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EPISODE 28: Conversion, Deconversion, Reconversion - Jim Thring's Story
Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to the Side B Podcast, where we hear how someone flips the record of their life from atheism to Christianity. Each podcast, we typically listen to the story of someone who was an atheist and became a Christian. Today's story is a little bit different. Jim was a Christian who became an atheist, who then found a more robust form of Christianity and reconverted.
A commited Christian for 15 years, he left Christianity in his mid 30s and passionately identified as a humanist atheist for nine years. During that time, he genuinely could not see how he could possibly go back to believing in God again, and yet he did, with his faith even stronger for the experience. I hope you'll come and listen and explore Jim's extraordinary story with me.
Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Jim. It's so great to have you!
It's good to be talking with you.
I love that English accent. Having gone to school there. I'm sure our listeners will really appreciate it, too. Why don't you tell us a little bit about who you are, Jim?
Well, as you know, my name is Jim and I'm from the UK. I live in Swindon currently, which is about 80 miles west of London, actually not that far from Oxford. But I was brought up in London, in the east side of London, a place called Rainham, and now I live in Swindon. I am an IT audit manager. I've worked in IT for about 15 to 20 years. I'm married to Liz, and I have two kids, one Hannah, who's just recently gotten married despite the COVID-19 situation and the various lockdowns that we've had.
And I have a son who's just finished secondary school, and he's started college now. So that's us. Family of four. And I'm in my late 40s, and yeah. So that's a brief introduction to me.
That’s terrific. It certainly gives us an idea of who you are and where you are in the world, really. And congratulations on your daughter's wedding.
That's really wonderful. So let's go back to your childhood, it sounds like in East London, where you grew up, to get your story started. Was God any part of the picture at all among your family and your friends and even around your local culture?
Well, I wasn't brought up a Christian, but I was fairly ambivalent towards faith and religion, I'd say, generally. I would probably describe my upbringing as a very typical British upbringing where, when it comes to faith, and in particular Christianity, my views about Christianity were formed mostly through the lens of popular cultural influences and references, like Christmas and I can remember Nativity plays. I think my idea of Jesus was formed mostly through a film called Jesus of Nazareth that starred an actor called Robert Powell, who is a classic blue eyed, dark haired European-looking man who kind of wandered the hills of Palestine sort of listfully floating around, making short sentence statements about different parables and perhaps not easily understood who was just a nice man who was mistreated by Roman soldiers, and I think that's pretty much all I knew about Jesus.
And my idea of religion was that it was just something that was there. I neither was against faith and religion or for it. You probably know that, in the UK, we have a long history when it comes to Christianity and the church. We have the Church of England, and we have a lot of pageantry and a lot of traditions, so I just saw Christianity as something that was very much tied to the Church of England, old churches, old parishes, and effectively just Christianity was a way of being nice and being good but wrapped up in religious ritual, I think is probably how I kind of saw it.
And my parents, they didn't go to church. And again, I think they had a similar view, that Christianity was something that was nice but not something that we particularly were invested in, and religion was okay, as long as it was on balance and that you kept your feet firmly on the ground, and I think probably that there was a sense of right and wrong that I had as a young person, but I didn't really think about where that morality came from. I just kind of had that sense that, "Well, if there is a God, I haven't robbed a supermarket, so I'll probably be okay." So that was kind of my view of Christianity. Didn't really give it much thought and was quite happy to, as a young person, explore life and all of life's opportunities.
So it sounds like you had a pretty good childhood and a nice family, a nice life. You did good things. You were a moral person, just along with the culture. So did you explore what you did believe? If you didn't believe in religious institutions or in religious tenets, that they were nice stories or cultural rituals but not much more than that, did you consider what you did believe at that point? Or was it just kind of going with the flow?
I think it was going with the flow more than anything, and I think that... I was brought up in the eighties in my teenage years, and I don't know about [UNKNOWN 07:54], but I think, for me, the term atheist tended to have negative connotations of some sort. I don't know why, but I tended to think that. So I wouldn't have described myself as an atheist. I just didn't really have any passionate views on faith or religion, and I didn't know much about religion.
A lot of that changed, though, when I went to university, and it was... When I went to Dundee University in Scotland that was a story of coming to terms with the future that I was stepping into. I was doing a degree, but I was struggling with whether that degree was actually the degree that I wanted to do, asking questions about where it would lead to, and I think I did have periods of reflection as a young man at university who embraced all of the social benefits, as I saw them, of being at a university, going out to pubs and drinking and socializing and all of that kind of thing
And I found myself faced with the kind of life questions I think that a lot of people do ask themselves about life's meaning and life's purpose and where I was going. And the turning point for me was when I realized that I wasn't really taking care of myself, and I was struggling with motivation, particularly to kind of think, "Well, what is the point? I could get this degree. I could aim for success. But I don't know what success looks like. I could aim for something in life, but I don't know what that purpose is," and I was missing out on a lot of lectures and not doing very well. And I realized, "If I don't get my act together, my life is just going to take a bit of a tumble, and I need to do something about this." And so I decided that what I would do is I'd hang around with those friends that I knew who seemed to kind of do life pretty well and were disciplined when it came to study and seemed to be a good influence, and I didn't really realize this at the time, but it turned out that the group of people that I hung out with were all Christians, and so I found myself in the company of Christians, and the strange thing is that I found out months later that, in the corridor in [UNKNOWN 10:36], where I was staying, I think there were about three or four Christian guys who were all in this corridor, half of whom had actually moved into that corridor in the first term through various reasons, and in fact, I myself had come to be in that corridor because there was a mix-up with the room allocation, so there were all these coincidences that I found out afterwards that led me to being surrounded by Christians. I was tripping over them.
Yeah. I would imagine that would've been quite unusual, really, in Britain, actually, in the eighties, like you said. It was a nominally Christian culture but really not much more than that. So that is an interesting coincidence of sorts.
Yeah. That's right. And I often put it this way: I accidentally became a Christian. And what I mean by that is I was talking to a visiting friend of the guy opposite me, a chap called Ian, and I was in his room, and this girl, Maggie, was visiting, And she kept talking about this place called Menzieshill, and I thought this was a park or a woodland or something, and eventually, she said, "Would you like to come to Menzieshill, because we're going this afternoon, and I said, "Sure. Why not?" It was a nice sunny afternoon on a Sunday, so we're in the back of her car, and I was talking to Ian, and I said, "What kind of park is this Menzieshill? Is it a park with swings and playgrounds and things like that? Is it like open kind of fields?" And he just looked at me incredulously and said, "Menzieshill is a church." And I remember kind of thinking... I kind of felt two things, really. One, I thought, "Oh, my gosh! What have I done?" And then the other thing I thought was, "Oh, actually it might be quite nice to go to church." And so I sat in this Church of Scotland Church, and I don't remember what the sermon was, but I do remember that I had a strong sense of being like a child and a sense that there was something here where there was a second chance, a second opportunity for me to do life differently.
And the long story short, I went through this journey of discovering the Bible. I read a Gospel that somebody gave me. I was asking questions. And another Sunday we went to the church, and they had communion, and as they were passing around the bread and the wine, I said to Ian, "Should I take this?" And he said, "Well, you ought to be a Christian if you're taking Communion," and I said to him, "Well, my mom and dad never christened me when I was a child because they thought faith needs to be your own decision. We won't baptize you as a young infant," And this is almost embarrassing, I thought the word Christian came from christened. It didn't dawn on me that the word Christian came from Christ. So I assumed in my head that a Christian was someone who'd been baptized as an infant and had been through some kind of ceremony and declared by a vicar or a priest as a Christian and perhaps given some kind of scroll or certificate or something like that.
And so I said to Ian, "I wasn't christened," and he said, "No, no, no. It doesn't matter. That's not that, but you should be a Christian," and then afterwards, when we had a conversation about this, I realized that we were getting our wires crossed, and I said to Ian, "I'm getting confused here. What is a Christian?" And when he told me that a Christian is someone who believes in Jesus and has decided to follow Him and that this was a personal decision that you made, not something that you are granted by an official, I said him, "Well, I did that last Wednesday," and he said, "Well, then you're a Christian." And this was news to me. And the reason why is because it suddenly dawned on me that faith and religion can be quite different things. It's one thing to have faith in and to follow and be committed to the person of Jesus Christ. It's another thing to just adopt a religious framework and all of the kind of things and trappings that come with that. And I was amazed by that. That was a real revelation to me because, again, having come from no Christian background at all, I was relieved and amazed and very grateful that actually I could call myself a Christian. Based not on meeting certain requirements of an institution. So that was how I first became a Christian. At the age of 19 at university in Scotland in Dundee. And remained a Christian for 15 years.
So obviously something happened. But before we get to that, so your experience as a Christian for those... did you say 15 years?
How was your experience as a Christian? Before you decided that wasn't for you?
So I was very committed, and I was part of a very strong Christian union at the university, read my Bible, prayed, shared the gospel where I could on campus, and after university, I spent a year on mission in Kenya with an organization called Africa Inland Mission, teaching at a school and preaching in a church just southeast of Nairobi. And then I came back to Dundee, and by this stage, it was the mid nineties, and stayed in Scotland for a short while and then moved back to London and attended a church there, where I met my wife, Liz, and we had our daughter Hannah. And so my faith continued, and I was certainly very committed. If people ask, "Well, were you really a Christian? Did you really give your life to God? Were you really committed?" The answer to that is absolutely yes. I was a Christian. I understood the Gospel. I'd responded to it. And I had committed my life to Christ and chose to follow him. I think what happened, though, is you don't just suddenly wake up one night and decide that you're going to throw all that away. And it's a long story.
Lots of different things happened, but I think that probably the way I would summarize it, to begin with, is that I started, over years, to lose the simplicity of the Gospel. My faith, which was based on the Person I knew, became more about what I knew and whether I was right about things. And so the relationship with God kind of took the back stage, and what was front and center stage was more whether I was right about different things. It was the Gospel plus I have to have this doctrine right, and I have to be right on this nature of Christian walk and Christian living, and I think that, coupled with the kind of daily grind of life. Trying to cut out a career. Trying to cope with domestic life. And also I think when you go out into the outside world. I found that there were good people who were not Christians. I mean according them good in the sense of broadly speaking the way one might use that term.
But they were people who were getting on with life who didn't have faith, and I think that, if faith becomes ordinary and mundane, it just becomes less distinct. The Christian faith can become less distinct from any other religion or any other view, and I think that there are also areas of my life where perhaps there were compromises, not necessarily big compromises, but I think that what I found was that my life outside of church just looked very different from my life on a Sunday, and so I almost found myself living this dual life, really, where there was a kind of Christian side to me, and it was compartmentalized away from the rest of me, which was all about trying to get on with life, trying to achieve things, trying to do well in my job, trying to get on with the people who I worked with, all of those kind of things. And I think that's what kind of happened over the years.
And there was also this sense that your faith and Christianity becomes more complex in the sense of we all have to face into the fact that there are different denominations, there are different churches, that Christians don't agree on everything, but I think that, for me, what I think happened was that truth mattered, certainly mattered to me, and continued to matter to me, but I found myself feeling that my Christian life was so far away from the lives of those who I worked with who weren't Christians that it became very much an us and them kind of situation. And it felt like Christianity and church was just becoming a smaller and smaller island, if you like, of people who agree with you. And that was how I started to see it. From an emotional level I found myself struggling with trying to balance the kind of working life and the pressures of life with what faith meant to me on a daily basis.
And I think intellectually I did have questions, but to begin with, I think those questions weren't necessarily initially a challenge to my faith in the sense that they would necessarily lead me to reject my faith. I think what happened is a combination of all of these different things that kind of brought me to a point where, again, as I said, in some of the beginning, my faith just became like a philosophy, really. More about what I knew and not about personal relationship. And once God doesn't mean that much to you in your daily life, the next logical step is, "Well, then why believe? Why carry on believing?" And so I started to investigate some questions. I was probably more challenged around questions of science, particularly around origins and evolution. I was asking myself questions about that. I was asking myself questions about salvation and what happens to people who haven't heard the gospel. These kind of things that are challenges and we try to grapple with. But I did it very much in isolation. I didn't really talk to people about it. It was more of an introverted journey that I went on. And I think that things just started to erode away.
And eventually I remember I kind of raised some of these things with my wife one evening, because she could tell that I wasn't myself. And I was a bit reluctant to kind of open up, and she said, "You're not yourself. What's going on?" And it kind of opened up this door where suddenly I just blurted out all these different memes, I think they're called, aren't they? All these different kind of thoughts that I'd dabbled together over a period of months and just blurted out all these questions and doubts that I was having, and I think poor Liz just didn't have a clue where this came from, and she's like, "Whoa! Where's all this coming from?"
And so that was quite a testing time. I think I was probably already, in my heart, on my journey away from God at this stage, but the one thing that I was concerned about was I was a member of the church in North Swindon. I had a church community around me. My wife was still a Christian. And I was obviously concerned about how this could affect my relationships, my relationship with my wife and with my family and those friends around me who were Christians. And that was obviously really important to me, and I didn't want to... It wasn't so much I didn't want to disappoint them, but I didn't want those relationships to break down so much. I certainly didn't want my marriage to break down, and I was kind of faced with that, "Do I just keep this to myself and keep going to church and just put on kind of the right expression and turn up, don't say anything, and then just live your life like that?" And I kind of did that for six months, and then it all came to a head when one of the elders in the church said, "Could you give a testimony in a couple of weeks?" And I think that was it, really. I thought, "I don't think, in good conscience, that I could do that," and so I phoned him up and said, "Look, I'm really sorry, but I won't be coming to church anymore. I just don't believe anymore," and I stopped attending. And then that led to, obviously, a challenging period for me and my wife to kind of reconcile that and work through that.
Obviously, it was quite a stunning surprise for your wife. But as you were going through this process and you came to this culmination point, and the church, you were forthright with them and truthful. Did they try to approach your doubts or skepticism with any kind of intention at all? Did they engage you on why you had left? Or did they just let you go?
They did reach out to me. They were very gracious, actually, and I think, looking back, they were really good. They were very gentle. The elder of the church who I called up to say I didn't believe anymore... the pastor of the church was on sabbatical back in the US for a few months, and so it was one of the elders who was running things, and he met with me in a Starbucks coffee shop, and he just wanted to understand what's happened, and I talked to him about things like: Is the Bible really the word of God? How do we know it's true? Isn't it just that there was a council that made the decision that this is what is scripture, what is canonical, and therefore isn't it all just manmade? Doesn't the science suggest that we've just evolved and that we are just physical, material beings? What about rational thinking and reason? Shouldn't we be prepared to question why we believe things? And all sorts of things that came up. And I remember he responded and said, and this is a bit embarrassing, really. He said, "I'm not very intellectual, and obviously you are, and you've got these questions, and I don't really have the answers to all of those. Or I can't answer them sufficiently." He said, "But I'm happy to keep a dialogue with you." And I'm a bit embarrassed by that in the sense that I don't see myself as very intellectual. Because I thought, "Well, actually, I don't know whether, hand on heart, I could say that I'd fully investigated these things or fully done my homework or had given opportunity for engagement with somebody, to say, 'Look, I'm having these questions, and I want to explore them.'"
And I remember, when the pastor returned from sabbatical in the US, and he'd found, anyway, because they called him on the phone and said, "Look, Jim's not attending church anymore," and he got in touch and said, "Hey, I'd love to meet you for a coffee," and by this point, my attitude at the time was very defensive. I think I kind of saw myself as, "Look, I've been a born-again Christian. I'm familiar with the inner workings of evangelical Christianity. You can't fool me. I know your tricks. I know you're just trying to bring me back in." And so I had this very defensive, nonengaging position that I'd adopted. And thought, "I will do the honor of meeting with you and have a coffee," and he asked a few questions, and we had a bit of a discussion. And he certainly struck me as someone, from his answers, who had a lot more to say and said, "There are really good answers to these questions, and a lot of what you said, I think, isn't strictly true." And he said, "I've been reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and do you want to go through that?" And I'd read The God Delusion, but I remember I just turned him down. I said, "No, I'd rather just carry on with my life," and I remember he was really disappointed.
I remember walking away from that meeting and the look of disappointment on his face because I wasn't prepared to engage, and I think, again, this is because—I know everyone's experience is different, and some people would say that they don't feel the same way, but even in my atheism and my skepticism, while I was convinced that it was purely on intellectual grounds, there was definitely a heart decision to it as well, and I don't think I was fully honest with myself at the time, but I was already determined not to believe, and the kind of intellectual questions that I had and I guess the arguments that I felt that I'd formulated and that I'd heard, particularly online from the New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, they were really just a means to substantiate the decision that I'd made to leave church and to give me good grounds for it and to feel that it was okay what I'd done and that I'd done the right thing and it was rational and reasonable and so on.
But my wife carried on going to church and I did attend the occasional lunch with some friends from church who were very careful not to bring up the topic of faith, and in some ways it was frustrating, because I remember I was kind of thinking, "Just you wait. The first time that someone brings this up, then I can let them have it." And tell them all the reasons why... "Don't you realize these things that you haven't thought of? You're just blindly following this faith, and I've seen the light, and I've now decided to use my head and reason and logic and all those kind of faculties that I have to make a decision on this, and you're just blindly following faith and carrying on." And of course, it didn't come up. They just shared meals, and that was it.
It was nine years I was an atheist. But when I left church, I'd made the decision that I didn't believe in God anymore, but I wanted to land somewhere. I wasn't satisfied with saying what I didn't believe. I certainly felt, "Well, what do I think, then? I don't want to be a non-person. I don't want to be somebody who just doesn't believe. I do want there to be some kind of foundation for my life. What is that?" So I kind of did the usual thing that a lot of people do in this day and age that we live in. I used Google and looked on the Internet, and I came across some different organizations.
Then I came across humanism. And of course I've heard of the term humanism but didn't know much about it, and I thought, "Oh, humanist sounds good, because at least this is something where we're saying, 'Look, we're all in it together. We're human beings. Our morality and our reason and our purpose come from within. It comes from a shared human collective view of things.'"
And so that seemed more attractive, and it seemed a bit more positive than the atheists, so I thought, "Ah, okay, humanist sounds good." So I very strongly identified, certainly in those early years, as an atheist humanist. So I didn't just backslide. I didn't just kind of slip away or just stop going to church. There was no particular hurt, actually. When I left church, I did it 100 miles an hour. And actually I would say that I did go as far as saying, "I'm not just an atheist. I'm an atheist naturalist."
You're probably aware that Richard Dawkins is famous for that quote. He said something like, "We are just dancing to the tune of our DNA and to the sound of the universe, and this universe is not personal. It's just a cold universe and-
Right. It's a very sobered perspective.
And at the time I appreciated that. I just thought, "This is honest atheism. This is where atheism should logically lead you to. It should lead you to naturalism because anything other than that is just a compromise. There can't be anything other than just the natural. At the time I certainly felt, "At least he's honest about his atheism," that there is no hope. And there is no purpose. And that is how I felt.
That's a little bit interesting or a little bit ironic, even, for someone who, early on, was really searching for meaning, purpose, and looking at their future and desiring a worldview that actually provided substance towards that, as compared to the naturalist who, as you said, in Dawkins' quote, "There is no real meaning or purpose. You're just dancing to the music of your DNA," right? Everything's determined. There's no free will. There's no real purpose, no good and evil. If you are that honest atheist naturalist, did that not disturb you on any level?
How did I feel? I guess I kind of satisfied myself that, "Well, if this is it, then this is it. And there were very intelligent people who believe this and accept it and yet still get on with their lives, so maybe the biggest challenge I've got is to find a way of continuing with life, carrying on with a purpose, as if there is a purpose," even though philosophically, I was in a position where I didn't feel that there was objective purpose or objective meaning.
If we look at the world around us, we don't look at people who are constantly, on a day-to-day basis, struggling with existential philosophical problems about who they are and what their meaning in life is. Not to say that people don't think about these things. They do. But by and large, when you look at the world around you, you see people getting on with their lives, and I think I was kind of envious of those who'd never thought about God and never thought about theism or atheism before. They just ate and drank, had family time, and enjoyed life as much as they could. Yes, they had their struggles and tried to cope with them. And I kind of envied that, because I thought, "Well, the toothpaste is out of the tube now. I can't go back to a position of just, 'It doesn't matter.'" Because I knew that it did matter, and I can't just switch my mind off to it.
So it was a bit of a struggle, but I think what I did was I just pushed certain things down beneath the surface and kind of wrapped myself up in this view that the most important thing for me is to be true to myself, which is true of anyone, to be honest about how I feel about things, and find a way to keep going with my marriage, find a way to keep living a fulfilling life and be the best dad that I can be, be the best husband I can be. I certainly didn't want my marriage to suffer as a result or fail as a result, and so there's something to work on, and keep going with my career. And find purpose in that, even if that is just an illusion, if you like, of the mind that says that there is a purpose, and it's just something that's just synaptic gaps firing away in your brain and that's actually why you think that there is purpose and meaning to life. Even if that's true, just kind of carry on regardless. It's interesting you bring this up, because I think there was this transition from a very passionate, "I've stepped away from God, and I'm really affirming myself as a skeptic, atheist, humanist," and I was very defensive about that.
hearing someone like Christopher Hitchens, who was just so florid in his language, so fluid in the way that he could present his ideas, he was just really good to listen to, and I'd listen to Richard Dawkins.
I met Richard Dawkins. I went to a book signing after a debate between Richard Dawkins and Professor Robert Winston, and I remember queueing up, and I got to the desk, and there's Richard Dawkins in front of me, my hero. At the time. And I said to him, I used to be a Christian and I'm not anymore," and I remember he just looked at me, and there was this awkward silence for about 5 seconds, and then I thought, "Well, I've got to say something," so I said, "Oh, it's Jim. Could you just put 'to Jim' and sign your name, please?" And he did that and handed me the book, and I walked away.
He had no words. Nothing.
No words at all. And it was just... it was bizarre. It was just a really strange encounter.
... got a convert away from Christianity to atheism. He just didn't say a word. It was really odd.
This is kind of that first phase of skepticism for me, where I'd wrap myself up in these warmly affirming, "You're right to be an atheist. Here's some really clever words and some clever arguments to keep you in that position, and whenever your wife gets home from church with the kids, you just remember that you just got the latest newsletter from the British Humanist Association through the post and read that," and I would just do all these things. I wasn't very adversarial or combative because, again, I knew that my wife was going to church still. I didn't actually meet with humanists personally and join the group personally. I did all of this very much at a distance, just within myself. Probably because I felt that actually that might be too much. It might just cause there to be too much conflict. And then, of course, rather selfishly, I thought, "Well, if at all things go wrong, it'll be me that gets the blame, you see?" So I was a bit selfish, I'm sorry to say. So a lot of this was kind of private thoughts and private readings.
But then things changed a little bit, because again as we said before, I started to move into this stage of, "I just want to get on with life," and, "I just want to move forward." And so fast-forward a few years. I found myself becoming... It wasn't so much that I wasn't convinced by the arguments anymore, but my experience was that it felt like a lot of the humanist narrative that I was exposed to in social media, in the different literature that I'd received and so on, seems to be, "Whatever the church is saying, we're opposed to it." "Whatever religion says, we're opposed to it," and I kind of found myself becoming a bit tired of it. And particularly when there's that kind of famous message that Richard Dawkins gave. He said, "We just shouldn't debate people of faith. They're not worthy of debate. We should mock them. We should ridicule them."
Oh, at the Reason Rally, I believe he said that. Yes.
Yeah. And I just thought, "Hang on a minute. These friends of mine who I met at university who were Christians, they were intelligent people." I knew of some who were far brighter than I was. Far more academic. And they were Christians. And I know friends and family who are Christians, and I thought, "I don't feel that way towards them," and I have to say, it's absolutely right to say, not every atheist or skeptic feels that way, and we certainly shouldn't assume that that is a typical view that they have. I know a lot of atheists have come out and said that they don't think that Richard Dawkins was right to say that kind of thing. Because it's not helpful. We don't want to tar everybody with the same brush.
But I think what happened during that time was I just softened. I think the defensiveness that I had had, the opposition to any attempt to engage had just softened, and I kind of found myself thinking, "Do you know what? I won't renew my membership of the British Humanist Association." I was only a member for a year, so I didn't contribute much. And, "I'll just kind of settle down a bit and not be so defensive," I guess. And so life kind of carried on for a few years.
But I joined a band, and I was doing well with work. I did creative things. And sort of carried on in that kind of vein. And then I hit this period where it was really funny. There was one friend. I can't remember who it was, but I do remember the conversation, and I did share with people who'd never been Christians before that I was an ex-Christian, and I always found it really difficult to try and explain to them how important that was. From their experience, having not been a Christian, they just kind of saw it as, "Oh, right. Okay. So you don't believe anymore. That's all right, isn't it?" They want to just get on with their lives. And I was like, "No! You don't understand! This is a really huge thing. I'm not a Christian anymore, and don't you realize that Christians think that this is really important and that your life depends on this decision and how important it is that we use our minds," and all this kind of thing. But I remember having a conversation like that, and the response I got back was, "Well, you don't know. One day you might come back to faith. You might change your mind," and I said to them, "I can't honestly see how that would be possible, given that now I've..." as far as I was concerned, I'd dismantled Christianity. I pulled back the curtain, like in the Wizard of Oz, and revealed what the real truth was, and that was how I saw it.
So I saw a return to faith as really impossible because of where I'd arrived at. And yet it happened.
And yet. So how did you make that turn? What happened that caused you to reconsider?
A number of different things. I think first of all, I had a conversation with a friend of mine, and we were talking about our lives, and I just said, "You know what? I've got a great job. I'm really appreciative of my life. My job's going well, and it's fulfilling. Ish. I mean obviously there's always something else that one would like to do differently perhaps. My family's great. I live in a comfortable house. I can take the dog for a walk with a view over Swindon, and it's lovely in the mornings. I'm in a band, playing bass in a band." And I remember saying, "If I could go back to my 18-year-old self, I know that if I said this is what your life would end up, my 18-year-old self would say, 'Hey, I've made it. I've done all right.'"
And I remember having this conversation, and then a couple of days later, I was thinking about this, and I had probably a similar question to what I had right back when I was 19. I just went, "Yeah but so what? So what? What do I do next? What is the rest of my life going to be like? And where is meaning and purpose in life?" And that question came up again, the big kind of, "So what?" question. "What is the purpose of life?" And, "What meaning is there?" And, "Is it just manufactured? Is it just a way of kind of coping to get through your existence?" And I kind of had this little alarm bell, going, "Uh oh. Hang on in a minute. Let's not go there. That's going to lead me to God again," so I kind of brushed that under the carpet.
But then other things happened. I remember there was a time when I was sitting outside, on a bench outside my house one summer evening, and I was thinking about my career and my job. And again, I enjoyed it and I liked it, but I was also kind of thinking, "I feel that I want to do something different," and I was kind of going through this little struggle. And this thought came to mind, that, "Hey, one day I would have prayed about this, but I don't have that opportunity now. That's not available to me anymore."
And there was a kind of sense of personal reflection, sort of an intellectual exercise. It was just simply asking, I guess, the beginnings of the question, "Why did I walk away? Why did I choose to actually abandon my faith, given that there are other believers who must have gone through similar things, who must have had similar struggles, and probably some who've gone through far worse situations than I've gone through, and yet have kept their faith?" And I thought of people like Corrie ten Boom and others like that, who I just thought their lives weren't anywhere near as comfortable as mine is. I was so grateful for the life that I've got relative to others, and yet others have stayed the course.
I think because I was already in a place where I'd softened a bit and I'd become less defensive and just more open generally, I kind of went through this period of reflection. And I remember lying in bed one night and thinking back through my life, and it was really strange actually. It's an interesting time because I was kind of looking back at all the different years, every year of my life, from the age of 19, and all the different events that happened, and it was almost like my life was kind of being played out. And I just couldn't sleep. And I kind of woke up the next morning with that question of, "Had I made the right decision? Was it all about the intellectual doubts or was there something else?" And so I thought, "I need to kind of address this again. What's my biggest obstacle?" And I thought, "Okay, let's look at science. Let's see if there's anyone who's said something about this in response to the kind of New Atheist monologue that's come out," people like Dawkins and Hitchens and so on.
And I don't remember how I found it. I did a search on my Kindle to look for a good book to read, I just thought, "I want to read something that's by somebody who's at a university that is a reputable university and not a Christian institute." So I kind of did this search. I came across this book. I think it's called Gunning for God by a man called John Lennox, who is a professor of mathematics at Oxford University, and I thought, "Oh, Oxford. That'll do." I think the subtext to that was something like "why the New Atheists are missing the mark," or something like that.
And so I read that, and I started to read the writings and hear some of the counter arguments to those typical arguments that I'd seen from the New Atheists, talking about whether religion was the root of all evil, whether it was a poison, as Christopher Hitchens called it, whether Jesus really did rise from the dead and what the evidence of that is. And I also kind of read other books by John Lennox as well. In a short period of time, and I did all this secretly, without my wife knowing, because again I think just being that introverted thinker, I just thought, "Well, this is my little journey. I'll just think about these things."
And then I think what challenged me was I was confronted with the realization that I'd probably put obstacles in the way of faith that weren't really legitimate obstacles that were kind of false obstacles and barriers to continuing believing. The big thing for me was about evolution and what our origins are, and my view when I was a Christian was that, if you believed that the Bible is inerrant and is inspired, then you are committed to a six-day creation event and a 6,000-year-old earth, and if you can't commit to that, then you're not somebody who takes scripture seriously. And I found that when I read what John Lennox had to say on that, he just said, "Actually, that's not the case," that actually that view on the age of the earth and on the six days of creation has been debated for hundreds and hundreds of years. It's not a new thing. And just kind of challenged my thinking on that. And so I started to unpick this view that reason and rationality and logic are tools that are exclusively for use by atheists and nontheists and skeptics and that faith is something that is purely a blind faith. And lots of other things as well. But I found John Lennox, the way he wrote and the way he expressed himself was really clear, really articulate, and also very fair.
And I also listened to, or watched online, a couple of sermons by a friend of mine called Gavin who was at university that he gave at his church in Perth about the kingdom and the convent. And it was almost like just being reintroduced to the Gospel again, but hearing the Gospel in the context of the entire Old Testament and New Testament, and I went for a walk with the dog to a little parkland that overlooks Swindon. And I remember I sat down, and I was thinking about all this, and I just thought, "Do you know what? I could investigate everything and keep investigating and then look at the counter claim or counter argument and then look at the counter counter argument and keep going. How much knowledge do I have to amass before I can be satisfied on this question of whether God exists or not and whether he wants to relate to me or not?"
And I realized that, if I'm not careful, my project that I'd embarked on would just be this never-ending constant series of questions. And it's good to question. I'm not saying at all that that shouldn't happen. It's absolutely right that we ask questions. But at some point we have to get to a stage where we stop and make a decision. And so I found myself saying the first prayer of nine years, which was, "Okay, God. If You're there and You're real, I'm prepared to think about You again," and that was as far as I was prepared to go. You know, it wasn't really a prayer. It was more just kind of a statement, and then I walked away and kind of went home.
And it was actually just a couple of weeks later that I found myself in the same spot, and I just thought, "Do you know what? It all starts to make sense," and I don't know if you recall. There were these pictures that were really popular about twenty years. I think they were computer images. They used to call them Magic Eye, and you'd get a book of them. And they just looked like these really complex patterns, but if you were to kind of look at them carefully, you should see a 3D kind of image by staring at them.
And I can only liken it to this, that what I realized that I needed to do was not focus on the individual patterns, not focus on every single individual question, but to kind of just step back, take time, reflect, and look at the big picture. And when I did that, it just felt to me like there was a coherent message behind all of these questions that I had and all of the answers that I felt were there. What I mean by that is that the thing that made most sense of what I observed in the world around me and what my experience of life was, the thing that made the most sense about that, was that there was a God, that He does exist, that we are created beings, that we are immaterial minds and not just physical brains, that the universe hasn't existed for eternity and didn't just pop into existence by magic but had a beginning, and that there is a meaning to life that has been given to us externally by a God who has given life meaning in the first place and given us meaning.
And so I then found myself thinking about Psalm 139, which came to mind. I think there's a part where it says, "You perceive my thoughts from afar," and I was just reflecting on how that Psalm talks about God knowing our minds and knowing our thoughts, and I thought, "God knows the questions that I've got, and He understands them. He knows why I made the decisions that I made," in that process of reflection, I just prayed the prayer and just said, "God, I'm yours again. I'm back," and recommitted my life to Him.
Wow! That's an amazing story. And you speak of the process, the journey in such eloquent terms, and I'm very struck by your self-awareness of the different aspects of your journey, whether it be intellectual or existential, your awareness of your openness or resistance. Perhaps the way that you describe yourself as an intellectual—or an introverted thinker, I think you said. You are very thoughtful, and we are the grateful recipients of that thought process, because you've made it so clear.
Some of your story reminds me a little bit of the way Esther Meek describes what she calls knowing God in her book, called Longing to Know. She describes that same thing as the 3D picture. It is there to see, but you have to have the intention and the willingness to reflect to see it. So in the same way in which you sat back, you thought, you studied, you listened, you reflected, and then the picture came into being. It made sense. You were able to see all of these things coming together, like you say, the world around you and the experience of your own life, that the Christian worldview is, like you say, coherent. It's comprehensive. It seems to connect with what we experience in reality. What a beautiful story you have!
I do have a question, a couple of things with regard to your wife. One is that you resisted the mocking, the ridicule of the Christian, and I wonder if some of that had to do with the fact that you knew Christians personally easy to have an us/them mentality. It's easy to dehumanize or degrade the other, but when you're actually married to someone who calls themself a Christian, when you have friends, like you say, that are intellectual, that are loving, that actually belong to you, I think that that's not an easy determination, in terms of, "I'll just ridicule and mock and dismiss." You can't just do that because you experientially know differently. And so I wondered if you could speak to that.
And I also wondered, with regard to your wife, because I know that people listening have a spouse or someone they love who does not believe, who sees things quite differently, I wondered how your wife's response to your disbelief affected, not only your perspective about Christianity but your willingness to come back to it.
Yeah. It wasn't easy. I think when it first became clear that I was having doubts about my Christian faith and particularly through the period where I made clear my intentions to leave church and not believe anymore, I think the initial response from my wife was... She was shocked, and she was concerned. And rightly so, because faith is really important, and we met as believers, and we had shared a common love for God and each other. We'd got married under covenant before God. And so all these things were important. And I wasn't naive to the impact that this would have on Liz, and so it was absolutely right that she responded initially with that shock and that concern, and you know, "What does this mean for us? What does this mean for our marriage?" And I tried to assure her that, "Look, we'll find a way to carry on, and we'll just have to kind of get through things.
I think probably the biggest challenge for Liz and the thing that she struggled with most was just kind of knowing how to respond around me. Knowing how to not push too hard. She certainly didn't want to stop going to church herself, and she didn't want to stop taking the children to church, and we agreed fairly early on. I think actually she was quite firm on that. She said, "This is your journey, but I don't want this to result in the kids not going to church," and I said, "That's fine." And I think probably, if I'm honest, I said, "That's fine," and then behind the scenes, whispered, "Don't worry. I'll get them somehow. They will hear what I have to say on this by some other gratuitous route." So I think that was the initial response to that, and it was difficult. We had to kind of work things out. And there were difficult conversations. There were awkward moments. I think I probably said some things that were just a bit insensitive, really, that was just me blurting out kind of different, new feelings and thoughts that I'd had about the Christian faith.
So we had to wrestle with that and work it out, but I think, underneath that, what mattered was... She was definitely determined to keep her marriage intact, and so was I, and I had no doubt that Liz wanted me to believe again, of course, and that the people in the church would want me to believe again, but after a couple of years, things just kind of settled down.
I think from Liz's point of view, I know she was praying for me, and I know that she prayed, "Lord, may it only go so far and no more," because part of the—and I guess this is something that perhaps Christians do wrestle with, is, if you don't have an objective morality, then where's that going to lead you? Where does the buck stop? Where do you get your boundaries from? And thankfully I was really keen to make sure that there could be no accusations made against me that I'd suddenly gone from this life of being a Christian to a life of doing all the wrong kind of things and a life of depravity and so on, so I was really keen to make sure that, just because I don't believe anymore doesn't mean I'm going to go away and get drunk every night and do drugs or whatever. I still feel that there are boundaries in life, and I want to honor those.
And I think, once we'd kind of had that period of time where we both got that assurance that our marriage could keep going and that we could still relate to each other, albeit with this change in belief that I'd had, we just kind of got settled into normal life. But I think—it has to be said. I know Liz would say to someone who has a spouse who doesn't believe, is to be gentle, to not push too hard, and to keep praying. I remember Liz actually—this is the year leading me up to me coming back to faith, Liz invited me. She'd gone to a new church by this stage that I wasn't familiar with, and she said, "Oh, we're having a picnic on a Sunday afternoon. Would you like to come? You don't have to. It'd just be really nice if you could be there because it's a nice sunny day." And I said yes. And I said yes because I was not in that stage of being really defensive, so I thought, "Okay, why not?" And it was just a picnic. There was another Sunday afternoon where there was a barbecue at someone's house, and I came along, and if I heard a conversation where people got onto the God stuff, I'd walk away and mingle somewhere else, but I remember having a conversation with somebody about music for quite a long time, and it was a really lovely conversation. And so I think that epitomizes where I was at. I'm prepared to just meet with people. And that really helped, I think. Just being able to connect with people. And I think that helped Liz as well, to kind of see that I was willing to do that. So yeah.
I think that'll be very helpful. Jim, as we're winding up here, can you speak to the curious skeptic who might be reflecting a bit, perhaps? Or curious. Just about their own beliefs. Perhaps thinking about the meaning and purpose in their own life or wherever it is they are or perhaps thinking that there is no intellectual substance to Christianity. There's a lot of things that you can speak to. What would you tell someone like that, who might be listening?
The one thing that I do feel passionately about is this view that reason and rationality and logic are devices that are solely for the use of atheists and skeptics and nontheists, and that belief in the God of Christianity, is a belief that you can reach that is completely consistent with your ability to reason and to think. I think the idea that reason and rationality is not available to the Christian, or that the Christian faith and belief in God cannot be supported rationally, I think that's the one thing that I would say I really would like to challenge people on. There are people of all backgrounds, people of all levels of education, from Nobel prize winning physicists to sports personalities to former terrorists, in every different country, all forms of culture, all different types of culture, throughout history, in different times in the timeline of human history, who have found a reason to believe.
And I think, for me, the encouragement that I would give is to make a distinction between teasing apart the arguments and trying to understand difficulties and finding answers to these questions and try and see that as something that is important, but it's not the whole picture. There's a really interesting introduction in a book called Basic Christianity by John Stott, and he talks about how a young man in his congregation was having questions and met with him and said, "You know, I just don't think I believe anymore. I'm going to be leaving church," and John Stott said to him, "If I was to answer all of your questions to your intellectual satisfaction, would you change the way you lived?" And the look on the young man's face said that he wouldn't. And so it kind of begs the question, so is it just about intellectual thinking or is it something else? John Stott said that this man's problem wasn't intellectual. It was moral. if it's with your heart that you believed, is it not also the case it's with your heart that you don't believe?
And I think that's the thing that I would put out there. Take yourself away from all of the noise of the debates for a moment. Go and sit on a hillside. Go and take yourself away to a quiet place. And give yourself that room to examine yourself and to think about, "What is that point that I would get to where I say, 'Okay, I've answered enough. I've searched enough. I've discovered enough. And now is a time to make a decision.'" Because if you do that and you find that actually the answer is, "Well, there never will be," then you have to ask yourself the question, "Is it really an intellectual reason why I don't believe in God? Is that really the barrier that's preventing me from making that decision?"
I think that's really excellent. Very challenging. Like you say, challenging and encouraging, I think, for all of us, in terms of why we believe, what we believe, and what we tell ourselves about why we believe what we believe. Sometimes those can be two very different things.
If you were to speak to the Christian who really has a heart for those who don't see Christianity as true or good or real, what would you say to them?
I would say don't put up artificial barriers to someone coming to meet and be a disciple of Christ. the advice would be be gentle, be respectful, always give a reason for the hope that we have but do it with gentleness and respect, and all of those things. And that's probably the advice a lot of people would give. But I think my biggest thing would be that, if we make coming to God really difficult for people, we shouldn't be surprised when people find it really hard to come to faith, and again, as I mentioned earlier, if we insist that the only interpretation of Genesis, for example, is a six-day creation and the 6,000-year-old earth—and I'm not getting into that debate—I'm just saying that if we make that a condition, or any other doctrinal point a condition, other than the core doctrines of the Christian faith, if we make that a condition of belief, then we're just making it really, really hard for people to see the invitation of God. And so I'd say just reflect on that. And pray for people.
A lot of people were praying for me all the way through, but I mentioned that I spent a year in Kenya after university, and I spent a year there with a chap called Philip, who was from a similar place in London where I lived, and we got to know each other throughout that year and became really good friends. He went on to do mission work in Tanzania, and after I had left faith, I had just lost touch with him, so I'd not spoken to him for about 10 years at the point that I came back to faith. I didn't know that he knew that I'd fallen away. So I kind of reconnected with him on Facebook, got his email address, and I sent him an email and I told him my story. And I said, "I hope you're sitting down, but nine years ago, I abandoned my faith and became an atheist, but recently I came back to faith." And he was studying in the US. He got his doctorate in New Testament Studies, and he was supervised by someone called Craig Keener. I don't know if you know of him.
Yes. Oh, yes.
And so Philip was studying for his PhD, and he's a really great guy, very faithful, very British. He described himself as so British that even British people think he's British. And not one to exaggerated, but he emailed me back, and he said, "Jim, I was really thrilled to hear from you. By the way, I actually knew that you'd fallen away because word had got around the grapevine, and I was really shocked back then, especially given your experience of being a Christian and all the reasons why you were a Christian, and I prayed for you, but over the years, apathy set in and I forgot and time moved on." And then he said, "Until recently, a few months ago, you were in a dream, and after I had this dream, and it wasn't a very specific dream, but you were in it, and I woke up with a strong sense to pray for you every day, which I did, at least every day, if not every week, from that time on," and he said, "So I was thrilled when you reached out to me soon after and even more thrilled to find out that you'd actually come back to faith when I was hoping that you would just be reconsidering God again." And this just knocked me for six, because I just thought that moment that he'd had that dream, the moment that he'd had that conviction to pray for me, thousands of miles away, with ten years of silence, that very moment that he decided to pray for me was the moment that I started to consider God again.
And so the message is just don't forget that this isn't just a physical kind of thing that's happening here. This is spiritual, and prayer is important. Keep praying for people. And don't give up hope. Again, that's not to suggest that it was only Philip's prayer of course. Because I know a lot of people were praying for me, and I really appreciate that, but I just found it remarkable that I really felt that prompting to pray at that time was specifically the right thing for that time as I was going through that journey of rediscovering God.
That's extraordinary! And it is truly a word for all of us, how, I think as you spoke of earlier in your story, there's a sense in which Christianity can become too ordinary for us as Christians, and it can become less and lesser and less related to our daily lives. But you are a vivid reminder that that—it's really not a good thing for many different reasons. First of all, just the fact that those who really appreciate that the Christian life is extraordinary and it is supernatural and that there is a God who oversees and superintends and engages in, as you said at the very beginning, in your journeying to God for the first time, He's a Person. A Person who we can know. A Person who knows us and loves us infinitely. And so much so that He listens to the prayers of His people and that lives are changed.
What a beautiful portrait that you have painted of your life, both towards God, away from God, and then even more robustly toward this beautiful and full relationship with God that is not only intellectual but existential and makes sense of your life and makes sense of all of reality, even. So thank you for spending the time. I think it was well worth spending this time to hear your entire story. So thank you, Jim, so much for coming on board.
You're welcome. It was a pleasure to speak with you, and just thanks for the opportunity to share my story.
You're so welcome, Jim.
Thanks for tuning in to the Side B Podcast to hear Jim's story. You can find out more about the resources he mentioned in the episode notes listed on the podcast page. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at the [email protected]. If you enjoyed it, subscribe, rate, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. I would really appreciate it. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll be seeing how someone else flips the record of their life.