Book Review: The Psychology of Atheism – By R.C. Sproul


Letter MMuch has been written trying to explain the psychology of theism. The foundational text in that field is probably Sigmund Freud‘s The Future of An Illusion, where Freud theorizes that religion came about as a sort of coping mechanism; it was comforting for early man to personalize the forces of nature and to turn their chiefs into legends, and eventually this evolved into the more institutional forms of religion.

Freud may have been the first, but he was far from the last. Feuerbach theorized that the gods were just man’s projections of himself onto the universal scale. Marx theorized that religion was just a way to keep the working class placated. Nietzche theorized that religion was rooted in fear of the nihil; Bertrand Russell followed a similar line of thinking. More recently, Richard Dawkins dismissed religion as a meme, a sort of ‘mind-parasite’.

In each case these writers are not asking “Is there a God?” Rather, they presuppose there is not a God, and then ask why there is religion. At the same time, they suppose – at the very least through implication – that they are explaining away or debunking religion. In each case these writers fail to realize that explaining what a man can or might do is not in the least determinate for what he actually did do. Or, as Sproul puts it:

“It is one thing to argue that man can invent religion out of psychological necessity; it is another to argue that he did. The former involves questions of psychological and intellectual ability, the latter, questions of history. When Freud speaks of origins, he is writing as a historian, not as a psychologist. We know his competence as a psychologist; his competence as a historian is certainly not as well attested.” (p.52)

In his book The Psychology of Atheism (and the revised edition, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists? (I personally prefer the original title)), R.C. Sproul reverses the trend and picks up the topic of whether a similar psychological analysis can be made of atheism.

After laying out the basic categories of the discussion (monotheism, atheism, agnosticism, the law of contradiction, epistemology, etc), Sproul explores the major pyschologizing approaches taken by the thinkers above (minus Dawkins). With this done, he then begins his own psychological analysis of atheism.

In his discussion Sproul too assumes that foundational presupposition of his position – namely, that God exists. His goal is not to prove theism, but to explain atheism from within the theistic framework.

This analysis begins by noting the biblical principle that humans are by their nature at antipathy with God. If the bible is true, then it is only natural that humans would seek to deny God’s existence; this is the heart of Paul’s psychology of atheism in Romans. This is such that “Knowledgeable men, not ignorant men, are the focal points of divine wrath and judgement” (p.64).

The Scripture assumes a [suppressed/subconscious] knowledge of God. Due to this knowledge and suppression, “the intellectual problem is produced by the moral problem, not the moral problem by an intellectual one” (p65). Sproul analyzes this dynamic through the psychological categories of trauma, repression, and substitution. The individual is faced with the trauma knowing God’s holiness, represses that knowledge, and substitutes it with another belief.

As stated, the individual begins by facing the trauma of being confronted with God’s holiness, the mysterium tremendum. As with all who encounter God in Scripture, when faced with his glory there is the overpowering feeling of being undone, dissolved, disintegrated. Thus as Isaiah experiences God he feels his self-image destroyed.

Sproul lifts this up as a direct argument against Freud’s thesis that the personal is more comforting than the impersonal: “the unholy personal may not threaten or be somewhat threatening. The non-holy impersonal threatens more. The Holy personal threatens most” (p95).

This is the crux of Sproul’s argument, for the thesis of the book as a whole is that: “Though man may desire and create for himself a deity who meets his needs and provides him with innumerable benefits, he will not desire a God who is holy, omniscient, and sovereign.” (p10)

Or as C.S. Lewis put it: “Christianity is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

With this thesis argued, Sproul seems to change topics to focus on nakedness and autonomy. In reality, this discussion serves to focus further on the idea of being confronted with the holiness of God. Thus, Sproul turns his attention to Jean-Paul Sarte’s  against the existence of God (based in his idea that “existence precedes essences”).

For Sarte, in order for man to free – to not be objectified – God cannot exist. Man is unique because he is a subject. For God to have created him would mean that God modeled his essence beforehand; furthermore, being looked upon by God reduces man to an object, de-personalized and ashamed, unable to define himself. Sproul answers Sarte with an appeal to Kierkegaard and the biblical motif of nakedness.

Rather than bringing shame, objectification, and chains to man, Sproul argues that “Beneath the gaze of God Adam found redemption, not annihilation” (p126). As Kierkegaard points out, man must move past the fear of exposure to the love of being truly known, for “being known of God is not the loss of humanity, but the glory of it” (p130).

Finally, Sproul moves on to discuss the apparent threat to our autonomy that God represents (which is, again, a potential psychological motive for atheism). Sproul confronts Sarte’s belief that one must reject God for morality to be possible and admits that yes, man’s freedom is within limits; only God is autonomous. Man is not autonomous, but he not reduced to a slave without dignity; indeed, he is a king with dominion.

In seeking autonomy man runs into a paradox. “The paradox is this: When one seeks to rebel from God, he only gains bondage. When he becomes a slave to God, he becomes free. Liberty is found in obedience.” (p151).

In sum, Sproul’s claim in this book is that while it can be theorized that man would create God, this does not in the least demonstrate that he did; indeed, while man may create gods, the God of Christianity is not the kind he would create. Instead, Sproul notes, atheism can be explained as the natural reaction of a mind that is biased against God, suppressing the truth and substituting it for a more comforting belief.

On the whole, this book is a very enjoyable read. It’s straightforward, and should be understandable even to those without a background with the thinkers confronted in the book (Freud, Nietzche, Sarte, etc); indeed, this book would likely serve as a decent first taste of those authors. Sproul is clearly opposed to them but still manages to treat them with a fair amount of charity and explains their ideas better than most Christian commentators.

Apart from some extremely minor nitpicks, I found this book to be excellent and would recommend it all around.

Memorable Quotes:

“The manifestation of God’s holiness functions as the supreme iconoclast.”-92

“The thought of being known is both terrifying and and desirable. It is desirable to be at peace with our own self-understanding but fearful that the truth will bring only judgement and disapproval.”-127

“The experience of the Biblical characters is ironic. When they sin, they all fear the gaze of God. When they repent, they all desire to be known of God.”-131


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