Roger Sherrer vehemently believed religion was poison. Jana Harmon shares his story of transformation here
We all have an identity based on who we think we are and what we believe is true. When someone takes on an identity different from ourselves, we often have presumptions of who they are, what they think and how they feel about things. We often presume they will never change. But, when we take the time to get to know that person, often times our perception will change of who they are and what they believe. We begin to know the person below the persona. Our presumed negative caricatures or stereotypes begin to fade.
Sometimes underneath a hard exterior and strong anti-God sentiment of an atheist lurks the unexpected, a softer side of someone who has the same human needs and desires for truth, meaning, value and love. Sometimes, people, their beliefs and identities do change against all expectations. Sometimes, staunch atheists become strong Christians.
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Religion was poison
Former atheist and strong anti-theist Roger Sherrer thought belief in God was not only childish but bad and needed to be taken down. He didn’t begin with this contempt. Growing up, God was simply absent in his home or among his friends. There was no negative discussion about belief. There was no reference to it at all.
When he became a teenager, he began watching YouTube videos of atheists and authors who spoke and wrote of religion as poison. Mesmerised, he found an intellectual and emotional home with the New Atheists who were verbalising what he had been thinking. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion became his Bible. He memorised it with fervour as his “blueprint on how to argue with Christians”.
He became angry at religious believers who seemed to oppose everything he was for, using the Old Testament as fodder to “intellectually flex against brainwashed Christians”. Roger recalled how his atheist identity became solidified:
“Growing up I was very distant from Church and organised religion, certainly something that we did not adhere to. What started as unbelief transitioned from an agnostic, ‘I don’t know if there’s a God. I don’t really care if there’s a God,’ into a version of anti-theism, in which my identity was predicated upon, ‘There is no God, and not only do I believe there’s no God, but if you believe in God, then you have inferior intelligence. You are a weak person. You are emotionally, mentally, psychologically, intellectually subpar.’ As for my identity, I was known as the community atheist.”
Roger’s atheism was not merely disbelief, but rather took on a form of anti-theism that was fuelled by contempt: He described his disbelief as:
“‘There is no God, and I hate him.’ That was my atheism. ‘God does not exist. He’s Santa Claus for adults, and, oh, by the way, He’s a misogynistic bully, and if you believe in him, you believe in a celestial dictator.’ And so I went into the level of animosity that it was a war zone. When we talked about faith, when we talked about your testimony, I was going to treat you with the disdain that I thought you deserved. I wanted to humiliate and minimize Christians.”
Roger sought to take down the beliefs of the few genuine Christians he knew. Tim attended church and sincerely lived out his faith. Aware of Roger’s animosity, he asked Roger why he hated Christians so much. The list was long, ranging from perceived ‘homophobia’ to lack of women’s rights. But Tim challenged him asking: “Why are they wrong? What standard are you using to say Christians are immoral for these actions they take?” Those questions caused Roger to begin to wonder:
“Well, wait a second, I think certain things are objectively evil and some things are objectively good, but I can’t do that. I have to argue moral relativism. There’s no other way out of that. I realised that I don’t get to have the moral outrage that I truly feel when it comes to why certain Christians do this and why self-righteousness exists and why judgmental people exist. Without objective moral values and duties, what standard do I have? And eventually I realised, ‘Well, some of this is self-evident. There are objective moral values.’”
It was a conundrum. Roger’s desire to make ‘real’ moral judgments yet not being able to ground them in his godless perspective placed a stone in his shoe that began to open him towards the possibility of the need for God.
One day while in a high school art history class, the teacher began showing representations of Christian art. Roger raised his hand, challenging and mocking what he saw, all the while encouraged by his friends. Unshaken, his teacher approached him after class and invited him to meet with her pastor to ask any questions he had about Christianity. The next day he sat down with Matt for two hours to ask all of his ‘checkmate questions’ he knew no Christian could answer. After a substantive exchange, neither were swayed of their beliefs. What was surprising was what happened next. After their conversation the pastor hugged Matt and asked him to lunch the next day. This unexpected invitation and their ensuing friendship took Roger off guard. He recalled:
“It was the first time in my life where a Christian, after I had just spent two hours decimating his worldview and telling him why he was basically an intellectual idiot, he had embraced me and said, ‘Hey, let’s hang out. Let’s do some stuff,’ and so what began was the most unlikely friendship in the history of Lebanon, Missouri, the most well-known lead pastor and the most well-known atheist. Matt became my closest friend. We never talked religion beyond debate, and I never asked for prayer. But when I needed someone to listen to me, Matt was the person I called.”
Over the next few months, they spent time together watching football, arguing politics, and developing a deep friendship. Eventually, Matt was able to talk about what God had done in his life and Roger became willing to listen. Matt was unlike the ‘timeshare’ Christians who tried to give him a ‘sales pitch’ and then move on. Matt was different. He was able to “make Christianity real” through invested relationship and living out an authentic faith. Roger reflected: “Matt ministered to where I was with gentleness and respect and it opened my heart.” But on the outside he remained a stalwart atheist.
Outwardly, Roger fuelled his “confident, vehement, dogmatic atheist identity” with strong language and debate. But behind the façade, he carried fear and insecurity. His nihilistic philosophy which perpetuated a personal weight of no objective meaning, value or purpose in life propelled him into depression, sadness and despair. He was yearning for more than his view of the world offered him, revealing:
“Deep down I was the most insecure person you would have ever met. I was screaming on the inside, ‘Love me!’ I want somebody to love me. I want somebody to hold me and to say, ‘Hey, it’s going to be okay.’ My war against Christianity came down to the biggest things that I feared.”
For Roger, life became intolerable. On Halloween night 2009 he wrote out his suicide note, called the suicide hotline and passed out on his bed. It was in the midst of his regret and self-reflection that he realised “there was nowhere to look other than up because I was on my back”. He woke up the next morning “as alone and defeated as I had ever felt”, saying to himself: “I need to be around the one person who has loved me throughout all of this.”
Looking for hope, for answers, Roger went to the church where Matt was a pastor. Hiding in the corner of the balcony, he heard Matt say: “If you lack meaning, value or purpose in your life, there is a God that wants to know you.” It was exactly what he wanted and needed to hear. Clarity came. That morning he finally found what or rather who he was looking for. He found the God who knew him all along, who knew his struggles. He immediately recognised the dramatic shift:
“In that moment, something that was once artificial, something that was once flat-out fake in how I viewed it, became real. It became authentic. And in that moment, I realized, ‘I’m leaving this morning as a new creation. I am leaving as a brand new person.’”
He walked out of church a different man with a new perspective and purpose for his life. Although he immediately became convinced in the reality of God through his experience at church, the curious intellectual debater in him did not wane. He went on to study the arguments and evidence for God and is more convinced than ever that the encounter he had with God was real. Now, he spends his life helping others to know what he has discovered – the God who was there all along.
If you’d like to listen to Roger Sherrer tell his full story, tune into his Side B Stories podcast with Jana Harmon. Or you can find it on the Side B Stories website at www.sidebstories.com.
Jana Harmon hosts the Side B Stories podcast where former atheists and sceptics talk about their turn from disbelief to belief in God and Christianity. She is a teaching fellow for the CS Lewis Institute of Atlanta and former adjunct professor in cultural apologetics at Biola University where she received an MA in Christian apologetics. Jana also holds a PhD in religion and theology from the University of Birmingham in England. Her research focused on religious conversion of atheists to Christianity. Her forthcoming book is entitled, Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.