If the Shoe Were on the Other Foot

What Christian wouldn’t be incensed by the following statement, especially if informed that it was made by a professor of philosophy at one of this nation’s venerated institutions of higher learning? The statement, ostensibly an attempt to explain the real reasons underlying the religious beliefs of millions of our fellow citizens, appears to be purposely disrespectful:

“Christian belief,” this professor declared, “does not arise from assessment of evidence, but from stubborn closed-mindedness; it does not have its origin in the desire for knowledge but in arrogance and contempt. Christianity is the suppression of truth by hatred, the outgrowth of small-minded prejudice. In short, it is bigotry that is the mother of belief.”

Even strong atheists might admit that this goes too far. No wonder so many religious individuals feel as if they’re under siege. These days, it really does seem that there’s a war on certain types of belief.

Many among the religious who would be offended by statements like the above are, however, perfectly happy with similar pronouncements provided they come from their own side. They complain about biased professors whose hatred of faith is clearly evident, but in turn ignore — or even applaud — religious intolerance aimed at nonbelievers. As an example, consider the fact that the above statement is in reality a paraphrase, and that the original actually reads as follows:

“Atheism is not the result of objective assessment of evidence, but of stubborn disobedience; it does not arise from the careful application of reason but from willful rebellion. Atheism is the suppression of truth by wickedness, the cognitive consequence of immorality. In short, it is sin that is the mother of unbelief.”

My paraphrase consisted essentially of changing it from a statement about atheism to one about Christianity, along with the replacement of its abusive epithets by reasonably equivalent ones so as to make it all “fit.” The tone in the original is every bit as rude and obnoxious. The only difference is which side it’s on. And yet, this passage is the central thesis of a book that has been praised by many believers.

That book, The Making of an Atheist, by James Spiegel, a philosopher who teaches in a small religious university in Indiana, goes on to say that the atheist has a “depraved mind” that blinds him to God and ethics, [p. 54] and that “precipitated by immoral indulgences,” he “willfully rejects God.” [p. 113] According to Spiegel, atheism “is not at all a consequence of intellectual doubts.” Reason is not involved. “For the atheist,” he says, “the missing ingredient is not evidence but obedience.” [p. 11]

Positive reviews by readers on Amazon.com praise the work as “thought-provoking,” “impressive,” and “profound,” and suggest that it really explains the mind-set of nonbelievers. What would these people say if the shoe were on the other foot?

Franz Kiekeben is a former lecturer in philosophy and the author of two books on atheism, The Truth about God, and Atheism: Q & A. He has also written for Skeptic magazine and published academic articles on determinism and on time travel.