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What I Learned from 100 Atheists Who Converted to Christianity
Over the past ten years, I’ve listened to and learned from over 100 stories of former skeptics as they described religious conversion from disbelief to belief in God. I’ve asked each former atheist, What is the best way for Christians to engage with skeptics? After all, they have an inside view of what worked and what didn’t when it came to interacting with Christians. Through my conversion research, I’ve also paid attention to the role of Christians in the lives of the skeptics that help bring them toward belief. One of the most remarkable findings is that a clear majority, 82%, were positively influenced by Christians toward becoming open to considering Christianity. Similarly, in his recent review of 32 former atheists, researcher Joel Furches also found the majority were positively influenced by Christians towards conversion. He concluded:
By far the most significant finding is the influence of a strong Christian friend in these cases. A whopping 72% of these biographies included a positive encounter with a Christian or Christians as a major turning point in the person’s opinion of Christianity.
This surprising news is encouraging for us as Christians who often find ourselves dismissed out of hand, rejected, reviled, and reduced to cultural caricatures. What seemed to make the difference? How were Christians able to diffuse the negative stereotypes, break down walls, and build plausibility of belief as something attractive and good, worthy of consideration? These skeptics’ stories and advice reveal common threads we as believers can and should learn in relation to helping others find Jesus. Here are a few insights you might find helpful as you engage with those who seem resistant to faith.
Don’t presume. Ask questions and listen
Sharing the gospel with skeptics is in many ways like engaging with anyone who doesn’t know Christ. The first thing to recognize is that everyone is unique. Every person understands themselves and their views in ways that are particular to them in the context of their own life story. Just because someone calls themselves an atheist or skeptic doesn’t mean that we can presume exactly who they are and what they believe. It is important to take time to listen to their individual perspectives, to hear what they believe, why they believe it, and to understand their views and objections to God and faith. Listening toward understanding not only allows you to value who they are and what they think, it also reveals personal issues that are often lurking beneath the surface of intellectual objections. Careful listening gives you a pathway toward meeting them where they are.
At times, we jump in with arguments and evidence before we even know what their objections are. In doing so, we might be answering a question they aren’t even asking or, even worse, dehumanizing them. One former atheist said, “It’s too easy to view people as nothing more than a collective set of arguments that must be defeated instead of another human being that is deeply longing to understand their world just like we are.” Listening first not only makes them feel heard and valued, but prevents us from pursuing tangents and building unnecessary walls. Asking questions reveals untested beliefs, helping someone to see that their views may not be as robust as they assumed and provides a door for openness and a way forward. Learning to genuinely listen through asking thoughtful questions paves a pathway forward toward developing relationship and understanding, toward having a meaningful conversation.
In a recent conversation with Christian apologist Sean McDowell, an atheist spoke of the problem Christians often have in presuming who atheists are instead of asking and listening:
Above all, the most frustrating thing is bringing in assumptions about atheists or about atheism that they had learned from Christians and asserting that and believing that over anything and I mean anything that I could possibly say… It’s nearly impossible to have a conversation with someone who won’t put down assumptions from other people who don’t even know me versus listening to what I have to say and allowing me to inform them on who I actually am and what I actually think.
Each person is a person, not merely a set of propositional beliefs that inform a worldview. It is that person who must be understood to discover how and why they formed the beliefs and outlook they hold. So, don’t presume. Rather, listen. First ask them to tell their story and then respond.
Be relationally present. Give them a better picture of Christianity
It is also important to be present in the lives of atheists and skeptics as an authentic follower of Christ. Atheists typically view conservative Christians through an increasingly critical lens and desire social separation. Guenther’s (2014) research showed that skeptics see religious believers as a group wholly unlike themselves—from naïve, gullible and/or stupid to narrow-minded, tyrannical, and even evil, posing a social or political threat to education and society. These negative stereotypes then prompt dismissal of Christians and Christianity without thoughtful consideration or genuine interaction. Again, Joel Furches agreed,
Before converting, practically everyone in these stories demonized or dehumanized Christians in some way so as to reduce them to caricatures rather than individuals. Prior to these encounters, most of these atheists had an inaccurate idea of what Christians believed and how they lived out those beliefs.
The resulting unfamiliarity, unwarranted judgment, fear, and distancing makes personal and social connection less likely. The opportunity for authentic exposure to Jesus becomes more and more remote. One former atheist stated it this way,
If you don’t have a Christian who is in your family or who is a friend or crosses your path, what other positive messages are there? They’re not that plentiful.
In today’s polarized culture, when there is limited to no personal exposure or relational encountering with genuine Christ-followers, negative perceptions are built on the backs of derogatory cultural messaging. Your life displays an embodied example of what genuine Christianity looks like, providing a positive counter-narrative. When Christians are found to be surprisingly intelligent, loving, or genuine, unfavorable perceptions are challenged, and resistance is disarmed. Skeptics can find themselves attracted to that which they once held in contempt.
Over half (54%) of former atheists in my research honestly admitted that they did not find atheism to be generally satisfying but soberly accepted it as truth. And, meeting a Christian can make all the difference, showing a different way to live. It can open the possibility toward reconsideration of Christianity as attractive, something worth pursuing. Encountering Christians who live a qualitatively different life from their own provides a disruptive embodied witness showing them what a Christ-centered life could look like.
Be present in a time of need. Show them what love is
Being relationally present in someone’s life not only allows them to see that their negative preconceived notions were mistaken, but it can rebuild their impressions in a more positive light. Being present allows you to be available to them when and if they become open to seriously consider who Jesus is, what the Bible says, or whether Christianity has more to offer than their own worldview. This is true especially if someone has felt the absence or hiddenness of God in their life.
In my research, former atheists were asked about their main reason for disbelief in God among several options. Their most common response was “lack of subjective evidence for God” (62%). In other words, they didn’t feel or see God in their lives in some personal and palpable way. Expectation was met with disappointment and turned into doubt and rejection. As Christians, our care toward them in a time of need can demonstrate the presence of God to them, softening them to the gospel. One-quarter of former atheists (24%) reported that care and concern from Christians attracted them toward God after a personal crisis. Former Jewish atheist Nikki wanted nothing to do with Jesus until she became seriously ill. The only person who seemed to care was a Christian whom she had met earlier in her life. Nikki said she “just needed to be loved” and receiving genuine care from a Christian softened her heart toward the gospel.
Interestingly, the majority of former skeptics in my research first decided Christianity was good or attractive, as something they desired, before they became willing to look to see whether it was true. Our lives intersecting with non-believers can and does help open the door to faith in ways that were not possible when there was little to no personal connection with Christians. Salt makes no difference when it sits idly on the table, apart from the food. It must encounter food in order to enhance or preserve. Let’s be intentional about engaging with others, showing them the love of Christ and then telling them about the truth of Christ.
Prepare your mind for action
While we are relationally present and investing in the lives of skeptics, we should “prepare our minds for action” as the apostle Peter says. We need to become equipped in understanding not only what we believe but also why we believe it. We need to be able to seriously address the big questions and hard issues so that when the door opens and objections come, we are ready to effectively engage with thoughtful responses. When we are grounded in the truth our own biblical worldview and the emptiness of other views, we can interact with greater clarity, confidence, and compassion.
We are all trying to make sense of our lives and of the world around us. Skeptics may be grappling with life's big questions, such as the origins of the universe, morality, and the nature, purpose, or value of human existence. This search for answers can lead them to explore a view of reality that offer explanations and provides a sense of coherence and understanding. This intellectual exploration may lead some skeptics to reevaluate their beliefs and become more open to the possibility of God. They may come across compelling arguments or evidence for the existence of God that prompt them to reevaluate their positions. We are called be ready to give reason for the hope we have when they begin to pursue the answers to their unanswered questions.
David was a high school science teacher who was also a Christian. Frank, his academic colleague, enjoyed his life as an atheist and wanted nothing to do with God, religious belief, or believers. He thought science held the best explanation for reality and dismissed faith out of hand. Thrown together on a bus ride for a school retreat, these two found themselves engaged in conversation about God, science, and historic Christianity. Frank was stunned to find David as an intelligent, articulate, and winsome communicator of faith. This was an unexpected event that opened Frank to ongoing weekly discussions. David was ready when the opportunity presented itself and was able to meaningfully engage with Frank, who is now an active contender for Christianity.
Be patient and persevering, not pushy
Along the same lines, it is good to keep in mind that someone’s willingness to seriously consider God or faith can take a long time. Waiting for openness requires what one former atheist calls “relational patience.” We need to remember that it is difficult for someone to change. The decision to become open to another way of thinking and living often doesn’t come easily but over seasons and even years. We need to “play the long game,” remaining invested, interested, and ready for when someone’s resistance wanes and they become open to consider what was once unthinkable.
A skeptic may be resistant, apathetic, unwilling, or unopen until something unexpected occurs. Typically, it takes some kind of disruption or dissatisfaction to interrupt someone’s life for them to consider something different. Over time, life events or circumstances can trigger a search for meaning, purpose, or truth. In moments of crisis, emotional vulnerability, or the desire to make intellectual sense of their lives, some may be more open to considering the existence of God. In my research, approximately one-fourth (22-28%) of former atheists began searching for more meaning, purpose, and satisfaction in their lives. It is important, then, to be both relationally present and relationally patient so that when the opportunity arises, you are there, the one whom they have been observing as constant in their lives.
Ashley found life as an atheist empty and bereft of meaning. Although she searched for satisfaction through the use of psychedelics, she continued to feel unfulfilled. It was through observing the faith and peace of her Christian friend and neighbor despite the loss of her child that drew her toward wanting to know more about Christianity. Amanda was a living testimony of what life in Christ looks like. She was not pushy about her faith, but patient, waiting for Ashley to become ready to hear more at the right time. In her case, as well as many others, investing while patiently waiting for openness was key. This seemed particularly true in close marital and family relationships. But, spouses, family, and friends were not merely patient, they were also prayerful.
We need to be constant in prayer for those who are far away from Christ. It is only through the loving work of the Holy Spirit that hearts, minds, and lives are changed. We work in participation with what He is already doing and depend fully upon Him to use us in ways that make the gospel both attractive and true. Throughout former atheists’ stories, it was not uncommon for converts to speak of people in their lives who had been praying for them, many times for years, even decades. Matt grew up in a difficult home with very little reference to God or faith. It was not a part of his world except for one occasion. As a child, he recalled having seen the well-read, beloved Bible of his grandmother whom he came to believe had been praying for him for years prior to him coming to faith. He became convinced that her prayers made all the difference.
So many times, we are not given the opportunity to be part of someone’s life who desperately needs Christ. Regardless, we can be constant in prayer, ever seeking our loving heavenly Father on behalf of those whom we love, whom we would love to find Christ. Let us be in earnest to bend our knees in prayer to the One who sees, who knows, who loves, and who draws hearts and minds to Himself. He is worthy of our trust.
Joel Furches, April 7, 2023, Hub Pages, “Atheists Who Convert—a Case Study,” https://discover.hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Atheists-Who-Convert-A-Case-Study.
 To hear Nikki’s story, listen to the Side B Stories podcast, Episode 12, https://sidebstories.com/podcast/jewish-atheist-meets-jesus-nikki-naparsts-story/.
 1 Peter 1:13.
 To hear Frank’s story, listen to the Side B Stories podcast, Episode 6, https://sidebstories.com/podcast/history-confirms-christianity-frank-federicos-story/.
 To hear Ashley’s story, listen to the Side B Stories podcast, Episode 21, https://sidebstories.com/resources/episode-number-21-ashley-lande/.
 To hear Matt’s story, listen to the Side B Stories podcast, Episode 21, https://sidebstories.com/podcast/atheist-to-pastor-matt-bagwells-story/.
— Jana Harmon is the host of the Side B Podcast, a forum in which former atheists and skeptics tell their stories of conversion to Christianity. She is a Teaching Fellow for the C. S. Lewis Institute of Atlanta and former Adjunct Professor of Cultural Apologetics at Biola University. She holds an M.A. in Christian Apologetics from Biola and a Ph.D. in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham. Her recently published book is entitled Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.
Reading for the Love of God
How to Read as a Spiritual Practice
What if we viewed reading as not just a personal hobby or a pleasurable indulgence but a spiritual practice that deepens our faith?
In Reading for the Love of God, award-winning author Jessica Hooten Wilson does just that—and then shows readers how to reap the spiritual benefits of reading. She argues that the simple act of reading can help us learn to pray well, love our neighbor, be contemplative, practice humility, and disentangle ourselves from contemporary idols.
Accessible and engaging, this guide outlines several ways Christian thinkers—including Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass, and Dorothy L. Sayers—approached the act of reading. It also includes useful special features such as suggested reading lists, guided practices to approaching texts, and tips for meditating on specific texts or Bible passages. By learning to read for the love of God, readers will discover not only a renewed love of reading but also a new, vital spiritual practice to deepen their walk with God.
“In Reading for the Love of God, Jessica Hooten Wilson makes the case for reading as a means of transformation into Christlikeness. Her own meditations on the theology, spirituality, and ethics of reading are punctuated with studies of great Christian readers, male and female, down through the ages, which adds a rich layer of historical insight to her own brilliant reflections. We live in an age of shallowness, and reading is perhaps its greatest casualty. But Hooten Wilson issues a clarion call to rediscover depth. This book is profound and practical at once. As St. Augustine would say, tolle lege (take and read)!”
— Tish Harrison Warren, Anglican priest and author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night
Find Reading for the Love of God at Amazon, Baker Book House, and other major booksellers.
Christian apologetics helps to quiet the doubts of those we are witnessing to and helps to effectively carry out the mission of God in the world.
The Master of Arts or Graduate Certificate in Christian apologetics* equips students in the discipline of defending the Christian worldview as objectively true, compellingly rational, and existentially pertinent to the whole of life. In addition to core courses in Bible, theology, and mentoring, through this degree students will learn the proper method of apologetics, the arguments for the existence of God, the finality of Christ, and the reliability of the Bible, as well as how to bring the gospel to those in other religions, learn basic biblical ethics, how to respond to contemporary moral questions, and how to respond intelligently to challenges to the biblical worldview.
*These degrees are pending HLC and ATC approval.
LEARN MORE AND APPLY AT:
The Augustine Way
Retrieving a Vision for the Church’s Apologetic Witness
What can we learn from Augustine about apologetics? This book shows how Augustine defended the faith in late antiquity and how his approach to engaging the culture has great significance for the apologetic task today.
Joshua Chatraw and Mark Allen, coauthors of the award-winning Apologetics at the Cross (an Outreach magazine and Gospel Coalition Resource of the Year), recover Augustine's mature apologetic voice to address the challenges facing today's church. The Augustine Way offers a compelling argument for Christian witness that is rooted in tradition and engaged with contemporary culture. It focuses on Augustine's best-known works, Confessions and The City of God, to retrieve his scriptural and ecclesial approach for a holistic apologetic witness.
This book will be useful for students as well as for pastors, church leaders, and practitioners of Christian apologetics. It puts pastors and churches back at the center of apologetics, transcending popular contemporary methods with a view to a more effective witness in post-Christendom.
“I teach a whole course on what makes theology Augustinian because I believe Augustine has much to offer today's church. I therefore welcome and resonate with the thought experiment behind The Augustine Way—namely, to articulate what Augustine would likely say and do as a pastor and defender of the faith if he were alive today. One thing is sure: Augustine would direct his appeal to hearts as well as minds by commending desires as well as doctrines in preaching the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel.”
— Kevin J. Vanhoozer, research professor of systematic theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
“In contemporary times, it is easy to associate apologetics with winning rather than witnessing, where apologetic training becomes an exercise in controlling the conversation. Chatraw and Allen show us a more excellent way: a nonanxious posture of persuasion that is critical and constructive, intellectual and imaginative, humble and hopeful. This accessible retrieval of an Augustinian apologetic calls us to recenter the local congregation and to renew the polluted cultural ecosystems where we live.”
— Justin Ariel Bailey, associate professor of theology, Dordt University
Find The Augustine Way at Amazon, Baker Book House, and other major booksellers.
100% online option available. For more information, visit the website here or contact the HCU School of Christian Thought at +(281) 649-3269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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