Psychology professor Dr. Rich Suplita believed science provided the best explanation for truth, and he promoted atheism on the university campus. Over time, he began to question his own beliefs, and it led him to find truth in Christ and become an advocate for the Christian worldview.
To hear more stories about former atheists and skeptics converting to Christianity, visit www.sidebstories.com
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. You can also hear today’s story and see other video testimonies on our Side B Stories website you can find at www.sidebstories.com.
Each podcast, we listen to someone who has once been an atheist but who became a Christian against all odds. Each story is different. Each journey courses a different path. Everyone has their reasons for belief and for disbelief. There are the reasons that sound good and reasonable as supporting our beliefs, and then there are the real reasons underneath the surface, sometimes presumed and unexplored, sometimes not particularly rational.
One of the most interesting findings in my research with former atheists was the difference between the reasons they gave for atheism, which they said were mostly based upon reason, science, and evidence, and in hindsight, the real reasons they said why they rejected God and belief in Christianity. It turns out, on self reflection, that one-fourth of them actually rejected God solely for more personal, rather than intellectual or rational reasons. For the remaining three-quarters, it was a mixture of both the personal and the intellectual. As humans, we are holistic beings. We are all susceptible to rationalizing what we want to be true. Of course, our desires and objective truth may line up, but sometimes it’s good to be skeptical of our own beliefs, to look more deeply at why we believe what we believe.
In our story today, Rich was compelled to examine his own beliefs, first as a Christian, and he found his beliefs wanting. Then, as a militant atheist, he became skeptical of his own skepticism. As an academic and deeply introspective and contemplative thinker, he became willing to look at his intellectual reasons for atheism but also beneath the surface to the real reasons below. I hope you’ll come along to hear what he found along his journey from belief to disbelief and then back to a much stronger belief in God and Christianity than he once knew.
Welcome to Side B Stories, Rich. It’s so great to have you with me today.
Yeah. Good morning. Thank you.
So the listeners know a little bit about you. Can you tell us a bit about who you are, where you live, your education perhaps?
Sure, yeah. My name is Dr. Rich Suplita. My wife, Mary Kathryn, and I, we live in Athens, Georgia, and we do a lot of ministry at the University of Georgia, with Georgia students. My educational background: I did my underground at West Virginia University, which is my home state, and then came to the University of Georgia in 2000. From 2000 to 2005, I was a PhD student, earned my masters and then my PhD in psychology, with an emphasis on neuroscience and psychopharmacology, and I went on to teach as a lecturer at the University of Georgia for about 10 years after that.
Wow. Okay. So you’re an academic by training and history, but it sounds like you’ve moved in a completely different direction from that, and I can’t wait to hear all about it. Now, let’s get into your story from childhood. I know that part of your story is that you were a militant atheist, but you didn’t start that way. Why don’t you bring us into your world as a child? Talk to us about your family, your community, friends, culture. Was God in any of that at all?
Yeah, sure, absolutely. He was. Very much so. I was raised in a middle class, blue collar family in north central West Virginia, a little town there called Fairmont, West Virginia, and my family and I, we were members of a Church of Christ. And so it was a three-times-a-week thing. We were very much in the habit of going to church. I learned a lot of Bible growing up, Bible verses, Sunday school, all of that, so God was very much in the picture, although it never really resonated with me on a deeply personal level.
So you went through the routine, and I guess the ritual of going to church three times a week, but it never took personally for you. Through that period of time, would you ever say that there was even an intellectual assent to belief in God? Was it something that you had accepted on that level, although you didn’t accept it personally, perhaps?
Oh, yes. Absolutely. I did believe that it was true, and there was good and bad there. It wasn’t all a negative thing. There were certainly positives. I believed it factually, and I would say, and part of this was a product of the time. In American evangelicalism at the time, there was a big emphasis on fire and brimstone, eternal judgment, and of course, that is a true part of the Bible that needs to be put into perspective, but as a child, I really remember thinking of God as a God who was displeased with me, who didn’t like me, who almost was a God that I was terrified to really approach, and I really think I just had no understanding of grace growing up, and for that reason, it was easy for it to not make its way into my heart.
I went through the protocol that I learned about, “What must a person do to become a Christian?” because I did believe it intellectually. I did believe that it was factually true. I hadn’t even considered that it might not be, and so I wanted to be on the right side of eternity. And so I went through the protocol that my particular denomination offered, and I do remember feeling a certain peace when that happened, but there was no life change. I really went back to being the same kid, the same teenager that I always had been, and there was no real desire in my heart to pursue Christ for truth’s sake, pursue Christ for the sake of Christ being the son of God and true and worthy of my worship.
So you lived with this, I guess, rather tentative belief. Belief in the sense that it wasn’t taken personally or with life change. How long did you express belief in God, and when did doubts or resistance or rejection of that start to come?
Yeah. So I retained my belief in God and even, I would say, religious practice, going to church, maybe not three times a week, but on a very regular basis, throughout my undergraduate years at West Virginia University. I do think it was some time during that time frame, especially towards the end, maybe the last year, if I’m remembering correctly, that I started, for the first time, really questioning the possibility of, “Well, maybe Christianity is wrong. Maybe there’s some truth here,” but beliefs like, “The Bible is the perfect word of God.” I started to question that. Like many college students do, I really came to question the creation narrative. “Did God create like Genesis 1 and 2 says He did? Or is that just a metaphor for evolutionary processes over billions of years?” And so I was really wrestling with those questions at the time, but I would say that the deep skepticism didn’t set in then. That was something that came more during my graduate school years.
Okay. Because I would imagine, pursuing psychology at the university level, a lot of the coursework is through the framework of a naturalistic or materialistic kind of thinking. Was that influential in your pushing back against these kind of narratives that you were finding a bit unbelievable?
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what I really remember. And there are only certain snapshots that, when I look back, stick out in my mind, and of course, you have a whole life that’s being lived there. With anybody’s story. Regardless of whatever direction they’re moving toward or away from, there are a lot of complicating factors. What I remember in terms of the classroom and academia, what I was learning during my graduate school years, there was specifically a History of Psychology class, a seminar for graduate students. We had 15, maybe 20 students in there. I’m one of the students. And I loved this professor. He was a semi-retired professor emeritus, and I just loved his personality. Great guy. I connected with him. He had a very warm heart, was very approachable, but he was, from what I could discern, adamantly a disbeliever in anything supernatural. And that’s where the enemy—I want to be clear this man is not my enemy. We have an enemy of our souls, Satan. But I think that’s where the enemy does his best work, is through people that come into our lives that are very disarming, that we have their words, their beliefs, their philosophies that are certainly counter to the Bible, and so I remember a big part of the class was really instilling this metaphysical position of naturalism, of physicalism, the idea that, when it comes to understanding the brain, the human mind, that is the subject matter of psychology, that really understanding it as a machine is the proper way to view it, that it is a mechanical thing, mechanical problems lead to psychological problems, damage to the brain causes these different types of dysfunction, and consequently, a corollary of that would be that the mind is what the brain does, nothing more and nothing less.
So did that then cause you to question your own spiritual nature?
Yeah, I think it did. I was still involved with Christianity, but it was becoming more and more in a marginalized sense. But I was previously married. My wife Mary Kathryn was previously married. My now ex-wife and I, we were members of a church when we moved from Savannah up to this area of Georgia, so there was still a connection to Christianity, but I increasingly disbelieved it, I would say. It became something that… What was really resonating to me was science. “I’m a neuroscience student. I do scientific research. This book is outmoded. It’s outdated. Hey, maybe there are some good things in there. Religion’s not all bad. It can give a person a sense of culture and kind of the background, a way to connect with family and certain friends,” but in terms of it being objectively true, I had pretty much checked out at that point.
So, this religion that you had intellectually believed, you found very strong intellectual reasons to leave it behind.
Right. In terms of my personal conviction… At that point, the question did God exist, I probably would say, “I don’t know.” I would have probably said, “Probably not. There’s probably not a personal God Who is described in these books that we call the Bible. That’s probably much more myth and legend, embellishing different nationalistic stories in the Old Testament, a lot of wishful thinking in the New Testament, among desperate people, and that’s… I didn’t think about it a lot, but I think that would characterize pretty much where I was at the time.
Yeah. So you left it behind. I guess for many years of your life you had believed it, but I guess in your twenty-something, as you became educated, you became, I guess in a way, too smart to believe that kind of superstition.
You mentioned or inferred, I guess, that Christians essentially were uneducated, perhaps a little bit ignorant, and they believed that a book that just doesn’t hold up to what an educated person would actually believe. So as you’re moving forward, what are you finding? Do you move into atheism by default? Or does it become more of an intentional decision and identity?
Yeah. I think there was actually both of those. I think there were two phases there. I think that kind of what I have been describing up until this point was more by default, more passive. You know, you’re in graduate school, and I remember I still went to a Bible study the first year or two that I was on campus at UGA as a grad student, and you become sort of like a family with your lab partners. Your major professor, the fellow graduate students. You just do life with these people. You do classes, seminars, go to conferences together. They really become like your siblings, and they jokingly got me a little action figure Jesus for a birthday present one year, and I thought it was hilarious, because I wasn’t an evangelical Christian by then. I just was still going to Bible study, but I was… The first couple of years there, it was funny for them to playfully, gently mock, shall we say, my residual beliefs. But as I said, during that trek through grad school, I became more and more influenced by these folks. Their worldview. Their politics. Their devotion to science. That was such a strong association, and we know that the word science can be used in many different senses, right? But the idea that I’m a scientist. You know, “Science says X.” This topic of the Bible or Jesus or the apostles, that’s religion, and that’s a far inferior way of knowing and experiencing reality than the scientific method is. And so that was the passive part of it.
The more deliberative stage really came, I think, in the aftermath of being on the receiving end of divorce documents, and I think, in retrospect, a lot of that had to do with emotional pain that I didn’t understand at the time as pain, but it was, I think, reflexive and sort of catapulted me more into what we might call militant atheism.
It’s interesting that you revealed that, that there was some kind of emotional pain that catapulted you into a more militant atheism. I’m trying to hear and possibly infer the connection there. Why emotional pain would push you towards a more militant atheism. Why do you suppose that was?
Yeah. And I want to preface my statement with I’m just talking about myself.
I want to be clear. I’m not trying to insinuate that all atheists are angry people who are mad at God. I can’t speak for them. They have their own stories, and when they tell me, I listen to them, and I believe what they say. For me personally, in my own situation, I really do think it was a disappointment with God more than a disbelief in God. Because again I had sort of jettisoned the Bible, but the idea that there was something higher, a higher power. I would go back and forth. The psychologist in me would say, “Well, that’s just a residual thing from your childhood, going to church,” but there was something that seemed to go beyond that. But I was disappointed in this God for my own failures, for the failures of my marriage, my family, the fact that I was not going to be a daily presence in the life of my three daughters anymore. And that was the big one. That was the big one, more than, I think grieving the actual dissolution of the marriage, it was, “We’re not going to be an intact family anymore,” and there was a sense… I don’t know if I really thought of it in my mind at the time this way. I don’t think I would’ve put it into these words, but there was really a sense in which God or the universe or whatever you want to call it, my higher power had failed me or let me down.
So, yes, I can see then where disbelief would be both intellectual and personal or emotional in that sense, that there were a lot of reasons to push away from this God who you once believed as a child. So how long were you in this particular phase of your life? And what did that looking like, walking as a militant atheist?
Somewhere around the year 2002 and 2003, I checked out, and then my return to Christianity, at least in terms of believing it to be factually true, and maybe we can get into this more later, was late in 2011, and so I’m going to say roughly an eight-year period of time that I would’ve said… And at the time, I would’ve never thought that there was any possibility of me ever calling myself a Christian again, like, “That was my past, that was my childhood, those were my formative years, I left that behind,” and the idea that I would ever go back there would’ve almost been laughable to me at the time.
Did you move into a strongly atheistic community that was reinforcing and supporting your ideas?
Yeah. I think so. I do remember coming across The God Delusion, which was probably the most popular of what are called the New Atheist books, of course that one by Richard Dawkins. I would say that was really my entrance point to a more militant variety of atheism. Like, “I’m not just a skeptic now. I’m actually going to wear, to own, to appropriate this title atheist, and I’m not going to be ashamed of that.” So of course I read Dawkins, and that sort of introduced me to the other New Atheists, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, a philosopher, and I would say probably what ended up being the most influential of all to me actually was the podcast, the internet show out of Austin, Texas, with Matt Dillahunty, Atheist Experience, spending many, many hours, sometimes until two in the morning, watching back episodes of that.
So you were really looking towards becoming very saturated, I guess you could say, in the rhetoric and the language and the thinking, really, of the atheist community. So you walked in that for, it looks like a period of eight or nine years. What started changing your view? If you were so ingrained in that kind of thinking. What happened then?
Again, you know, it’s challenging to try to really pinpoint specific things, but I’ve done that, and again, I don’t think it was one thing, but I really believed that there was sort of, at the same time, an intellectual problem that I was developing with metaphysical naturalism, physicalism, materialism. It goes by different terms. This idea or doctrine that all that exists is matter, all that occurs is matter in motion. There’s a universe filled with stuff, natural stuff, obeying natural laws, but there’s nothing beyond that. As a neuroscientist, I developed an intellectual problem, and it really focused on the idea, more than anything else, of free will, of choice or volition. I have never found a way to… And this is something that philosophers have discussed at length, but I’ve never been able to reconcile metaphysical naturalism, physicalism, with the idea that there’s some type of capacity in human beings for genuine meaningful choice or volition. And so I really was confused by that problem, and I knew… I saw it as being a problem for my own beliefs, my own worldview at the time, and I think, mapped onto that roughly at the same time was just the experience of being a father to three daughters. That was huge.
I think I had gotten myself to the point, for myself, where I became kind of satisfied that, “Okay, I’m here on this planet for who knows how long? 50, 60, 80, maybe 100 years, and then I’m just going to die one day, and that’s going to be it. Lights out. Fade to black. And it won’t matter because there won’t be a me to be aware that I had ever existed.” One of the things that I would say as an atheist was, when people would bring up this idea of the existential problem, I would say, “Well, does it bother you that you were not alive 100 years ago? Does it bother you that were not alive 200 years ago?” And of course, people will say, “No, because I wasn’t alive yet.” And I’d say, “Exactly, so once you and I are dead, we’re not going to care that we’re dead. We just won’t exist anymore.” So I think I got in a position where I was satisfied with that for myself, but I could never get to the same level of satisfaction with that being true for the lives of my three daughters.
I can see where the existential problem could be dismissed pre and post death, but as you said, when you start looking at the implications of your own worldview and see if they’re actually livable, like trying to say that free choice is an illusion. I presume that you had some differences, then, with Sam Harris and the way that he perceives free well. Or as a neuroscientist, the whole concept of consciousness and where that comes from. So there’s the mental life. But there’s also, again more existentially, meaning and purpose, human dignity, values, those things. From an existential individual perspective, did any of those things also bother you?
Yeah. I think it did. Especially centered around the idea of justice and human rights. And it’s not something I went as deep in to the time. Now, I think today this has become sort of like the backbone of my main apologetic when I interact with skeptics. But yeah, there was the idea… I remember thinking, at least a bit, about ethical systems, and what is the justification for human worth and dignity and value on metaphysical naturalism, which was the basis for my atheism at the time. I could not get myself past a utilitarian view of that. People are essentially worth… their value, their dignity is tantamount to their value to society, their perceived value or their real value to society, but of course, where does that leave someone who is severely physically disabled or mentally disabled or something like that? Is this a lesser person? And I would think that a person who is going to be consistent with a truly metaphysical position would have to say that that’s true, although there’s something in us that recoils against that notion.
You know, it strikes me as almost ironic that the more that you ventured into atheism, listening to Matt Dillahunty and reading books, that it actually surfaced some issues or some cognitive dissonance in you. The logical endpoint of atheism, in many different ways, is a little bit difficult to take, in terms of when you’re thinking about reality and how just intellectually and experientially things match with reality, somehow that it actually surfaced some areas of tension or cognitive dissonance for you that allowed you to become a little bit more skeptical of your own skepticism.
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what I started experiencing. And so I really… How would I phrase this? I checked out on atheism, in terms of its militant variety, in terms of it’s Richard Dawkins esque, Matt Dillahunty esque… For a while there, I really wanted to get something like the Atheist Experience started in Athens, and I thought it was great what they were doing there. I think they called themselves the Atheist Community of Austin, Texas, and I’m like, “Wow, it’d be great if we had something like that here in Athens.” Long about this time, which would’ve been 2010, going into 2011, I’m like, “Okay, this is not my future. I’m not that convinced of these things.” In fact I retreated to a more moderate position. I still would’ve never thought that I would ever, in a million years, become a Bible-believing Christian again, but I wanted to retreat away from the militant atheism, more to an agnosticism, a weak agnosticism, an agnosticism that really appreciated ideas like the idea in NA, Narcotics Anonymous, of a higher power. You know, my higher power. A guide. Some type of spiritual guide that helps me get through life and relate to people and those sorts of things, and so I knew that… I had served at this point, the previous two years, as the faculty advisor for UGA Atheists, a student organization of skeptical students on campus. It had been the Secular Student Association, and eventually, it went back to being the Secular Student Association, but during the years I was involved, it was called UGA Atheists. So I knew that, going into the following year, I was going to say, “No. Hey, ya’ll, I’ve had a good time. This has been fun getting to know you, but I’m too busy. I’m not going to do that again next year.”
I came across the… the guys with The Great Exchange outreach.
So what happened there? Who are the guys with The Great Exchange outreach?
Okay, so yeah, The Great Exchange is an outreach or an evangelistic survey. Which is really just a nine-question survey, so you just ask people walking by, “Hey, do you have a few minutes to take a spiritual interest survey?” And roughly half the people, depending on where you are, will say yes. And so it asks questions like, “Describe your spiritual background. What was that like?” “Do you believe in God?” “What do you think God is like?” “What do you see as the greatest problem in the world today?” “Is there a solution to that problem?” And really it’s kind of a funnel. But the real kicker question is, “If you were to stand before God, and God were to ask you why should I let you into heaven, what would you say?” Well, I skipped a couple of questions. One of the questions is, “Who, in your opinion, is Jesus Christ?” And so you just write down, in a few words, what the person says. The last item is, “If you could know God personally, would you like to?” And if the person says yes, then the idea is you ask, “Do you have about three to five minutes? I would like to tell you what the Bible says, what scripture says about how you can know God personally.”
So it was the first ever Great Exchange event. It was on Good Friday of 2011, which was an extraordinarily late Good Friday that year. I remember. At the very end of the semester. And I was approached as I was walking across the Tate Plaza at UGA, and so what I did is I gave all of the atheistic answers to the questionnaire. And mind you, I had checked out on atheism at this point. The true response for a lot of those questions would be, “I just don’t know. For the past several years, I’ve been calling myself an atheist. I really went kind of extreme with that. That’s not where I am now, but I really don’t know who Jesus is. I’m open to the possibilities.” And so this was the Holy Spirit at work arranging this particular time and circumstance for me to meet some guys, specifically Pastor David Holt. He wanted to know kind of like what we’ve been talking about here. What got me into skepticism, what got me into atheism, where I truly was now, and specifically what did I make of Jesus, what did I make of the claims of Jesus of Nazareth. So we started meeting once a week, on Fridays I believe it was, in downtown Athens at a coffee shop, just to talk about those things.
Well, yeah, that’s interesting that he started by asking you questions. And trying to really get a sense of who you are, what you were thinking, rather than just pounding you with information or what you should believe, that he was actually willing to take the time with you to really explore what your thinking was.
So where did it go from there? Did you start studying certain things? How did Dr. Holt lead you?
Yeah, eventually I did. That was after a few meetings. The first, we talked for about an hour that day, at The Great Exchange, and I believe I gave him my email. I know I received an email from him within a few days, maybe that same night. I don’t remember. “Hey. Great meeting you today. I think your story, what you’ve described is fascinating,” and he asked me, “Why do you disbelieve in God?” or, “What are your intellectual problems with the God of the Bible?” Just a very open-ended thing, and I think he was looking for a more succinct response than what I returned to him, but I probably sent him back about 10 or 12 paragraphs worth of information. And of course I didn’t know David. We’re very close now, but I got a response—anybody who knows David, this will resonate with. It’s like, “Okay, thanks.” I’m like, “Really? That’s it?” But then he followed it up very quickly with, “Can you meet?” “Are you open to getting together, getting coffee, because I really want to talk to you one on one?”
And you can explain maybe more specifically where you’ve been, what journey you’ve been on,” so we started doing that.
Yeah. I’m, I guess, a little bit surprised that you were so willing to meet with a pastor, but it shows that you did have a willingness or an openness to actually explore, at that point. And I think that’s huge.
Yeah. And he’s just a very… He’s very gifted. He has an amazing ability to connect with people and to hear them, to, I think validate them without compromising what he believes, and just really… And people are eager for that. People are so eager. I’ve heard it referred to as evangelism with our ears, right? Which I’m terrible at, by the way. There’s a lot of room for growth with me, but I’m aware of that, and I try to do better, but asking people the questions and really letting them… It doesn’t matter who we’re talking to, whether it’s an atheistic or an agnostic or a Muslim or a Buddhist, we don’t want to go in and tell them what they believe, right? We want to ask questions and let them tell us, and of course, naturally, that’s going to build rapport and open up doors.
So, as you were having a conversation, and he was asking you questions, was he trying to rebut your points? Or was he just continuing to ask questions? And then where did that lead?
Yeah, that’s a good point. Unlike me, probably, my tendency, he did not jump on the opportunity to say, “No, you’re wrong about that, and let me give you seven reasons that shows that my position is correct.” Rather, he just really asked the questions and good follow-up questions. I remember, at some point, I think maybe it was the second or third meeting we had, where we’d talked about so many things, and he says, “Well, what would you say right now, at this point, where we’ve been, this journey you’ve been on, one or two of the big issue things that you see that really keep you away from placing your faith in Christ.” And I think that’s a great question, when you’re at that point with a skeptic, and so I thought about it for a minute, and I said, “Okay, well, there are really two that pop into my mind. Number one is evolution.” Okay, this is not where I am now, but I said, “I’m a scientist. That’s what I do. That’s my background. That’s my education. I teach. One of the things I teach here at UGA is a seminar on evolutionary psychology, and this is settled science, and there’s just really no way that I think I can reconcile that with what it says in the book of Genesis.”
Okay, again, my tendency would be to start giving people disproofs. And I’m not saying there’s never a role for that. There can be a role for that, but that’s not what David did. He said, “Okay. What’s the other one?” Rather than objecting, just, “Okay.” He’s still in listening mode. And what a great example. And I said, “Okay, the other one of all the things that could be considered is the doctrine of hell, of eternal punishment, and I don’t understand how it can be just or fair that people would spend eternity in hell, which is infinite punishment, for finite sin,” and again, he didn’t these rebutting. I know he knows good answers to both of those questions, but he didn’t jump in with those, and what he said instead was, he said, “You know, those are really deep questions. You’re going to have to spend some time thinking through those and investigating and reading and praying.” He said, “But we’ve been talking about Jesus, and really that is the bull’s eye. That is the bull’s eye of Christianity, the Person of Jesus, the work of Jesus, specifically the biblical claim, and the claim of the apostles, that Jesus died and rose again, the resurrection of Jesus.”
And that was, I think, at the point where he gave me what we call the 21-day challenge. It wasn’t in the 21-day form. But just a challenge to read the Gospel of John. It has 21 chapters. These are not like chapters in a novel. You can read a chapter in like 3-5 minutes. And so the idea of the challenge is to devote 5 minutes a day, read one chapter a day, and just ask God, say, “God, I don’t even know if You’re real. I don’t know exactly who Jesus is. I would like to know if this book is true. If it’s accurate. If this is giving me valid information and true information about Jesus, please reveal that in my heart in a way that I’ll understand it as a read.
David just gave me the challenge to read the Gospel of John. He’s like, “Would you mind doing that? We’ll meet again next week, next Friday. Between now and then, get out your Bible and read it.” And I told him I would, and I’m thinking to myself at the time, “I don’t mind doing it. I’ll read it.” I didn’t say this out loud: “I’ll read it, but I already know what it says. I grew up in church. I grew up memorizing Bible verses. I know that it says Jesus died and rose again. I know that. So what good’s it going to do me opening up my Bible and reading?”
And so I went home, … I was cleaning my apartment. I’m there by myself. Which I never did. And so I think this is also a divine appointment, right? And I’m dusting one of my bookshelves, and right there, between two of my psychology textbooks, is my old NIV Study Bible from when I was a kid, teenager. And it triggered my memory, and I said, “Oh, yeah! I told Pastor David that I would read the Gospel of John. I have no excuse. Here it is 6:00, 6:30 PM. I’ve got nothing to do tonight.” The semester was over at this point. Grades had been submitted. Nothing but lull time. And I’m like, “I really have no excuse,” and so I sat down there on my couch. As I opened the Bible, I thought again to myself, “What’s the point? It’s not going to make a difference. I already know what this says,” but I said, “Well, I told him I would do it, so I’m going to do it.” And I began reading.
And what did you find?
Well, a lot of familiarity. Things I hadn’t thought about for years. The stories, of course, sounded very familiar. Jesus meeting the woman at the well in John 3, His discussion with Nicodemus. That was all very familiar territory. And it was… For lack of a better term, it was just fun. It was kind of fun revisiting that territory. And then I got to John chapter 11, which is halfway through. The narrative of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and what really… I would say the real turning point, at least in my brain, was His words to Martha. I think it’s John 11:25. Martha’s confused. “Why did You let our brother Lazarus die? If You had been here, he would’ve lived.” And Jesus says, “Well, your brother will rise again,” and Martha doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “In the last day, Lord. I know. At the end of time that he will rise. All of the dead will rise, so he will rise then.” And then Jesus makes that “I am” statement, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me, even if He dies, yet shall He live, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” And then, the real kicker: “Do you believe this?” And in the context of the narrative, of course, He’s talking to Martha, but I really knew in my heart. That’s just the best way to describe it. I can’t intellectualize this. The skeptics who are listening, I don’t know a way to intellectualize this to them. I’m not trying to. I would just say, in the deepest recesses of my heart, I knew that the Christ, the Messiah, was putting the same question to me, and I knew that my answer was that that I did. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. But I knew that I did believe that.
That’s amazing! That’s amazing. So in that moment, I’m sure it was a surprise to yourself.
Yeah, it was.
So at that moment, the whole concept… Pastor David had talked about who Jesus was and His resurrection was the most important question to consider, and here you are confronted with the narrative of Lazarus being resurrected, but somehow it affected you in terms of Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection.” That it was something more than just rational statement, that there was something deeply spiritual about that and deeply real. I’m sure you finished the book of John, and you met with Pastor David. Did that question of Jesus and the actual resurrection of Christ and its association with His proclamation of being the resurrection, did that come into play in terms of your belief or confirming that more intuitive deep personal belief in His statement of who He is?
Yeah. It definitely did. You know, the question comes sometimes: When was I born again? And I don’t know the answer to that question. I guess I’ll find out if it’s important. Does the time scale really matter? I don’t know. If there was a moment in time, I do look to that moment as being the moment, but I could be wrong about that. I would say, more than anything, it was a seed. It was a big seed. It was a huge seed. But it was a seed that was planted. I knew that my recognition of the truthfulness of who Jesus was and is, that He wasn’t just making a proclamation of what He had the power to do. He was talking about his identity. I didn’t say, “I can raise the dead,” he said, “I am the resurrection.” And I had never seen that before. I knew that verse. That verse sounded familiar to me, but I’d never, ever seen it in that light before, and so that was the real… What I realized at that point in time was, “This truth is going to have to change everything about my life.”
There’s a lot we could go into. But to really bring all of that to fruition took another two or three years. But I could never—even though I tried. There was a point in time where I actually tried to divest myself of all of this. I wanted to go back to secularism about two years later and even tried to, but I could just never turn my back. I could never turn that off in my mind, in my heart, this truth of Jesus is the Son of God. He died, and He rose again. Everything was stripped away, back to that, but it ultimately was that truth that brought me to a point of completely surrendering my life, not just my mind, but also kind of getting off the fence of cultural Christianity, which I would say I was on for the first two or three years of this, finally getting kicked off of that fence in late 2014. It really was that truth that was the anchor.
I can imagine a skeptic listening to your story and just saying, “Oh, you just had an experience. You were looking for something, and you saw what you wanted to see of Jesus when you started reading the Bible, but how does this match with your calling yourself a scientist? How can all of this, the way that you viewed superstition in the past, why don’t you view it that way now?” How do you integrate, essentially, your mind and your intellect with your beliefs? Just because you believe Jesus is the truth, which we do, and that His claim to be the resurrection is true, but how… I can just, again, hear a skeptic saying, “How can you forsake your mind and all that you know about reality?” Were the pieces able to come together?
Yeah. Well, I think that’s sort of an ongoing thing. I do decidedly come down on the Christian side of this thing now, and I can appreciate their question from their perspective. It’s genuine. It’s a good question. It’s not a question that I can really, again, over intellectualize to them. I can talk about my journey. We can, and we should, point people to resources, to sometimes what we talk about as what’s been called the legal historical case for the resurrection, the changes in the lives of the apostles, their eventual martyrdom, this being the catalyst for Christianity spreading across three continents within its first generation. There’s all of these facts, and I do talk about those a lot, but I am convinced that the Bible makes it pretty clear, going back to John chapter 3 and Jesus dialogue with Nicodemus. “Unless a man is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of heaven.” He’s not talking about heaven or hell there. He talks about that in other places. He’s talking about the ability to see the work of God, right? We perceive, as scientists, as naturalists, we perceive the three-dimensional world around us. Jesus obviously is talking about something that, what would be trans dimensional, something that involves a reality that transcends the three-dimensional reality around us, and He’s saying this is the ultimate and true reality, and a human being can’t even begin to fathom that unless they’ve been born again by the Holy Spirit of God.
Now, of course, that is going to sound like a cop-out to a skeptic. I get it. The only thing I can say is that I’ve experienced that, right? And I don’t know who it was. It was a brilliant mind who said that the man with a testimony is never at the mercy of a man with an intellectual argument, right? I mean I get it, but it’s kind of like you’ve got to really jump in that pool and start splashing around. If you just try to say, “Okay, this is going to be a purely intellectual endeavor to me, nothing more and nothing less. I’m just going to analyze it in a completely rational and logical sense,” I don’t think you can ever get there. I don’t think anyone is ever argued into the kingdom of God that way. There has to be the proverbial door of the heart that is at least cracked open to the possibility of this all being true.
Thank you for that. And I would presume, then, that the cognitive dissonance that you had within your naturalistic materialism or atheism, that some of those issues are resolved even existentially, like being able to explain or ground your freedom to choose, or, like you say, where human dignity comes from, rights and values, or things that like, that it seems that you have a more coherent worldview, not only to think but also to experience.
Yeah. So one of the groups that we help lead on the campus of the University of Georgia now is called Ratio Christi, and it’s Latin for “a reason for Christ,” so we take on a lot of these apologetics themes and topics. My favorite recently, because I think is so timely… it’s perennial in one sense, but it’s very timely in another… is what we call the moral argument for God, that if God does not exist, then there are no objective moral truths. What is moral? What is right and wrong in a naturalistic framework is just feels. It’s a matter of opinion. It’s a matter of how many people feel strongly one way or the other. But the truth of the matter is that all sane and rational people recognize that there are certain moral truths, moral absolutes, that are not subjective. They’re not open to opinion, right? Human rights, value, things like… You can think of the extreme. Murder is wrong. If a person says it’s okay to murder, it’s not like they have the wrong opinion. They’re factually wrong. It’s not like they have the wrong opinion. They’re factually wrong. When we say racism, there’s a big one. Racism is—when I say that it’s wrong—and here my atheist friends almost always agree with me. Thank God! My agnostic friends agree with me. Buddhist, Muslim, we call could say, okay, well, when we see these racist things happening, people being the victims of race crimes, “Wow! That’s truly wrong.” That’s not just my opinion. That is a moral fact. That’s a moral absolute.
I would understand that as only being possible if human beings are more than stardust. We’re not just the end result of a certain conglomeration of stardust. Being rearranged and reassembled by natural laws over billions of years can never get you to that point where we say humans have objective worth, objective dignity, objective value, and consequently, well, racism is wrong. Murder is wrong. Sexual assault is wrong. That’s not just an opinion. Those are moral facts. And so that, I would say, is one of my favorite questions and discussions to have with my skeptical friends and is certainly something I would encourage fellow believers to look into and at least ask those questions to our atheist friends. “Do you believe that humans have real dignity and worth and value? And if so, according to your worldview, what is that based upon?” And then just listen to them. Don’t try to trick them up or gotcha. That’s not the point. But really just have them think through it out loud with you.
That’s great advice. Rich, it sounds like your world and your worldview both have changed dramatically, not only from the kind of more superficial Christianity you held as a child and a teenager and even early adult, but obviously changed from your militant atheism or even your agnosticism. You’ve come to a place where you seem very passionate about what you believe now and that you’re helping others to understand the same. Or at least challenging in their worldview. I take it that your world and your worldview have changed dramatically. Can you talk with me about how that has transformed your life?
I would say there was a coherency there that was lacking in my life before. I don’t think I realized at the time, but I think that postmodern secular humanism, which was a big part of what we did in UGA Atheists and that type of advocacy. I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily bent towards radical individualism, but it tends in that direction, right? The emphasis being on self, charting your own path through life, doing good for others, but really in so far as much as it also benefits you. And in one sense, that’s very reasonable, but I would say what change has there been in my philosophy of life since then, just that recognition, that observation that’s so apparent in the New Testament. I think of the verse in Romans where it says that we are individually members one of another. This organism, this spiritual organism that’s what Paul calls the Temple of God, which is the church, not a temple made out of bricks and mortar and those sorts of things, but of individual souls.
And just understanding that my purpose in life, the reason why I’m on this planet for however many more years that the Lord has me here, is to be a functional part of that body. We don’t all look alike. We don’t all have the same role. Paul uses the metaphor of the body. Some are hands, some are feet. Some are mouths. Some are ears in the body of Christ. And God has given me a specific role, and my life is not about the radical individualism that I used to live for. I think most people would’ve said I was a pretty good guy, you know? My peers tended to like me when I was an atheist, and I got good reviews, and people wanted to take that class, and probably in the worldly sense, people thought that I was a pretty good guy, but I know that I was very selfish. I know my life was about me and really nothing beyond that. Understanding now that the church, the body of Christ, being part of that body, announcing the kingdom, these are the things that occupy my time and thoughts and my life now.
Wow! That’s amazing.
Okay. Yeah. Yeah, so going back to the time leading up to my conversion, really leaving atheism and understanding who Jesus truly is, I remember that my oldest daughter, Annabelle. Her mother, my ex-wife, was still involved in her local church and taking my daughters to Sunday school, and I received a text that says, “Annabelle is going to be baptized two Sundays from now,” and it had the date and the time. And this is while I was the faculty advisor for UGA Atheists, and so I received the text, and… I don’t know. I had mixed emotions right up front. I think it was mostly negative, like, “Why are they inviting me to this? She knows I’m not religious anymore. Is she just trying to antagonize me?” Well, clearly that was, like, okay, that’s not the case. I told a few of my skeptical friends, my atheist friends, and of course, we made the obligatory jokes about if I walked in the building the walls will start shaking and that sort of thing. But then it was actually one of those friends, one of my atheist friends, encouraged me and said, “You know, you probably should go. You probably should just go, smile, take the pictures. Be a good dad. That’s what a good dad would do. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you believe or disbelieve. Hey, you can talk to her about that later.” That’s what my friend told me, and so I said, “That’s good advice. I think that’s what I’m going to do.” And so that’s what I did.
And I went there for her baptism service, and that day, sort of an unexpected thing happened in my heart, and not just that day, but following that. I really experienced a sense of joy, and it wasn’t something I was putting on. It wasn’t just an artifact of being around my daughters, which always made me happy. Well, not always, but usually. Depending on how well they were getting along. But it was a real core joy, a joy that Annabelle had embraced Jesus, and talk about cognitive dissonance. That was extreme cognitive dissonance, because I’m thinking to myself, “Here I am. I’m the faculty advisor for UGA Atheists. I talk against this religion all the time. I go out onto campus and actually try to dissuade people from believing in a personal God and specifically the God of the Bible, and now one of the three people that I love the most on this planet, that I have certainly the deepest affections for, has made this… whatever you want to call it… personal decision for Christ, received Christ, decided to follow Christ, and I’m not angry about this. I’m actually joyful. That’s really confusing to me. If I’m sure that it’s false, if I’m sure she’s making a bad decision by doing this, shouldn’t I be angry? Shouldn’t I have some sense of righteous indignation, where I want to go and talk her out of this, and that’s just not at all where I found myself.
so this was very much the preliminary changes that were getting me to a point where I knew that atheism wasn’t a good fit and I wasn’t going to continue staying with… I would’ve still considered myself very much a secular humanist. I had no intention of changing that. But on the spirituality topic, it was more of like, “Okay, I’m certainly open to spiritual possibilities now.
So, Rich, as we’re winding up your story, and it’s just really amazing, and it sounds like you have a lot of experience, not only as a skeptic but talking to skeptics. If you have any advice for the curious skeptic who might be listening in, what would that be?
Yeah. So what I would say is truth exists, and truth matters. One of the things I really liked about the Atheist Movement… I know that sounds strange to say that, but I do believe that this is a good thing, is that myself at the time, and most committed atheists that I talk to today, would affirm that objective truth exists, right? Most of the atheists I talk to are not proponents of relative truth in the ultimate sense. They would say that there is such a thing as ultimate reality, that it has a certain nature, and that we can have discourse and discussion about those things because truth is a meeting ground, right? More than anything, that’s what truth does. It unites and it divides, but it is there, and our quest should be to… It just popped into my mind. One of the things that Matt Dillahunty used to say, of all people; he said, “I want to believe as many true things as possible and reject as many false things as possible.” I think that’s great. That’s one of the best quotes that we could bring to the table here. I do believe that truth exists, and going back to Christ, His claim was not just to teach the truth, His claim was to be the truth. He says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through Me.” And I do believe that a person with an open mind, a posture of honesty at heart, being willing to go where the information leads, will see Jesus, will come to see Jesus in an entirely new light.
Yeah. And I would imagine, based upon your own experience, too, reading the Gospel of John is probably a good place to start.
Yeah. Absolutely. Any of the gospels. I have a fondness for the Gospel of John, but if you want to do the 16-day challenge, hey, you can do Mark. It’s not quite as much of a commitment.
Yeah. That sounds good. Kind of short and sweet. He’s a very pragmatic writer. So if there are Christians today… Obviously, there were Christians who played a role in your life in terms of bringing you towards what you now believe as truth, like that pastor, Pastor David.
Yeah. Yeah. How would you encourage us as Christians to engage or interact with those who are skeptical or don’t believe?
Yeah, so if you’ll allow me, I’ll preach to myself a little bit. Because I always have to remind myself. I like to debate. I’ve always liked that, regardless of which end of this I’ve been on. It’s always been extremely enjoyable to me for people to push back, and let’s butt heads a little bit. Not in a mean-spirited way, but let’s exchange ideas, and I’ve come to realize that not everyone has the same affinity for that as I have. And there is very much a necessary role of being good listeners. Knowing some good questions, right? They don’t have to be enormously complex. We meet people all of the time. The Great Exchange questions are a great starting point. What was your spiritual background like? Do you believe in God? If so, what is God like? And even if the person expresses disbelief, then well, “Who in your opinion is Jesus of Nazareth?” I think that’s one of the best questions, possibly the best question that we can ask. We don’t ask them telling them what they believe, again. We just ask them because we really want to know. If a person is going to be intellectually honest, then they’re going to have to do something with this historical figure. The person, the man who has undeniably influenced the history of the world more than any other person. What is true about him. What can we know about him? Why did he leave such an enormous impact. And I think those are fair questions for anyone.
I think that’s great advice. Yeah. I can almost see Jesus turning to His apostles and saying, “Who do you say that I am?” And that is the biggest question for everyone. So thank you. That’s very wise. I mean, your story, it has such an arc to it, from embracing some form of Christianity, dismissing it, militant atheism, but then being drawn back to truth. I mean, truth has been a major thread throughout, from the beginning to the end, and Rich, I want to thank you for coming on board to tell your story. I’m sure many people will enjoy it, relate to it, and really be inspired by it, so thank you for the wisdom that you’ve given us today.
Absolutely. It’s been a real joy.
Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories to hear Rich’s story. You can find out more about him by visiting his website askaformeratheist.com, and we’ll include that link, along with the link to his work at Ratio Christi, in the episode notes. For questions and feedback about this episode, you can reach me by email at email@example.com. I hope you enjoyed it. If so, that you will rate and subscribe and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life.