I was raised in a Catholic family, but we weren’t so much practicing Catholics as cultural ones. We went to church on Christmas and Easter, and I was even an altar boy for a while. But I never went to church regularly. Nobody took the time to explain the sacraments or even God, so my conviction was, as it were, stillborn. It was more of a custom, really, and one I would quickly abandon once I was given a choice.
My parents stopped going to church when I was in middle school, and I assumed that if it wasn’t that important to them, then it couldn’t have been important at all. Not to mention the impact of the scientific mentality. I’d begun to learn all these interesting things about the world, such as evolution, common ancestry, and whatnot. I don’t recall ever being instructed toward a strict and literal interpretation of Scripture and creation, but I did start to think that maybe one was true and the other false. What there was of my Christian beliefs began to evaporate; I started to lose my faith in God.
Fast forward several years, and, wouldn’t you know it, I’m one of those New Atheist types. I began to think that all religion was superstition at best, and, at worst—and more commonly—a severe detriment to human advancement. Religion caused wars and fighting and backward views on things, especially morality. Religion didn’t want people to be free, and it most certainly didn’t want people to be happy.
The honesty of the Old Atheists
But as I began to study the atheistic philosophers and work my way back through Friedrich Nietzsche and others, much to my surprise, I discovered that the New Atheists had missed something crucial: when you throw away God, you throw away nearly everything. I began to wonder if that omission was intentional.
But the Old Atheists such as Nietzsche recognized this. They knew that the ultimate consequence of their godless worldview was nihilism. Since without God there are no objective moral values, there is then no objective moral purpose. There’s only the absurdity of life—pitiless chaos—random chance. And we’re all stuck in the middle of it. How fun! Anyone want to go crabbing this weekend?
What I admired about the Old Atheists is they were so much more consistent in their philosophy, so much more willing to drive it all the way through, even to its uncomfortable and pessimistic end. But what I couldn’t appreciate was that everything I knew, all the people I loved, all the things I wanted to accomplish, were for naught.
According to that system, everything was pointless, purposeless, and absurd. Therefore, the only way to make sense of our existence is to invent some kind of meaning to which to attach ourselves, at least until our bodies and minds are snuffed out at death. For there is simply nothing to discover in atheism. Whatever is here is just what our puny human minds can conjure. After all, it’s only a cosmic accident, a peculiar fluke, you know.
But for the moment, let’s forget the absurdity of that conclusion and agree that a materialist, naturalistic worldview cannot possibly be true, although I came to that conclusion only later. My initial hesitation in fully embracing atheism—indeed, the only thing that halted my descent into nihilism—was that my personal experience and identity rebelled against the idea that consciousness was merely an illusion, that there was no real I, no transcendent other. The Old Atheists’ conclusion was just too radical, too depressing. So I figured that I at least ought to study the other side of the argument before resigning myself to a quivering, paranoid psychosis.
In the studies that followed, I refused to let emotions dictate my ultimate decision. I would weigh the arguments objectively and fairly, following them to wherever they led. The responsible choice was to keep my options open. Something I also realized at that time was that atheism isn’t a scientific consensus so much as philosophical conjecture. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew there were other possibilities, even if I wasn’t convinced of them just yet.
Detour to Buddhism
So I did what many religiously rebellious but not-quite-ready-to-be-nihilist people do: I studied Buddhism. And you know what? It helped. Buddhism put me back in touch with a sense of spirituality, and I found meditation to be a useful practice. It’s something that, years later, would lend greatly to my faith as a Christian.
I practiced Zen and studied with a monk online. It was great. And nothing was out of bounds, scientifically speaking, because the Buddhism I studied didn’t come packaged with any metaphysical commitments. It was just about getting rid of the ego and all that. But it also didn’t answer any of life’s pressing questions: why are we here? does God exist? and so on. Buddhism was a way out of suffering, not an explanation for why anything exists to begin with. And that was the explanation I wanted.
Around this time, I was still highly prejudiced against Christianity. I could never have imagined I might later become a Christian, but in my continued study of philosophy, I found my way to Aristotle. And you know who comes after Aristotle, don’t you? You guessed it: St. Thomas Aquinas.
An answer to everything
And, oh, did this guy impress me! He just seemed to have an answer to everything, and every answer was satisfying and neat. His rigor was on a level of which the philosophers I had previously studied seemed largely incapable, especially the atheistic ones. You know how they say they don’t make them like they used to? Well, I think that is true of philosophers.
After years of reflection and study, I became convinced that Aquinas was right: right about God, right about the virtues, right about the meaning of life. Maybe not perfectly right, but mostly right. And that was enough. The Summa Theologica was my turning point.
So I accepted the philosophy of Aquinas quite a while before I accepted the teachings of the Church or even before I became a Christian for the second time. At that point I was sure that God exists. The arguments for God, much as in a court of law, greatly outweighed the arguments against—and I mean everything from the cosmological argument to the teleological argument to the moral argument, right on down the line.
I’m not sure any one argument convinced me initially. But as I began to study and learn about them individually, it was the gradual, cumulative effect that caused me to reach a verdict in favor of theism and reject, finally and fully, the atheism to which I had so long subscribed. This was me hopping along those stepping stones, coming back to solid ground.
There were only a few matters that remained. Jesus was one of them.
Now, when you’re an atheist, you don’t pay much attention to Jesus, because you don’t believe in miracles. So, obviously, the Resurrection wasn’t “real,” and all the “miracles” he performed were nothing more than the beguiling tricks of a charming and spiritually attuned con man. But when you’re no longer an atheist, the question haunts you: who was this guy?
After converting, my conversations with many a Catholic have centered around why, of all things, I came back to Christianity.
Why not spiritual but not religious?
Some have wanted to know why I didn’t opt for something spiritual but not, you know, religious. Like a yoga retreat. This has been a constant theme when sharing my story with Catholics; I had this conversation again just the other day.
So I tell them the same story I’ve shared to everyone who has asked: how I worked my way out of atheism to the God of the philosophers (thanks to be to Aquinas) and eventually, after years of avoiding it, to this person of Jesus Christ, and how the more I studied him, the more interesting and fantastic he became. I literally put myself in the so-called “trilemma” that C.S. Lewis once presented, even though I never read Lewis until years later. Essentially, I’d come to the conclusion that Jesus had to be either insane or in fact exactly who he claimed to be: the Son of God.
Therefore, Christianity is either (possibility #1) the greatest con job ever foisted upon the human race, or (possibility #2) the single most important thing to which a person could commit his life. There is no possibility #3.
This is a startling realization, even, I think, to practicing Catholics. That is, looking at the sheer radicality of it.
Because here’s the really fantastic thing: God, the sole, ultimate reality—the very reason for our existence—came to Earth, died for us, and told us he loves us. I mean, wow and yikes! Because if that’s true, how can you not devote your entire life to him? How can you not fall to your knees and pray and then immediately go out and tell everyone the good news? Talk about an exciting announcement!
The most faithful interpreter of the faith
So, that’s my story. And the rest? Well, that was all fairly easy. Because once I had Jesus figured out, it was merely a matter of discerning who (or what) was the most faithful interpreter of the Christian faith. I was given the capability to assess (again, I think, rather dispassionately) the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.
In doing so, I quickly saw that most attacks on Catholicism were hardly attacks on anything that Catholics actually believed, such as worshiping statues or what have you. I also saw Luther’s sola scriptura as self-refuting and arguably the single worst thing to ever occur within Christendom, essentially breaking Judeo-Christian culture and morality. So there was that.
But mostly I felt that the Catholic Church had gotten it right—that everything it presented as doctrine was, in fact, an eminently plausible and reasonable interpretation of Scripture, and that nothing within the Catholic faith conflicted with anything I knew about the world scientifically, which was not the case of certain sects of, say, Fundamentalism. Intellectually, I had come to terms with it. The Catholic Church made sense. Too many others did not.
But coming to terms with something intellectually is not the same as being moved spiritually into it. And while I fully subscribe to the fact that my re-conversion was sponsored by the power of the Holy Spirit, what I’m saying is I had yet to experience my own personal relationship with Christ.
So, I prayed. For the first time since I was a little boy, I lowered my head and told God I believed in him and wanted to get to know him better. And having ended my prayer, I stood and went about the rest of my day. A week may have passed, but as we were nearing Christmas, a niggling settled in, and I found myself moved to attend Mass.
It was Christmas Eve, and I walked into the local Catholic church and witnessed for the first time in over a decade the consecration of the Eucharist. When those bells rang, sounding out the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into our Lord’s body and blood, in that moment, my conviction was finally complete. I had found the solid ground I’d long been looking for.