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EPISODE 70: Truth Seeker

Former atheist Stefani Ruper was intellectually convinced of secular atheism, but found that it lacked substantive answers for her life. More than 13 years of scholarly pursuit of truth led her to choose belief in God.

Stefani's Resources:

Resources/authors recommended by Stefani:

  • Dominion by Tom Holland
  • Works of William James


Hello, and thanks for joining in. I'm Jana Harmon, and you're listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics slip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories on our Side B Stories website, at We welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page, you can also email us at [email protected]. We love to hear from you.

As a reminder, our guests not only tell their stories of moving from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity, but at the end of each episode, these former atheists and skeptics give advice to curious seekers as to how they can best pursue the truth and reality of God. They also give advice to Christians as to how best to engage with those who don't believe. I hope you're listening in to hear them speak from their wisdom and experience as someone who has once been on both sides of the big questions of life. We have so much to learn from them.

No matter how intellectual and rational we are, we all make decisions based upon what we've experienced, what we know, what we want. Sometimes we want to know what is true, and other times we tend to avoid the truth because it doesn't seem to align with our desires. Regardless, we're constantly making choices towards some things and away from others. We choose to believe. We make our choices. Sometimes choices lead to confusion, to deception, darkness, and distress. Others lead to clarity, truth, joy, and peace. Although we can't know things with 100 percent certainty, we can make choices based upon good, solid reasons that not only satisfy intellectually but existentially in our lives as well.

In today's story, former atheist Stefani Ruper was driven to find truth. As an intellectual, her scholarly pursuits led her to find solid answers to the big questions that had long haunted her, but only after years of study and contemplation was she able to choose to believe in the reality of God. But it has completely transformed her life. I hope you'll come along to listen to her story.

Welcome to Side B Stories, Stefani, it's so great to have you with me today.

Hi, Jana. Thank you so much. I'm honestly so happy to be here.

Excellent! As we're getting started, Stefani, so the listeners know a bit about you and the gravitas you actually bring to the table, tell us a bit about who you are, your academic background, your passions, whatever you're pursuing at the moment.

Great. I'm going to try to reign it in and not talk about Jesus right away. I've always been deeply academic in everything I've done, just obsessed with intellectual rigor, actually. I did my first degree in the sciences. I studied life on other planets. I did that at Dartmouth. Back in 2010, I finished. And my second degree was a masters of theology, specializing in the relationship between religion and science. And my third degree was a doctorate at the University of Oxford, which I finished in 2020, and that was also studying in the religion and science cohort of the religion and theology faculty of the University of Oxford.

Okay. Excellent. I'm hoping that some of that expertise will just flow out of your story today and what drove you and how you perceive things. I'm sure it will all be fleshed out through your story. So let's get started. Bring us back to your childhood, where you were raised. Talk to us about your family. Was there any religious flavor in your home at all? Tell us about that.

Yeah. Obviously, such an important thing. So I started having panic attacks about dying and the meaning of life when I was 4 years old. And that set the stage for everything, because I didn't tell anybody, but I became obsessed, obviously. I became obsessed with finding an answer. But I was raised in a home where we didn't have religion. And in fact, if anything, religion was for stupid and weak people, so I couldn't. That just wasn't something…. We didn't talk about this kind of thing. So I just carried that personally in myself, and it became a huge piece.

I remember one moment swinging on the swing set with a bunch of other girls, and they were talking about catechism. And I was like , “What? Yeah. Me, too. I do that.” But I was just lying, because I had no idea what that meant. So so that set the stage. But I was always deeply, deeply hungry for meaning. And so I started going to the library by myself when I was a kid.

I would pack up my backpack and a little CD player and go to the library, and there were maybe ten philosophy books in the dustiest, darkest corner of the library, and I would understand nothing, but I would read them. And I just got excited about the potential that I would be able to address this deep drive I had to try to make sense of a world that just… I had nothing. The universe was cold and dark and nothing, right? And we're just fleshy organisms that blob around until we die. And that was just how I felt about things.

And I really, really, really, really wanted meaning, and the only thing that felt deep enough for me and meaningful at the same time was science, which is why I ended up studying life on other planets. I wanted to say something about, well, the meaning of life, well, the meaning of life. And I'll just give you this bit before I finish my monologue. I got through my entire undergraduate degree. I made it basically to my final semester before realizing that I had prided myself on open mindedness my entire life, intellectual rigor and open mindedness was my jam. That was who I was. And yet, I had dismissed the most cherished beliefs of 99 percent of people who had ever existed without ever engaging it. Religion was just dumb. It was just dumb. It was just weak, not something I would ever consider. I woke up to this realization, and I thought, “Oh. This is something I have to fix.” Yeah.

So that's a very provocative statement. But before we get there. There’s a little bit of living you've done growing up prior to that point, and I wonder why… Obviously, you were a very serious minded child, and you were pursuing deep philosophical, intellectual answers for this haunting question for you even as a 4 year old, which is pretty phenomenal. That just tells us a little bit about you, how thoughtful you were even as a child. But why do you suppose you did dismiss I mean the thing that 99 percent of the people in the world supposedly believed. Were there elements of faith around you? Was it not in your world? Were there religious-minded people that challenged you? Or did you seek out answer or counsel from anything outside of a secular world view?

I'm really glad you asked that question because, yeah, there was some interesting nuance, I think. The examples of religion that I had around me and that we had around our family were not. Particularly conducive to their and others’ flourishing. And so there weren't a lot of examples, I think, and the people around me. It just wasn't appealing to me. But I also… this is very interesting. I think there's a kind of a subsection of resistance to faith and religion, distaste for it, that is kind of…. It's rooted in a hyper individualism.

Mm-hm. Yeah. That sounds like quite a struggle, really. And I do wonder… obviously, you had a perspective of Christian people as, or religious people, as less than. It wasn't something that was appealing or attractive to you at all. Were those opinions made at a distance, as kind of the other? I know you speak of a highly individualistic self, and you pursued a lot of this probably autonomously, but did you ever even see what you would consider perhaps now an embodied form of authentic Christianity in someone who might have been intelligent or in the sciences, for example, that might have broken down those stereotypes at all? Or was this just you were so kind of driven by this secular kind of scientism, in a sense, that you weren't even seeing or recognizing potential counter narratives to your perspective?

Yeah. Thank you. It was definitely a scientism. I loved Richard Dawkins, right? The God Delusion, I think, came out when I was in high school. And that was big for me. I want to be clear. I was talking about my deep loneliness and all of sort of thing. I mean, I grew up in a fantastic, loving home, right?   And the people around me were so warm, and I considered that to be just one of the most… I mean I'm so privileged for so many reasons, and that's that's just huge. My family was so fantastic, and I did sort of… I carried this by myself. I never told anybody. And this feeling of kind of like existential abandonment or isolation. Again, I just never brought it up. And I'd never…. No, I didn't have examples. They're weren't people around me who lived a religious life in a way that I nowadays would identify as, I don't know, something I like, something that I want to move towards. I really had to see the… I think I really had to live. And this has been a theme throughout my entire life up until this point. I had to live through the negative consequences of what I was doing to realize that it was incorrect or I didn't want it anymore. My life has been  a very long sequence of events in which I just tried something, realized it wasn't the answer, and kept going.

And I have a friend who describes it as like sometimes you have to hit your head against the wall hard enough to realize that it's a wall and you’ve got to walk around it, you got to find a way around it, or grasp Jesus' hand on the other side I might say now. I wouldn't have said it that way before. Yeah.

Did you call yourself an atheist or an agnostic? Or how would you have perceived yourself or your identity during that time?

I think I probably… through my undergraduate degree, I did the same thing that Dawkins does, I'm quite sure he says, which is, “I’m 99 percent atheist because, technically, with my degree of intellectual humility, will not say, full-on 100 percent,” but if it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. So if I looked like an atheist and quacked like an atheist, I may as well call myself an atheist. And that was quite my resistance. I say in one of my bios, like the first sentence is, like, “My whole life, I prided myself on my atheist resistance to the temptations of faith.” And that was quite central. And I think the way that we… identity is so important to our existential stability, to our sense of the world, to who we are, and that intellect and that pride were huge, quite huge, I think.

So there's a real strong narrative within atheism that, of course, religion is for the weak minded, for the superstitious, and the list goes on. And atheism is more for those who are bright, who are intellectually minded. I'm curious. As you were dismissing all religion and faith and everything that goes with it. You like a truth seeker to me. You were seeking to know what was true and real within the sciences or whatnot. I know that you had some existential angst in there, but prior to getting to that, how did you ground your atheism as true? Was it just that it’s not religion, it's not supernatural? Or were you grounding your naturalism or materialism or in whatever camp you landed in terms of your atheistic worldview, how did you know that that was true?

Well, you know, our experiences of what is true… I think of knowledge as a feeling. This is why we say things like, “Well, that feels…,” right? “That feels true.” If you feel certain of anything, like certainty is a feeling. And so I say this because everything that I think we all experience as true comes from what we've experienced in our lives up until that point. What we've been exposed to. We all know, right? We all know that we're deeply embedded in the worlds into which we have been born and the ideas to which we have been exposed. And so, in retrospect, right? This is me looking back at who I was. My experience of truth just came from being born into full-on secularism, full-on the consequences of the arc of the last 500 years, with the collapse of traditional religion, the pluralization of religious forms, the rise of nihilism, the rise of this supposed divide between religion and science. I mean, I was just born into a world where what it is, what the world is made of, is material stuff, and anything that you try to interpret beyond what you can see and touch is a fantasy.

Now, in retrospect, I understand that's a wild oversimplification. I don't believe it anymore. But anything beyond what I could see and touch was a fantasy, and I appreciate you saying that you see me, even past me, as a truth seeker, because I was. I think we all are. And we're so motivated, and we're so loyal and honest and passionate about our ideas of truth. Because we think they are real, they have to be real, right? I very, very, very much, I knew that I would've loved for God to be real. But I couldn't believe in it because it was a fantasy piled on top of the real world. And that was just like the metaphysics that I was born with. And I am working today, all day, every day. I'm still working on trying to pick that apart and inhabit the world in a way that is not so empty and reductive, because it doesn't have to be that way. It just… that's the metaphysics that I was born into.

So as a sober-minded intellect who was a truth seeker, and you believed that anything beyond what you could see, touch, taste, smell, feel was a fantasy. Now, a part of embracing atheism or naturalism or that kind of—I will say the word reductionistic view, is that there are certain things  about yourself that you would have to say are fantasy as well, like the ability to choose freely or objective moral values and determining what is right or wrong or your own consciousness. Things… that sustainable you who is not physical, that sustains throughout time. And of course, things like meaning, that thing that you were wrestling with, which I guess, as an atheist, you would have to call a fantasy in some point. There must have been a dissonance between knowing that you are a meaning-seeking person but yet, meaning on its own does not hold objective value within the naturalistic worldview. So I'm wondering: How did you live out this view of the world where everything beyond your senses was fantasy?

Well, it was. And that's why it sucked so much. I didn't carry any illusions about objective… like I didn't believe in objective truth or value. And free will is possible without God, right? You can imagine a nondeterministic, materialistic cosmos. But I wasn't sure about free will. I was like, “Oh, I don't know.” I couldn't decide, and I wasn't well schooled in the philosophy of mind, and I'm still not. But I think I was…. I really like intellectual consistency. I did what I could to be as consistent as possible, and the elements of… I was deeply hungry for meaning. I wanted there to be free will. I wanted my consciousness to matter.

So that's how I did it. Just everything that I wanted sucked, and I… one of my biggest struggles has been trying to defend making truth claims, because there was no basis for me to make a truth claim. I saw myself, again, just as this fleshy blob meandering around the planet, bumping into other fleshy blobs until I die. So that created for me a very existentially disturbing, I would say, feeling of uncertainty, like I could never say anything. I'd see a shirt. I'd look at a shirt, and I'd be like, “This is blue.” And then I'd be like “But is it? What about my rods? What about my cones? What is color?” Everything… I just a rabid deconstructionist to everything. Everything was subject to question. And that was really, really challenging.

So was it that sense of challenge, I guess, that constant challenge of trying to be a whole person in a sense, where you're being intellectually honest but recognizing there are certain aspects of the way that you see or feel in your life that don't seem to match up with your intellectual framework, as it were. What was it that allowed you to look beyond naturalism or secularism, atheism as a potential other perspective?

Yeah. It's so funny. I just had this wave of, like, “I'm about to cry.” It's taken a very long time. It's taken a very long time. I'll give you just an overview, and we can dive into whatever piece of it you like. So when I realized that I had dismissed religion without ever engaging it, I printed 500 pages from the journal of religion and science, Zygon, and sat down with a cup of tea. This was after I finished my undergrad. I was an au pair in Italy, actually. So I flew up to Italy, and I sat down in this tiny village, and I read a page and a half of an article by I think Scott Atran, about belief in evolution. And I was like, “Oh, crap. This is intelligent.” And then my ultimate loyalty was to the truth, and I was also hungry to understand where they were maybe coming from. So I devoured everything I printed. I started doing research online, and I learned that there's a whole field of study called religion and science. It's like, “Wow! That’s my home. I’ve got to go there. I’ve got to go there,” and I found an excellent program for that at Boston University.

And the Boston University School of Theology is just epic. It's just epic. This is not a paid promotion. I love that place so much. And they let me live in a house called Theology House, which was for aspiring pastors in the Methodist church and other people really committed to their studies. Because when I'm going to… I'm not really great at moderating, moderation, so, like, if I'm going to learn this, I'm going to learn this. I’m going to throw myself in the deep end. So I went, and I lived in Theology House, and then I saw such beautiful examples of Christian hospitality and love, and people in that house came from a bunch of backgrounds, and we were doing opposite things, right? Because I was a radical atheist, materialist, deconstructionist, secularist, and they were coming and learning about histories of scholarship and questioning the Bible and deconstructing this and deconstructing that. And we just sat in that space together in a way that was co-journeying, I would say. I’ve learned so much just from walking alongside people of faith. They have been so wonderful to me. Nobody's ever pushed faith on me. They've just walked alongside me while I walked.

And my secular friends would ask me, they'd be like, “This is nuts. Are you learning anything in seminary? Stef goes to seminary!” And honestly, it took me two years of studying metaphysics and the history of the relationship between religion and science to even just get to the point of saying, “Well, my nihilism and my meaninglessness aren't necessarily true.” The metaphysics of divinity of—I wouldn't say of Christianity yet—but of something beyond might be real. And that was enough for me to just, like, “Whew!” a little bit. And then, I kept on with my studies, and I went through my doctoral program, and I still wasn't there. And I was still like a moth to the flame of Christian community. So many of my closest friends were deeply Christian, were evangelical, were—I mean, evangelical in the sense of active evangelists in their lives and careers and professions. And I just kept being around them and provocating at this. And that's kind of where the story takes off from there.

But that was the initial first step, was literally, it took me two years of studying and living… I only lived for 1 year in Theology House, but it was just that to even get me to, again, living that worldview and being like, “Oh, this is incorrect,” and then studying metaphysics and being like, “Oh, this other alternative view might be correct.” I'll stop if you have questions.

No, no. What strikes me is that you were such a genuine truth seeker and you wanted to understand whatever was going on with you with regard to the search for meaning, that you were willing to pull back the curtain, I guess, of religion and metaphysics and take an honest look, which I think is very admirable. I think sometimes people are so entrenched in their view that they're not willing to look outside of it, but obviously for you, you were willing to look outside of your own atheistic parameters or outside of the atheistic literature, to really take an intellectually honest look. Was that hard to do? Or was that, because you're so drawn towards truth at any cost, because I would imagine, when you started looking and were open to looking outside of your own worldview, that you knew that that would come with a potential cost.

Well, I think another way I could tell this story is that God has just been pulling on me all along, sort of luring me, insofar as God is the truth. The cost of sacrificing… You know, I think so much of truth is about stability. Truth is about having a rock to stand on for a lot of people. This is my truth. My rock sucked. It was pebbles. I didn't like the rock I was standing on. I wanted off, but I wouldn't let myself off. I wouldn't let myself off, and it is very funny, because atheists will all day long, and I always viewed this in others, too. You see people journeying and talking about finding faith, and you can just shrug and be like, “Well, they did that because they wanted to.” And it's very, very true that I have always deeply wanted and longed for God. That's very true, and I've always known that. But I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever let myself, ever, unless I thought it was true. And I was suffering, and I knew it. And so, again, you could say all day long, like, “Oh, well, Stef, she finally just cracked.” But what's actually true was that I found intellectual arguments that helped me open that door. And then God started… you know, then God’s light, then I was able to let God’s light shine through the door, and I was like, “Oh! There it is. Hallelujah!” But I really needed the intellectual arguments to let myself have that feeling of experience, to let myself stand on a rock that was actually a rock, not just a bunch of real crappy pebbles.

Right, right. So what were some of those intellectual rocks that were convincing to you that allowed you to move forward?

Yeah. One important thing that happened was, throughout all of my living alongside people of faith in institutions and staying up all night talking about metaphysics and the Trinity, was that I learned that religious belief is incredibly intelligent and rational, and intellectually so fruitful and deep and rich. One of my doctoral supervisors, Alister McGrath… I remember giving a talk and just talking about how rich the intellectual life was in Christianity, and now I understand. I've always just loved that.

So I just thought that my friends were perfectly smart, and I loved being around them, but I was never going to believe. It just didn't make sense to me. Intellectual honesty, from my point of view, was secularism, and it was just kind of like a gap that would never be breached, that I would never understand how other people could possibly believe that something beyond what I could see and touch was real. How could that possibly…. So I knew it was rational. And I also knew that I was miserable. More or less. Again, my life was amazing, but existentially, I was in pain.


And I became intrigued with pragmatism as a school of philosophy and specifically the work of William James. James was very interesting, because James was writing just a couple decades after Darwin. And after Darwin came on the scene and the nineteenth century happened, so many people in this intellectual milieu were despairing of knowledge. They thought, “Oh, humans, we can't possibly have any kind of theological view anymore because Darwin has disproved knowledge, has disproved the image of God. We are just apes,” you know, or those fleshy blobs. And James came along, and he was like, “Wait, wait, wait. No. Knowledge has involved feeling all along. Knowledge has involved feeling all along. It's not dead. We just need to validate it. We just need to see it as valid another way. It’s not dead. It's just imperfect,” which is funny because that's what the medieval theologians were saying all along, like, “God is perfect. Human knowing is imperfect,” and it was only during the enlightenment that thinkers constructed this idea, this hope, that human knowledge could be perfect. And then we had all this despair.

“Oh, no. Human knowledge isn't perfect. We can't believe in anything.” And James was like, “No, no, no. We just need to accept that human knowledge isn't perfect.” And I was like, “Yeah, okay.” And then James also says that this intellectual view, this secular view, this purely naturalistic view, well, guess what? It's not actually any closer to truth than anything else, and it's motivated by a fear of being wrong. And I realized that I had been terrified of making a wrong claim my entire life. Terrified. And so I call it epistemic reticence. Like my way to truth was to make as few truth claims as humanly possible. And James says, “But wait. There are certain things that you cannot tell if they are true or not unless you believe them first, like jumping a mountain pass. You have to believe you can before you can jump it, and you get the evidence later. You don't get the evidence first. You get the evidence later.” And he points this out in the middle of also saying, “Look, those of you who are being as epistemically reticent as possible, who think that you're being loyal to truth by only making claims about what you can see and touch, guess what? You're making claims about morals and about metaphysics all day long. You're assuming what an object is. You’re assuming what consciousness is. You’re making all these assumptions about what's real. And you're making all these assumptions about what's good because you go out the front door, you talk to people, you choose your words.

Ethics are woven into the fabric of your daily life, as are metaphysics. And so,” James says, “since you're making moral and metaphysical claims anyway, why not dare to believe something that might be true, especially if it is intellectually rigorous, and it might make you happier, and it might make you a better person?” Ultimately, he says, “Look, if there is something that is intellectually rigorous, that can make you a happier or a better person, you are not just licensed,” and this was the key point for me, “but you are obliged to believe it.”

So I literally decided to try to change the fabric of how I've been made. I think of myself like a radio antenna or a station. I've been sort of dialed into this secular, nihilistic frequency my whole life. But I can actually choose to interpret the world differently and change my fabric, my existential fabric to be open to God, to be open to new truths. I have decided to dare to believe in God to see if God is present in my life, and I think that God is.

That's good. And it really gives us a lot of things to think about. Of course William James has a very famous paper called “The Will to Believe,” right? And so what I hear you saying, and I just want this to be clear to our audience, is that I can, oh, I can hear the skeptic in my ear saying, “She just chose to believe something and willed it to be true in her life when, just prior, she said she wouldn't believe anything unless it were true.” And so it sounds like a conflict, but it's really not. It sounds like a conundrum, but I'm sure you can help us tease this forward, so that you can maybe… I'm not sure if there's a way that you can satisfy the skeptic fully, but there is some truth to-

I can.

We believe towards understanding, right? So it's a little bit difficult and a little bit muddied, but perhaps you can walk us through this a little bit more specifically?

Acknowledging the way in which I have been formed, right? So secularism, naturalism, atheism, are not necessarily true. And if you're an atheist, you have to recognize that. And we all have to recognize that our experiences of what is true are conditioned by who and what we have been, right? There’s eight billion of us ping ponging around, and we have to understand that we're all just different. And I see us as having access to truth, but it being fuzzy, because we're all just eight billion little bits doing our part.

And what do I want to do with my little part? What do I want to do with my little part? Mary Oliver has this beautiful sentence, “What do you want to do with your one wild and precious life?” What do you want to do? I consider it my moral obligation to be the best, strongest, most joyful person I possibly can, because I want to lift up others. I want to be resilient. I want to be courageous. And I always knew that, with God in my life, I would have more of those things.

And so, I guess my argument to a skeptic, is the pragmatic one. What am I going to do with my one wild and precious life? Are we just going to sit in atheism forever and be like, “Well, this is it,” or are we going to take a chance on God and see what happens? Our knowledge is so limited, and to assume that naturalism or anything is definitively correct and there isn't anything beyond what we can see and touch, I just see as limited and sad.

And how are we going to gain truth? I really like that verb that James uses. How do we gain truth? You can just sit on the sidelines and not say anything forever, but what if? I want to take a chance on that what if because my ability to experience and know God and what could be beyond what I see and touch is a choice that I have to open myself to.

So I decided to try. That's my push back to atheism. You don't know until you try, and what am I going to do with my one wild and precious life?

So you had, I guess, sufficient intellectual reason to believe that God was ontologically real, that He was there, that allowed you to choose to experience or believe in Him? So it's not…. I guess what I'm trying to ask is it's not just a subjective, “Oh, I think I'll believe in God, and I'll give it a try,” but just based upon your existential need, it was—I guess, not to discount that because that's a huge part of why we can grasp onto the One who created us and fills us and satisfies us with everything good. But also you had good reason to believe that He did exist, so that when you were opening yourself up, it was to someone who was… Like you said, is real. Is that right? It wasn't just that fantasy that you wanted to grab onto.


I think there's something to be said for, if you're seeking truth, you will find it. You will find Him. So you were earnestly seeking towards truth, and in some ways, subjectively and objectively, I guess, both marrying, that you had trust that what you were opening yourself to was real.

I'm not sure I did, because…. You know, so many people I know…. I'm an INTJ, Myers Briggs. Some people I know talk about, like, the feeling of the cosmos, but I just… that was never my access in. And I really appreciate you asking this question, because I am so dead set on the rational justification. Now, again, I think that what all of us experience as rational is conditioned by our feelings. That is something I have to reckon with, as somebody who likes rationality. But I was obsessed with that, and I had studied. I had a PhD in theology, right? And I spent my life around people who are theologians.

And there are deeply compelling intellectual justifications for God, and specifically for a Christian God, for Christ. And I like them, and so I was looking at them, and I was saying, like, “Yeah, okay. I do think they're really compelling.”

I do think they're really compelling, but the thing that helped me take a step into living them, into embracing them, was this pragmatic argument. It gave me the license that said, “You’re going to be a better person. This could be true. Let yourself walk it. Let yourself have this,” but also let yourself have this because you have so much justification, right? And so a big part of this is me letting go of just that idol of who I was. The idol of the proud atheist resisting the temptations of faith. Actually, it's quite intellectually rigorous over there, probably more intellectually rigorous than it was over here, probably, you know? The history of all of this stuff is also deeply compelling. The way that metaphysical naturalism, like, it was kind of politically pushed into the academy 150 years ago. Nobody talks about it, right? It sort of elbowed its way in and to talking about itself like it was intellectually superior, but it's not.

And I really, really do think that there being a beyond what we understand here, what we see and touch is intellectually more compelling. God's been here the whole time, but I also feel like I had to walk this path, because I can talk to people who have the same concerns I had my whole life. Throw all the skeptical questions at me. I don't find it particularly likely I'm going to find one I haven't already entertained. I'm open to it. Please do, but I've been there.

Right. So you went through your entire educational process. I'm just clarifying here, through your PhD in theology, still as a skeptic, nonbeliever? Is that right?

Correct. Yeah.

So how old were you? Or how many years did this process take before you were willing to open yourself up to the possibility of God and walking and stepping into that?

I had an experience after my 34th birthday that I consider like an anchor to my faith. But, yeah, so it was around 34, which would give me about 30 years of really significant longing. And I started seeking, I would say, when I was maybe around 11 or 12, reading Aristotle and stuff at the library. So that puts it at a couple decades. And I started my first master's degree in 2011, so serious scholarship. It was about 13 years of real serious scholarship.

So it was definitely a prolonged process. This was not a sudden shift. It was someone who actually did due diligence.

I was in the desert. I was in the desert. Yeah. I mean, I've literally read thousands of books on this topic, and that isn't to make an idol of reading or something. You can be very wise without reading tons of books, but I have really…. The history of technology and writing and uncertainty and biology, right? I have this science background, evolution, and the history of so many things. And the psychology, and sociology, and affect theory, and phenomenology, and existentialism. The list is…. Yeah. I’ve got a lot of breadth in there. I’ve some depth, too, I hope, but there's a lot of breadth in there.

So at 34, what brought you to the final choice of coming to believe in God, and I presume Christ, in your life and trusting in Him and in that?

Yeah. It’s ongoing. I think of myself as on the way. It's a mustard seed, really, my faith. But I'm so committed to it because it's a wasteland behind me. And I think…. I speak in probabilities a lot because I have this huge history of being so epistemically reticent and afraid of saying something wrong, but I have transitioned to wanting to dare truth and take a chance on God. And sometimes I just lie there in prayer with my forehead on the floor. And I'm like, “God, keep helping me feel You, understand You, see Your presence in the world.” Because that's what I'm looking for.

Now this anchor experience I had, it’s a whole long story, and I won't delve into it. But I've had a health condition, and I had an experience of it being helped in a way that is really, really, really hard for me to make sense of. I'm very, very tuned into how my body works and how it responds to certain things, and it's very, very hard for me to make sense of what happened to me physically without God. And there were some bookends to that experience. That just seemed really loud. God being like, “Please pay attention to this.” Like somebody came up to me. I started having this bizarre experience of being like, “Why is this one symptom I have just so miraculously,” I'll go ahead and use the adverb, “better right now? I just can't make sense of it,” and then somebody literally came up to me and was like, “Hi, my name’s Paul. By the way, physical miracles are real.” I was like, “What?” I mean, it's way more complicated than that, but it was….

Yeah, that's kind of an anchor for my faith, because… it's very funny. Someone said to me, when I told him about this experience, the whole long story. Maybe I'll come back on and tell it another time. This person said to me, “Oh, that’s so remarkable, because you're so intellectual. I always thought that God would speak to you intellectually.” But I think God may have given me this anchor because I can't fight with it intellectually. I could tear down an intellectual argument all day long. None of my beliefs are at a hundred percent. I can probabilistically chip away at so much, but this anchor, I can't really argue with that brief experience of, “Wow! How is this happening?”

So that's something. And then I have a bunch of little…. So I started opening myself up to interpreting the world as maybe God is acting in my life. And as soon as I started doing that, like dominoes, so many things started falling into place in terms of doors opening, like towards my calling, and when I ask, things kind of weirdly happen. I mean, not all the time, but it's wild. Wild is the adjective I keep using. It's wild because I never, ever, ever in a million years would have expected that I am in relationship, and I can lean into and communicate with and grow through and be challenged by God, right? This is something that's a part of the universe that I just wasn't hearing. But this actually is a part of the fabric of my life, and it's just so wild to me. My mind is blown. And I'm just kind of throwing myself…. I changed what I was doing. I moved. I took a leap on doing what I think God is calling me to do. And it's working! It’s working amazingly, and I'm just… it's wild.

So this is a part of what I want to say to skeptics. If you just take a chance on God, what's on the other side of the door is wild, and all you have to do is just let yourself try. And then you'll probably, I think probably, I think probably you'll see. Maybe you won't. Maybe not. But yeah. That's it.

No, no, that’s a great word for those who are skeptics who are willing to take a chance, to choose to believe, to have the will to believe. It sounds like you have found the God who is real and it also sounds like, whatever that existential angst you had for so many years, it doesn't sound…. According to the way that you're speaking about yourself and your life and the adventure that it is, you sound very full. So has that resolved itself? That kind of existential, that search for meaning. Have you found it?

Yeah. Sorry. Do you share these videos? Can people see how big my smile is when you're asking me that question?

Yes, yes.

Yeah. So yeah! Yeah! I just am speechless before the difference. Speechless. I can't impress upon anybody just how huge of a difference it is. It's a huge…. I don't know if being born, right, and never ever being exposed or thinking that the world could be friendly to me. And people in my life felt that way, by the way. I just, like… it never occurred to me that universe could be friendly or that God existed. And so, oh, it makes such a big difference! I can feel it. I picture my existential fabric every day. It's like it was this hard lattice, like a really tightly woven basket or something, made out of steel, some tough…. And I can feel it. It's like a breath [59:16], like the lattice is relaxing. And I also feel like the cells in my body are kind of… I mentioned a radio. They're kind of vibrating on a different frequency. They're just like, breath [59:27], “Thank God.” The refrain always in my head, all the time, is, “Thank God. Thank God. Thank God.” And like, “Thank God for God.” Yeah. And so I want to be humble about it, and a part of me is like, “Well, maybe I'll change my mind. Maybe I'll go back. Maybe I'll find some intellectual argument. Maybe. Maybe.” But I feel like I've just been coming home.

One of my favorite things about God is all the brilliant metaphors. And one of my favorite metaphors for God is a fisherman. Fisher person. Fisherman. And I've been, like, swimming in a murky water, and God’s like a fisher person and has had a lure in my mouth, and God's trying. God's like, “Come on,”  and I’ve just been swimming around in that murky sea against God, and it hurts. My whole life. Even though I was looking for answers, I was like a fish zipping around. It doesn't know what direction to go in. And now I'm tuned into the direction God's pulling me in, and it's all light, and it's clean water, and there's sunshine. And I'm like, “Yeah, let's go to those tropical waters. Yeah, let's get closer to the surface. Let's go. Let's go, God.” I'm feeling more resilient. I’m sleeping better. I mean, my sleep was terrible my whole life. I just stayed awake with anxiety about everything, including death and godlessness. And I'm eager to lie in bed and say, “Hey, God. What’s up?” at night, and it’s so good. It's just so, so good.

And again, you could be like, “Oh, she's just doing it because it feels good.” And it’s like, “Well, feeling good is a part of it, but feeling good is also a part of it being true.” So it definitely doesn't feel dishonest to me. I'm open to the possibility that it might be entirely wrong, but I'm getting a lot of data from God that is probably right, so let's go!

It sounds like a wonderful adventure! And the word that comes to mind, too, is shalom. I mean, it just feels as if there is some peace that has come and reigned in your life and taken away a lot of that anxiety and the fear. And He’s set you on a path, a sure and solid path, that sounds really quite exciting, to be honest, and joy filled. It’s really amazing to see your face and smile and to hear… I mean you can just hear it in your voice.

So for those… I know you gave a word to the skeptic to just take a chance, kind of, come on, make a choice to experience the God that you have found. Is there any way specifically that you could guide them towards how do you do that? Or what would be a step forward in taking a choice towards God?

Yeah. Thank you. I think looking at yourself and finding the points of resistance and then facing them, being like, “Oh, this is something I can do something about.” Everything is something you can do something about. Period. Well, I mean, we're all going to die and stuff, but Jesus has got our backs.  Everything in that fabric you can do something about. And so approach it, you know? And also think about the kinds of resources that you could, like… because they're out there. So many people say to me, “Well, how do you defend getting into Christianity when there's X unethical position or X unethical thing happening?” And I'm like, “Well, the whole world is fallen. Nothing is perfect. Except for Christ and God, and so we just, we choose. And there are so many different churches, so many different religious communities. If you encounter one that you don’t like, cool. You just learned one thing that you don't like. It's like the whole myth about Thomas Edison and the light bulb, right? Okay, cool. You found something you don't like. Go find something you do like. It's out there. And a way of praying is out there for you and a way of reading and topics to read about.

Actually, it's really funny. It's really hard for me to read the Bible. I'm going to just go ahead and be very frank about that. For a lot of reasons. Mostly, it's just I'm so obsessed with work. I don't make time to do much else. But it was more important for me in coming to faith to read more meta things that helped me deconstruct my resistance, right? So a really important book for me is Dominion by Tom Holland, because I'm like, “Oh, Christianity radically changed the world, in very important ways.” And that's a key piece of my faith, right? And I had to have conversations with people about the history of Christianity and all these different bits. So if there are parts that don't make sense, don’t just dismiss them. Be, like, “Oh, okay. I’m going to engage that intentionally.”

So again, I'm loving and enjoying reading the Bible. I'm reading a study Bible, which I think is very important. And I'm doing it because I think getting to know Christ is very important. I need to lean into the more relational aspects of the faith because I'm such brain in the sky intellectual. But yeah, so I would just say that. Pay attention to the emotional bits and the intellectual bits and just note what’s speaking to you and what isn't and let yourself… I will say one more thing, and then I'll stop.

I was able to start walking into faith because I started paying attention to what feels like joy, and I define joy as a feeling of celebratory rightness and homecoming. And I started following that because I wanted to be joyful. And I started following that, and it led me to God, and now I think it is God. But that's the thing that I listen to pulling on me, trying to figure out what steps to take next. And they're going in. They're going in. They're going in to God, you know? They’re in. But that's the thing that I try to hear and follow.

That's great advice. I love how you talk about God as… or coming or going to God, or being open to God is like going home. There's something very powerful about that image. I know He calls Himself our dwelling. He is our dwelling place. And there is something so amazing in the way that you think and the way that you feel when you feel that sense of belonging with the one who loves you so and has your best interests at heart. It sounds He has really put you on a path pursuing, not only His interests for you, but it's accelerated your own interests.

For those Christians who are wanting to meaningfully engage with skeptics, do you have a word of advice for them. I mean, obviously, you had a very long path, and you had Christians that you encountered in graduate school that gave you a different understanding, perhaps, of who Christians were, that they embodied a kind of faith and a kind of intellect that you didn't think existed. How would you encourage us as Christians to be, to behave, to engage? What would you say?

Yeah. Thank you. This is so important. I do want to say, thank you for pulling out the thread of homecoming. That's the thing! Oh, that's the thing! Oh, I just love it. Homecoming. God is homecoming, yeah.

So the people in my life never pushed ever. And some are very extroverted, proactive evangelists. But see evangelism in a very specific way, which is, “I live by example,” right? “I let people see. I let you be a witness to my life, and I'll be a witness to yours.” And my friends of faith have also grown through sitting alongside my skepticism and my atheism. And so maybe if you, in relationship with others, relate to them in a way that has that shared feeling of, “We’re walking together. We’re humble next to each other. I have things I can learn from you. I might disagree with you, but I have the ability to learn about what life is from you, at the very least,” right? And that exchange—and it doesn't have to be proactive, “Oh, let's exchange ideas!” But the feeling of mutual growth and walking alongside creates trust, and people can learn just… you have to be willing to be open and honest and vulnerable, and to say, “Well, faith includes doubt. I'm not certain.” A part of what always put me off as an atheist was the certitude of people who believe. But so many of my friends have been, like, “Well, I might be totally wrong, but I'm taking a chance.” Faith is hope. Faith is a lived yes. Every day. It’s a choice in a way, like when you love somebody, it's a choice, and it's an action for me, and for some of my friends.

And so I think that sharedness is just really important and just understand that we all are just doing our best from the places into which we have been born. And anything that feels like joy, anything that feels like hope, anything that feels like faith and love, hope and faith and love, will be a magnet. You don't got to shout. You don't got to shout. You're a magnet already. Just let the joy bleed off you, let yourself…. And if you let yourself inhabit your faith in a way that is celebratory and open and kind, that’s infectious. People will see it.

Stefani, I am not surprised you have brought so much to the table today with your life-

Thank you.

… your story. I think you have challenged us all, really inspired us, because, I mean, I'm just looking at you and the choices that you've made from a child. I mean, you don't just let things lie. You’re pursuing. You’re intentional. Just heartfelt. And you wanted to be faithful to your own self and to your to your intellect, but yet you weren't satisfied. So you kept looking, you kept searching, and I think all of us can take things from your story and just be so inspired towards choosing, being intentional, looking for that which is true and good, looking for joy, living it, looking for God, being with Him, finding home, all of those things. Wow! You've given us so much to think about and to process, really.

I just am so grateful for you coming and telling your story, and I can't wait to learn more about you and what you're doing, and I hope that the listeners too will be just incredibly inspired by your life and by your story. And I know that you've got some things out there on the internet. You've got a website and YouTube and different ways that we can find out more about you, and we're going to include all of those links in the episode notes.

So thank you so much, Stefani, for coming on today. If you have any last words or any last thoughts, love to hear them. Otherwise, again, just so, so grateful for you coming on.

Oh, thank you. I'm so grateful. Praise be to God, and thank you. Yeah.


Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Stefani's story. You can find out more about her, as well as her contact information, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website, again at, or through our email at [email protected]. Also if you're a skeptic or atheist who would to connect with one of these former atheists from our podcast and you have questions, please contact us, and we'll get you connected.

I hope you enjoy it, that you will follow, rate, review, and share this podcast and this episode with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I'll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we'll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.

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