Jeffrey Jay Lowder strikes me as one of the most fair-minded atheist thinkers; he’s civil, deeply thoughtful, and charitable to his opponents. Further, he has no qualms about chastising his fellow atheists when their manner descends below that which is helpful in civil discourse, or when they make poor arguments. He has also in the past conceded that there are features of the world that lend some evidence to theism. I wish more atheists – and theists – adopted his attitude.
Lowder expressed irritation recently concerning how so many theists consider atheists to be liars, linking to an article by Sam Storms in which Storms rejects the concept of an “honest atheist.” Storms is not a lone voice either. This view of atheists is incredibly widespread. In his short, but substantial, book “Is the Atheist my Neighbour?,” Randal Rauser provides an excellent brief overview of thinkers past and present who adopt what Rauser labels “The Rebellion Thesis.” The thrust of the rebellion thesis is that no one really disbelieves in God; atheists are simply in moral rebellion against their creator – and, crucially, they know it. They hate God and desire a life of sin. Rauser cites an account of the Christian theologian RC Sproul who was invited to present a case for the existence of God to a university sceptics group. After presenting the case, Sproul told them: “Your problem is not that you do not know that God exists; your problem is that you despise the God whom you know exists. Your problem is not intellectual; it is moral—you hate God.” So, here was a group of sceptics reaching out to the “opposition,” and giving him a platform, their time, and attention – a very charitable act these partisan days – and Sproul shows his thanks by pretty much spitting in their faces. I call upon my fellow theists to – at the very least – acknowledge how frustrating it must be to have one’s honesty called into question. Sproul basically accuses an entire room full of strangers of being self-deluded liars. The brazen arrogance is astounding.
Imagine the following conversation:
John: “I’m a vegetarian now, I believe killing animals for food is wrong.”
George: “You say that, but you know eating meat is not wrong.”
John: “Pardon me? I’m telling you I believe eating meat is wrong!”
George: “Yeah, but you’re a human, and we’re one of millions of species who eat meat. We’re designed to eat it; there’s no way any human can REALLY think it’s wrong when it’s hard-wired into our being.”
John: “Well, I think it’s wrong!”
George: “You’re only saying that, deep down you know there’s nothing wrong with eating meat! I bet you even stuff your face with bacon sandwiches when no-one’s looking!”
John: “You’re insane! I really believe killing animals for food is wrong!”
George: (fingers in ears) I can’t hear you MEAT LOVER!”
A parody perhaps, but the view of atheists held by many theists isn’t a whole lot different. Where does it come from?
Many of those challenging the “honest atheist” concept cite certain Biblical texts in support of their position. Sam Storms – when he isn’t quoting John Calvin at length – relies on Romans chapter 1. Others draw also on the two near identical passages in Psalms which tell us “The fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God.'” [Ps 14:1 & 53:1]. Upon such texts these theologians build a theology which labels all unbelievers generally, and atheists in particular, as liars. In other words, not only are they considered as living a life estranged from God, but they know they are and are in wilful rejection of the God in which they claim not to believe. Saying that atheists – or other non-believers – are in some way estranged from God is one thing, but it’s a whole different ball-game to claim that they really know there is a God and have wilfully and with full understanding rejected Him. The latter is a much stronger claim, and I contend that the evidence – biblical evidence, testimonies from atheists and converts from atheism, and psychological evidence – simply doesn’t support it.
I haven’t the time to exegete properly the relevant biblical texts here, but I want to make just a few comments, and I refer the reader to Rauser’s book for more details. Firstly, it seems to be rather anachronistic to read modern intellectual atheism into either of these texts. In fact, as Rauser points out with respect to Psalm 14:1, even if modern atheism was indeed in view it still wouldn’t justify the thesis that atheists are dishonest, or that all atheists are fools. Just because the fool says in his heart “there is no God,” does not entail that everyone who says “there is no God” is a fool. That would be logically fallacious. In any event, I am in full agreement with Rauser, who argues that when we examine the wider cultural and literary context we discover the most likely targets of Psalm 14 are those who believe in God but live as if they do not. That’s religious hypocrites like you and I, not atheists.
Romans 1 is perhaps a more convincing basis for denying the “honest atheist” concept. But even here there are problems. Rauser points out that the passage is part of a larger discourse concerning the universality of the sinfulness of humankind, and thus shouldn’t be used to single out any particular group. In addition, the immediate context is that of Gentile pagans who supress their natural knowledge of God and embrace pagan religion. Rauser also cautions that by applying this text in the way proponents of the rebellion thesis do, we cause all manner of mischief for any Christian who goes through a period of doubting God. Is such a person really just sinfully rebelling? That seems highly implausible. As Christians we can have all manner of doubts – stemming from intellectual doubts caused by some atheistic argument, to existential doubts, perhaps caused by some period of suffering and the apparent absence of God. I find myself in agreement with Rauser’s comments that: “The Christian cannot deny the fact that God’s existence and nature are not always plain and clear. The fact is that there are countless people of religious faith who have not always found God’s existence and nature to be plain and clear.” Perhaps some theologians will simply bite the bullet and insist that this is indeed all just sinful rebellion, but that strikes me as uncharitable and implausible in excelsis. Whatever we make of Romans 1, there seems to be good enough reason to doubt that the intention is to teach that all atheists are really believers in God knowingly and sinfully rejecting their creator.
When the interpretation of a passage is dubious it seems prudent to bring to bear other considerations on the matter, and there are a few non-biblical indications that the rebellion thesis can’t be quite right. Firstly, there are atheists who seem completely genuine. They are good, decent, and very honest people (shocking, I know!), and they tell us that they genuinely don’t believe in God. They aren’t angry or particularly immoral. They are well-balanced and psychologically stable people. That in itself is very good reason to believe they are accurately reporting their epistemic situation. From a purely psychological perspective the rebellion thesis seems like quite a tall tale. Secondly, Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a “seeing the light” or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously. In fact, Storms would have to call me a liar when I report as a Christian that prior to my conversion I genuinely didn’t believe in Jesus or the God of Christianity. If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case. If this is true of the vast majority of Christians, why is it so difficult for Storms et al to accept that atheists are currently in this same state?
Despite the lack of evidence and high implausibility of the rebellion thesis, perhaps it is true after all that every atheist really knows that God exists. Still, I can’t see how any good can come from making such a claim. It’s irritatingly patronising, smacks of arrogance, does nothing for theist-atheist dialogue, and reeks to high heaven of self-righteousness. I therefore propose that we adopt a principle of charity: that when we engage in any intellectual discussion, we do our interlocutors the courtesy such that when they tell us that they hold such and such a position, we simply accept it and proceed on the basis that what they tell us is indeed a truthful report of their epistemic situation.
Anything else is to spit in their face.
Stephen J Graham
Randal Rauser’s book “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?: Rethinking Christian Attitudes toward Atheism” (Cascade Books, 2015) is available on Amazon here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Atheist-Neighbor-Rethinking-Christian-Attitudes/dp/1498217168 or through the Kindle shop.