I’m not convinced by any of these explanations. I agree that there are priests and mullahs who are self-aggrandizing salesmen, but why do people go along with their schemes? Yes, there is an element of wish fulfillment in religion, but not of the kind that the atheists presume. Theologian R. C. Sproul makes a telling point: why would the disciples invent a God “whose holiness was more terrifying than the forces of nature that provoked them to invent a God in the first place?” The God of the three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—is a pretty exacting fellow, demanding of us purity rather than indulgence, virtue rather than convenience, charity rather than self- gratification. There are serious penalties attached to ultimate failure: for the religious believer, death is a scary thing, but eternal damnation is scarier. So wish fulfillment would most likely give rise to a very different God than the one described in the Bible. Wish fulfillment can explain heaven, but it cannot explain hell. Even so, my purpose here is not to dispute the atheist explanation for the appeal of religion. I intend to turn things around and instead pose the issue of the appeal of atheism. Who benefits from it? Why do so many influential people in the West today find it attractive? If Christianity is so great, why aren’t more people rushing to embrace it?

Some atheists even acknowledge that they would prefer a universe in which there were no God, no immortal soul, and no afterlife. Nietzsche writes that “if one were to prove this God of the Christians to us, we should be even less able to believe in him.” On the possibility of life after death, H. L. Mencken wrote, “My private inclination is to hope that it is not so.” In God: The Failed Hypothesis, physicist Victor Stenger confesses that not only does he disbelieve in God, he doesn’t like the Christian God: “If he does exist, I personally want nothing to do with him.” And philosopher Thomas Nagel recently confessed to a “fear of religion itself.” As he put it, “I want atheism to be true…. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God…. I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”