My family believed in kindness, loving, and being the best people we could be. We were also atheists. Because of this belief system, we believed that we had a duty to act in the most moral, ethical way—after all, we weren’t bound by the arbitrary rules of some book or church for our understanding of right and wrong. Our moral code was based on a pure pursuit of goodness.
"We don’t have to look in a book to see if it says that we should be nice to people," my father would say. "We can just do it out of the goodness of our hearts."
Like most young people, at college I began to explore the belief system my family had taught me and to make it my own. Inside the classrooms of my secular university, my beliefs weren’t challenged in the slightest. Outside the classrooms, however, I ran into difficulty.
Cracks in the Foundation
I had always considered the moral code by which I’d been raised to be rock-solid: We formed our understanding of rights and wrongs based on reason, evidence, and the scientific method; we sought the greatest good for all humans out of pure empathy and compassion—not as some attempt to curry favor with supernatural beings. Yet the more I pushed on these assumptions, the more I found that my "rock-solid" moral code had some cracks in it, and they ran deep.
One afternoon I read an article by a professor who posited that since adult pigs are more intelligent and aware than newborn babies, it would be more ethical to kill an infant than a pig. I scoffed. But when I tried to combat the professor’s ideas, I quickly ran into problems. I had always assumed that the only reason that humans were more valuable than other animals was because we’re more intelligent and self-aware, yet what did that mean for infants or the severely mentally disabled? Would that not mean that they were less valuable than the rest of us, perhaps even less valuable than some animals?
I met with similar problems when a classmate made the shocking statement that richer countries should stop sending aid to poverty-stricken areas of the world, explaining that it diluted the gene pool and added more suffering to the world to allow societies to survive who were not able to take care of themselves. I found this statement, too, to be morally repugnant. But, once again, my counterargument was weak.
Looking at the evidence from the natural world, I could reason that there are evolutionary advantages to showing compassion to others, or that as social creatures we’ve developed a nervous system that makes us more happy when the societies around us are stable and harmonious. However, the gaping hole in my argument was that those were not the only viewpoints that reason and evidence could support: An equally strong case could be made that the most important goal of any species is to pass on only the best and most fit genes, so that its members will thrive well into future generations. Combining this argument with the assumption that a life of suffering is not a life worth living, my classmate made a disturbingly coherent argument that it would be best to let those who were not capable of surviving simply die off.
No Ought from Is
Later in life I would hear author John C. Wright make a critique of secular morality in which he quipped, "You cannot deduce an ought from an is." I wish I’d heard it back then, because that was the problem. I’d hit up against a hard, inconvenient truth—that the material world does not gives us moral absolutes: It gives us ises, not oughts. Sure, I could reason that we should seek the greatest level of happiness for all human beings, based on the assumption that happiness was humanity’s highest goal, but—also using evidence and reason—someone could argue just as well for a more ruthless worldview that members of the species who were weaker or less able to display intelligence were less worthy of life.
All the while, when I encountered views like my classmate’s or the professor’s or countless others, a part of me wanted to scream, "You don’t kill newborn infants or ignore people in need because that’s just wrong!" All this cool, detached analysis of how we should treat our fellow human beings based on what stood up to the scientific method fell nauseatingly short of capturing the intense feelings that boiled within me when I pondered such matters. I sensed that there was absolute right and wrong in these matters, and that it was external to any human opinion.
After countless conversations with fellow atheists, the issue of the impossibility of getting to an absolute ought from the ises of the material world alone—and the chilling implications that had for any kind of moral code—remained unresolved. Eventually, all my big questions got pushed under the rugs of work and socializing, and it would be years before I thought about them again. I built a comfortable life for myself that left me too busy to ponder such inconvenient questions.
Just Tell Me the Truth
All that changed, however, when my first child was born. Staring at this precious little life shocked me into digging up all those long-forgotten questions about meaning and morality, and to ask some more to boot. And this time, something was different: For the first time in my life, I was willing to ask the big questions with humility. Back in college I’d approached all discussion of these subjects with a heavy dose of pride. But one look at my newborn son was enough to change my motives entirely. I didn’t care if I looked stupid. I just wanted to know what was true.
I set out on a search to find out what was at the root of that mysterious sense I’d always had that there is one moral code out there, and that it’s extant and true regardless of human opinion. It was impossible to avoid religion when studying this subject matter, and one day while looking for books about Buddhism I stumbled across some Christian authors who laid out a historical case for Jesus being who he said he was and the Resurrection having actually happened. I was surprised and intrigued to hear a reasonable, logical case for the founding of this religion. Only a few months earlier I would have flatly blown off any such notions as impossible since I refused to consider anything supernatural, but this time I was willing to hear more. I’d realized that we atheists certainly were far from having it all figured out, so I decided to suspend my assumptions for a while and just read a few books by Christians.
As my bedside table piled up with books by authors like C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and St. Augustine of Hippo, I slowly began to see that this religion was not what I’d perceived it to be. Though I was increasingly impressed, I also ran into some big problems. For one thing, I could not make heads or tails of the Bible. Without any Christian background, I had no idea how to interpret it—and when I researched Christian answers, it seemed like there were as many interpretations as there were people. Also, it seemed that the notion that the Bible was the main way to know God would be fundamentally unfair to people who were illiterate or had poor reading-comprehension skills—a concerning proposition considering that the printing press and widespread literacy are relatively recent phenomena.
I wasn’t quite ready to give up on Christianity, but I didn’t know any practicing Christians, so I had almost nobody to talk to about all these issues. I decided to start a blog to see if I could find any Christians who could answer some of my questions. After a few months of discussions with readers in which I threw out every tough question I could think of, I began to notice that the Catholics had the most compelling defenses of everything from the scientific case for God to the accuracy of the New Testament stories to the Christian moral code. Though obviously I would never become Catholic since I "knew" that it was a superstitious belief system founded on a corrupt Church that had done a lot of bad things throughout history, I couldn’t deny that the Catholic worldview was insightful and intellectually consistent.
On the advice of the Catholics from my blog, I decided to pick up a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Once I read it, I never saw the world the same way again. I pored over these teachings and marveled at how they resolved so many questions I had—everything from the meaning of life to how we can know there’s a God to how to interpret the Bible. I shared what I found with my husband, a lapsed Baptist with anti-Catholic views of his own, and we both agreed: This was too consistent, too wise, too prescient, too perfect to have come from human beings. This Church claimed to be guided in its teachings by Something far above humans, and we were both starting to believe that this just might be true. After beginning to apply these teachings to our own lives, as well as spending a couple years devouring stacks of books that addressed everything from Catholic teaching on contraception to the Crusades to the popes who committed immoral acts, we were completely convinced. My husband and I both entered the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2007.
Written on Our Hearts
What I found was that the Catholic Church offered a perfect articulation of the moral code that’s written on the human heart, that unshakable sense of right and wrong I’d been aware of all along—and what had initially seemed to be a confining set of arbitrary rules was actually a prescription for living a life optimized on love. To my great surprise, I found that Catholicism was not as much a departure from the atheistic belief system I’d grown up with as it was an elaboration and fulfillment of it. I’d merely followed all those longings I felt for things like truth, beauty, justice, and peace and found that they had a source—a living, personal Source.
Most atheists are closer than they think to believing in God. I think of the atheists I know who are so dedicated to living a life of love, kindness, and empathy that if it were scientifically proven tomorrow that these things were neither beneficial to the individual nor to society, my guess is that they would still live lives of love, kindness, and empathy. They believe that if these things are not good and true, then nothing is good and true—that in some ways they’re more real than reality. And, as I’ve found, when you embrace that realization, you’ve had your first encounter with God.