"My son is an atheist – what should I do?"

One of the most frequent types of emails I get says something along the lines of:

My [son/daughter/husband/wife] is an atheist. Since you used to be an atheist, please tell me what I can do!

Jason Anderson and I wrote an article a while back that offered some nuts and bolts tips for talking about faith with atheists, and I often point people to that (with the caveat that we must always remember that conversion is God’s work, not ours, and that there is nothing we can do to make anyone come to faith).

But I sense that people in this situation want more than that: they want to understand.

I think the reason people email so frequently about this is because they want a glimpse inside the mind of someone who has actually walked the path, who experienced the transformation of going from complete atheism to complete belief. I’m starting to see that the best advice I could give to these folks would not be advice at all, but rather just a glimpse into the way I thought about it and what happened with me so that they can make their own decisions about the best way to approach loved-ones about this topic (if at all).

So, for anyone who is interested, the following is a very brief overview of the process I had to go through in order to “see” that God exists.

—–

My own conversion process can basically be distilled down to this:

Belief in God = Reasonable Basis + Openness to Love

Here’s what I mean by that:

Reasonable Basis

I don’t know whether it’s because I was raised as an atheist or I’m just wired to be hard-headed when it comes to belief, but I could never believe something that was fundamentally unreasonable. The foundation for the rest of my conversion was laid by the discovery that belief in a nonmaterial reality is not unreasonable — in fact, I came to see that belief in a human soul and a Creator of the universe was actually a position more reasonable than atheism. (The details of why I came to that conclusion are the subject of another post, but I mentioned some books and authors here and here that offer an introductory-level glimpse at the subject.)

For me, any talk whatsoever of leaps of faith, Jesus’ love, salvation, redemption, etc. fell on deaf ears until I had some basic understanding of the rational basis for these beliefs.

Openness to Love

What I quickly found, however, was that reason will only get you so far. As I talked about back in March, I came to understand that God is Love (literally), and that love is not something that can be proven through the scientific method. The hypothesis of God’s existence is the hypothesis that love exists as its own reality, external to the chemical reactions in our brains — and that’s not a hypothesis that can be tested using only your head and not your heart; it takes both.

If I had heard a reasonable case for God when I was in my early 20′s, back when I was in a hard-charging career and surrounded by all the pleasures of the world, I don’t think it would have had much impact on me. I was not incentivized to take a risk on love; I was not in a state of mind to put my heart into the question of whether or not love is something that transcends the material world. Something had to happen for me to value love more than I valued success, acclaim, money, pride or personal freedom. (In my case, that was the birth of my first child.)

An Analogy

To ask someone to prove to you that God exists is very similar to asking someone to prove to you that they love you. It would be best to start with a reasonable case — they could point out the kindness they’ve shown you, remind you of the loving sentiments they’ve expressed in cards and letters, bring up all those times they sacrificed something for you — and this can and should lay the foundation for you believing them. After all, if their actions blatantly contradict the claim that they love you, it would be unreasonable for you to believe their claim.

But reason can only get you so far when you’re trying to prove love; and so it is when you’re trying to prove Love.

You could go back and forth forever with arguments and counter-arguments based on reason and material evidence alone. At some point, if you’re going to really know that that person loves you, you have to take a leap of faith. You have to put your ego aside, get your heart involved, and take the risk that you might be wrong or that you might look foolish. You will never know if real love exists between you and another person if you only explore the matter using your head.

This same approach is necessary for knowing God.

—–

I hope that sharing my experience might be helpful to people who’d like to know more about conversion from atheism. From my experience, I think the most important things to do if you find yourself in conversations with an atheist friend or family member are to know your own faith; pray (then pray some more); and, whatever the specific approach you decide is best in your unique situation, always make sure your words, thoughts and actions reflect the fact that to make the case for God is to make the case for Love.

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14 Responses to “"My son is an atheist – what should I do?"”
  1. Charle says:

    That was perfectly put. I’ve never thought of it that way, and I’m definitely going to have to spread that one around. I’m a convert as well, though from another denomination and so have difficulty explaining what I’ve “just known/believed” for so long (i.e. that God exists).
    Thank you for your wisdom, and for being a smart, witty, and normal Catholic woman. It’s appreciated more than you know!

  2. Jennifer F. says:

    Anon – if you’re looking for your comment, it was accidentally on the last post.

  3. frizzy scissorhands says:

    my father was a convert … many years ago. and i was married to a man who has doubted the existence of a higher power on and off for all his life.

    i, myself – raised in a devoutly catholic family – have had what i will call a dark night of the soul. after the loss of my youngest son, i felt so angry at god … etc.

    during these times, nothing anyone could have told me would have convinced me. what softened my heart was the things i saw in my job as a nurse ~ watching a stranger die. for each one, the epiphany is different, i suppose … and possibly not so dramatic.

    in answer to the question … ‘what should i do …’

    love. even when our loved ones hold spiritual beliefs that differ from ours ~ love. recall that Jesus did. its hard … very difficult.

    what struck my dad, before his conversion, was the example of unconditional [ie non-judgemental] love and acceptance which my mother’s very catholic parents and family extended to him.

    they never pressured him, or spoke to him of ‘being saved’ … they loved and accepted and shared. love seems to me a way of life … a choice of lifestyle, if you will.

    somethings one just must experience for oneself. this is one of those things, i believe. i just think, that, the more we try to explain whats so visceral to us … the more it maybe sounds like prosyletizing.

    perhaps pointing the person to the written works of others who have experienced a conversion? i.e. cs lewis ~ mere christianity.

    also, its maybe helpful point out that even the most pious have dark times. i.e. mother theresa’s book.

  4. ChaseNKids says:

    I spoke with you a long time ago…not sure you remember me. This post was a blessing. My husband is an atheist and it breaks my heart. There a barrier there that no matter how much love is there between us we can know each other on a spiritual level. I read your blog everyday…you give me hope.

    ~Jaime
    http://www.ChaseNKids.com

  5. Romy says:

    I have a very relevant experience to this topic and I want to share to you my posts of my conversion from 15 or more years of atheism to what I have become today..Here’s the link to my posts http://homeofgoodideas.blogspot.com/search/label/Conversion%20Story

  6. SteveG says:

    This phrase:

    The hypothesis of God’s existence is the hypothesis that love exists as its own reality…

    Struck a very deep cord with me. Well put to say the least!

  7. Robert says:

    I’m really not sure how you can read the Bible, particularly the Old Testament and Revelations, and come to the conclusion that (the Christian) God is love. You’ve undoubtedly rationalized it somehow, but it simply takes too much willful blindness for this atheist to come to the conclusion you have.

  8. snafu says:

    “At some point, if you’re going to really know that that person loves you, you have to take a leap of faith.”

    No, I don’t see it. I know my wife (six years and two children) loves me. There’s no faith involved at all, merely lots and lots of good evidence.

    (btw, I’m perfectly aware of the philosophical knots around conceptions of knowledge. But the above is good enough for day-to-day living….similar to saying “I know that grass is green, supported by lots of good evidence”).

  9. Sarah Reinhard says:

    Jen, thank you for this. I have had some difficulty nailing down my own conversion story, because (a) it’s still so very ongoing and (b) I hadn’t figured out the equation you explain here. That’s just perfect. Thanks for giving voice to some of the things I haven’t been able to find words for.

  10. Chris says:

    Robert, I’d have to say I agree with you: if you read the Bible on its own (and on your own) you cannot reasonably be expected to conclude what St. John concluded: namely that God is Love. The Bible is a challenging document, to say the least. St. John, however, lived the experience rather directly. Even ignoring momentarily the divinity of Jesus, St. John would have been intensely aware that Jesus suffered and died and (in a male dominated culture) was attended at his death only by himself and a bunch of women. Simon helped with the cross and then (apparently) took off. Joseph of Arimathea came on the scene later — and then (again apparently) only to do what any devout Jew would have done, to bury his dead.

    But even that really is the whole point of the Biblical text: everything, and especially everything in the Old Testament and Revelation points to two critical facts: 1) The universe is more than just this visible world; it includes a great beatific place and horrible demonic places; and 2) Anyone with a clear vision of the beatific place in his heart ought willingly to suffer in order that even his worst enemy might avoid one of the demonic places. The subtext (and often the overt text) is of a bunch of bumblers shuffling in between doing great things (such as David’s mercy on Saul when he could easily have killed him) and horrendous things (such as the self-same David’s murder and adultery in order to gain Bathsheba). There are a few wise and goodly men (e.g. Moses, Elijah, et.al.) a few more profoundly good women (Esther, Ruth, et.al.), but in the entire text only one does no wrong and then lets his worst enemies torture and kill him. This latter is Jesus, who lives up to his own teaching: the good shepherd gives up his life for the sheep.

    Many (myself included) tend to fixate on the philosophically negative way in which the Old Testament expresses the teaching of the good shepherd. Whereas Jesus states simply that the greatest joy is to give up one’s life for one’s friends, Ezekiel (for example) had to be told that he would be held responsible for the death of his brother if he did not warn him of his sins. But in this case, Ezekiel’s brother might readily have been a king: someone who could kill Ezekiel outright if he did not care much for his musings. Indeed, this is exactly what happened to John the Baptist, and Jesus — apparently in spite of his claim to divinity — did nothing to save the Baptist’s life. But the Baptist’s choice is logical: if you accept the reality of sin, then warning is in order to those who sin, even if your own life is forfeit. Thus, John the Baptist lived the teaching of the good shepherd*.

    In the end, it really does not matter what the philosophical presentation is (whether positive or negative). If you say, “Lay down your life for your friends so you can have joy,” you are saying exactly the same thing as when you state, “if you fail to lay down your life for your friends, then your life will be forfeit and you will not have joy.” The reality of this world is that (as Justin Martyr observes) death is the debt of nature, no matter how much material comfort or increasing life spans might suggest otherwise. We will all die, one way or another and at one time or another. And yet we have a choice — a choice, moreover, that even the most atheistic among us has been able to discern**: when death and suffering come along, we may either focus on how to save ourselves or on how to save those around us. The natural tendency when focusing on self is to ignore the other. But if one focuses first on the other, he can often avoid suffering himself. There is dignity in choosing the life of our brother over our own, whether we respond to this due to great love or great fear of an even worse landing point. If we do what is right, we love, no matter the motive.

    That message, at least, is clear in both the Old Testament and the New — but it often gets muddled by the fact of Christians who fail to live up to this ideal. Heck, even the protagonists on the pages of the Bible fail in this regard (as St. John learned while standing at the foot of the cross). But the frailty of us silly humans does nothing to detract from the fact of the ideal. Nor does the use of the word, “no,” when presenting it.

    To close back on the point of the original post, I’d say you can engage an atheist with argument. That is what I did: as an atheist I engaged myself in this way and discovered that I had a real opponent in the debate. It was disconcerting at first — and in the telling, it sounds downright schizophrenic. But it is nevertheless true. Jesus will eventually engage anyone who attempts this sort of argument with a degree of honesty.

    * The only real way to avoid the logic of this analysis is to deny the reality of sin. Then, you could conclude that John the Baptist was just a busybody. But you cannot conclude that he therefore deserved to die. Unfortunately, this is a common conclusion of sinners who have worldly power when they are warned of their sins: when they are able, they do not merely ignore those who warn them but often seek to persecute and sometimes to kill. Herod, at least, disliked the Baptist’s accusations because he knew they were true.

    ** Tzvetan Todorov explores this topic in some of his works. Google his name to learn more.

    • Joe Bigliogo says:

      “The universe is more than just this visible world; it includes a great beatific place and horrible demonic places”

      There is no evidence for these absurdities. Just myths and fables from a superstitious time and place when people didn’t know a rational thought from their rear ends. You’d be well advised to give up the scapegoat theology you credulously cling to. It just not true.

  11. Elizabeth Kathryn Gerold-Miller says:

    From my own experience – I was an atheist from the age of 18 through 25 – if you provide your children with a strong basis of faith and love – they may challenge their own faith but they will eventually come back to it, all the more stronger for it.

  12. Joe Bigliogo says:

    I was born an atheist. When I was young my parents sent me to Sunday school and sometimes church. Even then I wasn’t impressed or convinced so I remained an atheist.

    As I got older I was confronted by religious beliefs of all kinds and great pressure was brought to bear on me. I was ridiculed, ostracized, shunned, degraded and threatened with Hell. I had moslem friends and it was the same, they said Allah is the one true god and Mohammed is his prophet and I was Hell bent if I did not believe and follow Islam. Same for Judaism except no Hell threats were used to solicit belief.

    So I studied science, philosophy and epistemology. And I asked myself what is the most effective way to go about acquiring reliable knowledge? I came to realize that everything we believe is based on probabilities and the more it is probable the more it can be trusted. From this sprang the question… [considering what is written in the old/new testaments and the Koran also, with all the fantastic claims, the stories, the miraculous crazy events, the seeming impossibilities, talking snakes, parting of seas, big boats that hold every living species, living in giant fish, the non-recognition and contradictions of science, the various wrath from god including all the horrendous violence, plagues, slaughter, mass murder, genocide, torture, slavery, and most of all Hell...]
    are these texts divinely inspired writings from God or sick and twisted concoctions of primitive men. Which is more likely to be true?

    Well, I have to go with the latter because what is written in scriptures sounds far more likely to be made up by man. It reflects man’s most primitive traits; his psychosis, ignorance and violent nature. And plays on his deepest fears.
    I don’t believe that an intelligent and just God could envision something like the bible or Koran for mankind. It is just not reasonable, plausible, rational, or probable.

    So an Atheist I remain and the more I hear from those who try to convert me the more convinced I am that I’m right. Let reason prevail.

    Joe Bigliogo

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