I know. I know. Jerry Coyne has already dealt with this. Sometimes I wonder how he so quickly gets to know of the latest idiocy to run off the religious press, but Chicago is clearly in the loop, and standing as it does out to sea, Nova Scotia is a bit out of it, even in this electronic age, but really, the latest argument against atheism does deserve to be noted at least one more time. In fact, it’s so funny that it really needs a stand up comic to do it some justice.
I’m talking, of course, about Jim Spiegel’s argument in Christianity Today that atheism leads to sin, or sin to atheism — well, anyway, that’s obviously going to be a problem for his argument. For, if sin leads to cognitive problems — and, believe it or not, that’s the claim — then, since all have sinned, Jim seems to be caught with his pants down. In fact, perhaps that’s what explains why his argument is really so hopeless! After all, notice that he takes Paul’s point as given. Namely, that we have no excuse, since we can — now, let’s get this straight, folks! — know that God exists. One’s tempted to say that if this is an example of Christianity today then Christianity is in deep deep trouble!
Alister McGrath, at least, is aware that there is a contradiction here. Discussing Calvin in his Christian Theology: An Introduction he says:
Calvin argues that the epistemic distance between God and humanity, already of enormous magnitude, is increased still further on account of sin. Our natural knowledge of God is imperfect and confused, even to the point of contradiction on occasion. 
Poor Jim Spiegel, though, closed that particular door, since he begins his funny article with the claim that:
According to Scripture, the evidence for God is overwhelming
– that is, I assume, not confused or contradictory. It goes without saying, of course, that this is not really evidence for anything. Just because it says so in a book obviously doesn’t mean that it’s true. But at least it’s clear that he can’t simply say that wickedness leads to epistemological problems, otherwise Paul’s point is pointless. But Paul doesn’t say that wickedness leads to epistemological problems. What Paul says is that the wicked suppress what they know to be true. And that’s a different story altogether. Though he teaches philosophy, Jim Spiegel appears to have failed Philosophy 101. Pity his poor students!
But, more seriously, he completely ignores the context. Paul is “arguing” that neither Jew nor Gentile has any excuse. Since it is completely obvious that God exists — we can know this just from considering the world that God has made — no one can use this as an excuse for failing to acknowledge the authority of Paul’s preaching of the gospel. (As with most things that Paul writes, the argument is all about Paul and his authority.)
Surprisingly, Spiegel thinks he can take Paul’s words simply as an affirmation that God’s existence is overwhelmingly obvious, without noting that Paul’s use of the argument is self-serving. (He can’t really think that, because Paul said it, that simply makes it true, can he?) What he misses is Paul’s claim that, since his — that is, Paul’s — gospel is so obvious, everyone except Paul is without excuse.
What we have in the first Chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans is a complete repudiation of both the Jewish and the Gentile worlds. Paul is the only one left standing. One Christian commentator on this passage writes:
The passage on the condemnation of the Gentiles which follows is one of the most violent and hate-filled in Scripture. Paul uses the message of God’s judgment to express his own antagonism and repudiation of the Gentile world. [Graham Shaw, The Cost of Authority, 145]
Something reminiscent, perhaps, of Sayed Qtub’s condemnation of the West after his brief stay in the United States. (Talking about comedy ….) But Spiegel is not entitled to use the passage simply as a philosophical proof text, as though it comes with no baggage.
What Spiegel misses, and what most Christians simply do not understand, is that to become a Christian in Christianity’s first few centuries was to segregate oneself radically from the world. Early Christians took very seriously Jesus’ claim that you had to hate father and mother, brothers and sisters, for his sake. Becoming a Christian was to repudiate the world. As a consequence, of course, many of them were quite prepared to die, in fact, many were eager to die for the sake of the gospel. The world had no allure, and life in the world was good only for the leaving of it, as Tertullian so eloquently argues in his Scorpiace:
… seeing the Master and Lord Himself was stedfast in suffering persecution, betrayal and death, much more will it be the duty of His servants and disciples to bear the same, that they may not seem as if superior to Him, or to have immunity from the assaults of unrighteousness, since this itself should be glory enough for them, to be conformed to the sufferings of their Lord and Master … [Chapter IX]
Christians forget that being baptised symbolises being buried with Christ. (You can read all about this in Romans 6.) Indeed, Tertullian goes on to say:
For the flesh is the clothing of the soul. The uncleanness, indeed, is washed away by baptism, but the stains are changed into dazzling whiteness by martyrdom. [Chapter XII]
You may think that I am wandering away from Jim Spiegel and his funny article, but I’m not. The main reason it is so funny is that he seems not to recognise how completely Christianity repudiates the world, and how, according to Paul, one must stand apart from the world in order really to know. The wisdom of the world, after all, is, for Paul, foolishness (1 Corinthians 1.20).
(It’s worthwhile mentioning parenthetically that Spiegel isn’t really entitled to his argument at all. He quotes Paul as an authority. But if Paul is an authority about our knowledge of God, then he must also be an authority when he speaks about the foolishness of worldly wisdom. That’s the problem with contradictions. Spiegel can’t have it both ways. He can’t accept Paul’s “philosophical” argument about the existence of God, and then simply ignore Paul’s anti-intellectualism. Paul is clearly familiar with the philosophical arguments for the existence of God. But he also wants to condemn them — which leaves Spiegel caught between two stools.)
Spiegel thinks it’s just a simple intellectual puzzle. He wants to understand how atheists are made, and he concludes that atheism is the result of immorality. What could be simpler? “If the evidence for God is so abundant,” he asks, “then why are there atheists?” Of course, as even Christian philosophers know, the evidence for God is not abundant at all. Crafting a convincing argument for the existence of God is exceptionally difficult, and most Christians are prepared to say that it’s not evidence that leads them to God in the first place. Karen Armstrong and other apophatic theologians say that God is simply beyond reason altogether, and that means beyond the evidence. Even Aquinas, at the end of his life, dismissed his philosophical labours as so much straw. How many Christians have said, of Dawkins’ discussion of Aquinas’s “five ways”, that they are not really proofs of God’s existence, but reflections on the relationship between faith already achieved and our knowledge of the world? No one, we are assured, thinks of these as real proofs that could actually lead one to faith.
That’s what’s so funny about Jim Spiegel’s argument. It’s a bit like trying to box in a wet paper bag. It looks as if he is carrying on a serious argument. He cites authorities, he produces what he thinks counts as evidence, and yet the whole thing is a tissue of pretences. He quotes the Bible a lot, but what does this show? Nothing really. After all, he completely ignores context. The purpose of Paul’s claim that there is an abundance of evidence for the existence of God is to argue that, in their wickedness, the Gentiles suppress the truth that they know perfectly well (despite their wickedness) — so this hardly makes his case that wickedness impairs cognition. And while it may be true that “Scripture’s wisdom literature tells us [that] obedience and humility lead to insight and understanding,” it’s only fair to point out that modern atheists are precisely those whose epistemological humility and obedience to the evidence are leading traits.
But then, there are the tautologies in Spiegel’s remarks. Take this, for instance:
The more we disobey and give ourselves over to vice, the less reliable our belief formation will be, particularly regarding moral and spiritual matters.
See what I mean? Tautology. Of course, if we really give ourselves over to vice, then our moral insight will be dimmed, or at least it will appear that way. That’s just what vice is. According to Webster, vice is “moral depravity or corruption” or “moral fault or failing”. So, of course, if we give ourselves over to vice, our morals will not be up to scratch. However, this doesn’t mean that we won’t know that we’re doing wrong. There may be nothing at all wrong with our cognitive abilities. In fact, really to do wrong means that we have mens rea, a guilty mind, and that means that we need to have our cognitive abilities in good working order; otherwise, we could not reproach someone for his moral failings. It would surely be strange to argue that someone’s immorality excuses itself, because it shows defective cognitive abilities! Paul’s point, in the argument in Romans that Spiegel makes so much of, is that the Gentiles are without excuse, because they do know.
The long and short of it, then? Well, perhaps Jim Spiegel should take a hint from his own name, and look in the mirror!