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.
It's understandable why some people, like Spiegel, read that "the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands" and subsequently wonder why there are any atheists at all. But reflecting on that passage prompts me to ask a different question: Why should we think that the heavens and the skies are the only ones declaring and proclaiming? We theists declare and proclaim as well. But our proclamations about God—on significant matters like what God is like, what God is doing in the world, and what we ought to do—are often incompatible and unhelpful. Obviously, serious religious disagreement abounds. It's reasonable to suppose that such trenchant disagreement dramatically alters the evidential situation for atheists. And we don't proclaim merely with our mouths. Our lives make declarations and proclamations as well. Plenty of us behave in such a way as to give the world some reason for thinking that God does not exist (at least, not the sort of God we affirm). Maybe the heavens and the skies make plain the existence of God, but we certainly don't.
Pondering Romans 1 and Psalm 19 prompts me to ask another question: Shouldn't we take seriously biblical portrayals of divine silence and hiddenness, too? L'Abri founder and Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer didn't get it exactly right—God is there, but sometimes he is silent. The Psalms are replete with references to divine silence and hiddenness. (See, for example, Psalm 10:1; 22:1-2; 30:7; 44:23-24; and 88:13-14.) The prophet Isaiah puts it bluntly: "Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself, the God and Savior of Israel" (45:15). Saint Anselm, the eleventh century archbishop of Canterbury, asks, "Why did he shut us away from the light, and cover us over with darkness?" Mother Teresa knew this darkness all too well, and it apparently prompted her at some points to doubt the existence of God. In a letter to a friend, she writes, "Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear." What seems obvious here is that God's existence is not obvious, even to some devout followers. As the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal writes, "As God is hidden, any religion that does not say that God is hidden is not true . … What can be seen on earth points to neither the total absence nor the obvious presence of divinity, but to the presence of a hidden God." Perhaps some atheists happen to be people particularly impressed by the dreadful silence of God—and unimpressed by the noisy, idle chatter expressed by far too many theists.
The apostle Peter exhorts us to "be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have" (1 Pet. 3:15). And so we should give an answer, making sure to "do this with gentleness and respect," as Peter urges. Unfortunately, gentleness and respect in conversations about the existence of God are hard to come by these days. However, they'd occur far more frequently if we were humble. We should acknowledge that we have our own powerful non-rational motivations for belief. We ought to confess that our religious proclamations haven't been as clear and compelling as the heavens and the skies in proclaiming "the glory of God and the work of his hands," that our lives haven't "made it plain" that God exists. We need to grant that our God is a God who sometimes hides and is silent. Finally, we need to concede that all of this does make a genuine evidential difference for plenty of atheists. Maybe that helps to explain why there are atheists.
Shawn Graves is assistant professor of Philosophy at Cedarville University.
"Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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)
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