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EPISODE 03: Atheists Can Come to Faith!
Many of us feel intimidated by talking to atheists. We assume they’re highly intellectual with many thought-out arguments against God. Not so, says Jana Harmon who interviewed over 50 former Atheists who now believe in Jesus. The lessons she learned can encourage even the most timid of Christians to reach out and watch God work.
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Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute. I'm your host, Randy Newman, and today my conversation partner is Jana Harmon, who is a teaching fellow for us with the C.S. Lewis Institute in Atlanta. Jana also is an adjunct professor of Cultural Apologetics at Bitola University. She holds an MA in Christian Apologetics from Biola and a PhD in Religion and Theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her area of research was about how atheists become Christians. Jana, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thanks for having me, Randy. It's great to be here.
A Closer Look
Well, I'm so intrigued with the fact that you interviewed converts to Christianity. I did a research project like that, but you chose to kind of ramp up the degree of difficulty by only interviewing people who were atheists who became Christians. Tell us, tell our listeners, how did you decide that that was the area that you wanted to research?
That’s a good question. I think, after having graduated from Biola in Christian apologetics and living in that world, that apologetics world, for a number of years and being convinced that the Christian worldview really was quite substantive and had, I thought, the best answers, the best explanation for reality. But yet I would still see all of these conversations and debates and writings, typically between the naturalistic worldview, the atheist, and the Christian. And it seemed like two ships passing in the night, that the intellectual arguments did not seem convincing to the atheist. And I thought to myself, “Well, what would be convincing to the atheist? There has to be something more going on than just the rational.” And at the same time, I was reading some of Francis Schaeffer and Blaise Pascal and of course C.S. Lewis, and really considering, of course, there are things that inform our rationality, like our passions, our desires. And even more than that, we have experiences in life, and people that surround us, and we usually like the ideas of people that we like.
So I knew that there was a lot more going on in terms of what shapes our beliefs and why we would change beliefs. And so I wanted to take a closer look at that from really a more holistic understanding of apologetics, looking at the person, what informed their beliefs, what made them open, and what brought them on to Jesus Christ, particularly the atheist. It was really quite fascinating.
Oh, I bet it was! I'm sure you found that there's something that we learn by listening to people’s stories that we don't get if we're only looking at it just from outside of the story. There are a whole lot of things written about how to do evangelism, and it’s almost always written from the evangelist's perspective. But you chose to listen to the convert’s story. How many atheists who had become Christians did you interview?
I interviewed 52.
And these were, I'm guessing, fairly lengthy interviews? Were they face to face or over the phone?
Primarily... Well, if they were close enough to me, we met in person. I live in Atlanta, Georgia, and this was a study that actually captured all of what was considered Western culture. So I had former atheist interviews from folks all over the US, from Canada, from the UK, from France, actually South Africa, although that one was excluded because they weren’t Western enough, but I also spoke with folks from Australia and New Zealand. So primarily we spoke, I guess, virtually in person via Skype. So we were able to sit down at the computer together. Everybody is very familiar with Face Time and Skype and those kinds of things now, and it seemed very comfortable, almost as if we were sitting across the table from each other over a cup of coffee. And we did spend a good amount of time together. That depended on the person, how verbal they are, how willing they were to open up and talk. But generally speaking, we spent about one to two hours together just listening. I was listening to their story.
One to two hours! That's really extensive. So what were some of the general findings or trends or similarities that you started seeing?
Well, you’re right that there are general trends that seem to pop up. I'm so glad you brought up the idea of listening to someone's story, because every story is so unique, and everyone has a very different experience and understanding of who they are and their beliefs and how they perceive God and Christians and Christianity. But generally speaking, as atheists, I will say those whom I interviewed, more than half had had very little to no exposure to Christians or Christianity, apart from what they were perceiving in culture. And that sometimes isn't a good look for the Christian. We know in today's culture it’s terribly divided, just in values. And then you take that—I was just reminded, in actually looking back at my dissertation before we spoke, there's a study that was done in terms of how atheists socially distance, in a sense, from—and not in a COVID way or a physical way, but actually in a social way—from those who are Christians. And they found that atheists actually socially distance most from evangelical Christians.
So there's a great divide. And you can imagine what can happen in an us-them kind of mentality, where there's no interaction, no direct interaction, at all. So one person, for example, said he had no religion in his world. He was from Australia. It just wasn't in his world. So when he thought of a Christian, he thought of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons, just a very unlikable character that everyone has contempt for, and that fit his narrative, or it formed a picture of who he thought Christians are. There was a very strong sensibility that Christians were intolerable, that they were uneducated. In fact, one of the most interesting findings, I think, was that not one person thought that Christians were educated people.
Not only did I interview them, but they also had to fill out a survey before we interviewed, so I had all of these similar questions, and that kind of struck to the heart, if you're a Christian, to be perceived as just stupid and delusional; 72% of atheists thought that Christians were delusional people. They see Christians as weak minded, that they need this “sky daddy,” that they only run to religion for a place to belong, kind of like a bowling club. They didn't see that religion or faith was anything more than serving a function of some sort, that it did something beneficial in the eyes of the religious person. They thought that there was really nothing to God, to faith, to any of that in terms of a reality, that it was just some kind of a social or psychological construct, really.
So what I want to say here is that there was, for a general trend, a very strongly negative understanding of who Christians are. And I think that, in terms of how we can even think about engaging with nonbelievers, particularly in this divisive day—one way to do that is to break down those negative stereotypes, and the only way you do that is not from a distance, but actually in person, through relationships, breaking down the negative stereotypes that have been built, because that is our most major problem, I guess. It's a big PR problem, and it’s comfortable not to engage. It’s a little bit scary to engage those who really don't think the way that we do, who actually perceive us with some degree of contempt. But it's one thing I think that we can do, is just start befriending people who aren't like us. Then they can’t dehumanize or build contempt because you're kind and you're gracious and you're intelligent and those kinds of things that start dissolving some of the barriers.
And, you know, I can't resist throwing in a theological perspective here. We as Christians have the absolute greatest display of that, of what is recounted in Philippians2, of Jesus leaving heaven to come and be with people who are so much unlike Him, because we're sinful and He’s sinless. And so that display of leaving the familiar or the comfortable or the similar, there He is in heaven with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and then He comes to Earth. Just that display should be the greatest motivation for us to, you know, “I can get to know atheists. I might be surprised about how much I have in common with them, certainly not about my religious beliefs, but about other things. “Now, I think some of our listeners may be saying, “Gee, I really hope Jana has written a book.” So have you written a book on this? About your findings? Are you in the process of writing a book?
Well, actually, my academic work is in process of being published at the moment. I'm not exactly sure when it will be released to the public, as it were. It's now in the publication kind of stages, and I understand it takes quite a while, but hopefully that will be there. And that definitely is a very weighty kind of academic book, but it's also very accessible. And then I’m actually in process, with Paul Copan, co-writing a book, including a lot of the stories from these interviews, to show, in a more practical kind of accessible way, how we can look and see how these lives—what it does take for lives to change.
I guess the most accessible thing, and it’s right now, is a new podcast that's beginning this week actually called The Side B Podcast, where actually former atheists themselves come on and tell their stories of why they disbelieved in God, what they thought of Christians and God and all of that, what was the catalyst that turned them towards openness, and then what brought them on into faith, how their faith has been since and their lives. And they also give advice to the curious skeptic who might be listening and also to us as Christians how best to engage. So it's very accessible, very practical, and truly compelling stories that are coming through this podcast.
I love it! I love it! I'm so glad to hear that. So it's called Side B, is that right? That's the name of the podcast.
Yes, The Side B Podcast. We named it that because, well, I guess if you're my age, and even my daughter's age, there in college, you understand what a vinyl record is. Of course, there’s Side A, which is the popular side. The popular song. It’s the one that, if I can make an analogy here, the one the culture is singing or playing. It's the very prominent voice oftentimes we hear in culture, and it's usually not kind towards Christianity. But Side B is that often un-listened-to side. It’s the side on the other side that, after you've listened to the popular tune for a while, you’ll turn it over and take a listen, and you might be surprised by what’s there. So the goal of The Side B podcast is actually—it goes both ways. It's for the curious skeptic to listen and learn from someone who actually used to be an atheist and learn why a thoughtful, intelligent person might become a Christian. But it's also for the Christian to really understand why someone might reject God or Christianity, when it seems so plain to us.
And you had asked me also about patterns that I saw. Oftentimes—and I think this is really critically important, as it's just a huge pattern, especially for Christians in terms of engaging with those who don't believe. Oftentimes, atheists will give very intellectual reasons for disbelief, but giving someone an intellectual response, it may or may not—it may just bounce off of them. For the most part, these atheists that I spoke with were very resolute. Two thirds of them said there was no amount of evidence that would change their mind that would convince them. They just never thought that they would change from atheism.
But when I looked at the patterns of their lives and what caused them to soften towards the possibility of God, usually it was really engaging with the goodness of God. That is, we can reject God because God's not true, or God’s not relevant, or that you don't want Him, or God is not good. And somehow Christianity has seemed not only implausible, but not attractive. What seemed to happen is there was something about Christians or Christianity that became attractive, that became good, whether it was meeting someone and, again, just one person, breaking down those negative stereotypes by being, again, kind and intelligent and thoughtful and available and loving and generous. And all of those things we’re called to be, living a life of integrity, not hypocrisy, taking our own faith seriously, but also being informed intellectually.
So when they began to see that there was something about Christians that was good and perhaps something about Christianity, that is Christianity had answers, that they could say that there was a real right and a real wrong. That, within Christianity, you can have grounding for human dignity and value. That you can have true purpose and meaning in your life. And those kinds of things that are lost to the atheist if they're really honest with their own worldview. Now, it was the goodness that actually softened them to see, “Okay, there's something about this that I like, that is true, that I possibly want. Now let me see if it is true.” And they were willing to go on a more intellectual journey after that. But there's a lot that we can offer. We don’t all have to be a brilliant apologists to engage with people. People—as you said at the very beginning, we can talk with other people, no matter what their beliefs, because we all have such similarities. We're all human. We all desire love. We all desire meaning in our life. We all desire good relationships and things that are satisfying. So there are a lot of things that we can connect with on a very human, very personal level, and we can actually demonstrate that we have something to give. We have something to offer that they, in their own worldview, don't have.
We’ll return to my conversation in just a moment. I do want to invite you to take a look at our website, cslewisinstitute.org, and avail yourself to the many resources that we have there. We have over 40 years’ worth of articles and recordings and events that can be tremendously helpful. Check out the different ways that we can help you share your faith or grow deeply in your faith. And consider also supporting the institute. If you click on the button that says donate, we would love to have you as a ministry partner. Now let's return to the conversation.
Boy, this is so important, Jana, because I think a whole lot of Christians feel like, “Ohh, atheists! They must be the most intellectually rigorous opponents to the faith.” And some of them are, but not necessarily. And we could feel intimidated, like, “Oh, I don’t have all the intellectual answers.” And what you're finding or what you found and what you’re saying is it's the goodness of God, the goodness of the gospel, the goodness that it makes a difference in the person's life that is this very, very powerful witness.
Maybe I've quoted this on this podcast in other episodes, but I'm always drawn—there was a statement that C.S. Lewis made in his story of coming to faith in his book Surprised by Joy. He found this contradiction in his life, because intellectually, he thought that all of life was meaningless, and yet he was drawn to beauty and art and beautiful stories in literature. And he wrote, “Nearly all that I loved, I believed to be imaginary. Nearly all that I believed to be real, I thought grim and meaningless.” And it was that contradiction of, “Why am I drawn to beauty if I think that life is pointless and meaningless and there is no God? And yet there is that draw.”
So I do think this is so great for us as Christians to try to get to know people of no faith or of anti-faith or atheists or anti-theists. That's the way Christopher Hitchens liked to refer to himself. And let the goodness of joy, of beauty, of appreciating God's creation be evident, and let it bother people that they don't have a basis for why they appreciate those things anyway. I'm sorry. I'm doing all the talking.
No, that's perfect.
Can you think of a specific story of one of your interviewees without robbing, let's say stealing the thunder, from your Side B Podcast? Is there a particular story that stands out that would be encouraging for our listeners?
I’m trying to think, because there's so many good ones. And as you said just a moment ago, atheism—we often presume that there are these strong intellectuals, but just as sometimes Christians in a sense come to be Christians just because of the people around them, or they haven’t really thought about it much, or it's maybe what they want to do. Atheists are the same. They come to their atheism just because it's the world they grew up in. They haven’t really thought about it. They haven't thought about all the intellectual aspects of it. Maybe they had a bad experience in their life. Maybe they had a bad experience in their own personal family, or perhaps even with a religious person. There's a lot of different reasons why people might embrace atheism.
How common was that in the 52 people you interviewed? How many... I mean, you don’t have to have an exact number, but how many of them had a tragic story, a tragic loss that was part of their backstory of coming to no faith?
It was less than one fifth. So there was that sensibility. Sometimes there are books out there that have these theses about why people are atheists. One of them would be like, for example, Paul Vitt’s theory, is that because—and it's true for some—and his theory is that people become atheists because they have perhaps abusive or an emotional neglectful or absent father or some kind of negative experience with their father, and so they cannot believe in a Heavenly Father. Well, that was certainly true for a few in my study. I think around 24%, said that they had a very negative view of God because of their own father. But certainly that’s three fourths who didn't. Some are very, very happy atheists. They love their life. There’s no familial issues. They're going along just fine. Some just inherit it culturally. Some are very thoughtful about it intellectually. But generally speaking, the way I think about it in kind of more simple terms is they either believe that God isn't true or real, that God isn't good, or God isn't relevant.
But I would say that probably one of the most fascinating findings is, when I had all of these different reasons why they would reject belief in God, the number one reason was not objective evidence against God, it was that there was no subjective evidence for God. And when you think about, “Okay, what could that mean?” it’s that they didn't feel or see God in their world. Perhaps there was an unanswered prayer. And there were a few of those, where they were praying at the bedside of a dying father, for example, and God didn't answer that prayer. And so where was God? And again, that speaks to the goodness of God, too. But there’s all different reasons why someone might reject this God.
But, well, the story that—without giving it away, the story that starts off the podcast this week is a very fascinating story of a child. And when I received his survey, he said he’d become an atheist at age seven. I thought, “How in the world did that happen? Something bad must have happened.” And when we sat down and had our cup of tea, that's exactly what happened. He started off from the beginning talking about a very traumatic event that happened to him at seven years old. And he just rejected God. He said, “I used to go to Sunday school, and they told me that Jesus loved me, so how could this happen?” And he rejected God and became very angry, so angry at God he wouldn't even step foot in a church building for a wedding or a funeral. He would have nothing to do with God.
And then he wrapped his emotional pain in all kinds of rational arguments. So by the time he was in his adulthood, he was a very angry, antagonistic person. He was kind of miserable, actually, personally, but would have nothing to do with anyone or anything that had to do with God or Christianity.
And you look at that kind of heightened resistance and you think, “What in the world?” It’s the million dollar question with these people, and you hear their stories and you think, “After all those years, what would change them?” What would break that ice, break down that wall of resistance? I guess you'll have to listen to see.
Yeah, yeah. That’s a great place to stop telling that story, so that people will run to download Side B Podcast. Well, that certainly was true with C.S. Lewis, right? His mother died when he was ten years old, and later in life, he looked back at that and said that that was when he felt like the door was slammed in his face.
I’m working on a writing project right now, and recently I've been immersing myself in the world of Christopher Hitchens, the notorious anti-theist who wrote the bestselling book God Is Not Great, subtitle being “How Religion Poisons Everything.” And my goodness, he was zealous. He was on a crusade to talk people out of what he thought was a silly faith. But in his memoir, a book calledHitch-22, he starts the book by telling of his mother's death by suicide when he was a young man, 23, 24 years old. And it is just this horribly tragic, painful story. And he tells it—because he's such a brilliant writer. I mean, he draws you in, but it is so excruciatingly painful, and I think he's even wracked with guilt. I heard him in an interview where he talked about how she had tried to call him right before she took her life, and he didn't get the phone call, and he thought that he could talk her out of it if he just could have gotten a hold of her. And he doesn't say this in his book, but he said it in this NPR interview where he said, “You know, I just missed the phone call by a little bit.” And then he said, “So I've been trying to write myself out of that ever since.” Isn't that amazing? That's just so excruciating, the pain. And I remember when I heard that, I thought, “I have a whole different perspective on Christopher Hitchens.”
So were there any other major findings in your interviews that, like, more than half of the people said X or something like that?
Well, I will tell you something that was quite, quite surprising, totally unexpected, and that was the role of spiritual experiences in these stories. Whether it was encountering dark spirituality in their atheism and not really knowing what to do with that—I would always ask the follow-up question, “Well, if you could see that some sense of dark spirituality existed, did it not make you question whether or not there was another kind of spirituality that might be available or present or real?” And they wouldn't put two and two together, so that was kind of interesting. But there were also spiritual experiences that happened that they, as nonbelievers, would encounter, perhaps early in their childhood, but they didn't have the framework upon which to put them. I guess, in a sense, they were not as strong encounters as what perhaps they had that were more convincing towards God and Jesus Christ.
But it seemed like—we worship a God, I just want to say this, who is a very personal God, Who sees us, who knows us, and who responds to us. Now, granted, sometimes we don’t feel that. I get that. But sometimes He can show up in very unexpected and powerful ways, particularly in the form of dreams. I had some report visions, very unusual providential circumstances that were very, very convincing, and some who had, on their journey, in this conversion process, they might become intellectually convinced, but then they wanted to see, “Okay, there's a Person beyond the God of the philosopher, right? There's a real person. He’s not just the end of an argument or an end of a piece of evidence. He's a real person.
“And so there was one particular young man who was incredibly, incredibly bright, had gone through an exhaustive process in moving from existentialism and nihilism to being convinced that God was true intellectually, that somehow all those arguments were won on the side of Christianity. But he wanted to know if God was actually real beyond that, and it usually comes as a response to a prayer. And he prayed. And then he goes on to describe this extraordinary experience of encountering the power and the beauty of God. In a way, he said, “Talk about an existential crisis. This power, this loving being could uncreate me,” and he felt this palpable reality of God. And so He was convinced after that point that God indeed was not only true, but real. And those are different.
But yeah, those spiritual experiences and dreams, it's gotten me really much more interested in that kind of thing, in terms of we usually think that God shows up in third world countries or to the Muslim, the unreached populations, but in a sense, atheists are in many ways seemingly unreachable, but God reaches down and changes people in amazing ways.
I love it! That's really great and so important for us to remember. We're not just trying... we're not even primarily trying to convince people of an argument, although we do use logic and reason, for sure, but we're trying to introduce a person to a personal God.
Have you ever wondered what heaven is going to be like? What will it look like? What will we do there? We all have questions about heaven, and we, the C.S. Lewis Institute, are delighted to invite Dr. Randy Alcorn, who has spent decades literally researching the topic. He's written award-winning books on the topic, and he's going to be presenting a live stream event for us through the C.S. Lewis website on January 22 at 8:00 p.m. Please check out the website, www.cslewisinstitute.org, and find out the details about the Randy Alcorn event. I think it'll be really great.
Well, let me ask one more question, and then we need to wrap up, but how did all of these interviews and this research affect you in your own faith? How did this shape or deepen your faith? Well, I can say that, to the degree that there was a heightened resistance against God, these 52people are the most compelling, on fire, enthusiastic, just trailblazing Christians that I know. I think, when you move from true darkness to light, and you know what it's like to feel like to live kind of in the darkness, and then you find God, and you find Christ, and you find the gospel, there's something so incredibly life changing about it that they actually really do want to live their life for God, this beautiful, true, and good God that they found.
And I can tell you that their lives have been incredibly inspirational to me, not only in the way that they live their life, but that there's such an intentionality. Many of them went on to get graduate degrees and work in ministries, and they're premier thinkers in the Christian worldview. And I just sat back and I watched the way that God took these lives and used them for His glory, and I can say that I have been incredibly humbled and inspired by these people to want to walk in a way that they do.
It’s funny, because for someone—I've been a Christian my entire life. And then you watch these lives being changed and used for the glory of God, and you just go, “I want that! I want to live like that for His glory, in that way, with that kind of enthusiasm and boldness and courage that they have.
“This is really great. Well, once again, I feel like we could continue the conversation for so much longer, but I'm going to let people tune into your Side B Podcast for lots and lots and lots of these conversations. I think that we're living in a time when more and more people are identifying themselves as atheists. And I think it's also a time when more and more of them are going to find that that doesn't solve the problems for them, that doesn't satisfy the longings, and it doesn't answer the questions.
I remember years ago Intervarsity Press published a book, Philosophers Who Believe, and then Professors Who Believe, and then I think they even came out with Scientists Who Believe. So maybe someday there's a collection of these stories of atheists who now believe or something. Because I just think that the power of people telling their stories is really dramatic.
Any final thoughts for our listeners about this idea of what you've learned by listening to 52 stories of atheists who have become believers in Jesus?
I guess if I could add a last word, it would be: I think, as Christians, it's easy to sit back and decide or to judge who would or would not possibly become a Christian. We know people, and you just think, “They’re too far into their worldview. There's no way that they would ever turn towards God.” If I've learned anything, through the power of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of our very incredible God, it’s that no one is too far from the Father's reach, and that God is right there and responsive to the smallest amount of openness to Him. If someone really seeks, He’s there. And so we should always, always... Conversion is not our role in someone's life. It is the work of God. And so we can't give up, especially for those whom we love. And we know that they're distant from God, but God sees, and He knows, and He hears our prayers. So just persevere and be bold, I guess I would say.
That’s wonderful! Jana Harmon, thank you so much for giving us a perspective on this that’s so very important. This has been Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and we hope that this podcast and all of our resources that you can find on our website will help you as you seek to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind.