What Moves Someone from Skeptic to Believer? (Part One)
By Jana Harmon
Sometimes we look at others and think, “They’ll never change their views, their lives, their decisions, what they believe.” Of the former atheists that I've interviewed on the Side B Podcast, most of them thought they would never change from being an atheist. In fact, most of them thought if they ever changed their worldview, they would certainly not become a Christian. Anything except that.
In his book Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble commends us as Christians to disrupt the presumptions of nonbelievers from an immanent way of looking at the world towards the transcendent. I’d like to take that concept and apply it to the lives and stories of former atheists and ask the question, “What was the disruption in their lives that caused them to look for something more?”
Among the eighteen conversion stories that have aired on the Side B Podcast since last October, the atheists were not looking for God, not interested in spiritual or apologetics conversations until some form of catalyst occurred. These “disruptions” that roused them towards a search fell broadly into four types: 1) Disruptive Witness, 2) Disruptive Longings, 3) Disruptive Crisis, and 4) Disruptive (non-crisis) Circumstance. We’ll discuss the first two types in part one of this article, and the following two in part two.
First, a Disruptive Witness catalyst occurs when someone’s preconceived presumptions about God, Christians, or Christianity are countered in an embodied and/or intellectual way. This could be through direct personal interaction (embodied witness), when a nonbeliever actually meets someone who disarms or diffuses their negative stereotypes. They may be pleasantly surprised when they actually meet a normal, loving, intelligent Christian who lives out and/or thinks through their beliefs in a significant way. Their reductionistic caricatures of religious belief and believers are broken down and the plausibility of Christianity and Christians are built up, fostering a startling openness that was not present before. The brief accounts below illustrate this catalyst.
High school history teacher Frank Federico (Ep. 6) wanted nothing to do with God or Christianity. Belief in God was irrelevant and untrue. Christians were unintelligent and weird. He enjoyed his moral autonomy and thought science and religion could not be reconciled. Frank unexpectedly met a winsome, intelligent Christian science teacher who disrupted his preconceived categories. This unforeseen positive encounter was the catalyst that began his intellectual search towards truth and a complete life change.
After a soul-wrenching tragedy at age 7, Mike Arnold (Ep. 1) hated God. God was not good. He wrapped his emotional pain and fierce anger in intellectual armor, becoming a strong anti-theist, distancing himself from everything and everyone religious. Twenty years later his wife’s conversion deepened his rage, but his fury was suddenly disarmed when he encountered the love of a Christian couple. This meeting was the catalyst that led to an unexpected friendship and outpouring of love. They were able to answer his difficult questions. Through the couple’s persistent investment, Mike found that God was not only good, but true and real as well.
A Disruptive Witness catalyst may also occur in a more intellectual form through independent engagement with the Bible or substantive Christian writings or debates, whether it be towards an effort to disprove, or genuine searching for truth. Oftentimes, the profundity and explanatory nature of the Christian worldview takes them off-guard, causing an openness towards what they once thought impossible to believe.
Peter Byrom (Ep. 5) left God at the door of university in light of his “sincere doubts” and his “insincere motives” to live life the way he wanted. Desiring atheism to be true, he listened to the voices of the New Atheists, including their mandate to follow the evidence wherever it led. It led to Christian philosopher William Lane Craig’s debates and writings which served as the intellectual catalyst disrupting his prior notions of where the truth lay, sparking further investigation towards finding the truth of the Christian worldview.
Next, The Disruptive Longings catalyst may occur when someone actually understands the logical ends of their godless worldview, whether existentially or intellectually. They may have lived in a godless reality for a while only to find their lives dissatisfying and empty, prompting a sort of emotional or existential dissonance. This existential longing becomes the catalyst whereby someone becomes willing to reconsider their options and opens the door towards the possibility of God. Oftentimes, this is not something that comes early or easily, but rather over a season of despair over their own state of being. The catalyst may come in encountering Christians who live a qualitatively different life from their own or through independent searching for “something more.”
Jack Barsky (Ep. 15), a former atheist, KGB undercover agent, and successful business executive, had all of the trappings of worldly achievement and excitement. He considered himself too intelligent to believe in God, yet he was left with deep personal dissatisfaction and emptiness after a failed marriage. This existential catalyst allowed him to become willing to investigate the possibility of God, especially when he saw “a glow” on the face of a Christian woman whose deepest satisfaction was found in Christ. Her disruptive witness was an embodiment of Who he had been longing for all along.
Or, the Disruptive Longings catalyst may occur in a more intellectual form whereby someone becomes dissatisfied with the lack of substantive answers in their own worldview, or perhaps understands the reality of their own intellectual assent but finds their worldview doesn’t fit with their own lived experience. Spurred on by a cognitive dissonance, they are looking for a worldview that makes more sense of what they observe and experience, both with regard to physical reality as well as morality, dignity, and the human condition.
Jordan Monge (Ep. 2) was raised by her atheistic father, a philosopher, to think critically about her own atheistic worldview. By high school, she became deeply conflicted about the grounding of objective morality, and unable to find resolution within atheism, this became her intellectual catalyst towards searching. Her first year at Harvard University, she encountered another disruptive witness in meeting an informed, intelligent Christian who guided her through strategic-question asking and respectful discussions into finding not only the grounds for the moral law, but the Moral Law Giver Himself.
— Jana Harmon is the host of the Side B Podcast, a forum in which former atheists 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 in England. Her doctoral research studied the religious conversion of atheists to Christianity through the interviews and stories of 50 former atheists.
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Thank you for the insightful post Dr. Harmon. As Atheists, we definitely appreciate the points you brought up and think they are generally applicable across the board. From our own perspective, encountering the work of sophisticated analytic theist philosophers such as William Lane Craig, Richard Swinburne, Robert Koons, Eleonore Stump, Alexander Pruss, Josh Rasmussen, and many others showed that Theism could be an intellectually rigorous and rational worldview. From our experience, when open-minded Atheists are introduced to the cutting-edge work done by Theists in the philosophy of religion, it has led to a greater amount of epistemic humility and a more humble intellectual temperament.
For many of us, we've had parallel experiences to what you described above, with many of us starting out as Theists, but then encountering intellectual and philosophical Atheism as epitomized by individuals like J.L. Mackie, J.H. Sobel, Graham Oppy, William Rowe, Evan Fales, Quentin Smith, and others. These individuals showed us that Atheism could withstand not only the objections of many popular apologists but also the arguments offered by sophisticated Theistic philosophers of religion.
Regardless we are excited about the rest of your series and look forward to part II.