Former atheist Warren Prehmus thought he had all that life had to offer until a turn of events sparked reconsideration of what might be missing. But, the answers were not coming from a place or position that he wanted to believe. Warren found himself in a dilemma of need and belief.
Someone who had no need for God realizes perhaps, well, that he does. Not merely because of his own need, but because it was true and provided the most satisfying answers for his questions and his life.
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JH: Hello and thanks for joining in. I’m Jana Harmon and you’re listening to the Side B podcast where we listen to the other side.
In my research with 52 former atheists, one-third of them simply felt that they had no need for God. They enjoyed making their own decisions, living like freely without moral constraint. They appreciated atheism’s intellectual standing within science and the university. Their lives were generally full and happy. They didn’t see themselves as people who needed religion as a social or emotional crutch to get them by in life. Rather, they were strong, independent, courageous in answering life’s biggest questions.
When life is going well, life without God works well. When life throws a curveball – which inevitably happens to everyone – it can cause you to step back and reconsider your options your perspectives to see if they hold up, to see if they adequately address your questions. When solid answers come, you learn to accept and deal with the issues at hand. When answers seem dissatisfying, it can open you to other ways of thinking about the world, about your life, to become willing to see another point of view. Answers can start to become clear but they may not be coming from a place or position that you want to believe. What happens then?
In our story today – that’s the dilemma our former atheist faced. Someone who had no need for God realizes perhaps, well, that he does. Not merely because of his own need, but because it was true and provided the most satisfying answers for his questions and his life. Warren Prehmus was a former atheist but is now a Christian. He is a successful business owner, father, and family man. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know his daughters Courtney and Sarah, both brilliant and beautiful. And, if they are any reflection of him, which I believe they are, it is an indication that he has done something very right in his life.
JH: Welcome to The Side B Podcast, Warren!
WP: thanks glad to be here.
JH: As we’re getting started Warren, Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself ?
WP: Sure. I live in Atlanta and have a small business that’s a wealth management company with four partners including my son. So I have three children. My son is about to get married. The other two are married and each have 3 children and I have six grandchildren. I have all my life been an athlete and I still play basketball in my 60s and tennis and golf and I’m a fisherman so those are the things I spend my time doing when I’m not working at the company or playing with grandkids.
JH: Fantastic! I guess the beautiful thing about all of those sports is that you can still be outside and still enjoy them. I know for my husband, his golf game has gotten a lot better during the coronavirus for some reason because it’s an outdoor activities or something he’s been able to do. So I guess you’ve been able to still enjoy your sports.
WP: Yes. Golf and tennis from particular have been very popular. Basketball, however, is kind of on the outs. No one’s playing basketball but I tell people that if we start and you’ve got to do social distancing and stay 6 feet away from me. I’m going to score a lot of points. Yeah, that would be a good way to play basketball certainly, for sure.
JH: Well, let’s get started with your story. I’m so excited that you’re here today and I want to hear all about it but we want to start really at the beginning. I want to really understand where your atheism was formed, the context in which you grew up. So why don’t we just start there at the beginning and your childhood. Tell me a little bit about kind of the community and culture where you grew up. Was it religious at all? Was it urban? Was it rural? Tell me a little bit about that.
WP: Sure. I grew up in upstate New York out in the country about 5 miles outside of a small town of Scotia, NY and my dad was an engineer at GE. So as I was growing up, you know, my dad taught me good there is no God. God is for weak people that need a crutch and we’re strong we don’t we don’t need crutches. I loved my dad and my dad was actually was a very good dad, a very good father and so I bought into that fully. And it kind of gives you a prideful thing knowing that you’re strong while others are weak.
For instance, in the second grade when we had Christmas carols where all the parents file into the cafeteria and all the kids get up on stage and sing Christmas carols for the parents. When the religious songs were singing, I had to get down and walk down from the stands and go behind the curtain because I was not allowed to sing the religious songs. Singing about Santa Claus and Rudolph I could sing those. I sang those songs but if it was about Away in the Manger, I was not to sing. So I was definitely a little different than the other children in my little school.
There was one family down the street that were Christians and they were a lot of my best friends and I played with them all the time and really liked them. But yeah, it was too bad that they had to believe in God.
So, we did go to church to the Unitarian church and the Unitarian preacher pastor whatever they call him there he gave my father a saying that my father really liked. He told my father “I’m not an atheist. I’m an agnostic with atheistic leanings.” So my dad really liked that and so I really liked that too. When I was in the 4th grade, my brother and I rebelled against the Unitarian church and I tell people is because we felt it was too conservative for us. So it was it was Sunday morning and my mother was getting dressed and everyone’s getting ready for church my brother and I ran up in the woods and hid and my mother came out and yelled for us and we’d never came back until an hour later. And so after that we never went to church. That was our way of going obviously just as a curiosity.
JH: Why did you go to the Unitarian church if you or your family or your father were really pushing against religion or religious things at that time? That’s a little bit curious for me.
WP: Well I mean Unitarians, you can basically believe whatever you want to as long as it’s not Christian. At least that was my impression of it. And it was more of a social thing for them. They enjoyed those people because those people were mostly atheists and but they enjoyed doing the function of church for the social reasons and hearing the preacher preach about social causes and complaining about Christians.
JH: OK, well that makes sense. They were just wanting some community and there was a way to do it. Let me ask you too about that family down the street, that family there were Christians. Was there anything about that family that was attractive to you? Did their faith in any way seem to inform their lives?
WP: It definitely informed their lives and I knew that dad took a real interest in me. I could tell he really loved me and there weren’t many other dads like that so that was impactful. I’m still in touch with the that family. I was on the phone last night with one of the boys. There were four boys in that family. One of them is a pastor up in upstate New York near where we grew up. I’m still in touch with him and I really give him a lot of credit for praying me into the Kingdom because I know he did.
JH: Wow. That speaks very highly of him to have been that part of your life for that long.
WP: He was three years older than me and he kind of took me under his wing.
JH: You had this Christian father down the street and you had a father who was agnostic with atheistic leanings. I find it a little bit curious to have a father who at that time and even American culture who was atheist. Was there something that informed his atheism because he seemed to have a pretty strong resistance against religion to not even allow you to sing songs that were religious in nature.
WP: Yeah I can’t tell you for sure how he came to his beliefs but I do know that when he grew up on Long Island when he was four his father left the home to go live with his girlfriend in New York City. And he only saw him once ever again. And you know a lot of people get their view of God by their view of their father and his father was not there. In addition when his dad left, his mom moved in with her two boys into grandma’s house and when grandma add died, the church took over the house because apparently the grandma had willed the house to the church and they kicked my grandmother and my father out with their and his brother. And so their view of the church was very negative because they had kicked him out of their house. That’s how he viewed it .
JH: I can I can appreciate why he might have pushed back against God that considering his father and the way that the church treated his own family. I can see why he would want nothing to do with it ‘so thank you. I think that brings some clarity really to the context of your story. Now going back to growing up – You said that sports was a very important part of your life. I would imagine that that occupied you growing up. You were athletic. I think probably were you athletic from a young age.
WP: Yes I mean sports was really important to me. Basketball in particular kind of took over in junior high and then I was you know a really good high school basketball player and I got a scholarship to play in college. That’s what I loved to do and put all my passion and energy towards it.
JH: It sounds like you had a real full life, that it was a good life and you really had no need for God growing up that just wasn’t something that was a part of your life.
WP: Only if he could help me get better. The only reason I would have needed him.
JH: It sounds like you were pretty good on your own.
WP: I did have a good career.
JH: Did you go ahead and play basketball in college or University level?
WP: Yeah I played at the University of Vermont. I had a scholarship to play there and was a starter for four years. I ended up as the all-time leading scorer at the University so yeah I played a lot of basketball.
JH: That’s quite impressive – all-time leading scorer! Wow! So your life was going as just as well as it could be without God. There was really no need. So tell me then, what changed in your life as you are continuing along in the journey. What happened next after you got out of college?
WP: First thing that happened is in college I had college roommate for four years who was also on the basketball team and we were best buddies and until about halfway through. He got hooked in with the Campus Crusaders and he became a Christian. He stopped running with me and our friends and he started hanging out with his Christian friends and it irritated me quite a bit. We stayed roommates and we were cordial to each other and were friends but that had put up pretty serious divide between us. So that happened.
And then I met my wife in college and we got married two years out of college and then everything like you said everything was going well in my life. I got a job with GE was doing well in my career and had no need for God. And then my wife got pregnant and at 6 1/2 months along we found out we were having twins and that was very exciting for us for me. And I was about to become the most naive parent in history I think. And then two days after we found out we’re having twins I got a call in the office and had to rush home in a snowstorm and rushed her to the hospital in in the snow storm with her in the back of my hatchback yelling, “I’m having a baby!” driving to the emergency room. And the first of the twins was born you know 5 minutes after we got there and then the second one shortly after that. Ao that was a hugely emotional time and they those babies lived for a day and they died.
JH: Oh goodness. I’m so sorry.
WP: From the excitement of having twins to the pain that they died. We were very well taken care of by that hospital in New Jersey. They helped us to start the grieving process and it changed my wife’s heart. She was not an atheist. She had always gone to church and she loved church. She didn’t go to church when we were first married but she loved Bible stories and so forth. But at her church she never heard the gospel.
This emotional event turned her heart so that she wanted God. And so shortly after that she joined Bible Study Fellowship, started reading the Bible and all this. In fact during our grieving time, she kept saying that this is happened for a reason. And I hung on to that because it felt good to think that there was a reason. But if you’re an atheist, there is no reason that things happen.
So she started going to Bible Study Fellowship and I started getting hungrier just trying to figure out what’s the truth again. I knew some Christians. I knew some Jewish people. I knew some Muslims. I knew some Mormons and I had figured out that they couldn’t all be true. And, I was an atheist so I mean I just there was a hunger to figure out what the truth was. So I started reading books on comparative religions which was kind of a waste of time in retrospect because they weren’t written from a Christian perspective. But, I started reading lots of other things. The first books I ever read that mentioned Jesus in any kind of positive light were Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuler with the positive thinking books. And looking back their theology may not have been that great, but it was something for me to read where Jesus was not a cuss word.
JH: Your wife is obviously pursuing her faith perhaps that she had laid down for a while and trying to make sense of this tragedy in your life. And she started opening the Bible and reading the Bible. Now it sounds like there were some kind of curiosity for you about it in pursuing the truth. How did you feel when your wife started pursuing these things as an atheist?
WP: It was fine. She could do that. That’s fine whatever she does but I’m going to pursue my own path. I had a lot of pride and so I wasn’t paying much attention to what she was doing, honestly. I had my own internal struggle going on.
JH: You said that there was something kind of birthed in you that wanted to know what was true. Is that what was the struggle or can you describe that? Did it have something to do with pride?
WP: Well my pride was holding me back. My struggle was to find out what the truth was because there’s got to be something more. And it was, looking back, it was God just drawing me little by little towards him. So I had run across some Christians that witnessed to me and they were people I respected. And I listened to what they had to say without fighting back too hard. But, my dad was a scientist, an evolutionist and very well read and I had bought and fully into that. I was in science in school. I was a physics major and so all this God stuff was fine but you know evolution is a fact. And so that really was something that I hung on to strongly. So there was a sense of ‘religion is not factual, just blind faith or story as compared to science which is a fact.
JH: There seemed to be some kind of irreconcilability between science and belief in God in your mind at that point?
WP: Yeah, it’s basically has proven that stuff is not true. Science has proven that certainly the Bible is not true and probably there’s no God because of science.
JH: So you were wrestling with that?
WP: Yeah but I started reading a lot of books and I got into some better, theologically better books. And we had moved to Atlanta after the twins had died and we were living here for a year and a half or two years or so. And, as I was going through this struggle my wife said, you know we’re in the South kind of like the Bible belt now. We need to have a church home. And so I thought, ‘Well that’s probably a good idea.’ So we started out to try to find a church which you think about it – an atheist and maybe perhaps a baby Christian going to try to find a church – that would be an interesting thing.
JH: That would be that would be an interesting thing, but you were both basically going to support her I presume.
WP: Going to lead her, ah yeah, ‘follow me honey. I’ll find us a good church.’ OK that’s an interesting question for an atheist. Yes well some of these self-help books I had read had talked about the man being the leader of the family and so that that was what I was kind of following with that.
JH: OK so did you find a church home? Did you lead her?
WP: I did. We went to several churches and we would leave and I said, ‘Well we’re not going back there. That preacher didn’t even believe what he was talking about.’ I might have been right on some of those it seems, like I don’t know. We did go to one church, the local Baptist Church, with a preacher, I really liked him. I had known him personally outside of church but they did this terrible awful thing there at the Baptist Church. At the end of the service they sang the song and they did an altar call and that was very difficult for an atheist. And he had said something during service that I remember to this day which was ‘When the hounds of heaven get on your trail, there’s no getting him off.’ And I felt like that’s speaking to me. And so we didn’t go back to that church because of the altar call.
And finally my wife heard about a church that you could go to this class they had that taught you what the church believed and what other churches believed. And he didn’t have to join the church to go to this class it was something called an Inquirers Class and the church was Perimeter Church. So we decided we go to that class. We’ve never been to the church and we went to the class and it was Randy Pope was the pastor and the class it was a classroom. It was kind of tight there. Everyone is was shoulder to shoulder, sitting in these little desk chairs. And the first thing they did was hand out this form. You wrote your name and then the first question was ‘Are you a Christian? yes or no.’ And I didn’t want to fill that out because you could read everybody else’s paper, so very awkward.
So I put my arm across the question and put a question mark move my remove put a question mark there and then covered it up and filled out the rest of the form. And then you’re supposed to pass your paper down the row to collect them. And so mine was folded up. Everyone else’s was open and it was just really awkward. That’s where I got introduced to Randy Pope an I really liked him and I knew he believed what he was talking about. And so I didn’t even meet him directly that day, but I connected with him.
And from there we didn’t continue going to that classroom. We did start going to church periodically and the church was pretty small back then. Randy used to have the habit of he’d preach and then he’d go to the door and greet people as they would leave. And so I went to church and we were leaving and he shook my hand and I told him my name and he said, ‘Oh I’ve been meaning to get with you.’ And I knew why. He had seen the question mark, you know right? And so he said he was in the process of putting together these four booklets to help businessmen to understand what it means to be a Christian and would I be willing to meet with him? And so in my arrogance I thought, ‘Well I could probably help him out and I agreed to meet with him.
And so we started meeting at one of these inexpensive steak houses we’d go to. And the first week he gave me an assignment. I can’t believe that somebody just meet you for lunch and they give you an assignment, okay, and it’s to read the 1st three chapters in the book of John. Well, I had never read the Bible at all. I never had even touched a Bible and I didn’t want to, but he gave me this assignment. And so I didn’t want to let him down because I really liked him. I thought he was a very interesting going places guy and so I picked up, finally with great difficulty, picked up the book. It was like it was poison or something, but finally I picked it up and I started reading the book of John and I couldn’t stop.
So I read the whole book of John that week and went to meet with Randy the second week. and he said, ‘Well did he do your assignment?’ and I said ‘Well, I read the whole book of John.’ He said, ‘Oh, you were only supposed to read the 1st three chapters.’
JH: I’m curious, in reading the Bible for the first time obviously you didn’t want to but then you did. How did it meet with your expectations? It must have obviously surprised you and intrigued you to have read more than three chapters. This was in the book of John, the story of Jesus, right?
WP: Yeah and there is there was something in there that was gripping me but I was fighting that. That gripping was fighting against my pride of not believing that there was a God or that this could be true. So as it was kind of a battle going on inside of me there, but I did read it hungrily.
JH: I wonder what you thought of the person of Jesus? Reading his biography for the first time, was he like or unlike what you expected or who you expected?
WP: Well, I didn’t really know most of the stories. Now, this was all new to me and it was like ‘Well this is fantastic.’ Not in a ‘Oh, that’s great’ but it’s just ‘That could that really have happened’ and ‘That’s just so unlikely to have happened’ that I was looking at it from the outside knowing that this kind of thing does not happen. And so, that’s how I looked at Jesus.
JH: I guess the miracles that he was perhaps working or the claims that he was making especially, I guess as a scientist, it probably didn’t fit with your view of the world?
WP: That’s right, yeah. Those things cannot happen. That was my view but there was something really drawing me with reading those pages.
JH: Did it have any ring of truth to it at all or was it just like a fairy tale a good story that was incredibly intriguing and gripping?
WP: I would say more a good story that was intriguing and gripping but this can’t be true. That was my feeling at the time. I began and part of me wanted it and part of me didn’t so then we kept on meeting and the last week the assignment was to pray to receive Christ. And I told him, ‘I’m not ready’ and just ‘If there’s no God, this is just the story and I’m not going to put my faith and trust in something that’s just a story.’ So he said, ‘Okay, well, we’re done. We’re not going to meet anymore unless something else changes.’
We started going we go to church periodically and then months later I picked up a book that my probably atheist sister had given me called Mere Christianity, a book you might have heard of.
JH: Yes, I have for sure!
WP: Well, when she gave me the book she said, ‘You might want to read this book. It might make me you believe in God.’ And remember, she said that to me and I had that. It was months and months before that, maybe years. So I picked up that book one night and started reading it. And it was in February in winter time and I was lying on the couch all by myself reading this book. And CS Lewis takes you through the proofs for the existence of God and that was something that I had never heard. And he started making sense to me.
And so I put the book down just to think about it and this thought came in my head that I didn’t put there. It just kind of came in and said, ‘I’m a sinner.’ And I knew that that was the first step of the four step sinner’s prayer and that was a dangerous thought. And so, from the other side came this other thought and said, ‘Think about that later. Put it off. Think about it later.’ But it came back. ‘I’m a sinner.’ ‘Think about it later.’ And finally, I felt like I was hanging on to something with all my might and finally just let go and I went ahead and said ‘what I’d been taught with the sinner’s prayer, which was ‘I believe I’m a Sinner and I deserve to go to hell and then Jesus died for my sins and I now trust you with my life.’
I went back to reading the book but I knew that that was significant something had changed right there. I had too much pride to tell my wife about it, but like I said it’s February. We usually keep the house real cool and went to bed not too long after that. And we usually bundle up all pile up the blankets. And so, I was lying there as we got in bed with nothing covering me and I was sweating and she was all bundled up under the blankets and she leaned over looked to me and said, ‘What’s the matter with you? Must be the Holy Spirit!’ And again, I had too much pride to talk about it but I thought to myself, ‘Wow I’m going to remember that she said that.’
Yes and it so the next day, I called Randy and said, ‘Randy we need to get together for lunch.’ And he said, ‘How about a week from Thursday?’ And I said, ‘Randy, it’s got to be sooner than that.’ He said, ‘Oh, how about today?’ And so, we met that day and with great difficulty I shared with him what had gone on. And he said, ‘Well, that sounds like it’s real, but time will tell.’ So he was a bit skeptical. I don’t know if he was skeptical or I think he saw because I had tears when I was telling the story. So it wasn’t like I was faking and I know he had seen a change, but I think it was very wise on his part because what that said to me was ‘You better check that this is real’ and I think it really helped me too, to put a nail in it to say, ‘Yes, this is real.’ So it took about 2 weeks for me to be able to share with my wife, maybe a week or two weeks to be able to share with my wife what happened just because I had so much pride.
JH: I bet she was surprised!
WP: Sprobably was but she’s a pretty discerning person and she probably saw things changing. The people who were surprised wer my college roommate when I called him and the boys down the street that were Christians when I was a kid. They had been praying for me most of my life, yeah, most of my life. We had some very joyous calls.
JH: I think for them it probably really confirmed the value of prayer and never giving up on it. Really the prayer for another person, that sometimes you can see fruit bear many years later.
So it sounds like in your story Warren, you had a lot of things kind of coming together. Of course you were sparked towards this journey by personal tragedy and then your wife’s pursuit of God, but you still had those questions. But somehow those intellectual questions of God’s existence were answered through CS Lewis and the hounds of heaven who was actually seeking you, and that the Bible reading the Bible seemed to be a pivotal part of your story. All of those things were coming together so that your willingness changed to see and to find something that you were missing. What a beautiful story of everything kind of coming together over a process, over a period of time. And even though the hounds of heaven were pursuing you, there was a patience there, it seems like as well, to allow you to journey at your own pace – even from the preacher to tell that you needed your own time and space to work through some things.
WP: I think that what actually occurred figures not patience on my part but on other people’s parts. I did not want it. I did not want this to be true and fought it with everything I had. But I ran out of gas shortly after that, yeah. I was so very excited about my new faith and I wanted to tell my family and I got blasted pretty good and it didn’t go well. And the big thing was evolution and I didn’t know anything about creation science, any of that. But, by golly, I was going to learn.
And so, I finally got some books that talked about how creation is scientific and how evolution is a fraud, and that changed all that. That was another big change for me that really solidified my faith because evolution and Christianity don’t go together in my view. So after I was meeting with the pastor, I started reading lots of books and one of them that really impacted me was a book that as an atheist I read called The Battle for the Mind by a guy named Tim LaHay. It was written in the early 80s and it talked about secular humanism. And it talked about the fruits of secular humanism versus the fruits of Christianity. And I read that and I thought that’s probably true. And I did not like the fruits of what I believed and it was very difficult for me to reconcile that at that time. Then actually there was a pain there was in my chest, tightness in my chest that didn’t go away until the day that I finally submitted.
JH: So when you say there was a tightness in your chest because of the what you were reading in terms of the implications of humanism and atheism, that it was so disturbing to you that you actually felt a physical pain?
WP: Yeah, I actually felt the physical pain. It wasn’t a huge pain but it was just a little nagging thing that I didn’t even think about it but I noticed that after I become a Christian it was gone and never come back.
JH: That’s fascinating! As we as we are coming to a close, I wondered since you’ve been on both sides of the story, you know what it means to feel like and to think like an atheist and you know what that resistance is towards God or are just thinking that there’s no evidence for God. If there was a curious skeptic listening today, what would you advise them to think or to do or r to consider in terms of God or Christianity?
WP: One thing that is significant for me in that area would be to look at creation and the complexity of creation and to think, ‘How did this just happen by chance? How did the human brain become the most complicated piece of the whole universe by chance? and How did the Bombardier beetle get to be able to shoot fire at his enemies from turds that he can rotate around on either side of his body and not kill himself with the poison he’s squirting at them in his body?’ Things like that are things that the atheist has a real hard time if he’s being honest.
JH: The irreducible complexity and specificity and diversity of creation, the fine tuning of creation from the cell to the cosmos – there’s a lot there isn’t there in terms of trying to figure out how that might happen just by chance.
WP: Yeah by random mutations over billions of years. And, if you’ve got an open mind to it, it just doesn’t work and so you’re down to ‘Okay, there has to be another explanation.’ Well, that’s where God comes in. And, I find very few Christians are armed with this kind of capability to discuss. So that might be a word actually for Christians – to become informed – that it’s not a God of the gaps kind of explanation. You don’t just plug in God where you don’t know what the answer is, that the hypothesis of God for which atheists say there is no reason. To have that hypothesis is actually that we know that certain things are the way that they are because of what we do know about the universe, that God is a good or best explanation because of what we already know about experience of what we already know about intellect in the mind and language and all of those things. So there’s a lot there for us as Christians to really take hold of in terms of again speaking to Christians.
JH: I guess that’s one of the things that you would probably advise them as to become better educated in terms of the arguments for the existence of God.
WP: Yes arguments for the existence of God, for the evolution-creation debate. And the other thing is humility, that when– as an atheist speaking from the past – when an atheist runs across someone who takes an really sincere interest in them and doesn’t preach at them and tell them things but has good information, more by asking questions, that that’s to me a more effective way of opening someone’s eyes or helping to open their eyes.
JH: I guess you had that beautiful example of that loving Christian family back even as a child that you could see that they had a sincere interest in you even though you didn’t have the same beliefs. I’m sure that probably stayed with you. Obviously if you’re still talking with that friend there’s something there that started and lasted a lifetime really and helped you moved towards God even though it was in a perhaps not a blatant or overbearing way, but just out of love and humility like you say, in sincere interest. And that’s really beautiful the way that that has come full circle for you.
Thank you so much, Warren, for being on the podcast today. I think your story is really a beautiful one. You really come a long distance from where you were as a child and even as a young adult resisting God to a place where it sounds like you’ve got a beautiful legacy now and family, children, and grandchildren who all embrace God. You have wonderful life and beautiful story to really celebrate so thank you for coming on the podcast today.
WP: Thanks for having me. I enjoyed being here.