If There's a God Why are There Atheistsby R.C. Sproul
Length: Approximately 7 hours. To read (207 pages)
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In “If There’s a God Why Are There Atheists?”, Christian theologian and apologist R.C. Sproul thoughtfully interacts with and demonstrates the failures of atheistic claims of Freud, Marx, Feuerback, and Nietzsche.
Who should read this?
This book is for Christians who may be wrestling with what may seem like troubling, if not persuasive arguments against the existence of God. This short work could also be used as a tool for “pre-evangelism” with an unbeliever if they are willing to examine a rational and philosophical critique of atheistic claims about those who believe in God. The subject matter can be challenging but this book serves as a perfect example of the brilliant but accessible teaching of the late theologian and apologist R.C. Sproul.
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How should a Christian answer the claims of atheists who insist that belief in God is simply motivated by psychological needs? Is religion just a crutch for the weak minded and the “opiate of the masses”? Dr. R.C. Sproul demonstrates that these claims do nothing to disprove the existence of God, and that atheists may have their own psychological reasons, and more importantly, theological reasons for their unbelief.
The late R.C. Sproul (1939-2017) will be remembered as one of the most influential theologians of the past 100 years. For many Christians including myself, Dr. Sproul was their first introduction to reformed theology. He founded Ligonier Ministries, edited the Reformation Study Bible, and served as the first president of Reformation Bible College.
The stated goal of Ligonier Ministries has been to bridge the gap between Sunday School and Seminary, and for many years the teaching of R.C. Sproul was its centerpiece. He was a brilliant teacher who was doctrinally clear and precise but somehow also managed to be engaging and almost whimsical in his teaching and writing style. Christian Focus has republished this book, which is a revised and updated edition of The Psychology of Atheism.
Evidentialist, Presuppositionalist, or Classical?
Before examining the book, it may be helpful to keep in mind Sproul’s approach to apologetics. The different camps of Christian apologetic methodologies can be broadly grouped into Evidentialism, Classical, and Presuppositionalism. Space does not permit a full explanation of each of these, but the following may be helpful as a primer on them.
Evidentialists tend to emphasize evidences for the existence of God. For example, the earth’s distance from the sun is just right for sustaining life. Any closer and we could burn up. Any further away and we would freeze to death. They will assert to the unbeliever that the evidence at least points to a creator, if not the God of the Bible.
Presuppositionalists argue that Evidentialism puts the unbeliever in the position of judge over God’s creation. They point to Paul’s words in Romans 1 and argue that the unbeliever already knows there is a God and is suppressing that truth in unrighteousness. Instead of giving the unbeliever “evidence” to examine, Presuppostionalists tend to start from (ie. presuppose) the existence of the God who is revealed in Scripture. They will point out and question the inconsistencies of the unbeliever’s worldview but not enter into the unbelieving worldview as if it is agreed upon neutral ground.
Classical apologetics shares some similarities to Evidentialism and Presuppositionalism but its focus tends to be categories of logic and the field of philosophy. They tend to argue that Presuppositionalists use circular reasoning as their foundation for belief in God and that we have to begin with concepts like the basic reliability of our senses before we can assent to the existence of God. Again, space does not permit a full examination of each of these apologetic camps but it is important to recognize Dr. Sproul’s commitment to Classical Apologetics. This is in keeping with his mentor and friend, the late John Gerstner, who this book was dedicated to. For a fascinating discussion on apologetic methodology, be sure to listen to the friendly debate between Dr. Sproul and the well-known presuppositionalist, Greg Bahnsen.
In the interest of full disclosure, despite my appreciation for Dr. Sproul, I have come to favor the Presuppositional approach to apologetics. Evidentialist and Classical arguments should not be completely dismissed. They can be useful and help to strengthen the faith of someone who is already a Christian, but as Presuppositonalists rightly point out, those approaches can give the unbeliever the false impression that they have the right to “judge” the evidence.
As Sproul has admitted, apologetics and evangelism are related but are not the same thing. Someone who merely agrees that the “evidence” points to the greater probability that there is a god is not the same thing as that person possessing the saving faith of a regenerate Christian. As Scripture tells us, even the demons believe and shudder (cf. James 2:19), or as the presuppositionalist Scott Oliphint has put it, “Theists still go to hell.”
In Dr. Sproul’s defense, it should be recognized that this book is not intended to be apologetic for Classical Apologetics. The reader is directed to Classical Apologetics or Defending Your Faith for a more thorough look at Sproul’s method. Why Are There Atheists? is primarily concerned with engaging the arguments of well-known atheists from history.
The book is divided into two main parts. Part One “The Battlefield: Belief and Unbelief” begins by addressing the debate over the existence of God and the “tension of disagreement”. Sproul expertly makes use of the law of non-contradiction to demonstrate that theists and atheists cannot both be right. In opposition to post-modern ideas about truth being relative, Sproul makes it clear that either there is or there is not a god. He is absolutely right that Christians must not give in to the temptation to avoid this issue in the interest of not offending people. We should be gracious but steadfast in our commitment to truth.
Psychology and Atheism’s Limitations
In his chapter on “The psychology of theism”, Sproul gives a helpful summary of the atheistic claims by four of the most influential thinkers of their day; Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feurbach, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Karl Marx. Freud argued that “The principal task of civilization … is to defend us against nature.” By “nature”, Freud meant the brutal state of nature. He theorized that religion developed out of a need to personalize the impersonal forces of nature.
He combined this with ideas of struggle between father figures and sons to explain why people would want to believe in a personal, fatherly deity. In the case of Feurbach, “religion is the dream of the human mind” and consequently, men create gods in their own image. For Marx, life is primarily about class struggle between a privileged “bourgeois” and an oppressed “proletariat”. Religion could be explained as a means for the masses to be duped into hoping for paradise after death, while the elite enjoy luxury and pleasure in this life. Nietzsche promoted similar ideas of a “slave morality” which favors weakness and a “master morality” which exalts power. The religious, in his view, lack the courage to face an indifferent, impersonal universe where the will to power is all that matters.
Sproul then demonstrates the limitations of each of these thinkers’ claims. Freud insightfully recognized our need for the approval of a loving father but as Sproul points out, “A benevolent father may be an attractive incitement to religious devotion. On the other hand, an angry father may be equally inciting to move toward atheism.” In other words, “daddy issues” can cut both ways. As for Feurbach, “his analysis teaches us much about man, but precious little about the existence or non-existence of God.”
When it comes to Marxist claims, Sproul admits that religious institutions can be prone to “exploitation and manipulation and a host of other evils”. He then goes on to point out that even if it can be proven that some people have invented a god for exploitive socioeconomic reasons, that would not prove it is what all religions have done. Finally, Nietzsche may offer some insight into religious behavior but his claims do not actually address the actual question of the existence of God.
The remainder of the book examines atheistic claims through the lens of scripture and the biblical worldview. Sproul deals with themes of the “trauma” of God’s holiness, the phenomenon of human guilt and vulnerability or “nakedness”, and our ever-present desire for autonomy. As always, Sproul makes deliberate and appropriate distinctions and he carefully defines his terms. When addressing questions about between “autonomy” and “freedom”, he argues that the bible teaches that man has freedom, but not autonomy. As Sproul puts it, “Full autonomy belongs to God alone. Man’s freedom is within limits.” (pg. 181)
A minor critique of this book is that it does not fully engage with the more recent and vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens. To be fair, this book does make reference to them and offer some interaction with their claims, but it does not go into detail about their writings. (pg. 65) The majority of the referenced sources in this book are from the 1950s and 1960s. Again, this is a minor critique since Sproul is dealing with the major figures of the past 200 years or so and not necessarily the more recent past.
In short, this book succeeds in what Dr. Sproul was setting out to accomplish with it. Even if one disagrees with his emphasis on the classical method of apologetics, it is hard to argue with the sound logic and critiques of atheism that Sproul’s presents us with. Rules of logic like the law of non-contradiction are fixed and unchanging because they have been established by an eternal creator God. By definition, the subject of the existence of God will never cease to be relevant. RC Sproul was a brilliant thinker when it came to these questions and I highly recommend this book.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
“To show that men desire a God is not to demonstrate anything about whether or not there is, in fact, such a deity. Unless we can establish a principle to the effect that anything man desires to exist cannot or does not exist, the above explanations do not touch on the issue of the existence of God. These are psychological analyses that begin and end on the psychological level. They may teach us much concerning man, but say nothing with respect to God’s existence.” (pg. 58-59)
“(The unbeliever) wants to be free to break God’s law without fear, but also does not want to have others breaking God’s law against him.” (pg. 66)
“When the glory of man is related to the glory of God, there is a marked contrast. In the context of the glory of God, human glory is dwarfed by comparison. The weightiness of divine glory presses in upon man, threatening to crowd him out.” (pg. 130)