Saturday, February 6, 2016

The Ex-Atheist

How often do you see a Christian blogger or apologist who says he is a former atheist?  Very often, they make that fact so prominent in their on-line identity that it's the first thing you know about them.  Take, for example, Shadow To Light.  He's making a statement that says "I was in the dark as an atheist, and now I've come to enlightenment as a Christian".  This is a common theme.  But sometimes I wonder what kind of atheists these people actually were.  Did they have a philosophical or rational understanding of naturalism?  What kind of evidence did they consider?  What made them change their minds?  And what basis do they have for thinking that Christianity is more rational than naturalism?

I don't know how many times I've been told by Christians that my atheism is nothing more than a willful rebellion against God, or that I hate God.  Some say that atheism is just a childish attempt to hide from the consequences of belief in God.  This idea always seemed incoherent to me.  If I'm an atheist, it means that I don't believe in God, and it would make no sense for me to have a rebellious or hateful attitude toward something that I don't think exists.  Christians, on the other hand, think that God's existence is obvious and indisputable, and their attitude is that atheism is inherently irrational.  The central theme of the theistic attitude is that since God's existence is beyond question, anyone who does question it is either dishonest or sinfully rebellious or irrational.

If you listen to the stories of these ex-atheists, they generally will place themselves in one of these categories.  They were bad or sinful or confused, until something convinced them to open their eyes and see the truth about the existence of God, and embrace it.  Very often, their stories tell of their experience of having feelings of something wrong or something missing.  They feel something inside pulling them toward belief in God.  This is the case with CS Lewis, for example.  He speaks about becoming convinced by rational arguments, but there is an undercurrent of irrational emotion or desire to believe.  And this seems to be typical of the conversion stories told by ex-atheists.  That desire to believe always precedes their acceptance of rational arguments.

Another thing that appears to be common among these conversions is that the subjects had turned away from the God-belief of their childhood at some time in the past.  Many times, they say it was for social reasons - to fit in, or because they thought it was expected of them.  They adopted atheistic beliefs such as materialism, not by means of any deep appreciation of science, but just because it was part of the constellation of beliefs that goes along with atheism.  They often claim that they became hard-core atheist materialists, but they always retained some remnant of their childhood theistic beliefs under the surface, even if it was suppressed.  And this, I believe, is the source of those feelings that eventually draw them back to religion.

When you read accounts of people who left left their Christianity behind after a process of rational consideration, the story is markedly different from those who converted to Christianity.  There is no little voice inside urging them to join or to rejoin the faith.  There is no emotional feeling of desire that compels them to become atheists.  It is invariably a process of rational discovery that gradually leads to conclusions from which they cannot escape.  It may be the result of scientific understanding that leads to a naturalist worldview and the conclusion that supernatural entities don't fit that worldview.  It may be after skeptical questioning of the biblical stories and the realization that there are too many contradictions, too many things that don't make logical sense, too many things that defy credulity. 

When someone arrives at this kind of understanding, it's rare to see them turn back to Christianity.  If you have a scientific understanding of the world, you realize that this framework of understanding has a logical basis that is universal.  There may be aspects of reality that remain unknown, but everything fits it, and there are no exceptions.  This fact is rock-solid.  It has been demonstrated over and over again, ever since the dawn of science.  While Christians will protest and complain and stomp their feet, and insist that there really are miracles and supernatural beings, they can't demonstrate that it's true in the same manner that science has so convincingly demonstrated so much of the reality of the natural world.  For a person with this kind of understanding, then going back to belief in gods and souls is like reverting to childhood.  It's throwing away that whole framework of scientific understanding.  It's like burning down the Library of Congress, and replacing it with a collection of comic books.

But the Christian who turned away from faith during his youth and lacks a solid logical and scientific basis for rejecting that belief is likely to return to faith when he feels an emotional need for it.  He can easily drop his materialistic worldview because there isn't a strong scientific and logical basis for it in his framework of understanding.  It's easy to fit all kinds of things into the framework if the framework isn't solid.

Thus we have the ex-atheist apologist, telling us who haven't returned to the fold that we're God-haters, that we're willfully rebellious, that we're hiding from the truth that is so obvious to everyone.  Because for them, even when they claimed to be atheists, even when they insisted that they were hard-core materialists, they never really abandoned that core of theistic belief that was impressed so deeply into their brains when they were very young.  Belief in God was always part of their psyche, no matter how much they denied it.  And they think that same belief is present in all of us.  They mistakenly believe that a solid scientific framework of understanding should be just as malleable as their own.  But they are wrong.


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  2. Yep. Those that 'return' to religion do so only for emotional and psychological reasons. The thought of being existentially 'alone' is simply too overwhelming to bear and they do not have the maturity nor the intellectual or cognitive strength to cope with that fact. A 'return' to religion is powered predominantly by the realisation of our own mortality, a neurological condition that neuroscientist Scott Atran defines as the tragedy of cognition.

    The 'return' to religion is not because of the truth of religion; it is because of its powerful palliative effect in mitigating such cognitive dissonance. It is a placebo. And as history informs us this placebo effect presents itself in so many weird and wonderful manifestations [from simple tribal religions, ju-ju, ancestor worship, Bah Hai, Zoroastrianism to sophisticated™ belief systems such as Judaism,, christianity, Scientology, Hinduism, Mormonism, Islam, each with their own particular and peculiar attempts at explaining, justifying, and excusing that belief system.

    The delightful irony here that these returning religionists simply do not have the intellectual nor cognitive capacity to recognise how the American or the Australian atheist almost invariably 'returns' to christianity, the Indian atheist returns to Hinduism, the Jordanian atheist returns to Islam.

    One thing of which I am sure is operant here, the 'return' to religion is not the result of the universality of the truth™ claims of any religion but rather its geography. This fact alone puts an irreparable dent into the body of each and every conflicting, contrasting, competing religious truth™ claim made.


  4. Feser claims to be an ex-atheist. And his recounting it reads almost word for word to the article jdhuey cites above.

    Of interest, the the review of Feser's "The Last Superstition" by philosopher Dr Aaron Boyd is an illuminating critique of the raft of foibles and a priori assumptions must make to render A-T philosophy a modicum of intelligibility. It seems Feser's book is little more than writing with fingers crossed behind his back. Boyd provides a lot of meat and relies little on polemics to counter Feser's claims.

    It is instructive.

    1. I just read it. Kind of puts Feser in perspective, eh?

    2. What the review does indicate is that many if not all Feser's claims are assertions at best and certainly not immune from bona fide critical examination, let alone presuming an air of immutability about them not unlike the presumption of immutability about his god.

      But of course, as the community faces future challenges it becomes ever clearer theology "is but the ignorance of natural causes reduced to a system." [Philosopher Paul Henri Thiry]

  5. It is hard to find ex-atheists that had been known for understanding atheist arguments and using them. The most philosophically sophisticated one is, I think, C.E.M. Joad, a philosophy professor. During WWII, he was on a talk show where he and others would answer questions from callers, and he became known for "It all depends on what you mean by..." But a few years afterward, he got caught doing something that he had bragged about in the past (Testament of Joad), riding a train without a valid ticket. He was fired by the BBC, and he got religion. He reportedly debated Bertrand Russell about that subject, and from what I've seen of it, he lost very badly, using arguments that he might earlier have easily disposed of.

    So this seems like a case of conversion for emotional reasons -- he was caught fare-beating.

    1. One interesting case is that of Leah Libresco, whose conversion was apparently non-emotional. I'll make a post about that today.

  6. Another possible reconvert is Annie Besant, a secularist and birth-control activist in the late 19th cy. But she once did a profile of Helena Blavatsky, inventor of Theosophy, a massive proto-New-Age woo-woo synthesis that is heavily plagiarized from Eastern religions. Annie Besant ended up converting to it and becoming a prominent Theosophist.