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The quixotic ex-atheist

July 23, 2010

Although it’s a bit out of character and I prefer to scatter my posts among the various subjects that interest me, here is another skeptical rant. It concerns another ‘ex-atheist’ that was brought to my attention on Rational Skepticism. The relevant blog’s conversion story is here. Though I have no wish to give her more clicks & views, I’m going to quote a bit, so I’ll cite the source.

I find this to be a trope in the literary sense, a motif, a marketing strategy. Believers seem to enjoy keeping track of the ex-atheists and eagerly celebrate a prominent conversion, lurking like vultures over our deathbeds and scoring points at the expense of the senile.

Because of this, they’re often brought to my attention, and so I check them out as I have this Jennifer Fulwiler. As a skeptic, I haven’t ruled these things out in general, though I would be hard pressed to reconcile the xian god-concept with its apparent self-contradictions. Yet we keep finding these lifelong atheists turning to the faith. Based on what? Anything reasonable? Supposedly, as I saw here. Supposedly. But no, not really.

Jennifer’s blog speaks highly of believing scientists in history, and of taking up Pascal’s wager, and right away the poor quality of this argument becomes evident. A xian of course accepts arguments by authority, it’s built in to the belief system; but a skeptic does not, knows they may be fallacious. Authorities may count but they should be tested. And deciding to believe in something simply because some likable or famous or smart people do — not based on anything reasonable — that’s fallacious. And the wager itself has received its share of reasoned criticism. I have good cause to reject it.

Jennifer admits that her argument is one of personal experience, that she has no empirical evidence and that it could all be imagined. At the same time, she’s set enough in her new ways that she performs the typical questioning of sincerity of the ex-believer, like myself.

I cannot speak to the experience of former believers who saw no fruits of their belief in God other than to say that, based on my own experience, I have to wonder if they were conducting the experiment correctly, approaching it with humility and an open heart.

This of course is all the believer can offer the ex-believer. You’re doing it wrong. Yet even here, it’s a baseless assumption. You don’t know. In contrast, I do know — I don’t have to wonder — that Jennifer was doing it wrong. Argument by authority? Pascal’s wager, believing as the safe bet? Argument from personal experience? Wrong. Fallacious.

I don’t have to insult Jennifer over her supposed open-mindedness or sincerity. I can demonstrate that she’s just wrong. And from that, I can safely say that her skepticism was of poor quality. But I can see how it is tempting to namecall. Her argument doesn’t stand up to skepticism, to scrutiny. Then why did she change? What is this obsession with ‘ex-atheist’ bragging rights? Well, I have my suspicions…but they’re impolite.

Remember, Jennifer, what it was like to be an atheist, a scientist. ‘Proof just for you’ was never good enough then. Remember those scientific authorities who believed, and their discoveries? Newton, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Boyle? Were their theories proof just for them? No, hardly. And it shouldn’t be good enough now, but for whatever reason, it is. Just for you.

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