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Does the Bible Say All Atheists are Intellectually Dishonest?


We’ve been discussing the thesis that human beings have a natural inclination toward theism, and that atheism, accordingly, involves a suppression of this inclination. Greg Koukl takes the inclination to be so powerful that resisting it is like “trying to hold a beach ball underwater,” and appears to think that every single atheist is engaged in an intellectually dishonest exercise in “denying the obvious, aggressively pushing down the evidence, to turn his head the other way.” (Randal Rauser, who has also been critical of Koukl, calls this the “Rebellion Thesis.”)  In response to Koukl, I argued that the inclination is weaker than that, that the natural knowledge of God of which most people are capable is only “general and confused” (as Aquinas put it), and that not all atheism stems from intellectual dishonesty. Koukl has now replied, defending his position as more “faithful to Paul’s words” in Romans 1:18-20 than mine is. However, I don’t think this claim can survive a careful reading of that passage.

St. Paul’s intent in chapters 1 and 2 of Romans is, in part, to argue that Gentiles are just as much in need of salvation as Jews are. It might seem otherwise because the Gentiles did not have the Mosaic Law or, more generally, any special divine revelation like the one embodied in the Old Testament. Hence one might suppose that their moral failures and theological errors can be excused on grounds of ignorance. But Paul argues that the Gentiles do have available to them knowledge of God’s existence and nature of the sort enshrined in natural theology (1: 19-20), and the moral knowledge embodied in the natural law (2:14-15). Hence, though they lacked the Old Testament, they nevertheless had at least some significant knowledge of moral and theological truth, and are therefore culpable for failing to conform themselves to it.

The example St. Paul gives of the sort of theological error the Gentiles were guilty of is idolatry. He criticizes them for conceiving of God on the model of “mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles” (1:23), even though they should have known that in fact the creator must have attributes of “eternal power” (1:20) and immortality (1:23) and thus cannot properly be compared to such creatures. St. Paul’s chief example of the immorality the Gentiles fell into is homosexual behavior (1:26-27), and he also says that they are guilty of envy, murder, treachery, gossip, disobedience to parents, and many other sins (1:29-31).

Now, there are several things about these chapters that should give pause to anyone hoping to read off the “Rebellion Thesis” from them. The first is that the “Rebellion Thesis” is not even what is in view in the passage. For one thing, St. Paul is not talking about atheism here in the first place, but rather idolatry. For another, his emphasis is not on psychological repression per se but rather on what can be known via natural theology. That is not to deny that what he says is relevant to the issues of whether atheism can be known to be false apart from special divine revelation, and of whether some kind of repression plays a role in atheism. Of course it is relevant. The point is that the psychology of atheism is simply not the topic he is addressing. Again, his topic was rather whether the Gentiles had sufficient moral and theological knowledge available to them to be culpable for their sins, and thus to be as in need of salvation as were those who had the Mosaic Law. To treat Romans 1 as a straightforward statement of the Rebellion Thesis is therefore anachronistic. You might try to argue for the Rebellion Thesis on the basis of the principles St. Paul sets out there, but he is not himself addressing that particular topic.

A second problem is that even where his criticism of idolatry is concerned, what St. Paul gives us is very far from a comprehensive list of which lines of argument demonstrate the existence of God and exactly which of the divine attributes can be known by way of such arguments. He tells us that from “the things that are made” by God, we can know of his power, eternity, and immortality, and therefore can know that he isn’t comparable to a mere man or an animal. And that’s pretty much it. Does God have all power or only a high degree of power? Is he omniscient? Is he perfectly good? Is he timeless, or merely everlasting? Is he simple or composite? Is he immutable? Is he best known by way of an Aristotelian argument from motion? A Neo-Platonic argument from composite things to a non-composite cause? A Leibnizian argument for a Necessary Being? A moral argument? A Fifth Way style teleological argument? A Paley style design argument?

Paul doesn’t address these issues in the passage and, more to the point, he doesn’t say that the Gentiles in general should be expected to know the answers. Indeed, his emphasis isn’t on how much we can know about God by natural means, but rather merely on how we can know at least enough to be able to see how stupid it is to think of God on the model of a man or an animal.

To be sure, we Thomists certainly think that all of these particular questions, and many others, can be answered via purely philosophical arguments. Our claims about natural theology are if anything much more bold than those of most Christian apologists. But the issue here is not what fancy-pants philosophers and theologians can know about God apart from special divine revelation. The issue is what the average person can be expected to know apart from special divine revelation. And contrary to what Koukl implies, what St. Paul actually says in Romans 1 is perfectly compatible with Aquinas’s position that most people are capable of only a “general and confused” knowledge of God apart from special divine revelation.

Then there’s a third problem. Proponents of the “Rebellion Thesis” maintain that each and every single atheist is engaged in an intellectually dishonest, culpable suppression of what he knows deep down to be true. I have argued that that isn’t the case, and that what is true of atheism as a mass phenomenon isn’t true of each and every atheist in particular. Koukl claims that it is the Rebellion Thesis rather than my position that is actually supported by Romans 1:

"[T]hough many atheists are not consciously aware of their rebellion (some are, of course) and may feel they have intellectual integrity in their atheism (some demonstrate a measure of integrity in their reasoned rejection of God), still, when all the cards are on the table in the final judgment, when men’s deepest and truest motives are fully revealed (Lk. 12:2), rebellion will be at the core.  This rebellion-at-the-core, I think, is what Paul had in mind in Rom. 1—a fairly ordinary, run of the mill biblical point, it seems."

Leave aside the point that St. Paul isn’t even addressing atheism, specifically, in the first place. The problem for Koukl is what St. Paul does say. Again, speaking of the Gentiles in general, Romans says that “they… changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man -- and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things” (1:22-23), that “their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature” and that their men did likewise (1:26-27), and that they are also guilty of sins such as murder and inventing evil things (1:29-30).

Now, if the defender of the Rebellion Thesis is going to appeal to Romans 1 in support of the claim that each and every single atheist is guilty of an intellectual dishonest, culpable suppression of what he knows to be true, then to be consistent, he will also have to regard Romans 1 as establishing the claim that each and every Gentile, or at least those who had lived up to St. Paul’s time, was guilty of thinking of God on the model of “birds and four-footed animals and creeping things,” of homosexual behavior, and of murder and of inventing evil things.  And there are two problems with such a claim.

First, we know that it is false. We know that not every single Gentile conceived of God in this crude and idolatrous way. (For example, Xenophanes and Aristotle did not.) We know that not every single Gentile engaged in or even approved of homosexual behavior. And obviously, not every Gentile committed murder or invented some evil thing.

Second, the claim would simply not be a plausible reading of Romans 1 in any case, even apart from this empirical point. For to infer from what St. Paul says about Gentiles in general to the conclusion that each and every single Gentile was guilty of all of the sins he describes is to commit a fallacy of division (as some readers have pointed out in the combox).

But it is no less fallacious to infer from what he says about “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” to the conclusion that each and every single atheist is engaged in a culpable act of intellectual dishonesty. Nor, I would say, is this much less empirically dubious than the claim that each and every Gentile is guilty of murder. Even Koukl implicitly admits this when he tells us that the rebellious suppression he attributes to atheists is often “sub-conscious” -- thus making his position immune to empirical testing. And some of Koukl’s defenders appear to think that if it seems empirically false to say that every single atheist is being intellectually dishonest, then this empirical evidence is trumped by (their interpretation of) Romans 1. But that is like saying: “Each and every one of the Gentiles must have been guilty of murder, because the Bible says so!” If the text can naturally be read in a way that comports with the actual empirical evidence, then that is a good reason to read it that way -- in the case of atheists who are to all appearances intellectually honest no less than in the case of Gentiles who are to all appearances innocent of murder.

Here is another consideration. When someone calls himself an “atheist,” we need to get clear about exactly what he means by that, exactly what he is denying, before we conclude that he is engaged in some sort of intellectually dishonest suppression. Many religious people themselves have a very crude understanding of God’s nature, and of other theological matters as well. When an atheist who is simply unfamiliar with more sophisticated accounts rightly rejects these vulgar accounts, he may well believe -- mistakenly but sincerely -- that this entails rejecting theism as such. And if so, it doesn’t follow from the fact that he calls himself an “atheist” that he is engaged in any sort of intellectual dishonesty or suppression of the truth. Rather, he may be simply following the limited evidence he has to where he honestly thinks it leads, and rejecting what is in fact false. If presented with a better understanding of theism, be might change his mind. Of course, he might not change his mind even then, and it might turn out that intellectual dishonesty is what prevents him from doing so. But the point is that the fact that someone at some stage of his life calls himself an “atheist” simply doesn’t entail by itself that he is engaged in intellectual dishonesty.

Thus does the Catechism of the Catholic Church, while affirming that “atheism is a sin against the virtue of religion,” also go on to say:

The imputability of this offense can be significantly diminished in virtue of the intentions and the circumstances. "Believers can have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.” (2125)

NOTE: Dr. Feser's contributions at Strange Notions were originally posted on his blog, including this article, and therefore lose some of their context when reprinted here. Dr. Feser explains why that matters.
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Dr. Edward Feser

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Dr. Edward Feser is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pasadena City College in Pasadena, California. He has been a Visiting Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara, a master’s degree in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and religious studies from the California State University at Fullerton. He is author of numerous books including The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (St. Augustines Press, 2010); Aquinas (Oneworld, 2009); and Philosophy of Mind (Oneworld, 2007). Follow Dr. Feser on his blog and his website, EdwardFeser.com.

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