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From Christianity to Atheism and Back Again
Article by Larissa Lee
Do you ever wonder what makes a person become an atheist? Or what makes an atheist become a Christian? I’m in a rare position to tell you the answer to both.
I posted several thoughts on this idea on a Twitter thread a while ago and it went viral. I got a million views in three days. Which made me realize that even though atheists make up a rather small portion of our population, they are a very intriguing topic for Christians. They are the great mystery. How could someone believe there was no god at all? How could you convince such a person otherwise?
I am a Christian now. I have been a Christian for most of my life. I was a pastor for a little while actually, and then for two years I was a closeted atheist. I had seen and known all that Christ had to offer and I got to the point where I couldn’t make myself believe it was true anymore. I never wanted to leave. Jesus was my whole life, my community, my job. I just didn’t believe it. It was a lie.
That’s the first thing I would emphasize. People don’t become atheists because they are angry at God or because they just don’t want to live under moral law. The reasons that people are atheists are as varied and nuanced as the reasons people follow any religion. Making blanket statements about them isn’t honest or helpful.
I think most Christians are sincere in their efforts to convince an atheist that their religion is true, but most of the time they turn to intellectual arguments and these are generally a waste of time. Trust me, they’ve heard them. Most of the atheists I know have read the Bible and several Christian apologetics books. I wasn’t missing that one “silver bullet” argument that would convince me. To be honest, real life relationships where you live your faith consistently, are your strongest argument.
That being said, arguments, especially on the internet, can convince a person that religion really is the fairy-tale-inspired garbage that atheists say it is. When you claim that a God of love has changed your life and set you free and you demonstrate that through petty and insulting behavior, no one believes you.
If you hear nothing else I say, please hear this: don’t be a garbage person in the name of Jesus. It undermines the gospel. Either demonstrate with your life that your Jesus is real or be quiet.
So why did I lose my fatih? There were a couple of key tipping points that led me to become an atheist. From an intellectual standpoint, I came to realize that the science of evolution is pretty strong and the Christians I knew were aggressively opposed to me even asking questions about it. It made me wonder, “is religion a house of cards that we have to protect from questions?”
There was a lot of domino effect in play with this topic too. I was told more than once that if literal six-day creation wasn’t true, then nothing else in the Bible could be true either. Same goes for the Exodus, or the genocide in Joshua, or Jonah and the whale. If you can’t believe in those things, you can’t believe in Jesus. No questions, no exceptions.
The other reason that I couldn’t believe anymore was far more painful and personal. I had a family member who was sexually assaulted by a pastor. Repeatedly. And then she was shamed when she told the truth, lost her job, and was lied about. It was devastating.
Within that same time frame I had pastors betray me, church people lied about me, people who had known my family for 20 years gossiped about us. I watched pastors misappropriate funds, have affairs, and abuse their staff… If anything, the atheists I knew were better people than the people who supposedly loved God enough to make a career out of it. Everything I saw in the Christian world told me that Jesus made no difference.
Christianity doesn’t have the corner market on morality. People act like atheists just don’t want to follow God’s laws but every atheist I have known was moral. They had purpose. They loved people. They gave to charity. It infuriates me when Christians dare to paint atheists as less than that. It’s a straw man and it’s intellectually weak.
So, after all of that, how did I make it back to Christianity? The reality was, it was messy. It still is. I’ve had to rebuild my entire theological framework. There are days that are still deeply difficult. But at the time, I didn’t need an intellectual reason to believe, I needed to know if Jesus made any difference.
I was still going to church because I didn’t know how to come out as an atheist. Telling the truth about that would have cost me my friends, my community, and potentially even my family. My husband knew the truth, but that was it.
The church we were in at the time was a good one and the pastor seemed genuine, so I watched him like a hawk for years. I expected him to be a fraud just like all of the others I had seen. But he wasn’t. He was a man who lived what he preached. He demonstrated love towards me consistently, regardless of how I treated him. His off-stage character matched his on-stage persona. He had honest conversations with me and never once tried to argue me back to faith, but he did answer anything I asked. He made an immeasurable difference.
Besides my pastor, I owe a great deal of my faith to Jayson Bradley. Whom I met on Twitter, oddly enough. He let me say anything I needed to say. Nothing shocked or offended him. He had a ton of well thought-out ideas that helped with reconstruction, he was honest about his own questions, he authentically cared for me. He helped me make peace with doubt.
Internet discussions and friendships can make a difference. Jayson proves that. These two men are the reason I am where I am today. And so I’m asking, please, be that kind of Christian. Be the kind of Christian that argues with your life. Be a person who presents as the evidence of their faith, hope, peace, and kindness.
Be honest about your own story, your own doubts, your own struggles. Our fake confidence helps no one. Tell the truth and let other people tell the truth.
And above all love. If you want to convince an atheist that Jesus is real, love them. Love the atheists in your everyday life, in your Twitter feed, on the public forums with you. Treat them with respect, dignity, and kindness. That is what Jesus would do. That, and only that, is what might convince them your religion is real.
It’s what convinced me.
Larissa Lee has worked with Youth, Worship, College, and Children’s ministries.