The things we do for love: three atheists convert

This page last updated June 13th, 2016

This page in brief ….

Guillame in France, Jennifer in Texas and Kirsten in Alaska, grow into adulthood as atheists. Each of them get romantically involved with a christian who challenges them about their beliefs. All three convert, but the next part of the story doesn’t always go quite according to plan.

These are their stories, originally posted on my blog.

Guillaume Bignon

Guillaume Bignon grew up in a loving family in Paris (France), studied science and engineering and worked as a computer scientist. He played a lot of sport, and grew tall and skilful enough to play in the national volleyball league.

He was raised nominally Catholic, but says “As soon as I was old enough to tell my parents I didn’t believe any of it, I stopped going to Mass.”

Not the first life to be changed by a pretty face

In his mid twenties, he and his brother holidayed in the Caribbean where he met an attractive American girl. Unfortunately for his romantic aspirations, she was a christian and told him she didn’t believe in sex outside of marriage (“an even more problematic belief than theism, if that were possible”).

But when it comes to romance, the French apparently don’t give up easily. She returned to New York, he went back to Paris, and they began dating (must have been long distance!). He wanted to convince her that her beliefs about God and sex were mistakes, so he began marshalling his arguments.

That was my mistake, that was my mistake

He thought reading the Bible wouldn’t do any harm and might help, and he found himself wanting to understand. He even invited God to reveal himself, though he didn’t really believe anything would happen, or even really wanted anything to happen.

Then a problem with his shoulder took him out of volleyball for a while, so, with time on his hands, he decided to visit a church much like you’d visit a zoo, to see what actually happened there.

A series of long discussions with the pastor followed, in which the pastor’s worldview made more sense than his own. The last step was a growing sense of unease with a choice he had recently made which he knew was wrong. He felt God focusing light on his misdeed, and suddently he felt he understood why Jesus had to die for him.

“I placed my trust in Jesus, and asked him to forgive me in the way Scripture promised he would.”

A romantic, happy ending?

Confident that God wanted he and his girlfriend to marry now, he flew to New York, but they soon discovered they were “absolutely not meant for each other.” With time on his hands in a foreign city, he began reading about christian faith, eventually studying and completing a degree in theology, then a PhD, marrying someone else, starting a family and getting work as a Reformed Theologian at the London School of Theology.

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humour!?

Jennifer Fulwiler

Jennifer Fulwiler’s early life was full of conflicting ideas. Her father was an atheist, her mother an agnostic, but they lived in the US Bible belt in Texas, surrounded by christians. She was confronted with christianity at school, on holiday camp, among her friends, and when she attended university. Some attempts at evangelism were manipulative, though doubtless well-intentioned.

But with the support of her parents she withstood all the pressures, because she knew in her heart that christians were just believing “fairy tales to avoid facing reality”. Yet she couldn’t really connect with the atheists either, because they all “seemed to feel like life was full of purpose despite the fact that we’re all nothing more than chemical reactions”.

She, on the other hand, felt life was meaningless – how could it be otherwise if “all the significance of all great human achievements, can be reduced to some neurons firing in the human brain”? So she immersed herself in work and distractions, like drinking too much.

And then … along came Joe

A year out of college, working at a high tech company developing PHP web interfaces, Jennifer met Joe, a high achieving student with degrees from Yale, Columbia and Stanford, and now installed as a Director in the company. Despite differences in personal style (he was an “Ivy League frat boy” while she was more alternative with a “distaste for mainstream ideals”), they soon got together and started living the high life – travelling the world, eating at the finest restaurants, throwing epic parties and forging successful careers.

There was one small fly in the ointment. Joe was a christian. He didn’t attend church and didn’t allow his beliefs to affect his life too much, but he did believe in Jesus and God. They argued about it a little, but since “he didn’t practice this bizarre faith of his in any noticeable way”, it didn’t change anything much. But still she wondered:

I did not understand how someone who was perfectly capable of rational thought could believe in fairy tale stories like those of Christianity. Did he believe in Santa Claus too?

And baby makes three

A few years later, Jennifer and Joe were married, Jennifer was pregnant and then their first child was born. Motherhood made a big impression on her, and all the old questions of the meaning of life surfaced again as she pondered the future of this life she had started. Depressed and sleep-deprived, she could barely get out of bed.

She started to wonder if there could be more to life, recovered a little, and then she stumbled across a christian book in a bookstore. She found the author made respectable points, even though she couldn’t believe him. Internet searching reinforced the feeling that christianity was more respectable than she thought. What if it were actually true?

Finding truth

Then she read CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and his version of the Moral argument for God really impressed her. This was thoughtful and intelligent christianity, something she didn’t think existed. She started reading some of the historic christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas and concluded that “some of the most intelligent, reasonable people in history were Christians”.

Finally she bought a Bible, the first she’d ever owned, and started reading about Jesus. But she was frustrated because different churches interpreted things differently. Finally she and Joe concluded that the long Catholic intellectual tradition provided authoritative answers.

One last barrier remained. She was willing to believe that the evidence pointed to the truth of christianity, but why could she not experience God?

The resolution of a serious medical issue, and making her first confession provided the experience of God she sought. Later that night, as she sat out on the porch, she realised that for the first time her feeling of meaningless had gone. “For the first time, I felt the presence of God.”

Kirsten Powers

Kirsten’s father was a christian in the Episcopal church in Alaska, and her respect for him was great, so she sort of believed herself as a child. But when she was in college and he confided in her about his own doubts, she had no basis left to believe. By 20, she was wavering between atheism and agnosticism.

Heady political days

After college she worked for the administration of President Bill Clinton, and for the Democratic party. Practically everyone she knew was secular, politically leftist and atheist. Pretty much her only experience of christians was when they were in the news for being anti-gay and anti-feminist.

She began dating a guy, and a few months into their relationship he told her he was a christian. He was beginning to get serious about the relationship, and he couldn’t marry a non-christian.

She was aghast (“I derided Christians as anti-intellectual bigots who were too weak to face the reality that there is no rhyme or reason to the world.”) and told him she could never believe. But she respected him as “smart, educated, and intellectually curious”, they agreed she would keep an open mind and the relationship continued.

From respect to belief

Finally she went to church with him and heard well-known pastor Tim Keller speak, and was impressed – he was “intellectually rigorous, weaving in art and history and philosophy”. She went back week after week and heard Keller make the case for christianity and against atheism and agnosticism.

First she came to believe that neither atheism or agnosticism was the “real thing”. Then later she came to believe that “the weight of evidence was on the side of Christianity”. But she felt no connection to God, despite her boyfriend praying with her that God would reveal himself to her.

But two events changed everything. While travelling in Asia she had a very real vision of Jesus. She rang her boyfriend to discuss it, but he told her that, after prayer, he had decided he would break up the relationship.

She returned to New York, joined a Bible study group and became convinced that “It’s true. It’s completely true.”. But she still struggled for a while with “the horror of the prospect of being a devout Christian”, and the difficulty of not being politically conservative like most christians. But God won her over in the end.

Success and controversy

Kirsten has become a popular commentator on Fox News, a channel where her left-wing politics are in a minority. She has attracted some nasty criticism for her views, including her support for gay civil marriage. She says the main impact of christianity on her political views has been “I really do view everyone as God’s child and that means everyone deserves grace and respect”.

Kirsten never got back together with the boyfriend who influenced her so much. She married a surgeon in 2010 and apparently they divorced in 2013.

Kirsten remains amazed at her conversion. “Of all people surprised that I became an evangelical Christian, I’m the most surprised.”

A common theme

When I first checked out these stories, I didn’t realise that all three were influenced towards christianity by a girlfriend or boyfriend. Only one of these couples went on to marry. Make of that what you will, but I think it is interesting. I think it may happen more often than we’d first think.

But it also is obvious that all three did considerable reading and pondering the evidence before they made their decision to convert.

Photos: Guillaume Bignon, Jennifer Fulwiler, Kirsten Powers.

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