It's just a rhetorical strategy, like the conspiracy theorist who insists he began researching UFO's or the JFK assasination as a "complete sceptic". Nobody could travel from atheism to religious belief in good faith, right?
Well, I think that's nonsense. I myself spent a long time hovering between atheism and agnosticism before finally becoming convinced of the truth of the Catholic faith. I am perfectly willing to admit that I was always predisposed towards religious belief. But if that was decisive, why shouldn't I have been a believer all along?
Anyway, today I came across an email I sent to an agnostic called Mark Vernon, who sometimes writes for The Guardian, and who was formerly a Church of England priest. It was in response to a post entitled "Common Mistake Atheists Make", which I cannot find now, and it is dated October 7th 2007:
I have just read your post, "Common Mistakes Atheists Make". I am currently pondering the question of God's existence (I will probably end up an agnostic like you), and I thought your post was very good, but I did find this paragraph a bit shaky:
Another reason why I think God will always be an open question is that any perception of God someone claimed to have would always be indistinguishable from some natural experience. We are finite, so our sense of the infinite will always be limited to suggestions within the finite world: it is simply impossible for us to experience the infinite directly. So with God - if God should exist. God is wholly other, as the theologians put it.
While it's true that any experience of God would have to be mediated through our senses, and would thus be in their fundamental nature indistinguishable from natural experiences, surely the question of explicability and probability rears its head here. The Christian God is supposed to intervene (or to have intervened at certain times) in our physical reality. But atheists can rightly point out that nothing resembling a miracle or a supernatural event has been reliably recorded. Your argument would only be sound if a divine experience would, by necessity, have to conform to our accepted natural laws as well as be apprehended through our faculties. Surely this isn't the case?
Or, to put it more simply, an angel appearing in Trafalgar Square would be pretty compelling evidence for God's existence.
I may be misunderstanding your argument, however. Many thanks for your interesting post
Maolsheachlann O Ceallaigh
Mr. Vernon was kind enough to reply, which I won't share as I always feel iffy about publishing emails sent to me without permission.
Anyway, that's not the point. The point is that I do believe that a person can become a religious believer from a non-religious position in good faith, since I did so myself. Of course, I could have simply fabricated the email, but you'll just have to take my word on that.
(As for my argument in the email-- I suppose it rested on the belief that God, if He existed and sought mankind to believe He existed, should provide some inarguable evidence, like an angel appearing in Trafalgar Square on camera. I no longer find this argument at all convincing, and indeed, I find it rather shoddy. How would there be any room for faith if God made His existence indisputable to even the most stubborn sceptic?)