BOOK REVIEW: If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? by R.C. Sproul

A question that is often asked of the Christian is, “If your God exists, why is it that more people don’t believe in Him?” The atheist uses this question as a launching pad to claim that the Christian believes in God for purely psychological reasons, regardless of the fact that there is no evidence to prove the existence of such a God. If true, this is a point that significantly weakens the claims of the Christian faith.

The late R.C. Sproul tackles this very question in this posthumously published, revised and updated version of a classic work, titled If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? (published by Christian Focus). In it, he examines the claims made by four famous atheists, namely Freud, Marx, Feuerbach, and Nietzsche, who said that religion was a byproduct of man’s psychological need for comfort. He then turns the tables on atheism, showing that there are more reasons for one to believe that unbelief, rather than belief, is the worldview that is a byproduct of the psychological need for comfort.

Sproul’s book is divided into two parts. The first contains four chapters, and overs the general distinction between the realms of belief and unbelief, specifically examining the atheistic claim that religion is a byproduct of man’s psychological need. The second part, which also contains four chapters, goes deeper into a psycho-theological analysis of unbelief.

Sproul clarifies that he is not a theologian attempting to dabble in psychology; he only wishes to engage those aspects of psychology that critics of theology use against it. For instance, it is claimed that religious people hold onto their beliefs purely for psychological reasons and without any rational reasons. Sproul intends to respond to this challenge. His thesis is to show that while Christianity might have some features that are psychologically attractive, but these ‘benefits’ are outweighed by one’s awe-inspiring encounter with the holy, omniscient, and sovereign God of Christianity; no man will instinctively desire to encounter anything with such attributes.​

In the first chapter of Part I, Sproul provides an introduction to what he calls the ‘Great Debate’ between theism and atheism. He goes over various varieties of theism, and concludes that monotheism, the belief in one universal deity, is what is generally referred to as theism and is seen as directly in opposition to atheism. He then examines the two alternatives to theism, namely agnosticism and atheism. He dedicates some space to differentiating between practical atheism (believing in a God, but living as if there is no God) and theoretical atheism (explicitly denying the existence of God), before going into a history of the development of theoretical atheism, all the way from the Enlightenment period. In particular, he discusses the atheists d’Holbach and Diderot, the former being the one who came up with the psychological hypothesis for belief in God, and the latter being the one who argued that science has made any need for God obsolete. He finally discusses the work of Immanuel Kant, who attacked all the traditional arguments for God and moved them out of the realm of reason; but said that we ought to live as if there is a God because it is practically beneficial. These views, Sproul says, combine to form the foundation of the hypothesis that man only believes in God because it provides him with psychological comfort. This chapter is particularly important to the rest of the book, because it provides both the definitions of basic terms that Sproul is going to use in the rest of his book and the historical context of the hypothesis that Sproul attempts to tackle in Part I of the book. Sproul goes to great lengths to break down any concepts that he feels are too technical for the layperson to understand, and continues to do so throughout the rest of the book.

Sproul opens chapter 2 by describing how many reduce the issue of God’s existence to a subjective question rather than an objective one. Sproul says this approach violates the law of non-contradiction. The law states that a proposition cannot be true or false. If the existence of God is a subjective issue, then God can exist for some and not exist for another, which would make the proposition ‘God exists’ both true and false, violating the law of non-contradiction. Thus, there must be an objective truth value to the proposition ‘God exists’, and one of the two groups on either side, whether theist or atheist, must be wrong. One might wonder why there exist people on both sides. Sproul posits four possible reasons: epistemological reasons or matters relating to the validity of the means of gaining knowledge; formal errors or logical errors in the argumentation used to reach the relevant conclusion; factual errors or errors made in the data used to get to the conclusion; and lastly, psychological prejudices or biases that shut minds off to certain conclusions. This last category, Sproul says, plays a large role in the question of the existence of God. It is important, therefore, to analyze which of theism and atheism that commits errors caused by psychological prejudices. This chapter is once again important in laying a solid foundation for topics that Sproul will discuss later in the book. In particular, Sproul does his best to establish the objective nature of truth and the importance of understanding that the question of God’s existence is an objective one. The only critique I have is that Sproul never defines what ‘truth’ really is and seems to presuppose the correspondence theory of truth as being the right one.  While I do agree with him, it is imperative to identify the other theories of truth that also claim that truth is objective, but have a different (and problematic) definition of what truth is.

In Chapter 3, Sproul delves into the psychology of theism. The most common reasons posited for the religiosity in man is the psychological need for a better existence beyond this life of pain and trouble. Freud, for instance, said religion was used to ‘humanize’ the impersonal forces of nature for the purpose of explaining them. Slowly, these multiple forces were combined into one fatherly figure, giving rise to monotheism. Similarly, Ludwig Feurbach claimed that religion arose out of man’s imagination, projecting what he considered to be the best ideals onto an imaginary cosmic being. Karl Marx, on the other hand, posited that religion was an invention of the ruling class to exploit the poor. Nietzsche believed that religion was a manifestation of the ‘slave morality’, one that values weakness over power, which was valued by ‘master morality’. Religion was created out of the weak’s desire to subjugate the strong, he said. Many atheist thinkers who followed have adopted one or more of these psychological reasons for the development of religion. Sproul, however, points of that the origin of religion is a matter of history, not one of psychology. Sproul then proceeds to show limitations in each of these theories, concluding that while each of them might give us theories about human psychology, they tell us nothing about whether God exists or not. I haven’t explicated the specific criticisms that Sproul raises to each of these theories, because they are more or less the same with the exception of addressing some of the nuances of each theory.

In Chapter 4, Sproul examines what he calls the sociology of atheism. He attempts to examine how atheism has moved from the minds of intellectuals to pervade the thinking of the common man and attempts to impose its beliefs on the rest of the world. Sproul uses Paul’s account in Romans 1 to attempt to explain this phenomenon. Man’s rejection of God does not entail that he worships nothing; they make themselves the standard of all things. He uses the example of models of morality that use human well-being as the standard. Sproul rightly points out that they are appealing to a transcendent standard, namely that preserving our well-being is better than the alternative. Sproul says that atheism keeps making this error of ‘borrowing’ from theism. He says that they do this because they are created in the image of God, thus, even though they don’t want to live by a code of morality from a transcendent source, they end up inadvertently recommending such a morality to others. This was my favourite chapter of the book, particularly because Sproul addresses the phenomenon of how atheists continue to live as if there is a God while denying His existence. I addressed this phenonmenon myself in my previous blog post.

This is the end of Part 1. In Part 2, Sproul delves into the question that appeals on the front cover of the book: If there is a God, why are there atheists? He does so by analyzing the psychology of atheism.

In Chapter 5, Sproul turns the tables on atheism by arging that, while atheism has been unsuccessful at disproving the existence of God using psychological theories, it is possible to show that there are clear psychological reasons for why man would not want to believe in a God, particularly the Christian conception of God. Sproul turns to Romans 1, where Paul talks about the revelation of the true nature of God through His wrath. Upon the revelation of the true nature of the Christian God, Sproul says that man reacts in three stages. The first of these is trauma. Finding out the true nature of God shocks man, threatening his wish to live autonomously in the world, devoid of any authority above him. The second stage is repression. Caught off-guard by the trauma, man buries this in his subconscious, attempting to forget about it. The third step is substitution, or what Paul refers to as the ‘exchange’. Man suppresses the truth and substitutes it with a lie that is easier to live with. However, the repressed truth often inadvertently pops out, for instance, when they speak of a transcendent standard in morality. Similarly, we also find a caricatured notion of God produced by them, suppressing the original image they encountered. It seems evident from this chapter that Sproul intends this book to be read by Christians or at least those who are familiar with the Biblical text, since no atheist will ever admit to either perceiving God as Paul describes him, or of ‘suppressing’ this truth in his heart. Nonetheless, Sproul will detail what he means by this suppression and the other phenomena involved in the following chapters of the book.

In Chapter 6, Sproul turns to the specific human reaction to the holy, especially when it comes to religious experiences. Citing the work of theologian Rudolf Otto, Sproul points out that experiencing the ‘holy’ is not just experiencing the ‘ultimate good’. Rather, there is an unexpected ‘excess’ of something that results in what Otto terms mysterium tremendum. It is what is commonly referred to as ‘trembling’ or being ‘filled with awe’ and reverent fear. There is also something about holiness that renders one with a feeling of weakness and impotence, as seen in the book of Job. Similarly, there is an other-worldliness about the Holy. Put together, religious experiences of the Holy can be terrifying, especially when contrasted with the human condition. Sproul gives several example where this was seen in those who encountered God’s holiness. This directly counters the thesis of those who claim that men are attracted to the idea of God for psychological comfort. In this chapter, Sproul gives the first reason for why belief in God cannot be a result of a psychological need, because an encounter with the Holy leaves man disturbed, not comforted. This gives us some context regarding his claims in the previous chapter. He will continue to provide more context in the upcoming chapter.

In Chapter 7, Sproul turns to what he calls the ‘fear of nakedness’ of man before God. This was put best by philosopher Sartre as the ‘gaze’ that human beings are constantly under, if God existed. Sarte also spoke of the ‘shame-consciousness’ that arose as a result of this ‘gaze’. Sproul broadens this to what philosophers call ‘existential self-awareness’. It is almost as if man is in a constant state of nakedness and he is perennially humiliated because he feels watched. Sproul examines the idea of nakedness in the Bible and points out that, in every case, it is presented as an undesirable concept. He takes us back to before the Fall, where man was named, but not ashamed. Post-Fall, however, they were overtaken by ‘shame-consciousness’, forcing them to seek refuge from the God that they had walked with. This intimidation and shame of being exposed before someone who knows everything about us still exists in man today. No man would wish or find comfort in the idea of this ‘Unviewed Viewer’. This is yet another fantastic chapter in which Sproul attempts to explain what already seems obvious to us, namely why man is naturally secretive, ashamed, and intimidated by others discovering things about him, and how this makes him averse rather than being attracted to the idea of what Sproul refers to as the ‘Unviewed Viewer’. There is no psychological comfort in this.

In Chapter 8, Sproul examines the human desire for absolute autonomy from all authority, including the Sovereign. The Sovereign is usually restricted to church or as a political token. Christ’s Lordship is reduced to someone who we ‘allow’ into our lives. Philosophers like Nietzsche and Sartre understood the real meaning of God’s existence- if God exists, man is not free to do anything he likes. Man can live in absolute autonomy and can make himself to be whatever he wishes to be. Yet, the atheist can only assert to be absolutely autonomous if he can prove that God does not exists, which he cannot prove, yet continues to claim. The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that man cannot be autonomous, although he can be free within the parameters of God’s design. Yet, scripture also speaks of man’s desire to break free of these parameters and gain absolute autonomy. The Biblical God is a threat to the idea and cannot be a source of comfort to man. Once again, Sproul lays out another reason why the atheist is wrong in claiming that Christians are drawn to a God for the sole purpose of psychological comfort; belief in a God is actually a concept that sets boundaries rather than setting us free, and freedom is what man desires most of all.

Sproul concludes by outlining the limitations of psychology in attempting to explain human convictions. He also discusses the importance of overcoming confirmation bias in one’s quest to discover the truth via the evidence. Given the attributes of God that have been revealed to us, it seems clear why an atheist wouldn’t want to consider the evidence provided to him. He closes by reiterating our duty to be bold in once again exposing this evidence to the world.

In this manner, Sproul responds to the question, “If there is a God, why are there atheists?” He states that even if there is a large amount of evidence to prove that God exists, man’s natural state disposes him against believing in a God, contrary to what is commonly believed and theorized by atheists themselves. This is particularly evident in man’s awe and intimidation upon encountering the Holy, man’s ‘shame-consciousness’ at the idea of an Unviewed Viewer, and the notion of God being restrictive rather than fulfilling man’s desire for ultimate freedom. In doing so, Sproul successfully turns the table on atheists by showing that it is more plausible that the atheist is stuck in his unbelief for preserving psychological comfort than it is for man to believe in a God to attain this same comfort.

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