Every so often I hear someone claim that they used to be an atheist. They say that they then started to believe in god, and, in most of the cases I’m familiar with, became a Christian. This always strikes me as an interesting switch, and so I will ask two questions, primarily.
What do you mean by “atheist”?
What convinced you to believe in a god?
The answers to these questions vary, but in asking them I will uncover a few caveats or qualifiers that lie behind the claim. Usually, the answer to the first question, that of what they mean by saying that they used to not believe in god, leads me to think about different kinds of atheists.
I have argued elsewhere that atheism is simply the lack of belief in god. There is no creed, set of beliefs, or worldview attached to this lack. I still hold to this definition.
However, there is a matter of the level of time and effort spent in consideration of this question that should be addressed. That is, while to be an atheist is merely to lack belief, the question is how much a non-believer has tried to examine this question; how much have they tried to find reasons to believe in a god? How much has the atheist challenged their lack of belief?
Whether or not a person was ever religious or a theist in the past, simply losing faith or belief in a god is quite easy and requires no necessary rationalization or reasons. One could simply discontinue believing for a number of reasons and then stop all consideration of the question.
When we are born, we are atheists. But in a sense this is cheating. To not believe in a god because the concept is not present in our mind is not the same as to have become familiar with the concept and lacking belief in such a being due to lack of reasons and evidences to believe in such a thing.
Most people, as they are raised, are brought up to within a religious tradition, and so the concept is slowly and often deliberately inculcated into people while young, creating emotional associations that often remain throughout life. This is why it is often so painful for believers to stop believing, a process that often takes years to accept and often longer to get over emotionally.
Most atheists that I know who are active in the community are people that came to be atheists from Christianity or Judaism and came to the conclusion of atheism through examination of the arguments, examination of their reasons of believing, and through comparison of the scientific method and mythology. This leads one to reach a conclusion of atheism, while not different in content from the default atheist position, is supported by a fair amount of consideration and thought about the subject.
It is important for me to point out here that this second kind of atheist does not believe any less in the existence of a god necessarily, only that the conclusion is supported by more consideration. They lack belief and they have challenged this lack of belief to a certain degree. Moreover, the reasons they lack belief will be better articulated.
There is a third factor that needs to be considered here, and that is emotion. For many people, the reasons that people become atheists have more to do with some anger at god (or anger at the concept of god) than with any evidence or reasoned consideration. This, in my opinion, is not a good reason to lack belief in god (as if a good reason were necessary…).
Those whose lack of belief stems from an anger at something they attributed to god, anger at some particular conception of god, or even some congregation of religious group, are not being fully rational. There is no reason to require a person to be fully rational, and I am not saying that those that fit into this category are doing something wrong. However, there is a distinct difference between one who reasonably rejects belief and one who does so out of emotion solely.
What I am saying is that if a person remains an atheist for emotional reasons and never addresses the arguments intelligently, the evidence (or lack thereof), and maintains that religious people are mere stupid sheep (sheeple) that deserve some level of scorn or derision will never actually be able to see the good things that religion can provide (even if such provisions are not exclusive to religion).
When people claim to have been atheists before, it is usually this type of atheist, one who lacked belief due to some emotional reason that never matured into an understanding of the pertinent questions, that ends up being the case. In other cases, it will tend to be people that merely never thought about it at all for other reasons that had nothing to do with anger or distaste for any concept of god.
Then there are the atheists, like myself, that actively pursue the question. We are familiar with the arguments, the counter arguments, and the other various twists and turns of the discussion about the existence of gods. We know Pascal’s wager, the design arguments, the moral arguments, the transcendental arguments, and so on. We know them and know why they fail rationally, emotionally, and practically.
So how then can someone who knows these arguments and their rebuttals become a theist? If that happens there must be some argument that people like me have not heard or have not seriously considered, right? There must be some massive repression of the holy spirit going on in me to ignore the obvious truth that those who were atheists who knew the arguments and reasons but believed anyway have found.
The problem is two-fold.
One, there are very few people who, after being familiar with the arguments as well as people like me, actually become theists. And if they do, it is almost never a theism of the kind that we find in evangelical Christian circles. It is usually some god like that of Spinoza that comes around. Rarely, much more rare is it that an atheist of reason comes to find Christ, Allah, or some other god and accepts the whole mythology and theology with it as well. You will almost never, I’ll bet, find someone who was a considered atheist who is now a Young Earth Creationist.
The other issue is the reasons why they begin to believe. I would challenge you to find a person who, in previously having reasons to lack belief in a god, has come to believe through the same standards of evidence that they required in being skeptical. That is, have they been reasoned into belief in god or was it some personal experience? Did they suddenly actually find TAG or the design argument convincing or did they ask themselves what would happen if they were wrong?
Kirk Cameron claimed, when he was around 18 and called himself a “devout atheist” [sic], that he asked himself “what if I’m wrong” and shortly later was a Christian. This is the type of example I have in mind. His position as an atheist was not considered, but rather was default. Perhaps he actually did lack belief in god, but the real question is did he have good reasons to do so or was it merely a question he had never addressed and then became scared by Hell?
I believe that one reason that people will ultimately find religion in their lives as something important is that most people simply do not think about the important things in life; things like meaning, death, pain, self-understanding, etc. And because our society is inundated with religious ideas, when people are faced with crises in life, religion is all most people know of to turn to for answers.
Without a foundation to lay any consideration of questions of importance that isn’t the church you went to as a child or one you found as an adult while having some existential angst, what will you use as a crutch during times of trouble? The problem is that most people simply do not take the time to know themselves, and so in tough times all they know to turn to is religion.
As a result of not believing in any gods, I am forced, because I too have had times of trouble and crises, to find ways to think about and deal with these things without need of a god. And while this is not true for all atheists I know, many have maintained a level of personal maturity and self-knowledge that they have no need for the crutches of gods or religions.
For some of us, turning to belief in god simply cannot have the same impact anymore. We have already built up a strength that makes the dependence on god impossible. We may, for various reasons, come to accept that some ultimate intelligence or power in the universe exists, but to accept the self-deprecating and sinful human nature and the need for salvation after finding the personal strength that comes with relying on actual people and ourselves?
That simply does not happen.
Once you have found true personal strength, maturity, and self-knowledge no self-deprecating savior story will cut it. Christianity especially defines humanity as weak, convinces people of this weakness, and provides the product to save us from this weakness.
It works just like marketing; convince people they are missing something in their lives and then provide something to fill that gap. And the kicker is that those that are selling are not always aware of this. Not all preachers and evangelists are bad people trying to take advantage of others. In fact, I would argue that most are not. They are just people trying to do good but not realizing what they do.
I forgive them, mostly, for they know not what they do. And as for the atheists out there who are either angry or merely disinterested, I’ll warn you that you may become susceptible to the messages of god and redemption one day. That is, unless you are willing to come down to the atheist meetup and have us save you from their attempts to drag you into their god-webs! We’ll provide you with all of the rebuttals and defenses you’ll need to defend yourself from the poor quality arguments that theists use!
See how easy it is? Even an atheist can use the same tactics. They are so closely built into our minds that we do it without being fully aware of it. Well, I’m aware of it, at least.
I must be the type of atheist that is evangelical….