Testimony of former atheist Sarah Salviander. Salviander is a research scientist in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Texas.
Salviander was born in America and brought up in an atheist household in Canada, “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.”
Salviander goes on to recount how the popular entertainment series Star Wars really made her fall in love with space and scientific exploration, “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.” She was also particularly fond of the well known astronomer, Carl Sagan’s, space series Cosmis, “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,” and thus, at the early age of just nine, Salviander knew she “would be a space scientist someday.”
She explains that Canada was already post-Christian by the 1970s, and thus “grew up with no religion.” “In retrospect,” she continues, “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.”
However, she would on to focus all of her energy on her studies and academic pursuits, “[I] 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.” These Christians she met, however, came across as “joyous and content. And, they were smart, too.” Salviander also recounts her surprise when she found that her physics professors, whom she admired, were Christian, “Their personal example began to have an influence on me, and I found myself growing less hostile to Christianity.“
However, Salviander continued to grow and prosper in her field especially in her in-depth study of big bang cosmology, “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.”
Salviander goes on to explain some details of her work that probably won’t interest 98% of people but, the details aside, she remembers “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.” This observation opened her mind up to the very real possibility that God might in fact exist, “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.”“
She would then go on picked up a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo, “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.”
However, all of this came together one day as to make belief in God unavoidable. Salviander 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.“
Even though she had such a radical transformation from non-belief to belief she felt that she stagnated on general theism, “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.” However, quite surprisingly he, like Salviander, had also grown up in an atheist home but would later “come to embrace God and Jesus Christ as his personal savior in his early twenties through an intensely personal experience.” A romantic period ensued and soon they got married.
“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.“
However, wandering through a local bookstore one day Salviander 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.“
She found Dr. Schroeder to be 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.)” Of course this is where she and many scholars, specifically biblical scholars, will part ways since most would say that Genesis is not geared towards being a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe and subsequent cosmic and human evolution. Rather, Genesis sits well within an Ancient Near Eastern content and literary genre that speaks to an ancient audience as opposed to a modern 21st century one.
Salviander continues saying that “Schroeder’s great work convinced me that Genesis is the inspired word of God. But something told me to keep going.” This brought her to the gospels which would impress her, “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.”
Salviander still struggled with how she viewed her faith saying that she “sometimes worried” whether her faith was real. During this period things didn’t go too well for her health wise and she started with a 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.” Despite that good news, however, the couple went through perhaps what to most parents is the worst thing a parent can go through: the loss of their own child, “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.“
From the vantage point of her newly found faith in God, Salviander reflects on her times when she was an atheist, “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.”
Salviander was further taken by surprise as she learned that only the Abrahamic faiths and their offshoots hold to linear time, “All other religious traditions,” she says, “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.”
Moreover, that the universe had a beginning was actually proposed by a priest, “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, however, is far from achieving any consensus in cosmology, “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.”
Salviander ends saying that she does “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.“