[Originally published in 2017 as Another Journey from Atheism to Christianity]
Two people recently shared with me an intriguing article written by Dr. Sarah Irving-Stonebraker, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at Western Sydney University. It is entitled, “How Oxford and Peter Singer drove me from atheism to Jesus,” and I encourage you to read it in its entirety.
While I can’t speak for Oxford University, I am safe in saying that Dr. Peter Singer would not be happy with that title. He is a fervent atheist and a champion of the idea that some human lives have little or no value. I am sure that if he learned he helped drive a fellow atheist to Jesus, he would be more than a little annoyed.
How did he accomplish it?
He gave three guest lectures at Oxford University where Dr. Irving-Stonebraker was a junior research fellow. At that time, she was an ardent atheist. She attended Dr. Singer’s lectures and was stunned by their content.
Essentially, Dr. Singer believes that atheism tells us there is no intrinsic worth to human or animal life. An organism’s worth is contingent on the cognitive abilities of that organism. As a result, there are some animals (chimpanzees, for example) that have more worth than some humans (newborn infants and mentally disabled adults, for example). Dr. Irving-Stonebraker writes:
I remember leaving Singer’s lectures with a strange intellectual vertigo; I was committed to believing that universal human value was more than just a well-meaning conceit of liberalism. But I knew from my own research in the history of European empires and their encounters with indigenous cultures, that societies have always had different conceptions of human worth, or lack thereof.
The premise of human equality is not a self-evident truth: it is profoundly historically contingent. I began to realise that the implications of my atheism were incompatible with almost every value I held dear.
As a result of her “intellectual vertigo,” she began to explore avenues that she had never explored before, including theology. She began reading Dr. Paul Tillich and was attracted by the intellectual underpinnings of Christianity. However, she was not convinced.
How did she become convinced? Well, there were several things that nudged her to her Savior, but one of them was a bit surprising to me. She writes:
In the Summer of 2008, I began a new job as Assistant Professor at Florida State University, where I continued my research examining the relationship between the history of science, Christianity, and political thought. With the freedom of being an outsider to American culture, I was able to see an active Christianity in people who lived their lives guided by the gospel: feeding the homeless every week, running community centres, and housing and advocating for migrant farm laborers.
In other words, she looked at the lives of people who took their Christianity seriously, and she saw that there really was something different about them. They truly understood that all of God’s children are precious, and they showed it with their actions. Because of what she saw in these Christians’ lives, she began going to church. She was given C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Mere Christianity, and eventually came to Christ in the privacy of her home.
I have cataloged the conversion stories of several atheists over the years, but this one is particularly intriguing to me.
For one thing, I have a lot of friends who aren’t Christian, and in general, they have a rather negative view of Christians. They seem to think that Christians are an evil (or stupid) lot intent on making this society a terrible theocracy. It is nice to read of an outsider who observed Christianity in America and came to the opposite conclusion. I want to believe that her observations are closer to reality than those of my friends.
The other intriguing aspect of this story is that, in doing a bit of background research on Dr. Irving-Stonebraker, I learned of a book she wrote. It is entitled Natural Science and the Origins of the British Empire, which won the Royal Society of Literature and Jerwood Foundation Award for Non-fiction. It explores the relationships between Christianity, the pursuit of the natural sciences, and the rise of the British Empire.