Athiest Warren Prehmus had no need for God. However, when personal tragedy struck, he began to question his presuppositions and explore Christianity. Researcher Jana Harmon shares his story
Many people simply feel they have no need for God. They enjoy making their own decisions, living freely without moral constraint. They appreciate atheism’s intellectual standing within science and the university. Their lives are generally full and happy. They don’t see themselves as people who need religion as a social or emotional crutch. Rather, they are strong, independent, courageous in answering life’s biggest questions without God. What would cause someone like that to change their mind and their life?
A legacy of disbelief
There was a confident ease about Warren. Success in life came easily to him. He lived well into adulthood as a happy atheist who was fine without God. Warren explains how his disbelief began from childhood:
“My dad taught us that God is something that is made up. Weaker people need that kind of thing, but we don’t need that. Our family is strong, and we don’t need that kind of made-up person. We went to the Unitarian Church. The minister there had a saying that my father liked which was ‘I’m an agnostic with atheistic leanings.’ So, there wasn’t anything to do with God there. My brother and I hated church. After fourth or fifth grade, I probably set foot in church maybe two or three times before going to college.”
His legacy of disbelief began further back. Warren’s grandfather abandoned his father when he was only 3-years-old. Through this absence, his father lost his home, support from their church and his faith in God. Warren described his own father as “a good man and a very good father who delighted in me,” but the ground for an inherited atheism was well tilled. Warren’s experiences with Christian hypocrisy also reinforced the irrelevance of religion:
“In junior high, I got to know the kids from the parochial school. Those kids knew how to look very good when the teacher was watching, but as soon as the authorities turned their back, they were the wildest kids out there. And I thought, ‘This is what people who believe in God are like. We are better than that. They can have that, but we don’t need God.’”
At university, Warren saw Christianity as something that interrupted his lifestyle, that couldn’t answer “the hard questions” of evolution or proofs for the existence of God. He was more convinced than ever that belief was not an option.
An unexpected turn
Two years after graduating, Warren married his college girlfriend, removing every reference to God out of the marriage vows. A year later, his wife became pregnant with twins. They were born prematurely and died one day later. This tragic event turned his wife’s heart:
“She wanted God at that point. She kept on saying that this happened for a reason, and she said it with conviction. I hung on to that because it felt good to think that it happened for a reason. But if you are an atheist, there is no reason.”
His wife’s pursuit of God caused Warren to question his own beliefs and he begin a search for truth, saying: “Her peace helped me with the grieving. It put a hunger in my heart to find out what the truth is.”
In his investigation, Warren began reading books on comparable religions and decided they could not all be true. At the same time, his wife decided to find a church and began studying the Bible. In her pursuit of God, “she wisely did not push me at all because that was the smart thing to do”. He agreed to go “for her and to improve myself. I was going to make myself better. I wasn’t seeking for God. I wouldn’t have known or admitted at the time that I was being drawn in”.
A change of heart
They found a church that had a class that compared the teachings of Christianity with other religions. Soon, the teacher asked him to read through the book of John. He recollects his angst about reading the Bible. His resistance melted into unexpected interest:
“The first week he gave me an assignment to read the first three chapters of the book of John. I didn’t want to read the Bible. I had never read the Bible and I didn’t want to even touch the Bible. But I finally started reading and I couldn’t stop. That week I read the whole book of John. The pastor and I would be sitting meeting, going through questions that an atheist does not want to talk about. They were very hard questions of the heart.”
Although intrigued by the Bible, for Warren it was still “just a story”. Christianity was not worthy of belief, much less something to which he would commit his life. He wasn’t ready. He still had doubts and questions to answer:
“Finally, there was an assignment to pray to receive Christ. I wasn’t ready to do that because I liked the Bible and I like truth and righteousness. But if there is no God, this is just a story and I am not going to put my faith in a story…I still had bigger questions. In retrospect I can see that it was, ‘Can God really exist?’”
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A battle for the mind
Warren stopped meeting with the pastor but kept reading books and pursuing truth on his own terms. One impactful book, The Battle for the Mind by Tim LaHaye, described Christianity and humanism and the palpable results of those two ideologies. Realising their stark differences “actually put a physical pain in my chest for several months”. But for Warren, the question of God’s existence remained.
He then read another book by CS Lewis which put all the pieces together. It helped Warren bridge the yawning chasm between his head and his heart, relieving him of the palpable pain in his chest. He vividly remembers the turning point:
“One night, I picked up a book that my atheist sister had given me called Mere Christianity. To this day, I don’t know why she had this book or why she gave it to me. It had been a couple of years before this that she gave me the book and I just kept it in my pile of books. When she gave it to me, she said, ‘You ought to read this. It might make you believe in God someday.’ So that evening, I picked it up and started reading it. The first part of it is proof for the existence of God. CS Lewis is hard to argue with. As I was reading, it was making sense – the proofs for the existence of God, the conscience that he has put in our heart. This book showed there is good evidence for God’s existence. That’s gone. I have nothing left.
“So, I set the book down to think and this thought came into my head that I did not put there. It just said, ‘I’m a sinner.’ And I knew that that was a dangerous thought because that was the first part of the sinner’s prayer. This thought came in from the other side and said, ‘Think about it later.’ ‘Think about it later.’ ‘I am a sinner.’ ‘Think about it later.’ There was this battle going on in my mind. And I felt like I was hanging onto something, trying to let go and saying, ‘Okay, I believe I am a sinner and I deserve to go to hell and Jesus died for my sins and I trust you with my life.’ And so, just in my head I said the prayer that I had been taught of how you become a Christian. I knew something had changed and a peace came over me that I had never experienced. That is when the little pain in my chest left and it never came back.”
Lives can be disrupted and changed midstream. Sobering events forge a fork in the road, an unsettling of the status quo that causes, even demands, further contemplation and action, a revealing of doubt, a pursuit of questioning. But, diligence has its reward. Answers can be found to hard questions. Disparate pieces of the puzzle can be brought together to provide a profound contentment, a deep peace and understanding that once seemed so evasive.
Warren knew the love of a heavenly Father that his own father had not been able to find. Time told its tale. Warren’s faith persisted and I left our meeting with a small piece of his confident ease now placed in Christ.
If you’d like to listen to Warren Prehmus tell his full story, tune into the Side B Stories Episode #8. You can find it on the Side B Stories website: 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 and related book is entitled Atheists Finding God: Unlikely Stories of Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.