He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” — Luke 19:40 (CEB)
In today’s rapidly changing religious landscape, we often hear about former Christians who have become atheists, but only rarely do we take seriously the stories of former atheists who have converted to Christ. As more and more Westerners identify as religiously unaffiliated, it is critical to acquaint ourselves with atheists and agnostics who have become disciples of Jesus. In so doing, the church is better equipped to nurture more such transitions in the future.
Alister McGrath, currently a Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, provides a fascinating example of this phenomenon. McGrath grew up in the religiously charged atmosphere of Northern Ireland. Like many of his generation, it seemed obvious that faith was a source of little more than violence and strife, and he rejected the church and embraced what he has described as an “aggressive” atheism. McGrath later went on to study both biology and theology at the graduate level. In the course of his education he explored the intellectual history of science as well as its philosophical underpinnings, and something began to change:
“The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain. The opportunity to talk with Christians about their faith revealed to me that I understood relatively little about their religion, which I had come to know chiefly through not-always-accurate descriptions by its leading critics, including British logician Bertrand Russell and German social philosopher Karl Marx. I also began to realize that my assumption of the automatic and inexorable link between the natural sciences and atheism was rather naïve and uninformed.”
His search brought him to the Anglican church, in which he became not only a professing member but a priest.
Living in the twilight of Christendom, it is easy to believe the narrative that the whole world is sliding towards secularism. As a corollary, it is tempting to think in this environment that conversion is a one-way street — from Christian to a “none.”
But there are counternarratives out there. McGrath’s story is not that different from his hero and fellow Oxford don C.S. Lewis; we could also point to once-convinced atheists like Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project, who later came to faith (a story told in his fascinating work The Language of God), or church leaders like Avery Cardinal Dulles, who went off to Harvard an agnostic freshman and later became a leading Catholic intellectual and an archbishop.
The church has its own conversion stories to tell; there are indeed “nones” and “dones” who come to passionate faith in Jesus Christ. We would do well to give those persons a hearing and celebrate their faith, as we seek to love and serve our neighbors in hopes of helping them come to worship a God they had hitherto rejected. Alister McGrath’s faith biography shows us that the 21st century need not be the story of triumphant atheism or milquetoast do-it-yourself spirituality, but that instead the Spirit is still making disciples out of the least likely persons. If we listen to the silence of the modern West, we may just hear the sound of stones shouting their hosannas. This doesn't only aid us in a holistic and passionate evangelism, but it also buttresses our own faith in the process. After all, only a strange and marvelous God could make possible a young militant atheist returning to his alma mater to teach science and theology as Rev. Dr. McGrath.
May his tribe increase, and may we have ears to hear.