In The Making of an Atheist (2010. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers), James S. Spiegel engages in a task that is well-defined and focused, and perhaps maybe too focused. As a result, the book gave me mixed feelings, yet I cannot fault Dr. Spiegel as his book does exactly what he set out to accomplish. It is rather like being handed a scalpel: it’s the perfect instrument for surgery, but you wouldn’t want to carve a sculpture with one.
Thus, Spiegel’s book is very audience relative. There are certain books where I can give a blanket recommendation to everyone, as there will be “something for all types” in it. This book, however, requires one to know exactly who the audience is.
If that sounds harsh, don’t take it that way. Books that have “something for everyone” also have portions that everyone will dislike. On the other hand, with the proper context Spiegel’s book shines and I have read none better. As you can tell from that depiction, many of the things that I look at will have a relativistic factor to them: for some people they will be beneficial, for others not so much. Let me look at those first, and then get into the meat of the work.
The first “relative” factor in determining whether this book is good for you or not is the length. It’s only 130 pages long, plus some end notes after that. This makes it a fast read. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on what you want. If you’re like me and you’ve bought Calvin’s Commentaries, Luther’s Sermons, and the 2-volume works of Jonathan Edwards (you know the one I’m talking about—double columns filled with 6-point font text) then the shortness of this book is unappealing. But given that most of America today thinks that The Shack is a wonderful expression of theological thinking, this may end up being more of a benefit than a detriment to Christians as a whole.
The second “relative” factor is that, for those who have studied the issues, there was not much new information present in this book. This is related to its shortness, since Spiegel was forced to keep to the main points he tried to make without extraneous texts on rich alternate “bunny trails.” Again, this could be good or bad depending on what you expect from a book. It is good in the sense that Spiegel’s main points are very well defended and argued; it is bad if you think outside the box and want him to dig deeper into some of the implications, especially since his writing is so well done on his main points that you know he has the ability to treat those other issues quite well.
In any case, while there was little new information presented, if someone has never looked into Plantinga’s Reformed apologetics, or into modern presuppositional arguments, Spiegel is the perfect place to start. Indeed, Spiegel’s debt to Plantinga is acknowledged through the work, including the dedication page. And, having read both Plantinga and Spiegel, I can attest that Spiegel is much easier to follow. So once again, for the average reader, Spiegel’s book is going to be very beneficial.
Now let’s get into some of the details. As I said at the top, Spiegel has a very specific goal for this book:
…[M]y aim here is not to defend the Christian worldview nor even theism, for that matter. Rather, my purpose is to present a Christian account of atheism—an account that draws from the Bible, as any Christian doctrine properly does (p. 14)The result is that this book is not a list of “arguments against atheists” but is instead an examination of what the Bible says about atheism. Spiegel does this by providing many proof-texts about unbelief from Scripture. The result is that whether you accept the validity of Scripture or not, if you read this book you will see that the Bible does make specific claims about unbelief.
Aside from the arguments of Scripture, Spiegel does have one interesting aspect to add. In his third chapter, he deals with the causes of atheism. This steps away from Scripture a bit and deals with some psychological reasons, the most common of which is the absence of a father-figure. As Spiegel says:
Is there any relevance to the fact that these two atheists grew up without a father? Some recent research strongly suggests that there is. In this chapter we will look at evidence for the claim that broken father relationships are a contributing cause of atheism. We will also consider evidence that immoral behavior plays a significant role in motivating views on ethics and religion (p. 63).This is probably Spiegel’s weakest part of the book, as it relies heavily on anecdotal evidence. However, that said, it is a very strong “weak” point. In fact, while I read this chapter I was reminded of the line from the movie Fight Club where Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) says: “Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?” So that movie provided another bit of anecdotal evidence to the rest of Spiegel’s argumentation.
One must be careful with this sort of argument and Spiegel does take great pains to assure us that lacking a proper father-relationship does not guarantee atheism (p. 67). It does, however, seem to be very well correlated. This implies the question: why?
Human beings were made in God’s image, and the father-child relationship mirrors that of humans as God’s “offspring.” We unconsciously (and often consciously, depending on one’s worldview) conceive of God after the pattern of our earthly father…. When one has a healthy father relationship and a father who is a decent moral model, then this metaphor and the psychological patterns it inspires are welcome. However, when one’s earthly father is defective, whether because of death, abandonment, or abuse, this necessarily impacts one’s thinking about God. Whether we call it psychological projection, transfer, or displacement, the lack of a good father is a handicap when it comes to faith (pp. 69-70).This is one of those areas where I wish Spiegel could have spent more time. He did do a great job of giving background on several historical atheists, as well as many of the New Atheists, to illustrate this point (and I think those are worthwhile), but I would have liked to have seen more of the psychological science fleshed out. This is not because I think Spiegel might be wrong here. Rather, it’s because he’s right that I would have liked to see this point vigorously defended and expanded upon.
So, in the end, what are my final thoughts on this book? I think it’s a great book to give to anyone who wonders what the Bible says about atheism. Despite not directly attempting a rebuttal of atheism, I think atheists who read this book will be challenged by it too. One great thing about the book is that Spiegel is both faithful to Scripture and irenic toward atheists, and any offense that atheists might take would be the result of their dislike of what Scripture says rather than their dislike of Spiegel’s arguments.
Furthermore, since Spiegel largely pins his arguments directly on the text of Scripture, and uses Scripture that is both plain and non-contentious to orthodox Christian believers, this book ought to be acceptable to any mainstream Christian view. (Despite the use of the word “Reformed” in “Reformed apologetics,” Plantinga’s views are not synonymous with Calvinism, and thus one need not be a Calvinist to see the truth presented in Spiegel’s book. All Bible-believing Christians ought to agree with the conclusions presented, even if they disagree on other theological points.)
I also think this is a good book for anyone who has pondered reading Plantinga, Bahsen, or vanTil yet who is not studied in philosophy. This book gives a solid foundation to the basics of positions held by those three gentlemen in terms that most laymen can understand. It’s not in-depth enough to give anyone a full understanding of presuppositional and Reformed apologetics, but it will definitely get you a start in the right direction.
Unfortunately, for those who already do read Plantinga et al, you may not find much use for this book personally. But I also think that Spiegel didn’t intend to replace Plantinga, but rather to make Plantinga understandable to more people. And in that regard, I think he succeeds.