“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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