February 21, 2014

How an Atheist Could Become a Christian

Christian atheist ? Man in Hyde Park, London.
Christian atheist? Man in Hyde Park, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The scenario I am about to describe will strike some of you as farfetched, so I want to preface it by pointing out that I have known a few people who were raised Christian, spent several years of their lives as atheists, and returned to being Christians. I'd also note that I have heard from many atheists that even though they prefer atheism to their prior religions, they miss something about their prior religions, even if it mostly boils down to the social acceptance they received from being part of a religious community.

Suppose an atheist were to come to you and explain that he was raised Christian but abandoned this religion and has been an atheist for much of his life. He says that he is aware that there are probably no gods but that something has been troubling him lately, and he would appreciate your advice. He tells you that he has not been happy for some time and that he cannot help wondering if he might be happier if only he could be a Christian again. His family are all Christians, as are most of his friends. He says,
It isn't like I can just snap my fingers and start believing again. Still, I have found myself thinking lately that I would if I could. I mean, if I could somehow unlearn atheism and go back to being a Christian, I think I would do so.
He's serious, and the hint of sorrow you hear in his voice moves you. What do you tell him? Is there anything you could do to help? You could tell him some version of "it gets better" except that he's been an atheist for over 20 years and you see no reason to discount what he's telling you.

Some of you would not even consider helping him figure out how to believe again, and I am not here to tell you that you should do so. I'm not completely sure whether I would do so. Instead, I aim to focus on what helping him might look like if we decided to do so.

I think he's right about how belief works. It isn't something we can voluntarily turn on and off like a light switch. He cannot simply tell himself, "Okay, I'm a Christian again" and have it feel even remotely true. He does not currently believe, and there is little he can do to change this immediately. Such a thing has been compared to someone trying to unlearn how to read, and I think that is an appropriate metaphor. But what if there was something he could do that, while it would take some time, might allow him to restore his Christian belief. What might that look like?

Were I to take on the task of helping this atheist believe again and become a Christian again, here is what I would recommend to him based on my knowledge of how belief works:
  1. Accept that you do not currently believe, and do not get too hung up on it. Give yourself permission not to believe right now and view it as a starting point rather than an obstacle.
  2. Attempt to live as if you did belief, as if you were a Christian. Go where Christians go (e.g., church), and do what Christians do together. Start attending a Christian church that is reasonably consistent with your political views and spend time with Christians.
  3. Do not broadcast your atheism, but do not conceal your doubts either. Share your questions and your struggle with Christians. The odds are good that you will encounter Christians who have had their share of doubts and overcome them.
  4. Learn about the positive aspects of Christianity. Yes, there are some positive things about Christianity. As an atheist, you probably haven't been thinking about them much, so immerse yourself in them now.
  5. Read the good Christian apologists, those who have earned their reputations through the ages.
Is there any guarantee that this will work to bring every atheist who tries it to Christianity? Of course not! But it is what I'd recommend to someone who wanted to give it a try.

What is interesting and what I did not know until I finished reading God or Godless?: One Atheist. One Christian. Twenty Controversial Questions.is that this is not very different from what Christians would recommend to an atheist who wanted to give Christianity a try but was hung up on not believing what they need to believe to be a Christian. At the end of God or Godless, Randal Rauser outlines something quite similar to what I wrote above.
But perhaps you are not ready to commit to Christian theism. Perhaps it still requires you to believe more than you're able to accept at this time. So what do I suggest for you? Ask yourself if Christianity is a view of the world that you can accept provisionally as you seek to live in accord with the values that make us most fully human. If you find that you can take that step, then start doing so. Live as if Christianity is true. Begin exploring the rich intellectual and spiritual resources of the Christian tradition. Find a community of Christians with whom you can relate openly and honestly by sharing your beliefs and your doubts. Seek to live out the faith you do not yet fully possess through works of mercy and righteousness as you study, reflect, and learn. And then just see what happens.
While I agree that the approach described here probably has the best chance of success for an atheist interested in becoming a Christian, there are two important things about it that should be acknowledged. First, it is in no way specific to Christianity. An atheist who wanted to be a Muslim could do the same thing. And a Christian who wanted to be an atheist could even do it with atheism. I suspect that Randall might not want to admit this, but it is the case. This is about modifying belief and not about Christianity. The second issue is that nothing about this is likely to be easy. What is described here would require effort and a long-term commitment. The person attempting it would really have to want to modify his or her belief and would need to maintain that level of motivation for some time.

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