Mary Jo Sharp grew up in a secular home. Her parents didn’t go to church, and her community in Portland, Oregon was post-Christian. She didn’t know people who claimed to be Christian.
She was aware of Christianity in culture, but her father was a “huge Carl Sagan fan”, and she was influenced by his love for science, outer space and nature. She was influenced by a materialist worldview from a young age. It was the theme that ran through the TV shows her father would watch.
Her parents didn’t go to church. She was raised on nature and science shows that were steeped in a materialist view of the world. “This was the background that formed my view of reality,” says Sharp, “I really didn’t have a view of God, and I wouldn’t have thought to gain one or why a person should want to gain one. It just wasn’t on the radar”
She says she didn’t know that the materialist view – that all that exists is in the material realm – is only one view and philosophy on the nature of reality. She says, “It’s just what I was exposed to.” She didn’t know any other way to view the world and reality.
The Christians she she would meet seemed “nice and innocuous”, but things she saw on television turned her off. She also was influenced by a cult at a compound in her area that attempted a bio-terrorist attack on nearby cities, using salmonella to poison people. Therefore, she says,
“I had a lot of misgivings about what religion was, who God is or was. I didn’t understand what religion was for. It seemed like the kind of thing people did because they were raised that way, and I wasn’t.”
Mary Jo Sharp was an atheist from as young as she can remember, and atheism to her was normative. She had a good life. Her parents loved her. She loved science. She loved music. She had no needs that might drive her to religion for comfort.
Her primary exposure to religion was in the myths of ancient religions. She says, now, that she had a kind of “chronological snobbery”, believing that she was more “progressed” than other people who still had vestiges of a religious faith. She felt her family was better than others who still clung to religious myths.
There was no crisis in her life. “I had it together,” she says, and she saw herself as a good person, but she one thing opened a door, just a crack, to the possibility that reality was more than she supposed.
She was becoming aware of the wonder of the world that caused a subtle tension in her materialist assumptions. She felt a wonder at sunsets and mountain ranges and music that she couldn’t explain on the basis of her view of the world as a product of random and meaningless matter and energy.
Things were about to change for her when a person she respected in her life gave her a Bible. She “didn’t receive it well”, but the timing was fortuitous because of the subtle questions that were beginning to occur to her.
She didn’t have a source for answering the questions she had. She didn’t have philosophy in her background. Public schools did not teach critical thinking or how to tackle the big questions of life.
Though she didn’t react well to the gift of a Bible, she read it. She says, “I was really caught off guard because it wasn’t what I expected.” She was experienced in reading mythology from the Samarians, Greeks, Egyptians and Native Americans, but “As I was digging into the Bible, it was nothing like that…. It sounded more report-like.”
She realized, of course, that some portions of the Bible are poetic, but other portions of the Bible, like Luke, read like reports of factual things. Those portions of the Bible include many details of places, times, people, happenings, etc. On reading Luke, in particular, she recalls, “It sounds like he was just trying to report what was going on.”
That “shook” her because the Bible seemed to be written by people who were just trying to convey what happened. It didn’t read like myth with the primary purpose of conveying moral lessons.
She also realized the Bible is more than a superficial guideline for life. She realized it is a story of how humans had failed to do what was good the way God intended for them to live, and they brought evil upon themselves thereby. She says the story made sense to her about why there is good and evil in the world. It resonated with her sense that morals mattered and the existence of right and wrong, justice and injustice.
The story explains how evil got into the world and that evil is not what people are intended for. This made sense to her in light of “human experience” and why people have a sense of right and wrong. She realized,
“If humans are the problem, if they are the ones who brought the evil into the world, and they are the ones who are constantly engaging in [evil], then they are also not the solution.”
It made sense, in that context, why God Himself came into the world incarnate and became the sacrifice for the wrongdoing of people. She began to understand who God is and why Jesus was necessary as revealed by the biblical narrative. She understood from this how this God could be trusted by people.
While the logic of the biblical story rang true to her, but she didn’t know how to deal with it. At this time, she was leaving her home environment where she was taught naturalism and going off to college. She was only beginning a journey toward faith, but she had a way to travel yet. The materialism she had always assumed and on which she relied to define the reality of the world was deeply ingrained.
You can hear the interview from which I have summarized Mary Jo Sharp’s story to this point at The Side B Podcast – Mary Jo Sharp linked here. The interview continues on with the rest of her journey to faith.
The stories of how atheists changed from a materialistic worldview to a spiritual worldview intrigue me. I have begun to “collect” YouTube versions of those stories by various people, both well-known and not so well-known, at my blog on the page, Journeys to Faith – Atheist here.
If you want to listen to her tell the rest of her story in more detail, and why the journey to faith was difficult for her, you can watch her tell the story below. She came into faith with great hope, but her experience didn’t match her expectations. She became disappointed and began to doubt until she realized that hypocrisy didn’t negate the truth. The rest of her story is below: