It’s a funny thing that happens, when an atheist says she was once a Christian and then Christians jump up and down saying “no you weren’t! you never truly understood Christianity!” I’ve seen it happen the other way, too, when a Christian says he was once an atheist and then atheists assert that he must not have ever really been an atheist. And it happens with a myriad of other issues too, including abortion, creationism, and feminism.
But here’s the thing. I believe that people can and do change their minds, and I don’t see any reason to assume that when someone says they changed their mind they must be making it up. You say you used to accept evolution but you’ve become convinced that the science points to a young earth? I believe you. You say you were a feminist but now you think men and women were created to be complementary? I believe you. People change their minds.
My mother was a feminist in college, but over the course of her early marriage she became immersed in more conservative evangelical churches and read patriarchal literature and as a result she changed her mind. A guy at my parents’ church used to be an atheist, and then he met some Christians who were there for him during a hard time in his life and today he’s a Christian too. I see no reason to doubt these stories. Why would I? People change their minds.
When I’m confronted with someone who used to share my current views and now does not, my response is not to assert that they never actually shared my views but rather to address what it was that changed their mind. You used to be an atheist and then you determined that there’s no way something could come from nothing, so now you’re a theist? Well okay, let’s talk about the whole something coming from nothing issue. You used to be a feminist but now you think that feminism exacerbates tension between men and women and that it would be better to simply accept that men and women are hardwired to lead “complementary” roles in life? Well okay, let’s talk about the idea that equality means tension. Why would I respond to people like this by questioning whether they actually “used to be” what they claim rather than by actually addressing the arguments involved?
For some reason, after I posted that post back in the fall about losing faith in the pro-life movement, some bloggers responded by accusing me of making up my conversion. They asserted that I had never been pro-life at all, or that my story seemed fishy. The funny thing is, after my post a Catholic blogger wrote a reverse post, about how she’s been pro-choice and had become pro-life, and I never had the slightest inclination to suggest that she was lying about having been pro-choice. I may take issue with her portrayal of the pro-choice movement and disagree with the arguments against abortion that she details as she discusses her current position, but my inclination was to respond to her arguments and portrayals, not to suggest that she’d made her story up. I mean, even if she had made it up, it’s not like that would change her basic arguments.
I understand the temptation to claim “you never really were XYZ.” It’s a bit of two things, actually. For one thing, it’s a fear that, if a person held your views and changed their mind, your views might be wrong; for another thing, it’s a certainty that your views are so self-evidently true that it would be impossible for someone to truly understand them and then reject them. How could someone who truly loved Jesus become an atheist? Or, how could someone who truly understood all of the problems with the existence of god end up concluding that there is a god after all?
In the end, it’s a simple reality that sometimes people believe one thing, and then change their mind and believe the opposite. I’ve gone through this personally on a myriad of issues and I’ve seen lots of others go through it as well, and perhaps that helps explain why I’m not in the business of challenging other people’s back stories. I would rather engage with their arguments and ideas. I am not threatened by the idea that someone could share my views and then change their mind. In fact, I would be surprised if that never happened. The world is big and fluid and complicated, and I’m okay with that.