Testimony of former atheist Sarah Salviander. Salviander is a research scientist in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Texas.
“I was born in the U.S., but grew up in Canada. My parents were socialists and political activists who thought British Columbia would be a better place for us to live, since it had the only socialist government in North America at the time. My parents were also atheists, though they eschewed that label in favor of “agnostic.” They were kind, loving, and moral, but religion played no part in my life. Instead, my childhood revolved around education, particularly science. I remember how important it was to my parents that my brother and I did well in school.
I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when science fiction was enjoying a renaissance, thanks largely to the popularity of Star Wars. I remember how fascinated I was by the original Star Wars trilogy. It had almost nothing to do with science—it’s more properly characterized as space opera—but it got me thinking about space in a big way. I also loved the original Star Trek, which was more science fiction. The stoic and logical character of Mr. Spock was particularly appealing to me. Popular science was also experiencing a renaissance at that time, which had a lot to do with Carl Sagan’s television show, Cosmos, which I adored. The combination of these influences led to such an intense wonder about outer space and the universe, that by the time I was nine years old I knew I would be a space scientist someday.
Canada was already post-Christian by the 1970s, so I grew up with no religion. In retrospect, it’s amazing that for the first 25 years of my life, I met only three people who identified as Christian. My view of Christianity was negative from an early age, and by the time I was in my twenties I was actively hostile toward Christianity. Looking back, I realized a lot of this was the unconscious absorption of the general hostility toward Christianity that is common in places like Canada and Europe; my hostility certainly wasn’t based on actually knowing anything about Christianity. I had come to believe that Christianity made people weak and foolish; I thought it was philosophically trivial. I was ignorant not only of the Bible, but also of the deep philosophy of Christianity and the scientific discoveries that shed new light on the origins of the universe and life on Earth.
I began to focus all of my energy on my studies, and became very dedicated to my physics and math courses. I joined campus clubs, started to make friends, and, for the first time in my life, I was meeting Christians. They weren’t like Objectivists—they were joyous and content. And, they were smart, too. I was astonished to find that my physics professors, whom I admired, were Christian. Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.
I had joined a group in the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences (CASS) that was researching evidence for the big bang. The cosmic background radiation—the leftover radiation from the big bang—provides the strongest evidence for the theory, but cosmologists need other, independent lines of evidence to confirm it. My group was studying deuterium abundances in the early universe. Deuterium is an isotope of hydrogen, and its abundance in the early universe is sensitive to the amount of ordinary mass contained in the entire universe. Believe it or not, this one measurement tells us whether the big bang model is correct.
If anyone is interested in how this works, I’ll describe it, but for now I’ll spare you the gruesome details. Suffice it to say that an amazing convergence of physical properties is necessary in order to study deuterium abundances in the early universe, and yet this convergence is exactly what we get. I remember being astounded by this, blown away, completely and utterly awed. It seemed incredible to me that there was a way to find the answer to this question we had about the universe. In fact, it seems that every question we have about the universe is answerable. There’s no reason it has to be this way, and it made me think of Einstein’s observation that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it’s comprehensible. I started to sense an underlying order to the universe. Without knowing it, I was awakening to what Psalm 19 tells us so clearly, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
That summer, I’d picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and was reading it in my off hours. Previous to this, I’d only known it as an exciting story of revenge, since that’s what the countless movie and TV adaptations always focused on. But it’s more than just a revenge story, it’s a philosophically deep examination of forgiveness and God’s role in giving justice. I was surprised by this, and was starting to realize that the concept of God and religion was not as philosophically trivial as I 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! I was so happy; it was like a weight had been lifted from my heart. I realized that most of the pain I’d experienced in my life was of my own making, but that God had used it to make me wiser and more compassionate. It was a great relief to discover that there was a reason for suffering, and that it was because God was loving and just. God could not be perfectly just unless I—just like everyone else—was made to suffer for the bad things I’d done.
For a while I was content to be a theist and didn’t pursue religion any further. I spent another very enjoyable summer with CASS, and then during my last year at EOU I met a man I liked very much, a computer science student from Finland. He’d been in the special forces in the Finnish Defense Force, and was just about the most off-the-wall character I’d ever met. But he was also a man of strength, honor, and deep integrity, and I found myself overwhelmingly drawn to those qualities. Like me, he’d grown up atheist in a secular country, but he’d come to embrace God and Jesus Christ as his personal savior in his early twenties through an intensely personal experience. We fell in love and got married. Somehow, even though I wasn’t religious myself, I was comforted to be marrying a Christian man.
I graduated with a degree in physics and math that year, and in the fall, I started graduate work in astrophysics at The University of Texas at Austin. My husband was a year behind me in his studies, so I moved to Austin by myself. The astrophysics program at UT was a much more rigorous and challenging environment than my little alma mater. The academic rigor, combined with the isolation I felt with my family and friends being so far away, left me feeling pretty discouraged.
Wandering through a bookstore one day, I saw a book called 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. All I know is that what I read changed my life forever.
Dr. Schroeder is a unique individual—he is an MIT-trained physicist and also an applied theologian. He understands modern science, has read the ancient and medieval biblical commentaries, and is capable of translating the Old Testament from the ancient Hebrew. He was thus able to give a scientific analysis of Genesis 1. His work 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. (If you’re interested in the details of this, you can either go through my slideshow here or read Dr. Schroeder’s book.)
Schroeder’s great work convinced me that Genesis is the inspired word of God. But something told me to keep going. 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. I felt as Einstein did when he said he was “enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” 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. That’s what faith is. As C. S. Lewis said, it is accepting something you know to be true in spite of your emotions. So, I converted. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.
Maybe that sounds coldly logical. It did to me, and for that reason, I sometimes worried whether my faith was real. And then I had a chance to find out a couple of years ago. That year started with my cancer diagnosis and an unpleasant course of treatment. Not long after, my husband fell ill with meningitis and encephalitis, and it was not clear if he would recover; we didn’t know if he would be paralyzed or worse. It took him about a month, but, thankfully, he did recover. At that time, we were expecting our first child, a baby girl. All seemed well until about six months, when our baby stopped growing. We found out she had Trisomy 18, a fatal chromosomal abnormality. Our daughter, Ellinor, was stillborn soon after.
It was the most devastating loss of our lives. For a while I despaired, and didn’t know how I could go on after the death of our daughter. But I finally had a clear vision of our little girl in the loving arms of her heavenly Father, and it was then that I had peace. I reflected that, after all these trials in one year, my husband and I were not only closer to each other, but also felt closer to God. My faith was real.
I don’t know how I would’ve coped with such trials when I was an atheist. When you’re twenty years old and healthy, and you have your family around you, you feel immortal. I never thought about my own death or the potential deaths of loved ones. But there comes a time when the feeling of immortality wanes, and you’re forced to confront the inevitability of not only your own annihilation, but that of your loved ones.
A few years ago, when I was researching an article on the nature of time, I was surprised to discover that only the Abrahamic faiths and their offshoots hold to linear time. All other religious traditions hold to cyclical time. Not only does cyclical time seem more intuitively correct—our lives are governed by many cycles in nature—but it offers a comforting connection to the Sacred through the eternal return. The modern, secular version of this is the Multiverse.
Georges Lemaître was a Belgian priest and physicist who solved Einstein’s general relativity equations and discovered that, contrary to the prevailing philosophy of the last 2,500 years, the universe wasn’t necessarily eternal and static. He discovered in his solution the mathematical evidence for an expanding universe, and pursued it vigorously. For that reason he’s considered the father of the big bang (which he called “the hypothesis of the primeval atom”). Shortly before he died, he was told that his hypothesis had been vindicated by the discovery of the cosmic background radiation, the most important prediction of the hypothesis. This discovery also vindicated the very first words of the Bible after 2,500 years of doubt—there was a beginning. And that beginning meant the universe had a transcendent cause, for nothing in nature is its own cause. Atheists have been dismayed by this and forced to retreat to the idea of the Multiverse.
The Multiverse idea posits that there is a huge number—possibly an infinite number—of parallel universes. It’s an interesting, but ultimately unscientific, idea. Science can only study what we can observe in this Universe. It cannot ever hope to study the Multiverse. Nevertheless, some atheists cling to the idea, because it’s the only serious alternative to God as the creative force behind the Universe and it’s a way to cope with mortality in the absence of God. The problem is, most proponents of the Multiverse haven’t seriously explored its logical implications. I think, when they do, their worldview leads to despair.
Hugh Everett is an example of this. He was a brilliant physicist who is known for what’s called the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. He sought to explain the strange, almost mystical, effects of the quantum world by rejecting its dependence on probabilities. He proposed instead that every possible outcome of every experiment really happens, but they happen in alternate universes. This was the first scientific incarnation of the Multiverse.
Everett was not motivated solely by mathematics. He understood the implications of his atheist beliefs, and was looking for a way to escape the annihilation that is inevitable in the atheist worldview. For him, the Many Worlds idea was a form of immortality. He wanted to believe that there were an infinite number of Hugh Everetts, all inhabiting these alternate universes, because it was a way to avoid the terror of annihilation. But, as Jesus told us, we must judge a tree by its fruits. Everett’s worldview did not appear to offer him, or his family, any real comfort. He was a depressed alcoholic who ate, drank, and smoked himself to death at the age of 51. His daughter committed suicide years later, and indicated in her suicide note that she hoped she would end up in the same parallel universe as her father.
In the Multiverse, we are not unique; there are many “copies” of each of us. If it’s real, then we have lived, and will live, an infinite number of lives. In fact, we have already lived this exact life an infinite number of times. All those lives are lost and pointless. We will live them an infinite number of times again. Everett and others who believe in the Multiverse have not conquered death; they think they’ve found a way to cheat it, but this form of “immortality” is really just a prison from which there is no escape. Does that sound awful to you? It sounds awful to me. As with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the Multiverse is ultimately barren of hope and purpose.
I do not believe we are locked in that sort of prison. But the only way we are free is if the universe and everything in it was created, not by some unconscious mechanism, but by a personal being—the God of the Bible. The only way our lives are unique, purposeful, and eternal is if a loving God created us.”