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Is there such a thing as an ex-atheist?

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I've never met a "real' ex-atheist. No doubt your first thought (if you're theist) is that I'm in denial. But no, I am pretty certain that I'm not, and I'll tell you why with a few more memorable examples.

To be clear I am not saying it's impossible for an atheist to change. I'm saying that I've never seen it happen, and further, a lot of people who think they were once atheist were not. Ever.

by Amy S.F. Lutz One excellent illustration of this is a man I encountered who 'chose to be an atheist for two weeks', to see what it was like. I can't imagine that needs explanation, but " you cannot choose whether or not you believe in a god. You can choose to either investigate theology, or blindly accept it, but you will then be subject to whatever you personally conclude. This fellow actually walked into a gathering of atheists and proceeded to argue with them that he'd been an atheist. Now, he's a very smart man in general; a teacher, highly literate, but he was so off base on this one it was truly uncomfortable. He explained that he'd spent two weeks living without god. No church, no praying, etc. He actually convinced himself that meant he was atheist for two weeks, and therefore he understood atheism in its entirety and was fully prepared to show us the errors of our ways.

Many more simply don't understand what "atheist' means. They think if they didn't attend church for a while or think about religion, they were atheist. Or, if they went through a bad spell, (did "bad things' like stealing, etc) they were atheist during that time - if they got 'angry' with god for not giving them what they wanted, they were atheist during that time. No, they were not. They were angry or lapsed or carefree theists. Upon deeper conversation, though, it always comes to the point that they never thought that no god exists, they just weren't actively worshipping one (or more). And consider - how is it possible to be angry with something you don't think exists?

Another sad example is of a man who was a real atheist all his life, to the chagrin of his Christian family. He then had a series of massive strokes and heart attacks, was reduced to someone who grabbed at any nearby woman's breasts or genitals, repeated himself into absurdity, and was otherwise severely mentally incapacitated. He neither claimed to be an ex-atheist nor to believe, he simply liked to sit in his wheelchair and watch endless western movies and preachers on tv, so his family insisted he'd obviously returned to the fold even though they understood that he was incompetent on all other counts, on that one, they were certain he'd been saved. Sigh. (In this case, those claiming "ex' atheist were family, not the person himself.)

Finally, a university PhD professor who claimed he was a "Christian-Atheist'. On the surface, it appeared he didn't believe in gods but chose to embrace the more positive tenets of Christianity - a best of both worlds situation, thus, he coined his christian-atheist persona. I got to know him pretty well. It turned out to be pure baloney a way to sexually conquer his young female students by making himself 'fascinating'. (Oh ethics!) Hereally didn't want to believe, because the intellectual side of him told him it was nonsense, but he couldn't stop believing; likewise, he claimed his morality was Christian - seducing one's students isn't Christian, and it's not atheist, either. It's immoral and unethical, plain and simple. He was embarassed by his belief, so he claimed he was part-atheist and partied on. What an inelegant creature.

We've encountered others who said they were "atheist' in their rebellious youth didn't think a bit about the questions of whether or not gods exist; perhaps only relishing the "cool' aspect of being an outsider. When they 'grew up', they went right back to the faiths of their fathers, unquestioningly. It's surprising how many people think that it means you're atheist if you don't attend any religious services. That's simply not true.

Now, am I saying it is impossible for a "fully realized atheist' (thanks to Rick Wingrove for FRA), to have an epiphany and return to belief in a god? Nothing is impossible when one abandons reason for "faith'. I find it hard to buy, but I cannot say I know it's not possible. People do strange things. Even atheists.

But, in every case I've encountered (in 13 yrs as sysop on Compuserve's Religion forum I discussed this daily with thousands of folks interested in debating the question of gods for and against), I can honestly say that I have never met a real atheist (FRA) who abandoned his or her atheism to return to a religion. I imagine they must exist, somewhere over the rainbow.

There are many very sincere questioners. Some folks are quite torn up about it, so unsure are they that it becomes a source of extreme anxiety for them. Many were terrified of atheism thinking that if they admitted they didn't believe, even admitted they doubted, they'd suddenly turn into serial killers. They hadn't figured out that ethics and morality are already here" and if there was no god, then clearly you didn't need one to tell you how to behave. When one stops believing, one realizes that instead of an emptiness, a feeling of something missing, they discover a fantastic sense of calm, like stepping out of a stuffy bar into a beautiful spring day. It feels like the cage is gone, the blinders are gone. Instead, though, we find that people don't like atheism. It scares them, because it challenges what they have been told is their core reason for being. So, they heap all sorts of negative traits onto atheism.

It's important to challenge this perspective, to change the way atheists are viewed. Most atheists, just like most theists, are good people. We need to make sure the world knows that.

Originally published here. You can subscribe to my Freethought articles here, and/or my science articles here.


Carol is a writer - The Philadelphia Science Examiner -, and the Philadelphia Freethought Examiner; a painter and (more...)

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I've never met a "real' ex-atheist even though I'v... by Carol Everhart Roper on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 8:11:15 AM
When human beings face death, or are threatened by... by Sarah Morgan on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 3:30:22 PM
The British philosopher Antony Flew is an ex-athei... by Chris Cook on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 10:13:01 AM
Hi Chris - there is a lot of controversy surroundi... by Carol Everhart Roper on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 5:11:01 PM
It seems most of those who questioned Flew's menta... by Chris Cook on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 9:59:06 PM
I agree,once you let reason dictate your beliefs i... by liberalsrock on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 10:18:19 AM
I sort of referred to them as among those who simp... by Carol Everhart Roper on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 5:16:22 PM
I certainly can say that I met a lot of people who... by Mark Sashine on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 10:34:07 AM
A quotation: "There are no athiests in foxholes." ... by GLloyd Rowsey on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 1:01:21 PM
Of course you know I'll disagree with the no foxho... by Carol Everhart Roper on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 5:29:31 PM
I realize I didn't express myself very clearly. Le... by GLloyd Rowsey on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 9:44:08 PM
In the future there will be plenty of ex-atheists,... by Sarah Morgan on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 3:22:05 PM
I think if you could somehow get to the real truth... by Natalie Oberman on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 4:52:30 PM
Hi Natalie,First thanks for that link to the Pew s... by Carol Everhart Roper on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 5:57:38 PM
I can see that misunderstanding and disinformation... by Stuart Chisholm on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 7:41:32 PM
I meant to say, at the end of the third paragraph,... by Stuart Chisholm on Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 7:47:58 PM
Interesting points!As it happens, my Dad was raise... by wagelaborer on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 1:49:40 AM
RE: "It always cracks me up when people earnestly ... by Soulf2 on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 3:04:38 PM
comes in steps, I think. And each needs a name. Be... by Margaret Bassett on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 11:53:52 AM
Atheism is based on reason and logic. It's sensibl... by Guy Dwyer on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 4:10:59 PM
I noticed you mentioned some of the things Adamson... by Sarah Morgan on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 8:35:49 PM
Let's not be so quick to commit the No True Scotsm... by Nathan Hevenstone on Sunday, May 23, 2010 at 10:02:10 PM
I think we need to be careful with terms like "Rea... by Brian Fields on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 8:31:31 AM
I met a former ex-Atheist once. When asked what ca... by Soulf2 on Monday, May 24, 2010 at 2:42:43 PM
I'm one!I honestly think I qualify on this front. ... by Perry Logan on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 5:44:35 AM
I would love to discuss your point of view. I beli... by Brian Fields on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 7:26:13 AM
Hello readers - I apologize for not being able to ... by Carol Everhart Roper on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 12:11:06 PM
Darrow stood up against religious bigotry, and for... by Arthur Avalon on Tuesday, May 25, 2010 at 9:15:11 PM
The very core of this thing can be found in numero... by lee maroon on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 at 9:48:26 AM