Letters to an Atheist – Nico Tarquinio’s Story

Feb 3, 2023

Side B Stories
Side B Stories
Letters to an Atheist - Nico Tarquinio's Story
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Former atheist Nico Tarquinio rejected a religion he thought was not worthy of belief.  As a lawyer, he considered both sides in a search for truth and changed his mind about Christianity.

Resources recommended by Nico:

  • Cold Case Christianity, J. Warner Wallace
  • Letters to an Atheist, Peter Kreeft
  • Unbelievable? Podcast with Justin Brierley
  • Reasonable Faith Podcast with William Lane Craig

For more stories of atheist and skeptics converting to Christianity, visit www.sidebstories.com


Episode Transcript

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

Oftentimes, we are perfectly content in what we believe until something happens in our lives that disrupts the status quo. New circumstances arise that cause us to rethink what we think about the world around us, about our lives, about what we hold to be true or not. At those thresholds, we are presented with an opportunity to take a closer look at our beliefs, or we can continue on, presuming our pathway in life is built upon a good foundation without examination. 

In today’s story, former atheist Nico Tarquinio encountered a change in life circumstances, and with that, a new opportunity to look more closely at his own and others beliefs, to search more intentionally for truth. As an attorney, he was naturally driven towards critical thinking and analyzing and debating ideas. But this journey for him ended in a place he never expected, as a strong believer in God and apologist for the Christian worldview. What did he find on his journey towards discovery that was so compelling that he was willing to move towards Christianity, a worldview he once held in contempt? I hope you’ll join in to find out. 

Welcome to Side B Stories, Nico. It’s great to have you with me today. 

Jana, it is amazing to join you. Thank you so much for having me on.

Wonderful. So the listeners know a bit about who you are, Nico, can you tell us some about who you are, what you do, where you live? 

Sure. So, my name is Nico Tarquinio. I’m currently living in Lincoln, Nebraska, but I’m from Massachusetts originally, Southbridge, Massachusetts. I’ve lived in Maine. I’ve lived in upstate New York. I’ve lived in Boston. I’ve lived in Vermont. I’ve been a lot of places, and these days I am living in the Midwest. I work for the Federal Government. I’m an attorney and, well, non practicing at the time, but I did pass the bar exam, so it counts for something. I love to do apologetics and theology in my spare time, and I’m also raising four kids in my spare time. That little hobby on the side there. So gosh, I wear a lot of hats.

Sounds like you’ve got a very, very busy life, Nico. Very full. So it also sounds so that you’ve spent a lot of time in the Northeast. Is that where you were born? Why don’t you take us back to your childhood and where you were raised, that culture, your family? Was religion or God any part of your world? 

Sure. So I was raised in a contentious divorce situation, so my mother and father didn’t see eye to eye. They often came to harsh words with each other, and I was primarily raised by my mother. My father, on the other hand, eventually moved to Florida for a while. My grandmother still

lived in town. But my more religious side would probably be my father’s side of the family, simply because, if you couldn’t tell by my name, Nico Ramo Tarquinio, I’m Italian. And if you want Nonna’s meatballs, or at least a good conversation after she puts the meatballs on the table, not like she refuses them to anyone, you’re going to go to Mass, at least on Christmas and Easter with everybody. So that was kind of a very typical experience in the Northeast in general, but certainly within my family.

And my mother, who was much more open spiritually, and she’s a very brilliant woman, but I don’t recall Bibles being in the house. I do recall seeing Tarot cards, seeing spell books. I remember her going to psychics. She was very open spiritually, and I don’t think that comes from a dark place or anything like that, but that kind of shows the kind of spiritual upbringing I had. We certainly didn’t pray over dinner or do any of the kind of things we associate with Christianity in the household. There was a little crucifix above my bed from when I was baptized. Like most Catholics and Lutherans, I was baptized as a child, but that was kind of it. It kind of becomes a point of celebration, and you get together on holidays and you go to Mass,

And I would say that religion in our family was very strong, but the strongest place that it was was with my Italian Nonna, as I mentioned. The house that she lived in was full of images of Jesus, primarily. There were pictures of the saints. There were rosaries. There were Bibles. There were prayer books. There were pictures of church. It was very important to her, and she lived a very—and she still does—live a very strong spiritual in a Christian sense life. But English isn’t her first language. She spent most of her time taking care of us, and she didn’t kind of force it on anybody. It was kind of just her thing. And I remember going through my childhood seeing all these beautiful pictures on the wall, and it was almost like I didn’t see them. They were there, and I know that they were there, but I didn’t know whose faces belonged to the pictures. So when I came back as an adult and a Christian, it was just such a light bulb moment, where all of a sudden I go, “Nonna, that’s St. Anne. That’s St. Rita. That’s Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane,” that beautiful picture that looked over my bed when I stayed there. And they were beautiful works of art to me, but if anything, they were just boring old people things to me back then. The faith certainly wasn’t alive in my family. And I didn’t really even go to church on any regular basis until Confirmation rolled around, and my father had moved back from Florida and started taking me on Sundays.

So even your father had some kind of appreciation for the Catholic Church or for confirmation obviously. There was no animosity towards God. 

Oh. Absolutely not. No. I would say my father does believe, and strongly so. he certainly understood the need to go to church, I mean especially in the Italian culture. My actual godfather was my confirmation sponsor. It’s not just a movie stereotype. Your godfather is a part of your life, spiritually speaking.

Yes. So through all that time, Christmas, Easters, Confirmation, did you ever believe any of what you were being taught in any kind of personal way? Or was it just going through the motions of expectations? 

It was really going through the motions. I didn’t really talk too much about what started me on this, what kind of immunized me to receiving any of these messages. Because even on Christmas and Easter, you read from the Bible at Mass. I mean, you hear the word of God, but I zone out. I mean, it’s not something that struck me as important.  If you understand what confirmation is, I believe it’s from Acts 18 in the Bible, that’s when you really are supposed to be saying yes to God, at least in the Catholic faith. And I mean, I said it, but I said it because my parents wanted to throw a party for me after. And I wouldn’t say otherwise, of course, not to disrespect them or to destroy their expectations, but it really didn’t mean anything to me. I mean, Catholicism to me was something to mock. I was growing up was the time when we started hearing the allegations of the absolute terrible pedophilia scandals going on. So what you would think of the entire faith was just completely and utterly…. There was just no chance of me respecting it.

Yeah. I would imagine, especially as you were getting into your preteen, teenage years, around that time, it was probably a little bit of an approach avoidance, I would imagine, especially with that scandal and not really thinking or taking things personally in the faith to begin with and the cultural animosity, all of those things kind of brewing together. And you mentioned something about your friends earlier. Did your friends embrace Catholicism? Or were they mocking? Or what was going on there? 

When you say cultural animosity, I think you hit the nail on the head of the experience of a child being raised in Southbridge, Massachusetts, in the nineties. And I would say that’s probably true of a lot of places in Massachusetts, from what I was aware of. It’s funny, I heard an interview with somebody who was raised in the Bible Belt, saying, “Well, here in America, we still have respect for Christ,” and that certainly wasn’t the case where I grew up. Gosh, everything from the voices that I heard on the radio to things that I saw on TV to the books that I read were all steeped heavily against Jesus. I’m sure many of your viewers will be familiar with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Absolute classic. But that book starts off with an absolute indictment of God. It’s a parody. the book starts off with an overview of the universe. It goes, “In the beginning, God created the universe, and everyone mostly agreed that that was a bad idea,” and then it quickly goes into God having an argument with somebody about why he even bothered creating them, and he disappears in, quote, “A puff of logic.” So these are the kind of voices that are in my young mind growing up, that God is incompatible with logic and reason, that it’s a book of these…. And this is when the New Atheist movement was in full swing. I mean, you hear these things about faith being belief despite the evidence from popular celebrities at the time. I listened to a lot of rock  music, and I will tell you that folks like Marilyn Manson and Slipknot were certainly not friends of the faith.

And I would say that, even at a very young age, one of the experiences that I will never forget and I really do think started to just knock things loose in my mind about what I would think about Christianity. It was second, third grade, and none of my friends believed in Christianity, as far as I’m aware. I didn’t know a single person who was a practicing Christian. We certainly had folks who would also go to Mass on Christmas and Easter and who would even go to CCD class and things like that to make their sacraments. But I remember the conversation about Santa quickly shifting to Christ, because it was kind of like a: “Santa’s not real. Of course he’s not real. It’s your parents putting gifts out for you.” And then people would start talking about, “Well, what else is real? What else is not real?” And of course Jesus is going to come up. So I remember somebody at our table, our lunch table. I can see it in my mind, and I know this sounds unbelievable, but I would say depraved is a very good word for the kind of conversation you would have around the lunch table.

And I remember one of the kids, popular guy, said something along the lines of, “Well, no. It’s all made up, obviously. None of that stuff happens in real life. The Virgin Mary, she either cheated on Joseph, or she was raped, and she had to make up a story so she didn’t get stoned to death.” And it’s so crazy because I think that maybe something in some of those other kids at the table, and it’s so awful to say these words, by the way, it really hurts to even say them. But I think even they felt scandalized because I don’t remember anyone saying anything, but I remember a lot of people nodding. Certainly nobody said, “Oh, no! That’s not true. This is real. No. I know it’s real.” Even if it was just, “Well, Mom and Dad say it’s true, and I know it’s true.” None of that happened. And that kind of just gets deep into your psyche when you hear things like that from a young age, especially when it goes completely unopposed by any reason to believe in any of that stuff.

I mean, my catechesis going around that age, going to CCD classes once a week. It’s not exactly like…. If you’re not hearing the faith at home, you’re certainly not going to learn it in one-hour segments with a priest on a seasonal basis. My questions were never answered in a sufficient way. You’re left with these questions that just make Christianity look awful, look fake. I could go on and on, but culturally, that animosity is definitely real, and there’s certainly no incentive for… I mean, why would you believe in it if that’s all you’re hearing?

Right, right. And so I guess during those teenage years, then, you pushed back from any kind of Christian or Catholic identity? 

Yeah. Yeah. In both cases, especially because that was…. As things started to heat up in terms of dialogue in the United States and especially with respect to things like gay marriage, we would see the media turn especially hard against now a faith that we were seeing exposed as having a lot of horrible secrets in terms of these pedophile scandals and talking about things like gay marriage. And the Westboro Baptist Church was ubiquitous on the news for very hateful stances, not only just toward gay people, but toward veterans, toward people of other religions, toward Jewish people. So when you thought about Christians, you didn’t think about much except ignorance and hatred.

Yeah. That’s a tough bill to sell, isn’t it? You don’t want to be a part of something that has so much negativity circling around it. And I would imagine, too, you were questioning whether or not He was even real, much less good. So walk us on from there. Did you outright reject it? Did you just say, “I don’t know.” How did you-

It’s funny, you hear a lot of conversations sometimes when you hear debates between Christians and atheists. A lot of times you hear the Christians pose the question to the atheists, “Would you want this to be real?” And some atheists will say, especially some of the louder ones. I think Ricky Gervais is one who would say something like, “If God was real, I’d punch Him in the nose for being so evil.” But you have others who I feel like are more honest, and they say, “Well, if an all-loving God who would make me happy for all eternity existed, of course I would want that to be real.”

So I think a deep part of me did want it to be true, not only just to please my family, who I’ve already had a contentious relationship with, in the sense of the divorce going on and just a lot of friction that would happen in that sense. So when I went to college, there were a few times that I went to church to try to see, “Is this for me?” I was a young adult. I didn’t have anything else to do. I was kind of nerd, so I wasn’t exactly getting invited to a lot of parties. I mean, I did end up going to quite a few over time, but I would go. And here’s the thing: It’s the Northeast Catholic experience. You go to church, and there’s one person there, and they’re probably in their eighties, and I’d go alone. And what I would hear being said—again, the backdrop is the US, and a lot of social turns going on. The priests would preach on things like gay marriage, and if that’s your experience going into a church, hearing the hellfire, but not hearing the love, it just reconfirms what I heard from all these media sources. They’re hateful.

I mean I understand things in a very different context now, of course. I could speak to that. But for somebody just wandering in and not knowing what’s going on, it was strange. And so, in college, it took a deeper turn, probably even further away from faith. And I think I deeply wanted it to be true, and I wandered in every now and then, maybe seeking comfort or something. But I would do pranks. I would start doing things that—I was a comedic genius. So I would see a sign that says Keep Christ in Christmas, and I’d peel off the T, so it said keep Chris in Christmas. And I would say, “Hey, Chris, look!” And I’d do stupid things like that. Or I’d write…. Gosh, they were quotes from like Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and this is probably a little bit more disrespectful and quite frankly evil, disrespecting Christianity, talking about how it’s false, and writing those quotes on the Facebook page under anonymous accounts and things like that. Trying to do everything… Or posting what we would say, the dark parts of the Bible, Some parts of the Old Testament, where we read about some of the wars between the Jews and the other tribes, and there were some very descriptive passages concerning the warfare going on, and it would just make it seem so awful, and I’d loudly trumpet those.

So it wasn’t just that you were not believing, you were actually becoming active about becoming one of those who held animosity and mocking as well? 

And you know what the most bizarre thing is? And I feel like this is actually pretty common among people in my generation. The spiritual-but-not-religious thing was there, the kind of agnostic, the kind of, “Oh, yeah. I’m open to these things. I’ll watch Ghost Adventures on TV. I’ll do a Ouija board. I think there are ghosts and demons haunting my college,” without ever realizing the natural implications of the idea that if there are demons, certainly there’s something , but you’d hear about those, and I would never make the connection. “Oh, yeah. Demons definitely exist. There’s definitely these weird ghost hunting videos, but God? No. Definitely not!”

No, that’s boring. That’s stuff for hateful people. That’s Bronze Age fairy tale, as they used to say. And made up by a bunch of goat herders a long time ago just to explain the world around them.

So you lived in this place of some form of rejection of this traditional, conservative, very unappealing form of belief. How long did you live in that place? And what allowed you to reconsider your thinking? 

That is a really great question, because I would say I can see little drops of it as I went along my experience, where I would find myself almost—for example, once I left college and my wife and I moved to Vermont at one point, I knew somebody who converted to Christianity, somebody who was also deeply agnostic, deeply spiritual, but not religious. And he wrote a book about how he had. And I like writing, and I edit books on occasion. And he sent it to me. And all I could do after reading that was kind of mock his faith and disrespect him and say, “Oh, this doesn’t make sense,” where his journey was definitely leading him to Christ, but I just didn’t believe any of it. And as I went on my journey, though, it’s funny, I went from that to suddenly there were moments where I would find myself maybe defending the Christian worldview because I saw how maybe inconsistent the way that people treated Christians were.

My wife was taking college classes on the side at a college in Vermont. And I remember at one time there was an assignment, and it was an online class, and the professor asked them to discuss and compare mythologies, and these mythologies would be Greek and Egyptian and Norse and Christian, and there were Christians in that class.

And one of the other sources—I don’t know. Some of your viewers may be familiar with him, even some people who are just completely secular. There’s a guy named Dave Ramsey, a popular financial coach, and my wife and I were on our own completely, we needed to shore up our finances.

And at the very end of Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace program, and a lot of times, he cites the Bible throughout it and some basic financial principles about lending and things like that. There’s a bonus episode, and if you watch the bonus episode, and we did, because we had nothing else to do, he implores the viewers to just pick up the Bible if any of it resonated with them.

So my wife and I went and bought a Bible, and that was what really started to open my mind, and we started to try to read it together just like any other book. And unfortunately, again, that cultural animosity—I love those words—really came to me again because we would read stuff like Leviticus, and Leviticus would seem like it’s condemning, depending on who you listen to, lifestyles and people, instead of understanding it in the proper context that it was meant for back then. And, my goodness, it brought me right back to my childhood again. This is all just empty. This is just people trying to moralize. This is people trying to be, “I’m superior to other people because I read this book and I go to church once every few months.”

There’s a quote, and I’m going to bring it up now because I think it’s maybe the most important quote to me these days, and throughout this entire experience of converting, and it’s from C.S. Lewis. In terms of how I relate to the Bible: “Christianity, if false…” is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, but the one thing it cannot be is moderately important.” But everybody in my life up until this point treated it as moderately important. “Yeah, we go to church.” But to a young mind who’s skeptical of things and who’s trying to understand the world around him, I’m studying things in school. I’m trying to understand things. Why, logically speaking, if you believe that there is a God of the universe who numbered every hair on your head, why would you go to church once every six months or so? I mean, that just seems like a waste of time, because if you care about Him, if He’s real, certainly you would be giving your whole life to Him. But if, you know, what is the point otherwise? Why not just own up to it? Don’t go to church if it’s not a thing. And anyway, so that was kind of my experience up until then.

And then I read the Bible and to me, yeah, it’s just moderately important. It’s nothing. These are just people who want to moralize others. But since reading the Bible, at least, and seeing people like Dave Ramsey, who’s probably one of the first sincere Christians I’ve ever seen in media. . . gears started to move here. Well, I can’t just say, “Christians disrespect these people, so I’m going to go with these people. I’m going to protect those people from the evil Christians,” but then see somebody else going after a Christian and not say, “Hey, wait. Leave them alone. You can’t call their faith mythology.” So things started to change a little bit.

Yeah, that is interesting because, again, it seemed like a bit of dissonance going on there because you’re reading the Bible and feeling it’s pulling back those negative emotions of, “This is just moralizing text,” but yet you see a counterbalance with an authentic Christian in Dave Ramsey,

And it feels like two sides of a coin that don’t seem to be able to reconcile, at least at that time. But yet you were willing to contend for its viability, or respecting a Christian and their beliefs as more than mythology. So it does feel like you’re kind of wavering a little bit, going back and forth, trying to navigate these waters of what this really is. 

Yeah. It was definitely a back and forth is a good word for it, I certainly didn’t as a child, which is kind of crazy when you come to know authentic Bible reading, Bible believing Christians, because, again, if it’s important, why wouldn’t you? Even if it is a hard book to read? And it started coming crashing down again, to the point where we just rejected it. I remember a couple of times in that early period of us—and I was recently out of law school.

But maybe I chose a bad day because I walk in the door. My experience is this: They give us a $50 gift card to go get coffee, which okay, like, “Nice gesture, I love coffee, but, it seemed a little weird. And then we go in, and there’s an issue. And I loved the worship part. I love the music. Beautiful. Cool stuff, seeing all these people who are raising their hands, and there was something there that I admired and something that I just couldn’t understand, because I never felt that way before. But there was an issue with the projector, and the pastor started yelling at the projectionist, and it actually sounded like he threatened him, like he was going to harm him. Not only that, but the sermon, almost the entirety of the sermon was: One, you need to give more money because we’re not going to be able to keep our doors open. Two, you need to fast, because God spoke to me and says, “You in the crowd need to fast,” and now granted I believe some people hear the voice of God, not only just through reading the Bible, but I think sometimes that still, small voice is there. But as somebody who has no belief whatsoever, when you go in and somebody gives you a card to stay,  then tells you to give them money, then tells you that God told them to do something. “Don’t eat food. God told me that you can’t eat tonight.” My wife and I didn’t go back for a while, and we stopped reading those Bibles. And that led to, I would say, maybe the deepest period of atheism that I ever experienced, where I just said, “That’s it. I have no desire to go to church after that.”

So you adopted an atheist identity, then. I mean, you came to a place where you basically confirmed, at least for yourself, that God does not exist, could not exist, in light of all of these things we’re observing about people who portray God or Christianity in such an off putting way. So then of course you’re no longer— I get the sense that Christianity is infinitely important for you now. So how did you make that turn or that change? 

So my wife and I were married. We were married actually about a year into law school at that point. But if it gives you a sense of where we were religiously at that point, we have our vows. I actually have them in a little scrapbook over here. And my wife and I, when we were writing them, we made sure to scrub all references to God, because what did God do for us? I mean, the only people who were ever real to each other in our lives at that point were each other.

So we had written God off, and we were in our marriage, we were happy with each other. And my wife had the instincts and the desire to become a mother. Thank God she did. And eventually kind of broke me down on that, where I wasn’t going to live a life of playing video games and reading books. We’re going to at least try to have at least one kid.

And that prompted questions for me, deep questions, because suddenly I’m reflecting on this crazy ride I’ve had growing up and having these weird, bad family relationships, having this kind of inconsistent faith, and I thought about my family, and I thought about, “What are they going to think of us having a kid? They didn’t even approve of us getting married. Are we going to get our kids baptized?” And that brought on other questions, too, because suddenly I’m not just responsible for finding out what I believe about the universe. I have to convey that to a child. That’s a big deal to me.

The whole reason that things like the pedophilia scandal are important to me is because, deep down, and we could go into the moral argument of C.S. Lewis, but children are a big deal, and the idea of being responsible for somebody’s upbringing, both moral and intellectual, it raised the question, “What do I teach them about religion, and specifically Christianity?” So that was where things started to turn and got interesting, so to speak.

So how did you start to answer those questions, those big questions of what you thought about belief in God and Christianity and whether or not you were going to baptize your child, or all of that? 

Research. I was a lawyer. I mean, I wasn’t a practicing lawyer. I did practice, but I eventually started working for the government,

I did what any millennial would do. There’s Google. And initially my search was quite frustrated. I kept searching for things like Christian scientists, Christian celebrities, and probably because of the way the search results are stacked, I know the number of intellectuals who have shaped the world as we know it who had the Christian faith. But back then, I couldn’t find a single one.

So I did the second thing that Millennials like, and that’s podcasts, and I was surprised to find that there’s quite a few interesting ones. The work that I was doing, while it was difficult, I could do it without thinking too much, so I could listen to podcasts. there was one called The Daily Audio Bible, I started listening to it because I was like, “How can I write this off and tell a kid, ‘Oh, yeah, this isn’t true,’ if I haven’t even listened to the dang Bible?” So I started listening to that. I started listening to Bad Christian, which, strangely, was with a band I used to love when I was a child. I was into a lot of crazy emo and screamo work. I actually really enjoyed their stuff, and I was just kind of like starting to come to respect some of these people. These were people I listened to. And I found out, surprisingly, a lot of people into metal music are into Christianity.

And that really resonated with me spiritually at the time, because I was going through a lot of dark stuff. I was going to therapy, and I learned that as a child through some therapy about some repressed memories, there was some serious abuse going on, and that was really hard to confront. You’re with some of the darker emotions that you can feel.

So while I’m going on an intellectual journey, I’m reading the Bible, I’m also spiritually starting to say, “This angst that I feel was felt by somebody 2000 years ago,” and I will say this is when the intellectual stuff coming in, too. Like I said, I was a lawyer. I wanted to know what’s the evidence. There’s other podcasts on there, and one of them, quite fortunately titled, is called Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig. There’s Unbelievable with Justin Brierley, which I actually recently was on, and that’s a debate show. And what is more appealing to an American lawyer than two people arguing? So this is kind of where I’m starting to go with this.

So you were open to the evidence, wherever that led, or the arguments for the Christian worldview. You were willing to consider both sides. You were actively pursuing something, pursuing truth. What were you finding? As you were that lawyer in you who was debating both sides of the issue probably in your mind, what were you finding in terms of where was the evidence landing for you? 

Well, here’s the thing: That’s where the objections started coming up, and they started coming up hard, because in my mind I’m hearing those voices from people like Christopher Hitchens and Dawkins and all these books that I’ve read, and I’m thinking, “Okay. There’s no evidence for Christianity,” but then suddenly I hear voices like Cold Case Christianity with Jay Warner Wallace, who’s a former cold case homicide detective, who says, speaking directly to me, who had just gone through evidence classes, “Well, what is evidence? Evidence is anything, anything that raises the probability that a truth claim or an argument is true.” So people say, “Oh, yeah. There’s no video of Jesus Christ being crucified and rising from the dead,” but of course there isn’t. I’ve been through trials. Even in today’s day, it’s very rare that you have a video of the murder or something happening. It’s always… and it’s funny, you watch TV shows, and they talk about circumstantial evidence like that’s a bad thing. Circumstantial evidence is how the majority of court cases are decided. Testimony is the most common form of evidence.

And suddenly this starts to… I’m listening to Jay Warner Wallace talking about that, and I’m like, “Yeah, that makes sense to me. I’m trained as a lawyer. This is how we decide things.” I’m listening to debates on Unbelievable between people of different worldviews, not just Christianity and non Christians.

I started hearing these arguments, and I found myself impressed by Christians, and surprisingly so. And I also at the same time felt kind of betrayed by the church that I grew up in or by people who never taught me this stuff, because I didn’t know Aquinas’s 5 ways to God, that there were proofs of God. Blew my mind when I suddenly heard, “Oh, my gosh! There’s a Kalam’s cosmological argument for God that is not only just used by Christians, but by Muslims as well!” The idea that something can’t come from nothing. You can extrapolate that to a deep philosophical proof that I had to either stop working or turn off the podcast because I can’t listen to quantum mechanics and how that interacts with philosophy and properly do my job. So I felt stupid. And I don’t often feel stupid, and I don’t want to say that to toot my own horn. I’m not an arrogant person. My wife is ten times smarter than me, I’ll tell you that. And I’m not just saying that, so I’m not in the doghouse tonight. She is a brilliant woman.

But all of a sudden I’m like, “Wait a second. These people, these Christians who I was raised to believe they believe in the Bible because they were raised with it. They don’t know anything better. They reject evolution.” Turns out not all Christians do. ‘They reject all these scientific principles that I came to accept.’ And I’m not saying some of that in a derogatory way. I’m saying some of them have very good reasons to believe why they believed. And they should. I mean, it’s what? 1 Peter 3:15 or something like that, “Have a good reason to believe what you believe.” And anyway, so this is getting more intense, this search, for me. But while this search is getting more intense, something kind of hard happened, and I don’t know if you want me to go into that, but I can.

Yes. What else happened? Yeah. 

So, almost as if, while I’m starting to have hope that these arguments for Christianity might actually be good. And I will say that not every debate I listened to I sided with the Christian. There was many where I said, “Ah, that Christian was kind of just talking nonsense and just saying, ‘Well, the Bible says it’s true,’” which is what I always believed Christians did. But some of them genuinely had things I never considered before, like the fine tuning argument.

Well, meanwhile, hardship starts to strike again in my life and while going through some dark things in therapy, my wife and I, we’re not conceiving. I mean, we’re trying to have a kid, and it’s just not happening. And there are a lot of people out there who are probably going to hear this, who have been through infertility or maybe still are and never come out of that. It’s really hard on you emotionally, even as me, as somebody who didn’t want to have a child, it really broke my heart. And seeing my wife just disappointed month after month, just knowing that this future that we had kind of planned for ourselves just wasn’t coming.

It was absolutely devastating for my relationship, for my idea that maybe there is a God Who cares about us, because obviously, to the uninitiated, you often hear people say, “Oh, that bad thing happened. Well, where was God? Oh, you’re infertile. Why doesn’t God fix that?” I mean, it’s in the Bible. So much of the Old Testament deals with people who couldn’t have children. And so it’s going both ways. It’s interesting, my wife’s searching Pinterest boards and things like that for infertility resources, and you find Bible verses about God making your life fruitful, and it wasn’t happening to us, What did I do to deserve this kind of thing?

So you were in a difficult time emotionally, but it sounds like it pushed you away from God. All the while, you were perhaps being positively impressed or challenged by the Christian worldview, by intellectually astute people. So it sounds like your head and your heart were almost conflicted at this point. 

It was a battle. This is when I started to pray. And this is like the prayers of an idiot who never read anything about Christianity and still had that genie mindset. “God, well, if You’re real, why don’t You just reveal yourself to me? You knocked Paul off that horse. Why don’t you knock me off that horse? Strike me with lightning. Do something here. I’m reaching out. Where are You?” And I wasn’t getting anything. “God, if You’re real, why don’t you just make my wife pregnant? Show me that You’re real tomorrow.” And these are now, I understand selfish, immature, not real Christian prayers, but to somebody who doesn’t understand Christianity, they sound right. And I’m like, “Okay, well, if God is real, He wants me to believe in him, right? So where is He?” And that’s getting more intense. And I’m starting to kind of bring my wife along for the ride, because obviously she’s stuck in the same house with me. She certainly wasn’t having it. I bought her a planner once. I remember we were talking about this. It had Bible verses in it. Just to see if I could get her kind of interested. She’s like, “Why did you buy this for me? I don’t want this. Where’s God in our walk with life?”

But she loves me. Somehow. She got me—we love books, too, so we love books. We love each other. We’re the Barnes & Noble one night, and there’s a bargain section. She gets me a book. It’s called Letters to an Atheist by Peter Kreeft. And she knew all the stuff that I was interested in. Now, Peter Kreeft, for those of you who don’t know, is, at least in my opinion, one of the smartest theologians of this era. And I read this book because my wife handed to me and said, “This sounds like you.” So I start reading it, and it’s a brilliant book in the sense that it’s addressed to an imaginary atheist in order to address the many questions: Why is there evil? Things like that, that were really deep to me. And I was reading this book, and it was late at night. And I remember—you have these moments in your journey that kind of stand out to you.

And I remember my wife—she never slept well to begin with, and during what we were going through, emotionally speaking, she was kept up late at night, and I didn’t even care if she was awake or not. I started shaking her because sometimes I would talk her to sleep because, as you

can tell, I talk a lot, and it helps people to get to sleep. You can always market this podcast after as a sleep aid if you’d like. But I told her, “I think it might be real.” I was reading the argument about the apostles and what motivated them, and I’ve already heard this a little bit from Cold Case Christianity, defending the historicity of the Bible and comparing it to other documents in the ancient world and saying, “No, this is extremely well attested stuff.” And as J. Warner Wallace put it, there’s only a few motives for people to lie or to do things, both criminally speaking and almost anything else. It’s money, it’s power, it’s sex, it’s pride.

I mean, there’s a few others, but Peter Kreeft wove this into the lives of the apostles and the Resurrection and whether or not the Resurrection was fake. Did they hide the body of Jesus? Did they make up a religion, as so many people had told me, that, “Oh, yeah, they just made it up because they wanted to earn money. It’s to control you. These governments made up Christianity to keep people in line.” But you’re reading the lives of the apostles, the martyrology of them, and they died. All of them went to their death. Did they have money to gain? Did they have power to gain? Did they have sex to gain? Absolutely not. These were, some of them celibate Jews who knew that they were preaching against the most powerful empire on earth, possibly even throughout history, one of the strongest empires. They were speaking against their own religion. And why? What did they have to gain from that? They knew Jesus personally.

And I know some people that are Jesus mythicists out there. I will tell you. Look at books like Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. There’s a lot of fantastic books just showing that it’s just a silly hypothesis at this point. He was somebody Who lived, and I accepted that. There was a guy named Jesus, and these apostles clearly knew Him. Somebody was writing about it, enough that we have the documents today, better preserved than most other documents throughout history. And they all died. I mean, if you put a gun to my head at that point in my life and said, “Is Jesus real?” I would have said, “No. Please don’t shoot me.” But they didn’t. They were crucified, upside down in Peter’s case. They were thrown to the lions happily, and I’m shaking my wife, and I’m saying, “This makes sense to me.” And Peter Kreeft concluded the chapter with, of course, the trilemma.

There’s either three possibilities: He’s a lunatic, He’s crazy, and people are believing Him for some reason, but why would they believe a lunatic? I mean, why would they go to their death for someone who showed signs of craziness? He was a liar. He was making it up, again for money, power. What motive did He have to lie? Or He was the Lord. And man, that struck me, and I get chills just saying that, because I remember staying in that bed and just like, “Wow! What an argument, and I finished that book that night. Of course! You’ve got to keep going.

And at the back of the book, Peter Kreeft, despite being a very well-known speaker and apologist, said, “If you have any questions, here’s my email,” and I took him up on that. So a lot of times when people ask me these days, “How did you become a Christian?” Well, I lost a debate. I emailed him with some objections.

Oh, yeah. So you came to a place where you could no longer refuse what actually made sense intellectually? 

Yeah. I sent Peter Kreeft my email, and I asked him right off the bat, I said, “Hey, I have some questions. I know you’re probably busy, but could you answer them? You did such a good job,” and nobody else—I literally was asking professors in college that I knew said they were Catholic, but they didn’t have anything for me. They had no idea. Or Christians, even just Protestants. And very few people had any answers for me. Gosh, there was even a woman at work who had a cross necklace, and she was a very devout believer. Again, I didn’t know any growing up, so whenever I met one, it was something of an oddity. You’d be like, “You really believe in this stuff.” And she’s still a friend to this day. Wonderful woman. And so, and that’s a note, by the way, for any Christians out there. If you ever wonder whether or not you should be wearing crosses around your neck and things like that, it might help somebody, because I asked her about her faith, and she helped me a little bit later on.

Anyway. Yeah, Peter Kreeft, his response to me when I asked him if I could ask him questions was, “Yeah, of course! And if you have questions that Christianity can’t answer,” “You shouldn’t believe it.” I said, “What? You’re saying that if I have a question for you, and you can’t answer it, I shouldn’t believe in Christianity?” I’m like, “Well, game on, buddy!”

So I took him up on that. I was kind of arrogant. I’m like, “Okay, I’ve got some hard ones for you.” And, I mean, there were things, again, problem of evil. Why do all these churches disagree? And I was just blown away by his confidence there. This wasn’t a guy giving me $50 to coffee and saying, “Come to my church, and I’ll give you coffee money.” This was a guy saying, “I got nothing to lose. Christianity’s got all the answers,” and I’m like, “All right,” and by the end of that email chain, I said, “Okay. I believe it. I’ll go to church eventually,”

It was enough to convince you. 

Yeah. It led me to my next step.

Yes. Which was? 

A real prayer. Not a, “Gimme, gimme” prayer, not a, “God, where are You? Where’s Your Name in the stars?” prayer. A, “I am convinced, intellectually, God, that You exist. You don’t have to do anything for me, because You already did. You died on a cross for me, and I love You. Thank You for showing Yourself to me. I’ve been asking You all this time, and I kind of had to meet You. You left these crumbs for me, and I see that this is Your way of approaching me. Gosh, infinitely powerful God, arranging things providentially, so that I come upon these books. I mean, how else could it be?” So I prayed and I said, “God, I don’t care. You don’t have to make my wife pregnant. You don’t have to appear to me in a beam of light and say, ‘Here I am. Ask me questions.’ I really think you’re real, and I’m going to believe in you no matter what,” and so this was over a year in our journey, my wife and I. There was a lot going on that week, and it was really hard, I would say, because we had already come to terms with the fact that we weren’t having a kid. I was going to an adoption conference the very next week. I know this all sounds very crazy, but, I mean, we had an IVF appointment that Monday morning. I was praying on a Sunday. Obviously, we weren’t going to church because we didn’t really know where to start. And my wife wasn’t exactly along for the ride at that point either.

And that very night, we had a big fight, right after I prayed, my wife was devastated. And I don’t blame her. I mean, she was kind of like, “How can you still have hope? I just want to have your kids. Is that really so much to ask? I just want to be a mother,” and she went to bed in tears. It was a really rough time for us.

So that was a big moment. I was Christian, she wasn’t, and there was a lot going on for us in the background.

So obviously you have four children, and so your infertility issues were resolved in some way. But I also wonder, your wife, who was perhaps not initially accepting of your faith, did she come to believe as with you? 

There’s a quote I really love. And this is from a completely unrelated topic. It’s from, gosh, John Green, The Fault in our Stars, a fiction book, terribly depressing, beautiful book about cancer. But the quote is, I think, something along the lines of this: “I fell in love like falling asleep, slowly at first, and then all at once.” It’s just a beautiful quote about how sometimes these things happen, where we kind of edge into them. I think that describes my faith, but I think it describes her even better because of what happened.

So the next day, instead of me shaking her awake and saying, “Hey, I think I believe in God,” which was a couple of months prior at that point. She woke me up, and she was just…. Okay, one, she doesn’t do that. Two, it was 4:00 in the morning, so it had to be good, right? Or bad. One of those two things. And I will never forget it. And she said, “I’m pregnant.” This is the unbelievable part, right? And she, in her hand, of course, over the bed is the pregnancy test, and it says she’s pregnant. And so there’s all sorts of questions here, right? Like, one, why is it 4:00 AM? Two, why are you testing? We weren’t even, at that point, believing that we could be capable of that. I still have the picture of her sitting in the bathroom.

Both of us are bawling our eyes out, as I almost am right now, with this test in our hands that says positive. I was just celebrating. I was ecstatic. I was like, “Really?” I didn’t believe it. We were going to take three more of those that morning. So over time, we start, and it’s funny, the first time I ever prayed with her, and it’s still hard. I mean, we’re still atheist growing up, so it’s still weird, but the first time I ever prayed with her was the night before we went in to have our son Ronan. And she obviously is this first-time mom about to give birth. I mean, gosh, I would be terrified, too! So we said a prayer together, and at that point you really couldn’t ignore it. Slowly but gradually. And then I remember when I sent that email to Peter Kreeft much later, with those kids, I said, “As I write this to you, there’s a Bible by my wife’s bed stand. There’s Mere Christianity, there’s Screwtape Letters, there’s a stack. And I would have never believed this could have been her. So she is probably even more…. She helps my faith these days, not the other way around. She believes, and when my son was born, and I was holding him in my arms for the first time.

I said, “Ronan, welcome to the world,” and I just pray and I say, “Thank You, God. Thank You. And I will raise him to know about You, and I will do everything I can. Please use me, use my family to spread this through the world in whatever little ways You can,” because what else can I offer? I mean, He’s God. He has everything He wants, but I can give Him my free will. And to this day, I’m trying apologetics, I hope that I can reach people.

Yeah. I’m just so overwhelmed by your story. And it takes me back to that time where you, just at the thought of having children, wondering what to teach whoever this child or children were going to be, and being willing to ask the big questions, being willing to go on a path of discovery, a journey of searching. And it had twists and turns, but look at where you landed. I think God honored your journey. Obviously, you are not only convinced intellectually, but you have a very palpable passion about Who it is you believe and what you believe and why you believe it and what you want to do, like you say, with your life. It’s just extraordinary, Nico. And I’m just very taken by the full arc of it, of moving from such skeptical atheism to such profound and deep belief in God. 

For someone who might be listening, and they are way back at that questioning skepticism, maybe spiritual but not religious, or even just not even imagine believing in God because of all of the awful stuff going on with the church or you name it. What would you say to someone like that? Who might be willing to take a second look. 

Two big things: One, don’t assume that you understand the objections that you’re putting out for Christianity until you’ve read the other side. Seek out debates. Unless you’ve even broached the…. You don’t have to read the Summa Theologica or whatever it’s… I don’t even know if I can pronounce that correctly. You don’t have to read Thomas Aquinas. But if you don’t understand the main arguments on which Christianity is based, don’t assume you know. At least—and this is what I’ve always said to atheists. I usually give a list of books, and I’ll say… and even stuff like C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. I mean, there’s a central reading. And I never say to an atheist, “Read this and be converted.” I say, “Read this because either you’re going to convert to Christianity, or you’re not going to be converted, but you’re going to be a better person for it. You’re going to be a smarter person for it. You’re going to be affirmed in your atheism, and you’ll understand why you don’t believe what you don’t believe.”

And so I would say read. And don’t just assume that this is all just Bronze Age fairy tales or all this craziness. Some of the smartest minds, I believe, in history were at least faithful. I mean, at least deist. Don’t write it off. Don’t look at the worst Christians, just like I wouldn’t look at the worst atheists as examples of atheists.

And I would say, number two. This is going to sound weird. And everyone’s going to look at me and be like, “Oh, yeah. Of course, the Catholic would say this.” Don’t just read the Bible. If you’re going to read the Bible, and you absolutely should. Even if you’re a committed atheist, and you will never convert, it is one of the most important works ever composed. It’s multiple works in human history. Read it with commentary. Read it. Listen to The Bible in a Year (with Fr. Mike Schmitz), where he’s going to explain some stuff to you, because there’s stuff in there that’s going to sound absolutely bizarre. You got talking donkeys. You got talking serpents. None of that’s going to make any sense to you. And you’re just going to do what people like I think Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller would say: “I’m not a Christian because I read the Bible.” “Well, sure you did,” but the Bible is a collection of works across thousands of years, written by different cultures for different audiences, with different understandings of the world in a different language. So to think that you can just pick up the Bible…. Now, granted, I do believe it’s inspired by God. The Holy Spirit is there. He will speak to you when you read it. I believe that 100%. And I will believe He leads you to truth through reading it.

There are things I discover today, seven, eight years in, and I don’t think this is ever going to stop. I used to say to myself, “We’re going to become Christians, and then we’re going to get bored, and then we’re going to be atheist.” Anything but. We’ve never stopped reading. There’s so much. I told you I used to be into sci-fi/fantasy. Now I’m into history because there’s just so much to learn, and I feel like there’s not a Sunday that goes by where I hear something that I may have heard three times before, but I’m like, “Oh, my gosh! Not only was this a callback to the Old Testament in Isaiah 22, but this also has context from the culture going on at that time.”

So my advice is twofold, again. Read, be open minded, at least try to understand what the best…. Steel man your opponents. Don’t straw man your opponents. St. Thomas Aquinas was famous for steel manning his opponents in debates before he tried to knock them down. Do the same to us. Try to knock down our arguments. Take us at our absolute best. Look at the five ways. See if you can find a way around them, because I don’t think anyone has. And actually read the Bible with a mind for being open to what it says culturally. Look into what it actually does say, and just be open minded. That’s all I would say. I’m open minded to other truth claims, too. I like reading books by atheists still. I like reading books by different denominations in Christianity. We’re made better—again, this is my lawyer speaking, in America, and this definitely—now, set aside corruption and other things like that. The best way you’re going to learn what the truth is by setting the two opposing claims against each other, and the truth always wins out. And I believe Jesus Christ is that truth. He is truth incarnate. He is the word.

Yeah. That’s powerful. I think it’s very important what you’re saying, because as you have said before, I think people dismiss Christianity out of hand without a hearing, and it is important to understand what it is you’re rejecting by giving it due diligence, without just rejecting it out of hand. So I appreciate your encouragement there. 

So for the Christian who’s listening, and they know a skeptic in their life who seems to be perhaps where you were way back when, and they want to somehow engage them in a meaningful way, what would you encourage them to do or to say? 

So much. we are in an age of hyper skepticism. So my advice is this: If you are a Christian, “Be prepared to have a reason for why you believe.”

When I teach my fifth grade class, But I would say, “Why are you Christian?” That was my first question. And so many of the answers were, “Well, because Mom and Dad told me I have to be,” and I want to teach these kids, even if their answer is, “Because I think it’s true.” Well, why? And I think that’s something that we have to be prepared to give to others, too. And it can’t simply be because the Bible says so. And I see that in online comments all the time. And as somebody who once heard those arguments, that was the worst argument. That was the one that you just wrote off  just going to say, “Oh, yeah. The Bible says it’s true.” Because as an atheist, one of the objections was often, “Well, why aren’t there other things besides the Bible?” long story short, you’ve got to be ready to explain why is the Bible a reliable source if you’re going to want to point them to that.

So for Christians out there who want to kind of bring their atheist friends along for the ride, what you can do as a Christian is knock down the obstacles, the walls that humans put up. You see it in the Bible. It says there are going to be people who don’t understand why you believe what you believe, and you need to be ready to account for that.  I’ve actually heard atheists argue to me that the Big Bang is evidence that Christianity doesn’t exist. And I think that’s absolutely hilarious, because those who actually understand it know that George Lemaitre—I don’t know if I’m pronouncing his name right—was a priest, and he was scoffed at by other scientists as trying to backdoor creation into his scientific theories.

So anyway, just be ready. prepare your teenage kids when they go onto the world, and even before that, for the challenges that they’re going to ultimately be raised with. And we can’t force them to believe. That’s one thing to always understand. You can’t force a kid to believe. In fact, if anything, that’s just going to make it worse. You can’t give them a $50 coffee gift card and say, “Come to church.” That’s not going to work. You have to convince them. And that starts in your own home, and it starts with the way you live your life. Do you act as if…. It really starts with whether or not you live out those words, that the only thing that Christianity cannot be is moderately important because it’s infinitely important. You’re going to be at church every week.

You’re going to be praying every day. You’re going to be talking to the God who knows every single thought that you have in your head, and you’re going to be living your life accordingly. If your kid—kids smell insincerity, and if they see mom going to church, but dad staying at home and watching football or playing video games or something like that, they’re not going to believe that.

So I would just say live consistently. Be ready with apologetics to the best of your ability, not to convince them, just to be able to show them, “Oh, no. There is a basis for what I believe.” And yeah, just have an understanding of why you believe what you believe. You can’t just say, “Well, why is Christianity true? Because God so loved the world that He gave His only Son.” You’re not going to win anybody over with that. I’ve seen people try. It wouldn’t have won me over. It’s not going to win anybody else over. You can’t just throw what they already don’t believe at them and hope for it to land. You have to tell them why should I believe that?

Yeah, that’s all very, very wise advice. I can tell, again, that you see Christianity as something as infinitely important and that it shows in your life. And I think your admonition to us as Christians is for us to think and feel it, live it, to breathe it, for it to be so much a part of our lives that it’s undeniable and that it’s important to us and that it’s life changing, not only that God exists, but that He matters and it makes all the difference. 

So thank you so, so much, Nico. I have loved our conversation today, and I really genuinely appreciate you coming on to tell your story. 

Keep doing the ministry that you’re doing. It’s so important in the world today. Somebody like me is going to pick up your podcast, and they’re going to listen, and hopefully they’re going to find the support that they need and they’re not finding anywhere else in their lives. So thank you for what you do. And God bless you and everybody listening. Thank you for sitting through this, even if you think I’m full of baloney.

Thanks so much, Nico. 

Thank you.

Thanks for tuning in to Side B Stories hear Nico’s story. You can find out more about Nico and the resources he recommended in this episode in our episode notes. For questions and feedback about this podcast, you can contact me through our website at www.sidebstories.com Also, if you’re a skeptic or atheist who would like to connect with one of our former atheists with questions, please contact us on our Side B Stories website, and we’ll get you connected. I hope, if you enjoyed it, that you’ll follow, rate, review, and share this podcast with your friends and social network. In the meantime, I’ll be looking forward to seeing you next time, where we’ll see how another skeptic flips the record of their life. 

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