The Raving Theist

Dedicated to Jesus Christ, Now and Forever

More Than Words

June 25, 2006 | 52 Comments

Neither Christ nor Christianity shall ever again be maligned on this site, I have vowed. In contemporary America continuing this blog under such constraints might appear to rival the composition of a thousand-page novel without the letter “e.” Or perhaps without the alphabet, given that Christianity equates Christ with God, and that the denial of His existence could be fairly construed as an insult. The seeming impossibility of the challenge might suggest an abandonment of disbelief. Consequently charges of atheist heresy, of conversion to theism, have now been lodged against me.

With such conversions I am well familiar. Often I have questioned whether a committed, well-read atheist has ever come to faith. No one is better able to recognize the symptoms of a religious transformation than I. But my own diagnosis I will not disclose.

For now I will say only that the accusations are unproven. My critics confuse a commitment to silence with a commitment to belief. All I have promised is to refrain from attacking a religion, not to embrace it. No claim of heresy could possibly be sustained on the evidence of that limited pledge. And all other evidence, every word previously written and remaining on this blog, counts strongly against it.

That leaves open the question, of course, of whether my present views reflect the past. I have already said that I will not address that. The answer would necessarily either confirm or deny the alleged conversion. A denial would certainly betray my promise, because to announce I am still an unbeliever would effectively declare that I believe that the views I have vowed not to disparage are lies.

A confirmation of the conversion would not necessarily avoid that problem. If I did so and then continued this blog my sincerity could rightly be questioned. But shuttering the site could be easily be viewed as a cynical, expedient means to fulfill the promise — that I was saying nothing more about faith only because I had no good thing to say about it. And what would be left behind was a blog whose every word up to the moment of its closure violated the oath.

Perhaps the problem is that I made an impossible promise. I think not. I have noticed that with few exceptions the blogs and books that pursue the themes of this one care very little to discuss the truth of the premises that drive them, or even to identity the premises themselves. Few of my critics have set forth a systematic exposition of their own atheological views. Most neither know nor care about natural or revealed theology or the difference between them. Those who rant and rage against theocracy, of the problem of religion in society, rarely address the truth of religion itself. They avoid the question entirely but insist that for some unspecified reason it is best privately practiced. If pressed on why the authority of religion should not impose itself upon the state they rely only the authority of the Constitution, or on some principle of “obviousness” that they know will be appreciated by a sympathetic readership.

And on countless occasions I have been lectured that the only thing that unites all atheists is the absence of God-belief, rather than the affirmative denial thereof. It is insisted that no further conclusions, metaphysical epistemological or moral, can be drawn from that lack of belief. If that is the case, there are plenty of topics that can be discussed without expressly interjecting God. I can pursue them without breaching my promise to avoid blasphemy, and without committing to whether I am motivated by a desire to glorify Him or acting from an attitude which ignores Him.

I can only assure you that I will not be acting indifferently or agnostically. What has led me to this point, whatever this point is, is a firm conviction that I must go beyond words and set an example. I will not say whether what lies behind that conviction is God or not. You will have to content yourselves with the understanding that the truth of His existence, whether founded in fact, logic, or a combination of both could not possibly vary with what my words might command you to believe. But I will not tell you what I believe. And I will not tell you why I will not, and you will never trick it out of me.

Crossing Over

December 7, 2002 | Comments Off

Godidiots like to taunt non-believers by declaring that some great thinker or theologian “used to be an atheist.” The implication is that the notable in question has “been there, done that,” has fully considered and rejected atheism on his path to Enlightenment. Benjamin Kepple, for example, suggests that I “don’t care” for C.S. Lewis “perhaps because Lewis was at one time in [my atheistic] camp.”

The short answer is, of course, that the truth of atheism is not dependent upon who believes it, or used to believe it. But I do occasionally wonder precisely what sort of atheist converts like Lewis were, and whether at the time they were supposedly atheists they actually had any intellectual understanding of the arguments supporting their disbelief. Lewis never wrote a treatise on atheism, and nothing in his later writings convinces me that he had the slightest grasp of modern atheistic philosophy. So if he was once an atheist, I suspect it was only in the way that cats and babies are “atheists,” i.e., simply lacking a belief in God rather than affirmatively disbelieving in the concept. Or, possibly, Lewis briefly “questioned” God following a death in the family or other such tragedy, a condition closer to pessimism or depression than true analytical atheism.

I did locate an interesting debate from some years back over whether there were any intelligent, well-read and “committed atheists” who had ever converted to Christianity. Farrell Till, Editor of The Skeptical Review, wrote in 1996:

I personally don’t know a single person who was once a committed atheist but is now a Christian, but I know several atheists who were once very committed Christians. All one has to do is read the Mailbag column in TSR to see evidence of that.

I do know that it is rather commonplace for Christians, especially preachers, to claim that they were once atheists or agnostics but when they took the time to investigate the Bible, they saw such compelling evidence that it was inspired of God that they became Christians; however, I have never met a preacher that makes this claim whose reputation in the freethought movement was established before he “converted” to Christianity. Josh McDowell, for example, alleges that he was an atheist until he took the time to investigate the Bible, but I don’t know of a single article or book that McDowell wrote or a single lecture he presented on the subject of atheism before his alleged conversion happened. I suspect that these claims of atheism before conversion to Christianity are exaggerations or else honest delusions of people who had no firm commitments to skepticism before becoming Christians. The closest that I can come to the name of someone who changed from atheism to Christianity is Austin Miles, the author of Don’t Call Me Brother Anymore, and I don’t actually know if Miles ever considered himself an atheist. He made the transition from Christian to at least skepticism (at which time he wrote the above book) and back to Christianity, but in all sincerity I have to wonder how much he was committed to freethought. I personally find it hard to understand how that any skeptic who takes the time to research biblical errancy and really become informed on the subject could possibly return to believing that it is the “inspired word of God.”

The next year, responding to a Mr. Casao who identified “Joseph Joubert, a philosopher, disciple and collaborator of Diderot and a self-confessed atheist before his conversion, and Henri Gheon, who changed from a Nietzschean atheism to Catholicism,” Mr. Till wrote:

Perhaps Mr. Casao just didn’t understand what I meant by “committed atheists.” When I refer to committed atheists, I mean atheists who have studied the major arguments for the existence of God and the many refutations that have been published and use this knowledge to try to educate others to the fallacies in theistic thinking. Since I don’t even know the backgrounds of the converted atheists that Mr. Casao has listed in his letters, I have no way of knowing if they were ever committed atheists in the sense that I use the term. Of all the Christians who have said to me that they were once atheists, I had never heard of any of them. Since I have done extensive reading in freethought and atheistic literature, I’m sure that I would have encountered their names if they had been committed atheists before their conversions. It seems to me that Mr. Casao is trying to make an issue where none exists. I was asked if I knew of any committed atheists who have converted to theism, and I said that I didn’t. And that was the truth.

This provoked a response the next year from subscriber Jeff Epler, who opined:

No matter how much I like Till, or how right he usually is, I must foremost take exception to the discussion on Page 14 re: “More about Converted Atheists…” Till has ranted in the past that some Christians say of other Christians-particularly ones who converted to another faith or to atheism-that he “wasn’t a real Christian.” Now I read Till saying the same thing: They were not “committed atheists.” Till’s whole reply reads just like a Christian explaining how no real Christian has ever converted to atheism.

I guess I don’t understand even the point of trying to establish that no “committed atheists” have ever reverted/converted to Christianity. So what? If nobody ever converted from Christianity to atheism, I might argue that it was merely because Christians were so closed-minded that such a thing was impossible, but that wouldn’t really do anything to prove atheism. Similarly, a Christian could point at the lack of atheist converts and say that it’s because we’re too closed-minded about the idea of God or of “the supernatural.”

Furthermore, when Till says he’s never heard of these guys who were said to be atheists but are now Christians, I don’t know that he had ever heard of Dan Barker the Christian before he had read/knew/heard of Dan Barker the former-Christian atheist. I certainly hadn’t, and even today I tend to think of Bob Barker (The Price is Right gentleman, I believe) before I think of Dan.

So, Till, how is your dismissal of those who have converted from atheism to theism as not “committed atheists” different from Christians saying of others that they aren’t or weren’t real Christians? Even if there is some relevant difference, what does this demonstrate about the superiority of the atheist position?

In the same issue, addressing both Casao and Epler, Till replied:

I do know Christians who claim that they were once atheists, but in talking to them, I formed the opinion that they had been unchurched rather than atheists. I found none of them who seemed to know much about responses that have been made to the traditional theistic arguments. Mr. Casao has reached back into the 18th century for some examples of what he considers committed atheists who converted to Christianity. As far as I know, he may be right about them, because I am not familiar with the lives of either Joubert or Gheon. Mr. Casao identified them both as philosophers, so I will make a cynical comment about whether philosophers should be considered committed to anything except their philosophical ideas. Whenever I read philosophical works, I sometimes find myself wondering if even the writers know what they’re trying to say. I’m willing, however, to concede that Joubert and Gheon were atheists who converted, but as Jeff Epler pointed out, what does it matter? I didn’t know either one of them, and so I can still say that I have never known a committed atheist who converted to Christianity.

I won’t add anything to this debate other than to say that my sympathies are largely with Mr. Till. And to say that it all brings to mind a quote from John Stuart Mill’s “Utilitarianism,” if you substitute “atheist” for both “human” and “Socrates,” and “Christian” for both “pig” and “fool”:

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.

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