Small-Town Atheist

An atheist makes friends with Christians and pursues faith.

By Sam Schmitt with Rita Wright   |  5 November 2012
My Story: Sam Schmitt
photo courtesy Sam Schmitt

In my graduating class of 130 people in small town Ohio, there were only six other atheists. You can imagine how marginalizing it was to be the small-town atheist.

I’ve always been interested in the spiritual side of things, and I’ve read quite a bit about religion, atheism and theology. But I’ve always been a staunchly skeptical person, ascribing to Humean skepticism in which I couldn’t accept anything that I didn’t have evidence to support.

I spent the summer of 2011 at Bowling Green State University (BGSU) instead of going home, and I decided that my personal project that summer was to understand faith from the viewpoint of the believer. That’s why I spent a lot of time at Cru summer Life Groups. I wouldn’t say I was any closer to believing at the end of the summer, but I met a bunch of wonderful people. And I realized that these people seemed to know something about life that I didn’t. I kept asking myself, “What’s going on with these people that they’re so great?”

From that point forward, I spent a lot of time asking spiritual questions. I tried to figure out how to move from point A to point B – from doubt to faith.

I talked with Steve Rieske, associate campus staff with Cru at BGSU, asking rational questions like “Can God be perfectly good and perfectly forgiving and perfectly loving?” I would have these theological discussions with Steve, and then experience these truths in my life. We talked about the concept of grace and forgiveness, and soon after I had the opportunity to forgive someone who had deeply wronged me. Through experiences and conversations like that, I moved from atheism to agnosticism, but I didn’t see myself getting any closer to believing in Christianity.

But as time passed, I spent more time with the Christians around me. Maybe they constantly wished that I would be a Christian, but I never felt like they were trying to get another notch in their belt for some new guy they converted. We’d get coffee and they’d tell me what’s going on in their life, and they’d hear what’s going on with me, and they’d ask me if it was okay to pray for me. And sometimes I’d say yes.

One day, as I reflected on my life, I had this epiphany that my hesitation to accept Christ was based on the same contingency I placed on all the relationships in my life. I had always been resistant to love from another person, as if it was contingent on specific things, like whether or not we both wanted to live in the city and/or have a dog and kids. But I realized that a relationship with Christ is not a conditional thing like that. Through conversations with Steve and other friends of mine, I realized that if I was ever to be happy and to live a life worth living, I would have to stop trying to fit love into my life’s plan, and start fitting life into love.

To accept the real love of a person, I could not be hindered by so many strange reservations. I saw how this related to Christ, too. All I had to do was accept that I was in need of Christ’s salvation, acknowledge that He is real, and to accept His love into my life.

This is a rationalized story about how I came to faith in Christ. But the whole point of the story is that rationality is not the point.

The details of my intellectual life and every other aspect of my life are pretty inconsequential. Whom I love and why I love is much more important than what I had for lunch today or who wins the next election. The rational parts of life are sterile.

If I were to speak to myself two years ago about God, I would want to tell myself that the only way to live a good life and find happiness is to love people well through Christ. I know that I would’ve thought that last part was crazy, but now I know that God made us to care about each other and live well together in His light. Deep down, people are not about economics. That’s not what’s on our hearts.

But I know that I would not have convinced myself about Christ two years ago. I didn’t need truth unpacked for me; I needed to see it lived out. As trite as it is, these words are so true: They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. This is how it’s been for me. When I met all of the wonderful people in Cru, I didn’t know they were Christians by how many verses they knew or how well they did in the stock market. I knew they were Christians by their love, and that changed me.

Sam Schmitt is a senior at Bowling Green State University, double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy.