Harvard Atheists and Agnostics…Turned Christian?
Previously, I wrote the first of what will become a handful of posts around the question of whether Christianity is merely a ‘nice philosophy’ adhered to by some, or whether it is actually true. I touched on a couple of anecdotes from Bono and Francis Schaeffer, both of whom expressed their own belief in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This week, I would like to focus on a few others who a) are/were also gifted with a strong intellect, b) started off atheist or agnostic, and c) eventually concluded that the claims and way of Jesus are true.
I would enjoy hearing your thoughts about this. So, here goes…
Besides Bono and Schaeffer, there have also been other highly intelligent people who, having explored the claims of Christianity more deeply, found it to be the most plausible and rational worldview among the alternatives.
A Harvard Student
One such person is Jordan Monge, a lifelong atheist and political science major at Harvard. From early childhood, Monge had gained a reputation for tearing down “poorly constructed arguments” in defense of religion. In high school, her Christian friends would avoid talking to her about their faith because of her propensity to deconstruct their beliefs with her razor-sharp, cutting logic. As a student at Harvard, she continued as a religious skeptic, debating fellow students into the wee hours of the morning in defense of her position that religion was a farce. Over time, however, the thoughtful responses from Christian friends to her non-belief pressed her to start doubting her doubts. Increasingly, the way of Jesus made sense to her. As she considered the cross of Jesus in particular, Christianity became not only plausible, but beautiful. She wrote about this part of her journey:
This theme—of love as sacrifice for true good—struck me. The Cross no longer seemed a grotesque symbol of divine sadism, but a remarkable act of love. And Christianity began to look less strangely mythical and more cosmically beautiful. At the same time, I had begun to read through the Bible and was confronted by my sin. I was painfully arrogant and prone to fits of rage. I was unforgiving and unwaveringly selfish. I passed sexual boundaries that I’d promised I wouldn’t. The fact that I had failed to adhere to my own ethical standards filled me with deep regret. Yet I could do nothing to right these wrongs. The Cross no longer looked merely like a symbol of love, but like the answer to an incurable need…but beauty and need do not make something true. I longed for the Bible to be true, but the intellectual evidence was still insufficient. So I plunged headlong into apologetics, devouring debates and books from many perspectives. I read the Qur’an and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I went through The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible and looked up Christian rebuttals to apparent contradictions. But nothing compared to the rich tradition of Christian intellect. I’d argued with my peers, but I’d never investigated the works of the masters: Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Descartes, Kant, Pascal, and Lewis. When I finally did, the only reasonable course of action was to believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus…I committed my life to Christ by being baptized on Easter Sunday, 2009…never once did I have to sacrifice my intellect for my faith…When confronted with the overwhelming body of evidence I encountered, when facing down the living God, it was the only rational course of action. I came to Harvard seeking Veritas (Truth). Instead, he found me.
A Revered Harvard Law Professor
Simon Greenleaf was a chief founder of Harvard Law School and the author of the renowned legal work, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence. Greenleaf, a professed agnostic, believed for many years that Christianity was a silly myth. Widely considered one of the brightest minds to ever grace the legal profession, the Professor was never shy with his students about where he stood. He spoke openly and often in the classroom about how the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a made up fairy tale, a hoax that could only be believed by ignorant, unenlightened fools.
After being challenged by some of his students to investigate Christianity’s claims on the basis of history and evidence, Greenleaf set out to expose what he called “the resurrection myth.” As the world renowned expert on forming an open-and-shut case based on concrete evidence, he was perfectly positioned to deal a death blow to Christianity, should it prove to be a myth. But in the process of trying to dismantle and discredit the Christian witness, something changed for Greenleaf. He would go on to write a lengthy essay called An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice, in which he concluded that “It was impossible that the apostles could have persisted in affirming the truths they had narrated, had not Jesus Christ actually risen from the dead.”
Having examined the evidence, the once agnostic, distinguished Harvard Professor of Legal evidence concluded, as Francis Schaeffer once also had, that there is only one reason to be a Christian: because it’s true. Simon Greenleaf, too, became a believer in Jesus.
Other Sharp Minds, Then and Now
The list of intellectual titans who are also Christian is not a list of merely two or three. There are many throughout history who, having looked seriously and with an open mind into the claims of Christianity, became Christians themselves. Jonathan Edwards, once president of Princeton University and also a Christian minister and missionary, was identified by The Encyclopedia Brittanica as the brightest mind ever to step foot on American soil. Like Princeton, all of the other the Ivy League Universities were also founded by Christian ministers or lay people. There are committed believers within the ranks of the world’s prominent scientists and philosophers, including Francis Collins, Galileo, Copernicus, and Pascal. Oxford historian CS Lewis, once an atheist who in his own words was “angry with God for not existing,” became a Christian when his close friend, JRR Tolkein, convinced him that the story of God’s redemption of the world through Jesus is the Story behind every good story.
In more recent times, there have been other bright-minded atheist or agnostic men and women who have become followers of Jesus. Kirsten Powers, a political news analyst, wrote about her conversion from atheism to Christianity after discovering the overwhelming body of evidence for biblical truth. “The Hound of Heaven had pursued me and caught me,” she wrote, “whether I liked it or not.” In another recent article from Christianity Today, Rosaria Butterfield writes how “as a leftist lesbian professor, I despised Christians. Then somehow I became one.”
Another contemporary intellect is the journalist, author, speaker, and staff writer for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell, who stepped away from his Christian upbringing for a more secular worldview and approach to life, returned to his childhood faith after observing a unique and other-worldly inner power that he observed in Christians. While doing research for his book, David and Goliath, Gladwell visited Cliff and Wilma Derksen, a couple whose daughter Candace had been kidnapped, abducted, and murdered. What moved Gladwell to return to his Christian roots was their response to his question, “How do you feel about whoever did this to Candace?” They said this:
Cliff: We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people’s lives.
Wilma: Our main concern was to find Candace. We’ve found her. I can’t say at this point I forgive this person (but) we have all done something dreadful in our lives, or have felt the urge to.
In processing this stunning response from two parents who had experienced such a dreadful and meaningless loss, Gladwell reflects:
Wilma’s stress was on the phrase “at this point”…something happened to me when I sat in Wilma Derksen’s garden…an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary. Their daughter was murdered. And the first thing the Derksens did was to stand up…and talk about the path to forgiveness.
What Do You Think?
The comedian Bill Maher says that the United States is a nation that is unenlightened because of religion, that religion stops people from thinking and that it “justifies crazies.” But could it be in some cases that religion—specifically, the religion whose central focus is the dying, resurrected, transforming, forgiving love of Jesus—makes many people less crazy, and also more grounded?
GK Chesterton quipped that the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to close it again on something solid. Francis Schaeffer, Jordan Monge, Simon Greenleaf, Kirsten Powers, Malcolm Gladwell, and the Ivy League founders seem to have discovered something solid as they opened their bright minds to the way of Jesus.
As they see it, there was/is only one reason to be a Christian: because it’s true.
For those who believe the things that Jesus said, it is not merely true. It is also quite beautiful.
How about you? Are you convinced, unconvinced, or somewhere in between?
NEXT UP: Is Jesus a Devil or is he God?
 Jordan Monge, “The Atheist’s Dilemma,” Christianity Today, April 4, 2013, christianitytoday.com.
 Simon Greenleaf, An Examination of the Testimony of the Four Evangelists by the Rules of Evidence Administered in the Courts of Justice (Public Domain), Kindle edition.
 Kirsten Powers, “Fox News’ Highly Reluctant Jesus Follower,” Christianity Today, October 22, 2013, christianitytoday.com.
 Malcolm Gladwell, “How I Rediscovered Faith,” Relevant Magazine, January/February, 2014, relevantmagazine.com.
 Chesterton, Autobiography.