Every so often when I am discussing or debating religion with someone, he or she will tell me that at one time they were once an atheist just like I am now. I even had one person call himself an “ex-atheist.” I always found this kind of odd considering that all Christians (and even all theists for that matter) are by definition “ex-atheists.”

What most Christians don’t realize is that we are born without belief in a deity... any deity. Babies don’t believe in deities and religions because they are babies. Their minds have not yet developed and they can’t even recognize themselves in a mirror. They don’t believe in ghosts or tarot, nor do they believe in the boogieman, Santa Claus, or Gods. They are a blank slate as far as complex beliefs go. All babies have are instincts and the nurture of the womb. In other words, people are born without the belief in deities. We are all born atheists.

However, religious indoctrination starts very early on in most families and so by the time a baby can express any kind of thoughts at all, they have probably already been brainwashed to believe in a deity and/or in some sort of religion. This is a sad fact about religious institutions that they can’t even wait until someone has reached the age of reason to start warping young and fragile minds with indoctrination.

So why do some Christians pull out the “ex-atheist” card? Well, one technique in the art of persuasion is to identify with your subject. In this case, a Christian claims to identify with his or her mark by claiming that they once didn’t believe in God and the Bible. The problem with this is that a simple lack of belief is all that qualifies one as an atheist. In other words, a person who has never thought about religion is just as much of an atheist as someone who has studied the claims of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and has researched the Torah, Bible, and Koran and found that those belief systems are ridiculous.

Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame is one such person who frequently uses the “ex-atheist” card. But I doubt very much that Kirk Cameron cared about religion at all before becoming religious. He almost certainly didn’t study the claims of religion with any seriousness or rigor nor did he look at the history of Christianity and the Bible before becoming a fundamentalist Christian. He probably never argued with religious believers and probably never thought about any of the philosophical arguments. Yet he still can claim honestly that he was once an atheist.

On the other hand, many atheist activists (i.e. atheists who have actually studied religion and still don’t believe) were once religious. Many were even very religious and some were even fundamentalists. These particular atheists are often very knowledgeable about their particular religious sect and so when they de-convert it really means something. In other words, the claim of ex-Christian may actually carries philosophical weight while the claim of ex-atheist is usually pretty much just meaningless. I know many Christians will claim this is a double standard. But the reason for this double standard is a valid one and so the ex-atheist Christians really have no persuasive ground to stand one.

So when discussing religion with someone who throws out the “ex-atheist” card, it is important to ask them about their former atheism. How knowledgeable of an atheist were they? Did they read and understand the counter-arguments to religious belief? Did they debate or discuss religion with believers when they were a non-believer? What’s their “street cred” so to speak?