Bringing a cultural atheist into the flock is hard

I have a handful of friends and acquaintances from Europe – specifically, parts of Europe that are far more secular than the United States, and countries in which it is just as normal to be an atheist as it is to be a Christian here in the States. I remember a conversation I had with a fellow atheist friend of mine from Serbia. When she moved to the U.S., a friend of hers took her to church and tried to convert her. Suffice to say that she was unpersuaded, and remains an atheist today. And recently, a client of mine was telling me about her husband, from Denmark, who was similarly unimpressed by attempts to bring him into the flock.

As I pondered this, I started to think that there is a good reason for the stubbornness of these people. It's certainly not because they are simply incredulous; in every story told to me, these people practically pleaded for some kind of evidence to substantiate the claims being made. Then I thought back to my favorite apologist punching bag, William Lane Craig. He's the guy who goes around trying to make philosophical arguments to prove the existence of the Christian god. The funny thing is though that even though he has a website called "Reasonable Faith" and he tends to use scientific terminology like "logic" and "evidence", he's basically a Christian because he had a spiritual experience as a youngster. That's it. He's even gone so far as to suggest that even if all his arguments were discredited, he would still be a believer. Which is obviously true, because his arguments are retarded and have been repeatedly discredited. Anyway...

I think there's a pattern here. When I talk to devout Christian friends of mine, I find that they are simply impervious to reason. It seems that no amount of evidence is sufficient, and that no matter how confounded they are by the philosophical conundrums with which their faith inevitably burdens them, they still believe just as passionately as a newly "born again" sheep. Most people like me arrived at their non-belief through a careful, studied examination of the evidence. But believers, just like I had been once upon a time, are influenced by a tremendous amount of sociocultural pressure. They don't arrive at their faith by reading C.S. Lewis books; no, the McGraths and Craigs and Lewises of the world are for people who already believe. Instead, people come to the faith because it's deeply embedded in their sociocultural surroundings. Their family teaches it, their friends practice it.

But those who are influenced by such powerful sociocultural pressures tend to overlook the logical absurdities that are mandatory requirements for walking the path of faith. They tend not to ponder why they should believe they have a soul, why they should believe in a theistic god, why their wrongdoings offend this god, why blood sacrifice should have anything to do with forgiveness, or why they should accept the magical stories in the Bible as historical fact whilst dismissing the magical stories of innumerable other cultures as mere mythology.

Cultural atheists – that is, people like my Serbian friend who hails from a place where there is far less (if any) sociocultural pressure to accept supernatural magic as infallible truth. Thus, they tend to treat theistic claims about reality the same way they treat any other claim about reality – as claims whose credibility is contingent upon evidence.


  1. This is an interesting idea and I think it can be expanded upon. I did a research study in grad school about the experience of deconversion... One of my many findings was that those who never believed in god are a lot less emotional about their atheistic identity, than those who once did. And, anecdotally, I would say that they may also be less compassionate toward the role that religion may play for someone culturally... I think I may just be motivated to explore this further on my blog since my husband and I keep butting heads on the issue...

  2. Something I found kind of interesting while I was in Denmark is that despite having a state religion, it doesn't rule their lives. On the contrary, here it seems like in spite of religious freedom being one of the founding tenets of the country, it plays a much larger role in many people's lives and in the government as well.

  3. I guess I should clarify that I meant one religion seems to play a much larger role than others and exerts what I would consider an inappropriate amount of pressure in a supposedly secular state.

  4. That is certainly ironic, as it seems a lot of European countries with state religions are, on the whole, considerably more secular than we are. Maybe there's something about the impotence of a state religion that turns people away.


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