Over the years I have engaged in countless conversations with folks from the skeptic/atheist community . In those conversations, I have often encountered a popular idea which goes something like this. “Christians,” it is said, “grew up in the church and so they’ve never thoughtfully stepped out of their worldview to question their beliefs. But many of us atheists grew up in the church and had to go through a painful and difficult process of questioning and reflection until we eventually walked away from the faith and became atheists.”
The underlying idea seems to be something like this: atheists have subjected their beliefs to critical thinking and the cool light of reason. But Christians remain locked within the beliefs of their youth.
There are several problems with this popular analysis.
To begin with. the mere fact that you changed your worldview at some point in time doesn’t automatically entail that you did so for good reasons. For example, in many instances I have heard atheists share as part of their story particular injustices they suffered in the church. Were those injustices a catalyst for their deconversion? And did they confabulate justifications for their decision after the fact to justify it? We cannot exclude these possibilities a priori and we should always have a healthy skepticism about any personal narrative of conversion (either to Christianity or away from it) which purports to have proceeded on the cool evaluation of evidence and argument alone.
Second, this simplistic opposition that equates rationality with the change of belief is far too crude. Consider a couple examples. To begin with, we have Dave, a fundamentalist Christian who believed all atheists were idiots. Then Dave had a falling out with his church after which he became an atheist who believed all Christians are idiots. In each case, Dave has been firm and unyielding in his belief. He is as certain now that all Christians are fools as he was once persuaded that all atheists are fools.
On the other hand, we have Debbie. Raised a fundamentalist Christian, Debbie has carefully reflected on her beliefs over the years and as a result has repeatedly nuanced, qualified and adjusted her beliefs. Whereas she was once a convinced young earth creationist, Debbie is now a tentative theistic evolutionist. While she once endorsed an absolute inerrancy in all affirmations in the Bible, she now has a carefully nuanced conception of scripture as divinely appropriated human speech written in various genres. Whereas she was once convinced that everybody outside her Baptist sect were not saved, now she is a hopeful inclusivist who believes God’s grace and mercy can appear in all sorts of surprising ways.
The popular atheist idea would suggest that Dave is the serious thinker because he switched from Christianity to atheism. Debbie, meanwhile, is not a serious thinker because she has remained a Christian throughout her life. But that analysis has things quite wrong. If anything, Dave is the unthinking dogmatist who simply brought his fundamentalism with him when he left the church. Debbie, by contrast, has continued to think, nuancing and qualifying her beliefs with each passing year.
This leads me to the final point. The popular idea just assumes that anybody who remains a Christian does so in bad faith, i.e. without having seriously countenanced the evidence. But this merely begs the question against the theist. The fact is, rather, that many people retain their beliefs precisely because they have good ground or reasons to do so.