Victor Reppert ridicules the idea that a "real atheist" would never convert to Christianity. He links to an article by Matt Nelson called Why Atheists Change Their Mind: 8 Common Factors, that gives various arguments for belief in God. When I read it, my first thought was that these are typical arguments for God, but they are not reasons for an atheist to change his mind. While they may be convincing to some people (including some who call themselves atheists), they certainly aren't convincing to me. And I'm sure that plenty of atheists who have a similar way of thinking, especially those who have a scientifically-oriented perspective, would also find these arguments lacking. So that raises the question in my mind: What does it mean to be a "real atheist"?
I would not presume to claim that no atheist would ever convert to Christianity. I am well aware that it happens. But I do think that in order to make this conversion, one would have to abandon his scientific perspective (if he ever had one to begin with), or at least set it aside. As many scientists have pointed out before (much to the chagrin of religionists), science is generally incompatible with religious belief. That's not to say that there aren't scientists who are Christians. In fact that is one of the points Nelson makes in argument #5 in his article. But I have made the case that such people can be successful in modern scientific endeavors only when they set aside their religious beliefs while conducting scientific investigations, and set aside their scientific perspective while making appeals to their religious beliefs. But Nelson ignores that, focusing mostly on pre-20th-century Christian scientists. Yes, early scientists (in Europe) were all Christians. But they laid the groundwork for the development of a more fully realized modern scientific perspective that leads to the rejection of religious belief.
Nelson prefers to pretend that this incompatibility doesn't exist. His argument #6 makes the case that science actually supports theistic belief, based on fine-tuning and arguments from design. Actually, these are theistic arguments based on theist's interpretation of simple facts: there is order in the universe, and in biological creatures. It is not a scientific fact that this should be interpreted as evidence for God. People who have a more scientific perspective understand that there are other ways of looking at evidence, rather than always jumping to the one and only conclusion available to theists: "God did it". In fact, Nelson gives a tacit nod to the "limitations in science", not so much as a reason to believe in God, but as a reason to set aside one's scientific perspective, which seems to undercut his own argument.
Are Nelson's other arguments convincing to someone who has this kind of perspective? Not in the least, as far as I'm concerned. Take a close look at argument #1, for example. We see clues about what really changed the minds of several supposed atheists. Karen Edmisten says
Then I became desperately unhappy, read up on philosophy and various religions (while assiduously avoiding Christianity), and waited for something to make sense.She is admitting that she had an emotional need for religion, and that the world didn't make sense to her without it. That is not the perspective of someone who has a scientific understanding of the world (where things actually do make sense). How rational is it to deliberately avoid one possible avenue of investigation that you think might a reasonable source of evidence? I think she's just trying to convince us that she really was a good atheist. Needless to say, she violated her "atheistic principles" by reading Christian materials anyway. And much to her "surprise", it was Christian religion that filled that emotional need she was feeling. But it's no surprise to me, because obviously, that was precisely what she was looking for all along. She's just not honest enough (perhaps with herself) to admit that.
Likewise, in Nelson's first argument, Lorraine Murray set out in search of reason to believe - not looking for whatever truth the evidence might lead to:
Reading Lewis, I found something that I must have been quietly hungering for all along.Statements like that do not express an unbiased quest to follow the evidence and learn the truth, whatever it may be. They are admissions that the authors are trying to fill an emotional need for religion. Those authors may claim that they were "committed atheists", but that is belied by their own words. Like many ex-atheists, they weren't seeking truth so much as intellectual cover for allowing their theism, which has been nagging at them and causing their emotional distress, to come out of the closet. And that's what they find in the writings of CS Lewis and GK Chesterton.
In argument #3, Nelson calls Lee Strobel's book, The Case For Christ, "a prime example of what happens when an honest atheist sets out to establish once and for all whether the claims of the Gospels are reliable or not." I have commented about Strobel before. He is yet another one of those so-called "committed atheists" who decided to take the plunge into religious belief, and abandoned any semblance of objectivity in the process. He found the evidence for the truth of the gospels to be overwhelming. But that could only be the case if one chooses to ignore science itself, and all the evidence that would argue to the contrary. I'm not trying to say here that one couldn't find some factual evidence that would help to make a case for Christianity, but to say that this is overwhelming reveals a decidedly Christian predisposition in one's thinking. And once again, this argument does absolutely nothing for someone who is not already leaning in the direction of Christianity. If the evidence can be regarded as overwhelming at all (from a more objective perspective), it is not in favor of the truth of these biblical legends.
But the one argument presented by Nelson that struck me more than any other is #8, which is the argument from aesthetic experience. Nelson quotes Peter Kreeft:
There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.The claim is made that this argument is responsible for the conversion of atheists. That may be the case, but what kind of atheist would find it convincing? Like other arguments presented by Nelson, it is based more in emotion than objective evidence. And that is typical of the reasons we often see cited by atheists who change their minds. But the reason I find this kind of argument striking is not its effectiveness, but rather the implicit bias against scientific understanding that it conveys. The argument presumes that an appreciation of beauty is the province of God. It says essentially that only God can be responsible for our human experience of beauty. It makes no allowance for any other perspective. This attitude among religionists is what feeds into their false accusations of "scientism". Many religionists deny that it is even possible for an atheist prone to scientism to have any such appreciation, and they often make claims that the life of the atheist is impoverished for that reason. But these religionists are the ones are suffering from a poverty of reasoning. It doesn't require God or religious belief to experience aesthetic appreciation. As humans, we all share aesthetic values, and we all experience the kind of feelings that are evoked by sublime experiences. Religionists ascribe this to God, but a scientific perspective gives us additional ways to understand and interpret our world besides "God did it". Religionists have only one answer for everything. Science opens our eyes to reality, without sacrificing the experience of aesthetic pleasure.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don’t.
These arguments from Matt Nelson may resonate with some atheists, as I said, but I think they have very little persuasive power power to someone who isn't already inclined toward belief in God. In particular, someone who has a broader or more scientific view of reality will probably see no earth-shattering revelation here. That scientific understanding, if it is genuine, can't easily be tossed aside when someone comes along with an argument that is based on emotion, or that takes a one-sided view of evidence.
I often think the return to religious belief is like the case a child who believes in Santa Claus. He may have been told by his older friends that Santa doesn't really exist, and he reluctantly accepts that, but it isn't comforting to him. He really wants Santa to be real. So he asks his parents, who give him the assurance he's looking for. Or he reads a letter like this one, a modern-day "Yes, Virginia" that tells him what he wants to hear, and presents an emotional case for belief that he finds convincing. But it isn't because of logic or real intellectual content that this letter is so satisfying to the believer. The child's friends have grown up and set aside their childhood beliefs. They have a more realistic understanding of the world, and they are comfortable with it. The believer prefers emotional comfort, and it is understandable how "Yes, Virginia" sounds good to someone who wants to believe. But for those whose non-belief is based on a more solid understanding of reality, it isn't easy to lay that understanding aside and return to their childhood belief. Before they change their minds, they need real evidence. And that's the one thing that is lacking in all of Nelson's arguments.
My question for Victor Reppert is this: What kind of arguments would you find convincing enough to change your mind about the existence of Santa Claus?