My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1
Editor’s note: this post was originally published more than five years ago on a now defunct blog. It was originally published pseudonymously. I have done some editing to clean up the bits that I wanted to keep anonymous. I’ve also updated it a bit to reflect how my thinking has evolved over five years. But the vast majority of this text is untouched.
My conversion to Catholicism is best described as an uneasy alliance. I am not the best Catholic out there, and I’m not likely to ever be. I still have issues with the church, its theology, and its dogma. But my wife and I jointly came to the decision that it was the best choice for our family. I can’t speak for her. If she wants to tell her tale, that’s her business. I suspect that it was at least in part because she was following where I led, but she’s bright enough and educated enough and strong willed enough that she never would have let me lead her there if she didn’t want to go.
I was raised as a Protestant. Specifically, I was raised Methodist, but I don’t think it really matters much. The nit picky details of their theology may be different, but the different branches of modern liberal American Protestantism are more or less indistinguishable from each other on a day to day basis. The church I was raised in was more or less like any other SWPL protestant church, only more so. In the almost two decades since I stopped attending, it’s grown substantially, to the point where an old friend of mine once referred to it as “Fort God.”
Like most children, I didn’t much question religion when I was small. It was what all the adults told me, so it never even occurred to me to question it. Unlike most children – at least then – I was introduced to the concept of atheism fairly young. A good friend of mine declared in late middle school that he was an atheist. Like most bright people, being introduced to the concept of atheism forced me to rethink everything. And frankly, once you start thinking about it, there’s a lot to find issue with inside Christianity – especially modern “Churchianity.”
Though I didn’t understand it very well at the time, there’s also a lot of social pressure toward atheism, agnosticism, or “Christianity lite” from our “educated” classes. I was most definitely born a part of that class and lived most of my life within it. You could describe my mother’s family fairly accurately as “educational aristocracy”, but the term might not make any sense to anybody who doesn’t know my mother’s family or people like them. I didn’t have the words to express it in my youth, but at a base level “Churchianity” always seemed just silly to me. And growing up in the American south, the other flavor of Christianity I was routinely confronted with was fundamentalist evangelicalism. Although most fundamentalist evangelical Christians are nice people, and many are quite bright, frankly, the kind of thought (or lack thereof) that leads to that particular breed is… well, to me it’s always been the counterpart of radical feminism. Both breeds of “thought” are vapid, empty headed, flim flam that ignore large portions of reality.
Atheism couldn’t hold me for very long, though. Atheists will do all kinds of logical somersaults to avoid it, but true atheism requires a kind of arrogant denial of reality of its own. Like any other religion, atheism itself is an insistence that we know, definitively, all that there is to know about the universe. In a sense, every argument “proving” the non-existence of God has a kind of Black Swan problem. “God can’t exist because we have no evidence of him,” the arguments essentially go. Well, if all we ever see are white swans, we would conclude that there are no black swans. How could there be? We’ve never seen one. Every swan we’ve ever seen is white. Until whoops, along comes a single black one, disproving our argument that all swans are white.
The Christians hadn’t done a very good job of convincing me that God exists, at least not in the way that they described him. But the atheists couldn’t convince me, either. His existence being highly, stupendously, amazingly improbable is not the same is it being impossible. At the same time, it seems abundantly clear to me that there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. I don’t even necessarily mean anything supernatural. Relativity has been work in the universe since the beginning of time, but it’s only in the last hundred years that human beings have been able to understand it. What else is out there that science doesn’t understand yet? I’m guessing there’s a lot. Again, there are forces at work in the world that we don’t understand. God is as good a word for them as anything, and at this point in time, Science can’t explain them any better than religion.
Also, Science is still struggling with some deep and difficult questions that push up right against the boundaries of philosophy and religion. Where does conscious thought come from? What causes it? Science tells us it comes from neurons firing, but the simple fact of the matter is that we can’t replicate it. Despite decades of effort, we have no artificially intelligent computers. Indeed, we’re not really much closer to them than we were decades ago. We haven’t genetically engineered highly intelligent rats (to pick a random animal), and if we did, how would we even know that they’re intelligent? Or self aware? Science fiction has spent a lot of time dealing with this problem, but even there we find no real answers. Also, most of the hoopla about such and such an animal being as smart as or almost as smart as man is mostly bull. When you start to look into the studies, you do indeed find aspects of intelligence. But there’s nothing that brings with it the same capacity for abstract thought and reason that humanity has. Who is to say that it isn’t an eternal soul that gives us intelligence and self awareness?
Five years of undergraduate study toward a Philosophy degree didn’t really clear it up very much. Unlike most in the department, I could have skated through pretty easily. It could have been (and in some ways was) the easy path toward a college degree. For me, it was deadly serious. These were all issues that I cared a great deal about. I found a lot there to ponder: Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Nietzsche. I found a lot to ponder in the field of science, too – especially modern physics, which – when it’s not being hijacked by Richard Dawkins types – is doing more interesting philosophical work than modern philosophy (which is mostly a bunch of pseudo-intellectual, New Agey, relativistic nonsense). I didn’t really find a lot of answers, but by the end of college I did know one thing for sure: I was not ready to accept full blown atheism.
True agnostics are rare. It takes a certain uncommon kind of strength to admit that you just really don’t know about anything, much less the really important issues like religion. But for a long while, that was me. The only thing I knew for sure was that there are forces at work in the world I didn’t understand.
Tomorrow in Part 2 – how and why I came to realize that religion in general is important.
The Whole Series
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 1
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 2
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 3
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 4
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 5
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 6
- My Long and Winding Road to Catholicism – Part 7