Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
Sarah Salviander’s pedigree is quite impressive. As a scientist she is both an Astronomer at the University of Texas and a Physicist at Southwestern University. She has a number of scientific papers under her belt, and has published a comprehensive Astronomy and Astrophysics curriculum. She is also a science fiction author. This is unsurprising since science fiction played a significant role in her early life:
“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.”
It was possibly this which sparked her interest in Astronomy, although she was also fascinated by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos enjoying its first run on television during the time.
Although Sarah’s parents were Americans, they were also political socialists. Craving a better political climate in which to raise a child, they moved from America to Canada around the time that Sarah was born, feeling that this was a country which properly conformed to the ideals to which they clung.
In addition to being socialists, Sarah’s parents were atheists, and raised Sarah with a careful lack of exposure to any sort of religion. It happens that Canada was the perfect place to do this:
“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.”
As a bright girl who was deeply interested in science and astronomy, Sarah, of course, pursued her higher learning. She threw herself into her courses with dedication and rigor, fully enjoying the college experience and excelling in all of her studies. But she also had an unexpected experience.
Sarah was surprised to discover that several of her Physics Professors were, in fact, Christians. It puzzled her that such rational minds should embrace something she had considered to be irrational by default. Additionally, they were, in her words, “joyous, content and smart.” She says:
“Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.”
In her studies, Sarah became part of a group studying evidence for the beginning of the universe. In particular, they were studying an isotope of hydrogen called “deuterium,” which the group was using to determine aspects of the beginning of the universe.
Sarah was simply amazed by this study. She was awe-struck that such deep mysteries of the universe could be tunneled and explored. It brought to her mind the quote by Einstein, that the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible. From one end, how was it that something as vast and complex as the universe could be reasoned and explored by simple tools accessible to the human mind, such as math and logic? From the other, how was it that the human mind had developed in such a way that it was able to explore the universe?
Without even realizing it, Sarah says, she was beginning to get a glimpse of the Biblical truth, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
At about the same time, she found herself reading The Count of Monte Cristo. In plays, movies and television recreations of the story, it had always been a story of revenge. What she was surprised to find was that the book had a much deeper philosophical aspect to it – about the futility of revenge and the power of forgiveness. These were things she had never considered before, and could not ground within her atheistic outlook.
One day, Sarah describes a revelation:
“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.”
Sarah did not pursue this any further at first. She had had her discovery, but did not take it to any religious end.
During her last year at University, she met a foreign student, a computer science major from Finland. She was deeply drawn to him for many qualities that he had. He was smart and funny and he had been in the military – proving himself a brave and honorable man. The two fell in love and got married.
Like her, her husband had grown up an atheist, however he had become a Christian in his early twenties. Sarah didn’t consider herself a Christian at this time, but she was somehow happy to be marrying one.
Sarah began her graduate work at what would someday become her place of employment: the University of Texas, which required her to move away from her husband in order to complete her studies.
In the social isolation away from family and friends, Sarah found herself reading a book titled The Science of God, by Dr. Gerald Schroeder – a brilliant MIT physicist and an applied theologian. In the book, Schroeder gave a scientific analysis of Genesis 1, showing how science supports, rather than disproves the Bible – entirely the antithesis of what her atheistic upbringing had told her.
Convinced there were actual reasons to believe that the Bible might have some basis in reality, Sarah began to think that Christianity’s foundations might have some truth to them. A reading of the Gospels showed Sarah that Christ himself was a compelling character, and a study of the evidence showed her strong reason to believe the Gospels might well be true.
Knowing that, as a person of intellect, she was compelled to follow the evidence, Sarah converted to Christianity.
What sometimes worried Sarah was the purely rational nature of her conversion. She converted because of the evidence, not because of some emotional experience. She occasionally wondered if she were – for lack of a better phrase – “truly a Christian.” And then it happened. A shotgun of tragedy struck Sarah all at once, several years after her conversion. She was diagnosed with cancer and had to start the painful treatment. Then her husband was diagnosed with meningitis and encephalitis, with the possibility of death looming on the horizon. At the same time, she was expecting their first child. But before the child was born, the little baby girl was diagnosed with a chromosomal abnormality called Trisomy 18. While she and her husband recovered, their child did not, and was stillborn.
What Sarah and her husband discovered after this devastating series of events was that they were closer than ever to one another – and to God. She knew that there was no way she would have made it through this time on her atheistic worldview. She was, indeed, a Christian.
In addition to being a brilliant scientist and author, Sarah is an accomplished Christian Apologist who helps others to discover the evidence for God and for the Christian worldview.