Philosopher Stephen Graham just posted an article titled “Are There Any Honest Atheists?” which engages with my book Is the Atheist My Neighbor? Graham and I are of one mind on this topic, so I don’t have any points of critique to raise. However, I do want to highlight two points that Graham makes.
The implausibility and offense of the Rebellion Thesis in an illustration
First, Graham illustrates the implausibility — and indeed the offense — of the Rebellion Thesis with an illustration of two men in conversation. John tells George that he has decided to become a vegetarian based on the conviction that eating meat is wrong. But George replies that John doesn’t really believe this. In fact, despite his earnest entreaties to the contrary, John still knows deep down that eating meat is okay. (Perhaps his “vegetarianism” is a manifestation of rebellion against the Cattlemen’s Association. Whatever it is, it isn’t genuine.)
Crazy right? How could George possibly think it right to dismiss John’s earnest and heartfelt testimony? What gives George the right to claim that John is, in fact, suppressing his knowledge that eating meat is really okay? And yet, that’s precisely what George does. By the same token, the Christian who claims the atheist really does believe God exists is engaged in an equally presumptive and offensive dismissal of the atheist’s testimony to the contrary.
Graham concedes that the analogy is, as he puts it, a bit of a parody. Nonetheless, it does effectively convey the striking nature of the Christian’s insistence that atheists are actively suppressing their belief in God.
The Rebellion Thesis meets the testimony of former atheists
So that’s the first point I wanted to highlight. Now for the second. At this point Graham makes an intriguing observation against the Rebellion Thesis which I had not considered before:
“Christians rarely report their conversions as being an acceptance of what they already really knew, but rather most of us understand it as a ‘seeing the light’ or finally coming to believe something we honestly didn’t believe previously.”
“If the rebel thesis was right, then the vast majority of Christians would report their pre-Christian lives as being a state of rebellious rejection of truths they really knew. To the best of my knowledge this isn’t the case.”
This is a very interesting observation. And I can’t help but note the parallel with the recent debate over whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. (By “worship the same God” I mean to refer to the claim that both Muslims and Christians (i) make successful linguistic reference toward God and (ii) direct particular worship practices toward God.)
Christians who believe that Muslims and Christians do worship the same God point out that Muslim converts to Christianity tend to believe their understanding of God has changed. They don’t believe that when they converted to Christianity they ceased to believe in one God and started to believe in another. This is how John Stackhouse explains the point:
“Christian missionaries (and missiologists) have reported for a very long time that converts from Islam to Christianity routinely testify that they did not change Gods, but came to understand the One True God better…and especially to understand Jesus aright as not merely a highly regarded prophet but as the divine-human Lord and Saviour. Much like Saul on the road to Damascus, many point out, these people undergo tremendous change—that’s why it’s called conversion, rather than merely a theological correction—but they do not drop one deity for another.” (Source)
Now let’s tie this back into the discussion over atheists and the Rebellion Thesis. Just as the testimony of former Muslims converting to Christianity falsifies the “other God” hypothesis, so the testimony of former atheists who convert to Christianity falsifies the Rebellion Thesis. The former-Muslim-turned-Christian says “I was worshipping God as a Muslim, albeit incorrectly!” and the former-atheist-turned-Christian says “When I was an atheist I didn’t believe in God’s existence. I only came to believe God exists when I became a Christian!”
“Wait a minute!” retorts the hypothetical defender of the Rebellion Thesis. “Aren’t there also former atheists who state in retrospect that their former state of atheist disbelief was not genuine? Don’t some former atheists insist that when they were an atheist they were sinfully suppressing belief in God?”
I agree. There may well be such people. Indeed, I fully suspect that there are. But that doesn’t provide evidential support for the conclusion that all atheists are in rebellion against God.
Consider: if you want to claim that all Muslims are terrorists, it isn’t enough to provide some token examples of Muslims who are terrorists. And if you claim all Canadians are polite (or boring), it isn’t enough to provide some token examples of Canadians who are polite (or boring). And if you claim all illegal immigrants are lazy, it isn’t enough to provide some token examples of illegal immigrants who are lazy.
So how could anybody possibly think that when it comes to atheists in rebellion, we just need a few token examples?