The following is a blog post from Matt Nelson. You can read more from Matt on his blog at Reasonable Catholic.
Conversions from atheism are often gradual and complex, no doubt. For many converts the road is slow and tedious, tiring and trying. But in the end unbelievers who find God can enjoy an inner peace that comes from a clear conscience in knowing they held to truth and followed the arguments faithfully.Of course not all converts from atheism become Christian or even religious. Some converts only reach a deistic belief in God (an areligious position that God is “impersonal”) but the leap is still monumental; and it opens new, unforeseen horizons.
The factors that lead to faith are often diverse. It is clear that every former atheist has walked a unique path to God. Cardinal Ratzinger was once asked how many ways there are to God. He replied:
“As many ways as there are people. For even within the same faith each man’s way is an entirely personal one.”
Of course, the pope-to-be was not endorsing the view that “all religions are equal” but rather that there always seems to be a unique combination of factors—or steps—that move each convert towards belief in God. It also seems that some of these factors are more prominent across the board than others.
Here are eight common factors that lead atheists to change their minds about God:
1. Good Literature and Reasonable Writing.
Reasonable atheists eventually become theists because they are reasonable; and furthermore, because they are honest. They are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads; and in many cases the evidence comes to the atheist most coherently and well-presented through the writings of believers in God.
“I once thought I’d be a lifelong atheist. Then I became desperately unhappy, read up on philosophy and various religions (while assiduously avoiding Christianity), and waited for something to make sense. I was initially appalled when Christianity began to look like the sensible thing, surprised when I wanted to be baptized, and stunned that I ended up a Catholic.”
Dr. Holly Ordway, author of Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, describes the consequences of reading great, intelligent Christian writers:
“I found that my favorite authors were men and women of deep Christian faith. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all; and then the poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne, and others. Their work was unsettling to my atheist convictions…”
Dr. Ordway mentions the eminent 20th century Oxford thinker, C.S. Lewis. Lewis is a prime example of a reasonable but unbelieving thinker who was willing to read from all angles and perspectives. As a result of his open inquiry, he became a believer in Christ and one of modern Christianity’s greatest apologists.
G.K. Chesterton and George MacDonald were two of the most influential writers to effect Lewis’ conversion. He writes in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy:
“In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for… A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.”
Author Dale Ahlquist writes matter-of-factly that “C.S. Lewis was an atheist until he read Chesterton’s book, The Everlasting Man, but he wasn’t afterwards…”
Ironically, it was C.S. Lewis’ influential defenses of Christianity that would eventually prompt countless conversions to Christianity—and his influence continues today unhindered. Among the Lewis-led converts from atheism is former feminist and professor of philosophy, Lorraine Murray, who recalls:
“In college I turned my back on Catholicism, my childhood faith, and became a radical, gender-bending feminist and a passionate atheist …. Reading Lewis, I found something that I must have been quietly hungering for all along, which was a reasoned approach to my childhood beliefs, which had centered almost entirely on emotion. As I turned the pages of this book, I could no longer ignore the Truth, nor turn my back on the Way and the Life. Little by little, and inch by inch, I found my way back to Jesus Christ and returned to the Catholic Church.”
For an in-depth account of Murray’s conversion, see her book: Confessions Of An Ex-Feminist.
2. “Experimentation” with Prayer and the Word of God.
The Word of God is living. It has power beyond human comprehension because it is “God-breathed.” God speaks to man in many ways; but especially through prayer and the reading of the inspired Scriptures. When curiosity (or even interest) of non-believers leads to experimentation with prayer or reading the Bible the results can be shocking, as many converts attest.
One former atheist who was profoundly affected by prayer and the Scriptures is author Devin Rose. On his blog, he describes the role that God’s Word played in his gradual conversion process from atheism to Christianity:
“I began praying, saying, “God, you know I do not believe in you, but I am in trouble and need help. If you are real, help me.” I started reading the Bible to learn about what Christianity said…”
Once Rose began to read the Scriptures and talk to God, even as a skeptic, he found himself overwhelmed by something very real:
“Still, I persevered. I kept reading the Bible, asking my roommate questions about what I was reading, and praying. Then, slowly, and amazingly, my faith grew and it eventually threatened to whelm my many doubts and unbelief.”
And the rest was history for the now rising Catholic apologist and author of The Protestant’s Dilemma.
Similarly, renowned sci-fi author John C. Wright distinctly recalls a prayer he said as an adamant atheist:
“I prayed. ‘Dear God, I know… that you do not exist. Nonetheless, as a scholar, I am forced to entertain the hypothetical possibility that I am mistaken. So just in case I am mistaken, please reveal yourself to me in some fashion that will prove your case. If you do not answer, I can safely assume that either you do not care whether I believe in you, or that you have no power to produce evidence to persuade me…If you do not exist, this prayer is merely words in the air, and I lose nothing but a bit of my dignity. Thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter, John Wright.’”
Wright soon received the answer (and effect) he did not expect:
“Something from beyond the reach of time and space, more fundamental than reality, reached across the universe and broke into my soul and changed me…I was altered down to the root of my being…It was like falling in love.”
Wright was welcomed into the Catholic Church at Easter in 2008.
3. Historical Study of the Gospels.
Lee Strobel, the former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune and author of the influential work, The Case For Christ, is a prime example of what happens when an honest atheist sets out to establish once and for all whether the claims of the Gospels are reliable or not.
Strobel writes at the end of his investigation in The Case For Christ:
“I’ll admit it:I was ambushed by the amount and quality of the evidence that Jesus is the unique Son of God… I shook my head in amazement. I had seen defendants carted off to the death chamber on much less convincing proof! The cumulative facts and data pointed unmistakably towards a conclusion that I wasn’t entirely comfortable in reaching.” (p. 264)
Modern historical scholars like Craig Blomberg and N.T. Wright have advanced the area of historical theology and the study of the claims of the Gospels to exciting new heights. The results of such ground-breaking studies are one of the greatest threats to modern day atheism.
Referring specifically to the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ in the Gospels (discussed below), former atheist and freelancer, Philip Vander Elst, writes:
“The more I thought about all these points, the more convinced I became that the internal evidence for the reliability of the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole was overwhelming.”
4. Honest Philosophical Reasoning.
Philosophy means “love of truth.” Philosophy is meant to lead one to truth; and it certainly will, if the philosopher is willing to honestly consider the arguments from both sides and follow the best arguments wherever they may lead.
Psychologist Dr. Kevin Vost recalls his discovery of the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas:
“Pope Leo XIII had written in the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris that for scientific types who follow only reason, after the grace of God, nothing is as likely to win them back to the faith as the wisdom of St. Thomas, and this was the case for me. He showed me how true Christian faith complements and perfects reason; it doesn’t contradict or belittle it. He solved all the logical dilemmas.”
Philosopher Dr. Ed Feser, in his article, The Road From Atheism, recounts the shocking effect of opening himself to the arguments for the existence of God:
“As I taught and thought about the arguments for God’s existence, and in particular the cosmological argument, I went from thinking “These arguments are no good” to thinking “These arguments are a little better than they are given credit for” and then to “These arguments are actually kind of interesting.” Eventually it hit me: “Oh my goodness, these arguments are right after all!”
“Speaking for myself, anyway, I can say this much. When I was an undergrad I came across the saying that learning a little philosophy leads you away from God, but learning a lot of philosophy leads you back. As a young man who had learned a little philosophy, I scoffed. But in later years and at least in my own case, I would come to see that it’s true.”
Two fantastic books from Edward Feser include The Last Superstition: A Refutation Of The New Atheism and Aquinas. Also recommended is Kevin Vost’s From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me to the Truth.
5. Reasonable Believers.
It has been the obnoxious position of some (not all) atheists that in order to believe in God, one must have a significant lack of intelligence and/or reason. Most atheists believe that modern science has ruled out the possibility of the existence of God. For this reason, they tag believers with a lack of up-to-date knowledge and critical thinking skills. (Of course, the question of the existence of a God who is outside of the physical universe is fundamentally a philosophical question—not a scientific question.)
Intelligent and reasonable believers in God, who can engage atheistic arguments with clarity and logic, become a great challenge to atheists who hold this shallow attitude towards the existence of God.
Theists especially make a statement when they are experts in any field of science. To list just a few examples: Galileo and Kepler (astronomy), Pascal (hydrostatics), Boyle (chemistry), Newton (calculus), Linnaeus (systematic biology), Faraday (electromagnetics), Cuvier (comparative anatomy), Kelvin (thermodynamics), Lister (antiseptic surgery), and Mendel (genetics).
An honest atheist might presume, upon encountering Christians (for example) who have reasonable explanations for their supernatural beliefs, that the existence of God is at least plausible. This encounter might then mark the beginning of the non-believer’s openness towards God as a reality.
Consider the notable conversion of former atheist blogger, Jennifer Fulwiler. Her journey from atheism to agnosticism and—eventually—to Catholicism, was slow and gradual with many different points of impact. But encountering intelligent believers in God was a key chink in her atheist armor.
In this video interview with Brandon Vogt, Jen explains how encountering intelligent, reasonable theists (especially her husband) impacted her in the journey towards her eventual conversion.
And then there’s Leah Libresco—another atheist blogger turned Catholic. Leah recalls the challenging impact of reasonable Christians in her academic circle:
“I was in a philosophical debating group, so the strongest pitch I saw was probably the way my Catholic friends rooted their moral, philosophical, or aesthetic arguments in their theology. We covered a huge spread of topics so I got so see a lot of long and winding paths into the consequences of belief.”
Recalling her first encounter with this group of intelligent Christians, she writes on her blog:
“When I went to college…I met smart Christians for the first time, and it was a real shock.”
That initial “shock” stirred her curiosity and propelled her in the direction of Christianity. Leah is now an active Catholic.
Finally, there’s Edith Stein, a brilliant 20th century philosopher. As an atheist, Edith was shocked when she discovered the writings of Catholic philosopher, Max Scheler. As one account of her conversion recounts:
“Edith was enthralled by Scheler’s eloquence in expounding and defending Catholic spiritual ideals. Listening to his lectures on the phenomenology of religion, she became
disposed to take religious ideas and attitudes seriously for the first time since her adolescence, when she had lost her faith and and given up prayer.”
Edith Stein would eventually convert to Catholicism and die a martyr. She is now known as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.
6. Modern Advances and Limitations in Science.
Antony Flew was one of the world’s most famous atheists of the 20th century. He debated William Lane Craig and others on the existence of God. But eventually his recognition of the profound order and complexity of the universe, and its apparent fine-tuning, was a decisive reason for the renowned atheist to change his mind about God’s existence.
In a fascinating interview with Dr. Ben Wiker, Flew explains:
“There were two factors in particular that were decisive. One was my growing empathy with the insight of Einstein and other noted scientists that there had to be an Intelligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical Universe.”
He concluded that it was reasonable to believe that the organization of space, time, matter and energy throughout the universe is far from random.
As Dr. Peter Kreeft has pointed out, no person would see a hut on a beach and conclude that it must have randomly assembled itself by some random natural process, void of an intelligent designer. Its order necessitates a designer. Thus if this “beach hut analogy” is true, how much more should we believe in an Intelligent Designer behind the vastly more complex and ordered universe and the precise physical laws that govern it (Click here for William Lane Craig’s argument for the fine-tuning of the universe).
Flew continues in his exposition on why he changed his mind about God:
“The second was my own insight that the integrated complexity of life itself—which is far more complex than the physical Universe—can only be explained in terms of an Intelligent Source. I believe that the origin of life and reproduction simply cannot be explained from a biological standpoint . . . The difference between life and non-life, it became apparent to me, was ontological and not chemical. The best confirmation of this radical gulf is Richard Dawkins’ comical effort to argue in The God Delusion that the origin of life can be attributed to a “lucky chance.” If that’s the best argument you have, then the game is over. No, I did not hear a Voice. It was the evidence itself that led me to this conclusion.”
Parents often describe their experience of procreation as “a miracle,” regardless of their religious background or philosophical worldview. Intuitively, they seem to accept that there is something deeply mysterious and transcendent at work in the bringing forth (and sustenance) of new human life. Flew also was able to realize (after a lifetime of study and reflection) that there could be no merely natural explanation for life in the universe.
For a more in-depth account of Flew’s change of mind on God’s existence, read There Is A God: How The World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind.
7. Evidence For The Resurrection.
Thanks to the phenomenal work of leading New Testament scholars, including Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, and N.T. Wright, the case for Christ’s resurrection has become more airtight than ever.
Modern historical studies have left little doubt about what the best explanation is for the alleged postmortem appearances of the risen Jesus, the conversions of Paul and James, and the empty tomb: Jesus really was raised from the dead. Even most of today’s critical New Testament scholars accept these basic facts as historically certain (the appearances, conversions, empty tomb, etc); but they are left limping with second-rate alternative explanations in a last ditch effort to refute the true resurrection of Christ and “signature of God”, as scholar Richard Swinburne has tagged it.
The case for the resurrection of Jesus had a significant impact on the former atheist, now Christian apologist, Alister McGrath. He recalls in one of his articles:
“My early concern was to get straight what Christians believed, and why they believed it. How does the Resurrection fit into the web of Christian beliefs? How does it fit into the overall scheme of the Christian faith? After several years of wrestling with these issues, I came down firmly on the side of Christian orthodoxy. I became, and remain, a dedicated and convinced defender of traditional Christian theology. Having persuaded myself of its merits, I was more than happy to try to persuade others as well.”
For more on McGrath’s journey see his book, Surprised By Meaning.
The great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, wrote:
“Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another.”
Father von Balthasar held strong to the notion that to lead non-believers to belief in God we must begin with the beautiful.
Dr. Peter Kreeft calls this the Argument from Aesthetic Experience. The Boston College philosopher testifies that he knows of several former atheists who came to a belief in God based on this argument (for more from Dr. Kreeft, see his Twenty Arguments For The Existence Of God).
In classic Kreeftian fashion, he puts forward the argument in the following way:
“There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.
You either see this one or you don’t.”
Image via James P. – Creative Commons