Former atheist, Dr 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. Jana Harmon shares her story
No matter how intellectual and rational we are, we all make decisions based upon what we’ve experienced, what we know and what we want. Sometimes we want to know what is true. 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 what we believe. We make our choices. Sometimes choices lead to confusion, deception, darkness and distress. Others lead to clarity, truth, joy and peace. Although we can’t know things with 100 per cent certainty, we can make choices based upon good, solid reasons that not only satisfy intellectually but existentially in our lives as well.
Former atheist Stefani Ruper was driven to discover truth. As an intellectual, her scholarly pursuits led her to find solid answers to the big questions that had long haunted her. Only after years of study and contemplation was she able to choose to believe in the reality of God. It has completely transformed her life.
Haunted by meaning
As a child Stefani was a thinker, deeply concerned about the meaning of life. Privately obsessed and even panic stricken about life and death, these issues “set the stage for everything”. In her home, religion was for “stupid and weak people”, so looking towards God was out of the question. She described her animus towards religion and religious people:
“Very early on I became the intellectual kid questioning all the sheep following the herd, and I’m smarter and better, and I can make it on my own, and I don’t need any of you, and I don’t need your comfort, and I don’t need your gods. I carried that attitude with me through my undergraduate years.”
Her hunger for answers drove her to the library where she found a home with books of philosophy and science. She wanted to make sense of the world and of her own life but she discovered that “the Universe was cold and dark and nothing” and humans were “just fleshy organisms that blob around until we die”. Yet, her profound desire for meaning never left.
Throughout her study, Stefani prided herself on her open-mindedness in her search for truth and meaning. Although she held a palpable distaste for religion, Stefani eventually realised she had “dismissed the most cherished beliefs of 99 per cent of people who had ever existed without ever engaging it”.
Continuing to feel empty, lonely and hungry for meaning, she thought it would be closed minded not to at least consider what religious people were talking about. She had prided herself on her atheist resistance to the temptations of faith, dismissing religion without ever engaging it. But then a friend advised her: “Sometimes you have to hit your head against the wall hard enough to realise that it’s a wall and you’ve got to walk around it, you’ve got to find a way around it.” After 15 years, if she wasn’t able to find what she was looking for in atheistic writings, perhaps she would be willing to look beyond her naturalistic walls.
Stefani’s search into religion began. She enrolled into the Boston University of Theology as a “radical atheist, materialist, deconstructionist, secularist” to explore the question of God. Jumping into the theological deep end, she began studying and living alongside aspiring pastors. After two years of studying metaphysics along with the history of science and religion, she realised that “nihilism and meaninglessness aren’t necessarily true”. Perhaps an alternative explanation may be true after all. Truth needed to be more solid than her fragmenting position. Stefani recalls her struggle:
“I think so much of truth is about stability. Truth is about having a rock to stand on for a lot of people. I didn’t like the rock I was standing on. It was pebbles I wanted off, but I wouldn’t let myself off. You see people journeying and talking about finding faith, and you can just shrug and say: ‘Well, they did that because they wanted to.’ And it’s very true that I have always deeply wanted and longed for God. 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. But what’s actually true was that I found intellectual arguments that helped me open that door. 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.”
Entering an Oxford doctoral program, she considered herself “a moth to the flame of Christian community” yet still resistant to full belief in the Christian view of reality. Her quest for truth remained in earnest. Lively late-night discussions among her academic peers fostered continued respect for biblical faith.
Her doctoral supervisor, Professor Alister McGrath, helped her to see how “incredibly intelligent, rational, deep and rich” life was in Christianity. But no matter how attractive Christianity became to her, she wanted a solid truth to stand upon. Her intellectual position and existential life weren’t in sync, causing her continued confusion and pain:
“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. 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.”
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Choosing to believe
Through her life, Stefani had been “dialled into a secular, nihilistic frequency”. As she continued to pursue truth, she came to believe that she could choose to become open to God, to become open to new truths. She decided to “dare to believe in God to see if God is present” in her life. Influenced by the pragmatic view of scholar William James, she chose to “take a chance” beyond what she could see and touch and open herself to the possibility of God. She thought: “I won’t know, both how good I feel with God but also, if I have enough reason to believe God is real until I try. You don’t know until you try.”
Stefani remained “dead set on rational justification” for belief, finding compelling historical and intellectual reasons for God’s existence at Oxford. But, she reasoned, she needed to actually step into those beliefs in a practical way, to walk the path. Friends were telling her: “God’s going to do things in your life.” Slowly but surely, she began to “see God everywhere”, now convinced that “God has been here the whole time”. After 13 years of serious scholarship, she finally found the One who had been there all along.
A changed life
The “wasteland” of Stefani’s former atheism is gradually fading behind her as she is learning to step onto her steady rock. Her new life as a Christ follower “feels good”, because she knows it is true. Now, she encourages other sceptics to “take a chance on God”, the One who has filled her life with truth, fullness and meaning. She vividly describes the difference her belief in God has made:
“One of my favourite metaphors for God is a fisherman. I’ve been swimming in murky water and God’s like a fisherman who has had a lure in my mouth, saying, ‘Come on.’ 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 who 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, clean water, and there’s sunshine. 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 now 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.”
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 and related book is entitled Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.