Christians really don’t like atheists. Since their worldview is founded in faith (as opposed to evidence) the absence of faith worries them. Their defence mechanisms include denying that atheists exist (they’re just angry at God), or believing that when the chips are down atheists will revert to belief (“There are no atheists in foxholes”). Another tactic is to denigrate atheism as an intellectual position; it’s not enough to disagree with Dawkins’s God Delusion, it needs to be dismissed as puerile and lacking any knowledge of the topic. Or they try to maintain that atheism is a faith position just like theirs (“It takes more faith to believe that all of this arose by blind chance”). Atheism as a faith position doesn’t worry them, any more than other religions worry them, since that would accept the central role of faith. But atheism as a considered lack of belief, owing to the lack of evidence, is anathema.
Hence a favourite tactic: wait until a prominent atheist dies, and then declare that they had a deathbed conversion and died accepting Jesus Christ as their Saviour. The beauty of this tactic is that said atheist can no longer speak up and refute the suggestion. Further, if any other atheist publicly doubts the claim, they can then be accused of dogmatically rejecting the claim for ideological reasons. Christians thus invent such stories about anyone they dislike, from Charles Darwin to Thomas Paine. In fiction, such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, they can do deathbed conversions for real (as it were).
I was reminded of this by the recent claim by evangelical Christian Larry Taunton that Christopher Hitchens was seeking God as he approached death. The book has been roundly panned by the critics, but will still warm the cockles of those who want to believe that even the most strident of the New Atheists secretly longed for a God that surely had to exist. The fact that there is no evidence of this, other than Taunton’s self-serving claims, need not trouble them, since the claim is not about evidence, it’s about faith.
But there is one argument that Christians like even more than deathbed conversions. And that is the apologetic line: “I too was an atheist until …”. The claim is usually accompanied by describing their past atheistic life as one of empty drifting, wallowing in meaningless depression. Lee Strobel, Josh McDowell, Malcolm Muggeridge, C.S. Lewis, Edward Feser: has there ever been an evangelical who has not tried this tactic?
Theologian Alister McGrath’s Twilight of Atheism claims five or six times in the first few pages that he is a former atheist (though this seems to have been only for a few months in his late teens), and his whole argument that atheism is in its “twilight” seems to be along the lines of “Well, I’ve stopped being an atheist, therefore …”.
The weird thing about such accounts, when read by actual atheists, is that they show such little awareness of how typical atheists tend to think that the claim of having been an atheist just doesn’t ring true, and seems to be more of a rhetorical device, a parable. But, no matter, such books are not intended to be read by atheists, they are there to shore up the faith of the faithful, who are comforted by the notion that people who have known the (supposed) nihilism and despair of atheism have at last found their way into the bosom of Christ.
You can be sure that, whenever a Christian talks of apologetic works such as Strobel’s The Case for Christ, the first thing they mention, gushingly, is that “he is a former atheist you know!”. The claim can be finessed further: Josh McDowell claims to have been an “angry” and “strident” former atheist, who set out to refute Christianity, but then found himself, totally against his will, being convinced by the evidence for Christianity.
But, the puzzled atheist asks, if that were really true, how come the arguments in his book are so pathetically bad? How come they are the sort of arguments that only appeal to those who already believe, rather than being something that would actually give an atheist pause? Again, that matters not, the audience is not the atheist, it’s the believers, who will lap up such works uncritically. The mere suggestion that atheists do eventually find their way into faith is all the “argument” that they need.