Dan Barker from the Freedom from Religion Foundation is perhaps one of the more famous examples of a fundamentalist-Christian-turned-atheist. So too is Nate Phelps, former member in the Westboro Baptist Church and son of WBC’s founder Fred Phelps. Examples of people who have cast off their faith and embraced reason abound, but what about the examples of atheists who see the light? These cases are less common, but people who claim to have been saved still manage to pop up every now and then.
I don’t question whether or not these people are or once were atheists. Atheism by definition is a lack of belief in god. So one can be justified in calling oneself an atheist for a pre-conversion-to-Christianity lack of belief in God. For that matter, everyone at one point in their lives is an implicit atheist. As newborns, we all lack a belief in God or Gods and it’s only when we are indoctrinated later in life do we take on the label of a religion. It all depends on when in life one makes the choice to adhere to a religious faith; adults can take up a religion just as eagerly as a child taking first communion. The difference between a child and an adult is that a child is particularly vulnerable to the persuasive power that an adult in a position of religious authority has over them.
It’s no surprise to me that religions seek to proselytize children and young adults. At such a young age, children cannot be expected to be able to understand the complexity of the Christian theodicy and they are not expected to be able to critically examine the claims of their religious leaders or challenge what they have been brought up to belief in. Adults are just as capable of falling into the trap of faith, but they should be expected to have the wherewithal to question the Christian doctrine when the contradictions in scripture come to light.
One concern that I personally have about the label atheist is that it doesn’t adequately encapsulate the level of serious scholarly study that factored into one’s arrival at the lack of belief. How strenuously did these born-again Christians question their faith before they took the plunge into their religion? How well-read are they in existentialism or absurdism? What kind of evidence have they examined before they came to their faith? Have they ever debated a theist or critically read scripture? These are questions that every atheist needs to ask when they encounter a former-atheist.
I would submit that if these newly-faithful individuals never gave thought to what it means to be an atheist before they converted, then their former-atheist status doesn’t count for much. There should be a term for just such a person who converts to a religion without having seriously examined the evidence for atheism first. I suggest the term epistemistic, from the Greek root episteme meaning knowledge or science to denote one who has taken the time and effort to study the evidence arrive at justified true belief. A born-again Christian who claims to have been an atheist previously, but never put an emphasis on researching philosophy, theology or a related field could be considered an aepistemistic atheist. I do not intend for this term to be used as a pejorative against others; merely that this term be used as a means to more adequately clarify the term atheist, which I feel lacks the level of specificity needed in this case.
This begs the question: how do we distinguish an epistemistic atheist from an aepistemist atheist? At what point can we say one is a true epistemistic atheist? I don’t have an answer here. Perhaps an answer will come when this issue is addressed in a larger context; I just suggest that if people are going to bandy about the title of atheist to gain points in an argument, there ought to be some way of certifying the level of scholarly research put into one person’s argument.