you're reading...
Atheism, Christianity

Former Atheist? Really?

A Day in Hell

Poor Matthew Botsford says he went to hell. And he wrote a book all about it so that you won’t make the same mistake. And guess what…. He’s a former atheist! Or… Not. The Friendly Atheist found this gem on The Christian Post:

Christian Post: Can you tell us about your life before the accident? Did you believe in God?

BotsfordNo, I did not believe in God. I knew God existed but I didn’t have a relationship with His son. During college I turned my back; I was my own boss kind of thing.

The title of the article has been changed.  It used to read:  Former Atheist:  My Time in Hell.  Now it reads Former Non-Christian:  My Time in Hell.

Doesn’t pack quite the punch, does it?  Beware of “former atheist” claims.  Most of us atheists know what an atheist is.  But a lot of believers do not.  The party line in most churches gives Christians a false impression.  They are told that everybody really believes in god, and atheists just deny it or live in rebellion of their knowledge.  By this definition, Mr. Botsford was an atheist.

But the definition is just wrong.  Someone who believes in god is NOT an atheist.  You can no more have a theist atheist than a married bachelor.  It’s not a matter of opinion or debate.  It’s very, very basic logic.

If theists were right — if everyone really did believe in god — then Matthew would STILL not be a former atheist.  There would be no atheists, in the same way that there are no unicorns.

“Former Atheist” is a kind of a buzz-phrase in Christian circles.  It carries a lot of weight because it’s a sort of “evidence” that atheism is misguided.  At least, that’s the way believers perceive it.  The funny thing is that every time I’ve talked to a “former atheist,” I’ve rooted out the truth within a few seconds.  They were not former atheists.  They were former non-Christian theists.

I’m not saying there are no former atheists.  I’m sure there are a couple here and there.  However — and this is very important — religion is overwhelmingly a function of childhood indoctrination.  This is also not a debatable point.  It is a statistical fact.  Religion is a lot like smoking cigarettes.  If they don’t get you while you’re young, they’re probably not going to get you.  Sure, you meet a few people who started smoking at 35.  And you meet a few people who became convinced of a god as adults.   But not many.

So… anytime you meet a “former atheist,” these are the first questions you should ask:  What was your childhood like?  Did you or your parents go to church?  Talk about religion?  Were all your friends Christians?

In the (rare) case that you don’t root out their “non-Christian theist” status from these questions, ask them why they didn’t believe in god.  The answer will usually go something like this:  Well, you know, I never really thought about it or went to church…

While this might “technically” be a kind of atheism, it’s not informed atheism.  It’s not a mature adult who has thought things through, examined the evidence critically and come to a reasoned conclusion.  And it’s dishonest for believers to cite such people as examples of why atheism is misguided.

Advertisements

Discussion

17 thoughts on “Former Atheist? Really?

  1. Why is atheism suddenly put into sub categories? New atheist, Unapologetic atheist, Informed atheist, etc…

    I went to the book store today, and even saw a book titled “The Christian atheist” That is people who identify as Christian, but don’t follow Christianity. I don’t know if it was written by an atheist or Christian.

    I personally went from Christian to atheist, to Deist, back to atheist.

    I wasn’t a false Christian/atheist/Deist/atheist.

    If Botsford lacked a belief in god he was an atheist, if he didn’t he was a theist.

    What kind of atheist am I? The one that doesn’t believe in god. That’s the only one there is.

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 7, 2011, 3:45 pm
  2. I would also like to add that when I come across a “former atheist” I take their feelings/experiences at face value and point out that anecdotes are invalid to prove a point. I can’t say for example Kirk Cameron wasn’t really an atheist or didn’t have this or that feeling.

    But I don’t have to.

    Even if every Christian now was a former atheist at one point in their teenage/adult years, it doesn’t matter. Feelings are just that. Feelings.

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 7, 2011, 3:55 pm
  3. Why is atheism suddenly put into sub categories? New atheist, Unapologetic atheist, Informed atheist, etc…

    You may have been asking rhetorically, but I think it’s a good question to try to answer. Subdivisions are probably a good thing. It might mean that enough people are living openly as atheists that we’re starting to notice differences that matter to us.

    As an example, I think — for the reasons I just gave — it’s reasonable to make a distinction between an informed atheist and a default atheist. Everyone is an atheist for some part of their life — that is, they are born atheist and must be taught to believe in god. So there’s really not much use for that version of atheism in an adult conversation.

    Other divisions are a matter of informed opinions on things like politics or morality. Humanists, libertarians, environmentalists, etc. I think they are potentially meaningful, but not especially useful when atheism is pitted against theism.

    I personally went from Christian to atheist, to Deist, back to atheist.

    I wasn’t a false Christian/atheist/Deist/atheist.

    I’ve never doubted your sincerity. But… I have to ask, are you arguing from anecdote? 🙂

    If Botsford lacked a belief in god he was an atheist, if he didn’t he was a theist.

    The point of that quote was that Botsford himself said he believed in God, just not the particular version of the Christian god. By his own admission, he was not an atheist.

    The point of the article is that some people who say they are former atheists are not being dishonest. They’re misinformed. I’ve met plenty of people who believe they used to be atheists. But they contradict themselves by saying they believed in some god — just not the Christian one.

    They are no more former atheists than you are a former trash collector just because you think “trash collector” means “little girl.”

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 7, 2011, 4:21 pm
  4. I know of some cases of former atheists, though I concede that they are VERY hard to find.

    Over at IIDB, there was a certain devnet / emotional / Heathen Dawn who was once rather clearly an atheist. But he was being driven nuts by his fear of death, so he ended up inventing a New-Agey sort of religion for himself.

    Back in the mid 20th cy. was a UK philosopher and professional know-it-all, C.E.M. Joad. When he was caught fare-beating on a train, it caused a big scandal, and he ended up getting religion and writing some books on apologetics.

    Posted by Loren Petrich | May 8, 2011, 8:58 am
  5. You may have been asking rhetorically, but I think it’s a good question to try to answer. Subdivisions are probably a good thing. It might mean that enough people are living openly as atheists that we’re starting to notice differences that matter to us.

    As an example, I think — for the reasons I just gave — it’s reasonable to make a distinction between an informed atheist and a default atheist. Everyone is an atheist for some part of their life — that is, they are born atheist and must be taught to believe in god. So there’s really not much use for that version of atheism in an adult conversation.

    Other divisions are a matter of informed opinions on things like politics or morality. Humanists, libertarians, environmentalists, etc. I think they are potentially meaningful, but not especially useful when atheism is pitted against theism.

    I don’t see the difference between an informed atheist and a default atheist in terms of converting or anything really for that matter.

    Do you believe inter-dimensional beings that steal your socks out of the dryer?

    I bet you don’t most likely because you won’t exposed to the idea rather than you were and are making an informed decision.

    Does that make you more likely to believe it later on in life?

    I’m just tired of atheism trying to be used as part of someone’s identity.

    I’ve never doubted your sincerity. But… I have to ask, are you arguing from anecdote? 🙂

    No, I was using personal experience to try to prove a point.

    The point of the article is that some people who say they are former atheists are not being dishonest. They’re misinformed. I’ve met plenty of people who believe they used to be atheists. But they contradict themselves by saying they believed in some god — just not the Christian one.

    A lot of times I see the “I was angry at god” type Christian, I don’t know if that means “I still believed in god but was angry at him.”

    or

    “I didn’t believe in god because how could he do X?”

    The former isn’t an ex-atheist while the latter is.

    I think we do need to inform them, and that means knowing what it means ourselves.

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 8, 2011, 2:38 pm
  6. I don’t see the difference between an informed atheist and a default atheist in terms of converting or anything really for that matter.

    If anyone besides you said that, I would be shocked. From you, it’s what I would expect. But then, you’re the only informed atheist I know from whom I would expect such a thing. So there’s that. For whatever it’s worth.

    Maybe an interesting anecdote.

    A lot of times I see the “I was angry at god” type Christian, I don’t know if that means “I still believed in god but was angry at him.”

    or

    “I didn’t believe in god because how could he do X?”

    The former isn’t an ex-atheist while the latter is.

    So the question is whether someone is angry that there’s no god, or angry that there is. Seems like a pretty simple delineation.

    I’ve met enough atheists who were angry or sad or depressed at having lost their belief. I spent a long time angry at the people who indoctrinated me, but I wasn’t mad there was no god. I was mad at people for lying to me about it. (And yes, I have it on good evidence that several people close to me lied about their true feelings on the matter.)

    To me, the world is better without a god. Makes more sense. But there have been people who were upset at the idea of death being permanent.

    Similarly, there have been people who have believed firmly in god and been angry at him. I’ve known quite a few. I’ve also known people who were transitioning — they had given up on the Christian god, but figured there just had to be some kind of god. Some were mad at it/him/her for allowing the Christian myth to exist. Or for suffering. Or whatever.

    But having said all of that… it seems pretty obvious to me that there are very simple divisions of atheists/theists that matter in the atheist-theist discussion:

    ATHEISTS:
    Default/child/uninformed/apathetic — People who don’t believe in god but who have never bothered with it much, or are not educated/sentient enough to make an informed decision.

    Informed — People who have carefully weighed the evidence against their worldview, whether skepticism, materialism, rationalism, empiricism, scientific method… whatever… and found themselves unable to believe in a god.

    THEISTS:
    Specific theists — Born Again Christians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc… People who believe in a very specific description of a god.

    Non-specific theists — People who feel deep down that there is or must be a god, but are uncertain about its exact nature. These would include the guy who wrote the book before he became a Born-Again, New Agers, some Unitarians, many liberal Christians, etc. It also includes a lot of people who identify as agnostic, but think of agnosticism as a statement of uncertainty about the true nature of a god they believe exists.

    Beyond these divisions, I don’t see where any further subdivision is necessary.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 8, 2011, 4:40 pm
  7. Over at IIDB, there was a certain devnet / emotional / Heathen Dawn who was once rather clearly an atheist. But he was being driven nuts by his fear of death, so he ended up inventing a New-Agey sort of religion for himself.

    I’ve met one or two of these. In my experience, the only “ex-atheists” I knew were not people I would have ever described as fantastic critical thinkers. You know, they believed in other wacky stuff like UFO abductions.

    Again, it’s not to say that it’s impossible for a well informed, good critical thinking atheist to find religion. But it appears to be an extremely rare exception to the rule.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 8, 2011, 4:45 pm
  8. Oh.. I suppose we could include a fictional ex-atheist: Gaius Baltar in the new Battlestar Galactica goes from atheist to theist (with a huckster pretend-theist phase on the way). But in that universe, there apparently is a god. He ended up with pretty good evidence. You know… living forever as a spirit.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 8, 2011, 4:47 pm
  9. If anyone besides you said that, I would be shocked. From you, it’s what I would expect. But then, you’re the only informed atheist I know from whom I would expect such a thing. So there’s that. For whatever it’s worth.

    LOL

    I bet you would like to come to my apartment, sit me down and try to pick apart my mind. Many have tried. I understand that I may have a unique perspective and I’m weirder than most.

    Anyway, I went through the angry at god phase, but I didn’t classify myself as an atheist because I knew I still believed in a god. I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. If you remember my blog entry, I’m even mad at myself for buying into it.

    Oh.. I suppose we could include a fictional ex-atheist: Gaius Baltar in the new Battlestar Galactica goes from atheist to theist (with a huckster pretend-theist phase on the way). But in that universe, there apparently is a god. He ended up with pretty good evidence. You know… living forever as a spirit.

    Then there’s that episode of Scrubs where Turk loses his faith because somebody dies in surgery.

    But then at the end of the episode, he regains it because he found a lost patient that needed medical attention.

    Posted by cptpineapple | May 8, 2011, 6:22 pm
  10. I bet you would like to come to my apartment, sit me down and try to pick apart my mind.

    LOL… I can’t tell if that’s a roundabout half invitation or a “nevva-gonna-get-it” smackdown.

    Anyway, I went through the angry at god phase, but I didn’t classify myself as an atheist because I knew I still believed in a god. I can relate to a lot of what you’re saying. If you remember my blog entry, I’m even mad at myself for buying into it.

    You know, I don’t think I was ever angry at god. At least I don’t remember ever feeling that way. That probably has to do more with the mental path I took to disbelief than anything else. When I was a Christian, I justified god’s cruelty through pretty typical theist pretzel logic. I was one of those people who would tell you that if God said to kill your son, it was good to kill your son. And I believed it. So there was no getting mad at god for me. When I was mad, I was mad at other people for making God do mean things. (Yes, I’m well aware of how close this is to the pattern of domestic abuse.)

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | May 9, 2011, 12:54 am
  11. I want to assure you that former atheists exist because I am one. I was not a “default” atheist but an “informed” atheist (so many labels…). I grew up in a Christian household with strongly Christian parents and maternal grandparents. Church was not an every Sunday thing but I did go to church and things like vacation Bible school. Critical thinking led me to atheism. I can remember it all sort of coming to a climax at the age of 16 in 11th grade. I loved to read, and the two final books that led me to atheism was Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and William Goldings “Lord of the Flies.” Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and every other spiritual system of belief was just more mythology for me. I did not believe in any sort of after life or spiritual powers at all. I fell squarely into the corner of secular humanism and atheism. I needed no god and saw no evidence for god. I did not embrace evolution, but I did believe a rational reason for creation existed, and who knows, if I’d continued in atheism I may have become a believer in evolution. Not all atheists believe in evolution just like not all atheists are pro-choice in the area of abortion. I was an atheist for 16 years. 100%, unabashed, free-thinking, critically minded, fully skeptical atheist with not a shred of theism in my life. There is not enough space here to go into what led to my conversion to Christianity, but my point is this – while perhaps rare, former atheist do exist. I respect those who are atheists, because they have made a solid decision regarding faith, not some half-way, fence riding, nebulous philosophy like agnosticism.

    Posted by Randy | June 15, 2011, 9:03 am
  12. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Randy. I figured there had to be a couple of you out there. Please feel free to hang around and maybe share some of the critical thinking that led you to Christianity, or alternately, the critical thinking that led you away from valuing critical thinking. Or whatever it was that happened 🙂

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 15, 2011, 1:08 pm
  13. There is not enough space here to go into what led to my conversion to Christianity, but my point is this – while perhaps rare, former atheist do exist. I respect those who are atheists, because they have made a solid decision regarding faith, not some half-way, fence riding, nebulous philosophy like agnosticism.

    I’d love to hear this story. Especially what led you to buy christianity while rejecting every other revealed religion. A simple summary should not be too difficult or long.

    Posted by Alex Hardman | June 15, 2011, 2:16 pm
  14. Well, ok here goes. In summary, I was pretty successful on my own. Youngest manager in my company, top sales person, pretty wife, three beautiful daughters. Very selfish though – totally focused on me. Not physically violent but frequently verbally violent. Not loyal to my family. I thought nothing was beyond my ability. Put your mind to it and effort into it and you can do it. I’m an only child and my mother was diagnosed with ovarian and colon cancer with 6 months to live. My wife got fed up with me and moved out. My job became a wreck. Everything I identified with fell apart and I could not seem to bring it all together. Humpty Dumpty syndrome. All these annoying Christians in my life always told me, “Just pray to God, he’ll help you.” I never took the offer. As I was leaving work after a particularly bad day I thought, “I’ll do that. I’ll prove them wrong! I’ll pray and nothing will happen and I’ll have that satisfaction at least today!” So I prayed, “God if you are there, I could sure use some help.” Well, he answered me. Crazy I know. Hearing voices and such. Maybe should have sought out a counselor. This quiet, alien voice in my head answered me and made me 10 times as mad as I already was. It said, “Have faith.” Last thing I wanted to hear.
    That was Summer 2001 and by Fall my wife and I had reconciled, seeking to solve our differences through a burgeoning faith (I just knew she’d think I was loony after over a decade with me and my atheism). My mom died. God did not save her. He gave me strength though. Things leveled out at work and I stayed almost another 10 years at that job. I did not get “saved” or “born again” in that alley that day. That happened on March 31, 2002 the first time I had been in a church since my mom had sent me way back when I was a kid. Something was different. I felt this overwhelming feeling and prayed and gave my life to Christ. Crazy right? I mean really I’m sure I have people who think I should see a psychiatrist. I find faith a challenge. I ask questions. I search. I explore. I dig. I challenge others. Some of the most intelligent men of ages gone by were Christians. Not that way today. I must be honest with you, I have been a pastor since 2007, but I am not here to convert anybody. Just to talk. To maybe challenge you and to be challenged myself.
    I have told my fellow Christians this: faith is not rational. I’m okay with that. Why did God talk to me and why doesn’t he do the same for you? I don’t have the answer. I love atheists. I admire your passion. I respect your intellect. We just see things from two different sides. Hope this wasn’t too long and hope it was informative enough.

    Posted by Randy | June 15, 2011, 5:20 pm
  15. Thanks for your story, Randy. It wasn’t too long at all. I do have one question. Did you hear an audible voice? Or when you say you heard a voice, do you mean you felt like you just “knew” that God wanted you to have faith?

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | June 16, 2011, 5:28 pm
  16. Definitely an audible voice that literally said, “Have faith.” That’s what sort of infuriated me on the front end. My actual response was something like, “That’s it? So you are real and that’s all you got for me?” It was not a crack the sky booming voice, but more of a calm, reassuring, quiet voice. Not in a way that anybody but me would hear it I believe. I admit it all sounds crazy. I’m skeptical when other believers tell me about similar experiences today, even though I’ve had it myself. And to anticipate your next question, it has not ever happened on any regular basis. I can say this exact kind of voice has only happened twice over the last 9 years.

    Posted by Randy | June 17, 2011, 8:53 am
  17. Which god did you pray to, and how do you know that god isn’t tricking you?
    Yahweh isn’t exactly known for his kindness.

    Posted by Nicole | September 7, 2012, 5:17 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: