Lecture Series Write-Up: The Psychology of Atheism, by R.C. Sproul

In my post, R.C. Sproul Memories, I mentioned a book that the late R.C. Sproul wrote entitled The Psychology of Atheism, which atheist biblical scholar Robert M. Price actually praised (see here).  I included a link to a series of lectures that Sproul delivered on this topic, and Ligonier Ministries was allowing people to listen to them for free on its web site.  I did so.  Here are some reactions.

A.  One topic that Sproul discussed was epistemology: can we know things and, if so, how?  Sproul referred to rationalism, which focuses on rationality inside of the mind rather than the outside world.  The problem with rationalism is that what is rational or inherently logical is not necessarily real: Sproul said that there is nothing illogical about a unicorn, yet we do not think that unicorns exist.  Empiricists then come back and say that we can only know what we can sense with our five senses.  But Sproul said that our senses themselves are fallible.  He told a story about people who testified that they saw a belligerent man hit another man, but a video of the incident showed that the belligerent man did no such thing.  The eyewitnesses expected the belligerent man to hit the other man, and they confused that with actually seeing it.  Sproul also told a story about when he was giving a lecture, and a woman asked him a question, thinking that he had said something that he did not say.  The thing in, most of the people in that audience thought that Sproul had said it.  Sproul played the tape, and he did not say it.  Yet, people thought that they had heard him say it.

Sproul seemed to prefer Kant’s synthesis of rationalism and empiricism.  How this discussion on epistemology fit into the rest of the series was not entirely clear.  Sproul was asking the question of how intelligent people can have different ideas about the existence of God.  Perhaps he thought that epistemology played some role in people’s different conclusions.  Yet, his main argument is that atheists and agnostics actually know that there is a God, since that is revealed to everyone through nature and conscience (Romans 1:19-21; 2:15), but they choose to suppress that knowledge.  How would the epistemological unreliability (not completely unreliable, necessarily) of rationalism and empiricism fit into that?

B.  As I said in (A.), Sproul’s main argument in the series is that atheists and agnostics actually know that there is a God, since that is revealed to everyone through nature and conscience (Romans 1:19-21; 2:15), but they choose to suppress that knowledge.  Ordinarily, I find that spiel to be revolting because it sounds smug.  Also, it fails to take into consideration the arguments that atheists and agnostics make against the existence of the biblical God, such as the problem of evil, the biblical portrayal of God as violent, or apparent biblical fallibility.

Sproul did not discuss such atheist and agnostic arguments in this series.  Looking at his other teaching series, I see that he has engaged them elsewhere.  But he did not in this series.  He made some arguments for Christianity, though (though maybe in his mind they do not rise to the level of being “arguments,” but rather are things to consider).  At the end of one program, he asked agnostics at least to consider Paul’s claim that humans suppress the knowledge of God because they do not like God, since Paul was one of the most influential figures in history.  Sproul also said that he doubts that humans could invent the idea of a God who is utterly holy: foreign, other, and terrifying.

That last statement is interesting because one of the thinkers whom Sproul profiles, Rudolf Otto, maintained that the concept of the divine as numinous (i.e., other, terrifying) is present in the world’s religions, not just Judaism and Christianity (see here).  What did Sproul do with that?  Did he believe that those other religions had, or preserved some remnant of, the knowledge of the true God, the holy God, and that was why they, too, had a concept of divine holiness?

Something that I liked about Sproul’s presentation was that he stated that what he is saying about agnostics and atheists is true about all human beings, himself included.  Sproul was saying that atheists and agnostics do not want for God to exist and have a personal bias, but he candidly admitted that wishful thinking is part of many theists’ acceptance of theism: he, for example, does not want to live in a cold, godless world, for he deems that to be meaningless.  Sproul talked about how Sartre did not like the concept of always being under God’s watchful, judging eye, for Sartre felt that this would hamper his ability to exist freely, as he desired.  But Sproul said that there is a part of every human being, including himself, that feels that way.

C.  Related to (B.), Sproul referred to Romans 1:22’s statement that those who suppressed the knowledge of God within themselves became fools, though they professed to be wise.  Sproul emphatically denies that Paul was claiming that they were unintelligent, for they clearly were intelligent.  Sproul said that Proverbs 1:7 affirms that the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, so those who lack that foundational element lack what is necessary to wisdom, however intellectually competent they may be.

D.  Sproul says that he believes that agnostics are more culpable before God than atheists, for agnostics are essentially saying that the clear evidence that God has provided for God’s existence is not sufficient.  I am not necessarily agreeing with that, but I wondered why he could not say the same of atheists: they, too, reject the idea that there is clear evidence for God’s existence, and thus they do not believe there is a God.

E.  Sproul referred to a question that prominent atheists have sought to address: if there is no God, then how do we explain the existence of religion, the fact that so many people believe in the divine?  Sproul went through the thoughts of Freud, Marx, and Feuerbach.  His explanation of their thoughts was as follows:

Freud believed that humans were scared of nature, so they tried to make nature manageable (in their own minds) by asserting that the elements of nature had a spirit (animism).  With time, they held that different gods were in control of natural phenomena, and they sought to appease those gods.  Another aspect of Freud’s thought was his belief that humans were trying to atone, somehow, for killing their father.  Some primitive humans were upset at how their father was hogging up the resources and taking the women, so they killed him.  But they feared that the spirit of their father would retaliate against him, and thus religion emerged as an attempt to appease a fatherly figure.

Marx held that religion was the opiate of the masses: that the upper economic classes used it to keep the workers happy, or at least content with their labor, so that they would not revolt.  They would keep hoping for paradise in heaven after their deaths and thus would endure the exploitation and misery that they experience on earth.  Also, Christianity encourages people to be meek, the types of people who would not challenge their oppressors.

Feuerbach held that humans project onto divine beings the way that they are and the attributes that they value.  According to Freud, they also look to religion as a path towards human divinization—–specifically immortality.

These parts of the lectures were especially enjoyable.  I thought, “Wow, what if a Christian listens to Sproul’s synopsis of these thinkers and concludes that what they are saying actually makes sense?”  Sproul addressed that concern, saying that there are Christian answers to these claims.  Interestingly, though, he did not exactly make a robust effort to refute these claims.  In the case of Freud, Sproul actually sought to incorporate him into his overall case: that humans will invent a God who makes them comfortable, for they are terrified of the true God being real.

Sproul made that point about people who want a God of unconditional love rather than the just, holy God of the Bible, the one who gets angry at unrighteousness.  Ironically, in response to Sartre’s apprehension about an intrusive God watching and judging him, Sproul essentially argued that those who are repentant do not have to worry about that.  He referred to David’s request in Psalm 139:23-24 that God search him to see if there is a wicked way within him.  According to Sproul, David was aware that he had flaws and things of which he should be ashamed, but he was not afraid of God examining him and finding those things.

F.  Sproul talked about Sartre’s play, “The Flies,” in which Orestes challenges Zeus.  Orestes affirms his own right to find his own way and path rather than being subservient to Zeus.  According to Sproul, this was Sartre’s response to the claims of religion.

Sproul told a story about a mother who was upset that her son was rebelling and would not go to church.  She wanted Sproul to talk to him, and Sproul agreed, though he was  aware that the son most likely would not be open to what Sproul had to say.  Sproul asked the son what his problem was with his mother, and the son replied that his mother is always trying to force him to go to church.  Sproul then asked the son what he believed, and the son said that he believes people should be allowed to do their own thing.  Sproul retorted, “Then why can’t your mother do her own thing and force you to go to church?  At least if you acknowledged a biblical morality under which everyone is accountable, you would have a case to make against your mother: that she is being insensitive and inconsiderate!”  (That is my paraphrase, based on my memory.)

In my post on Gregory Ganssle’s Our Deepest Desires, I wondered if Sartre acknowledged any boundaries in his view that humans should be allowed to exist as they choose rather than being told what their essence is.  I found this post that I wrote on the Cambridge Companion to Existentialism, and I said the following about Sartre, based on my reading of that book:

“Sartre…was rather pessimistic about human beings, thinking that they used others for their own ends. And yet, Sartre was very concerned about the well-being of society: Sartre leaned towards Communism, yet he became disillusioned with it on account of Soviet oppression. Sartre also was critical of racism and colonialism.”

Sartre obviously had some moral conception.  The question would be whether he provided a basis for it, or sought to reconcile it somehow with his existentialist beliefs.  Would he say, for instance, that there is a moral absolute that people should allow others to exist freely?  You know the commonplace slogan: people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others.

G.  In my Church Write-Up here, I talked about the “Word of Faith” pastor’s claim that Jesus came to heal us of our hatred of God.  The pastor referred to an interview of atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.  The interviewer asked everyone in the audience who believes in God to raise his or her hand, and almost everybody did, and the interviewer was implying that this made O’Hair wrong.  The pastor said that O’Hair should have responded to that in this way: “What do you think about a God who punished all of humanity for one couple’s mistake?  A God who demands that you devote every Sunday to him?  A God who commanded that Sabbath-breakers be stoned?”  The pastor said that, had she said that, the hands would have started to go down.

I was actually thinking about this anecdote when I was listening to one of Sproul’s lectures, and, then, lo and behold, Sproul told the same anecdote!  He did not say all of the same things that the “Word of Faith” pastor said, but he essentially made the same point: people in that audience had a nebulous concept of God with which they were comfortable (like the “Force” of Star Wars), but how would they feel about Yahweh, the God of the Bible?  The “Word of Faith” pastor may have gotten the anecdote from Sproul.  The pastor does draw from a lot of resources, quoting from them and showing us clips.  He draws from N.T. Wright, Tim Keller, Ted Talks, etc.

H.  Sproul was making the point that, when humans encounter the holiness of God, they crumble.  He related the story in Luke 5:1-10, in which Jesus causes Peter to catch multitudes of fish.  Peter’s response was not, “Wow!  We should go into business together, Jesus!  You cause me to catch all these fish, and we’ll make lots of money!”  Rather, Peter asked Jesus to depart, for he (Peter) was a sinful man.

This is a compelling point.  Eventually, though, the disciples could be around Jesus as he did miracles, without being overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy.  The multitudes could, too.  Is that because the multitudes did not grasp the extent of God’s holiness?  In the case of the disciples, perhaps they arrived at an understanding of God’s grace: that God is for them, as undeserving as they may be.

Anyway, I enjoyed listening to this series.  I am currently listening to Sproul’s lectures on Roman Catholicism, but I may not blog about that.  They are interesting, but they do not inspire me to write a blog post, as the series on the “Psychology of Atheism” did.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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