“I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You”

“I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You” October 5, 2011

Mechanical drawing of a ratchetI 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.  No, I don’t think so.

To see this, let’s look at three groups of people.

  1. Group 1 are the Christians.
  2. The atheists need two groups.  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 simply poorly informed about atheism.
  3. Group 3 includes the well-educated atheists.  This group does understand the arguments on both sides of the issue.  I put myself into this group (with justification, I hope).

Now, back to the conversion/deconversion question.

  1. I know of people in Group 1 (Christians) who’ve 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 GeekBart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus.  They’re now all in Group 3 and they’re particularly interesting because they were very well educated Christians.  Education actually turned them away from Christianity.
  2. I’m sure many people formerly in Group 2 (uninformed atheists) have converted to Christianity.  This sounds like the group that the imagined former-atheist-now-Christian came from.
  3. But here’s my point: I’ve never heard of anyone in Group 3, the well-educated atheists, who converted to Christianity.  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-educated atheist”—but I invite you to add a comment if you can think of someone.

Well-educated Christians deconvert to atheism, but well-educated atheists don’t convert to Christianity.  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.  Education pushes you in one direction only.

This is an asymmetry that apologists don’t seem to appreciate.  Becoming a well-educated atheist is a one-way street.  It’s a ratchet.  Once you become a well-educated atheist, you’re stuck there.

This is why “just like you” makes no sense.  If you were a Group 2 atheist, uninterested and uninformed about the arguments, and you converted to Christianity, that’s not surprising.  But if you’d been a well-educated atheist (Group 3), you wouldn’t make the arguments that you do.  You wouldn’t make arguments to which I have an immediate rebuttal.  Indeed, you would make only those arguments which you knew (since you’d been just like me) I had no response to.

It never seems to work that way.

Photo credit: Wikimedia

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  • QZ Orlo

    “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-educated atheist’—but I invite you to add a comment if you can think of someone.” I seems to me that this is exactly what Bob is doing with every proposal – “they are not a TRUE type 2 atheist because they don’t know counter-apologetics as well as EYE do!”

    His division boils down to a tautology – Type 1 atheists who do not have enough counter-apologetics to be immune to theist arguments, and Type 2 atheists who DO know counter-apologetic strategies well enough to be immune to theist arguments. Those who convert to theism are by definition Type 1 atheists, so the claim of this blog post is vacuous.

    I might also note that theists, like athetists, also fall into two groups – those who know apologetics sufficiently well to be immune from conversion to atheism, and those who do not know it that well.

    • No. I don’t know how to explain it any more than I did already, so this will be brief.

      I updated this post here. I think I anticipated your concerns better here.

      If well-informed atheists became Christians for intellectual reasons, we would know them by their fruits. For example, if I became a Christian for intellectual reasons, I would be eager to tell the atheist world precisely how the majority of arguments that I used to support my old position were flawed. And you never see this person on the internet. Maybe these ex-atheists exist, but the evidence doesn’t point that way.

  • QZ Orlo

    I knew a high school math teacher who was a “number rationalist” – he argued that every geometrically constructable ratio is numberable, that is, rational (which would include root two – the ratio of the diagonal to the side of a square — and pi — the ratio of a circle to the square on its radius.) I found his argument persuasive (all you needed was a small enough unit to measure both quantities), but I showed him an argument I had read that root two was irrational. He laughed at my position – his proof was conclusive after all — and he tried to show me the flaws in the proof I brought him. (My proof was the traditional reductio ad absurdem, but he was able to convince me that I had invalid assumptions in my argument – which I fell for because of the complexity of the proof and the self-evident simplicity of his proof.) But later when I went to college, an “irrationalist” math professor there showed me the hidden assumption in his proof, and then helped me better understand the traditional proof that I had previosuly rejected. Although it took a gestalt shift in my thinking about magnitude – incommensurability seemed impossible to me! — through careful reconsideration of the existing argument, I was converted to “number irrationalism”. I am sure that if I tried to convert my high school math teacher today, he would have responded that my proof is the same old one he had already rejected — he would insist that I needed a new proof that surmounted the impasse; and I am sure he would be incapable to appreciating the flaw in his proof — that a small enough unit just doesn’t exist.

    As I read Bob’s dismal of others who had abandon their atheist beliefs after reconsidering the time-honored arguments on both sides, I remembered my high school math teacher.