“When I was an Atheist”: The latest trend in Christian apologetics

tweetHardly a Christian twitter hash tag on atheism goes by without some reference to ex-atheists. That old straw man which is supposed to inspire people who call themselves atheist (even though they’ve simply never thought about religion before) to learn more about these once dark sided individuals who, having learned the error of their ways, now dedicate their lives to Christ.

Individuals like Lee Strobel, for example, the poster child for these slide the other way converts who, despite that he claims to have arrived at the truth via a journalistic approach to sceptical enquiry, has precisely nothing new or credible to say at all.

I’ve written before on what I think Christians, who describe themselves as formerly atheistic are perhaps innocently, perhaps manipulatively doing when they choose the word atheist, as opposed to agnostic or simply non-religious, when writing about their road to Damascus and who they were previous to “getting saved”.

reading-the-wordI think the very fact they need to put things into such black and white terms speaks volumes about their inner struggle with certain aspects of their faith, which are patently false when viewed in the light of better information than the simple wish-thinking of the church hierarchy, but which they still find it difficult to let go of—often for entirely non-spiritual reasons.

Take the socioeconomic aspect of declaring yourself a sceptical rationalist in a predominantly Christian community, for example. If there’s one thing atheism isn’t, its a coherent, singularly determined movement. Some people find great strength in group solidarity and the ready-made network of ostensibly well meaning, family orientated Church-run social groups, not to mention the Sunday service itself appeals to them on a much more basic level of human interaction than the search for numinous experiences and axiomatic truth.

This can be appealing to a certain kind of person who, presented with the stark choice of rattling around the same four walls watching infomercials all day long, or getting out in the community and contributing something, makes the clearly more rewarding option all the more obvious—even if it means quieting that voice of reason, gnawing away at their conscience, every time Pastor Needscash preaches on everything from legalised hatred towards homosexuals to diseases God doesn’t want us to cure.

deformationAsk any of these people if they believe the bible can answer any question they ask of it and they’ll say something along the lines of ‘yes, when read with an open heart’ (whatever that means) as if the bible is a tome of knowledge capable of answering any honestly motivated query.

Press them further, then, on which of the epistles details why, when an object is moving with a speed of less than 100 miles a second, it’s mass is constant to within 1 parts in a million but beyond that its mass increases exponentially and, abracadabra—without skipping a beat, the neophyte suddenly finds himself a 21st century evolved Homosapien, standing on the shoulders of Newtonian mechanics and Einstein’s special relativity with not a talking snake or a burning bush in sight.

Now, while it is not necessary for a good understanding of science that a person be an atheist, there are few if any religious scientists who would describe themselves as a fundamentalist evangelical on Sunday and a particle physicist for the remaining days of the week. So it is unlikely these are the kinds of people apologists are describing when they reference converts from a-theism.

No one goes from being a free thinking, secular humanist to being miraculously inspired to forget everything rational enquiry had ever revealed to them in favour of a blind faith in dangerously manipulative avenues of thought—such as Intelligent Design as an alternative explanation to how all life on Earth evolved, for example. So then we must consider the second possibility, when searching for who these modern day St. Paul’s really are, that having once held onto irreligious values, it is possible for a person to feel genuinely touched by something beyond explanation more profound and moving than anything mere words can describe which not only supplants rationalism intellectually but also and effectively replaces reward dopamine released when new learning transmutes into new knowledge.

That’s some tall list of requirements for a book whose adherents range from ambivalent practical agnostics—largely disinterested in a literal interpretation of any of it—to vehemently militant, activist Christians, insistent that the book is infallible, unalterable and inerrant despite that it is trivial to prove it categorically none of these things. So purely in the interest of economy of scale, it becomes impossible to trace the path these converts must have taken without bypassing the good book entirely—which leaves direct communication with the man Himself—to deliver some kind of sign He is out there.

Intercessionary prayer is an article of religious faith—and since we’re no longer searching for that kind of convert, we must be searching for someone with a direct line of communication with the deity. How else might this person describe their conversion from a-theism to deism? How exactly did these people free themselves of the confines of religious dogma and yet still remain a faithful in belief?

My mother always taught me that actions speak louder than words. So He might start by listening to his followers and behaving like the ultimate observer they trust Him to be. But if in doing so He fails to intervene where any standard of good moral conduct would require intervention, where intervention is possible—and since His silence is as good as indifference with regard to continued human suffering, it has to be presumed, in the absence of any reasonable arguments to the contrary, that He is incapable of intervening to prevent suffering.

Therefore He does not even come close to standards of morality even as judged by the puny, subjective standards of human cognition—let alone the omnibenevolent, omnipresent, omniscient standards He is obligated to demonstrate if He wishes to be thought of as anything other than facultatively non-existent.

So, in closing, I go back to the beginning with an open question any religious reader is invited to answer. Where do atheist to Christian converts come from? What is their reasoning for abandoning rationalism? Or could it be simply the case that these much alluded to converts were never truly capable of free thinking in the first place and an intellectual dishonesty on the scale which only the religious could get away with, has allowed generations of apologists to simply misuse the word atheist to score points in a game where the only way to win is to cheat?

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8 comments on ““When I was an Atheist”: The latest trend in Christian apologetics

  1. Hi!

    This was another nice entry from you, but there was one small thing that bugs me.

    “when an object is moving with a speed of less than 100 miles a second, it’s mass is constant to within 1 parts in a million but beyond that its mass increases exponentially. ”

    In this case, I think, it would be appropriate to specify that you mean the relativistic mass and furthermore to say that our block behaves like its rest mass would increase.

    This might prevent some confusion in thinking that if something moves high enough speed, there are electrons and atoms just popping in from nothing and that would increase the (intuitive concept of) mass.

  2. You’ve cleared that up nicely TH. Thanks—and yes, I agree that I should have been clearer, but this wasn’t supposed to be a whole piece about general relativity, it was an example of how superstition vanishes for entirely ordinary reasons in the face of evidence.

  3. I do recognise the need for mediation between ‘being specific’ and ‘writing a enjoyable blog entry’. Actually I feel a bit silly posting a comment about such a small detail, which only reflects my personal preference of expressing anything even remotely scientific.

    And I’m even more boring when dealing with superstitions and theists, since they seem to have some kind of teflon coating against evidence and reason. ;)

  4. Your brains make me one happy atheist.

    Jim, since you asked me to comment, I’d like to repeat my questions I posed on twitter here instead–on the off-chance a theist can help me with the answer:

    What was valuable and important to these believers when they were atheists? Was it meaningful for them? Did they label themselves as atheists as a default because they were not raised in spiritual homes or never attended religious services? How did they define “atheism” before they converted?

    To be honest, I doubt that a reasonable atheist (meaning someone who does not deny gods out of emotion, convenience, rebellion, or ignorance) would convert to organized religion. I suppose some must have, but I wonder what sorts of atheists they were in the first place.
    You may have read this (or even blogged on it!) but I found the recent Pew survey on changing your religion very intriguing

  5. I did see that on friendlyatheist’s brilliant site, Godlessgirl, yes. Very interesting indeed. I’m hoping someone who once described themselves as atheist and who now calls themselves Christian will explain how they once thought and what changed their mind. Stay tuned!

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