There’s an old joke about an American who is visiting Ireland. The gentleman stops off for a pint in a local pub, and as he’s taking his first sip one of the other patrons strikes up a conversation. During that conversation he asks the American if he is a Catholic or a Protestant.
The American answered, “Neither. I’m an Atheist.”
“I see,” replied the Irishman. “Well then, are ya a Catholic Atheist or a Protestant Atheist?”
This is part two of my two-part investigation of former Atheists. In part one I claim that Christians who use the label of “former Atheist” in reality never gave much thought to Atheism, and instead have used their past Atheism as part of their Christian Credentials in order to claim greater authority.
In part two, I’ll examine several famous ex-Atheists. Unlike Christians, I don’t claim these people were never “True” Atheists – I just don’t think they gave Atheism or any form of Secular moral philosophy much serious thought.
In Lee Strobel’s book “The Case for Christ” Strobel writes about his Atheism:
For much of my life I was a skeptic. In fact, I considered myself an atheist. To me, there was far too much evidence that God was merely a product of wishful thinking, of ancient mythology, of primitive superstition. How could there be a loving God if he consigned people to hell just for not believing in him? How could miracles contravene the basic laws of nature? Didn’t evolution satisfactorily explain how life originated? Doesn’t scientific reasoning dispel belief in the supernatural?
But that’s all I had ever really given the evidence: a cursory look. I had read just enough philosophy and history to find support for my skepticism – a fact here, a scientific theory there, a pithy quote a clever argument. Sure I could see some gaps and inconsistencies, but I had a strong motivation to ignore them: a self-serving and immoral lifestyle that I would be compelled to abandon if I were ever to change my views and become a follower of Jesus.
Strobel makes many errors in “The Case for Christ” but the most glaring errors are his failure to investigate Secular moral philosophy, the equating his love of an immoral lifestyle with Atheism, and believing that his one sided interviews of several Christian experts proved his point in a manner supposedly equivalent to the way that lawyers prove a case in a court of law.
Strobel interviewed strong witnesses to Christian Apologetics – but opposing witnesses and rebuttal witnesses are ignored completely. Is this his idea of a fair trial? Strobel also ignored the fact that other religions have their own Apologetics, and so the reader is never treated to Strobel’s “Case for Mohamed”, or perhaps “The Case for Judaism”. I believe that if he had used the same flawed methods Strobel might have found the case for Islam to be just as compelling as his case for Christianity. These points alone demonstrate that Strobel never actually gave much thought to the Atheism he supposedly espoused.
In my last post on this topic I showed a chart that defined the differences between implicit and explicit Atheism – I’ll reproduce it here. Strobel’s version of Atheism is firmly implicit, even though he might claim it to be explicit. It wasn’t that he didn’t think about Atheism, he did give it some thought. But he seems to have come to the conclusion that people always claim Atheism out of immorality. If he had bothered to seriously interview anyone who understands Secular philosophy based upon empathy and sympathy for others he might have changed his mind.
Strobel used Atheism as an excuse for an immoral lifestyle and he framed the question of religion as an either-or proposition – “Either Christianity is true, or nothing is true” in a classic Pascal’s Wager fallacy. So was Strobel an Atheist? Sure – for a sufficiently wide definition of Atheist. He never saw the need to put much thought into his pre-Christian position.
Strobel borrowed a Christian apologetic argument from the popular writer C. S. Lewis. In the chapter called, “The Psychological Evidence” Strobel asked if Jesus is sane and rational – a restatement of Lewis’ “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” argument from Lewis’ book “Mere Christianity”.
In “Mere Christianity” Lewis also clams status as a past Atheist. He doesn’t speak of his own salvation story in this book, but he makes several references to his godlessness. (Lewis gives his personal testimony in his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy”.)
In Book II of “Mere Christianity” Lewis starts out with this statement:
I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth.
Lewis makes a mistake that anyone who has ever studied comparative religions easily recognizes. Yes, various religions seem to “hint of the truth” but that is not because they’ve all seen the “Truth” of Christianity through a distorting lens, it is because they all are invented by humans, and humans tell stories that are related to human experience and to the human condition. After a study of religions that predate Christ it becomes easy to count the similarities, to identify stories in the Bible have earlier equivalents. Humans love stories, and they love heroic legends whether the hero wears a red cape and a big red “S” or if they’re dressed in a tunic and sandals while performing their miracles.
Lewis is the first to state the Trilemma, “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” – but he leaves out the possibility that Jesus was merely a “Legend” – someone of which stories were told and embellished.
In my opinion Lewis’ biggest mistake in “Mere Christianity” is that he attempts to dismiss the serious doctrinal differences between the various “flavors” of Christianity. Catholic versus Protestant, Reformed versus Traditional, sect against sect. Lewis conveniently forgets that wars have been fought over doctrinal differences. Many Christian religions actively proselytize to members of other Christian congregations in an effort to sway them from a perceived false faith and in an effort to bring them to the “real” truth. From the viewpoint of a studious Atheist, attempting to gather Christian groups who oppose each other, sometimes violently, under one roof is a serious flaw in Christian Apologetics.
Was C. S. Lewis an Atheist? Implicitly yes – but in reading “Mere Christianity” it becomes clear that he was never explicitly Atheist – he never gave any thought to Secular philosophy or serious consideration that other opposing religions or Christian sects might have equal validity.
What about other famous former Atheists, such as Josh McDowell and Ray Comfort? I’ve been confronted by acquaintances who who claim their conversions are a blow to Atheism. But when I did some digging, I found out that neither of these people were ever Atheist.
Popular Christian author Josh McDowell was an agnostic who once claimed that Christ wasn’t divine, but had no problem believing in a deistic God. In his book “More than a Carpenter” McDowell uses the “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” fallacy from C.S. Lewis, and he completely misses the point in his brief study of comparative religions in the chapter “Will the Real Messiah please stand up?” He either ignores or hand-waves away Biblical contradictions, which is understandable – his degree from Talbot Seminary is based upon a requirement of Biblical literalism.
McDowell’s own words show that he was not even atheistic, and his arguments based upon a predetermined conclusion show a dishonesty that Atheists are wise to note.
In Ray Comfort’s Christian testimony he said that although he thought the religion of Christianity was “boring”, he had no problem believing in God. Transcribed from his audio testimony:
“I thought a Christian was someone who believed in God, that’s all. And I thought if someone had said “Are you a Christian?” and I would have said, “Sure”. Because I said prayers at night, I believed in God – I wasn’t a fool. If there’s a creation, there must be a Creator, if things are made there must be a Maker.”
Comfort’s arguments against Atheism certainly don’t come from personal knowledge. His version of Christianity also dishonestly predetermines a conclusion – that of Creationism.
What about other famous former Atheists? Ray Comfort’s partner, Kirk Cameron, claims past Atheism. According to his interview in Today’s Christian:
Although he had only been to church once or twice in his life, the young man had seen hypocrisy and self-righteousness among those who believed in God—so much so that Cameron began to consider himself a “devout atheist.”
“As far as I was concerned, thinking people didn’t believe in fairy tales,” he remembers telling himself. When asked in interviews about God, the teenager would respond: “There’s no God. You can’t prove that there’s a God. Absolutely not. You guys are performing your own lobotomy in order to believe this kind of stuff.”
Cameron makes two very revealing statements in this interview. First:
Cameron, 32, says he viewed the world as though he were the center of it and began expecting things to be done for him—because they were. “Anything I wanted was given to me. That was what I expected because that was my reality.”
Cameron likens that time in his life to biting into a chocolate bunny on Easter and realizing that it’s hollow. “There was this aching, empty feeling that left me very disillusioned with the business I was working in,” he says. “What else was there? What else did I have to shoot for? I’d basically reached the top of the ladder, and I was 18.”
Kirk Cameron’s life before Christianity was that of a spoiled brat. He had no moral foundations on which to build – so of course this must be the fault of Atheism, and not a lack of character or good upbringing. How different his life might have been if he had found a strong moral Atheist role model, or if he had learned a Secular philosophy based upon empathy and sympathy for others. If he had instead been invited to a Secular Humanism function instead of a Christian service, Cameron might still have turned his meaningless life around, but in a Secular direction.
Kirk was firmly, implicitly atheistic – and never explicitly Atheist. This really doesn’t surprise me because from the debate he participated in against the Rational Response Squad, it is easy to see that he doesn’t put much thought into anything.
Implicit Atheism seems to be the general trend for those Christians who claim past Atheism as part of their credentials. But in every case I’ve examined so far, the form of Atheism they claim seems to be the a version that doesn’t include ethics or a positive Secular moral philosophy.
I’m not saying that these people were milquetoast Atheists – some like born again Christian William J. Murray, son of famous Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair grew up vehemently denying God in an explicit version of “strong Atheism”. But in every case, even William Murray’s, they lacked any foundation in Secular moral philosophy. The lacked an upbringing or training in methods of answering ethical questions from a compassionate, empathic, sympathetic Secular point of view. These people used Atheism as an excuse to be bad, not as a position of reason or logic.
Were these people Atheists? Sure, for a sufficiently wide definition of Atheism. But these people weren’t Atheists due to logic, reason or understanding. They were merely atheistic for wholly selfish reasons.