From atheism to Christianity: a conversion story through books
Back in this post I was talking about how I strongly encourage Christians to ask the tough questions about their faith. To summarize what I said there, occasionally I meet Christians who seem hesitant to delve too deeply into their faith for fear of what they might find. It’s a shame because, in the opinion of this former atheist, by asking challenging questions and seeking answers Christians have absolutely nothing to fear, and everything to gain.
“So where do I start?” is a frequent response I get to that statement. I’ve finally had a chance to put together a list of books that I found helpful when I was first asking the tough questions of Christianity. I think it would be a good jumping-off point for lifelong Christians (especially Catholics) who don’t feel like they have a lot of knowledge of the how’s and why’s behind why we believe what we believe. This would also be a good list for people who are not Christian but are curious about the religion.
These are by no means the only sources of information I used — the conversion process was a long road that involved lots of thinking and reading (and eventually praying) and gathering data from tons of different sources. These books alone were not enough to convince me to convert; all the information in the world would not have been enough had my heart not been open to it (as I talked about here). But they are, I believe, good places to start.
One of the reasons it’s taken so long to put this together is because I don’t want to present this as any sort of definitive list or hold myself out as an authority on the subject: I offer this as a humble account of my personal story, detailing some books that I found compelling in my search for truth about God, the world and the human experience.
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
My conversion to Christianity had a very clear beginning: the day I walked into a bookstore and saw this book. In my vague search for religion up to that point, I had been planning to explore Buddhism and other Eastern belief systems first (then Judaism, then Islam, then Baha’i, then that Wicca/”earth goddess” stuff that my friend from college was into…anything but Christianity!) It had never once occurred to me that there was even the most remote possibility that the Christian claims about Jesus could be true, so I was planning to skip over all that. But one day back in July of 2005 I walked into a bookstore, saw this book from way across the room, and knew I wanted to read it. I had no idea what it was, just that I was oddly drawn to it and had to go see it.
As it turns out, the book was exactly what I needed to read. Former atheist Lee Strobel lays out the data that convinced him that the Christian claims about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are true. It’s not that the book was perfect, or even that I instantly believed after reading it (I didn’t). But it did open my eyes to the fact that Christians had a much better defense for their beliefs than I’d expected. I wrote about it at the time here.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis
I read Mere Christianity shortly after I finished The Case for Christ, and it added fuel to the growing fire of my interest in Christianity. It was the first book I read where a Christian looked at Christianity from a rational, questioning point of view. One of the reasons this book was probably so helpful to me is that Lewis was himself a former atheist, so he knew how to explain his faith in a way that made sense to nonbelievers.
By What Authority? by Mark Shea
At some point along the way I bought a Bible and started reading it, which left me with more questions than answers (as I talked about here). Around that time someone suggested I read By What Authority, saying that Shea (a convert to Catholicism) provided a good, readable explanation of the concept of Sacred Tradition. I would love to spice up the story with tales of how I wrestled with accepting the notion that God gives us doctrine through the Catholic Church…but, honestly, it was a slam-dunk. This was the missing piece of the puzzle. I had been leaning towards Catholicism for a lot of other reasons, but understanding the concept of Sacred Tradition was what finally made all of Christianity make sense to me.
I still had questions, though. What about the bad popes? What about the Crusades? And, most pressingly, what about those teachings that were just obviously antiquated and oppressive (e.g. their stance on contraception)? I figured that a lot of those crazy teachings must be optional, that perhaps they were categorized under “suggestions” rather than official teachings. I decided to keep reading to see what I’d find…
Catholicism for Dummies by John Trigilio and Kenneth Brighenti
I admit I was a bit embarrassed to buy a “Dummies” book on such a serious topic, but after multiple people recommended it I sucked it up and got Catholicism for Dummies, thinking that maybe I could slip on a fake Summa Theologica cover if I were to read it in public. Indeed it was very helpful — not, of course, for gaining deep knowledge of any one area of Catholicism, but for answering some of my basic questions and pointing me in the right direction for further explanation. For the first time, I started to think that a lot of that Catholic stuff that I had written off as oppressive or old-fashioned might actually have a whole lot of wisdom to it.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (version by Fr. John Hardon)
At this point I decided to hear it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and get a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the official exposition of the teachings of the Catholic Church. Though you can read the full text online for free on the Vatican’s site here, I decided to get this version since a) I didn’t want to read that much text online, and b) I heard that this arrangement by Fr. John Hardon was more readable. Reading it was amazing. It was so…not what I expected. Here’s one excerpt (chosen quickly from the copy sitting here on my desk) that is the type of thing I found interesting:
[W]ith his openness to truth and beauty, his sense of moral goodness, his freedom and the voice of his conscience, with his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the “seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material”, can have its origin only in God.
The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality “that everyone calls God”.
The more I read, the more I became enthralled. As I’ve said before, when I read the Catholic Church’s official teachings on God and what they claim is God’s one true church, I felt overwhelmed with the peace of certainty that I had found truth.
Now I felt ready to deepen my knowledge of the Bible — I’d previously read through most of the New Testament, but didn’t know where to go from there. We didn’t own a Bible in my house growing up, so I had almost zero familiarity with it. I’d flip through some of the Old Testament books and think, “What on earth is going on here?”
I read a few books on the topic of getting a basic understanding of the Bible, and this one was my favorite. Mark Shea walks the reader through an understanding of the Scripture as seen through the eyes of the Apostles themselves. The Bible, especially the Old Testament, was a lot more understandable once I understood that different books were intended to convey their truths in different “senses”: literal, moral, allegorical or anagogical. This book really illuminated the Bible for me.
The Good News About Sex and Marriage by Christopher West
Back on the topic of Catholicism, the one thing I couldn’t quite understand was the issue of contraception. I’d been living in this cycle of “Jen thinks she knows better than the 2,000-year-old Catholic Church” –> research and reading –> “Jen does not know better than 2,000-year-old Catholic Church” for a few months, so I was at least open to hearing the Church’s point of view on this one. And, on a gut level, something was starting to ring vaguely true about the notion that contraception might not be the best thing for individuals or society. But I still had a lot of serious reservations.
That’s where Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body came in. Unfortunately, I was too sleep deprived at that time to get through the massive tome, amazing as it was. So that’s where Christopher West came in: he’s made his career making the wisdom of the Theology of the Body accessible to everyone. The Good News About Sex and Marriage explained a lot of the questions and concerns I had about Catholic teaching on the relations between the sexes. Reading this book helped my husband and me familiarize ourselves with the basics so that we could move on to other sources which explained them in more detail. To our shock, we found ourselves agreeing — even though we had some serious issues going on at the time that would make following these teachings very difficult — after finding what we had found in our research and conversations (and prayers), we knew that we would have been lying to say that we didn’t think this was true.
When we actually started to apply these teachings to our lives, everything changed — our relationship to each other, to God, to our vocations, to our children — everything. We found ourselves standing in wonder at how our life had done a 180-degree spin and been turned on its head by what we once assumed to be oppressive rules, and it was then that something that we’d come to believe intellectually about Church teaching became something we knew in our hearts: this stuff doesn’t come from people.
The Everlasting Man by G.K. Chesterton
I read The Everlasting Man shortly after I came to truly believe in God, and found myself wanting to shout, “Yes! Exactly!” all throughout this book. In this classic work, Chesterton makes the case that Christianity is something that rings true both to the mind and the heart. It takes what we know of the world through science and what we know of our souls through human experience and brings it all together. Though he doesn’t use this exact analogy, I found that this book helped me articulate why I came to believe that Christianity is the box top to the puzzle of life.
So there it is: a very abbreviated version my my conversion story as told through the books I read along the way. As I said above, none of these books will convert anyone since that is not something a books alone can do. I think they will, however, provide great starting points for believers who are eager to ask the tough questions of their faith, or for nonbelievers who are starting to think that there might be something more to this whole God thing than meets the eye.
The bottom line is this: if you are seeking God with humility and an open heart, you will find him. And asking tough questions will only speed up the process.
Feel free to use the comments to share your favorite books on these topics as well.