The story of my conversion begins with my parents. It is their choices that marked the starting point of my journey. My mother hailed from traditional, Spanish Catholics of the rural Southwest. My father, a native Midwesterner, was raised by liberal, Anglo-German Protestant parents who attended the churches of Methodists, Presbyterians, and Disciples of Christ as the spirit moved them. Both were falling away from the Christianity of their youth when they met in college, and they set aside all religion after they married.
Bookish and keen on their freedom, they sought to cultivate in their children the traits they most admired: intelligence, inquisitiveness, independence. Thus I was raised a freethinker, taught to question, to test, and to look for the real story behind the tangle of human claims. These were skills that would serve me well, though perhaps not as my parents intended.
I can recall no doctrinal education in my early life, either religious or otherwise. I was not nursed on Darwinism or any such theory, though I found them in due time. Neither do I recollect being furnished with any explanations for life, its origin, meaning, or end, nor asking questions about these things, nor even wondering about them. Knowing my state of mind at the height of my atheistic hubris as an undergraduate years later, I suspect I was simply complacent. Somehow, I took reality as a given: not meaningless, but in no great need of explanation—a brute fact. My childhood was stable enough to permit me such complacence.
The stability ended in 1984, when the hidden strains of my parents’ marriage erupted in divorce. A custody fight ensued, during which a judge asked me to choose which parent to live with. Opting for the path of most affection, I went with my mother. My father, interpreting my decision as a betrayal, informed me that I would no longer reside in his house where I had spent most of my life. After returning a few times in an awkward sort of visitor status, I elected not to go back. My father and I have been estranged ever since, despite my having forgiven his behavior. In struggling to make sense of that behavior, I became a student of human character and learned a formative lesson about the kind of creature man is.
Even though I learned no doctrine in childhood, I drank deeply of my father’s antipathy toward religion. Convinced that faith was a crutch for the weak-minded and that socially concerned believers were busybodies with scant regard for others’ privacy, my father missed no opportunity to speak ill of the faithful. By the time I reached high school, where I began to think about serious subjects in a semi-serious way, I had acquired a reputation as a sharp-tongued atheist who did not suffer religious fools gladly.
In a humanities class my senior year that included a section on comparative religions, I relished smiting the most devout of my classmates, mainly Mormons and Nazarenes, in the discussions that developed around course readings. Quicker and more combative than most of them, I found the difficulty with which they defended themselves to be a confirmation of the view I had inherited from my father.
In college I found that atheism was compatible with all the disciplines I encountered and that hostility toward religion was in some quarters a tradition unto itself. Since my views required no explanation, I could pursue my interests freely, without concern for fitting in. For a year or so I found myself growing more socially liberal, in keeping with the views of my instructors and the atmosphere of the community. Then, in my second year, I took an introductory course in physical anthropology that ended my short career as a liberal. The professor of that course, more than anyone else, gave me the intellectual foundation that eventually would make my faith possible.
That an atheistic and irreligious professor could do so much to prepare an atheistic and irreligious student for faith in Christ is less a tribute to the professor’s brilliance than to the intellectual poverty of his opponents. He was charismatic. He also happened to say many things that I wanted to hear, since we were both atheists trying to justify our conservative inclinations without reference to God.
Yet it was ultimately his defense of commonsense truths in a place where reality had been stood on its head that made such an impression on me. Amid the ranting of Marxists, radical feminists, and all types of relativists, Dr. S. (as I will call him) imparted to me three ideas that left a lasting mark, setting me against my school and my times and in search of an intellectual home.
The first of those ideas was an attitude of realism in approaching the world. Having come to anthropology from the physical sciences, Dr. S. was steeped in scientific method and injected it into his study of man. He taught me both that facts cannot be made to say whatever one wants and that one should test one’s theories regularly to keep them grounded in reality. These may seem like commonsense proposals, yet they were largely unheeded by the culturalists who dominated the anthropology department. I saw among these people a great capacity for self-deception, an insulation from reality abetted by their self-righteousness and facility with language.
The way to avoid this danger, according to Dr. S., was to understand that reality judges us, not the other way around. An animal in its natural habitat, without the stratagems of culture, lives or dies on the basis of whether it accurately perceives reality in the form of predators, mates, or food. One benefit of Dr. S.’s Darwinian outlook, which I came to adopt, was its insistence that the world exists independent of our thoughts about it and that the burden is on us to perceive things correctly. This was a powerful antidote to the constructivist schemes of the postmodernists who oversaw my education.
Though weak in many ways, Darwinism at least stated the options clearly: Either God made us or random change did, and my belief in either choice would not make it true. Even though Dr. S bolstered my confidence in the wrong answer, he encouraged intellectual honesty in asking the question and took a more sober approach to evidence than many of his colleagues. In so doing, he imparted to me the importance of conforming my will to reality, a disposition that is foundational to religious faith and practice.
The second idea that helped lay the groundwork for my faith was that man has a free will. Considering the intellectual climate of my education, this was a surprising thing to be taught explicitly. The reason was not that most of my professors were strict determinists. In point of fact, the topic of agency made frequent appearances among the anthropologists of my acquaintance, whose transgressive social agendas required individuals to be capable of rebellion.
Dr. S.’s concept of free will, though thin by the standards of Christianity, was surprisingly effective. All he claimed was that a human being is able to choose in ways that cannot be predicted from knowing the conditions prior to his choice. Just as the properties of salt cannot be predicted from knowing everything about sodium metal and chlorine gas, his analogy went, the choice of a person’s free will cannot be predicted even by knowing everything about that person’s genes and environment. Considering free will a type of indeterminacy, Dr. S. described it as an emergent phenomenon, borrowing a term from chaos theorists. To an atheist and materialist, the idea that the will is free because it can desire what is infinite and transcendent—namely, God—would have been a non-starter.
The third idea that prepared me for faith would not have been possible had Dr. S. not been willing to draw conclusions from his Darwinian view of man that most evolutionists shy away from. Pointing out that human beings neither designed themselves nor have an infinitely plastic nature, he argued that we are constrained in what we can make of ourselves, both collectively and as individuals. Specifically, Dr. S emphasized that the structure of the family and traditional sex roles are biologically based around reproduction and that efforts at gender re-engineering are doomed to fail.
He also stressed that equality as a social concept has no basis in biology and that, despite the noble aim of giving people equal chances, we should not expect them to perform at equal levels, let alone manipulate things so that they do. Dr. S.’s views in these matters inflamed feminists, gay advocates, and supporters of affirmative action, and they were sufficient to gain him picketed classes, threatening phone calls, and pariah status in his own department.
Though he did not preach the superiority of the past nor the impotence of human efforts, Dr. S. considered our knowledge too limited and our character too weak to perfect ourselves and our society. Sensing the futility of constant straining against implacable limits and of the perverse consequences, past and present, of attempts to perfect our species by its own efforts, I inclined to the defense of "the permanent things."
More important from the standpoint of faith, I also gained the perspective needed to accept one of the most nettlesome doctrines of Christianity: original sin. Understanding original sin initially as a limiting principle upon human potential, I found it easy to accept for the simple reason that the lack of such limits did not describe any world I knew. Abstract speculation aside, the interpersonal chaos I had seen among my elders and peers and the inconstancy of my own good desires reminded me that no one is ever far from sin. My third lesson from Dr. S.’s Darwinism thus brought me close to acknowledging man’s fallenness and inoculated me against seeking heaven on earth.
The average person might take the impossibility of earthly perfection to imply that, morally speaking, anything goes. I did not see things that way. My experience of family rupture had taught me that anything most certainly could not go, because the damage was too great if it did. To defend against such damage, I was determined to uphold the traditional values of no sex outside marriage, no divorce, conventional gender roles, and a family-centered lifestyle. These were values I had held, perhaps unconsciously, since before my parents’ divorce that were based on the family life my parents modeled during the best of my childhood years. In college I saw these values attacked or ignored, but I also witnessed the unhappiness of their attackers and the confusion of those who ignored them. Although I was by no means living loosely, I knew that without a deeper foundation my hard-won insights into sexual ethics amounted to little more than preferences, no better than any others and easily rationalized away.
The problem was that I could not accept any of the rationales for traditional values that I had encountered. Inasmuch as some religions taught the values I favored, I was willing to admit that religion itself could be a positive moral force, even if its tenets were untrue. I also recognized that many religious people were trying earnestly to live out the values I held, and it was churlish of me to scorn them for having the misfortune to accept false doctrines.
I left college convinced that something resembling a traditional, family-oriented morality could be derived from a Darwinian understanding of human nature, a position Dr. S. had suggested but never fully explained. Making his suggestion my project, I set out to argue in book form the superiority of traditional values and their true foundation in an evolutionary materialism. In doing this I would have to dislodge Christianity as a basis for the morality so often associated with it. I did not believe that Christianity was unrelated to traditional values but only that grounding moral behavior in faith made it inaccessible to nonbelievers, indefensible within our political system, and (assuming the illogic of Christianity) rationally unreliable.
Yet aside from the information one might find in an encyclopedia, I had managed despite my education (or perhaps because of it) to remain ignorant of any real arguments for Christianity. No one had ever tried to evangelize me. Because everyone whose opinion I had ever relied upon, from my father to Dr. S., had considered religion spent and discredited, I took it for granted that serious thinkers found their sustenance elsewhere and that I would have to support my arguments accordingly. But before I could explain why Christianity was not an acceptable foundation for traditional values, I would first have to learn what it really said.
My voracious reading during and after college led me to some solid claims against the mythology I had long held about religion. While investigating political conservatism, a consistent theme I encountered was its opposition to Communism, both for its philosophy and for its real-world performance. Communism’s record of errors and atrocities was bad enough in itself, and most conservative authors I read were content to debunk its claims and count its victims. But a few went further, and pointed out that at the heart of the Communist phenomenon was the logic of atheism, which had a tendency to kill people wherever it gained power—and on a far larger scale than the oft-deplored wars of religion. This came as a shock to me, having reached young adulthood with the myth that atheism was a gentle and enlightened worldview that could only improve upon the religious strife that plagued the world.
A second part of the mythology was that one of humanity’s great achievements, the American system of government, was intended to keep religion at bay. Such books as M. Stanton Evans’s The Theme Is Freedom and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind revealed to me the importance of religion in the thought of the American founders. I learned that, far from dismissing religion with the ironclad secularism now claimed for the Constitution, the founders assumed faith and virtue as the guarantors of freedom in the system they were designing. Neither they nor most present-day conservatives believed that any government based on ordered liberty could succeed if its citizenry were neither joined in communities of religious fellowship nor able to hold the state accountable to an authority higher than itself.
A third part of my mythology about religion I had retained from my father’s tutelage: the belief that religious faith was an impediment to the exercise of reason. As long as my readings kept me away from Christian authors, this was an easy thing to maintain. Yet once I started testing my atheism by seeking out its critics, I found myself losing ground rapidly. Such books as The Drama of Atheist Humanism by Henri de Lubac and The Gods of Atheism by Vincent Miceli (both Jesuit priests) argued convincingly that atheism was inadequate in theory and repugnant in practice.
More positively, my explorations in the conservative press had led me to the journal First Things, where I discovered my own political views echoed from a surprising source. That source was Pope John Paul II, whose writings I found excerpted in the journal’s pages. The pope’s political and economic teachings in the encyclical Centesimus Annus impressed me both with their reasonableness and with the fact that they largely matched my own positions, despite our obviously divergent starting points. Recognizing our agreement and the profoundly thoughtful character of this eminent churchman was an enormous blow to my mythology. The more I was coming to learn about the many brilliant people who called themselves Christians, the less tenable my father’s old attitude began to seem.
When I finally approached Christianity, it was with a mind to debunk it, and I headed straight for what I considered its prime representative: the Catholic Church. I had come to see Catholicism as the only branch of Christianity whose moral teachings still guarded the values I sought to live by. This largely came down to a single, decisive point: Other Christian churches sanctioned divorce, while Catholics did not.
The second reason arose from my readings in the history of ideas. The authors I had read were not partisans of any faith and, perhaps because of their detachment, had no difficulty identifying the centrality of the Catholic tradition to Christianity. Even though they criticized much of its institutional behavior, these authors left no question that the Catholic Church was the original and most substantive branch of the faith, giving me the impression that it alone was worth bothering with—either to attack or to join.
As I began to read defenses of Christianity from authors such as G. K. Chesterton and Peter Kreeft, I realized I was hopelessly unprepared to refute them. I had begun to suspect that atheism was a pernicious doctrine linked to oppression and license; now it also appeared to be an inferior answer to life’s fundamental questions relative to the belief in a god.
Moreover, I could not shake the conviction that morality had to be based in something greater than the natural world, something that could not be rewritten by one such as me. Acknowledging my obtuseness, I abandoned my writing project and decided that I would accept God’s existence though I did not know his identity. I wanted to live as a Catholic but had no way to make sense of doctrines such as the Incarnation and the immortality of the soul. I pressed on in my research, floating in an anguished and spiritually rootless state.
There are those who call themselves Bible Christians and many for whom reading Scripture is enough to spark conversion. I might better be described as a magisterium Christian: The Bible was something I approached cautiously and sparingly as I investigated the faith. I did this because Scripture struck me as obscure and confusing. I also hoped to find not merely a belief system but to join a community. I focused my research on the credibility of the Catholic Church as an institution, looking at its history and the types of people it had produced.
The great philosopher-saints impressed me considerably, though perhaps not as much as many living individuals whose great faith combined with powerful intellect and/or personal holiness (such as I knew of it) to convince me that the Church was a source of beauty, goodness, and truth. Though I still lacked faith myself, I concluded that, if the Church was losing ground in the world (as it often seems to be), the cause was not the weakness of its claims but the weakness of its defenders.
To experience the life of the Catholic community, I began attending Mass with my grandparents. All the while I was discussing with my family and unbelieving friends what I was learning and was wrestling with my own inability to make sense of several doctrines. At times the Church seemed the most exciting thing in the world; at other times I asked myself what I was doing in such foreign company.
In fighting my own hubris, I reflected on the loneliness and spiritual poverty of lives spent in rebellion against God and his Church, such as many talented people I had read about, known, or knew currently. Not wanting to remain in that company, I cast my lot with the Church, accepting its authority and subjecting myself to its teachings—even those I could not understand. To inquire about becoming a Catholic, I began talking with a priest, who had me study certain topics to better inform my decision. After subsequent weeks of study, I found that I had come to accept all the doctrines my mind had been unable to g.asp. Where reason had come up short, faith became my guide.
On my journey to faith I brought no provisions. Besides having read little of the Bible, I had never prayed, never followed any religious observance, and never performed any charitable work. None of my friends were Catholic or even particularly religious; my family was supportive but largely uninvolved in my decision. Thus I came alone, with no expectations and no baggage, to see the world of faith with fresh eyes.
I was received into the Catholic Church on August 21, 1999, twelve days after my twenty-fifth birthday. During the Mass in a hospital chapel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, thunder clapped in the mountains as the priest was recounting the conversion of Saul. Shortly thereafter, I departed New Mexico for south Texas, hoping to get up to speed in my newfound faith through graduate study in theology. My journey was only beginning.