No True Scotsman forgets his kilt! (Photo by Anna Fischer)

No True Scotsman forgets his kilt! (Photo by Anna Fischer)


@CestMoiTom has a tricky situation with one of his friends:

@LawrenceMills My Atheist friend going Christian...

[email protected]CestMoiTom (Tom), 2-11-2009 17:26:20


@fyreflye Not sure how much of an Atheist he was. Maybe he was only acted a strong one because he wanted to be better friends with me

[email protected]CestMoiTom (Tom), 2-11-2009 17:23:48


@LawrenceMills I'm not planning to go along. But I will stay friends with him, he's a cool guy and hopefully I'll make him rational.

[email protected]CestMoiTom (Tom), 2-11-2009 17:37:25

What do you think about these words: “Not sure how much of an Atheist he was.” and “…hopefully I’ll make him rational.”?

One of the mistakes I make when discussing individuals in this situation is questioning the validity of their atheism before the conversion. It’s a gut reaction. We all dislike seeing our friends accept things we find foolish.

How often do you hear an evangelist or preacher say “I used to be an atheist, but then I met Jesus” or something eerily similar? How often do you think, “I doubt he was really an atheist” or “Atheists would never believe what he does now.” Regardless of the speaker’s intent, I suggest we re-frame how we think of former atheists. When we accuse them of being disingenuous  or  invalid, we are usually displaying perfect examples of the “No True Scotsmanfallacy.

Newsflash: Assuming an atheist is always (or even usually) making decisions based on reason is naïve.

Atheists don’t believe in a deity. That doesn’t mean we never will–or that we cannot–buy into the beliefs of religions someday. It means that at this moment we do not believe. Period.

Atheism  is our default from birth. It does not require work, critical thought, conversion, decision, or any other action. All theists were one atheists. they were just trained, taught, and convinced that theism was true.

When someone feels the desire to think and reason about what they believe on the topic of deities and the supernatural, then we can judge how they make their decisions.

Atheism and rational thought are not synonymous. Atheism and intelligence are not synonymous. Let’s get off our high horses and admit that we’re humans like everyone else: fallible, emotional, and sometimes  bone-headed arses.

Try not to say “no true atheist would _____.” If you’re baffled at why someone turns to Jesus, Allah, cults, Vishnu, astrology, or any other woo-full belief, just remember that in order to be a “true” atheist, all that’s required is a lack of belief in a god.

“True” freethinkers, however, are another story altogether 😉

Lesson of the day? Even atheists can be idiots. Encourage everyone to think reasonably and make free, educated decisions!

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13 thoughts on “No True Atheist”

RoofWoofer · November 2, 2009 at 7:55 pm

Good post. You make me laugh and think. Not sure about your #2, tho. Makes sense that we're born with curiosity first with no conclusions at all. Don't know that it would change where you end up.

    godlessgirl · November 2, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I think that is partially the point. Lack of belief in a god = atheism. Babies sure are curious, but that doesn't mean they believe in a deity. They're atheists.

      Thoughtful · November 4, 2009 at 7:54 am

      Babies don't have a concept of "themselves", free thought comes much later in the growth process. Atheism is the conscious decision to not believe in a deity. That requires a lot more self awareness than babies have. Even kids (under five) shouldn't apply. Before that time, a kid/baby isn't one or the other. They're just growing up, indifferently happy (when their well fed of course 🙂 )

        Jorg · November 4, 2009 at 8:03 am

        I think that is the bone of contention: whether an unconscious lack of belief in any gods can be called "atheism". I mean, babies don't have a concept of God either. But I suppose I agree with you more than not, since we all have an aversion to people calling their children "Christian" or "good young communists", after all.

        godlessgirl · November 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm

        "Atheism is the conscious decision to not believe in a deity."

        That is your personal definition? Okay, but you are missing the point that I tried to make. We're talking about different types of atheism. There are two : weak and strong.

        Weak atheism = a lack of belief in a deity.
        Strong atheism = denial of the existence of gods.

        This article from Austin Cline summarizes it pretty well.

        So when you're disagreeing with me, you may be thinking I meant babies are strong atheists because they deny that a god exists. No, of course I didn't mean that. I meant they're atheists by default because they lack a belief in a deity. Babies/children are weak atheists until they make a decision no their own later in life (or are indoctrinated either way).

          Thoughtful · November 5, 2009 at 1:59 am

          If I offended it wasn't the intention, and no I didn't think you were stating that all babies are tiny eight pound equivalents to Friedrich Nietzsche. To me though, it would be more accurate to say that babies are completely indifferent but going off of the definition YOU are using than I guess it would be correct to say that babies are atheists. Again I really don't think that is the most accurate thing to say, but oh well 🙂

The Big Blue Frog · November 2, 2009 at 8:31 pm

I've been guilty of making the same kind of judgment. I think it's just hard for us to understand why someone would, or could, just switch faith back on after it's lost. I think it would take some kind of galvanic revelation for me to believe in any kind of deity, or anything supernatural for that matter. I just have a higher standard of evidence.

Speaking of which, have you seen this article:

http://www.newsweek.com/id/220296?GT1=43002

When I read this, I thought, "Wow, his definition and my definition of 'evidence' are wildly different."

mcbender · November 2, 2009 at 11:07 pm

This has always bothered me too, and I've definitely been guilty of making that argument from time to time. No True Scotsman is very easy to fall into if you aren't careful.

Upon reflection, what it usually turns out to be is that I've conflated "atheism" with "skepticism" and "rational thinking" (with which it is strongly correlated, but which are not part of its definition).

Comparing it to the analogous phrase "I never believed in [Father Christmas/the Tooth Fairy/the Easter Bunny] before, and now I do", it's easy to see that "I used to be an atheist" doesn't imply anything in particular (and certainly not that the person making the statement was a skeptical or rational thinker in any way).

    mcbender · November 2, 2009 at 11:08 pm

    (My comment was too long, here's the second half)

    On the other hand… that is definitely what they're trying to imply. By saying "I used to be an atheist", the believer is playing off of those associations we make with the word "atheist", and trying to make us consider him/her more rational, more skeptical, etc than we might have done otherwise. In that respect, it is important to make the distinction clear and to point out to the person that he/she ought to clarify precisely what was the position which he/she used to hold.

    Jorg · November 3, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    "Upon reflection, what it usually turns out to be is that I've conflated "atheism" with "skepticism" and "rational thinking" (with which it is strongly correlated, but which are not part of its definition). "

    Precisely! Religious people do not have a monopoly on stupidity (and, much as it pains me to admit it, atheists do not have a monopoly on intelligence either):) I consider myself a skeptic, first and foremost, and my atheism is a natural corollary of my skepticism. That is not the case for many people, however.

greateighthsin · December 28, 2010 at 9:39 pm

I make the same judgment quite frequently, too. I’m so used to gnostic fundamentalists preaching that they were once “true atheists” simply because they were not believers in their childhood by default. Usually after some scraping of the surface I find that they were already deistic from the basic knowledge they get from society.

If I were to have a friend turn to the church, I would try to sway them away first. If they can not be moved, then I’d give them the basic warning of what healthy worshiping is, and how cults act so that they can stay safe and not become a fleeced sheep.

greengeekgirl · December 28, 2010 at 9:40 pm

Wow, hubs and I were just having this conversation five minutes ago.

Me (reading a blog that was not this fine blog): Wow, listen to this [reads post]

Hubs: What a stupid atheist.

Me: We’re definitely not immune to stupid as a demographic. Unfortunately.

Hubs: Yeah, but I wish they’d stop making us look bad.

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