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

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

  1. When asked why “became” an Atheist, I reply , “I read the Bible”
    I love the fact that people think you “turn into” an Atheist, I would rather think is a train of thought that leads to a logical conclustion

  2. we all start off as atheists and people are trained to be religious by how they are raised, and are primed to be religious by society

    being religious may be the social norm, but it is not a developmental norm, without exposure to religion, no one would be religious who lived in a democratic society

    • Yeah, good point. In Australian schools, there are classes called “special religious education” and “religious instruction”. In christian churches, there are “Sunday schools”. On the other hand, I’ve never had explicit “atheist training”.

  3. Interesting read however to make the claim that education stops conversion is a pretty far reaching assumption IMO. I agree that education, logic and rational thought is what brings most to atheist views and that religious society conditions spiritually free youth towards a belief system that includes god via indoctrination to religion X – absolutely. However religion to me is an emotional decision not a logic based educational one. Educated individuals do irrational, illogical & emotionally charged acts every day. With all the education in the world, we still make illogical choices. Because we are emotional creatures, issues of “faith” are not issues of logic. We can prove inaccuracies via science, we can find strong improbabilities or inconsistencies inside religious text, but we cannot touch the illogical emotionally driven element of belief systems. This is where religion lives and intelligent & educated individuals are as emotionally driven as the juiciest devout ideological bible thumping church lady. Examples of Educated individuals who are religious – Vatican scientists? Walter Kohn? My 9 grade science teacher? LOL 🙂

    Anyhow, interesting read – thanks for posting.

    • I agree that there are very well educated Christians. And I agree that atheists act emotionally and irrationally sometimes.

      My point is that I’ve never seen a well-educated atheist (that is, someone who thoroughly and deeply understands the Christian apologetics and the atheist rebuttals) convert to Christianity.

      Maybe I’m missing someone. Let me know if you can think of someone.

  4. There’s a third possible argument … people who are educated and realize that the theist position is weak and cannot be argued, but see a potential for abuse that they can exploit … Don’t you think so?

    • You mean like a cynical televangelist, seeing the gospel as merely a way to generate a lot of cash? Sure, that’s an important class of people. The categories above still cover the bases, I think–Christian, uninformed atheist, and well-informed atheist.

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  7. This is brilliant! I’m headed the “de-converted” way myself–thanks to R. Dawkins, S. Harris and C. Hitchens (my hero). Thank goodness for well educated people who are helping me see “the light”, as it were 😀
    Thanks for your post about Lee Strobel also!!

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  11. I think the rate of atheists becoming believers in God is increasing. Anthony Flew rejected atheism because of the science, but he did not become a Christian. But he was hardly the first to leave atheism because of science. Allan Sandage started his spiritual journey because of a scientific discovery he made. He eventually became a Christian. So also Dr. Hugh Ross and Dr. Frank Tipler. A young Harvard physics graduate, Jordan Monge, is also talking about her conversion to Christ while a university student. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/march/atheists-dilemma.html?paging=off

    If you look at the science, you will see there are good reasons to believe in God.

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