I can believe that you used to be an atheist. An atheist is simply someone without a god belief. It’s the “just like you” part that I’m having trouble with.
Lots of Christian apologists introduce themselves as former atheists. Lee Strobel, for example, often begins presentations with a summary of his decadent, angry atheist past. The implied message is that people like me convert to Christianity all the time. With the ongoing prayer experiment, I want to revisit this question and make a few changes.
Here is my original argument. First, consider three groups of people.
Group 1. Christians are here.
Group 2. The atheists need two groups. People in Group 2 are technically atheists because they don’t have a god belief, but they don’t know much about arguments in favor of Christianity, rebuttals to those arguments, or arguments in favor of atheism. Nothing wrong with that, of course—the God question doesn’t interest everyone—but they’re not well informed about atheism.
Group 3. These are the well-informed atheists. They understand both sides of the ontological, teleological, cosmological, transcendental, fine-tuning, and moral arguments and more. They are at least well-educated amateurs on evolution, evolution denial, and the Big Bang. They can make positive arguments for atheism, not just rebut Christian apologetics. And so on. I put myself into this group.
For each of these groups, how likely is it for people in these groups to be argued into the opposite camp?
Group 1, Christians. Lots of Christians have deconverted: Rich Lyons from the Living After Faith podcast. Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Community of Austin. Dan Barker of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Bob Price, the Bible Geek. Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus. The hundreds of pastors in the Clergy Project.
They’re now all in Group 3, and they’re particularly interesting because they were very well informed Christians. Education turned them away from Christianity.
Group 2, Uninformed Atheists. Many in this group have converted to Christianity. This sounds like the group that the imagined former-atheist-now-Christian came from.
Group 3, Well-Informed Atheists. But here’s my point: I’ve never heard of anyone in Group 3, the well-informed atheists, who converted to Christianity because of intellectual arguments. Of course, this makes me vulnerable to the No True Scotsman fallacy—rejecting any counterexample with, “Oh, well that guy wasn’t truly a well-informed atheist”—but I invite you to comment with anyone I’ve omitted.
Well-informed Christians deconvert to atheism (and are happy to explain, using reason, why they left), but well-informed atheists don’t convert to Christianity through reason. More education about the history and origins of Christianity increases the likelihood that the Christian will deconvert, but more education increases the likelihood that the atheist will stay put.
This is an asymmetry that I don’t think apologists appreciate. Becoming a well-informed atheist is a one-way street. It’s a ratchet; it’s a gravity well. Once you become a well-informed atheist, you’re stuck. (What about conversion through non-intellectual reasons? Let’s set that aside for the moment.)
Here’s why I argue that no well-informed atheists convert to Christianity through intellectual arguments. By their fruit, you would recognize them.
Well-informed atheists, now Christians, wouldn’t make the arguments that apologists make. They wouldn’t make arguments to which I have a quick rebuttal. Indeed, they would focus on those arguments which they knew (since they’d been just like me) I had no response to.
These former atheists would know all the secret passwords and trap doors to get into my secret atheist lair, and, as Christians, they would walk back in and blow it up. But we never see this. Christians are still making the same old arguments, banging on the atheist stronghold with a rock hammer. I never see an “ex-atheist” who hits me where I live, who explains why my arguments are wrong from my perspective.
Next time: Let’s take a look at some prominent atheists who have become Christians. Do they disprove this argument?
Of all tyrannies
a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims
may be the most oppressive.
It may be better to live under robber barons
than under omnipotent moral busybodies.
The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep …
but those who torment us for own good
will torment us without end,
for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
— C.S. Lewis
(This is a modified version of a post originally published 10/5/11.)
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