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Ex-Atheists

Every so often when I am discussing or debating religion with someone, he or she will tell me that at one time they were once an atheist too. I even had one person call himself an “ex-atheist.” I always found this kind of odd considering that all Christians (and even all theists for that matter) are by definition “ex-atheists.”

What most Christians don’t realize is that we are born without beliefs… any beliefs (not just religious ones). Babies can’t believe in things because they are babies. Their minds have not yet developed and they can’t even recognize themselves in a mirror. They don’t believe in ghosts or tarot, nor do they believe in UFOs, the boogieman, Santa Claus, or Gods. They are a blank slate as far as beliefs go. All babies have are instincts and the nurture of the womb. In other words, people are born without the belief in deities. We are all born atheists.

However, religious indoctrination starts very early on in most families and so by the time a baby can express any kind of thoughts they have probably already been brainwashed to believe in a deity and/or in some sort of religion. This is a sad fact about religious institutions that they can’t even wait until someone has reached the age of reason to start warping young and fragile minds with indoctrination.

So why do some Christians pull out the “ex-atheist” card? Well, one technique in the art of persuasion is to identify with your subject. In this case, a Christian claims to identify with his or her mark by claiming that they once didn’t believe in God and the Bible. The problem with this is that a simple lack of belief is all that qualifies one as an atheist. In other words, a person who has never thought about religion is just as much of an atheist as someone who has studied the claims of Christianity, researched the Bible, and found that the Christian belief system is ridiculous.

Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame is one such person who frequently uses the “ex-atheist” card. But I doubt very much that Kirk Cameron cared about religion at all before becoming religious. He almost certainly didn’t study the claims of religion with any seriousness or rigor nor did he look at the history of Christianity and the Bible. He probably never argued with religious believers and probably never thought about any of the philosophical arguments. Yet he still can claim honestly that he was once an atheist.

On the other hand, many atheist activists (i.e. atheists who have actually studied religion and still don’t believe) were once religious. Many were even very religious and some were even fundamentalists. These particular atheists ware often very knowledgeable about their particular religious sect and so when they de-convert it really means something. In other words, the claim of ex-Christian actually carries philosophical weight while the claim of ex-atheist is pretty much meaningless. I know many Christians will claim this is a double standard. But the reason for this double standard is a valid one and so the ex-atheist Christians really have no persuasive ground to stand one.

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  • Anonymous

    Good blog.

  • Mr. X

    Excellent point! Wish I’d thought of it.

    Incidentally, I’ve just started corresponding with an “ex-atheist” Christian (apparently, exactly as you describe) who I met on another blog. He seems genuinely open to discussion, though also enthusiastically evangelical.

    We’ll see how this turns out…

  • http://www.myspace.com/andrewtheatheist AndrewtheAtheist

    I’m not a real big fan of saying babies are atheists, just as I am opposed to saying children are Christian. I like Richard Dawkins’ choice of words: children of Christian/Atheist parents.

    Although “agnostic” may be a fitting description…

    • admin

      Andrew, as others have pointed out, your definition of atheist and agnostic is not accurate. I wrote a blog about that not too long ago. Here is the link:
      http://www.dangeroustalk.net/?p=85
      -Staks

      • http://www.myspace.com/andrewtheatheist AndrewtheAtheist

        I thought you defined “agnostism” as “a lack of knowledge” in that blog. And I recall disagreeing with your definition of atheism as well…

        Semantics are not my strong suit.

  • Anonymous

    Not exactly, Andrew.
    Atheism is the *lack* of belief in gods. Certainly, children do not actively believe that gods do not exist, but that is not the only, or even the most correct, definition of atheism.
    On the other hand, agnosticism is the belief that the nature of god cannot be known, that it is impossible to know in one way or another whether god(s) exist. I don’t know about the infants you’ve known, but I don’t know many who are complex enough to come to this conclusion.

    • http://www.myspace.com/andrewtheatheist AndrewtheAtheist

      Well, I’m not huge on making a distiction between atheism and agnostism. To me, it’s six vs. half a dozen. But what I find interesting in your comment is that you see agnostism as a belief. I don’t think I’d heard that before.

      • existential blues

        This is my cue to say that I am an epistemological agnostic but an ontological atheist. It’s an important distinction, and it solves the semantic problem.

  • http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com Shaun

    If you meet an “ex-atehist,” the first thing you should do is ask them what they mean by “atheist.” Then you should ask them what convinced them to believe. I’ll bet you’ll find some interesting things in those questions.

    • http://shaunphilly.wordpress.com Shaun

      of course, I mis-typed and should have said “ex-atheist”

  • http://www.myspace.com/atheistteam The A-Team

    It’s funny that I’d been thinking about writing something about this too recently and you’ve managed to hit, I think, every point I would have hit down to citing Kirk Cameron as the most common example. The only thing I’ll add is a few examples of ex-Christian atheists. Dan Barker writes about his former life as a Pentecostal preacher in his books “Godless” and “Losing Faith in Faith” (sold in fine bookstores everywhere). And similarly John W. Loftus wrote a book called, “Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity.” (also sold in fine bookstores everywhere) And other ex-evangelicals include: Michael Shermer, Matt Dillahunty, Brian Flemming, and Greydon Square. Apostasy is a far more impressive position than being “ex-atheist.”

    • admin

      Okay, since we are naming names, I also should mention Dr. Stephen Uhl who wrote a book called, “Imagine No Superstition.” This book is available on his website:
      http://www.ImagineNoSuperstition.com/
      It is especially good for Catholics.

  • RC

    Good point that everyone is an ex-atheist. I got confused over the atheist agnostic thing too because I had the perception that they were different points along a scale of lack of faith in God, zero would be no lack of faith and 1 would be complete lack of faith. Fundamentalist to the far left, agnostics, in the middle and atheists at the far right. But that picture is wrong and I think it’s kind of in most people’s heads whether they’re aware of it or not. Then there is the popular misconception that to be an atheist, you must have a strong belief that there is no God. Some atheists have this but as you correctly point out, an atheist can also be someone who never even heard of the concept of God. It only means you don’t have a belief in God not whether you’ve considered the question or not. And agnostic means you don’t know. One deals with what you believe, the other deals with what you know. I don’t know if there is a God or not but I don’t believe there is one. That makes me both an agnostic and an atheist at the same time. Good blog.

  • http://www.myspace.com/rothtalltales Tralf

    “In other words, a person who has never thought about religion is just as much of an atheist as someone who has studied the claims of Christianity, researched the Bible, and found that the Christian belief system is ridiculous.”

    I disagree with this statement, in one way. Those who haven’t thought about religion are more oblivious than atheistic. I was not raised religiously, but I never considered myself an atheist until AFTER I’d tried religion on for size, thought about it, actually weighed belief in the supernatural as an alternative to reason. Atheism is an intellectual choice, a choice to be honest with yourself: that this world is all there is, and magic, in all forms, doesn’t explain how it got here. The leap to atheist isn’t that involved, really. I just said to myself, in the middle of a group prayer at the Willow Creek Church, “This is silly.” Poof! Instant atheist.

    Randy

    • http://www.myspace.com/andrewtheatheist AndrewtheAtheist

      I agree with you, Randy, and stand ready to defend you from those who say atheism is “not” a choice. :)

      • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

        heck yeah I agree too!! woooo common ground!! Yeah! Lets have a party.

      • http://www.myspace.com/rothtalltales Tralf

        But we both agree it’s NOT a belief system. Making the choice to repudiate nonsense (like tarot cards, astrology or Christianity) doesn’t render one a “believer” but merely “rational”. I cannot emphasis that enough, which is why I often repeat that sentiment. Tagging atheists with the “belief” label is a feeble attempt to drag we who are sensible down into the quagmire of fable worshippers.

        Randy

    • admin

      I hate revisiting old ground and that is why I posted the link to my blog dealing with this issue. Here it is again in case you missed it:
      http://www.dangeroustalk.net/?p=85
      Nothing in this definition demands any kind of intelligent choice. Certainly many atheists do choose intelligently, but there are plenty of people who simply lack the belief in a deity. There are plenty of people who simply never thought about the question of belief. But this is really getting away from the issue.
      -Staks

  • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

    Ignorance is not atheism. Yes, we’re born ignorant sinners. Doesn’t make you an atheist, atheism is a conscience choice. You can’t reject a god or gods that you don’t know about.

    • admin

      Ignorance is Christianity, lol.

      • Mr. X

        For my part, I’m just going to start drawing a distinction between “informed atheists” (i.e. apostates/atheists who have studied religion), and “uninformed atheists.”

        If my “ex-atheist” ever gets back to me (he still hasn’t), I’ll ask if he was an “informed atheist” or “uninformed atheist.”

        He appears to be a reformed criminal of some stripe, so I’m guessing it’s the latter…

      • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

        Oh cmon Staks…..don’t be like that. Besides, we both know, that according to that which I believe, it will remain “silly” to you until the holy spirit “opens” your eyes. Paul speaks of men unable to discern spiritual things without the spirit…so there is no expectation for you to have a complete understanding of Christianity, and this is one main reason I find it so redundant for atheists to even set out to “disprove” or hate on it. However, it is exceptionally annoying when someone critizies something, or misinterprets scripture because of the lack of understanding….just makes me shake my head and say “why God why!!!, can’t you just respawn in front of him?!” Crap…there’s no respawn in RL, if you die out there your dead! haha….

    • existential blues

      The idea of “born sinners” is contemptible and idiotic. Sorry, I don’t carry the disdain and disrespect for human life that you do.

      Are you atheistic with respect to the Hindu gods? (I don’t imagine you’ve spent much time researching Hinduism.) How do you feel about Ahura Mazda, the Zoroastrian god? Do you think that they may exist, or do you think that they don’t?

      • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

        Actually, I do know quite a bit about Hinduism….Brahman is a predominate concept among Hinduists…and they don’t really have a “god” it’s more like an ideology/concept. I enjoy studying other relgions as well, and often times there are parallel’s. I agree quite a bit with the definition of Brahman…as being a personal, infinite, loving force or “Absolute Reality” as it is sometimes defined. The concept is quite interesting and draws many parallel’s to the way the theology behind the Biblical God reads.

        As for the rest of the pagan god’s…..meh.

        Contemptible and idiotic? Hmmmm….do you have children? I have 2 younger siblings and many cousins and 1 niece and 1 nephew who are both under 10. Do children naturally do that which is “good”? When the older boy pushes his sister down because she keeps poking at him while he plays his Xbox, he feels justified because she bothered him, and she just wanted to play. Why? He’s selfish. Is this always bad? Nah, but the point is the natural inclination is towards whatever one feels betters themselves….the boy acted out of anger because his sister interrupted his game time….there are so many examples.

        I’m not trying to say this makes children evil horrible things…it makes them….human.

        • admin

          I really didn’t see the need since you clearly don’t know what you are talking about. Hinduism has many gods. It is Buddhism that doesn’t have a god. I will admit that I haven’t studied Hinduism nearly as much as Buddhism or the Abrahamic Religions, but most people know at least a few like Krishna, Vishnu, and Shiva. The Buddhist concept of Dharma is also similar to Brahman except not so personal.

          Again, good and evil are societal constructs that we teach. Children learn. Besides, Children have also been nurtured prior to (under 10). Once children learn that they are part of a collective and dependent on others, things change. You talk about good and evil, but you haven’t even picked up a book on ethics or morality. So you are again talking from ignorance. Ignorance can be fixed Matt. Educate yourself!

          • NotReally

            Actually I dont think you know what you are talking about. Hinduism does not have many gods. Hinduism only have one God with many Avatars (Incarnations). And Hinduism allows you to be an Atheist or Agnostic. You should educate yourself first before giving other people advice. Start with Wikipedia article on Hinduism. And finally why club/compare Hinduism to Abrahamic Religions? Hindus are not hungry to convert the whole world to Hinduism like Christians do. They never raged Holy wars like Christians or Muslims. When there is no manipulation, conversions, deception why bother about that religion. Leave it alone.

      • http://myspace.com/blackhawk089 Matt

        Oh, I like how when I respond with a clearer understanding of a topic, you don’t come back….

  • http://www.atheistinsurgency.com Atheist Insurgency

    Very good blog. I equate atheism as a direct consequence of real education. One might be able to detect neurological irregularities in people who have regressed to a state of inescapable anthropomorphism. Tumor perhaps? Once you’re atheist, there’s no artificial way to put that toothpaste back in the tube.

  • existential blues

    I recommend this book: Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett.

    http://www.amazon.com/Dont-Sleep-There-Are-Snakes/dp/0375425020/

    “Everett began his linguistic work as a Christian missionary, but the Pirahã were marvelously impervious to his promise of a life with Jesus. They pointed out that Everett simply had no proof for the supernatural world he described, and in the end he found himself agreeing with them. He left the church, choosing a world that more honestly integrated his goals as a scholar with the world view of his Pirahã friends—one where evidence matters.” — Christine Kenneally

  • http://myspace.com/atheistmommy AtheistMommy

    Its something we see way too often and it’s jsut as annoying as when a believer claims it takes belief to be an Atheist. I don’t think that any self respecting Atheist could ever go back and swollow the blue pill again. I doubt that really can happen logically. Once you take that red pill, you’re stuck with harsh reality. I’m sure there are some exceptions (like losing a good amount of your brain in a horrible accident or something) but I don’t see how someone can go back to imagination world after having been living in real life.

    Or maybe they’ve just heard that very same thing from one too many Atheists? The fact of the matter is that most Atheists come from Christian homes. So most are ex-christians. Still, the notion of an ex-Atheist just sounds retarded and skewed.

  • Joe Freshwater

    I agree with you 100% with you staks that babies are born Atheists because they are not able to form any beliefs in anything yet and are not able to form beliefs yet period. People can study the Bible and all the Christian Religions if they want and become an Atheist/still be an Atheist but I don’t believe people who become Atheists or Agnostics have to study the Bible and any of the Christian Religions at all even if they were Christians themselves once. When I was a Christian I knew some stuff from the bible but not everything and even after becoming an Atheist late last year I don’t feel that I have to and anyone has to study more about the Bible and all the Christian Religions to still be an Atheist or become one. I believe one of the reasons or the reason a person becomes a Atheist or an Agnostic is that they start becoming real skeptical and cynical about the bible and everything they have been taught about Christianity and they start asking questions about the bible and Christianity and they realize that they and anyone can’t be sure that the bible is real,anything about the bible is real,Christianity’s real,and that anything about Christianity’s real so they choose not to believe anymore at all and they become an Atheist or an Agnostic.