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Atheism, Christianity, Culture

Interview With an Ex-Atheist

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.




9 thoughts on “Interview With an Ex-Atheist

  1. I have to question Rich’s atheism. So he read the unholy trinity and bought into the current, common atheistic themes — apparently on the surface, only. Did he have an enlightenment within himself that said: ‘everything I’ve been taught has been a lie’? Did he ever truly believe that Jesus was merely a man? Did he read and study the bible without the input of any others? Rich’s belief, or lack thereof, seems to be a matter of relational convenience. It is easiest to maintain a relationship with someone who holds similar beliefs to oneself. As Rich has been through several divorces, the Marines, college, and onward, I’ll assume he’s reached middle-age. The dating pool certainly gets much shallower the more we age. If we are in a primarily religious, primarily Christian, society (80% of Americans claim to be Christians last I heard) the pool is deepest in the Christian end. I’m not a rocket scientist, but this is pretty simple math. Rich dove into the deepest end of his shallow dating pool and cast a wide net. I suspect the prospect of being alone in this life is worse than the fear of life stunted by believing imaginary forces of good or evil are affecting our daily lives.

    Posted by CannedAm | July 13, 2011, 3:58 pm
  2. Another atheist’s response to “Interview with an Ex-Atheist”

    Your statement that Rich was/is “Always an admirer of the Easter Story and the “Person of Christ,” is extremely telling to me. Had Rich truly ‘grokked’ atheism, he would not have been able to continue to admire either of those tales. I was actually really hoping that he’d be a convincing ex-atheist because I would LOVE to dig into such a brain, but once again, his story belies that.

    Regarding the concerns over our children – when I was pregnant with my first child, a very close friend told me that I ought to step back and re-examine this committment to atheism I had… that it was fine if *I wanted to disbelieve, but with a child coming, I had an obligation to reconsider. So, I actually did do so. My conclusion only strengthened my atheist convictions. Any so-called atheist who things we need toteach kids religion so they can decide is … well, not a fully-realized atheist (FRA – a term coined by Rick Wingrove, the VA state Director for American Atheists.) I do NOT think Rich has been disingenuous – I fully believe that he fully believes his re-conversion story. But … I don’t buy it.

    Posted by Carol Everhart Roper | July 13, 2011, 4:23 pm
  3. Canned: A correction. Rich has been through one divorce. He has dated casually since the divorce. He was never married to either the Baptist he got baptized for or the one who invited him to church this last time.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | July 13, 2011, 6:39 pm
  4. Still works though, whether dating or marrying. I mis-understood the number of divorces, but my point was he’s not in his 20’s any longer, when the dating pool is still fairly deep.

    I have to agree with Carol, Rich never deconverted.

    Posted by CannedAm | July 13, 2011, 7:21 pm
  5. That wasn’t really an interview than an [attempt at] psychological evaluation.

    I am surprised that a psychologist would convert based on emotions though.

    Posted by cptpineapple | July 13, 2011, 7:35 pm
  6. At the risk of double posting…

    I was raised in the Baptist Church world & I was thoroughly indoctrinated too. I lost count of how many alter calls I went up for as a child & youth… I left the Christian faith when it was indisputably clear to me that it was based on a fictional history & wishful thinking written as fact. Christianity is a fabricated falsehood – I will no longer bow before its make-believe god.

    I can read the Gospels (especially the Gospel of John) & still feel them call to me with their powerful seductive promises; until I remind myself that they are in actual fact nothing more than pious second century fictions. Although they are not as coherent and well written as say, the Lord of the Rings, they can still push my buttons.

    It is not easy for those of us who leave the faith of their families behind. To remain truly inside the family there is often a huge pressure to acquiesce to their beliefs.( I think that the rationale is something like: ‘God will not accept you as you are, why should they?’)

    I would not want to be accused of committing the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, but one would have to wonder what this fellow’s real reasons were for becoming an ‘Atheist’ and then subsequently returning to the Theist fold. Was he made aware of some compelling evidence in favor of the authenticity of the Biblical account or was it emotional need that brought him back in? My bet would be on the latter.

    The story of Suplita returning to his ‘faith’ after ‘falling away’ is not that surprising. It may be nothing more than a form of homecoming. It can be lonely outside the family faith and sometimes truth will be sacrificed in the interests of comfort, fellowship and the resolution of conflict.

    Posted by eheffa | July 14, 2011, 5:13 pm
  7. Hey Will, I came across a topic on RRS, that kinda relates to this.

    Basically an atheist blogger took 15 people [8 Christians, 6 atheists] and asked them four questions. In the first round, the questions were about their atheism, so the atheists answered honestly, and the Christians answered AS IF they were atheists.

    In the next round, it was the reverse. It asked about their Christianity, the Christians answered honestly, and the atheists answered AS IF they were Christians.

    Well, it turns out that it didn’t turn out well. Many Christians fooled people to think they’re atheist, and many atheists fooled people to think they’re Christian.

    The relevant links are in this topic

    It’s not a scientific study of course, but interesting none the less.

    I thought you might be interested!

    Posted by Alison | July 22, 2011, 9:55 pm
  8. Alison, that is interesting. Definitely — as you say — not scientific, but it does provoke some thoughts. Among them, what are the giveaways when someone pretends to be an atheist/christian?

    Lots of people seem to think it’s about the “facts,” but I’ve never felt like that was a big indicator. Oh, sure… if someone doesn’t even know the very basics of evolution and gets into a conversation about it, that’s a dead giveaway. But disbelief in evolution is only one part of the big picture, and unless that’s specifically what’s being discussed, it’s a non-starter.

    I’ve generally found that subtle inferences towards design, or comfort, or more “philosophical” questions are the giveaways. Things they’ve heard in church so often that they don’t even realize they’ve insinuated themselves into the lexicon. When I was modding for RRS, the first clue I would get was often a new “atheist” going on and on about no gods but then slipping and using a phrase like “in spite of the lack of purpose” or something like that. Most atheists (on RRS) would not think that “lack of purpose” was a hindrance to disbelief.

    So… like a lot of things, I think it’s context dependent. It might, for instance, be able to attend an atheist conference and pretend to be atheist than to post on a contrarian board like RRS. I know I’ve found it remarkably easy to infiltrate Christian conferences, church services, etc. But then… I was a Christian for a couple of decades, so I know the routines.

    Posted by Living Life Without a Net | July 23, 2011, 11:53 am
  9. I just now saw this separate publication in Living Without. I learned a lot about my TRUE motivations and what I have REALLY believed or not believed from reading the comments section! 🙂

    Posted by Rich S. | October 11, 2011, 5:34 pm

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