Nicole Cliffe, a former atheist who is now a follower of Jesus (1) (2), is the co-founder and co-editor of the website The Toast. She was also a former writer for the website The Hairpin and now currently lives in the USA, Utah. And for those interested she has since done a recorded dialogue over why she converted to Christianity (3)
According to Cliffe (4), “I became a Christian on July 7, 2015, after a very pleasant adult life of firm atheism.” She says that she was “an atheist since college,” and “had already mellowed a bit over the previous two or three years, in the course of running a popular feminist website that publishes thoughtful pieces about religion. Like many atheists (who are generally lovely moral people like my father, who would refuse to enter heaven and instead wait outside with his Miles Davis LPs), I started out snarky and defensive about religion, but eventually came to think it was probably nice for people of faith to have faith.”
Although Cliffe had at least some form of a positive view of religion the actual concept “of a benign deity who created and loved us was obviously nonsense, and all that awaited us beyond the grave was joyful oblivion.” Cliffe knew that life would feel hopeless and thus found some comfort in death, “[I] found the idea of life ending after death mildly reassuring in its finality… I did not wish to believe. I had no untapped, unanswered yearnings. All was well in the state of Denmark. And then it wasn’t.”
Cliffe says that there are two different starting points to her conversion, “sometimes I omit the first one, because I think it gives people an answer I don’t want them to have. It is a simple story: I was going through a hard time. I was worried about my child. One time I said “Be with me” to an empty room. It was embarrassing. I didn’t know why I said it, or to whom. I brushed it off, I moved on, the situation resolved itself, I didn’t think about it again. I know how people hear that story: Oh, of course, Nicole was struggling and needed a larger framework for her life! That’s part of the truth, but it’s not the whole truth.”
The second starting point, however, is what she usually likes to “lead with” when sharing her testimony, “I was surfing the Internet and came across John Ortberg’s CT obituary for philosopher Dallas Willard. John’s daughters are dear friends, and I have always had a wonderful relationship with their parents, who struck me as sweetly deluded in their evangelical faith, so I clicked on the article.” The article talked about the concept of total and sufficient depravity, and how every human being is underserving of heaven because of his or her fallen, sinful nature. The article had a profound impact on Cliffe and the realization of her sinful nature would be the thrust behind her conversion, “A few minutes into reading the piece, I burst into tears. Later that day, I burst into tears again. And the next day. While brushing my teeth, while falling asleep, while in the shower, while feeding my kids, I would burst into tears… it was very unsettling to suddenly feel like a boat being tossed on the waves.”
This led her to some more books penned by Christian thinkers, “I decided to buy a Dallas Willard book to read anthropologically, of course. I read his Hearing God. I cried. I bought Lewis Smedes’s My God and I. I cried. I bought Sara Miles’s Take This Bread. I cried. It was getting out of hand. You just can’t go around crying all the time. At this point, I reached a crossroads. I sat myself down and said: Okay, Nicole, you have two choices. Option One: you can stop reading books about Jesus. Option Two: you could think with greater intention about why you are overwhelmed by your emotions. It occurred to me that if Option Two proved fruitless, I could always return to Option One.” Cliffe then reached out to a friend, “So I emailed a friend who is a Christian, and I asked if we could talk about Jesus.” Cliffe immediately had second thoughts and regretted asking her friend this saying that if it was possible she “would have clawed it back through the Internet.” But the message had reached its recipient of whom was more than happy to talk to her about Jesus.
At this stage she had already felt that she “believed in God…. I was a Christian…. I had begun to believe that Jesus really was who he said he was, but for some reason, that idea had honestly not occurred to me. But then it did, as though it always had been true. So when my friend called, I told her, awkwardly, that I wanted to have a relationship with God…” Cliffe has since been baptized by a pastor in the Pacific Ocean, “I have sung “Be Thou My Vision” and celebrated Communion on a beach, while weirded-out Californians tiptoed around me. I go to church. I pray. My politics have not changed; the fervency with which I try to live them out has. My husband is bemused by me, but supportive and loving… I am occasionally asked by other Christians, “What happened during that hour?” I answer that God did not speak to me. Rather… I figured out what I already knew. What happened during that hour was the natural culmination of my coming to faith: I had been cracked open to the divine, I read books that I would have laughed at before the cracking, and the stars lined up and there was God, and then I knew.”
1. Slate. A Toast to The Toast. Available.
2. Cliffe, N. 2015. How I Pray. Available.
3. Caritas Podcast. 2016. Episode 023: Nicole Cliff’s Conversion to Christianity. Available.
4. Cliffe, N. 2016. Nicole Cliffe: How God Messed Up My Happy Atheist Life. Available.