Former atheist astrophysicist, Sarah Salviander, explains her journey to Christianity.
That’s the title of an article that’s been going around on Facebook recently. The article (linked to above) tells the story of an astrophysicist, one Dr Sarah Salviander, who grew up in a non-religious family, went on to study physics and mathematics at university, came to believe in God and eventually became a Christian. Sarah now works in astrophysics research at the University of Texas.
For my Christian friends, Sarah Salviander’s story ticks all the boxes:
- Christians love to talk about ex-atheists. Oh yes, this person used to believe all the same stuff you believe, but then they realised they were wrong. You should read this – it’ll set you straight!
- Christians love to talk about smart Christians. Oh yes, this person is an astrophysicist. You can really trust her – she’s obviously very rational, and she realised Christianity was true. You should read this – it’ll set you straight!
I’ve talked about ex-atheists before. In a certain sense, every believer is really an ex-atheist (nobody is born believing in God). But beyond that technicality, I think it is obviously the case that some believers used to be conscientious un-believers. Just like how some un-believers used to be conscientious believers (like myself). Just like how some Muslims used to be Christians, and some Christians used to be Muslims, and some Mormons used to be Christians, and some Hindus used to be agnostics, and some agnostics used to be atheists, and… you get the picture.
Many people change their beliefs about many things. Sometimes people have good reasons to do so, and sometimes they have bad reasons (or no reasons). I find it very interesting to listen to people who have changed their minds. It’s not easy to change your mind about something big (changing career, political party, religion, acceptance of evolution, etc), so people who have changed their minds in a major way usually have a fascinating story to tell. Sometimes you get the feeling the person had never really thought much about their previous position. But sometimes you can tell the person had always thought deeply about the topic, and came to change their mind as a result of new information, or a new perspective.
But one thing is crucially important. The mere fact that someone has changed his mind, and now believes X, does not lend any support to the actual truth of X. Because don’t forget that someone else has also changed her mind, and now disbelieves X! The very fact that some believers have become non-believers, and that some non-believers have become believers, means that people can and do change their minds and end up with wrong beliefs.
The main thing to consider when someone tells you they changed their mind about X, and thinks you too should change your mind about X, is this: What reasons did they have for changing their mind? Are they good reasons? Should such reasons convince other people? I’ll examine the reasons for Sarah’s change of mind below. Suffice it to say, I don’t find her reasons even slightly convincing.
Dr Sarah Salviander is a Research Fellow in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Texas. Her arXiv page lists 18 journal articles since 2003, mostly on black holes and quasars, and published in good journals. She’s the real deal.
But what should we deduce from this? There are definitely many smart Christians. Should we deduce that Christianity is true? There are many smart Muslims. Should we deduce that Islam is true? What about Hinduism? Mormonism? Buddhism? Atheism? Only five years ago, people pointed to me as a “smart Christian”. But now I’m an atheist.
In line with my comments about about people changing their minds, the existence of a well-educated or intelligent person who believes X does not lend any support for the actual truth of X. However, I am interested to hear the reasons such a person has for believing X. I’m very interested to hear from smart Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, Atheists, etc. I greatly enjoy listening to people give the reasons (they say) they have for holding their beliefs. Beyond mere intellectual curiosity, if a Mormon gave me really great reasons to think that Mormonism was true, I’d become a Mormon. I want to believe what is true! But so far, I haven’t been given any such good reasons (despite some very fun conversations with Mormons over the years).
The main thing to consider when someone tells you they believe X, and thinks you too should believe X, is this: What are the reasons they believe? Should such reasons convince other people? Are they good reasons? I’m now ready to examine the reasons for Sarah’s belief in Christianity.
Sarah’s reasons for belief
In the case of Sarah Salviander, the reasons she gave for coming to believe in Christianity are pretty terrible. Please read the article for the full version (the link is at the top of this page), but here is how I summarise (with quotes from the article) her path from non-belief to belief:
- Sarah’s studies in cosmology led her to be “astounded […], blown away, completely and utterly awed” by the order of the universe.
- Reading a novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (which Sarah describes as being about “forgiveness and God’s role in giving justice”), led Sarah to “realize that the concept of God and religion was not as philosophically trivial as [she] had thought”.
- “All of this culminated one day, as I was walking across that beautiful La Jolla campus. I stopped in my tracks when it hit me—I believed in God!”
- Although she was apparently a generic theist for some time (albeit, one who believed in a loving, perfectly just God, who caused people to suffer for the bad things they’d done, but ultimately used pain and suffering to build character), Sarah met and eventually married a Christian man. “Somehow, even though I wasn’t religious myself, I was comforted to be marrying a Christian man.”
- During a lonely year, while she was in a different state to her husband and all her family, Sarah read a book, The Science of God by Gerald Schroeder. “I was intrigued by the title, but something else compelled me to read it. Maybe it was the loneliness, and I was longing for a deeper connection with God.”
- Sarah was very impressed by Schroeder’s book: it “proved to me that Genesis 1 was scientifically sound, and not just a “silly myth” as atheists believed. I realized that, remarkably, the Bible and science agree completely.”
- But Sarah didn’t stop there. “If Genesis is literally true, then why not the Gospels, too?”
- “I read the Gospels, and found the person of Jesus Christ to be extremely compelling […] And yet I struggled, because I did not feel one hundred percent convinced of the Gospels in my heart. I knew of the historical evidence for their truth. And, of course, I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis. Intellectually, I knew the Bible to be true, and as a person of intellect, I had to accept it as truth, even if I didn’t feel it. […] So, I converted. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
[The article continues beyond that. Sarah shares some life stories from after her conversion, mostly revolving around a number of unfortunate hardships she suffered with her family. She also reveals some extremely offensive views about suffering: essentially, people are “made to suffer for the bad things [they’ve] done”, and there is always “a reason for suffering”. This seems especially insensitive to the people who have lived a life of terrible suffering merely because of the place and/or time of their birth, and who never experience a silver lining of any kind. Sarah also discusses her views of the multiverse (which I find extremely misguided). Both of these topics might be worth pursuing in the future, but the purpose of this post is to examine Sarah’s reasons for coming to believe in Christianity.]
Points 1-3 describe a journey familiar to many – the wonder of nature makes many people think there is a God, some kind of creator. I recall having such thoughts myself in my former life as a believer, though they weren’t what drove me to my belief; they served more as confirmation that there must be a God. This part of Sarah’s story is also a bit thin on details – in particular, there is no real precise link given between points 2 and 3 above (there are no words in between the quote in point 2 and that in point 3). But what interests me most of all is the path from generic theism to a very specific Christian theism. It’s one thing to think there is “something out there”, but an entirely different thing to think that that “something” must be the God described in the Bible, with all those specific details thrown in.
Sarah doesn’t say a lot about her husband, but it’s important to note that this relationship would certainly have had a significant emotional impact on her decisions. At this point, Sarah believed in some kind of God (but see point 4 above for some of the extra beliefs she had about God), and her husband believed in a very specific God. Sarah clearly admired her husband’s personal qualities, and this would have warmed her towards Christianity. Her husband also (presumably) believed his God would send Sarah to hell if she didn’t become a Christian, and these kinds of pressures would no doubt influence her thinking.
After reading Gerald Schroeder’s book, The Science of God, Sarah became convinced that the book of “Genesis is literally true”. (The word “literally” is used in a pretty non-literal sense here, since Schroeder’s theory is that the first “day” of creation was 8 billion years long, the second day was 4 billion years long, etc – the thesis of Schroeder’s book is really that Genesis can be squared with our modern scientific understanding of the universe, apart from a few teeny little details like evolution.)
So, does Schroeder’s book constitute a good reason to think that “Genesis is literally true”? Most definitely not. Here are several scholarly reviews of the book:
All the above reviews (and many others) are highly critical of Schroeder’s book, and do a good job of pointing out numerous blunders, ranging from incompetent mathematical calculations to factual misrepresentations of scientific theories. Although I am not a physicist or biologist, I do have the mathematical expertise to evaluate the probabilistic calculations made by Schroeder (and others, such as William Dembski), and, quite frankly, they are absolutely ridiculous (for reasons specified in the above reviews, and that I may cover myself in a future post). In short, Schroeder’s book constitutes a really terrible reason for believing in the literal truth of Genesis! It’s amazing to think that Sarah didn’t realise how weak Schroeder’s arguments were, and apparently never looked up any critical reviews.
But it gets worse from there. Imagine I told you that I came to believe (for whatever reason) in the truth of Richard Dawkins’ book, The Blind Watchmaker. And imagine I told you that, from this belief about Dawkins’ book, I deduced that everything written by Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris must be true as well. I don’t need to comment on how preposterous that would be! But this is pretty much what Sarah does as she moves from a generic theism to a specific Christian theism.
Sarah came to believe (for whatever reason) in the truth of Genesis, and then deduced that the gospels were true. Think again about her words: “I knew the Bible was reliable because of Genesis.” Even though it hardly needs an explanation, let’s think about what’s wrong with this.
The book of Genesis was composed by unknown authors. It’s a mash-up of numerous sources from a number of different traditions. It was edited and redacted by unknown scribes, and eventually reached something like a final state somewhere around 500 BCE. (See the excellent books Who wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman, and The Bible unearthed by Neil Asher Silberman and Israel Finkelstein – John Van Seeters also has some interesting views).
The gospels, on the other hand, were written by people living half a millennium after the Genesis authors and editors. The gospels were written in different countries and in different languages. To think there is a direct causal link between the accuracy or inaccuracy of Genesis and the accuracy or inaccuracy of the gospels is staggering, especially from someone who values rigour in her academic work.
So that was it. Somehow, Sarah was fooled by Gerald Schroeder into believing Genesis was literally true. And then, somehow, this led Sarah to believe the gospels must also be true. Well, once you believe in the literal truth of the entire Bible, it’s not rocket science – Sarah became a Christian.
After describing her path from non-belief to belief, Sarah says “Maybe that sounds coldly logical.” But I can hardly disagree with a statement more than I disagree with that one. I just can’t begin to describe how disappointed I was at reading Sarah’s reasons for believing. But not just because the reasons themselves were so terrible (Sarah can believe whatever she wants, for whatever reasons she wants). The main reason for my disappointment was the fact that so many of my Christian friends just lapped it up. They shared it widely, hoping it would have an impact on non-believers. When I finally found the time to read the article, I found myself thinking: This was the article everyone wanted us non-believers to read? This was the article that would set me straight? This article would give me good reasons for believing in Christianity?
So why might you, a Christian, share an article like this? If you can’t tell Sarah’s reasons for belief are terrible, then that’s very unfortunate. But if you can tell the reasons are terrible, and still shared the article, then that’s probably even worse – are you deliberately spreading misinformation in the hope that you will trick someone into sharing your beliefs? If you had to do that to spread your beliefs, then what would it say for the foundations of those beliefs?
As for me, I only want to believe true things. If I came to realise that I didn’t have any good reasons to hold a certain belief of mine, and then came to realise that no one had ever provided good reasons, and then came to realise that there were loads of good reasons not to hold that belief, then I really should abandon that belief.
And that’s exactly what happened in my own journey out of Christianity. Through many debates with well-informed non-believers, I came to realise that I didn’t know of any reason for believing in Christianity that a reasonable person would be compelled to agree with. Although I still firmly believed in the truth of Christianity at that stage, I embarked on a quest to discover reasons to believe in Christianity – good reasons, reasons that would convince non-believers (you don’t need to convince believers to believe, right?). But despite devouring numerous apologetics books and lectures, I found that I was refuting Christian arguments left, right and centre. I was also finding a stack of arguments against Christianity that I could see had never been adequately addressed, despite the attempts of numerous apologists. My purpose was never to actually refute Christianity itself (I was a Christian!) – I just wanted to weed out the arguments that didn’t work. But eventually, nothing was left.
It’s conceivable that I might one day discover some really great reasons for believing (once again) in Christianity, in which case I definitely would believe. But given the balance of evidence, which currently weighs so heavily against Christianity, I expect that is unlikely to happen. And I can tell you one thing for sure: it won’t happen by Christians continually bombarding me with terrible reasons to believe in Christianity, even if they come from an astrophysicist.