenment, we tend to heavily emphasize the impact of belief on behavior. But it also works the other way around. Our conduct affects the way we think. On the positive side, as Scripture's wisdom literature tells us, obedience and humility lead to insight and understanding. Negatively, as we indulge in immoral behavior, our judgment will be skewed. Or, as Paul notes, disobedience hardens the heart, which in turn yields futile thinking, darkened understanding, and ignorance (Eph. 4:18-19). In other words, sin has cognitive consequences.

Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga has developed this idea in some depth. He notes that, like everything else about us, our belief-forming faculties were designed to work a certain way. And given the appropriate conditions, we tend to form true beliefs about the things we perceive or reason about. But some things can impede cognitive function, and sin is one of these. The more we disobey and give ourselves over to vice, the less reliable our belief formation will be, particularly regarding moral and spiritual matters.

Borrowing from some of the great Christian theologians, such as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, Plantinga proposes that all humans have a sensus divinitatis, an innate sense of the divine. This natural awareness of God prompts us to reflect on him as we experience various facets of life. But the sensus divinitatis, says Plantinga, can be "damaged and corrupted by sin," even to the point that a person denies God altogether. According to this model, atheists suffer from a kind of cognitive malfunction or disease.

Article continues below

Family Matters

External factors may also hamper the natural awareness of God and contribute to a descent into atheism. In his book Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism, New York University psychologist Paul Vitz, a onetime atheist, examines the lives of the major atheists of the modern period, including Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus, Russell, and Freud. He found they had something in common: a broken relationship with their father. Whether by death, departure, abuse, or some other factor, the father relationships of all these well-known atheists were defective. Vitz also examined the lives of prominent theists during the same period (Pascal, Reid, Burke, Berkeley, Paley, Wilberforce, Kierkegaard, Schleiermacher, Newman, Chesterton, and Bonhoeffer, among others). In every case, he found a good relationship with the father or at least a strong father figure.

There are moral and psychological dimensions to atheism that we cannot ignore. Atheists can be self-deceived, driven by a motivated bias to disbelieve in God.

Life is too complex to make a hard and fast rule about such things. But at the least, it shows that there are moral and psychological dimensions to atheism, ones we cannot ignore. At most, it strongly suggests that atheists can be self-deceived, driven by a motivated bias to disbelieve in God. Richard Dawkins has famously declared that theists are delusional. But if Adler, Plantinga, and the apostle Paul are right, then Dawkins has it exactly backwards.

As a Christian apologist, I am often asked what the implications are for the task of defending the faith to atheists. My answer is that one must proceed on a case-by-case basis. I engage with many atheists to whom Jesus' admonition not to cast pearls before swine clearly applies. But I know others who seem interested in genuine dialogue, even if they are dogmatic in their disbelief. For such folks, I am always willing to engage in a conversation about rational evidence.

Sometimes atheists convert as a result of reviewing the good reasons for faith. The late Antony Flew, a leading atheist scholar for half a century, came to belief in God because of evidence he considered incontrovertible. And some famous Christian apologists, from Lee Strobel to C. S. Lewis, were former atheists. One never knows how the Spirit may move in a person's life, sometimes to illumine a mind once darkened by a hardened heart, and perhaps even to prompt faith in a person who genuinely hopes there is no God.

Article continues below

Jim Spiegel is a philosophy professor at Taylor University and author of The Making of an Atheist: How Immorality Leads to Unbelief (Moody).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous articles on atheism include:

Reframing Human History | How we got into the atheism culture war in the first place. A review of David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions. (September 23, 2009)
Answering the Atheists | A Reader's Digest version of why I am a Christian. (November 13, 2007)
The New Intolerance | Fear mongering among elite atheists is not a pretty sight. A Christianity Today editorial (January 25, 2007)

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.