The “holy grail” for Christians has always been the genuine “ex-atheist.” Someone who was actively and fervently campaigning for atheism, and then changed his tune and became a “True Christian™.” I recently found myself privileged to spend an afternoon with just such an ex-atheist. With his kind permission, I’m going to relate his story along with my thoughts on the environmental and psychological forces competing for the minds of people on both sides of the religious fence.
Rich Suplita is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Georgia. His education background focuses on behavioral neurology. For the past half dozen years (give or take a year) he’s been an active atheist. From participating in campus debates to sponsoring the UGAtheists, Rich has earned his “Scarlet A.” Today, he’s a Christian, attending First Baptist Church in Watkinsville, Georgia and loving every minute of it.
Rich is an immediately approachable man with an easy smile and a quiet sense of confidence. From the beginning, I found him to be remarkably frank, and quite genuine. After a minor scheduling misfire, I met him on a muggy afternoon at Jittery Joe’s Coffee. We grabbed a table against the wall and after brief introductions, jumped straight into the interview. About a week earlier, I had introduced myself via email, sent links to my content, and asked him to familiarize himself with the general direction of my writing. I wanted him to know just what he was signing up for. He assured me that he knew my article would not be entirely complimentary, and that I would disagree with a lot of what he said. He also consented to have me publish his email, and invite readers to write him with any questions or comments. I encourage skeptical readers to take him up on the offer, both as a way of ensuring my accurate reporting and to facilitate ongoing dialog.
Rich grew up in Fairmont, West Virginia, the youngest child of devout Christians. His father was a deacon. He has two older sisters. His childhood was dominated by Christianity — specifically, the Church of Christ. From birth through High School, the doors of the church were often open and rarely undarkened by the Family Suplita Shadow.
The Church of Christ doctrine carries no assurance of salvation. Quite the opposite, as Rich informed me. Children are routinely frightened and coerced with threats of hell should they fail in their duties to God or Church. In a community not so unlike early Puritan settlements, CoC members are scrutinized by their friends and family, and great social pressure is brought to bear on sheep who stray too far from the pastures.
Rich has been baptized five times. The first time, he was eleven. It was the thing to do, so he did it with the blessings of family and church. At seventeen, he “strayed” from the community, and in an effort to publicly renounce his sin, received the sacrament again. (I noted no less than ten explicit mentions of social pressure to believe and conform in Rich’s account of his childhood and teen years.)
At nineteen, a Baptist girl caught his eye, and to placate her parents, who were loathe to allow their daughter to fraternize with the enemy, he received a Baptist baptism. While living in San Antonia, Texas, he felt the urge to publicly commit for more pious reasons and took the dunk yet again. Finally, in the summer of his atheist discontent, he took what he believes will be his final plunge. (The Baptists, after all, assure salvation, and Rich’s CoC days seem well behind him.)
After high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves. Still a devout Christian, he felt fine about the daily recitations of “God, Country, Core,” and the Sunday morning option of attending church or shining boots in the barracks. Following the completion of Boot Camp, he immediately enrolled at Freed-Hardeman University, a small Church of Christ University in Henderson, Tennessee, with aspirations towards the ministry. After one semester, he was suspended for a “behavioral issue” and never returned. Setting sights on more earthly concerns, he pursued an education in psychology and neurology which eventually landed him a rare lecturer position at the University of Georgia.
Now divorced, Rich met his ex-wife Carla — another devoted Christian — at a Church of Christ student center as an undergraduate. They dated casually for a few months, and then were faced with a difficult decision. Having finished her degree, Carla needed to move. (I should interject here that Rich was very careful in discussing this part of his life, and appeared reluctant to admit just how much of a role religion played in it. However, with his permission, I am relating general circumstances and motivations as he conveyed them to me.) Facing the social pressure of the CoC’s moratorium on pre-marital sex, and struggling with their own mixed feelings of guilt and uncertainty, Carla and Rich tied the knot in 1999. In 2001 their first daughter was born.