What is a Real Atheist?

Many Atheists get upset when Christians spice-up their testimonies by saying “I use to be an Atheist”. To this claim some Atheist may bristle saying: “You weren’t a real atheist!” elaborating with something like:

  • You never really studied science deeply enough (like I have)
  • You never really thoroughly considered the reasons why we should reject religion (like I have)
  • You were tempted by the crutches religion offers (unlike me)
  • You never even saw through the contradictions and lies in the Bible (like I have)
  • You were only a superficial Atheist (unlike me)
  • If you stopped being an Atheist, it is because you never were a reflective Atheist.

Likewise, many Christians get upset when I tell them that I use to be a Christian and had a deeply personal relationship with Jesus Christ. To this claim some Christians may bristle saying: “You must never have been a real Christian!”, elaborating with something like:

  • You never really knew Jesus (like I do)
  • You never really understood the Word of God (like I do)
  • You fooled yourself and were never really in God’s family (like I am)
  • You were only a superficial Christian (unlike me)
  • You sadly gave in to the temptations of sin (but I haven’t)

I find the similarities entertaining.

Question to readers:   What do you think about Atheist & Christian “Prescriptionists“? I am an accidental atheist — I am not the least bit tempted to draw lines for membership.



Filed under Philosophy & Religion

34 responses to “What is a Real Atheist?

  1. TWF

    I don’t remember feeling that way about any atheist-convert-to-Christianity. Maybe I just haven’t personally confronted enough Christians for that to kick in. 🙂 However, I can easily see some atheists having the same reactions you describe.

    Along these lines, my strongest parallel is that I sometimes get a little frustrated by adults who openly broadcast their atheism when they haven’t “earned it” with any of the qualities that you mention in this post. I get kind of an elitist vibe of my own sometimes. I imagine many Christians who diligently study the Bible and/or actively participate in church or evangelism feel the same way about “slacker” Christians who do little to nothing with their faith. But normally I can scold myself into less elitist thinking by remembering that atheism doesn’t have a book to follow, and that we are all born atheists. Christianity doesn’t offer that “out.”

  2. Having been on both sides, in a very radical way, I have thought these thoughts on both sides. The funny thing is that in both positions these thoughts were very, very accurate. The truth is many people just do not think that deeply about things until they take a side and have to defend it. That seems to me to be when I have my best learning experiences.

  3. @ TWF:
    Yes, after you and I chatted, we realized that you spend very little time exploring atheist blogs. You are too busy writing and working! 🙂

    But I have run into the expression “You were never a real atheist” (or its equivalent) several times and thus I was inspired to write this.

    Instead of attacking a persons membership credentials, I feel it is more valuable to explore what they hold behind a word. I am sure you agree.

    Lots of atheists have “books” — albeit, implicit. They thing Darwin’s works, the Standard Model, and other ‘accepted’ theories of science are their bedrock of epistemology. Few atheists have done the hardwork of understanding the limitation of research, statistics and cognitive science. Instead, they are “slackers” like other believers. I think that is OK — except when they pretend otherwise. So that the sword can still strikes both camps, don’t you think?

    @ skeptnik,
    Thanks for the “confession”.
    (1) People often don’t think deeply

    (2) Taking a position on something is a very good motivation to explore — though it is often an equally good motivation to defend and build filters.

    Are the prescriptivist downfalls of both these positions are also obvious to you? Do you think that by defending labels we can often talk past each other?

  4. Declaring ‘this is what an atheist is’ seems like a bit of a dangerous idea to me. When you start drawing up things like membership requirements and things that you ‘need to have’ for someone to be an atheist, then things are going to go downhill. Different groups that disagree with each other will emerge, some people will feel unwelcome or left out, and those who say that atheism is a religion in and of itself might actually start to have a point.

    Being non-religious shouldn’t be complicated.

    As for people who were once atheists but then turn to religion, all I have to say is fair enough. Peoples’ views change over the course of their lives, sometimes in very dramatic ways. It could happen to anyone, myself included.

  5. I have always found these sentiments (from either side) more than a little absurd. Especially considering that for *much* of the Christian world and all of the atheist one, their respective faiths (please no one pile on me for using this word here: if you don’t like it feel free to substitute whatever you feel more appropriate) are primarily matters of belief, not praxis. If atheism was *about* understanding science then sure, they’re not *real* atheists. But then, who would be: those who read press-releases on scientific topics or fluff science pieces in Scientific America;, or only those who *really* understand science, like PhDs (and then does geography count as much as physics, and what about math)? It seems weirdly exclusionary and would necessarily have ruled out my gramps from the atheist camp because he was essentially scientifically illiterate but nevertheless had nothing but contempt for those who believe in God. But he sure believed there is no God.

    It is sort of funny (in a wry, weary sort of way) coming from atheists, though, since they are often the very same people who imagine themselves to be non-dogmatic.

    The same for Christians, though I can at least see how they figure that knowing scripture is important (and some might be trying to convince *themselves* that they are in higher favour with God).

    At bottom, this is all monkey-brains in action: form coalition, sort into status hierarchy, rinse, repeat.

  6. Nicely said, James.

  7. “What do you think about Atheist & Christian “Prescriptionists“?”

    I’m happy to leave the arguing up to them.

    Maybe this is odd but I have no interest in talking anyone into agreeing with me or deciding who is or is not a “real” [fill in the blank.]

    There are so many other more interesting things in life to explore.

    Oh, and I think I forgot to respond to the comments in your last post. I’ll go do that now. 🙂

  8. @ Razorboy:
    I couldn’t agree more. Well said.

    @ Lydia:
    I forgot that your father was a preacher. Did you guys get a lot of theological discussions about what a “True Christian” is around the dinner table?

    I agree, there are too many more interesting things to consider, as long as their religion/philosophy/politics is not negatively impacting my life.

  9. practiceofzen

    Sabio – When the Dalai Lama said “my religion is kindness,” he helped to clarify the issues raised in your post. Kindness can occur only through action, or more precisely, interaction with other living beings. By defining his religion as he did, the Dalai Lama called attention to concrete action rather than the practitioner’s ego-identity. To my way of thinking, how we define ourselves is less important than whether our actions, at any given moment, are generous or selfish, kind or unkind.

  10. sgl

    i found an interesting 4 stage model of spirituality of M Scott Pecks’ to be interesting, particularly what prompted him to develop his theory. a good summary is at: M. Scott Peck and the Stages of Spiritual Growth , which links to another article with a more complete description.

    also of interest is the notion of “scientism”, as distinct from science:
    “Science, at its core, is simply a method of practical logic that tests hypotheses against experience. Scientism, by contrast, is the worldview and value system that insists that the questions the scientific method can answer are the most important questions human beings can ask, and that the picture of the world yielded by science is a better approximation to reality than any other. Science and scientism are not the same, but it’s one of the most common habits of modern thought to assume their identity – or, more precisely, to fixate on science and fail to notice that scientism as a distinctive worldview exists at all.”

    2 interesting essays talking about scientism, titled “Toward Ecosophy”, and “Toward Ecosophy”


  11. @ practiceofZen :
    I agree that actions speak louder than words. But much of our life is not filled with any opportunity to be generous or kind to others — I’d say the vast majority of our life is not. And I am not a believer that “kindness” is an end above all else. So, though kindness is very important to me too. Though an aphorism like “my religion is kindness” may be useful, at other times, it may be limiting. All idealisms fail, no?

    Have you read David Chapman’s post on Niceness & Buddhism?

    @ sgl:
    I was a psych major in college — a Christian college. I heard a lot about Peck — though he is now a vague memory. I have always been suspicious of “stages of spirituality” models. Interestingly, his life was apparently pretty tumultuous. For like many fine theories of ethics or psychological health, those that dream them up prove to us that knowing and doing aren’t always the same. And heck, maybe the theory is wrong if it didn’t work for him.

    But the conclusion of the posted you linked to is that being religious or not religious is not the key to happiness — it is fit. Whether HIS theory is right or not, I think that can be true.

    I’m not sure why you were talking to me about the difference between science and scientism or how it related to the OP.

  12. sgl

    re: science and scientism
    i think many atheists believe that everything they believe is “scientific”, when in fact some things are “scientism” or a value judgement beyond what is justified by science. not sure this example would fit the original author’s def’n of scientism, but as an example, we have the science to create nuclear power, but whether we should use nuclear power is a value judgement. (or genetic engineering would be similar — just because we can, should we?)

    I think there are some people who would view those as “scientifically obvious”, when in fact it’s a value judgement, and i suspect most of those people are atheists. and these value judgements are so deeply embedded in many people’s thought processes, it’s hard to see it.. (i speak from personal experience in that regard.) so that’s how it relates (in my mind anyway) to the topic at hand. perhaps too tangential tho, so sorry for the thread drift if it is.

    re:4 stage model
    i agree the map is not the territory. but i suspect many atheists and agnostics think the only religious choices are fundamentalism or scientific (scientism?) atheism. the part i find interesting about the model is the notion that the stage 4 mystics aren’t the same as the fundamentalists, ie, that some people think there’s some truth and value in religion but aren’t dogmatic in the same way, but more ‘universalist’. and i think there are many people that aren’t even aware of that as a choice (because so few churches are open to such perspectives.)

    even sam harris, so called new atheist, says that he thinks contemplatives of all religions are on to something in the second half of
    this article.


  13. Yes, I think both those points are valid.

  14. Ah, I am not of the persuasion that “all contemplatives” are onto the same thing — btw. It is a big conversation among Buddhists and Hindus. But that is off topic. Thanx

  15. As a Christian I often relied on the No True Scotsman fallacy, but I can’t imagine doing the same thing now and accusing a former atheist of never really having been one. Maybe it’s because I don’t draw my identity from my non-belief like I used to try and draw it from my belief. These days I’m less afraid of uncertainty and ambiguity.

    Not sure if that answers your question?

  16. @ MichaelB: A fantastic answer! Thanx.

  17. When I hear a xian say “I used to be an atheist!” I naturally tend to doubt that claim. But my response to them is not to hit them with the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, but to ask them questions to get them to clarify what their position was. Questions like “OK, so you were once an atheist. Can you explain the reasoning behind WHY you were an atheist then? Were you raised non-religious? Or were you religious and then de-converted? If you did, can you explain why it was you de-converted?” Their answers should make it abundantly obvious whether they were actually an atheist, or an apatheist, or a slacker believer, or just plain lying, all of which are possibilities.

  18. @ ubi,
    I was emphatically agreeing with you until you said “…whether they were actually an atheist,…”
    But I guess maybe you meant it in a huge broad sense that allows all sorts of different atheists, no?

  19. CRL

    I would say that, for the purposes of testimony, there is a difference between an atheist who was never religious, and never cared about religion much one way or another, and an atheist who chose to reject religion and has reasons for doing so. I wouldn’t call the first former atheist a lier—they had a time in life when they did not believe in God, they were truly an atheist—but I wouldn’t give their testimony any special weight because of their past beliefs. The latter, I would be compelled to listen to, to see why he had once rejected religious beliefs, in order to know why they now accepted something they had once actively chosen to reject.

  20. CRL

    Also, I’m not sure what someone having studied science or not has to do with whether or not they qualify as an atheist. Though I often find myself thinking that creationists must not have really studied evolution, not all believers are creationists, and not all evolutionists are atheists.

  21. I’ve heard just a few childish conversations like this, all of them in junior high. I sure hope adults aren’t using this type of tantrum dialogue. Most of us realize that Christianity and Atheism are labels that ultimately need to be defined by the individual using them.

    As you know Sabio I am secular, not atheist, and this causes some confusion. But people who are grown up simply listen to my explanation and are no longer confused after a good conversation about it.

    Atheists also I think should know what is science and what isn’t. Chatting in an informed way about science is nice, but being a professional means submitting work for publication, and actual science is published studies or at least active and accepted method.

    Christians, atheists, buddhists, mormons and others can all talk about and study science – anyone can.

  22. @ CRL
    “Giving weight” to testimony is interesting. IF by saying, “I was an atheist” they mean, I have already thought it all out, then the weight you speak of matters. I find that is not what they are doing. They may mean “I know what my life was like before knowing this god.” or any number of other things. We have to ask. And many folks who said, “I was an Atheist”, as you know, never “actively rejected” theism but instead may have been born in it or never taught to embrace it.

    Yes, I agree, studying science or not does not qualify an atheist. I agree. I was just quoting a silly argument.

    @ amelie,
    (1) Actually, on-line, you can hear these conversations often. I wonder if you have data to back up your claim that:

    Most of us realize that Christianity and Atheism are labels that ultimately need to be defined by the individual using them.”

    My experience has shown that huge numbers think otherwise. I am not sure what percent.

    (2) You’ve reminded me a few times that you are “secular”. The use of “secular” that I am familiar with is as an adjective, not as a noun like “atheist”. It usually means, something like “not related to religious …”

    So a “secular government” – means a government untied to a religion.
    a “secular ceremony” is a ceremony without a religion.

    So do tell us how you use the word. Or better yet, maybe you have a post on it and can give us a link. Maybe you use the word in a special way so it needs explaining. I hope your discussion tells us what you think of gods, spirits, ghosts and such.

    (3) Why did you say:

    “Atheists also I think should know what is science and what isn’t.”

    Atheism is just a position on gods — not science. But many Atheists (if not all thought-out ones) highly value science.
    Yes, I think believers and nonbelievers can all discuss, study and do science. I am not sure why you were making that point.

  23. Earnest

    @ Amelie: forgive my temerity, but I think Sabio is asking the reader to be self-aware whenever labels are used. I don’t think this is in any way a dumbed down or screamy discussion. I am also interested in what you think a secular person is. Is it the opposite of a religious person? And what, then, is a religious person? The set of all people with even the tiniest bit of quasi-belief in non-scientific things?

    If a secular person in your definition wishes to be self-actualizing while actively pushing the envelope of rigorous peer-reviewed science, I can accept that. If that’s an incorrect assumption of what your self-perception is, then fine. But leaving us all hanging on your understanding of secular is unsatisfying.

  24. @Sabio – at this juncture I have to apologize, I’m up visiting my family after a hectic presentation in front of the bosses (eek!) so not much time to respond. I would love a chance to continue responding in the next few days though. What a great discussion you spark, as usual.

    Below is the link to my post about secularism! I hestitated to post it, because I feel as though you’ve seen it already and don’t want to bore you. But anyway, there it is. Would be more than glad to hear your opinion on it.

    I’m also embarassed to say I still haven’t mastered the html you taught us; but I plan to practice on my own blog this week!

    I think the “most of us” phrase is a good case-in-point. If I had said, “32 percent of New Englanders think that atheists eat only chocolate ice cream”, well, then it would be pretty clear I need to provide evidence.

    But the phrase “most of us”, I think that’s clearly a generalization, and clearly just my stubborn opinion to boot. It’s almost a figure of speech. I’m not trying to convince anyone of that, it’s merely the way I think. I guess what I should have said is this:

    Most mature, grown-up people *should* know that people will have varying defenitions of what constitutes an atheist or a christian. If it’s a way of thinking, obviously there will be as many variations as there are types of people. And that’s fine with me. Let’s just hope that most Christians agree their belief should be based on helping others.

    My point about science is this: when we discuss science, there can be a lot of emotion and opinioin. But neither of those are science-based. Oxygen molecules don’t care if you’re a Christian or Atheist, Muslim or whatever.

    Therefore, we must stick to scientific method and published studies (or at least ongoing studies). Otherwise, we’re not discussing science, just emotion.

  25. Earnest, you’re going to have to be a lot more clear on what you mean. I don’t know where you got any of your conclusions about what I said. Please use quotes from my comments like Sabio did, or maybe my comment to him will clarify what I said.

    “Leave us hanging”? Becase I left a one day pause before responding? Some of us do have jobs, you know.

  26. Earnest

    @ Amelie: thank you for the link, that does clear things up for me significantly.

    I am far less declarative than yourself. I report myself as christian, but that belief is experiencing steady erosion over time as the wild claims of my leaders get harder and harder to believe.

  27. @ amelie
    [i put this comment on your post too]
    I went to your link — ah, you DO use it as an adjective “My Secular Life”.
    If you said, “I am indifferent to, and reject religious considerations.” then people would probably understand more quickly.

    Secular often is used to mean “not involving religion” in any given domain. So a Christian could be a secular when it comes to government. Thus using “secular” can be confusing in that sense.

    Saying what one feels about gods, spirits and such can be useful. Understanding that belief in spirits may not hinder good science, as you say, is important too.

    But I get your point. But I think the your distinction between your “secular” and “atheist” is only one of attitude in that you are saying, “I am an atheist who does not condemn religion outright.” But if you don’t like the label, no matter how it is qualified, I don’t care. I am not fond of labels except that they help us communicate clearly — which is no small feat, eh?

    Thanx for the link

  28. @Earnest – I can only imagine; one of my best friends in grad school was a devout Christian from Kansas who also studied evolution and climate change; she was attening our very liberal school, few religious people indeed. Yet she managed to have a good sense of humor, hold onto her faith if only in a way that was meaningful to her. I think it can be done. Some of the best neighbors we ever had were Christian, and I think some of the more down to earth values are worth holding onto.

  29. @Sabio thanks for responding and hey, THE ITALICS WORKED! Thank you! (I should have put that last sentence in bold but I’m exhausted from figuring out the first one, LOL!) I shall have to practice.

    Anyway……I’ve used secular as a belief system for some time now, I think it’s mostly based on that defenition I put forth. If atheism was strictly a word meaning someone who does not believe in God, I think that would be correct.

    However, I think it’s obviously come to mean much more than that, so it’s not just attitude for me, the word Secular is more meaningful to me as a belief system. It’s not so much that I “don’t condemn religion”. It’s more that I simply don’t think about it in my daily life. Atheists on the other hand, clearly think about religion at least once in a while.

  30. Yeah, I get what you are saying, amelie — keep up the good work with HTML!

  31. Earnest

    @ Amelie: thank you for the kind comments. I really don’t feel much stress from either the anti-religious or the non-religious as at this point I have largely become a christian in name only. I have social atavisms which cling to me while much of the rest of me has moved on to more logical territory.

    You are refreshingly inclusive towards my poorly defined lumpy belief system and I appreciate that.

  32. mmmm…good questions. I think that the whole move of using a former identity, either atheist or christian, as a narrative stepping stone to our current stance can be problematic. So… “i used to believe in Christianity but now i see it is… Or, i used to be an atheist, i was so wrong, now i believe in…”

    Either of these moves, when used as a way to pose the former identity as inferior, stupid, and naive and trumpet the superiority of their current status are failures to grow in consciousness and maturity.

    Something like this also goes on WITHIN various strands of either group. Because i am a Christian, i like to call these standards of faith that some apply to others to see if they are truly Christian or the most authentic kind of Christian a “test of orthodoxy.”

    So a question can be asked such as “what is your position on gay marriage, or on American foreign policy in the middle east?” etc. Your answer to this question will determine to some whether you are REALLY a Christian or just a milquetoast, half hearted Christian.

    There seems to be a strong desire for some to have clear black and white boundaries about identity. Sabio i am sure you have heard of the bounded set model. Many right wing evangelicals work within the philosophical framework of bounded set. They are often the ones who employ the tests of orthodoxy even to other Christians.

    Many muslims also fall into this category.

    But i would like to point out the wonderful work of John Polkinghorne who is a Quantum Physicist and writes very persuasively about Christian faith and science.


  33. @ James w,

    I agree with much of what your wrote. I am glad you found a “quantum physicist” that you feel is somehow “persuasive” about some flavor of Christianity that you evangelize.

    I must say, unless his book lands in my lap, I doubt I will be reading him soon. Meanwhile, for your reading pleasure:

    (1) Dawkins criticizes him here,

    (2) Here is another chap that wrote on him.

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