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Virtue Can Cause Atheism Too

With all the recent excitement about a book to argue the thesis that sin can be a cause of atheism us believers need to not get too excited.  It is worth remembering that, while some manifestly have turned away from faith because of moral failure, others have turned away from faith because they were too moral to accept what they felt their faith demanded of them, whether in terms of action, attitude, or belief. 

Not only that but moral failure is often a catalyst for people to find faith as they come face to face with their own moral bankruptcy and seek redemption.  However, a church that is full of judgmentalism will succeed in creating atheists both through moral failure and moral virtue and will also prevent those seeking redemption from finding it there.  That is why the Lord told us to take the plank (judgmentalism) out of our own eye before we dare to address the dust in the eye of another.


  1. Jonathan, one of the book's argument is that the Bible teaches that all know, at some level, that God is there, but that they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

    How do you assess the morality of the decision to reject whatever evidence might be available, and how do you determine, givent he incredible complexity of the relationship between the will and our resoning faculties, what has actually caused the rejection of faith the and acceptance of unbelief?

  2. Jonathan, one of the book's argument is that the Bible teaches that all know, at some level, that God is there, but that they suppress the truth in unrighteousness.

    How do you assess the morality of the decision to reject whatever evidence might be available, and how do you determine, givent he incredible complexity of the relationship between the will and our resoning faculties, what has actually caused the rejection of faith the and acceptance of unbelief?

  3. I posted twice because the first time it didn't appear, then the second time it appeared twice.

  4. Glenn, I would agree that at some level everyone knows that God is there. However that sense of God requires an interpretive framework. No one is born with the word "God" and a detailed philosophical description of him pre-loaded. Thus the presentation of God by their faith community may well cause that knowledge of God to be so tainted that it becomes more moral to reject that "God" than to accept belief in him.

    In fact if we do all have some inbuilt sense of who the true God is, that may well contribute to rejection of belief in God when when belief in him is presented by a faith community as something ultimately out of tune with that innate sense.

    PS, on re-reading my post i realise it could be interpreted as an attack on the book and review, suggestng that they themselves were judgmental. If that was the impression given, i'm sorry, that wasn't what I was aiming for. I think the review and the book as presented in the review make a very valid point in an appropriate manner. I was just trying to caution against a triumphalistic appropriation of the thesis by others.

  5. Jonathan, what do you make of the biblical claims about unbelievers actually being culpable for their unbelief?

  6. If you are refering to Rom 1:18-32, the first text that springs to mind, then I think that that is about the Gentile nations as a whole rather than a description of every individual. (after all not every idolater ends up homosexual) Paul is appropriating standard Jewish polemic for the rhetorical purpose of turning the tables on the Jewish readers later (2:17-29).

    The review doesn't mention any specific text (other than 1 Cor 2:14) so I'm not sure exactly which claims you are refering to.

    Notwithstanding, you can still be morally culpable for a wrong action even if it was caused by virtue. For example, compassion (a virtue) might cause me to help a fugitive murderer to escape the law. I would be doing the wrong thing, it would be misguided, but I would be exhibiting a virtue, even if at the expense of other virtues more relevant at the time.

    I was not suggesting that atheism was good in itself, although there are plenty of representations of the god concept which it is good not to believe in, but that people have been led to atheism through being virtuous.

  7. OK, so if Romans has Gentile nations as a whole, how does a nation have knowledge of God but suppress the truth? That seems a bit hard to make sense of to me. I think he's considering all people as a collection individuals. They all knew God, but they suppressed the truth, with varying (bad) results.

    Yes, it's true that people can have apparently innocent or virtuosu motives for doing things that are, on balance, evil. In many cases those virtues are distorted however. For example, on balance it's not virtuous to wish to protect murderers from punishment. Pity is not always a virtue.

    But more to the point (the point I had in mind, even if I did not say it), what do you make of the thesis that the ostensible reasons that people give for being atheists, such as "I was birned by the church and its apologists" or "the way that you present God, I ought to reject him," are really just smokescreens, and they are not, in fact, the ultimate reason for people embracing unbelief after all - so that even if those motives were moral, they are nonetheless not the actual motives that atheists have?

  8. Regarding Romans, it is important to realise that our tendency to think in terms of discrete "individuals" in the way that we do is anachronistic, it also needs to be interpreted in light of way similar 1st C Jewish polemics worked. Romans as a whole is not about "individuals" and their salvation but about Jew and Gentile as people groups and their participation in the righteousness of God.

    To the point at hand, I think that thesis is likely to be correct in some instances and false in others. This is because some Christian groups present their beliefs as a seamless garment that cannot be questioned or modified, so for example if someone find the idea of God dealing out eternal physical punishment in hell morally reprehensible, and they are told by their church that they have to accept it or reject the whole gospel then they may well reject the whole gospel. You could blame them for believing their church in the first place, but not everyone has the ability to work through these issues, they are reliant to some extent on what they are presented by their faith community.

    People like you and I, who are capable of independent thinking and research would never get caught in that particular trap. But plenty of people do because they have never been given the skills, or even permission, to do that kind independent thinking.

    I personally have known people who have left the faith because, despite whatever their stated reason, they just wanted to have sex with whoever they wanted or could (it usually is about sex). But I also know people who have turned away from faith without any resultant lapse in moral behaviour and it would be disengenuous to suggest that it was a desire for greater moral freedom that caused their decision, I think we have to accept the reasons given as genuine in such circumstances.

    So other than Romans 1 are there other texts you have in mind?

    BTW thanks for the sustained conversation, i'm enjoying it. :-)

  9. Great post. I am one of those few that is in danger of leaving christianity only due to intellectual issues, no moral sin involved, unless you call intellectual doubt a sin.

  10. Hi Like a Child, welcome to the blog.
    I wouldn't call intellectual doubt a sin, most biblical heroes have major periods of doubt, it is hard to have faith if there is nothing to be doubtful about. If you want to chat about it, feel free to email me.


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