Book Review: If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? by R.C. Sproul
If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists? by R. C. Sproul was first published with the title, The Psychology of Atheism. The earlier title reflects the overall subject of Sproul’s book, but the later title, If There’s A God, Why Are There Atheists?, reveals the question that the author is seeking to answer. This title is in response to Freud’s past psychological query: “If there is no God, why is there religion?” And so Sproul writes his book to show that psychological factors play a role regardless of the position that one takes on the matter.
Sproul points out in his preface that the “question of man’s attitude toward God certainly touches psychology. However, it is also a question of great theological importance. This book examines some of the motivating factors of the human mind with respect to God from a theological perspective.”1 Here is Sproul’s central thesis:
The Christian God has some ‘attractive’ features that might incline a person to embrace God as a narcotic to help him face the threatening character of life, but these are overwhelmingly outweighed by the trauma of encountering God. Though man may desire and create for himself a deity who meets his needs and provides him with innumerable benefits, he will not instinctively desire a God who is holy, omniscient, and sovereign.2
Sproul first defines the various forms of theism, atheism, and agnosticism. He is careful to point out the subtle nuances while differentiating between the technical definitions and the functional definitions of each. This is followed by a general historical account of atheism, describing what he calls practical atheism (when people profess a sort of general deistic belief, but live as if there were no god) and modern theoretical atheism (more of an intellectual movement born out of the Enlightenment). This account leads Sproul to the question, “How can such brilliant thinkers and competent scholars come to such radically divergent positions?”3
Chapter two, The Tension of Disagreement, unpacks the aforementioned question. Sproul is careful to point out that his exploration here is not into God’s existence, but to find out why there is such disagreement. He also notes, “the question of God’s existence is a different question from the question of what man finds meaningful and practical.”4 The reader is also reminded that there is no third alternative: “In the final analysis, there either is a God or gods, or there are none. There either is something or someone ultimate apart from me, or there is not.”5
Sproul suggests that the reason that “men of equal brilliance, of equal intellectual prowess, of equal educational backgrounds and sophistication [can] arrive at two mutually exclusive conclusions”6 can be attributed to four general categories of error: 1) Epistemological errors; 2) Formal errors in reasoning; 3) Factual errors in empirical investigation; and 4) Psychological prejudice that distorts conclusions.7 Clearly Sproul’s investigation focuses on psychological prejudice, as he points out:
If a man’s epistemological system is sound, his deductive reasoning impeccable, and his inductive procedure inerrant, all of this would still not guarantee proper conclusions. By reason of emotional bias he might still refuse to yield to the obvious conclusions of his research. A classic aphorism of our culture is ‘a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’8
The author observes: “Emotional prejudice is not limited to the dull-witted, the illiterate, and the poorly educated. It is exceedingly difficult for the most brilliant of men to be free of it.”9 And Sproul points out that it is “precisely this dimension of psychological vested interest that has been the driving force for much speculation concerning the origin of religious belief.”10
Before tackling the psychology of atheism, Sproul spends a chapter on the psychology of theism, from the perspective of Freud’s question “If there is no God, why is there religion?”11 What follows is an overview of various psychological explanations of theistic belief: Feuerbach’s “religion is a dream of the human mind.”12 Marx’s belief that religion is “due to the devious imagination of particular segment of mankind.”13 And Nietzche’s idea that “religion endures because weak men need it.”14 The author properly reiterates: “We must be careful to note that the above arguments can never be used as proof for the nonexistence of God. They can be useful for atheists who hear theists state that the only possible explanation for religion is the existence of God.”15 That being said, Sproul also reveals what these arguments presume:
Their arguments already presupposed the nonexistence of God. They were not dealing with the question, Is there a God? They were dealing with the question, Since there is no God, why is there religion?16
Sproul points out the weaknesses of each of these approaches and says “there are just as many arguments showing that unbelief has its roots in the psychological needs of man.”17
In Part 2: The Psychology of Unbelief the book transitions to address the psychology of atheism directly, with an analysis from a theistic perspective:
The New Testament maintains that unbelief is generated not so much by intellectual causes as by moral and psychological ones. The problem is not that there is insufficient evidence to convince rational beings that there is a God, but that rational beings have a natural hostility to the being of God.18
From the Christian point of view, Sproul says, “Man’s desire is not that the omnipotent, personal Judeo-Christian God exist, but that He not exist.”19 The real problem is not lack of evidence for God, but a rejection of the God that the evidence points to, for the Bible states that man is without excuse:
The cumulative effect of this knowledge that is clearly seen is to leave men ‘without excuse.’ Herein lies the basis of the universal guilt of man. No one can claim ignorance of the knowledge of God. No one can cite insufficient evidence for not believing in God. Though people are not persuaded by the evidence, this does not indicate an insufficiency in the evidence, but rather an insufficiency in man.20
Now Sproul breaks down the various factors that play into man’s rejection of God: “The basic stages of man’s reaction to God can be formulated by means of the categories of trauma, repression, and substitution.”21 He expands on each of these categories in the chapters that follow. In chapter five, The Trauma of Holiness, the author describes the fear or dread associated with the holy. Citing numerous biblical examples, Sproul asks: “If finding God involves these experiences, who would deliberately seek Him? Who wants to experience the loss of security and a sense of annihilation?”22
In describing the human reactions to the holiness of Christ and the threat of moral excellence, Sproul observes:
The Bible does not try to conceal the fact that, in spite of God’s love and mercy, He is an awesome, threatening Being, a Being that man would not instinctively search for. The psychologists continue to argue that men like to invent protective deities that will provide them with comfort and security. But they cannot argue that men would invent the intimidating Holy One of Israel.23
Sproul continues his study into scriptural examples of repression and substitution, exploring such themes as the fear of nakedness before God and the man’s desire for autonomy. “If God exists, man cannot be a law unto himself. If God exists, man’s will-to-power is destined to run head-on into the will of God.”24 Sproul’s conviction is that the atheist position has just a great deal more psychological motivation driving it than theism:
…natural man suffers from a prejudice. He operates within a framework of insufferable bias against the God of Christianity. The Christian God is utterly repugnant to him because He represents the threat of threats to man’s own desires and ambitions. The will of man is on a collision course with the will of God. Such a course leads inevitably to a conflict of interests.25
Although this is a short book – a mere 150 pages – it is densely packed and enlightening. It is worthy of inspection by theist and atheist alike, for, as Sproul concludes:
The question of the existence of and nature of God is a question attended by a host of vested interests. If we are to examine the question with integrity, we must both recognize and face the implications of our vested interests. If we refuse to do that, then truth will perish, and so will we.26
1 R.C. Sproul, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists: Why Atheists Believe in Unbelief (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989), preface.
3 Ibid., p. 25.
4 Ibid., p. 28.
5 Ibid., p. 29.ß
6 Ibid., p. 32.
7 Ibid., p. 33.
8 Ibid., p. 38.
9 Ibid., p. 39.
10 Ibid., p. 39.
11 Ibid., p. 42.
12 Ibid., p. 44.
13 Ibid., p. 46
14 Ibid., p. 45.
15 Ibid., p. 49.
16 Ibid., p. 49.
17 Ibid., p. 53.
18 Ibid., p. 57.
19 Ibid., p. 58.
20 Ibid., p. 62.
21 Ibid., pp. 72-33.
22 Ibid., p. 87.
23 Ibid., p. 101.
24 Ibid., p. 133.
25 Ibid., p. 146.
26 Ibid., p. 147.