“A Fully Blown Atheist” – Claire Dooley’s Story

Nov 11, 2022

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
"A Fully Blown Atheist" - Claire Dooley's Story
Claire Dooley left the God of the Jehovah’s Witness religion behind and became an atheist.  After encountering the overwhelming love of Jesus, she came to believe.
To learn more about Claire and her film documentaries, go to www.clairedooley.co
Hear more stories of atheist conversions to Christianity at www.sidebstories.com

Episode Transcript

Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to Side B Stories, where we see how skeptics flip the record of their lives. Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist or skeptic, but who became a Christian against all odds. You can hear more of these stories at our Side B Stories website, www.sidebstories.com. We also welcome your comments on these stories on our Side B Stories Facebook page as well. 

People hold a lot of ideas about the Bible from what they’ve heard or presumed. Many skeptics may or may not have personally read it, but they often have strong impressions about it, mostly negative. Considering the Bible in any serious form or positive way was simply out of the question according to many former atheists in my doctoral research. They expressed many reasons to reject the text. It was viewed as a mixture of myth, fabrication, ignorant commentary from bronze-age Jews, a tool that someone had actually crafted to control the population, or a generally non-historical false religious book. Its supernatural content alone caused nearly half to soundly dismiss it. For them, the Bible wasn’t worth taking a first, much less a second look, unless to disprove it. 

Interestingly, some who began their quest towards discrediting scripture found themselves in a precarious place of changing their preconceived notions. Once they got around to examining the Bible, many found it to be historically, intellectually, and even morally forceful, with a ring of truth. Although initially hostile to reading the Bible, some were even compelled towards serious, even voracious, reading, surprised by what they had found. Others found the person and words of Jesus as extraordinary and surprising and were personally drawn to Him, wanting to know more. 

In today’s story, former atheist Claire Dooley opened the Bible for herself, and she was changed. A storyteller and filmmaker, she was drawn not only to its compelling narrative, a grand love story, but became intrigued by Jesus, the Author and Giver of love Himself.

Welcome to Side B Stories podcast, Claire. It’s so great to have you. 

Thank you for having me. I really love being here.

Wow, that’s wonderful. I’m just so grateful for you being here. Why don’t you tell our listeners a little bit about who you are, so they have an idea before we get into your story. 

So I am from Mississippi. I currently live in Austin, Texas, and I’ve been making documentary films since I was 19 years old.

And you’re 23 now? So for about four years? 

I’m 23 now, and yeah, it’s been about four years. I went to college for a year and then left school and was mentored by someone in the industry in New Orleans, and so I kind of skipped, bypassed the whole school process.

Tell me about your home and your family growing up. Was there any religion, any kind of faith, anything like that, as you were growing up as a child? 

Yeah. So I think I kind of have a weird story. When I tell people my childhood, they’re like, “What?” Like I said, I was raised in Mississippi, and I was home schooled until I was eleven, and now I have six siblings, but at the time, when I was really young, I had three. So my mother was a Jehovah’s Witness. And my dad was not. So my dad had been to church on Easter and Christmas when he was a younger child. But my mom was converted when she was around 19 years old. And so, when we were little, I would literally go door to door preaching the good word to all of these different people. I mean, from a very young age, five years old, knocking on these doors, preaching to people. And then the older I got, the more I realized that something was off, right? My father wasn’t necessarily supportive of my mother’s faith. And she had, they ended up having three more children. So there’s six kids at this point, and she couldn’t continue going to church by herself. So me and my older sister would go a lot.

So when I was eleven years old, just to backtrack a bit, we went to public school for the first time. And so that was kind of interesting, being a home schooler, going from this very more sheltered environment to a public school in Mississippi. And so me and my two older siblings, both of us were in school until we graduated after that point. And so it was interesting because I was sitting there and Jehovah’s Witnesses are very rule oriented. There’s not a lot of grace. There’s no acknowledgment of this unconditional love that our Father has for us. It’s talked about on the outside, but on the inside, they don’t really live by that. So if you dress a certain way, if you celebrate holidays, whatever it is, that makes you a worldly person. And so I would be in school and watching all these kids around me, and they’d be celebrating Christmas or even simple things like saying the Pledge of Allegiance.

And I constantly felt like an outsider, and I was put in this really unfair predicament, I think, because I’m a young child with all these beliefs that have been thrown on to me. And at the same time I’m put around all these “worldly people” and expected to, as a young person, be completely unwavering in anything, in any of my decisions, right? Especially given that my father was not a Jehovah’s Witness. So he had family Christmas on his side. If I went over to family Christmas, the Jehovah’s Witnesses that I was friends with, the young people I was friends with, would not invite me to things and would basically shun me for doing those things, when it was something I had no control over. And so, as I got older and older, I just remember trying so hard. I remember trying to follow all the rules. I remember trying to be the perfect Christian and get the right amount of hours and service, which is what they call whenever you go door to door and preach. And my older sister and I would go to church by ourselves without our mom.

And when she went to college, the woman who was actually hosting the Bible study with her from our church cut her off because she was upset with her for going to college and didn’t help her transition whatsoever.

You see that a lot in Jehovah’s Witness’s kind of culture. And so at that point, I just stopped.

You were believing up until that point. You believed in God, or at least this Jehovah’s Witness version of God and Jesus. But again, it was very rules oriented, very legalistic. So there were a lot of positives and negatives growing up with this image of God, I guess, in your mind. Through your journey of being a Jehovah’s Witness, who did you perceive God to be? What was their picture of God to you? 

So Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t really talk about what we call the Trinity at all. They believe that that is part of “false religion.” And so Jehovah, which is a translation that came about in, I think, the 18th century, late 18th century, would be what we call Yahweh, and so He was God. Jesus had nothing to do with that. Jesus was just a ransom sacrifice. And Jehovah’s Witnesses also teach and for the last century, since 1914, I think, is when they were started, around that point, they’ve taught that Armageddon was coming. It’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming. It’s fear, it’s fear, it’s fear. You know, Jesus is going to come back soon. All the world is going to be done away with. And if you’re not a Jehovah’s Witness, you’re going to die. That’s literally what they teach. And so I was always so afraid. I was like, “I’m going to die if I don’t do all these things right. I’m gonna die. And I have to follow each of these rules because that’s how God is. And He expects all this of us. And if I don’t do this, then it’s all on me.” And I wanted nothing to do with that God by the time I turned 16. I had a lot of trauma surrounding that God, because it’s not who I know Him to be now whatsoever.

So your sister went off to college. You saw the way that she was, in a way, shunned by the JW community, or her Bible study teacher, and that was, I guess, for you, the last straw, to see the way that she was treated, and was there something about that that you said, “I’ve had enough.” 

It wasn’t out of anger as much as it was…. It was more feelings of hopelessness. She’s gone, and the woman was also studying the Bible with me and ended the Bible study with me. So I just felt like I wasn’t important, and I felt like I was a lost cause, like I’d been put on the back burner. And the woman made no arrangements to find someone else to mentor me and be there for me in the spiritual way. And so I just kind of thought, “I can’t do this. I don’t feel capable of doing this.” I could never be good enough for God. And I remember actively breaking down about two years later, because in the back of my mind, I thought He was there. But then again, I just always thought, “No, I could never be good enough for Him. I could never achieve that. I’m just going to die. I’m giving up right now.” And I remember, like, I said this prayer, and it was the last time I prayed for three years. I remember having a conversation like, “God, I’m sorry, but what You ask of me, I just can’t do it. I don’t know how. And You deserve so much. You are such an amazing Creator to do everything you’ve done for us, and I just could never, ever repay You for that. I could never be the person You want me to be.” Because I knew nothing of sanctification. I knew nothing of this grace. And so at that point, I just said goodbye to God, basically, and ventured into being agnostic. And that was around the time that I went off to college.

Okay, yeah. So when you went off to college, you left whatever remnants of faith you had behind, and you said you became agnostic. So you were, I guess, in this period of not really sure. You just didn’t want to have anything to do with Jehovah’s Witness and that kind of God. And so okay, so walk us forward then as you entered into this, I presume, again kind of a secular university, that was not JW or anything to do with that? 

No. It was a liberal arts college in Mississippi called Millsaps. And so I went there for…. I remember my parents dropping me off and just kind of having this ultimate freedom. And at the time it ended up being a very beautiful thing, but I was dating this guy, and so it did protect me from a lot. But I remember just thinking to myself, “Well, maybe God’s not real. Maybe all of that was in my head and maybe there’s not really a God at all,” because all these things I like to do, everything that I find joyful and pleasurable about entering the world, is the complete opposite of what I think, these people, what they call God, wants. That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

So I just kind of thought I might as well just live the most sinful life I can. I didn’t think of it that way, but that was kind of the concept in my moving forward, just, “Yeah, I’m just going to do whatever I want to do because I honestly don’t even think God exists, and I’m just going to completely let go of any kind of sense of moral direction.”

And I lived like that, and my whole life, I think because of religion, from around 14 years old, I struggled with depression and anxiety. When I was 14 years old, and this is kind of, I think, a byproduct of the environment I was in, the school I was in, and all these different attacks from Satan that were going on, I struggled with self harming, with withholding food from myself, so eating disorders, and then definitely suicidal thoughts. And so, when I got to college and all that was going on still, but I’m diving deeper and deeper away from the warmth and love of God and completely ignoring that He existed, I definitely began to have suicidal thoughts like I never had. I remember I’d just be driving down the road, and I would just think, like, “I could just push the wheel,” you know, or whatever it was. I remember thinking of ways that I could kill myself without being in pain, because to me the world was just so dark and so terrible, and, “God doesn’t exist and nobody loves me.” And it’s this isolation that you feel when you don’t have Him in your life.

And all of those feelings kind of came to a head. And I made this rash, like, completely irrational decision. I’d met this girl one time, at prom my senior year, and it was the end of my freshman year of college, and she was like, “I’m going to go hike this trail in California called the Pacific Crest Trail. Do you want to go?” And I was like, “Yes! I’ll go. Sure.” I’d never been to California. I’d never flown commercially. I didn’t even have the money to do it. I didn’t even know how I was going to pull it off. But I told her I would go with her. And so the last day of school…. Because I was just trying to run away from everything, I was still very atheist. And the last day of school, I remember I was in the basement of the library, and I was walking out, and they were giving…. They give away free books once people don’t check them out for a certain amount of time. They’re like, “Oh, let’s just through these out.” And I saw Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, and I thought that it was making fun of Christianity.


Yeah. So I took it home, and it just sat there in my room all summer. And then it was time for me to go on this hiking trip. So I had gotten this pack. It was like 40 pounds, and I had stuck it in my backpack right as I was leaving because I realized that I didn’t have anything to entertain myself. So when you’re hiking, you don’t have service, right? So I’m going to be in the middle of nowhere for two weeks, backpacking. So it’s not like…. Everything you need is on your back. So I’d packed so light, as light as I could go, and it was still 40 pounds. And so I realized…. I’m a writer. I love writing, and I didn’t have anything to journal with. I didn’t have anything. So I just saw that, at the time I thought stupid book. I just picked it up and threw it in my bag and went on my merry way.

Now, at this point, this is so funny to me, because it’s not as if you were looking for God necessarily. In a way, you were running from God.

But you went from one place to the next, which was much darker, but then you grabbed this book, and it’s not as if you were looking for God or praying to God or anything at this point, like, to show you. You just happened to pick up the book Mere Christianity and put it in your backpack. I find that very ironic. 

I agree. I had no idea what I was doing. And I thought that was so funny, now, looking back, because I thought it was like some special book, you know, that nobody knew about.

So I fly across the country for the first time by myself, and at this point, too, I’m just trying to run away from everything, my family, even college, the idea of college. I mean, it put me in such a dark place, and I had become a fully blown atheist.

I’m just curious, at that point, when you had decided to take on the atheist identity, were there other atheists in your world? Were you associating or with other people who believed similarly, like, “Ah, there’s no God?” Or was this kind of an independent road that you were on? 

It was a bit of both. I think that, whenever I fully started talking about the fact that I didn’t believe in God and that God didn’t exist, I remember there was someone…. There were a few people that I had spoken to and had conversations with. They kind of tipped me over the edge of from being agnostic to atheist. And just the way they spoke about Old Testament God and different things like that, I think I already had such a horrible idea of who God was from Jehovah’s Witnesses. So whenever I went to college and met people who were also atheist, I already had that in the back of my mind, because I think it was a lot easier to believe that He wasn’t there than to continue living in the grief of knowing that I was going to be obliterated, because that’s what Jehovah’s Witnesses had taught me.

So there were some people that I’d met, who I’m not really friends with or was friends with then, but I had conversations and I was like, “Oh, that makes that makes a lot of sense. God probably doesn’t exist.” And I’m pretty sure that the girl I went hiking with at the time didn’t believe in God either. And so there were a lot of people kind of in my circle that, at a liberal arts college, either didn’t talk about their faith, or if they did, they probably were atheist. So I’m sure that influenced me in some way.


But I think what really dove me deeper was just the depression that I was experiencing. I was just like, “If there is a God, why would He ever let me or a person suffer like this? He wouldn’t do that. And if He would, I still wouldn’t have anything to do with Him.”

Yeah. That’s a very, very difficult thing, trying to understand or make sense of a good God when you’re in a dark place. 

Yeah. And so I think that was why that hiking trip was so… I don’t know. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but God was calling me to go. But I kind of saw it as a means of, once again, just escaping everything and doing something that was in my control. I honestly thought that going hiking would fix whatever was going on in my head. And funny, it kind of did.

So tell me what happened. How did this work its way out? 

So we were actually planning to do a section hike called the John Muir Trail, which goes through Mount Whitney, and it’s just a beautiful 200-mile trail that is the most frequented of the Pacific Crest Trail. So the Pacific Crest Trail runs from the border of Mexico to the border of Canada. And so we were going to do a section hike on the John Muir Trail. I had done all the preparation, I applied for the permits, I had the maps, and I did research on the wildlife and different things to watch out for. And the week before, the California fires had reached that section, and it was blocked off, and we couldn’t hike on it.

So I thought to myself, I was like, “Okay, well, we’ll find LA and hike through Angeles National Forest. And what we’ll do is we’ll just go to the ranger station, talk to them, get the maps, and educate ourselves in the area.” Because it was so soon, it seemed like the best option. So I looked at the ranger stations that were open, called to make sure, and then we Ubered all the way to Angeles National Forest, which I think was like an hour. And we get into the park. There’s no service. We get dropped off. And I remember watching the car drive away, and I had no service on my phone. We’re in the middle of nowhere, and I walk up to the door, and it is so closed, like there’s no one there. And there’s just a sign on the door that says, “Caution: Drought in this area.” And I’m just sitting there like, “Okay. All right. I guess I’ll just start.” So I took a picture with my phone of the board that they have kind of outside hiking trails that are super not accurate, and we just started hiking, with no idea what we were doing.

And so to kind of summarize, because I don’t want to go too deep into this trip, but a lot of crazy stuff happened. We almost ran out of water several times. We ended up accidentally taking the wrong trail, and it was called High Desert Trail, and it was not maintained. And we’re on the edges of these cliffs, like, trying to get across, then there’s this rattlesnake. And all these things happen, where we had so many near-death experiences, and especially the day that we got stuck on that cliff, we finally make it to the other side, and then there’s a bunch of inmates everywhere cleaning up stuff, and we’re these two young women by ourselves in the middle of nowhere, and we’d taken the wrong trail and had no water.

And so all these things were happening, and the kindness of strangers just never failed to amaze me. So I remembered, like, two or three days in, that I had this book. So I remember I walked up to this woman and I was like, “Hey, can I trade you?” I had a dollar or something. And I was like, “Can I buy a pen from you?” She was just some random lady at the park. She was like, “I’ll just give you a pen.” So she gave me a pin. And so I started writing in the pages of the Mere Christianity book. I wasn’t reading it. I was just writing because, once again, I didn’t have to write with, so I was journaling all these things that were happening. And in the process, as I’m journaling, I start catching these lines from CS. Lewis, and I’m like, “What is this guy talking about?”

And so I was very confused, because I was like, “Whoa, this is not the Christianity I know at all. Is he making fun of it, or is he agreeing with it? What’s going on here?” So I started reading more and more, and I’m in the elements, right? So I’m going to bed every night not knowing if a bear is going to come tear me apart to steal my food and not knowing if I’m going to find water the next day or not knowing if I hitchhike with someone, if they’re going to kidnap me. And I’m having all of these, to be dramatic, I would say near-death experiences. But I felt like it was that at the time.

Exactly. I mean, that was your experience. Yeah. 

Right. So many things could have gone wrong. And I remember this one day we had what I call a trail angel come and find us, and we had once again hiked the wrong way. Nothing is going right. And we hitchhiked with this man, and he told us about how we reminded him of when he was younger, and he went on a hiking trip with one of his friends, and they had hitchhiked. And he said that friend had actually just passed away the week before. And so we had this long conversation with him. And I remember he prayed for us. His name was Norm. And I once again remember just thinking, “What are your prayers going to do for me, dude? Just help me find where I’m going.” But the thing about a real Jesus person is that he did. So Norm took us to this fire station, charged our phones, because our phones were almost dead. They resupplied everything. They gave us food and water. And then he went and brought us back onto the trail. He gave us a map and sent us on our way. And everything went smoothly after that for the most part.

And later I found out that this man had not only done that, but he went to every stop along the way that we would have passed through and told the people we were coming through and to watch out for us and to let him know if we came through. And if we didn’t come through, he was going to go right through where we were hiking and find us to make sure we were okay. Like, this guy was amazing.

Wow! He really was a trail angel. That is amazing! 

And I still am in contact with him to this day. And so anyway, so we’re hiking, and we go up this mountain, and I think it was a total of 12 miles in a day. And it’s one of the tallest mountains on the southern side. It’s called Mount Baden-Powell. And so I remember getting to the top of the mountain. The blisters on my feet are just horrendous. My back is aching. My trail partner is literally just face down on the rocks. And I’m sitting there, and it’s just silent. And I’m on top of this mountain. I can see all the way down to LA. I can see miles and miles in every direction. And so I pull out the book and start reading again. And I actually don’t even remember exactly what it was I read, but I remember just thinking, “I can feel God. I don’t know what it is. I don’t know who He is, but something’s going on here, because I should be dead right now.”

But I was in denial, right? So I was thinking more along the lines of, like, “Okay, maybe it’s like the universe thing, where it’s like, ‘Yeah, the universe is looking out for me,’ and maybe C.S. Lewis is just talking about the universe, but he’s not talking about God Himself, right?” So it was still an atheist moment, but it was that one little step I needed towards meeting someone who helped us so deeply and courageously. And so I remember thinking, “Well, maybe God exists, but maybe not. Maybe it’s like this universe thing, like maybe there’s some kind of karma thing going on here,” right? 

So I leave, and once again, I decided… I did an internship with this show called The HighWire with Del Bigtree.

So when I was younger, I always said I wanted to do something with film. I didn’t know what that would be. And at a small business, I did wedding videos in high school and stuff like that. And so I knew that I wanted to run away from everything, and I was seeking fulfillment in the world still. But because of my experience when I was hiking, I realized that a lot of the things we think are problems aren’t actually problems, right? If I know I’m going to have food and water and a roof over my head, I’m good. I really am fine.

It’s amazing how things can come into perspective somehow. 

So I decided I was either going to transfer to a school that had a film program, because the one I was at didn’t, or drop out and just give it a try. So I settled for somewhere in the middle, and I found this program called Film Connections that connects you with a mentor and has a curriculum and kind of walks you through what it’s like to be a filmmaker. And so I reached out to this mentor, this producer in New Orleans named Ralph Madison, and he was like, “Yeah, we’d love to have you.”

and he was nothing like I expected him to be.  He does amazing work. So I expected him to be this stern film guy, and I show up, and he’s kind of this hybrid, right? So he’s into crystals and Reiki, but he calls on the name of Jesus. And I was like, “Whoa! What is going on here?” And it really kind of threw me off, because I’d never known anyone like that, right? So he was into kind of the New Age spiritual stuff, but he still was his own version of a Christian, so he wasn’t in a church, but he would read the Bible. And so that kind of, I think, began to open my mind to things, where I was like, “Well, maybe I can just have my own version of whatever that is,” and blah, blah, blah. But by me leaving college, it began this path where I think it helped me slowly open my mind back up to the fact that there may be a God and that He may exist and that He may love us.

And so I was mentored for six months in New Orleans, and he taught me a lot, and he was an amazing, incredible mentor and an amazing person. And I, long story short, ended up getting a job in Austin, Texas, on a documentary. So I’m moving here to work on this documentary, and I met a producer at my friend’s wedding in Austin, and that’s how I got the job. So my friend was leaving Texas, and her family was like, “Well, why don’t you just move in with us since you’re moving?” I was only 19 at the time, and so I moved in with them.

And they have the biggest hearts out of anybody I’ve ever met in my life, to this day probably. The most giving, kind people. And so their story is very interesting because they were also atheists before they moved to United States, but their son Billy really loves live music, and there’s a church next door, so they start going to church every week because Billy wanted to go. And Billy is an adult with autism, and they slowly came to terms with who God was and His love. And so they were another example of someone I had met who was atheist and had converted to Christianity. They used to make fun of Christians. They did not like them at all, and then went from that to being big time Bible readers. Their names are Polly and John. What I loved about Polly was that every single morning I would walk into the kitchen, she’s reading the Bible, and every single Sunday, she would say, “Oh, we’re going to church. Do you want to come with us?” And I would always say no. And she would always try to talk. She wouldn’t force it on me, but that’s just how she is. She’ll talk to anybody about Jesus any time, and just includes Him in the conversation, like He’s a friend. And I love that about her.

And so I saw her talking about Jesus, but in a way that wasn’t like anything I’d heard. First off, she always said Jesus. She never said God. It was always Jesus.

But she would always just talk about His unending love. And she would treat everyone with this intense love and was so giving. And everyone in the neighborhood that she met, who she knew would be in need, they would come every single week and get eggs from our chickens. And if somebody was sick, she would make this beautiful British meal and bring it to their house. Or when I would be going out to the bars with my friends, she would give me cash to make sure that I had money for dinner. They were so giving, and they would make my room up nice whenever I went to travel. They would prepare foods for me. I went through a really terrible breakup at the time, and they would have game nights with me and just support me and surround me in love.

And I had never really experienced something like that. I had never been loved like that. And to experience something like that from people who call themselves followers of Christ, I thought, “Maybe not all Christians are bad people, but I still just don’t think this is true.” Like, “Maybe she just sees another side of God, but she’s not talking about the full picture,” because that is what Jehovah Witnesses, kind of that indoctrination I had in the back of my mind still, what they would say. “Oh, the world just condones all sin,” and they’re all what they call Christendom, that they’re part of fake followers of Christ and misleading people by telling them that God loves us unconditionally. And so I think in the back of my mind I thought, “Well, yeah. She just doesn’t have it quite right.” There’s still this part of God that is legalistic and hates us and that kind of thing. And so I think, because of that, and subconsciously, I still was just completely denying that He was there because it was easier to do that.

But it was hard to deny the love that you were being constantly shown. Yeah. 

Absolutely. I knew there was something to that. And so I got this job in Miami, so I had then, at this point, stayed with them for over a year and just been surrounded by their love. And so then I moved to Miami to work on this documentary, and I am all alone, and this is at the end of 2019, so I didn’t know anyone. I’m working twelve hour days, seven days a week, so I think on Sundays, I would work like a half day, and that would be all my time off. So I had no time to make friends, and then everything locked down. And at this point, once again, I just completely started ignoring any kind of idea that God may exist or the question in my head because I wasn’t around Christian people anymore. And I was very isolated, and… it’s kind of hard to bring this up.

Whatever you feel comfortable with or not. No, it’s fine. 

No. I was very isolated, and I didn’t really know a lot of people, and so I made some friends from work, and I went out to a bar, and this was about probably two or three weeks before everything locked down in the United States from COVID-19, and I was roofied and sexually assaulted.

Oh, I’m so sorry. 

It was definitely the darkest moment in my life. And my entire life, I had struggled with anxiety and depression, and so I remember just thinking like, “I don’t want to be here anymore. This is horrible. If this is what the world is, I want nothing to do with this.” And just the amount of deep… It was the most intense pain I had ever felt in my life. I mean, I remember just feeling like I couldn’t breathe and crying on the bathroom floor for days. And I just thought, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this. I really don’t.” It was such a dark moment. And I remember just sitting there, and I prayed for the first time, I think it had been since that last prayer I mentioned. And I just said, “Look, if You’re there, I can’t do this alone. I cannot keep doing this alone.”

No. Right. 

“I’m literally going to kill myself if You don’t rescue me right now. If You’re there, come and let me know who You are because I can’t do this,” and I have no way to describe it other than I felt all of heaven surrounding me.

Oh, my! 

Legitimately. I felt His presence so strong in the room, and all of those years of depression and suicidal thoughts and anxiety came crashing down on me at the same time. And it’s the most bizarre thing. I can never describe exactly what it felt like, but I remember just thinking, “There are so many things in my life I’ve ignored. There are so many actions that I’ve taken that have caused me such great pain, and all of them are rooted in what I always thought was sin. And I’m going to acknowledge those things right now, and I’m going to feel it.” And I remember, flooding in my mind, I had memories from when I was really little, all the way up until that moment. Every single thing I’ve been through. Memories from my childhood, memories from my parents’ relationship, from other experiences I’d had, in particular with men abusing me sexually. And so I remember just thinking, like, “I’m going to feel all of this. I’m going to stop ignoring all of this, and I’m going to feel it right now.”

And I mourned. I mean, I mourned for a week straight. I’ve never cried so much in my life. I cried every single day, every single moment I stepped through the door after I finished my work, or even sometimes when I just shut the door to the office, when I was leaving, I would just start pouring tears. I was just trying to hold it together to get the work done and then going home and just mourning every single horrible thing that had ever happened to me, including being sexually assaulted.

And God said to me, “I’m here and I exist, and I love you.” I didn’t hear his voice, but I felt that very clearly. And so I started this journey where I, once again, wasn’t really sure, wasn’t really sure if it was the Christian God, but I knew God, like there was a God, because I felt its presence in that moment, so clearly. And it pulled me out of these depths at this moment where I was just like, “I can’t do this unless I have You.” And so I started praying for the next few months, but I wouldn’t say a name. I’d always say, “God, show me who You are. Reveal yourself to me. Show me the truth. I want to know who You are. I want to worship You. I want to love You, but I don’t know who You are.” So I was reading books on Buddhism, Hinduism. I mean, I was doing everything. I was looking everywhere I could for the truth.


And I remember I woke up one day and nothing had really worked. I would feel connected to something, I would try it out, and then nothing would happen. And I wouldn’t feel that Presence I felt in that dark moment. I was like, “Where is that Presence?” I’m looking for it everywhere, and I couldn’t find it. “Point me to You.”


And I picked up the Bible, this old Jehovah’s Witness Bible that I had. So the translation is a bit different. And I just started in Genesis. I just started reading it, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh! This is not what I thought it was at all!” And even like God had opened my eyes, even like the veil had been lifted. And so I’m reading of His love, and I’m reading of creation, and I’m reading of how we were designed to live, and that was exactly what I wanted. And nobody else was talking about that. Other religions deny suffering, whereas God tells us, “You’re going to suffer, and it’s going to suck.” Excuse my language. But it’s going to suck. “But I’m going to be with you,” and that’s the difference, right?


So I was like, “Oh, so I don’t have to transcend existence and pretend like I’m not suffering in a Buddhist way or whatever,” you know?


I can suffer fully and feel it fully and go through really hard things, and pain is okay because I know where I’m going. I have the hope of salvation. And so when I picked up that Bible, I started reflecting back on John and Polly and their love, and I was like, “That’s what they do.” I was like, “I want some of that. That’s what I want. They’ve got that part figured out. I’m just going to read the Bible and keep on praying.” And so through this really horrible experience of being sexually assaulted, it brought me to this rock bottom moment where I fully turned to God, because there was no way I could do it without Him. And He had built this intricate story line of dropping me bite-sized pieces of love. And so John and Polly, I started calling them, and I told Polly what happened, and I remember she really supported me in that time. And then, after reading the Bible for about six months, I decided I was going to move back to Austin, and I asked her if she would baptize me.

And so I went back to Austin. And once again, at this point, I have a lot of religious trauma. So I’m like, “I’m never stepping foot in a church. Not doing it. No way. But I’ll read the Bible and I’ll pray, and that’s good enough for me.” And so I go to Austin, I meet with Polly, and she throws this beautiful party for me. And in that moment, I made clear to everyone that that was the life I wanted to choose for myself. And I kind of always say it was the best day ever.

It was the best day ever? 

Yeah. It was! So this is just kind of a funny side story. So I love the sun. My mood is very dictated by the weather. And I woke up that morning, and it was cloudy, and I just prayed, and I was like, “God, I’m not trying to be petty right now, but can You please make the sun come out? Because I’m not trying to get baptized in a cloudy day.” And so I was just kind of joking with Him. And that’s what I loved about the new relationship I had with God. It was never like, “Dear Father, blah, blah, blah,” you know? “Forgive me for this, and blah, blah, blah.” It was very personal. I always had conversations with Him and, like, He was a real living, breathing God, because He is. And so I remember saying that. And then as I’m coming out of the water—I have a video of this. The clouds parted, and the sun came out.

Wow, what a gift. 

And I was like, “This is so cool! You didn’t have to do that!”

Celebrating over you, I think, there in that moment. If I could ask a question, you speak of being baptized. Now, the God that you knew as a Jehovah’s Witness. You never thought you could be good enough. No matter what you did or how many doors you knocked on or whatever it is that you had to accomplish. It was just so overwhelming. You just wanted to give it up. Now, when you move to a place where you meet Jesus and you’re ready to get baptized, baptism really symbolizes something very particular. Of course, it’s putting off the old and putting on the new, but there’s a washing away a sense of sin, at least in the Christian way of thinking about things. And I’m wondering, as someone who understood the weight of trying to work your way to God, what it meant for you when you understood what the gospel is and what grace is and those things you said that were missing before that I guess you had found. Can you kind of talk about that a little bit, so people listening can understand that contrast and that transformation? 

Yeah. So I remember I started reading the Bible and the God that had been skewed in my mind as a child was not in there. And I remember something that always has stuck with me is Romans 8. That’s my chapter. Anytime I feel lost, go straight to Romans 8 and start reading. And for anyone who doesn’t read the Bible, I would say go there because it paints this beautiful picture that we don’t choose God, that He chooses us, and that His love is unending, and that we were bought and paid for whether we wanted to or not. And He gave that freely as a gift to us. And there is not a single thing in the world we could do that could separate us from that love. And in particular, at the very end, I think it’s 39 to 41, Paul writes about how the future nor the present can separate us from the love of God. And I always thought that was really interesting. Or angels nor demons can separate us from the love of God, nor governments, nor any powers that be.

And the thought of I couldn’t do anything tomorrow that would separate me from that love, “Is that what you’re saying to me right now? That You know You love me so much that You knew everything I would do in my life and You didn’t care. You loved me and You wanted to transform me and You wanted to give me hope and save me.” That was a narrative I’d never heard before, and that was the truth of the Bible. And so I think reading that really transformed my entire view of what God was like.

And just the story of Jesus, His love and how He came and He fulfilled the entire Old Testament in two phrases: “Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” And if you’re not doing that, then you’re not following Christ, right? You’re not a Christian. It’s as simple as that. And so kind of having it all simplified down that way. It’s like I had been taught by the Pharisees and the Sadducees, you have to follow all these rules. And then Jesus came along in my life and said, “No, you don’t. Love me. Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul. And love your neighbor as you love yourself, and you’ve got it covered. That’s all you got to do.” I was like, “What?” So I thought it was really beautiful. There’s so many beautiful truths that were revealed to me.

It was obviously convincing enough for you to become a Christ follower, because that’s what baptism symbolizes, that you are a follower of Christ. Yeah. Wow. So how has your life changed since that time? I mean obviously you’ve come a long way in your very young life, but you’ve experienced a lot. And I wonder, how has it been to walk as someone who follows Christ, to have this completely different understanding of being completely and utterly loved in the way that you spoke of? 

It’s been just better. And it’s like, just by following Christ does not mean that, when I struggle with depression or anxiety, that it just goes away. But these kind of things become less frequent and less intense. And following God has given me such freedom and beauty in my life. I no longer feel like I’m a slave to these sinful behaviors. And when I say sin, I always like… I think that term became so stigmatized by people who are outside the church. But sin is essentially things that God knows harms us or harms others, right? Or disrespects Him. And so putting it in that way, when I felt like I was freed from doing things that harmed me, that I was chained to, like, what a beautiful life that is, you know? And when I’m depressed and I have the week where I don’t want to get out of bed or shower or whatever it is, I still have His love waiting for me right there, holding me, all along. And once again, it’s not that it’s always easier. It’s never going to be easier following Christ, but it’s definitely better, because I know at the end of the day that all of this is temporary.

And I know that He’s going to use my story. He’s going to use the fact that I was sexually assaulted. He’s going to use my past to help other people, and He has redeemed all of that pain in my life. So everything I’ve been through, and even more recently, since I’ve become a Christian, He’s used those things to help other people. And that is so healing for me to watch that, right? And to be close to people and connect to people and to be open and raw and real about what we actually experience. He’s given me a support system. He’s given me His unconditional love. He’s given me joy. And I think, most importantly, He’s encouraged me to not feel like I’m bound by anything of this world. So when it comes to my career, I’m never going to make films the same way again. Making films is completely different for me, because I know that God has given me my story and He gave everyone else their own testimonies. And so as a filmmaker, what I want to do is elevate their voices and to be in a position, I feel so blessed to be able to do that. So He’s given me a beautiful career, fulfillment in my career. I mean, I could talk all day about how much better God has made my life.

That’s amazing! That’s amazing! And it is a beautiful life. You’re living a beautiful life. And beauty, and that doesn’t mean that there’s no pain, but with God with you, as you said at the very beginning, things can become beautiful even when they’re hard. 

As we’re turning the page here, and you know what it’s like to be an atheist. You know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of Christians like Polly and John, who offered not only their home to you, but were incredibly generous to you throughout a year or more, and beyond, I guess, and have always been there to support you. It sounds like they have the gift of hospitality and generosity, no doubt. Or Norm, I think of Norm, the man who was almost like the Good Samaritan, who was just making sure that you were attended to and coming back and just making sure you were attended to along the way. Those things were very strong touchstones in your life that affected you, that created openness towards the God of love that you eventually came to know. If you were giving advice to Christians on how to engage with people who don’t believe, what would you say to Christians, in terms of however you would want us to be or behave in the world to show Jesus, I guess. 

I think all along what I really needed was somebody who was honest with me. And that was the thing about being around John and Polly. And in high school, I forgot to mention, but I had a teacher named Coach Campbell who…. All of them had this in common, where they were blatantly open about their sin, right? And not in a way that glorified sin, but in a way that made me think, like, “You have a faith like that, but then you do X, Y, and Z? And you’re open about that? Is that the kind of God you have? That God loves you anyways?” And I think that was the most important thing to me, was getting to know people who had a real faith that they were open about but didn’t pretend like they were perfect and that showed unconditional love.

And Coach Campbell, the teacher I had in high school, he was the same way. Once a month, he would sit down and talk to us about whatever God had put on his mind that day, and it would always be something relevant to what was going on in our lives. And we didn’t know how that was even possible. I was like, “Okay, this guy must be like…. How does he know what’s going on in my life? He’s talking about it. This is creepy!” But it was amazing to be around someone like that, too, who openly shared, who was bold, but he didn’t say, “You need to believe this,” and, “You need to be like this.” I remember him having discussions of joy and happiness and the difference between the two and free will and sin and Satan and spiritual warfare, and he never was saying, “You have to believe in God.” He was just saying how the gospel had changed his life, and he was telling his story, and that’s what John and Polly did.

So after all the hard things I went through, I realized once all that pain was redeemed, that all of that was a gift. That my testimony was a gift.


And that I didn’t have to force my friends to read the Bible or force my family, who have left the church but still don’t really know where they’re standing, to believe in the Trinity or whatever it is. All I have to do is love them. That’s it. And tell my story, because I think your story is the most important part. If you can tell that… because your story is a gift from God, and so if you can give them that message. And so we’re you know, Christ is in us. We become living with His word in us and give our testimony to other people. That’s how we make change. If someone had done that, the people that did do that are who God used to get me to where I am today.

Yeah, yeah. Amazing. And for those who might be listening who are still skeptical and they’re perhaps a little bit open, curious about you, about your story, about how you found seemingly a God who was real, how would you encourage someone who might be open to taking another step or thinking about it more or…. What direction or how would you encourage someone like that? 

I think there’s so many lies that circulate, from Satan, from the world, from people who claim to be Christian, about who God really is. And I was brutally taught that lesson from a young age. The idea of who God was that I had as a child versus how I know Him now is completely different. And the one thing that showed me that difference was actually reading the Bible. Not because someone forced you to and not John 3:16 on Google or someone posted it on Instagram in their bio, but actually picking up a Bible and reading it. And just asking whoever God is in your eyes to show you the truth. Because if you haven’t read it with a genuine curiosity for truth, that veil is still over your eyes, and you won’t get that. You are not able to see it.

And as soon as I was able to see it, my entire life was changed, everything changed. And once again, as someone who has struggled throughout life with depression, it was so life changing. The joy that I have now and the happiness that I have from Him is incredible. Like, what do you have to lose just by picking up a Bible and asking for the truth and reading it? If anything, you will prove yourself right, and if you prove yourself wrong, you’ll live the rest of your life in joy. And I don’t think we can ask for much more than that.

Right. No. That’s what we all long for, really. The Bible can be a little bit intimidating for someone who’s never really looked at it. Where would you encourage someone to begin reading? Because I know there’s the Old Testament, the New Testament. In the New Testament, the stories about Jesus are more there, and sometimes it’s easy to get lost in the weeds, you know, if you don’t know where you’re going. Where would you encourage, a particular book or place? I know you started in Genesis. Where would you encourage someone who was just opening the Bible for the first time? 

So when I recommend just picking up the Bible and reading it—interesting because I would always pray and ask God where I should stop or where I should look. But if you open it up, and then you’re reading it and you’re like, “Yeah, I don’t know, this doesn’t make any sense to me.” New Testament. If you’re curious about Jesus, you know, Luke, Matthew, those are great places to start. Just hearing stories of His love and the kind of person He was on this earth, His generosity, how He treated the poor, the sick, how He raised the dead, and how He fed thousands. I mean, just the stories about Him are so beautiful, and you can get those in that area of the Bible, Luke, Matthew and that kind of stuff. If you have a background in Christianity but were atheist like I was and now you’re considering it again, maybe, I always go to Romans or Ephesians because there’s a lot of sanctification, a lot of grace, a lot of love, and what we think of how God views us as sinners, how Satan pushes these ideas in our heads that we can’t be forgiven or that we can’t change or that we don’t deserve love. All that is really cleared up in Romans and Ephesians, I would say.

I think it’s been a beautiful, beautiful testimony. I really genuinely appreciate your transparency, Claire. I know it’s not easy to talk about certain things in your life, but you have done so with grace and again with transparency and authenticity. And I think, as you mentioned before, I think that there will be people who are blessed and benefit from knowing that about you and seeing the transformed life and that you can actually have joy beyond the darkness, that you can have hope and life that’s truly life beyond. I see in my mind that place where you were in Miami and that you’ve come such a long way since then and that you are an example of light and hope that we need so desperately in this world. So thank you so much for telling your story today, Claire. I really, really appreciate it. 

Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Claire’s story. You can find out more about her and her films through her website at www.clairedooley.co, that’s dot C-O, which I’ll post in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can contact me through our website. Again, that’s at sidebstories.com. If you enjoyed it, I hope you’ll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, when we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.

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