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Atheists Who Convert: A Case Study
Christians Who Used To Be Atheists
Looking at Stories of Atheists Who Converted
In February of 2016, this writer ran a very special series in his Christian column at the now-defunct Examiner website. The column posted an article each day of the month with brief biographies of notable atheists who had converted the Christianity.
The series received no small amount of attention. Christian readers voiced their enjoyment of what they considered redemption tales where people in the lost and desolate state of atheism saw the light and converted to true Christian belief. Atheist readers posted their displeasure at these tales of intelligent atheists who became confused by the deceptive fairy tales of delusional Christians and crossed over to the "enemy's" side.
Whatever the reader's take on the stories, one thing became clear when surveying these tales: there were a lot of commonalities within these stories. People did not move from atheist beliefs to Christian ones by happenstance - there were set, repetitive trends across the board within these stories. The question naturally arises, what may be learned when atheists convert?
This is a question which should interest both sides. From a purely sociological perspective, it becomes a fascinating study to examine the anatomy of a conversion - especially such a radical one.
In researching for this series, this writer wrote a total of 32 stories, 29 of which were published during the month of February. The remaining three may or may not see their way into publication at some point in the future. However, all 32 stories will be used for this case study.
What Do They Have In Common?
The stories surveyed include men and women from countries and cultures across the world, from people born as far back as 1881 to many who are quite contemporary. They included actors, musicians, magicians, scholars, astronomers, engineers, revolutionaries, tyrants, bloggers, lawyers, college professors and authors. It’s fair to say that the breadth of the articles constituted a broad sampling of persons.
- Education and Intelligence
The most common feature, of course, was the transition from atheism to Christianity, however second to that was the issue of education. With very few exceptions (28% or less), the people on this list had higher education, with many of them having advanced degrees of some type or another. This may have more to say about the atheism of the people in question than it does about their conversion. In a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Review in 2013, a number of studies were surveyed showing a negative correlation between religion and intelligence. However, the measures the author used for “intelligence” included such things as GPA, SAT scores and success in Higher Education. What this study did was to select for people who are academically successful and defining them as “intelligent.”
Why does this matter? Well several reasons. Primarily, people can be “intelligent” in a number of different ways. Without getting too technical on this point, there was a psychologist named Howard Gardner who said that “intelligence” as well as “learning” occurs in a number of ways. One might be highly empathetic and attuned to the feelings of others. Another might be able to pick up and compose music extremely well. Or someone might be masterfully artistic. However, educational theory suggests that schools (especially universities) tend to favor one kind of “intelligence” and a narrow set of learning styles over all the others, so that people who have a certain learning style excel, while everyone else falls behind. Consequently, the most successful people academically tend to be those who think and learn in one particular style.
This suggests that most of the people in this study (at least 70%) fit into one particular profile when it comes to thinking and processing.
This is confirmed by a similar study which suggests that “reflective” thinking – that is, thinking which takes a methodological, analytical approach to learning and to problem-solving – is more strongly linked to skepticism, while “intuitive” thinking – thinking which takes a more instinctual, “feeling” approach – is more strongly linked to religious belief.
One may assume, then, that regardless of culture, by the time they reach university, the most successful students are those which are most inclined to be skeptical of religion. This is further assisted by the fact that Higher Learning, and state-based schools in general, have become places where religious thought and belief are distinctly discouraged. One might look at the study done by Elaine Howard Ecklund, author of Science vs. Religion, wherein she found that almost half of the 1,700 scientists at university that she surveyed professed to be religious, but followed up that "They just do not want to bring up that they are religious in an academic discussion. There's somewhat of almost a culture of suppression surrounding discussions of religion at these kinds of academic institutions.”
Or take George Yancey, an African American sociologist from the University of Texas, who wrote “I have faced more discrimination as a Christian than as a black in academia.”
However, one need not even look outside these atheist-to-Christian testimonies to get this kind of report. Dr. Wayne Rossiter noted that university insulated one’s views, such that outside views (such as Christian beliefs) were dismissed without consideration, and Frank Pastore complained that his academic institutions had never once told him that there might actually be reasons to believe in God. As a college student, Jason Pratt was outraged that one of his professors was a Christian. A handful of the atheists in these stories were, themselves, teachers in universities during their periods of insular atheism, contributing to the overall hostility toward religion.
It can easily be seen, then, that the fact that the atheists in these stories were almost universally of high education might be exactly what one would expect for people who were willing to go on record as fully committed atheists.
Dr Francis Collins
Backgrounds and Reasons for Disbelief
In these stories, eight of the people (25%) were definitely raised with some kind of exposure to church, although based on their biographies, the impact was weak to say the least. The strongest was possibly Douglas Ell, who was kind enough to send a letter to his pastor, informing him that he no longer believed in God; or maybe Darrin Rasberry, who claimed to have been an actual Christian at one point before being an atheist – a stronger claim than that made by any of the others on the list. The others largely seemed to see the church as a ritualistic institution with no strong belief structure backing it, as possibly best captured by the words of John Warwick Montgomery to his minister, when he said:
“I might as well have grown up in darkest Africa for all the gospel I ever heard in your church.”
The reasons for disbelief in these stories seemed to be a combination of the following:
A Basis of Presupposition:
Over and over in the stories, the resounding anthem was that “smart people don’t believe in God.” Guillaume Bignon said that all the intelligent people he knew were atheists. Allister McGrath had always approached his work in biochemistry with Naturalistic presuppositions, feeling that theism had no place in the laboratory. Wayne Rossiter said that “Advanced education at our best universities is surprisingly insular. Like bobbleheads, we tend to read and agree on the same things, and give little to no countenance to critics of our views.” Ling, Murray, Duch, Sturm, Pastore, Salviander, Tait, Monsen and Bird were raised having atheism practically preached at them as gospel truth. Practically everyone on the list was impacted by the writings of atheist and humanist philosophers at one point or another.
Bottom line: they presupposed their atheism rather than to weigh out viewpoints to make a considered decision.
“Faith” in Academics
While not everyone on the list ended their career in academic fields (nine of them ended up with university positions, with several more working in the sciences), they generally all gave nods to the idea that science and the academy had more or less clinched the greater thread of Truth (capital T), such that the field of religion had nothing whatsoever to offer except for error and misinformation.
Poor Encounters with the Religious
In addition to beginning with the presupposition that all the shining people of the world were atheists, and that all the answers lay in the godless academy, the people on the list had largely had very little exposure to Christians, or very poor encounters with religious people. As mentioned before, the churched members of the list grew up in weak, doctrine-less churches, and a number, such as Salviander, Ling and Bird grew up in homes that had isolated them from Christians entirely.
Jones speaks of something outrageous and offensive that a member of his church community did which set him on his path to atheism. Jordan Monge apparently grew up around enough Christians that she delighted in sending them scurrying away from her atheist arguments to which they had no answers, and Frank Pastore recounts much the same tactic. A sizable number of those listed had unflattering impressions of Christians, the two most common being that they were intellectually inferior (weak minded, poorly informed, anti-science) and/or morally repugnant (hypocrites, judgmental, pushy).
Reasons for Conversion: Transcendent Values
The atheists in these stories had a number of similar reasons for converting. Possibly the most common among these was the idea of transcendent, universal values. A third of the people in this case study cited the realization that morality, purpose, truth consciousness and meaning were best explained when grounded in some greater, transcendent reality. Consider the following quotes from the series in regards to the bankruptcy of atheism. Note, as you read them, the similarity in attitude:
- David Wood on atheism:
“We’ve got this massive universe, and over here is a tiny little crumb of a galaxy. Out on one of the spiral arms of this galaxy is a thoroughly unremarkable ball of hot gas. Circling this ball of hot gas is a pathetic speck of cosmic dust we call earth, and crawling all over the earth are these feeble, selfish, self-destructive lumps of cells, constantly deluding themselves into thinking what they do is so important! But the universe couldn’t conceivable care less whether you love your neighbor as yourself, or torture them to death for fun. So you might as well do what you feel like doing with the little time you’ve got.”
“‘Don’t you believe in any kind of God?’ he asked, knowing who my father was. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I don’t. It doesn’t seem to me necessary. ‘Then what is the point of living?’ ‘Well, I’ve been born now. I have little choice. Might as well go ahead and make the best of it.’ ‘That seems so bleak. How can you bear it?’ ‘Does it? Maybe. It’s just the way life is, the way the world happens to have developed. Not much use wishing it were otherwise.’ My godless world looked as desolate to him as a lifeless world would to me, but I was used to its impersonal freedom, never having known any other. At the same time, I was well aware that my existential despair was mere self-indulgence and that, God or no God, I would have to return someday to the humdrum world of doing good, helping individuals and mankind to the full extent of my rational benevolence, as I had been taught.”
- Lacy Sturm:
“When you’re an atheist, if life gets too hard, there’s really no reason to keep going…”
“On what rational grounds could I care about the state of the planet (or even my family) after I’m gone? And what did I even mean by “good” or “bad”? I couldn’t argue that any objective morality existed apart from our subjective experiences. Any moral laws that might objectively exist – whether or not anyone ascribes to them – would be beyond our grasp, and we would have no objective or rational reason to obey them if they did exist. Nothing mattered. This is Dennett’s “universal acid,” and Darwin’s ideas applied that acid to the human condition. If molecules led to cells, and cells to organs, and organs to bodies, then the “molecules-to-man” hypothesis was true. We really were just wet computers responding to external stimuli in mechanical and unconscious ways. No soul, no consciousness. Just machines.”
“Briefly, I grew tired of the lack of explanation for: the existence of the universe, moral values and duties, objective human worth, consciousness and will…”
Now consider these quotes regarding the sufficiency of Christianity as the basis for transcendent values such as morals, justice, purpose, beauty, etc.:
“When I crossed from unbelief to belief, all the pieces suddenly began to fit together. I had always felt a strange unease about my disbelief. I had an acute suspicion that there might be something more, something transcendent, but I also knew that I was told not to think that. I "knew" that ethics were nothing more than aesthetics, a mere word game for things I liked and disliked. I felt conflicted when my heart ached over the injustice and cruelty in the world.
“Faith grew from seeds of doubt, and I came upon a whole new world that, for the first time, actually made sense to me. To this day, I do not find faith stifling or constricting. Rather, faith has been liberating and transformative for me. It has opened a constellation of meaning, beauty, hope, and life that I had been indoctrinated to deny.”
“It was a vision of the world that was richly meaningful and beautiful, and that also made sense of both the joy and sorrow, the light and dark that I could see and experience. My atheist view of the world was, in comparison, narrow and flat; it could not explain why I was moved by beauty and cared about truth.”
“I have decided to select Christianity due to its superior model for human evil and its reconciliation, coupled with the belief that God interacted with man directly and face-to-face and had *the* crucial role in this reconciliation. This, of course, doesn't prove that Christianity is absolutely true (although I can prove that God exists), but rather reflects my recognition that Christianity is exactly what I would expect to be the case given that God exists.”
More than just truth, beauty, morality and love, however, atheists such as Alister McGrath, Wayne Rossiter, Sarah Salviander and Douglas Ell (and several others) came to the conclusion that the foundational laws of reason, logic and intelligibility which are essential for understanding the world around us and for conducting science, are dependent on the immaterial, not the material.
Encounters with Intelligent Christians
Given that most of the people in this group began with a caricature of Christians as rather imbecilic reprobates, it may not be surprising that a significant part of almost every one of these stories had to do with encounters with either intelligent Christians, or intelligent Christian material. Frank Pastore, for instance, was surrounded by well-meaning Christians who were unable to answer his hard-line skeptic questions, but when they introduced him to intelligent Christian Apologetics literature, it ended up changing his mind. David Wood was surprised when he encountered a friend who was able to not only answer his skeptical questions, but push back against his skepticism. A number of these people, such as Jason Pratt and Sarah Salviander, while growing up with poor impressions of Christianity, encountered intelligent Christians in college, and typically these encounters left a good impression where their poor encounters with religion previously had done the opposite.
Reading About Jesus in the Bible
At least a dozen of these profiles mention an atheist sitting down and opening up a Bible to read it meaningfully for the first time. More surprising was the description of the impact that reading about Jesus in the Bible had on them. Now it’s worth mentioning that in most of the cases when the atheists described the impact of their Biblical viewing, it was after they had begun to seriously examine the Christian worldview. It was not merely the scripture, but the actual person of Jesus, which seemed to have the deepest impact on these readers. This is a testimony heard from Philip Vander Elst, Guillaume Bignon, David Wood, Jason Pratt, Jim Warner Wallace, Jordan Monge, Scott Coren and Michael Bird, as well as two of the ones that didn’t make the February publication.
Here, the “Argument from Design” is being pushed into service to broadly represent things such as the cosmological argument, the fine tuning argument and any other argument which people put forward to indicate that the universe at large must have some kind of purposeful cause and directive order based on observable data. A number of the atheists in these biographies come to this conclusion at some point in the process of moving to their conversion. This is mentioned by at least seven of the biographies (about 20%), with Wood, Ell and Pratt making it central to their stories.
Investigation of the Resurrection
The resurrection of Christ is probably the most empirically falsifiable claim made by Christianity, and also the evidential claim which most closely supports Christianity as a religion (as opposed to the general belief in “a God”). More than a few atheists on the list took a look into the facts surrounding the resurrection as part of their pre-conversion investigation. This includes Philip Vander Elst, Lee Strobel, Jim Wallace, Albert Henry Ross, Michael Bird, Andre Kole, Vander Elst, David Wood, Jason Pratt and Frank Morrison.
Argument from Beauty
It's one of the lesser known arguments for the existence of God, however the idea that humans universally recognize and appreciate beauty - apart from any utility this might serve - is central to at least 5 of these stories.
Former atheist Dr. Holly Ordway best describes the "argument from beauty" in her testimony. She says:
“It is a universal human experience to appreciate beauty, and this leads to the consideration of whether beauty might in fact be objectively real – not solely in the eye of the beholder – and if so, whether there are other transcendent values beyond beauty, like truth and goodness. To be sure, there are cultural variations in what people describe as beautiful, but these variations are minor compared to the fundamental shared experiences. Not all cultures respond in the Western Romantic way to landscape as an experience of the sublime, but it is difficult to imagine a culture where the typical response to seeing a sunset was “That’s ugly! I wish the sky wouldn’t turn those weird colors.” Conversely, although people may become accustomed to living in poor sanitary conditions, I can’t imagine someone saying, “Our house will be made more beautiful by throwing trash on the floor.””
Musician Paul Jones talks about his growing appreciation of art coinciding with his growing belief in God:
"I began to see in some of the pictures spiritual qualities that were more than just good art. God is amazing - he deals with you where you are. He met me at my level. I started talking to myself about spiritual things."
And Francis Collins, who is a geneticist by trade, describes the pivotal point in his conversion this way:
“I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains on a beautiful fall afternoon. I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”
This overlooked and seeming trivial argument actually played a surprising role in more than one conversion story.
Post Conversion Activities
Practically every person on the list ended up in a Christian ministry of one sort or another – most of them Apologetics-based. Far from being embarrassed about switching sides, the people on this list seem eager to identify with their Christian worldview despite the fact that most of them recieved a great deal of the criticism which comes with changing perspectives.
Again, the fact that they mostly ended up doing some kind of Christian Apologetics (at least, on the side) is probably related to the similar interest and type of intelligence found in most of them. For those without academic training, their post-conversion lives and ministries tend not to be Apologetics or Theology. Lacy Sturm, for instance, doesn’t seem to have gotten an advanced education. She pursued a ministry of sorts, but works in the area of Christian music. Her testimony, similarly, had much less to do with academia, and far more to do with the warmth and care she received from Christians (and with a meaningful spiritual experience) during a time of crisis. Other examples would be Paul Jones, whose testimony indicated no higher education, and whose post-conversion activity was to carry on with his band, Andre Kole: no higher education, and continued his career as a stage magician/illusionist, and Scott Coren – no higher education, became a novelist.
It’s important to note on the side that some of the people I just mentioned may have had higher education and simply not included it in their stories. If this is so, it is telling of their priorities compared to the priorities of the ones who made their education integral to their stories.
There was no deep, dark agenda at work behind running the initial series of articles upon which this Case Study is based. A Christian columnist writes about Christian things, and conversion stories, especially ones as radical as people making a complete 180 degree turn, draw a great deal of interest from a Christian readership. Nevertheless, when one publishes stories of Atheists who decided that the very thing they disagreed with was, in fact, correct, it is naturally going to draw some criticism from current Atheists. And this series did.
- Rates of Conversion
The first and most common criticism was that of statistics. Pew report statistics were frequently cited in comments, suggesting that Christianity in the West is dwindling while atheism is burgeoning. The essential argument being: “more people are switching to our side than are switching to yours.”
It’s essential to point out at the outset that the mere fact that a person converts from one worldview to another does not serve as a proof of that worldview. It is essential to examine the reasons and arguments for that person’s conversion.
The Atheist/Christian argument is not “Whoever gets the most converts wins.” It is “Which worldview (if either) provides the most accurate model of reality.”
That said, the Pew Research center does, in fact, report that the number of people who claim no religious affiliation or attachment, the so-called “Nones,” has increased in recent years. However, the very same report gives another vital piece of information:
“The Pew Research Center study also finds a great deal of stability in the U.S. religious landscape. The recent decrease in religious beliefs and behaviors is largely attributable to the ‘nones’ – the growing minority of Americans, particularly in the Millennial generation, who say they do not belong to any organized faith. Among the roughly three-quarters of U.S. adults who do claim a religion, there has been no discernible drop in most measures of religious commitment. Indeed, by some conventional measures, religiously affiliated Americans are, on average, even more devout than they were a few years ago.”
With this in mind, it does not serve as a reasonable criticism of this survey to say that people are converting away from Christianity at a larger rate than they have in the past. This neither serves as a proof against Christianity, nor accurately reflects the full picture.
It also does not address the purpose of this survey, which is to examine the trends and commonalities which occur in such conversion stories – not to argue for or against one or the other position.
- Conversion for Profit
Another criticism against this survey was that these conversion stories were largely faked in the attempt to sell books and garner personal fame.
There are several problems with this theory. The first of which is that most of these stories were originally selected for a human interest piece. As such, the study specifically targeted people who were well known, rather than obscure. This skews the study somewhat, but it does not serve as an indicator that the only people with drastic atheist-to-Christian conversion stories are high-profile authors/speakers/what-have-you who stand to gain from telling a good conversion story.
Secondly, it is clear from a number of these stories that the person involved did not greatly profit from the conversion. Jordan Monge was a college student who has sold no books or made no career out of her conversion. As a world-famous geneticist, Francis Collins had a great deal to lose embracing Christianity, and has become disliked by the scientific community because of his conversion and by a great many Evangelicals for his Theistic Evolution position. Paul Jones’ music career neither greatly suffered or gained from his conversion, and he has made no attempt to cash in on it. Comrade Duch came to Christianity from a position of personal devastation, and it led him to confess to his many crimes and atrocities. William Murray’s conversion led him to be estranged from his mother and daughter who deeply resented him. Holly Ordway’s conversion led her from a successful position in a secular college to a lower-salary position in a Christian university. David Wood converted in prison where being a Christian gave him no advantages. Jason Pratt’s conversion has not changed his career in the military, and fills up his free time with voluntary ministry work. Darrin Rasberry’s move to Christianity lost him a number of atheist friends and a high-profile position on the “Debunking Christianity” blogosphere. He has retreated into relative obscurity since. Rossiter, a promising biologist, now serves as the assistant professor of biology at a relatively low-paying Christian College due to his conversion. Katherine Tait ended up placing a gap between herself and her famous father due to her conversion – which benefited her not at all financially. Nina Karen Monsen, once a leader in the liberal feminist movement in Norway, is now a thoroughly disliked character who is attacked for the more conservative views which have arisen from her conversion. Kirk Cameron’s successful acting career has suffered greatly due to his conversion and the general scorn he receives for his participation in fringe Christian projects.
Many of the people in this survey have books, however books are seldom an avenue to fame and fortune, and most of these books are far from being best-sellers.
- Emotional Conversion Experiences
Of the 32 people included in this survey, at least 13 (40%) speak of an emotional moment of inspiration which was instrumental in their conversion. Critics have pointed out these experiences as evidence that the conversion was contrived and unfounded. There are two things to take into consideration when looking at this criticism. The first is that of the 13 people who reported a deep, spiritual experience leading them to conversion, 9 of them had examined the evidence in other forms and been persuaded by arguments for the truth of Christianity. This leaves only 4 people (12%) whose conversion stories cite no evidence besides their moment of inspiration.
The second thing worth considering when looking at this criticism is that, assuming the truth of Christianity, one would expect some kind of spiritual experience associated with conversion. Christianity claims to give one a personal relationship with God. If this is true, the person entering into this relationship should feel something. If everyone who converted claimed no change in their life or no spiritual experience, this would absolutely be used as evidence against Christianity. The important thing is that these people:
- Reported evidence and reasons behind their conversions
- Made a 180 degree change in their worldview
- Evidenced this change in worldview through some kind of life change
- Remained consistent in their new worldview
This is exactly what is seen in the majority of these stories.
One of the overwhelming responses from skeptical readers of these biographies was a request for this writer to provide a series of stories showing the opposite: Christians who converted (or de-converted) to Atheism. This request seemed to be born out of the desire for fairness: to demonstrate that Christians become atheists just as much as Atheists become Christians.
At the time these biographies were researched and composed, this writer was working for a Christian column. As such, it was not appropriate to the format to compose a series of biographies of Christian deconversions. Such a series might emerge in the future, accompanied by a Case Study like this one.
Dr. Holly Ordway
Conversion stories of atheists seem to follow very similar patterns, with strong similarities in the atheist’s mode of intelligence, reasons for their atheism, arguments that sway their opinions and life after conversion.
There are a number of very significant findings which this study reveals. 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. 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 25% or so which had some exposure to church in the past reported receiving little or no actual content to the teaching they had received in church. All except possibly Darrin Rasberry – who claims to have been a Christian prior to becoming an atheist – only really began to understand the Christian worldview after or shortly before conversion. Maryann Spikes, another atheist-turned-Christian whom this writer interviewed (her story was not included in this case study), mentioned that in her church growing up she asked difficult questions about Christian beliefs, but had received no meaningful answers. It was this seeming lack of answers which drove her into the arms of atheism.
What should be noted is that only 4 people in this case study became Christians entirely upon the testimony of another Christian. That is only 17% of those who noted a positive encounter with a Christian as a significant influence (12% of the total sample).
What this suggests is that the humanization of Christians through positive encounters does push toward a more sympathetic view of Christianity, however, for a true skeptic, this is not enough. The skeptic has to research and investigate the claims of Christianity on their own.
A second significant finding was how influential the moral argument was in these conversion cases. For about 40% of these stories, the idea that some grounding had to exist for things like morality, truth, purpose and consciousness became a turning point upon which their conversion hinged. Even those who did not directly cite the moral argument – such as Frank Pastore – made statements which indicated a moral premise, such as his prayer asking why God would allow him to injure himself before his belief in God.
Overwhelmingly, however, the most common element in these stories was that moment of epiphany indicating God’s existence. This moment of illumination ranged from the sudden, intense realization that they believed in God, to an actual feeling of God’s presence and working in their life. It should be stated that several of these stories stressed that they made a wholly intellectual conversion without the spiritual experience, but these are in the minority.
Finally, an honorable mention goes to C.S. Lewis, who was cited in quite a few of these stories. Of the people who mentioned the reading of Christian Literature as being influential to their conversions (about 40%), over half of them were influenced to some degree by Lewis, himself.