Jana Harmon tells the story of a man who discovered hope in the place he least thought he would find it
Raised in a nominally religious home and culture, Greg was apathetic about the question of God. Religion was irrelevant in his surrounding culture and to his own life. He recalled: “I don’t remember thinking about it a lot. It was something that never crossed my mind as a youth and in my early teens. I never really gave it a lot of attention. I didn’t really care.”
While at university, Greg became more interested in the question of God. Browsing on the internet, he found atheist Dan Barker, a member of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, began reading his debate transcripts and found his views resonating with his own beliefs. A thinker, Greg was “thrilled to have discovered someone who was intellectual and angry against God” and to have found his new “intellectual home”.
A militant atheist, he argued with Christians and mocked their beliefs, laughing at their counter-arguments. He viewed Christians as emotionally weak and intellectually impotent compared with atheism’s courageous, sobered perspective. Contemptuous towards religious believers, he often mocked their beliefs and laughed at their counter-arguments, seeing them as emotionally weak and intellectually impotent. Educated in biology, Greg considered himself “a champion of the scientific worldview” and “amateur astronomer” and thought “science was the only answer for how you want to understand anything in the world”. In Greg’s view, religious people “don’t understand or appreciate science. Either they are ignorant, stupid, or undereducated”.
Ups and downs of moral freedom
Adding to Greg’s sense of intellectual satisfaction was the personal moral freedom atheism provided. But over time, he began to consider the way he was hurting himself and others, causing him to step back and reconsider his choices:
“At first it was fantastic! I could do whatever I wanted. There was no one to judge your behaviour. You could write your own moral blank cheque. I definitely took advantage of that in my early 20s. I didn’t see a problem behind it until years later, descending through into lower and lower levels of depravity – the things I did to people, ways I betrayed people, the things I gave myself license to do that were really, really horrific in a lot of ways. It started causing problems for me in my relationships, in my habits, in the ways I was treating people, and my attitudes towards other people.
After a history of this I reflected on where this was taking me. There is no bottom to it. You can just go on and on forever in terms of just creating your own morality. You can excuse anything you want if you have a mind to do it. I started thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ ‘Who am I becoming?’ And the futility of life and self-loathing, too, from reflecting on my own moral failures. Even as an atheist, I still recognised that these things were inherently not right. And, even though I couldn’t justify on an ad hoc basis which I did for years, it had become too much to bear on my conscience after a number of years of this.”
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After this realisation, Greg moved from a “militant atheism” to a “despairing nihilistic atheism” where he “didn’t see any other alternative for atheism but didn’t delight in it either. It felt like a very empty worldview that didn’t bring any comfort or joy, and seemed hopeless at that point”.
Describing this shift, Greg said: “My atheism mellowed out. It just faded into the background. It was just my default point of view. It wasn’t something I advocated. I stopped buying books about it. It became, ‘Yeah, I’m an atheist and that’s fine.’ There was nowhere else to go. It didn’t bring me the kind of satisfaction that it used to. Into my early 30s, I started finding nothing in this worldview.”
An odd attraction
One of the “great ironies” of Greg’s story was his affection for Christian girls, having dated one in high school and marrying another after college. Their lives and their family’s lives seemed oddly attractive to him, quietly countering his outward disdain for Christians and Christianity. During this time, he began to see a stark contrast between their joy-filled, contented lives and his own cynicism. He recalls:
“My high school sweetheart was a devout Christian while I was a militant atheist. Her family were all Anglicans, very devout people, very humble, wonderful people. Just big hearts. My in-laws never seemed to really be down about anything. They always seemed to have a positive outlook even if things weren’t going well in their lives. They didn’t really have a lot of money. They didn’t have a lot of anything. They were always kind and warm-hearted, never cynical.
Cynicism became a big part of my mind-set, reflecting on the injustice of the world, the meaninglessness of life, the corruption in Government and politicians. I became very bitter and jaded and they didn’t look at the world through that kind of lens. It caused me to wonder, ‘Why not?’ I wanted to be like that, but would have to sacrifice my own intellectual convictions. I wouldn’t be true to myself. I still wanted to be that kind of person, but I didn’t know how to do it in atheism.
Desiring something more
Eventually, the emptiness of his own life and a search for meaning became the driver towards allowing him to willingly consider something beyond atheism:
“It was a combination of being around Christians, getting older and perceiving your mortality a bit more. Realising the fear of nothingness, of emptiness, of meaninglessness was a huge driver. Life seemed like years of struggle to pay mortgages, to work. I thought, ‘What is the point of all of this? Is all I have to look forward to is another 10, 20, 30 years I have left and just grinding through life and then dying? This is pointless. Why work so hard to achieve things that will just vanish anyway? You are going to die.
It felt like building a sand castle along the beach at low tide knowing that the tide is going to come in and wipe it out. It doesn’t matter how long that time is going to take to come in, it is going to eventually be gone. That was a huge driver, the search for meaning. It made me a lot more open to listen to millions of people throughout history who have had religion of one kind or another. I thought, ‘Is it really honest to say that 95% of humanity all got it wrong in one form or another? Are you so sure that your worldview is so correct and you are more intelligent that you aren’t willing to consider it?’
It was a humbling process. I had to ask myself, ‘Am I willing to consider another point of view, in that mine has nothing to offer?’ I didn’t delight in the intellectual superiority of it anymore. That was the only benefit that I had - the freedom to do your own thing and your ability to carve out an intellectual high point for yourself. Reflecting on the futility of life as an atheist was something that really laid the groundwork for me to investigate something else.”
A surprising turn
Not long after that, his wife’s grandmother died after a long battle with cancer. During the funeral, the pastor read from the Psalms. That evening, his wife brought her Bible to their room and left it on the bedside table. Curious of what the Bible had to say about death, Greg started reading in the book of Acts. He was “amazed” at what he found, especially finding characters who had such “moral character” and “intellectual rigour,” who committed their entire lives to spreading the gospel at the cost of their own lives.
Through reading the Bible, he also gained a fuller understanding of Jesus, significantly different from what he remembered from his limited religious training as a reluctant teenager, overwhelmed by Jesus’ authority, power, intellect, teaching, compassion and courage. Greg’s initial, sceptical curiosity turned into voracious reading of the entire Bible in four months. He also began diligently investigating the textual reliability of the Bible, asking questions like “When did they write this? Who wrote this? How did it get to the state we have now? Did they doctor it? Did they tamper with it?”
Still an atheist at the time, he approached the answers with a cautious scepticism because he “didn’t want to be fooled”. For 18 months, he “listened to apologetics because, if Christianity was true I had to know it was absolutely true in my mind from an intellectual point of view because I was so wary of being self-deceived that I wanted to have every question answered”. The more he learned, the more convinced he became in the truth of Christianity.
A change of heart
But intellectual belief wasn’t enough. At this point, Greg found “this yawning chasm in front of me, a heart issue. There wasn’t a repentance, a turning to Christ. That was lacking”. His final turning point arrived while on a business trip when he encountered a self-described religious experience:
“I was walking downtown in a very old city and there was this beautiful cathedral. It was just enormous. It was beautiful. And I thought I would just go inside just to see it and reflect or think. I don’t know what I was doing. I don’t know what God was doing. It had huge granite steps leading up to it. There was a beggar sitting on the stairs leading up to the entrance and he was begging for change in French so I didn’t understand him. I just dismissed him. I said, ‘No, I can’t help you.’ I walked right past him.
I was at one end of the cathedral and there were a series of master bronze double doors going across all along the front of it. I was trying each set in turn to get in and they were locked. I was trying to open one set and then I would walk down ten feet and try to open another set. I skipped past a set and went down to the end and they were all locked. Then I heard someone say, ‘Come, come.’ I turned around and the beggar was there. He was holding open the double doors for me and I was so immediately convicted in my heart right at that moment. It wasn’t just that he was holding the doors open for me, but even then at that moment I realised that this was the grace of God for me, opening the door to relationship with him. I was just so convicted at that moment with all of the sin in my life.
Looking into the face of this man, I was so ashamed of myself. I couldn’t look him in the eye but said, ‘thank you’ and I walked in. I was just ashamed of my own sinfulness at that point. I have to believe that he was sent from God. I was convinced of it. It was just so humbling. I can’t get in on my own but God opens the door through the humblest man, the simplest man. It just seemed so biblical to me that God would humble me with this man who I had just dismissed in my haste to go to a church! The irony of it wasn’t lost on me. It was pretty intense.
I think I sat inside for 40 minutes to an hour in the silence just reflecting on it. I prayed to God and said, ‘I’ll accept.’ That was the beginning of it for me. It was amazing. It was beautiful. It was great.”
Greg not only found the meaning in life that had eluded him as an atheist, he also found the Person, Jesus, who was the source of truth and meaning itself.
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, Unlikely Stories of Atheists Finding God: Conversions to Christianity in the Contemporary West.