A thread over at Reddit.com/Religion got me thinking about people who describe themselves as being a former atheist, and I wanted to delve a little deeper into what exactly is meant by this. So I posted another question to the Religion sub-reddit, which you can read here.
Following feedback from a number of users, I now want to ask the same question here, but ask for a little more information. To do that, I think it would be helpful to be as specific as possible; since quite a few of the responses over at Reddit are from folks who seem to have somewhat misunderstood the thrust of the original question, or the reason why I asked it. This is probably my fault for not being clearer in the way I phrased it, and so if you’re reading this because I redirected you here from Reddit, please give me a moment to explain why I asked the question again, with a little more detail. Similarly, if you’re reading this before reading the original two threads at Reddit, please go take a look at them before posting in the comments section below.
In the Reddit post, entitled ‘I’m looking for people who were atheists and became religious‘, I defined the word atheist as being ‘someone who rejects the idea that the theological texts of any religion are a true account of events which could only have been instigated by the specific God of the particular religion to which those text are thought sacred’. I went on to explain that I was not looking for ‘someone who previous to becoming religious simply did not attend church, did not pray, or was unfamiliar with the teachings of the religion to which they now belong.’
I wanted this to be clear, because the exact definition of the word ‘atheist’ itself, seems to be a constant source of miscommunication and misunderstanding, and I was keen to only get feedback from people who once understood that believing something is not proof of that belief being true, but who now believe that, in fact, it is. I wanted, in other words, to get to the meat of what happened in that transitional period between accepting that faith-based truth-claims are the exact opposite of those which are objectively true, and what thought processes ‘former atheists’ went through in order to falsify this statement of fact.
For example: Angela believes that she has £1million in the bank. She had a personal experience of what it was like to be a millionaire which was so real to her, that she began to think and act exactly as if it were true. Angela goes to a Mercedes dealership, and tells the salesman she’d like to drive away in a brand new sports car. She hands over her credit card, and jumps into her new set of wheels, and readies to drive off. But as the salesman attempts to transfer the funds from her bank, the computer refuses the transaction due to ‘insufficient funds’. No matter how much Angela insists that he tries again and again to take her payment, there is simply no evidence of her having the money needed to pay for the car — despite how hard she insists the salesman must believe the money exists for the same reasons she believes it does, and hand her the keys.
So the definition of the word atheist, which I used in the request for comments over at Reddit, was of someone who not only understands why Angela has no money, but also understands what Angela would have to do in order to prove that in fact she does. The people I am interested in talking to, then, are those who also claim to have once understood this, but who now — by virtue of the fact they claim to believe in a particular God from a specific religion — must by definition no longer hold themselves to the same standard of proof which as an atheist they once did. If this is you, please explain how you moved from the first position to the other.
What, specifically, do I mean by ‘the other’?
Some of the replies (as of 7am GMT Wednesday 10th April 2013) to the Reddit thread, were from people who consider themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’. It is only fair to point out that most of these people were apologetic for the use of this unwieldy turn of phrase — and I’ve written before about the understandable awkwardness of words like ‘spiritual’, when what we really want to say is ‘that which feels right’, but don’t know how to acknowledge the way in which this appears to shift the meaning of the word spiritual towards the emotional side of the brain and away from the intellectual; where it can be tempting to dismiss it as being merely the medium through which metaphysical truth-claims are abracadabra’d into having a greater importance than they would otherwise merit.
Please note, I am not saying that the only way for a spiritual experience to deserve being taken seriously, is if it can be proven to have originated with, or been instigated by, the particular God in which someone believes. I am simply asking how someone could ask for such a possibility to be taken into consideration, as part of their conversion story, if they also claim to have once understood why such a claim does not constitute proof of those same beliefs which they now claim to hold.
Moreover, I understand that it is not always the case that someone, who previously considered themselves to be an atheist, necessarily defined their a-theism according to the sort of definition I have given here. Many believe, for example, that an atheist is merely someone who does not pray, or go to church. But this describes many people who do, nevertheless, feel as if they are part of ‘something’ which however hard they might try to describe, ‘it’ moves further and further outside of their ability to do so, the harder they pursue that very description; least of all a description which would be of any meaning to someone other than the person who experienced ‘it’ at firsthand.
What I am arguing, then, is that however tempting it may be to place this inability to describe ‘it’ into the same part of our intuition in which we assume religious people place their faith in the particular God of their specific religion, it is nevertheless a category mistake of the kind we can do without if we’re genuinely serious about addressing ‘why questions’ with answers which do not merely seem to ‘work’ because they reenforce our existing beliefs, but because they legitimately give us a better perspective on ‘it’.
Your turn to speak
When you were an atheist, you understood that religious beliefs are not based upon evidence of God’s basic existence, but a belief among adherents to the particular religion which you now belong have about the validity of the sacred texts in which God is already presumed to exist. The question is, when did you cease to understand the obvious problems with this, and choose instead to adopt it?
Please note, I don’t expect anyone to post dissertation level replies. I’m simply keen to see if there really is any such thing as a ‘former atheist’ in the strictest sense of the word, or if it is more accurate to say that of those who do describe themselves as such, most have bounced from one set of religious arguments to another, without ever considering that atheism is not the mechanism by which we reject one set of arguments so as to replace them with another, but a standard of reasoning against which all religious truth-claims can be equally judged.
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Thanks in advance for your thoughtful replies. As ever, threats of eternal torment and / or physical violence and / or cut and paste received opinions you don't actually understand will be marked as spam. Dan, this means you.