The Psychology of Atheism: From Gaze to Glory. Part 1/2

A tribute to R.C. Sproul who has just gone to glory.

The popular idea of God as an invention of weak-minded people desperately looking for an emotional crutch to help them cope with wretched reality was developed with erudition and sophistication by the three patron-gods of modern atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. For example, Freud regarded religious ideas as “illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind. . . .As we already know, the terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection — for protection through love — which was provided by the father…. Thus the benevolent rule of a divine Providence allays our fear of the danger of life. [Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion (Norton, 1927, 1961), p. 30]

Freud theorized that religion must have evolved from animism to monotheism. The impersonal forces of nature are remote and unpredictable. Hence, nature must be conceived as animated by divine powers who resemble human beings. These powers may be malevolent, but since they behave like humans, we at least know how to deal with them. Religion then progressed from simple animism to complex monotheism which culminates with God as a benevolent Father figure.

R.C. Sproul sets out to refute this popular critique of Christianity. First, Freud is mistaken when he argues that the personal is more comforting than the impersonal, which is the reason why humans ‘populate’ nature with many deities. Sproul notes that while “the unholy personal may not threaten or be somewhat threatening. The non-holy impersonal threatens more. The Holy personal threatens most”* [p91]

The Christian God has some ‘attractive’ features that might incline a person to embrace God as a narcotic to help him face the threatening character of life, but these are overwhelmingly outweighed by the trauma of encountering God. Though man may desire and create for himself a deity who meets his needs and provides him with innumerable benefits, he will not instinctively desire a God who is holy, omniscient, and sovereign.[cf. preface]

Second, Sproul reminds the atheists that the psychological critique of religion cuts both ways. The question of God provokes intense emotional disagreement. As such, emotional prejudice afflicts both simple and brilliant men especially when the stakes are eternal. “It is precisely this dimension of psychological vested interests that has been the driving force for much speculation concerning the origin of religious belief.” [p. 39]

Sproul contends that the atheistic speculation of the origins of religious belief relies more on psychological rationalization rather than on accurate historical facts and cogent philosophical analysis. He concludes that that the psychological critique of Feuerbach, Freud and Marx fails as proof for the nonexistence of God. “Their arguments already presupposed the nonexistence of God. They were not dealing with the question, Is there a God? They were dealing with the question, Since there is no God, why is there religion?” [p. 49]

Sproul turns the table on the atheists by exposing the psychological roots of atheism itself, based on a close reading of the book of Romans which allows him to explain the psychological sources of atheism from within the theistic framework.

In Romans 1:18-23, the apostle Paul demonstrates that the origin of unbelief is not intellectual but moral and psychological. God in his general revelation has given evidence that is sufficient to convince any rational person that there is a God. However, these persons who are otherwise rational reject the evidence because of their natural hostility towards God. Their rejection of God leaves them “without excuse”. The problem of atheism is not the insufficiency of evidence, but rather an insufficiency of the atheist.

The atheist asserts that God does not exist in the face of clear revelation because he does not want to be accountable to God. The evidence must be rejected even if this means that man has to lie to himself and live a lie that leads to spiritual delusion and moral corruption. Contrary to the atheistic critique, the desire of man is not that the sovereign, personal God of the Bible exists, but that he does not (and should not) exist.

Sproul points out that the initial encounter with God is characterized by terror rather than comfort. This is confirmed by Rudolph Otto’s classic study, The Idea of the Holy. Otto provides incontrovertible evidence that the central experience of God’s holiness, the mysterium tremendum is that of an overwhelming feeling of being undone, dissolved, disintegrated when one in the presence of God’s glory and holiness. Naturally, man would flee from God rather than seek refuge and find solace in Him. Surely, this central experience of the mysterium tremendum proves that Freud’s critique of religion itself rests on an illusion when the Holy turns out to be One who is overwhelming and threatening rather than comforting? Sproul retorts: “If finding God involves these experiences, who would deliberately seek Him? Who wants to experience the loss of security and a sense of annihilation?” [p. 87] Sproul concludes:

The Bible does not try to conceal the fact that, in spite of God’s love and mercy, He is an awesome, threatening Being, a Being that man would not instinctively search for. The psychologists continue to argue that men like to invent protective deities that will provide them with comfort and security. But they cannot argue that men would invent the intimidating Holy One of Israel. [ p.101]

As the apostle Paul demonstrates from Romans 1, it is this trauma of holiness which drives the atheist to repress any belief in God and substitute it with the idolatry of human autonomy. “If God exists, man cannot be a law unto himself. If God exists, man’s will-to-power is destined to run head-on into the will of God.” [p. 133] The atheist is essentially hostile to the very idea of God as he wants to operate in a world of his own. God even if he exists, must be wished out of existence since his existence is more than a nuisance, he is a threat to man’s desire for independence and moral autonomy. It is arguable that the atheist is guiltier of psychological prejudice than the believer.

Sproul helpfully identifies the stages in the atheistic rejection of God and the psychological rationalization of unbelief. “The basic stages of man’s reaction to God can be formulated by means of the categories of trauma, repression, and substitution.” [pp. 72-33] And yet there remains a nagging fear and anxiety deep inside the atheist as he cannot evade the ‘miserable omnipresence’ of God. The worst nightmare for the atheist would be the case that for all his declaration of sufficiency and autonomy, in the end he is found naked with shame in the presence of the holy God.

Sproul applies the psychological insights drawn from the famous “keyhole” passage in Jean Paul’s Sartre existential tome, Being and Nothingness which describes how a voyeur feels startled when he is caught spying on someone through a keyhole. The voyeur finds himself constituted as an object of gaze (objectified) by an Other who is looking at him and judging. Being gazed upon triggers elements of  fear, pride and most significantly, “shame-consciousness”. Sproul quotes Sartre,

shame is the consciousness of being irremediably what I always was: “in suspense” – that is, in the mode of the “not yet” or of the “already-no-longer.” Pure shame is not a feeling of being this or that guilty object but in general of being an object; that is, of recognizing myself in this degraded, fixed, and dependent being which I am for the Other. Shame is the feeling of an original fall, not because of the fact I may have committed this or that particular fault but simply that I have “fallen” into the world in the midst of things and that I need the mediation of the Other in order to be what I am. [p. 104-105]

Unwittingly, Sartre has provided an insight into why man feels threatened by God and must wish, will, or reason him out of existence. For Sartre man is truly free only if he is not objectified. Theologically speaking, the atheist remains threatened by the inescapable ‘gaze’ of God:

If Sartre found the experience of being subjected to the gaze of other people repugnant, how much more hellish did he regard the gaze of God? For Sartre, God implied not so much an “Unmoved Mover” as an “Unviewed Viewer.” That is, God is the ultimate Other who has the capacity of omniscience, whereby He keeps everyone beneath His gaze, while at the same time no one may gaze at Him. God is the cosmic voyeur who has no fear of being discovered at His celestial keyhole by another. Beneath God’s gaze we are all reduced to absolute objects and have our humanity destroyed. Thus, for Sartre, if man exists as a subject, God cannot exist. [p. 106]

That is precisely the problem of God for the atheist. For if God exists, man can never be free as he will always be within the gaze of God, depersonalized and shamed and unable to define himself. No wonder, God constitutes such a threat to man.

The Bible explains that this feeling of shame in the presence of the purity and holiness of God that pervades the human race originated from the Fall of Adam and Eve. The consequence is the loss of innocence and being exposed as spiritually naked. (Genesis 3: 7-8) The nakedness of sinful man who is liable to judgment under the wrathful and devastating gaze of God is a recurring motif in the Bible.

Nevertheless, the shame and judgment of sinful man is not the whole story as one should not miss the element of mercy and redemption in the biblical narrative. We read in Genesis 3:21 that God provided garments of skin for Adam and Eve. “God beheld Adam’s nakedness and covered it. Beneath the gaze of God, Adam found loving concern, not annihilation. Adam experienced not only the stare of judgment but the benevolent gaze of love.” [p. 119]

The Bible is brutally honest about man’s nakedness before God, but it is also promises that God will provide a covering for the redeemed.

The Chronicler prays for the “clothing of salvation” (2 Chronicles 6:41). The prayer of the historian becomes the song of the prophet.

I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, My soul will exult in my God; for He ahs clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. (Isaiah 61:10).

The being clothed with righteousness is related in the New Testament o the atonement of Christ. When the righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer, the believer is no longer naked. Paul alludes to the psalmist when he writes “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds have been forgiven and whose sins have been covered” (Romans 4:7).

The ultimate “covering” of the believer is anticipated by Paul as he contemplates the future status of the redeemed.

For we know that is the earthly tent which is our house is torn down, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For indeed in this house we groan, longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven; inasmuch as we, having put it on, shall not be found naked. For indeed while we are in this tent, we groan, being burdened, because we do not want to be unclothed, but to be clothed, in order that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (2 Corinthians 5:1-4)

Here the ultimate hope of the New Testament is expressed – the hope of final covering, of permanent clothing. The hope of the redeemed is to be freed from the threat of nakedness and to enjoy freely the gaze of God. [pp. 126-127]

The redeemed will move beyond the fear of objectification, exposure and shame to enjoy the loving gaze of God. Indeed, being gazed and known of the loving God is the promised glory of man.

Note:
*References and pagination are taken from R.C. Sproul, If There’s a God, Why Are There Atheists: Why Atheists Believe in Unbelief (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1989).

Related Post: The Psychology of Atheism: From Gaze to Glory. Part 2/2

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