Here’s an overview, with a few comments, of an interesting little public disagreement about Romans 1 and atheism. The discussion was kicked off by evangelical apologist Greg Koukl’s “No Duh” video, where he says that according to Romans 1, all atheists are intentionally suppressing their knowledge of God.
Randal Rauser then pointed out a hard to accept implication of Koukl’s claim, which seems to require us to re-think just how we read that passage:
Think, for example, of fifteen year old Emil whose family was just massacred in a home invasion gone awry. As tears roll down his cheeks, Emil looks to heaven and cries out “God, are you really there? Do you really care?”
According to Koukl’s reading of Romans 1, the evidence of God is plain, clear, and overwhelming. And Emil’s failure to recognize it as such is borne of his own sinful rebellion.
Philosopher Ed Feser too disagrees with Koukl, in essence,
So, Koukl is, I think, correct to this extent: We do indeed have a natural tendency to infer from the natural world to a divine cause, and this tendency is strong enough that it takes some effort (in the form of philosophical reasoning) to get ourselves to conclude that we ought to resist it. And again, I think even an atheist could agree with that much (as Jeff and perhaps Carroll apparently do).
However, Koukl also seems to think that the existence of God is simply blindingly obvious, so that our inclination to believe in God is nearly overwhelming — again, as difficult to keep down as a beach ball under water. And that, I think, is simply not the case. He also implies that nothing short of culpable irrationality and blatant self-deception could possibly lead one to resist this inclination. And that, I think, is simply not the case either. There is no good philosophical or theological reason to make either of these extreme claims. And the claims are, I think, pretty clearly empirically false. For one thing, there are lots of atheists who, though deeply mistaken, are nevertheless intellectually honest and do not have a difficult time resisting belief in God. (I used to be such an atheist, and I knew, and know, other such atheists.) For another thing, there are religious believers who have crises of belief — who find themselves doubting even though they don’t want to doubt.
…For another thing, St. Paul need be understood as claiming merely that atheism and/or idolatry on the large scale, as mass phenomena are maintained by a kind of sinful suppression of the natural inclination in question. And I think that’s true.
He also takes some issue with Rauser’s objections, but you’ll have to see the end of his post for that.
Koukl blogs in response, making some defensive points about the restrictions of a three minute video format. He’s a bit taken aback at the disagreement, as he feels that he’s well within the boundaries of American evangelical common sense. I think that he is. But as concerns Romans 1,
As to whether or not my take on Romans 1 is an “extreme interpretation,” I can only commend you to Paul’s wording itself. I don’t think it is the least bit vague, ambiguous, or moderate.
And he clarifies,
…I take this knowledge [of God’s existence] to be dispositional (known even if not currently or consciously aware of), not occurent (in mind and currently aware of) for the reasons that Feser (and others) pointed out. So man’s state of awareness of God, and his heart’s disposition towards rebellion against God are both sub-conscious.
Thus, though 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.
About Rauser’s Emil case, he says,
Remember, Paul’s point is that fallen humans are in rebellion and unbelief. But regeneration changes that, does it not? Those who have come to Christ (e.g., “Emil”) are not the subject of his concern. Doubt may still crop up, but for completely different reasons, I think. So the alleged reductio simply does not apply here since the scope of Paul’s comments (along with my reflections on them) is limited to man in rebellion, not to believers who have laid down their arms.
However, even deeply distressed Emil (and atheists with his same complaint) must account for the objective morality that was violated by the massacre, and no subjectivist account (biological or social) is going to be adequate. Ultimately, even man’s ubiquitous complaint about real Evil in the world (a complaint I share), ultimately and irrevocably (I think) points back to the God who alone grounds the Goodness necessary to make the problem of evil intelligible to begin with.
This last part strikes me as a red herring, a distraction. Why must Emil “account for… objective morality”? For me part, I think atheists are consistent in simply believing that some actions are intrinsically right or wrong. One has to wonder why morally aware animals like us arose, yes, but how does that affect Emil, exactly?
Oddly, Koukl ends his post with an unnecessary jab against atheists, quoting “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” I would urge him to re-consider his exegesis of that passage – a good place to start is Rauser’s book, or our discussion in this podcast @ 21 minutes.
Koukl takes up the matter again in an audio podcast, oddly, deciding not to link Rauser’s blog nor mention his name, for the first half hour. (Is this a passive aggressive way to diss Rauser?) Anyway, he just insists that the meaning of Romans 1 is obvious, that subconscious rebelling as at the root of all atheism. He expresses surprise at Rauser’s vehemence, evidently not knowing about Rauser’s interesting book. No doubt, Koukl agrees that Christians can and do disagree about this.
Koukl seems to not register the point made independently by Feser here and by Rauser and me in the podcast (after 26:00), that Romans 1 is making a general critique of the nations, but of course not all individuals are idolaters or engage in gay sex or disbelieve in the sort of God monotheists believe in. Still, the nations as a whole are subject to God’s wrath, though again, not all the people in them.
About the Emil case (20:00), Koukl says essentially the same things I quoted above. And at 24 minutes, he again credits God with calling atheists fools, assuming a popular misreading Psalm 14.
Rauser responds that it’s not to the point that Paul is not in Romans 1 speaking specifically about believers. That is true, but this does not save the reading that Koukl thinks is obvious from implying the guilt of any doubting Christian. As Rauser says,
If God’s invisible qualities are really always clear to all as Koukl apparently thinks, then why is it that so many Christians have deep struggles with doubting the goodness, and even the existence, of God. (In “Is the Atheist My Neighbor?” I provide the well known example of Mother Teresa, but of course there are countless others.)
The dilemma for Koukl is clear: if atheists are morally culpable for suppressing God’s revelation, the doubting Christian is as well. So if Koukl wants to retain this reading, then he can do so. But if he wants to be consistent, shouldn’t he start condemning Christians who doubt for willfully suppressing God’s revelation to them?
He also points out, I think correctly, that in reading the Bible we must be willing to consider as relevant other things we know, even about the beliefs and motivations of our atheist neighbors.
For his part, Feser weighs in with some apt observations about what is going on in Romans 1.
…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.
…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.
Because, as Feser points out, Paul’s main targets here are gentile idolatry and sexual immorality. These sins characterize the nations, but again, obviously, not all the individual people in the nations.
Finally, Rauser accuses Koukl of being a “misoatheist,” a term he coins to mean a person bigoted against atheists. He thinks this view of atheists needs to be named and shamed.
I would say that this is going too far. I don’t have any reason to think that Koukl hates or demeans atheists. To the contrary, he’s devoted his life to reasonable dialogue with atheists and other non-Christians. At worst, I would say he’s mistaken in his diagnosis of exactly how human fallenness leads to disbelief in God.
There certainly are people who are bigoted against atheists, of course. Rauser is right about that, to be sure. But reading Romans 1 is merely consistent with that disposition. Rauser compares this with the case of sexism. I would urge that, say, a Christian who holds based on certain New Testament texts that women should not preach in church are not necessarily sexist, and also that it’s not helpful to the purpose of persuading them to change their mind to call them names, trying to shame them. We all, when falsely accused, dig in our heels.
Rauser’s example of a Christian sexist says,
“As Paul says, Eve led Adam astray. So do you really want to trust the nuclear codes to a woman?”
Of course, the passage in question simply doesn’t say or imply that women ought not be political leaders. So, we think the guy’s sexism is manifest here – he’s seeing it as making a stronger point than it is. Now I agree that Koukl is reading something like what Rauser calls the Rebellion Thesis into Romans 1. But here, I think, there is a whole long theological tradition of so doing – a wrongheaded one, I agree. But then, we don’t need to uncharitably suppose that Koukl despises atheists, although he does seem to take a little too much glee in quoting Psalm 14, which again, I think he misunderstands, as so many do. But this just may be a little polemical elbow throwing, something common in folks who deal with atheists, including the obnoxious, over-confident, and bigoted variety. It’s really tempting, having been called a fool, to zing back that the Book says that it’s you who are the fool. It doesn’t say that, though.
In any event, none of these guys are fools, and I appreciate their arguing publicly, to help us all think about these things. The more prominent atheism becomes in our culture, the more Christians need to get straight just what we think about it.