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The Last to Know: An Atheist Comes Home

In November 2001, my husband and I and our first child were received into the Catholic Church. Like most converts, I look back on my journey to Rome with great astonishment, especially considering that just a few years before that I had been an avowed pro-choice, pro-gay-rights atheist.

What’s unusual about my story is that the Bible played virtually no role in my conversion. I grew up in southern Virginia in a nominally Protestant home with parents who attended church every few years. Nevertheless, I was an avid churchgoer well into my teens and attended a variety of denominations—largely to escape my abusive home life. I cherished the feeling of normalcy and peace that I found in the pews of those small-town churches.

Even so, my knowledge of Christianity was shallow. I had no understanding of even the most basic tenets of the faith, including the Trinity. I had been told repeatedly that Jesus died for my sins, but I had no idea who Jesus was or why I was responsible for his death. But I did believe in God, and during my darkest hours, I prayed desperately to him for deliverance.

Deliverance did not come soon enough. My ignorance would have made me easy pickings for any secularist, but the final blow to my belief in God actually came from Christian churches. I secretly contacted half a dozen churches in a nearby city, explained my situation, and asked for help. They all gave me different reasons for why they “could not get involved.” One woman, while speaking in tongues, told me I needed to pray harder. I even attempted suicide, another “cry for help,” but was sent home from the hospital with no counseling or further investigation.

God in the Rear-View Mirror

After those experiences, I stopped going to church and did not pray again for almost fifteen years. Many atheists express anger toward the deity they claim does not exist, but I didn’t feel I was discarding my faith out of bitterness. It was simple logic: I suffered and asked the all-powerful, all-loving God to help me; since he didn’t, he must not exist. By the time a local court granted my petition for emancipation at age seventeen, my atheism was cemented. Instead of faith, I forged a steely self-reliance that I believed would effect great changes for the better in my life.

My college experiences put me squarely in the center of the secular moral rot. Drunkenness, promiscuity, and just about every form of sexual debauchery was not only tolerated but encouraged. As a writer for the university paper, I interviewed Dr. Ruth, an opportunity I proudly turned into an article promoting fornication, contraception, sexual deviance, and abortion.

The Catholics I met were no different from the rest of the student population. One evening my freshman year, I heatedly argued against priestly celibacy with a young Catholic woman who unwaveringly defended it. But no matter—at least we could agree on the merits of casual sex and birth control.

Love and Beauty Disturb My Atheism

I lived a hedonistic life, free of the shackles of traditional morality, yet I had experiences that could not be explained by my atheistic worldview: moments of blinding emotion when I heard a piece of classical music or saw a particularly beautiful landscape. My heart occasionally swelled with love, but the sacrifices I saw people make for love contradicted the logical self-interest of atheism. Without a purposeful Creator, beauty and love simply did not make sense. Yet these experiences continued to disturb me.

While most of my peers denigrated Christians, I secretly envied those who had genuine faith. Having rejected God, my sporadic attempts at prayer during low moments in my life were hollow and felt contrived. Occasional attempts to participate in religious services left me feeling confused and empty. I half-expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hey, you. We know you’re not one of us. Outta here.”

I finally stopped trying. I posited that being a “good person” was all that mattered. I was a relativist when it came to sin, but without seeing the contradiction I also believed that my own goodness was rooted in an unchanging, objective moral standard.

After graduation, I worked as a writer. Soon I met Tom, a computer engineer, and within months we were engaged. We were married in a small civil ceremony in his parents’ living room in February 1998.

Although he was baptized Catholic, Tom was not raised in the Church. His parents sent him to a Catholic prep school and he decided to go to a Catholic college, but he emerged with near total ignorance of the faith. By the time we married, he considered himself agnostic and attended no church.

There’s Something to this Jesus Guy

During the first several years of our marriage, we had plenty of time for intellectual pursuits. We had friends and acquaintances of many faiths, and we often questioned them about their beliefs. From one couple we learned more about authentic Catholicism. Their personal witness made a strong impression on us. It was not lost on us that the Catholic Church—which obviously had some wacky ideas about suffering and sex—could count among its ranks a vibrant young couple who happily submitted to its most demanding teachings.

Our discussions intrigued me, and some cracks began to appear in my armor. After our Catholic friends pointed out the arbitrary nature of the pro-choice argument that “life begins sometime after conception,” I gradually came around to the pro-life position. Even as an atheist, I could see that abortion was a human rights issue and the only morally prudent position to take. After all, if this life is all we get, snuffing it out in utero seemed, well, beyond the pale. I enjoyed those years of being anathema to abortion advocates—dealing with a “pro-life atheist” meant they could not dismiss my beliefs as the product of misguided religious indoctrination.

But it wasn’t until later that Tom and I began our spiritual journey in earnest. Early on, we visited a Buddhist temple but were disturbed to hear a young woman “in robes” tell about assisting a friend with an abortion. Although Buddhism seemed warm and fuzzy, its lack of intellectual rigor was unsatisfying. We also couldn’t bring ourselves to embrace a spiritual destiny that ended in extermination.

Around that time, we read Hostage to the Devil: The Possession and Exorcism of Five Contemporary Americans by Malachi Martin. We accepted the author’s assertions that evil spirits exist, that there must be a force for good pushing back or the world would be entirely evil, and that the only people who are able to vanquish the evil spirits are Catholic clergy doing so in the name of Jesus.

We were so disturbed by the book that we went to Mass the next morning. Unimpressed by what we perceived to be the lifeless character of the parishioners and priest, we left before Communion.

It was actually a devout Mormon who showed us the love of Christ, if not the truth. A highly intelligent man renowned for his political commentary, he spoke about his love for and obedience to Jesus with such passion that we couldn’t help but be moved.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Tom asked as we left his house.

“That there’s something to this Jesus guy?” I asked. And with that, we essentially accepted that it was Jesus we were looking for.

Searching for the True Church

But where was his church? We visited a few Protestant churches and even met with one pastor, whose philosophy of “Christianity is whatever you want it to be” sat no better with us than Buddhism had. We attended a different church on Easter and were impressed by the vibrant congregation and pastor. The warm reception stood in stark contrast to our encounters with Catholic clergy. We had approached one priest after Mass and asked to learn more about Catholicism, and he brushed us off, telling us, “Call the diocese.”

Despite our mostly positive experiences with Protestant churches, we were disturbed by the doctrinal inconsistencies. How could the Holy Spirit be leading congregations and pastors to different, even conflicting truths?

The issue that persuaded us was contraception—a stumbling block for most Catholics. I had suffered years of unpleasant side-effects from hormonal birth control, and a Catholic friend convinced us to try natural family planning. I purchased The Art of Natural Family Planning by the Couple to Couple League to learn the method, and I skimmed the chapters on theology. Then I began devouring them. Here was a vision of human sexuality—a redeemed, glorious vision—that I had never heard before.

We learned that all Protestant denominations had considered contraception immoral until 1930 but nearly all of them abandoned their opposition, and some even declared contraception to be a moral good. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, always had and still did proclaim it to be an intrinsic evil.

We found a brand new parish online and attended Mass one Sunday in the spring of 2001. Sitting on orange plastic chairs in an elementary school cafeteria (they had no building yet), my husband and I realized we were home. The sense of rightness was unmistakable. We approached the priest after Mass, and at our appointment with him a week later, we told him we wanted to convert. He asked us why, as living the Catholic faith required more sacrifice and diligence than other religions, and the world had enough lukewarm Catholics.

When we explained that we were pro-life Christians practicing natural family planning who had rejected Protestantism, he invited us to RCIA. After six months of in-depth instruction from a passionate young priest, we were beating down the doors to be full members of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Catholic to the Core

Even with all the obvious changes in my beliefs and lifestyle, I seem to have been the last to know that I was on the road to Catholicism all along. And there were plenty of signs. In college, I argued ad nauseam in favor of the intrinsic value of hope with an agnostic, prompting him to accuse me of being a “closet theist.” Years later, a devoutly Catholic young woman had told me I was “Catholic to the core” when I challenged the notion that suffering was incompatible with the existence of a benevolent, all-powerful God. I laughed off her comments, thinking I had a greater chance of winning the lottery than I did of becoming a Catholic.

Five years ago, as the waters of baptism washed across my soul, I did both.

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