Bob Seidensticker of Cross Examined (the one who sparked the discussion of the Atheist Prayer Experiment), put up a post earlier this week titled “I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You” where he talks about three groups of atheists. Let me quote the relevant part:
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.
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… 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.
…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.
Today, he examines case studies of hypothetically Group 3 atheists who converted for intellectual reasons, and he picked Anthony Flew, Richard Morgan, and this fearsome apologist:
His rebuttal of me is concise, so I hope he won’t mind me quoting it in full:
First, a nitpick: I think it would be more accurate to say that my moral philosophy gradually moved from deontology to virtue ethics, and then, like MacIntyre, I found that the more I queried my new moral system, the more it seemed to rest on a metaphysical system that looked an awful lot like Catholicism.
Our final case study will be Leah Libresco, a fellow Patheos blogger (at Unequally Yoked). Immersed in a Catholic environment, she seemed to find the center of gravity of her moral philosophy gradually move from atheism to Catholicism. It was as if the vocabulary available within atheism was inadequate, with Catholicism much better able to express reality.
In an interview, Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) pointed out that Leah’s conversion hasn’t led to a flood of other conversions (or perhaps any). Like Richard Morgan’s conversion four years earlier, there are no new insights or arguments to which an atheist might say, “Oh, that’s interesting; I need to think about that” as the first step toward Christianity.
But on to his main point: my conversion is demonstrably not intellectually compelling because it hasn’t prompted conversions. I think Bob is giving me more credit than I’m due when he suggests I’ve brought new arguments to the table and they’ve been found wanting. Most of my posts aren’t particularly original; at their most off-beat, they’re old wine in new (math-related) wineskins. I may have translated some ideas into a system of reference that will be more attractive to a certain subset of geeky atheist, but I haven’t brought in anything big they couldn’t find somewhere else.
I don’t have acolytes to trot out (and I don’t expect to have very many, even if I’m given more than three months to convert them). The best that I’m aware of is one reader who converted to Catholicism before I did and found some of my stuff persuasive/helpful as he was making up his mind, another reader whose gone from atheism to a Thomistic-y Deism, and some friends who are still pretty comfortably atheist but said my argument did more to shift their posterior odds than other discussions. No links, I’m afraid; not everyone blogs this stuff.
But I also don’t expect, as one of Bob’s commenters does, that
[I]f any atheist were to convert because of argument, they’d know exactly what argument convinced them and they could convince another atheist with that very argument. Anyone who converts for some other reason will know that no argument they can make will convince anyone.
It matters where people start. I disagree(d) with plenty of atheists on things that don’t directly touch on atheism (whether there are any ‘safe’ opportunities to hate is the first pre-conversion example that comes to mind). I do agree with Bob, that it would probably be misleading to say “But I was an atheist, just like you” but I think the gap between us has more the result of disagreements about metaphysics and moral law than knowledge about Dawkins, Harris, or Russell. So, when I run into other virtue-ethicist atheists, I’m ready to make a bit of a run at it, but otherwise, my atheist interlocutor and I have a long argument ahead of us that doesn’t sound like an argument about religion particularly.