Could an Atheist convert to Christianity?

June 30, 2010

Could an atheist become a Christian? 

One hears contradictory messages from Christians. The way that they plead and plead for nonbelievers to convert,  they seem to think an atheist could do it, with just modest effort.

On the other hand, one hears Christians account for the existence of atheism by complaining bitterly that atheists are just too ignorant, depraved, or stubborn. 

Which is it then? Is salvation awaiting an attentive and open-minded atheist? Or is it pretty much impossible for an atheist to convert?

While pondering this Conversion Dilemma, I was reading Pierre Bayle (1647-1706). He was a freethinking protestant who defended toleration of religious conscience and hated religious oppression. I recommend this essay on Bayle for an introduction:

Bayle is famous for his Dictionary , but then I was reading another fascinating work of his:

Miscellaneous Reflections, Occasion'd by the Comet [1708 trans.]

For our reading pleasure, I offer this selection, from the second volume. Bayle argues that an atheist is morally incapable of converting.  But there is a deeper message from Bayle than just his surface disdain for atheists. When he compares efforts to convert Idolaters (people of other religions) with efforts to convert Atheists, he might be actually defending atheists too. And he manages to say some provocative things about Christians, too. The text below follows the old-style spelling but omits footnotes. The whole book is available on google books.


Sect. clxxxiii. A Review of the Objection drawn from the Difficulty of converting an Atheist.

I Desire no other Answer to those who say, Atheism being the most incorrigible disposition of Mind, is necessarily worse than Idolatry. An Idolater, say they, whom you indeavour to bring over to the true Religion, is agreed in a great many Points. You lose no time with him in proving a God; whereas the Atheist sets out here, and such is his Obstinacy, that one grows old in wrangling with him e’er this single Article is clear’d. For which reason, Origin laboring in the Conversion of two Pagan young Gentlemen, one of 'em afterwards St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, allowed 'em to read all the Philosophers and Poets except those tending to Atheism; judging it infinitely more dangerous, being accustom’d to hear there was no God, than to be acquainted with the different Opinions of the Philosophers concerning the Gods, whose Worship, the more extravagant it was, the likelier to render Men susceptible of the true Religion.

I intreat those who reason at this rate to consider,

I. That for one Atheist who persists to Death in his Impiety, there are a million of Idolaters in the same Bond of Obstinacy.

II. That the Perverseness of this small Number of Atheists proceeds not from their Atheism; for according to the Remark I have already made, they ought by their Principles to comply with the Religion of the Country: And not doing this, we must conclude, they are obstinate from natural Temper, and possest with a furious ambition of distinguishing themselves by ways extraordinary; a Disposition which may make one, persuaded of Religion, stand Fire and Fagot in defence even of Atheism. This being the Case, had Vannini been an Idolater, a Jew, or Mahometan, he had been at least as ill dispos’d for the reception of the true Religion, as the most obstinate Atheist.

Sect. CLXXXIV. Whence arises the difficulty of believing.

III. Besides, I’d have People attentively consider whence the Difficulty of converting Men to the Gospel proceeds. Those for the most part who reason on this Subject, seem persuaded, that the Difficulty arises not from Mens being requir’d to believe incomprehensible Mysterys, but from being injoin’d to renounce their Lusts and Passions. Thus People generally speak of this Matter.
Were no more requir’d to the being a Christian, than saying in one’s Heart, I believe what’s told me of the Mystery of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and all other Articles the Church will have me believe, without obliging me to comprehend; the Profession of the Gospel cou’d deter none: every one wou’d undertake to believe whate’er was propos’d, provided he were not requir’d to crack his Brain, or live by any other Rule than Fancy. Not that Believing is so easy as some are apt to imagine; but that we take it for granted nothing’s easier, ne’er reflecting on the Nature of the thing. Some impose on the World, and wou’d be thought to believe what they really don’t; but much the greater number impose on themselves, not considering nor thorowly apprehending what it is to believe. Be it how it will, every one judges himself capable of professing Christianity, when he imagines that to be a Believer, ‘tis sufficient in a careless way to signify he’s possest of that speculative Faith concerning the Mysterys which costs nothing, and that superficial Faith which rests in the bare Understanding. But when told, that to believe the Gospel as he ought, ‘tis necessary to mortify his Lusts, to love his Enemys, to bear Injurys and Contempt with chearfulness; in a word, to strive against the Torrent of sensual Inclination: then Nature and Reason revolt in Confort, the Man will hear no more of the Christian Religion.

Reason, which just before was ready to take the Veil of implicit Faith, accustom’d as she was to be reserv’d even as to the Credulity of Idolaters, acquiescing in Doctrines not only more incomprehensible than our Mysterys, but also fraught with Absurditys, Farce, and staring Contradictions: Reason, I say, will no longer hear of believing things she can’t comprehend. This is downright industrious Illusion, or a study’d Pretence to conceal the true Cause of our Unbelief. We dare not avow, that the Reason why the Gospel do’s not sit easy, is, because it injoins us to live vertuously; we dare not, I say, avow this, tho this is all the Grievance. So some blind Excuse is trump’d up, and we set our selves to dispute against the speculative Articles. The Heart, determin’d ne’er to yield, makes the Understanding, its old Bubble, take up Arms in its defence. St. Chrysostom’s inimitable on this Point, and ‘tis from him we take this Maxim, That the Reason why we believe not a Divine Revelation, is our unwillingness to live up to it.

If this Reflection be right, it follows that Idolaters, however inur’d to the belief of things incomprehensible, are no better dispos’d for Conversion than Atheists; because that Resistance, which the Heart makes against the Holy Spirit, springs intirely from the Corruption of natural Temper, the Unruliness of the Passions, an inclination to Sensuality, Qualitys all prevailing no less in Idolaters, than Atheists. ’Tis a Mistake then to fancy the worst is over, when those we’d convert to the Gospel are previously persuaded of the Existence of a God; for all the great Obstacles are still in the way.

As to the alledg’d Authority of Origin, I’l presume to say, his Reasoning at best can pass only for probable. It can’t be deny’d there’s something plausible in’t, when consider’d in one Import: but take it by another handle, it loses much of its Force. In effect, Mr. de Condom, who has so much Justness of Thought, and so much Soundness of Judgment, makes no scruple of reasoning in direct opposition to Origen, seeing he supposes Idolatry hard to be destroy’d, merely because extravagant. Idolatry, says he, appears as Weakness it self, we can scarce conceive the Necessity of such powerful Means to destroy it. But quite contrary, its Extravagance shews the difficulty of the Conquest; and its Contradiction to good Sense, how much this Principle was deprav’d. I don’t suppose this Prelate design’d a Parallel between Idolatry and Atheism; but ’tis plain, his Argument to prove Idolatry hard to be destroy’d, proves it harder than destroying Atheism. All the Senses, says he, all the Passions, every Interest struggled for Idolatry.

’Twas a Religion contriv’d for Pleasure; the Diversions, Games, Spectacles, and Licentiousness it self, made a part in the Divine Worship. Their Feasts were so many Amusements; nor was native Modesty laid aside in any Interval of human Life, so much as in the Celebration of their religious Mysterys. How shou’d Minds so deprav’d be reconcil’d to a Religion, holy, chast, severe, opposite to Sense, and intirely reaching forth to things invisible? Then he shews how powerfully Interest, that is, the Profits and Pomp of the Pagan Religion, the excessive prejudice for Antiquity, and Reasons of State, conspir’d to the Support of Idolatry. Now who sees not that these mighty Springs have no room to play in a Society of Atheists?

We shall see anon whether any other Cause may be assign’d for the Difficulty of converting Men to God, beside that mention’d in the Entrance of this Article.

[ to be continued ]