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What Makes Hardened Atheists Believe in God?

February 19, 2018


Almost everyone will encounter a rigid atheist at some point. This kind of person rejects even the most compelling apologetics and is unpersuaded by the classic arguments for God’s existence. He or she dismisses everything colored with religious rhetoric and bristles at anything smacking even remotely of the pulpit. Yet, thanks to the internet and evangelization ministries, we can hear the encouraging testimonies of such people who have come to know God. Since I was once one myself, I am particularly interested in their stories. No two journeys are identical, but after discussing, watching, listening to, and reading about various conversions of hardened atheists, I have distilled the process into four general categories/stages.

1.     The Witness of Intelligent Believers

Many of those adhering to the rigid school of atheism think that “intelligent believer” is a contradiction in terms. Thankfully, absurd positions are easy to dispel. All one has to do is point to the battery of famed minds who were also believers to debunk it. Although any great mind can be effective, the safest bet is to stick with scientists since atheists universally respect scientific disciplines (the same cannot be said for philosophy or literature). Casually observing that nearly all the founding pioneers of modern science were devout individuals is a good tactic. Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, James Clerk Maxwell, and Michael Faraday all come to mind as good examples.

However, pointing solely to historical figures may not be enough. An atheist might admit that “back then” it was possible to be an intelligent believer but insist that belief in God now, with all our scientific advancements, is untenable. It’s a poor excuse since scientific advancements over the past 400 years have not substantially changed the core arguments for or against belief in God, and as early as the 17th century, atheists and skeptics were appearing in university circles using essentially the same arguments in vogue today. Many of the aforementioned scientists wrote extensively about the interplay between faith and science and responded to skeptics of their time. If anything, the Standard Big Bang Model of cosmic origins, under which time, space, and matter have a beginning, shifted the playing field in favor of the religious side. Name-dropping contemporary believers in the sciences can’t hurt either. I think here of John Polkinghorne, Stephen Barr, Francis Collins, and Jeremy England.  

The best thing to dispel this prejudice, though, is the personal witness of intelligent believers here and now. I think of Leah Libresco Sargeant’s conversion, where she literally did not know a smart Christian until she met them in her debate club at Yale. And when she did, it changed how she framed Christianity before she considered it herself. It’s easy to dismiss a belief when you don’t respect anyone who holds it. When you sincerely respect someone, you also tend to respect his or her beliefs even if you’re not convinced by them.

2.     Appreciating the Role of Religion in Society

There is an immense difference between the atheist who believes religion is bad for society and the atheist who believes it is beneficial. Both may personally find religion preposterous, but the latter is far better disposed to religion than the former.

I distinctly remember a sense of unease in my atheist days when it slowly became apparent that the cultural riches of western civilization were either the direct product of, or profoundly influenced by, Christianity and especially Catholicism. Without Catholicism, there would be no Gothic or Baroque architecture, no Renaissance paintings, no classical music, no Shakespeare or Dante, no university, and hence, probably no empirical scientific method. Whether it’s art, music, architecture, literature, or education, there is a treasure trove of religious cultural wonders that the secular world simply cannot ignore.

Moreover, the devout in all social-economic strata suffer less from divorce, drug abuse, suicide, depression, and donate a higher percentage of their income to charity. For that reason, there is a fairly large cohort atheists that nevertheless acknowledge religion’s salutary effect, even its necessity. This group would agree with the 18th century skeptic Voltiare, who famously said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Standing in stark contrast to the “anti-theism” peddled by hardliners like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, this stage is defined by the move from Ditchkins-like fundamentalism to a more tolerant, religion-friendly position.

This can be a real challenge and is often a slow, uphill battle. The hardliner’s view of religion is invariably colored by the kind of exaggerations, myths, cherry-picked facts, and downright poor research exemplified by John Cornwell’s book Hitler’s Pope, a scurrilous piece of ill-informed nonsense that has been so thoroughly discredited by professional historians that the book’s own author has largely admitted his errors. But myths like Hitler’s Pope persist in the minds of otherwise educated atheists. The antidote? Tell the truth. Plain and simple. Whether it’s Hitler’s Pope or widespread forced conversions in colonial Latin America, you don’t need clever arguments to prove anti-theists wrong on this score. All you need is honest, well-researched history from professional historians. Although this will successfully bust a lot of myths, it will also dig up some admittedly dark episodes in the history of religion. But it will dig them up truthfully and show them to be far more nuanced than the exaggerated smear jobs that often pass for history.

3.     The Pre-conversion

This is the critical turning point. It is where genuine doubts about atheism begin to emerge. What I call “pre-conversion” is the first effectual challenge to the atheist’s naturalist-materialist worldview. But be careful: the challenge usually has to come from a non-religious source, or at least one where the religious element is subtle enough to go unrecognized. Remember, this is a person who has already made up his or her mind not to believe, and anything with a whiff of apologetics will likely be laughed off as utterly unconvincing.

The trick is for the atheist to see the tensions and inconsistencies with his view of reality without muddying the waters by bringing God into it. The challenge to atheism must come from within the atheist’s own belief system. A few examples help illustrate how it works.

Well before he abandoned atheism, philosopher Ed Feser recognized that naturalistic explanations for language and meaning were untenable and that materialistic accounts of the mind didn’t add up. And it wasn’t theists who convinced him but the critiques of fellow naturalist/materialist philosophers. Not that those critiques turned him into a believer overnight; but once the crack in naturalistic materialism opens, it opens wide. Recognizing that mechanistic views of reality are not as convincing as he supposed, Feser began to re-evaluate theistic arguments he had previously dismissed (and, as is common with atheists, that he had never fully understood).     

Jennifer Fulwiler’s unlikely conversion is another good example. Her inability to reconcile her belief that there was no real meaning to life with the sense of awe and transcendent love at the birth of her son was a turning point. It’s one thing for an atheist to dismiss that kind of experience as a psychological distortion when it’s happening to someone else; it’s altogether different when it’s you. We’re all human, and these experiences affect us. For Jen, the apparent meaninglessness of life collided with her unshakable sense of the transcendent, and the transcendent won. 

I also think the work of Peter Singer is particularly effective in this stage. An atheist moral philosopher, Singer’s framework for understanding morality is predictably unsatisfying. Yet Singer’s work convincingly demonstrates how, if one assumes the basic tenets of naturalistic materialism, a consistent ethical system can’t accommodate the concept of inherent human worth. Thus, he argues that apes and pigs have a greater right to life than children with Down Syndrome and that babies with hemophilia should be killed outright and “replaced” by a healthier child. In the words of atheist convert Sarah Irving-Stonebreaker, Singer induces “a strange intellectual vertigo” that prompted her to recognize “that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.”

4.     Beauty and Apologetics

Beauty and apologetics go side by side at this stage. On the one hand, beauty naturally evokes a sense of the transcendent, offering the atheist a glimpse of the joyful divine mystery. On the other hand, apologetics can be used to dislodge obstacles and address objections. Now that the atheist’s first instinct is to find the truth rather than debunk religion, apologetical works can be received with an open mind.

As a student of atheist conversions, I don’t think I can overstate the importance of beauty. Beauty is probably the closest thing to the spiritual experienced by a lifelong atheist. At the same time, beauty rarely carries any dogmatic baggage. And even when it does, the dogmatic element speaks for itself with no need for persuasion or even articulation. Beauty is, therefore, both a window into authentic religious life and a non-threatening invitation into it. I remember reading the account of an atheist journalist who walked into an Orthodox church in Moscow and was brought to the brink of belief by the beauty of the liturgy and the smell of incense. Despite my attempts at trying to recreate history through Google searches, I could not locate who this was or from what publication. But it’s burned into my mind as a powerful testament to the power of beauty. Without any words or analytical thoughts, a solidly secular atheist came within an inch of believing in God solely through an encounter with the beautiful. That’s powerful. And it’s a sentiment echoed in atheist conversions all over the place, including the stories of C.S. Lewis, Holly Ordway, and countless others.

Likewise, the importance of apologetics cannot be overstated. Former atheists invariably credit some kind of apologetical work or argument as essential to their conversion. At the same time, apologetics can fall flat if a person isn’t ready. You’ll notice that the steps in the progression reflect a movement from a “hard” atheist position to something softer. That is by design. At the conclusion of steps 1 through 3, we may still have an atheist on our hands, but not a hardened atheist. Merely getting an atheist interested in metaphysical questions is half the battle. Once that happens and enough prejudices have been eroded to make spiritual dialogue possible, that’s when the field is fertile. It is only at this stage that apologetics won’t be dismissed as useless church propaganda and can be utilized to full effect.

Atheist conversions are compelling precisely because they involve a tremendous change of perspective. Through no fault of their own, lifelong Christians often do not appreciate how mind-bending this transformation is for an atheist. The conversion process is scary, perplexing, and adventurous for anyone, and this is doubly true for atheists. What we call “conversion” is, for an atheist, actually several very slow and difficult mini-conversions stacked on top of each other. Thus, my advice to evangelists engaging atheists is to make everything as digestible as possible. This involves breaking down the constituent parts of Christianity into bite-size pieces and then offering them in a particular, palatable order. Based on my own conversion and the study of other atheist conversions, the phases identified above are my attempt to distill the complexity of moving from atheism to theism into a generic outline for evangelists. I hope you find them useful.