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Further Reading

DEPARTMENT


Great Escapes

How the Raving Atheist Became the Raving Theist

I grew up in a largely secular area of Long Island. My mother was the daughter of a Protestant minister, and my father was an agnostic whose family was once active in Communist circles. Although I attended my mother's church every week until sixth grade, it was more for cultural and social reasons than spiritual ones.

I didn't have a relationship with God; that wasn't even something we talked about. But I remember once, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother fainted, and my first reaction was to run upstairs and pray about it, to ask God for help.

During my last year of high school, I began taking a greater interest in religion. I'd become close friends with a Reform Jewish kid who had a brilliant scientific mind and who openly mocked religion. That year I read Bertrand Russell's essay "Why I Am Not a Christian." I was captivated by the irreverent humor and whimsical tone. His reasoning made perfect sense to me, and by the time I entered college, I considered myself an atheist as well. (My conviction was such that I saw fit to dramatically—and quite irrelevantly—proclaim that fact in the opening sentence of a cover letter seeking a PBS internship.)

In the summer after my freshman year of college, I hopped a bus to California, excited by the prospect of adventures out West. My enthusiasm quickly waned after a couple of weeks on skid row and a failed stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. I settled into a clerical job and found less seedy lodgings, then spent much of my free time holed up in the Los Angeles library, reading about cults and deprogramming. In addition to having a devout Scientologist landlady, I'd begun noticing the Moonies all over L.A.

One afternoon I just happened to loiter near a corner where the Moonies were proselytizing. They invited me into their group, and I hung out with them for a weekend retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. When they tried to convince me to send for all my worldly belongings, my suspicions were confirmed. I packed my bags and headed back to college, determined to write about my experiences and my conviction that all religions were cults.

The piece I wrote helped formulate most of my thoughts about religion. Eventually it was published in the college newspaper, although the editors cut a section that attempted to draw unflattering parallels between the Moonies and the Catholic Church.

After college I had little time to think about religion or atheism. I was too busy going to law school and having a life. My career as a lawyer flourished, and eventually I began teaching law as well.

Blogging for Atheism

In the late nineties I attended a series of continuing education courses in philosophy. The professor, a philosopher who edited and wrote the introduction to Bertrand Russell's collection of essays, was very sarcastic. He hated religion and religious people. I got to know him and soon was engaging in debate with other lawyers about atheism. My focus on atheism as a lifestyle led a friend to suggest that I begin a blog.

So in late 2001 I began co-writing a political blog with a college acquaintance, my posts focusing frequently on religion. Soon I started my own blog attacking religious people as demented, deluded "Godidiots." I wrote scathing essays explaining how the "culture of belief" was destroying America. I would track down faith-based blogs, ridicule their motives as suspect, and pronounce them guilty of insanity—despite the fact that these people lived simple, good lives.

True atheism, I believed, was not about "live and let live." It was a cause that needed an evangelist as much as any faith. In an effort to provide a set of atheistic principles for such a ministry, the "basic assumptions" of my blog declared that all definitions of God either were self-contradictory, incoherent, and meaningless or could be refuted by empirical, scientific evidence.

Despite my bold posturing, I felt ill-versed in scientific matters, and I recognized that my "logical disproofs" could only go so far. In fact, in an early essay I conceded that it was technically possible for a rational person to have a belief in God. To my mind, however, it was still only possible in the sense that one might be sharing the room with a purple hippopotamus that evaded detection by darting away the moment one tried to turn around and see it. In other words, there was no evidence for it. So while it was a possibility, it wasn't worth much consideration.

Surrounded by Life

In late 2002 I attended a blogger party where I sat next to a Catholic blogger named Benjamin. At one point the conversation turned to abortion, and I asked Benjamin's opinion of the practice. The calm, confident reply was: "It's murder." I was stunned. Here was a kind, affable, and cogently reasonable human being who nonetheless believed that abortion was murder. To the limited extent I had previously considered the issue, I believed abortion to be completely acceptable, the mere disposal of a lump of cells, perhaps akin to clipping fingernails.

This unsettling exchange spurred me to further investigate the issue on Benjamin's blog. I noticed that pro-choice Christians did not employ scientific or rational arguments but relied on a confused set of "spiritual" platitudes. More significantly, the overwhelmingly pro-choice atheistic blogosphere also fell short in its analysis of abortion. The supposedly "reality-based" community either dismissed abortion as a "religious issue" or paradoxically claimed that pro-life principles were contrary to religious doctrine. Having formerly equated atheism with reason, I was slowly growing uncertain of the value of godlessness in the search for truth.

I nevertheless continued my atheistic ravings full force. In early 2003 I engaged in a particularly venomous exchange with an online Catholic scholar over Thomas Aquinas's "first cause" argument. In a later, conciliatory gesture, I linked to a post-abortion healing blog favored by my religious adversary—an act that brought me into contact with a group of pro-life advocates whose selfless dedication to their cause moved me deeply. I was inspired by their gentle and reasonable writings, particularly the story of a woman named Ashli, who wrote with painful honesty about how her late-term abortion had affected her. She now channeled her suffering into efforts to help women in similar situations and save them from the fallout of abortion.

I began communicating with Ashli, and eventually she asked for my assistance in some of her pro-life work. When she gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Mother's Day 2004, I decided to use the occasion to announce that the Raving Atheist would become, in part, a pro-life blog. This decision stirred an angry mutiny among my readers. But I had become convinced that the secular world had it wrong on the very foundational issue of life.

With Ashli's encouragement I began volunteering at a crisis pregnancy center. Suddenly I was surrounded by life. Here were people who were kind and loving and who lived out their faith in a very tangible way. The pictures on the walls of the center confirmed this. Smiling babies were everywhere. The tangible expression of pro-life work was life itself. It was becoming clear to me that people who lived out their Christian faith were happier and better people as a result.

No More Mockery

Despite this evidence I maintained a lingering intellectual attachment to atheism. In late 2004 I organized a blog interview with the bestselling atheist author Sam Harris (The End of Faith). Assisting in the questioning was filmmaker Brian Flemming. This association led both me and Harris to appear the next year in Flemming's anti-Christian documentary, The God Who Wasn't There.

I attended the documentary's New York premiere. At the end of a subsequent summertime showing in the city, however, I found my atheistic enthusiasm waning. The appearance of my pseudonym in the credits inspired less pride than I had expected. As the lights turned on, I felt alienated from the audience and its contemptuous, antireligious laughter.

I briefly considered joining a small group that had formed to discuss the film over dinner. In fact I followed them for several blocks while debating whether to invite myself. But halfway across a darkened midtown street, I walked away.

That fall I began a friendship with a Catholic blogger, Dawn. I frequently guest-posted on her site about pro-life issues. I also continued working on certain "hard cases" with Ashli. Near Thanksgiving of 2005, Ashli opened her heart (and home) to a young woman coping with a particularly difficult and tumultuous pregnancy. Dawn, other bloggers, and I came together on this woman's behalf.

In June 2006 I saw the woman's sonogram ripen into a baby. In honor of Ashli's efforts, I vowed that the birth of the child would spell the death of atheism on my blog. Late that month I announced that I would no longer mock God on my site.

The Voice in the Church

Although still a doubter, my subsequent posts entertained the possibility of God. I asked Dawn if I could join her at church, and at her suggestion I began daily prayer. I still didn't believe in God, but I wanted to change. I wanted the deep, abiding joy I'd observed in my pro-life Christian friends.

Because of Dawn's great kindness to me, in the summer of 2006 my wife and I began attending church with her. On July 23 we went together to the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue and 38th Street. I walked up for Communion (though I learned later that I shouldn't have). At the very instant that the wafer touched my lips, an angry, mocking voice from behind hissed, "So much for the atheist."

I returned to the pew but said nothing. I tried to tell myself that I had misheard what was said, although the voice was so articulate that there was really no doubt in my mind. Colin, a friend of Dawn, had been in line several people behind me. He sat down next to me and asked if I had heard the same thing he had. He had looked at the speaker (I had not), a disheveled and possibly schizophrenic man. Colin did not realize that the timing of the utterance coincided with my taking Communion.

Dawn, also behind me in the Communion line, was late in returning to the pew. Having heard the same thing, she had scooted off to a row of candles to say a prayer for me. Very matter-of-factly she hypothesized that Satan had been stirred. He was enraged at the prospect of losing one of his most "faithful" advocates.

Ninety-five percent of me was blowing the incident off as coincidence. My main concern was that I would never hear the end of it or, worse yet, that Dawn would post about it without my permission. My atheistic instincts compelled me to categorize the event as the sort of worthless spiritual personal experience that nonbelievers immediately recognize as a sign of credulity, mental illness, or simple lying. I was ashamed to even pretend to take it seriously.

Two witnesses though. It did make enough of an impression on me that I memorialized it as my "Quote of the Day" that evening. And freed from the compulsion to launch a blog-attack on God, I was eventually able to view the incident as a rational person should: if not conclusive proof, at least evidence pointing distinctly in one direction.

Opened Eyes

I applied this approach to my consideration of theology in general. In time I found it impossible to believe that the universe was created out of nothing. There was order, direction, and love. Those things all pointed to some larger, unfathomable consciousness. I realized I could not believe that human hearts and minds came into being randomly.

My eyes were also opened to the core truth of Christianity. Whereas I had formerly concurred with Nietzsche's appraisal of the faith as a "slave's philosophy," a cruel celebration of senseless suffering, I saw that his experiences had brought even him to appreciate the nobility of sacrifices made for the sake of life.

This "Great Escape" is reprinted, with permission, from Atheist to Catholic: Stories of Conversion, Rebecca Vitz Cherico, editor (Servant Books, 2011).

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Public Defender

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by Marcia Segelstein

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