Atheism / religion · February 27, 2008

Atheist? Or merely atheistic?

I sometimes use a saying when I’m discussing Atheism with those who are not quite sure what it means to be an Atheist. I’m not sure where I heard this first – I suspect I heard it from FFrF Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor during a “Freethought Radio” podcast. The saying goes, “If you’re joining an Atheist group because you ‘hate God’, then you have a profound misunderstanding of what it means to be an Atheist.”

It is easy to understand why a self-proclaimed Atheists might be a little confused. There are so many categories of Atheism. In the Wikipedia entry on Atheism there is a wonderful chart that shows the relationships between weak / strong and implicit / explicit Atheism. This is a public domain chart so I’ll show it here.

From this chart it can be seen that there is a difference between an “implicit Atheist”, who has given little thought to the existence of the divine – and an “explicit Atheist” who has given the matter some amount of serious thought. We can also see a difference between “weak Atheism” and “strong Atheism”. A weak Atheist just doesn’t bother to disbelieve in God or gods, while a strong Atheist affirm that God or gods do not exist

There are a multitude of different ways for Atheists to express themselves – and the best way to find out what kind of Atheism a person holds is to ask him or her.

I think that there is a version that is most often used by those who are currently religious, perhaps to bolster their authority. Before I describe this version of Atheism, I would like to touch on two points of religious salvation that directly relate to this form of Atheism. I call these two points, “Christian credentials” and “No True Christian”.

Christian Credentials

I’ve written before about how some Christians will base their entire credentials upon the “dramatic transformation” that happens during their salvation. In order to be able to credit God and Jesus with an incredible transforming power, they must be able to allude to their “sinful” past. The more impressive their conversion is, the more credibility a Christian seems to have in his new life. This leads me to wonder how many of these salvation stories have been embellished in a similar manner that an avid fisherman might ‘improve’ his recounting of the fish that got away.

With no training beyond what they read in the Bible, no training in Theology, Science, Psychology, History or Politics, this sort of “dramatic transformation” bestows enough religious credibility to allow some Christian leaders to practice both psychological and marriage counseling. These credentials permit Christian leaders to act as “experts” in biology and in constitutional law; it permits them to act as if they know the minds of America’s founders, and to reinterpret, or even re-write history.

While most people become an authority in their field through years of study, hard work and experience, religious leaders have the ability to become an instant authority in every subject through a simple religious ritual.

No True Christian

When Dan Barker, of the FFrF, first spoke on Oprah Winfrey’s show, Oprah asked him why he left his religion, left after being a serious evangelical preacher for 17 years. Barker answered, in part, by saying “I was mistaken.”

This is a wonderfully powerful, and affirmative statement that shows a strength of character and a real humility. It seems to be against human nature to admit our mistakes, to make up for them and to move on. With those three words Dan Barker, in my opinion, rose far above the average person.

Those who experience the Christian “dramatic transformation” of salvation actually have it somewhat easier than those in Dan’s situation. They are able to say about their previous life, “I was mistaken” without experiencing the scorn that society tends to heap upon those who admit past wrongs. Instead, their religion ensures them a support group who happily encourages the newly saved sinner, and assures them that their past is washed clean. Depending on the congregation, there can be a cult-like level of acceptance, encouragement, and love-bombing involved in this process.

Although not as dramatic, there is an equally life-changing transformation that can happen when a Christian comes to the point where he or she realizes that religion is not, in fact, true. Though I’m fairly sure that there are legions of people who stay with their religion despite their personal revelation, there are probably just as many who have quietly wandered away from religion entirely.

Regardless of how fervently a former Christian may have believed, regardless of what sort of mindset the former Christian had while active in his or her religion, a former Christian is frequently quickly condemned by their former brothers and sisters in Christ for never being a “True Christian”. These people seem to delight in telling former Christians something like, “If you were really and truly once a Christian, you would still be a Christian even now. Your lack of faith now proves that you never actually had faith then.”

As Ray Comfort said of Dan Barker (out of Christian love, I’m sure):

We often call these people bitter “backsliders.” However, they aren’t backsliders, because they never slid forward in the first place. The correct term for them is “false converts.” They are mentioned in Mark chapter 4, and in the Book of Peter, where they are likened to a pig that goes back to it’s filth, and a dog that returns to its vomit.

This bit of justification does not follow through with the consequences of this reasoning. Simply put, if a former Christian is merely a “false convert”, then how can we tell if a current Christian is not a future “false convert”?

There are people who become Atheists late in their life – how are we to know that Ray Comfort won’t, one day, become an Atheist? And if he does, then by his own words his years as a Christian are merely those of a “false convert”. Comfort teaches that “false converts” do a poor job of bringing the faithless to Christ, and so these false leaders should be avoided. By this logic, it would be better for someone like myself to disregard Comfort’s words until I’m absolutely sure that he is really a “True Christian”. I imagine that would be at some point after his demise. To do otherwise would be to risk following a potential “false convert.”

Merely atheistic

I mention Christian credentials because I want to point out that many Christians claim Atheism as part of their former life. I pointed out the “No True Christian” fallacy because I want to avoid the “no true Atheist” fallacy when I call out those Christians who do claim Atheism in their past.

I do believe that many current Christians who claim past Atheism were a form of Atheist. I also think that there are many different kinds of Atheist. While I won’t refute their self-label, I’ve noticed that there is little evidence that any of these people were explicitly Atheist. In some cases they seem to exhibit a form strong Atheism within the category of implicit Atheist.

I believe that the majority of Christians who use a label of past Atheism to bolster claims of current authority were merely atheistic, and had never given much thought or study to questions of ethics, morals, or philosophy from a secular viewpoint.

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Update 4 March 08
Part two of this post, “Mere Atheism” is now posted.