Apatheism to Strong Belief – Mary Jo Sharp’s story

Jan 22, 2021

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
Apatheism to Strong Belief - Mary Jo Sharp's story
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Apatheism is a word to describe someone who doesn’t believe in God and thinks religion is irrelevant to life. In today’s episode Mary Jo Sharp tells her story of moving from apatheism to a strong belief in God that informs all of her life.

Learn more about Mary Jo Sharp at www.maryjosharp.com. There’s a wealth of information to explore – debates, a blog, books and much more!


Episode Transcript

Hello, and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon, and you’re listening to the Side B Podcast, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where we will be listening to the other side of the story. In my research, I heard the stories of over fifty former atheists to better understand their journey from nonbelief to belief in God. The Side B Podcast is a show where I’ll be talking with former atheists who, against all odds, changed their minds about God and became Christians. Each time, we’ll listen to someone’s story and have a conversation about why they were atheists and what opened them to the possibility of God. We’ll talk about why they became Christians and their thoughts and experiences along the way.

In this cultural moment, where the other side, side B, is often dismissed without a hearing, this is the podcast where you are encouraged to listen to the other side, whether it is the unheard side of nonbelief or belief, and then draw your own conclusions. You might just be surprised by what you hear. I know I was.

Today, we’ll be talking with someone who inherited her atheism from her surrounding culture. It was the air she breathed. God was essentially a nonissue, not worth considering, off the radar. Religion just simply wasn’t relevant to her life. Her name is Mary Jo Sharp. She is a former atheist who came to Christian faith. She now serves as an assistant professor of apologetics at Houston Baptist University and is the founder of Confident Christianity apologetics ministry. She is the author of several books, including Why I Still Believe: A Former Atheist’s Reckoning with the Bad Reputation Christians Give a Good God, released this past November. She’s also the author of several Bible studies, including a best seller, Why Do You Believe That? A Faith Conversation, from Lifeway. She lives with her husband and family in Portland, Oregon. you can find out more about Mary Jo at maryjosharp.com.

Welcome to the Side B Podcast, Mary Jo. It’s so great to have you.

Thank you so much for having me on.

Wonderful! It’s great to have you here and to hear you and your story, as a former atheist come to be a Christian, and we’re all very interested to hear how that happened. So let’s start with side A, your life as an atheist. Why don’t you tell me about your influences growing up? Your family, your culture. What generally formed your identity as an atheist?

Yeah. This is always an interesting question for me because I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and as you noted, in the Portland area, which… I’m back there again. But this area was sort of a post-Christian culture that I grew up in. It wasn’t a place where I would say was heavily influenced in cultural Christianity. And I’m saying this, as opposed to where I lived for twenty years in the South. It was very different from the southern United States, which was more steeped in a culture of Christianity. So the area that I grew up in, and I’ll give an example of what I mean by this cultural Christianity type thing is that, in the area I grew up in, there weren’t a lot of people who I would encounter who would say, like, “Oh yeah. I’ve gone to church my whole life.” They wouldn’t just openly say, “I’m a Christian,” or, “Oh, yeah. My Daddy was a preacher,” or, “My uncle was a preacher,” which is something that I encountered almost all the time, like noticeably different, in the southern United States.

Right.

So just a very different atmosphere, post Christian, more similar to a European style, a European culture of postmodernity and relativism and things like that.

Did you have any exposure to Christianity growing up at all? Or was it anywhere on the radar?

Well, sure. Because I live in a Judeo-Christian-influenced society, so there’s Christmas and Easter and things like that and television shows that show Christian pastors, so those things were present in my line of sight. Those movies and things. But what I was exposed to more so was a lot of nature and science shows, because my dad was a huge Carl Sagan fan. He was a chemical engineer. He just loved the sciences. He loved outer space, and that was something… We watched a lot of shows about space. So what was going on was he had exposed me to a bunch of this materialized worldview that was through these television shows. It was a thread. It was the under-girding philosophy of these shows, and so that was something I was exposed to as a very young person, and I didn’t know that this materialist, or this view that all that exists is what is in the material realm… I didn’t know that that was only one view or one philosophy on the nature of reality. That’s just what I was exposed to. So I would say my upbringing, culturally, not being exposed to Christianity other than what I saw on TV and the movies and a few friends here and there, combined with my upbringing outside of the church. My parents did not go to church. By the time I was very young, they had left it. And my dad’s constant viewing of these nature and science shows that were steeped in the materialist view of the world really was the background that formed my views of reality. I really didn’t have a view of God. And I wouldn’t have thought to gain one or why a person should gain one. That just wasn’t on the radar.

Right. Did your father call himself an atheist at all? Or just more of a science-oriented person?

My dad was one of those people that wouldn’t talk religion. So we did not talk about it and I wouldn’t have known whether he would call himself agnostic, atheist, or what. Because that was not something my family discussed.

Okay, okay. Did you have any hostility towards Christianity? Or was it just that they can live their own lives? I’m not really sure who they are. In fact, I’m not really sure what they believe. What did you think about Christians and Christianity around that time?

Christianity, to me, was… There was sort of a dual perspective going on in my mind. My experiences with Christians, they seemed pretty nice and innocuous. I had friends who went to church, and I thought they were great people, but then I would see things on television like the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker scandal and how they were using money that people were giving them inappropriately and for their own selfishness, their own selfish desires and greed. And that seemed pretty disingenuous that the church would ask for money. I didn’t know why the church was asking for money because I knew nothing about church.

I also realized… Not too long ago, I started thinking about my childhood, and I was like, “You know, the Rajneeshpuram were in here Oregon when I was a child in the early ’80s, and this was this cultish group of people who… They were religious. That was the basis for them having this compound in Oregon. And what I remember of them, the number one thing I remember about this religious group was that they attempted a bio-terrorist attack on the nearby cities, which is they poisoned people with salmonella, and so I think that… I’ve come to understand that was also informing my view, but I just realized. I had a lot of misgivings about what religion was, who God was or is. I didn’t understand things like what religion was for. It just seemed like those kind of things that people did because they were raised that way, and I wasn’t.

I would also say that I thought my view, the sort of atheist or non-theist view, was the normative. I actually believed that I was the normative view and had no perspective on the vastness of religious adherence across the world. So I would kind of also say that what I was exposed to as far as religions growing up was the myths, like the ancient Greeks, the Egyptians, as well as Native American stories, and so I probably, if I had known to say it as a child and as a later teenager, I probably would have said I had some chronological snobbery, that I thought I was more progressed than other people. But I wouldn’t have known to say it that way. I just kind of would’ve thought, “Oh, wow! Look how much better we are than all of these religious factions and these myths and things.”

Right. There seems to be a bit of a sense of rational superiority sometimes among those who embrace a scientism or a naturalistic worldview. Would you say that that was the case in your world?

I would say yes, but it was below the surface, because I had a Midwestern mother and father who taught me to respect people of all different backgrounds and to be polite and nice. So I would never have tried to make other people feel bad about having a religious view. That was not in my DNA. That was not in my blood. So I wasn’t aggressive or hostile person towards religious belief.

That’s good. It’s just that it wasn’t something that was on the table for you as an option.

Right. And a little bit of distrust towards it, too, about the whole, “Why are you giving money?” It looked like it could really take advantage of people. That sort of thing.

As an atheist, it seems like you’re moving along well and feeling comfortable in this worldview or this assumed worldview that was part of your family and part of your culture. Did you ever think about what that meant for your life in terms of atheism? Apart from, say, the naturalistic view of the cosmos? How did it affect your life?

Yeah. I wouldn’t have looked long term. I didn’t know to do that, and I think part of that is… I had a great education generally, but my education was lacking in critical thought and philosophy and thinking on these bigger issues, like, “Oh, what you believe now is going to have an impact on your life and your decisions later on,” so I wouldn’t have had that transference in my mind of whatever I believe now and how it’s going to affect me in ten years or five years or twenty years. I wouldn’t have seen the long-term effects of an atheist commitment.

Right. So would you call yourself a happy atheist, I guess, at that time?

Yeah. Yeah. I felt I was a good person. And I wasn’t a person who drank. I wasn’t a person who did any of these vices, in my mind, a person who took drugs or anything like that, so I thought… And I’m a good student, so I’ve got it together. I’m a good person.

Right, right. So moving along, then. What happened in your life or in your thinking that caused you to stop and think about another perspective or open your mind towards the possibility of God’s existence?

Well, I think a lot of the environment which I grew up in had this dual effect of giving me this sort of materialist view or naturalist view of the world, but at the same time, the amount of exposure that I had to music… One of the things we haven’t talked about yet is I’m a musician, and so was my father… To music and to these science shows which were teaching me the universe, in all of its vastness and mystery, and just there were a lot of things that I was exposed to that I think had a double effect. One was that it was void of discussion about what is this all here for and why does this all make sense? Why does it all fit together? Why does the universe just seemingly work for survival of humans? Rational human beings on the earth. But at the same time, it was causing me to wonder about that. Like it actually caused me to say… Like sitting there, watching the beauty of a sunset or sitting in my band experiencing the emotion of the musical performance, or when my dad would take us camping and seeing the majesty of the mountains, the vastness of the universe, watching those science shows, considering the intricacy of ecosystems and the complexity of life when we’d watch a nature show, that drew me towards sort of developing this wonder about all of this. What was it here for? So am I just a blob of atoms in a vast, indifferent universe? Or is there something that I’m supposed to be taking from all this? Is there meaning to this created musical experience? Is there meaning to the artistic works? Is there a reason that we should continue in the sciences that transcends my own experience of it, my own subjective experience?

And as a teenager, I’m not putting it together that way, but I’m starting to question things about, “Well, why is the universe here at all? Why I am here? Is this it? I live and die and there’s no rhyme or reason, so what’s the purpose of all this?” And I didn’t have any answers to that. So I was wondering. And I think that it’s funny how, as I work on this, as I become older and older, and I look back and reflect on my teenage, especially in later teenage years, as I’m starting to gain my skills, my rational skills, I’m starting to wonder more based on the very things that were sort of holding my attention towards a naturalist perspective, but now they’re influencing me to say, “Wait a minute. Is this all there is?”

So those are the kinds of things… I’m starting to ask those kinds of questions, and right at that time, as I’m getting older and I’m starting to ask these questions, there’s a Christian that comes into my life who is influential, and he gives me a Bible.

Oh, my! Oh, my! Okay. So what was your view of the Bible around that time? What did you think that was?

No idea. I had no idea. I wouldn’t have even known what to call it. I know it was the text that the Christians used, but I really didn’t know anything about it.

So what was your response when he gave it to you? What were you thinking? And why did he give you a Bible?

Yeah. Well, this is really an interesting part. On this side of belief, believing that there is a God and that he was working in my life, this gentleman was a person who had never shared his faith before, and he was a band director, so he taught the music program in our schools, and I was studying… I knew by my sophomore year in high school that I wanted to become just like him. I wanted to be a band director and teach music. So it’s one of the most influential people who could have been sent to me at that time to share their faith, and here he is in a public school district that had taken out most of the Christian symbolism because they wanted separation of church and state, so they didn’t have Christmas anything, they had winter everything, and stuff like that, and here he is in this situation, saying, he felt really burdened for me, and he felt like he needed to do this. He needed to at least give me a Bible and share his faith with me, and so he did, and it’s not a real big moment. It’s just like he said to me aside in my senior year and says, “Here, I have a gift for you,” and he gives me a Bible, and he says, “When you go off to college, you’re going to have hard questions. I hope you’ll turn to this.” And I need to include that I did not receive it well. I didn’t say anything mean, because that’s not my nature, but he said he was worried that I was going to turn him in to the school for having shared this with me. And I feel so bad about that. Like, “What did I say that was so awful?”

Oh, no. I mean obviously… We can appreciate this now. It’s quite a risk to try to impose your faith or be seen as imposing your faith on a student, so he was taking a professional risk to give it to you, wasn’t he?

Yeah, yeah. And he was a person that I respected. Obviously, like I said, so I really wanted to… It was just like he hit me at just the right time. I was having these questions. There was no outlet for it. There was no philosophy in my background because the public schools were not teaching critical thinking in that way or philosophy or about these big questions of life, and here comes this man I greatly respect and says, “Here’s some answers to hard questions,” right?

Right.

So I actually went and read it. I read that Bible. And it really… I was caught off guard because it wasn’t what I expected.

So what were you expecting when you were reading the Bible? What did you think it was?

So I had no experience, like I just said. Like nothing. I don’t know. But my experience was mythologies, so of the Sumerians and the Greeks and the Egyptians and Native Americans. And as I’m digging into the Bible, it’s nothing like that. As you can tell, I don’t have any experience with, like Judaism or Islam or anything. I don’t have any experience with these monotheistic traditions. So it really took me off guard, in that it sounded very report like in places. Some places it’s very poetic, but other places, like in Luke, he’s just saying, “Hey, I investigated all these things, so you can know the certainty of the things you’ve been taught.”

Right.

And then he, a little bit later on, lists off all these places and times. He’s got these governing officials and where they were governor and what time it is in the history of the world, and I’m like, “This sounds like he was just trying to report what was going on.” And that really shook me as far as, “Well, maybe he’s intending to tell me something true here. Or maybe he’s intending to report something that actually happened, rather than just tell me a great myth that teaches me some kind of moral lesson.”

So it was more of a historical document, and it was a surprise to you. How did it shape your understanding of who God was or Jesus or Christianity when you started reading it?

Yeah, that was really important because, since it wasn’t what I was seeing in TV, in the movies, it wasn’t this superficial, just moral guidelines for your life. It actually talked about how humans had failed to do what was good for them the way that God had intended for them to live, and they had failed to be in that way that God had for them, and so, because they had failed to do what God intended for them, they had brought evil upon themselves, and that started to make sense to me about why there’s good and evil in the world. Because I was always a person who felt like morals mattered and there was right and wrong and that there was just and unjust, and so the story from the Bible about how evil got into the world and that evil was not what we were intended for really made a difference to me.

It really started to inform me as to, you know what? That makes sense of the human experience. That makes sense of why I have this sense of right and wrong. And so things like that started to inform me. “Oh, I see. If humans were the problem. If they were the ones that brought the evil into the world, and they’re the ones that are constantly engaging in this, then they’re also not the solution, so it makes sense as to why God himself incarnates, comes into the world, and is the sacrifice for our wrongdoing.” That started to make sense to me, logical sense. And so that’s what changes my perspective on the whole story, on who God is, on why Jesus is necessary. That’s what leads me towards understanding God and towards trusting in Him.

So it made sense logically. It made sense experientially. Did you ever question whether it was really true? Or how would you know that? Did you investigate that? Or was it just that it rang true to you?

So originally, if we’re still in the beginnings of where I come out of atheism into Christianity, it begins to ring true to me. And then I have to figure out what I’m going to do with it. And so as I leave the nest of my parents’ home, where I’d been taught naturalism, and I go off and start my whole college experience… You’re supposed to go away to college and lose your faith, right? I went off to college and started investigating, “What are people talking about when they say faith?” So I went to church on my own for the first time and eventually I find a church where I hear this gospel presentation, and it makes sense to me, and that’s at the point at which I’m ready to trust Jesus. So it’s a little bit of a journey to get to that point, where I say, “Hey, yes, I’m willing to trust this. It wasn’t an apologetic investigation. I wasn’t going, “Well, is this true? Is this not?” It was more experiential, and it had, like you were saying, the ring of truth to it. It’s not until I become a Christian that I start to say, “Wait a second. How do I know this is true?”

Before we get there, you had said something, just there, about you heard a gospel presentation. For those who don’t know what that is, in a nutshell, could you tell them what that was and why you were drawn to that?

Yes. So it was at the church where I eventually accepted Jesus, and the pastor… Basically they’ll give a sermon. So they’ll explain something from a passage of scripture. And at this particular church, he always ended each of his sermons with what’s called an invitation to accept Christ. So, in doing that, he tells you basically what’s happened. Like I said, God made us for good, but we’ve chosen to do evil, and that’s what’s called being fallen and sinful, and so he explains this, and then he gets to, well what’s the remedy for sin? If we’re intended to be good and part of that was being in relationship with God, how do we get back there? So he tells you what has been done. Jesus has come to pay the penalty for the sin. So by trusting in Him, you can be restored to this right relationship with God, which is the gospel message.

It can be done in many different ways. You can talk about it that there was good creation, then there was the fall of mankind, and now there’s redemption through Jesus Christ. And that’s real short. We’re really being sort of reductivist in it because it’s much bigger than that and there’s so many more details, but that’s what I mean by a gospel message, so it helps people understand their circumstance. It helps them understand why there’s evil in the world. It helps them understand that there’s an answer to that. And that has been given through Jesus Christ.

And so what rang true again came to ring true for your life. Tell me what happened after that in terms of… How did you connect the intellectual part of your faith with your experiential part of your faith?

Well, the intellectual and experiential… What happened is that the experiential is a bit problematic for me, in that it fades over time, so if I have an experience, even if it’s psychologically impacting, like something like coming to trust Jesus, over time, those experiences fade, right? That memory is fading, and the emotion that I felt and all of that, so after becoming a Christian, I wasn’t in a church where there was a rigorous intellectual life. And I hate to denigrate any of the churches that I was ever in, but I wasn’t seriously studying the doctrines of Christianity, like, “So why do we believe Christ rose from the dead?” or, “Why do we say God exists at all?” or, “What does it mean that Jesus atoned for sins?” I wasn’t really thrown into a deep education where I’m studying the intellectual aspect of my beliefs.

So you’ve got this experience, but then I run into these other experiences of Christians behaving opposite of what I’m reading in the Bible. So not only is my former experience starting to fade over the years, but I’m gaining new experience, and they’re hurtful, with Christians who are being hypocritical about their faith. And so they’ll say one thing but then they’ll absolutely do another and not hold themselves accountable, and this is becoming a pattern that I’m seeing. So what happens over time is that those experiences start to cause in me some emotional doubt. I start to distrust Christians, and that begins to cause me to distrust this whole endeavor of Christianity, which transfers over to distrusting God as a person. Is He even there? Is He even real? Does He exist? And I realize I have no answers to that.

And there’s where the intellectual side comes in. And I say, “Wow! What did I do back then?” Here, I’ve plunged myself into this community, and I’m just going to be in short form. I don’t mean everybody was this way, but in short form, this community of hypocrites who I like less than my former atheist friends, and I feel less accepted for who I am, who are constantly trying to put me in this mold of a southern evangelical woman that I don’t fit because I’m not from the South and I don’t come out of evangelicalism, and so this experience with this cultural Christianity just really causes me to have these emotional doubt, and it eventually leads to intellectual questioning. And that’s the first time I start going, “I really need to know why I say I believe this because I’m starting to feel like I really don’t want this to be true. Or don’t even care if it’s true. I just want to get away from this.”

And so I start into this path of trying to discover, “Why do I believe Jesus rose from the dead? Why do I say God exists?” and that sends me into the intellectual journey that I’ve been on and am still on.

That’s amazing. I appreciate your honesty there. A lot of people wouldn’t say that, and it’s really quite an interesting conversion story, that you convert to a belief that rings true but its people don’t bear out what the Good Book says, right? Although it does say that we’re fallen, so… But fallen to a point that it’s very disheartening and discouraging and fuels your doubt. So what path or what direction did you go in terms of trying to provide some answer to some of these doubts that you had?

Yeah. When I started out, I didn’t know what I was looking for because I had no experience in this and it wasn’t being taught in church. I found, in church, they already assumed the truth of Christianity, so they never taught, like, “How do we know it’s true?” So I thought, “I’ve got to find somebody who’s talking about, ‘Does God exist?'” And I don’t know how I got there. I know that I began asking those questions, and that’s what I remember, so I started looking for answers to how do I know that Jesus actually rose from the dead and how do I know God exists, and I remember finding a book in one of our church libraries that was by Lee Strobel. It was The Case for Christ, and I actually found a book before that. And I don’t always include that in all of my testimonies because sometimes it’s just too much to include, but it was Norm Geisler’s book, Christian Apologetics, and-

Oh, my. Yes, that’s…

I had some really hard philosophical terms in there for a person who’d never been trained in philosophy or theology, and I went, “Okay, this is really lovely, but I’m a band director, and I work 70-hour weeks, so I’m going to set that one aside.”

Yes. For now.

For now. “And I’m going to go after this one because I can read it, and I can consume it right away.” And I never heard anybody delve into how do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? Or what’s the evidence for this? And Strobel’s book fascinated me because of how he treated it journalistically and from a law perspective, so that set me on the path towards, “Okay, who did he interview? Now I’ve got to go read those guys, and now… Oh, wait! There’s debates. They’re debating people who disagree with them? Why has this never been brought to my life?”

And so now I want to hear the atheist rebuttals of all these things because now I’m familiar with these terms, theist and atheist, and I want to see what has been brought against the Christian faith, and so now I’m engaging in these debates, listening to them, analyzing things, and I start to see that Christianity, the answers coming out of the Christian philosophical debates are more coherent. They make more sense. Logically taken to their conclusion, they seem to work with the human experience, and that the atheist arguments weren’t doing that. They weren’t as explanatory about what we have. Why is the universe? What is the universe? Those kinds of things. About human value, meaning, and purpose.

And so I began to have this shift towards, “Yeah, the church has caused me a lot of hurt and pain, but it looks like Christianity’s true and I’m not going to be able to escape that rationally.”

Right. And it was actually providing answers to all those questions you had as a late teen, when you started really looking at your life and meaning and purpose and value, and those questions were finally being answered, I guess in a satisfying way?

Yes. Yes, that’s a good way of saying it.

Yeah, so it was almost like it was coming full circle, and you were having both answers to human experience, as well as the logical questions you were having. So everything was coming together, like you say, in a more comprehensive, coherent way.

Yeah. And it was actually kind of funny, because honestly I had gotten to a point where I was like, “Man, if I could just go back to a non-theist or agnostic point of view, I could just be done with all this Christian community and hypocrisy and this group I don’t really relate to! I could just walk away. That would be nice.” And I can see why some atheists who leave the faith, or people who have been Christian and then leave it, I can see why they say it’s liberating. Because you are released from the burden of this community that you’re trying to be a part of. And it can be so emotionally draining to be a part of a community like that. Any community. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Christian community or the atheist doughnut eaters’ community, it’s draining to be a part of a community, so I can see why that initial, “I’m walking away,” can be so liberating. Because you finally have been released from what I was describing before, having to engage with people who are fallen and are working through on their own journey towards Christlikeness.

Yes, we’re all broken people, aren’t we?

Yeah.

But I hope you’ve found at least a community of people that you are finding a little bit better success and more authenticity, I guess you could say.

So, leading on from there, you actually took this intellectual journey pretty seriously, because you actually ended up pursuing formal education in it, didn’t you?

Yes, yes. Do you want me to describe that?

Yes. Why don’t you tell me about that?

Yeah, so during my time of reading and listening to debates, I actually subscribed to a journal, and it was a Christian journal, and that journal was an advertisement for a university, and it was Biola University, which I’d never heard of, but when I looked at who I would be studying with to get a master’s in apologetics, I was like, “I’m reading these people already. This is who I’m reading,” and so I thought it sort of makes sense for me to do that. I don’t make decisions on an impulse almost ever. I over analyze everything. I mean everything.

So yeah, I saw this advertisement, and it was right at the time when I was trying to decide to go back to get a master’s in music education, so I could be a college music professor, and here comes this master’s of arts in apologetics, and I’m like, “This doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t know what I’m going to get out of this, other than it’s just an intellectual journey. I’m not going to get any monetary compensation. In fact, I’m just going to pour into this because I’m a music teacher,” but I just knew it was right, and I went after it, and that was first time I really found a community of Christian intellectuals who were all there just to be on an intellectual journey. Now, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s so heady. I don’t believe in the separation of the emotions from the intellect. I believe it’s all bound together. So part of growing in our relationship with God is knowing who he is, right? And properly worshiping him with our emotions and our mind. You know, the Matthew passage that we’re supposed to worship the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And here I found this group of believers that are doing just that.

And I was like, “Wow! They exist! These people really want to know God, and it’s not for any kind of perceived gain as far as a job or a monetary outcome. They’re just really investigating what they believe,” and that was just so life giving to me at that point in my life, just to see these people who just worshiped God with all they had, including the life of the mind. And so I got that formal education. I got the master’s degree, and during that time, there was an assignment to start a blog or you could have a private email conversation with somebody defending the resurrection, and I ended up starting the blog. I didn’t want to. I did the private conversation first for the grade.

And then I thought, “Why won’t I be a public Christian? Why won’t I put this out in public?” And a lot of that has to do with my upbringing in the Northwest, where religion is more private, but it was that finally going, “Okay, I’m going to put my faith out in public that eventually leads to a lot of speaking, a lot of writing, and then eventually a professor position at Houston Baptist University.

I guess you could say that you’ve been sufficiently convinced, that your doubts have been answered?

Yeah. And people ask me that. They’re like, “You never have any doubt?” and I’m like, “Well, I don’t have the mind of God, so there’s always going to be room for mystery. There’s always going to be that room for, ‘I don’t know X,’ and so that’s where I’m at.” I don’t think I can get away from my belief in God. I don’t think I can get away from me seeing it as true and as justified, even warranted, but I do think that there’s still room for me to not know things and to develop and grow, and I think that will always be there because I’m human.

Well, that’s an incredible and very humble attitude to take, I think. Your story is a really wonderful one, and I think it’s a very honest one, and I love it because it looks at the whole of who you are, your experience, your culture, your family, your questions, your existential questions, and somehow God met you in every way, intellectually, experientially, existentially. He is there providing substantive ways to meet all of those needs and answers for you. So, at the end of the day, you are a confident Christian. That’s what your website says. You promote confident Christianity. What would you say, as we’re ending our conversation, to someone who is a nonbeliever, someone who perhaps is apathetic or never really even thought about God or the question of God? Do you have any words for them?

Yeah, that’s great. Because I’ve been on that side, so I would say to be more critical of your own views and be skeptical of how you arrived to your own commitments. That’s normally what we think of… Atheists are skeptical. However, religious people arrived at their commitments, but I would say be skeptical of how you’ve arrived at your own. So, for an example, like in being critical or skeptical about your beliefs, carry your beliefs out to their logical conclusion or their logical end. And there’s a book by Andy Bannister where he does this. He takes some of the New Atheist movement, their arguments, and I want to specifically say the New Atheist movement, not like the atheist philosophers of old. This is this new movement. It’s a popular movement that has arisen. He takes some of their arguments, and he takes them out to their logical end through fictitious scenarios that he creates.

And it’s riotous what happens… It’s hilarious. I mean it’s just hilarious what happens. His book’s actually called The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist: Or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments. And it’s having a bit of fun with failing to take an argument to its logical end. So, you know, when I was looking at human value, meaning, and purpose, well, Richard Dawkins, the atheist biologist at Oxford, he’s aptly described an atheist doctrine taking this view that there is no meaning, purpose, or value to the universe, that DNA is all their is, and we dance to its music. You’ve got to take that all the way out. So he says there’s no rhyme or reason to anything, right? There’s nothing informing you.

Right, right.

You know, he has the book The God Delusion, but if you think about it, it could be like The Human Value and Purpose Delusion or The Human Rights Delusion. Those things don’t exist in this universe of just everything’s ever evolving in this pattern, that you’re reducible down to your DNA. And so that’s one of the things I would like to see, is that you take your beliefs and you implement them, rather them in a buffet style of, “I pick and choose what I believe when it helps me or with whatever I like.” Because I think we can get kind of smug about our position once we finally commit to proclaiming a viewpoint and that actually can hurt our inquiry into learning about the world in which we live. So I want to make sure that we don’t become these kind of people who cut ourselves off from learning.

That’s what I would say. Be skeptical about your own skepticism. Cynicism is not a virtue. It can keep you from learning rather than growing. And then maybe, as a final tag, maybe try to figure out why someone might actually believe that God’s existence is convincing. Why do they believe in God? Why do they find that convincing? And while you’re doing that, leave out your stereotyped answers and really consider that question. So that’s my to nonbelievers advice.

Well, that’s great advice. It’s great advice for anyone. The unexamined life is not worth living, right? According to Socrates, and really examining your own presuppositions or what you think about your own views is a good thing to do. It’s a healthy, it’s a human thing to do. It’s a way to grow, so thank you for that. And the last question is what would you say to Christians to help them understand those who don’t see a need for God in their lives? Or who don’t believe?

Yeah. Along the same lines, I would say one thing is to be critical of your beliefs as well and about how you arrived at those beliefs. Because, in my own experience, I’ve seen a lot of Christians who rely on authority, specifically of their pastor. And that’s not inherently wrong, but if you’ll dig through your scriptures, you’ll see that the Apostle Paul actually told us to test everything and hold onto the good. And he was addressing the internal teachings of the church in Thessalonica. So that’s an impetus we have from the Apostle Paul, and he actually praises the Bereans in Acts 17 because they did check the things out that Paul was teaching. So our Apostle Paul, this guy who writes more of the New Testament than any other author, is telling us we should check things out. He even praised people for checking out his own teaching. So I think we need to be more careful about being critical thinkers and really we shouldn’t take every question about what we believe as an affront to our faith or as a personal attack. And I think that’s been a problem in the church, so that’s one thing.

I would say the other thing is we have to remember that, in our church history, there have been people who have used the church, its teachings, and their authority as a weapon for wealth, power, and control, and that has damaged our testimony about the love and grace of God and about the self sacrifice of God through the incarnation, death, and resurrection, so even though… Let’s say you and I, as Christian believers, we might know about the amazing sacrifices and love the church has shown across the world in humanizing various people groups through our offer of medical aid, education, food, water, shelter, fighting for basic human and civil rights, people tend to remember the bad things about us and the bad things that have happened more so than the good, so as Christians, we can’t forget this idea that people are remembering our sins. So be up front about it.

And you said a great word earlier. We need to show authenticity. That we’re sinful people, we still have all the same problems as other people in the world, and we’re trying to conform our lives to something better. We’re trying to be Christlike.

Yes. We are. We are. And the shame of it is that Christian hypocrisy turned you off even as a Christian, almost caused you to doubt and to lose your faith, and we’re all called to a life worthy of walking after Christ. Wow, what an incredible story you have, Mary Jo, and just the wisdom and the advice that you’re able to give just pours out of you because of your thoughtful journeying from atheism to Christianity. I appreciate so much you being on this program, and I hope that everyone listening will take a look at her website, maryjosharp.com.

 

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