Victorian Skeptics on the Road to Damascus
When I was growing up, the most famous atheist in America was Madalyn Murray O'Hair. A test case regarding her son, William Murray, occasioned the 1963 Supreme Court ruling banning prayer in public schools. As an adult, William Murray became the president of the advocacy organization, American Atheists. I was therefore amazed when he converted to Christianity in 1980, going on to become a conservative, ordained Christian minister and evangelist.
Many Christians have been equally stunned by the recent announcement that the eminent British philosopher Antony Flew, sometimes billed as "the world's most famous atheist," has come to affirm the existence of God after a lifetime of publicly arguing against such a belief (although it should be noted that Flew has only converted to Theism, not Christianity).
But I wasn't. Between the conversion of Murray and the change of mind of Flew, I had done research on the history of religious skepticism in Victorian Britain, and this had taught me that intellectually rigorous, militant unbelievers convert to Christianity surprisingly often.
Skeptics in a crisis of doubt
The existing scholarship repeats endlessly a narrative of the "Victorian crisis of faith" and "loss of faith." Such an account is populated with figures who were devout Christians in their youth, but whose reading and intellectual honesty forced them to admit that Christianity was no longer credible. Leslie Stephen is an oft-cited example. although he had received Anglican ordination, Stephen eventually concluded that Christianity had been disproved by modern learning and lost his faith. The move from the resolute evangelicalism of his grandfather, James Stephen, a prominent member of William Wilberforce's "Clapham Sect," to the ...