Last Easter, when I was just beginning to explore the possibility that, despite what I had previously believed and been brought up to believe, there might be something to the Catholic faith, I read Letters to a Young Catholic by George Weigel. One passage in particular struck me.
Talking of the New Testament miracles and the meaning of faith, Weigel writes: “In the Catholic view of things, walking on water is an entirely sensible thing to do. It’s staying in the boat, hanging tightly to our own sad little securities, that’s rather mad.”
In the following months, that life outside the boat – the life of faith –would come to make increasing sense to me, until eventually I could no longer justify staying put. Last weekend I was baptised and confirmed into the Catholic Church.
Of course, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Faith is something my generation is meant to be casting aside, not taking up. I was raised without any religion and was eight when 9/11 took place. Religion was irrelevant in my personal life and had provided my formative years with a rolling-news backdrop of violence and extremism. I avidly read Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens, whose ideas were sufficiently similar to mine that I could push any uncertainties I had to the back of my mind. After all, what alternative was there to atheism?
As a teenager, I realised that I needed to read beyond my staple polemicists, as well as start researching the ideas of the most egregious enemies of reason, such as Catholics, to properly defend my world view. It was here, ironically, that the problems began.
I started by reading Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address, aware that it had generated controversy at the time and was some sort of attempt –futile, of course – to reconcile faith and reason. I also read the shortest book of his I could find, On Conscience. I expected – and wanted – to find bigotry and illogicality that would vindicate my atheism. Instead, I was presented with a God who was the Logos: not a supernatural dictator crushing human reason, but the self-expressing standard of goodness and objective truth towards which our reason is oriented, and in which it is fulfilled, an entity that does not robotically control our morality, but is rather the source of our capacity for moral perception, a perception that requires development and formation through the conscientious exercise of free will.
It was a far more subtle, humane and, yes, credible perception of faith than I had expected. It didn’t lead to any dramatic spiritual epiphany, but did spur me to look further into Catholicism, and to re-examine some of the problems I had with atheism with a more
First, morality. Non-theistic morality, to my mind, tended towards two equally problematic camps: either it was subjective to the point of meaninglessness or, when followed logically, entailed intuitively repulsive outcomes, such as Sam Harris’s stance on torture. But the most appealing theories which could circumvent these problems, like virtue ethics, often did so by presupposing the existence of God. Before, with my caricatured understanding of theism, I’d considered that nonsensical. Now, with the more detailed understanding I was starting to develop, I wasn’t so sure.
Next, metaphysics. I soon realised that relying on the New Atheists for my counter-arguments to the existence of God had been a mistake: Dawkins, for instance, gives a disingenuously cursory treatment of St Thomas Aquinas in The God Delusion, engaging only with the summary of Aquinas’s proofs in the Five Ways – and misunderstanding those summarised proofs to boot. Acquainting myself fully with Thomistic-Aristotelian ideas, I found them to be a valid explanation of the natural world, and one on which atheist philosophers had failed to make a coherent assault.
What I still did not understand was how a theology that operated in harmony with human reason could simultaneously be, in Benedict XVI’s words, “a theology grounded in biblical faith”. I’d always assumed that sola scriptura (“scripture alone”), with its evident shortcomings and fallacies, was how all consistent, believing Christians read the Bible. So I was surprised to discover that this view could be refuted just as robustly from a Catholic standpoint – reading the Bible through the Church and its history, in light of Tradition – as from an atheist one.
I looked for absurdities and inconsistencies in the Catholic faith that would derail my thoughts from the unnerving conclusion I was heading towards, but the infuriating thing about Catholicism is its coherency: once you accept the basic conceptual structure, things fall into place with terrifying speed. “The Christian mysteries are an indivisible whole,” wrote Edith Stein in The Science of the Cross: “If we become immersed in one, we are led to all the others.” The beauty and authenticity of even the most ostensibly difficult parts of Catholicism, such as the sexual ethics, became clear once they were viewed not as a decontextualised list of prohibitions, but as essential components in the intricate body of the Church’s teaching.
There was one remaining problem, however: my lack of familiarity with faith as something lived. To me, the whole practice and vernacular of religion – prayer, hymns, Mass – was something wholly alien, which I was reluctant to step into.
My friendships with practising Catholics finally convinced me that I had to make a decision. Faith, after all, isn’t merely an intellectual exercise, an assent to certain propositions; it’s a radical act of the will, one that engenders a change of the whole person. Books had taken me to Catholicism as a plausible conjecture, but Catholicism as a living truth I came to understand only through observing those already serving the Church within that life of grace.
I grew up in a culture that has largely turned its back on faith. It’s why I was able to drift through life with my ill-conceived atheism going unchallenged, and at least partially explains the sheer extent of the popular support for the New Atheists: for every considerate and well-informed atheist, there will be others with no personal experience of religion and no interest in the arguments who are simply drifting with the cultural tide.
As the popularity of belligerent, all-the-answers atheism wanes, however, thoughtful Christians able to explain and defend their faith will become an increasingly vital presence in the public square. I hope I, in a small way, am an example of the appeal that Catholicism can still hold in an age that at times appears intractably opposed to it.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald dated 24/5/13