Could an Atheist convert to Christianity? Part 2.

July 13, 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. Or are atheists are just too ignorant, depraved, or stubborn? 

I have been pondering this Conversion Dilemma, while 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 we should also look at another fascinating work of his:

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

I have posted a first selection here . To continue our reading pleasure, we continue where we left off, 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. 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. CLXXXVII. Whether there be any other Cause of Incredulity beside an Inclination to Vice.

BUT all who reason on the Causes of the Difficultys in converting Men to the Gospel, don’t universally affirm, they arise from an ill Disposition of Heart only. They think it possible the Difficulty may sometimes proceed from an involuntary Darkness of the Soul; and that as there are Objects we can’t perceive with the naked sight, tho desir’d ever so much, so there are Truths which ne’er appear such to our Understanding, even where there’s a good Will and Endeavor to apprehend ’em. Let People say what they please, our Facultys never act, unless the Object bear a just proportion to ’em. If the Object of Sight be too minute, or too distant, or in the dark, we may pray long enough to see ’em, but rest satisfy’d we never shall, and yet have good Eyes too. On the other hand, if one’s born purblind, we may hold him an Object at a just distance for a good Organ, and yet he ne’er discern it. And who has inform’d us, that the Objects of the Understanding don’t require the same proportion to its Facultys, in order to be perceiv’d? Where is’t reveal’d, that a good Will to believe ’em true, is sufficient to make their Truth evident? Who has told us, that the interior Light of the Soul is always clear enough to perceive all presenting Objects at any distance, or under any kind of Veil? For my part, without denying that many wilfully blind themselves, I stand by what I said before, that ’tis an incommunicable Divine Prerogative to know who are maliciously blind to the Mysterys of Faith. And as there are Understandings which see more Force in an Objection than in the Answer, tho the latter is more solid, and tho they are no way prejudic’d to either side; so others may give into Reasons of lesser Force, without being led by the Motions of any inordinate Passion.

The Philosophy of this Age proves in a most convincing manner, that the Soul’s distinct from the Body, and consequently immortal; yet how many are there who can’t comprehend the force of its Demonstrations? Don’t tell me, they are Persons who wish the Soul extinguish’d with the Body. For, quite contrary, they are such as ardently desire its Eternity. I appeal to Cicero , who assures us, he wishes in the first place, that the Soul were immortal; and in the next place, if not so, that he were however persuaded it was. He adds, while he’s reading over Plato’s Discourse on the Soul, he thinks himself convinc’d by his Arguments; but as soon as he lays the Book by, and reflects a little, all his fine Persuasion vanishes. Next I appeal to Seneca , who tells us, He took a Pleasure in reasoning on the Immortality on the Soul, or rather in believing it; he readily entertain’d the Opinions of several great Men, who promis’d rather than prov’d this agreeable Point. I gave, says he, into the mighty Hopes.

Here are two of the finest Wits of Antiquity doing their utmost to believe the Immortality of the Soul, and yet far from being thorowly convinc’d. Some on the other hand, according to the Remark from Minutius Felix cited before, wish the Soul extinguish’d with the Body, but can’t bring themselves to believe it. We see thousands daily in Distraction, that they can’t doubt of a hundred things they wish they had never known, and vainly striving to Shut their Eyes to the Merits of an Enemy. ’Tis not true then, that our Passions are always the Rule of our Opinions. And ’tis false, that whenever we don’t clearly perceive an important religious Truth, we are under the Power of some secret Passion, whose Interest it is to keep us in the dark.

But ’tis of no great Consequence to my present Argument, whether Men resist the Gospel, because their Understandings are cover’d with Clouds rising from a corrupt Heart, or because bury’d in an Abyss of involuntary Prejudices; for which way soever we explain it, still I have a right to maintain, that Atheists are not harder to be converted than Idolaters. Will you have it, that Men resist the Gospel, because it enjoins the subduing their Passions? I assert, and think I have prov’d, that Idolaters are as great Slaves to their Passions as Atheists. Or will you have it, that they resist the Gospel, because it requires ’em to believe things incomprehensible? I assert, and think I have prov’d, that Idolaters have their Understanding as much darken’d, and stuff’d with as many ridiculous and extravagant Prejudices, as Atheists.

Sect. CLXXXVIII. How the Pagan Religion tended to make Men Atheists.

When I attentively reflect on’t, it appears, that Atheists were not indeed of the best Mold to make bigotted Votarys to Paganism; but I don’t find why their Conversion to the true God shou’d be more difficult than that of Idolaters. The Pagan Religion taught things so ridiculous concerning the Divinity, that any Man of good Sense, who had grown up in Atheism, wou’d chuse to continue in his Principles, rather than acknowledg such a set of Gods as those of the Heathens. ’Twas besides a Religion authorizing the most abominable Crimes; and this it was made the Atheists scorn and detest it as a piece of State Policy, equally cruel and illusive: This occasion’d their saying, Were Religion given by the Gods, ’twas rather a Mark of their Wrath than Goodwill towards Men. This, in short, prevail’d with many to renounce it, and betake themselves to Atheism. Hear what Plutarch delivers.

’Tis Superstition, says he , gave Birth to Atheism; and ’tis this daily gives a handle for its justifying and defending itself, if not with Justice, at least with Colour and plausible Pretence. For they who first embrac’d Atheism, were not mov’d by any Flaws they observ’d in the Heavens or the Stars, in the Seasons of the Year, or Revolutions of the Sun, which by its Motion, makes the Night and the Day; nor yet by any Defect or Inequality in the Provision made for the several Species of Animals, or the Production of the Fruits of the Earth: No, Superstition alone was the original Cause; its strange Behavior, its ridiculous Passions, its Speech and Gesture, its Sorcerys and Enchantments, its Mazes and Wandrings, its filthy and abominable Purifications, its Drums, its shameful beastly Incontinence, its barbarous Mortifications, the Crueltys exercised on itself in the open Temples; these fine Things all together are what gave some Persons occasion to say, twere better Men had no Gods at all, than such as cou’d approve these Practices, cou’d take Pleasure in Services so strange, abuse their strictest Votarys, be angry nobody knows why, and disturbed about Trifles. In effect, had not the Gauls and Scythians been much happier in never hearing of Gods, in never having had the least Thought or Idea of ’em, than in believing there were such Beings, yet such as took Pleasure in the Effusion of human Blood on their Altars, and accessed, these barbarous Sacrifices as the thing in the World most agreeable to their Nature, and most worthy of their Majesty? And how much better for Carthage, had a Critias or Diagoras been its Legislator, Men who believ’d neither a God nor Spirit, than offer Saturn his usual Sacrifices?

The Religion of Idolaters being such as we see, there’s no Probability an Atheist wou’d change sides, or bear a part in their comical and criminal Worship. But were the Christian Religion fairly propos’d, which teaches concerning God, only all things great, and holy, and sublime; which enjoins the practice of the purest Vertues, and the most conformable to right Reason, he cou’d not have the same Difficultys to alledg: So that unless the reigning Passion of his Soul, or some prodigious Stupidity obstruct, he must see that embracing the Gospel-Profession is infinitely a more reasonable choice than the way he is in.

[ to be continued ]