I think it would be best to next let you know where I’m coming from: I think it will help you understand my statements, and perhaps help you in responding to me--why I think these weird things. :-)
I was raised Protestant, and at one time, I wanted to be a minister. Then I started dating...and this whole religion thing started making less and less sense. :-)
I spent some two decades as a functional atheist.
The initial step in my conversion was triggered by information that I was seeing coming across my desk as the supervisor of the Employee Assistance Program: information from secular sources indicating that religious practice was associated with less stress, better health, etc. I found it HUGELY annoying. (Is that not odd? Why would I find accurate information annoying if I was being objective--as I claimed.)
I also learned that very strong efforts were made to treat alcoholism without any reference to God: but the religious 12 Step program worked dramatically better--which many mental health professionals found HUGELY annoying. (Is that not odd?)
So, I tried religion like one would try wheat germ or vitamins. I was looking for something universal (not knowing that "catholic" means universal) rather than narrow, so I tried the Unitarian Universalist church: where I was essentially told that God is dead, but she’s a liberal Democrat.
Then I tried Unity: there people really believed in God and prayer; and I became increasingly convinced that the empirical evidence suggested that there was a God of some kind. They had about half the truth, which was fine with me since I wanted to construct my own system of values around my predominant faults.
I did have a religious experience which I will summarize only in order to explain--aware that those in other religions have experiences as well--and may wind up embracing...say Islam. (There are possible explanations for that--but I won’t go into them here.)
After I saw my son born, I felt drawn to a hospital chapel. I went in, which was not natural for me, and I knelt, which was unprecedented. Although the experience was strong, there were no visions or voices and it does not translate well into words.
The predominant feeling was of awe for that precious life. I have never felt such intense gratitude. But there was more.
I don’t know what judgment will be like, or purgatory; but some have speculated that, in part, you are shown your own faults in a way that you are not able to rationalize away. And you just have to quietly experience their ugliness. It was like that. I felt physically sickened by the stench of my own BS: the intellectual dishonesty, the rationalizations, the selfishness, pride and arrogance. I had not the will nor ability to look away. And I had the feeling that this precious child was not just mine: he was God’s as well...and I remembered the words of Jesus about children. And then my will returned to me: and I realized that I had a choice to make. And I made it.
The decision was of the type you make when your life is on the line: when you decide on a course of action that you know may cost––or save—your life. Such decisions feel...like granite: hard, immovable, and final. I got up and walked away, and in a sense I never looked back.
That was not the day that I became a Catholic, or even a Christian. The decision I made was simply this: I would follow the search for the truth...where ever it lead me...and most importantly, even if I didn’t want to believe it. Yes, that last part was the real decision: I promised God that I would believe the truth even if I hated it and did not want to be true.
And that is exactly what happened: I wanted Catholicism to be false--above all else. For if Catholicism is true, then that changes everything. And the first thing one must attack is one’s predominant faults: which I had protected and nourished all those years with such tenderness.
Additionally, I was accepting at face value the unanimous verdict of 4 different sources: Protestants from my upbringing; the secular press; fallen away Catholics who misremembered what they never understood about their 8th grade religion class (which was the last time they seriously studied their faith); and my college professors and classmates. Let me pause here to note: these were (generally) intelligent people. Some were brilliant--sometimes having PhD’s and a national reputation. At the time, it seemed quite impossible that they could all be wrong.
I was a walking store of misinformation about the Catholic Church. It's a funny thing. The beliefs of the Catholic Church are a matter of public record. They are stated in carefully worded documents, and explained by any number of excellent authors. Yet, until a year before my conversion, I had never read a single book defending Catholic teachings in my whole life. I had never had an in depth discussion with any believing Catholic about the doctrines that I thought were stupid...or even read a magazine article! Oh how carefully I shielded myself from any accurate knowledge of the Church--to never give the Catholic position a fair hearing. Yet I felt perfectly qualified to pontificate (so to speak) on Catholic teachings.
How pompous I was in my carefully cultivated ignorance! Mary ever-virgin? Hah! The Bible says that Jesus had brothers and sisters! The Church is just dumb. I guess I just unconsciously assumed that over the course of 2,000 years of carefully preserving the Bible, copying it over and over by hand, no Catholic had ever noticed that passage. No Catholic as clever as me! It is not that I considered the Catholic explanation, and disagreed with it: I was arrogant enough to assume that there wasn't one.
When I finally became open enough to actually read what Catholics had to say, I was humiliated. Absolutely humiliated. For starters, my misunderstanding of Catholic teachings was nearly total.
Moreover, ME as the self-righteous judge of such as St. Augustine, Thomas A Kempis, St. Anselm, St. Patrick, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, St. Benedict! Disgusting. Have you ever read their stuff? Their holiness, wisdom, knowledge, and intelligence shines forth! How could I have been so arrogant? What an utter fool!
Interestingly, I was not such a fool in other areas of my life. I understood very well that one must consider both sides of an issue before claiming to understand it: indeed, I often proclaimed that if you don’t know something well enough to defend it credibly in debate, you cannot honestly say that you disagree with it.
Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I had a great deal of prejudice, bigotry really, towards Catholicism and thus Catholics--although I had married a Catholic. One cannot fully respect people while believing that their first principles are stupid, and that they belong to a Church that is superstitious and illogical at every point.
Now, that was just me. But, in looking back, I recall the discussions that I had with others: they certainly talked much in the same way as I did. You talk in much the same way as I did.
When I first converted, we were in New England were my wife grew up. At parties and family gatherings, I was surprised to realize just how often fallen away Catholics bring the faith up: but always to slam it...and never accurately. And so, I would say awkwardly, “Well, you know, if you look that up you will see that that’s really not true. It’s all there in black and white, and it’s really very clear.”
We moved away, and I came back into contact with “skeptics” (although they are never skeptical about their own skepticism--any more than I had been), agnostics, and Protestants: experiencing further the endless store of falsehoods about the Church held with totalconfidence--of which I had my own bitter memories for which to atone.
Keep in mind, I’m not talking about differences of opinion in all of this--there was lots of that too. No, I’m talking about actual falsehoods when the accurate facts were easily available,
At first, I thought that it was all just a misunderstanding. Perhaps if I just point out the exact paragraph in the Catechism, or perhaps provide an authoritative link about a historical fact, they would say: “Oh! Now I see! Gee, I wonder if I’ve also been wrong on some other things?” But that almost never happened. I found that the blindness of others was usually just as willful as mine had been--and perhaps for the same reasons?
Eventually, I came to see that it was a game...and a game that was not on the level. If they really wanted to know the truth, it is terribly easy to find regarding most slanders. Moreover, I found that it is a lot easier for others to make a false claim (5 seconds?) than for me to look up the truth and explain it--and the false claims kept multiplying. In fact, I concluded that the truth is really not the issue: the issue for others--as it was for me--is the willingness to face the truth.
Anyway, after my conversion my favorite phrase became “All truth is God’s truth.” And when I came to the Church, I found what I believe to be a cornucopia of the best of life: theology, philosophy, spirituality, literature, architecture, history, art, etc.
The Rage Against God by Peter Hitchens in some ways reminded me of my own journey:
- Hitchens and I both came to the conclusion, in retrospect, that our lack of accuracy--our scorn and even anger--were due to the fact that we, at some level, knew we were wrong. We were shouting down reason, to keep it from intruding into what we wanted to believe.
- Once we stopped shouting, we did have one enduring regret: that we had influenced others to reject what we came to understand was true...and at some level really knew was true all along. And really, that can’t be undone. As Hitchens put it: the Prodigal Son came home too late...and all was in ruins...
I don’t even have the contact information for most of the people that I influenced. I did write something brief to let former classmates know that I had changed my mind...in hopes that they understood what I was trying to imply. And I called one old friend with whom I had been very close: she listened agreeably, but it was too late. Her life had long taken a path--in no small part due to me. And my influence at this point was not nearly as strong as my influence on her at that point.
Sometimes I walk and pray: on each Rosary bead I say a Hale Mary for each person that I recall that I influence away from good...whose trust I betrayed. And that's really all that I can do at this point. It's too late to do anything else. I came home too late.
It was certainly not too late to convert: I avoided doing so much more damage...and maybe even did a little good. I have found joy. Still, while I made many mistakes in my past: this is the only part of my past concerning which I feel real guilt. And it does lay heavy on me.
And that’s why I sometimes write: to atone for the past. I think of a novel that I read. (It was based upon the Gospel story of the Centurion.) In the novel, a talented and competent businessman who is atheistic comes to believe in faith. Something terrible is happening to a dear friend. The businessman was not yet Catholic. But he went before the blessed sacrament. He stood, composing himself. And he said something like this to God. “I can’t be there, but a friend of yours needs help. You have other friends all over the world. You have friends there. You can send help: I have that faith. I ask you to. I believe that you will.” God did. That is a novel, but good novels are based upon truth. And so, when I walk and pray, my prayer is that somebody else will say what I wish that I would have said--what I wish I could say.
Tim, perhaps you should reconsider some of what you have been writing? Once it is there, it is too late to take it back later. Is all religion really poison? Is pursuing holiness poison? Was Mother Teresa poison? Is that what I’ve been feeding to my children? If so, why have they turned out so well? As have their friends? Whole, happy, and healthy.