Jennifer Fulwiler traces a battle between feminist head and truthful heart

'Atheism couldn’t provide a satisfying answer to her emotions when she fell in love and had a baby' (Photo: PA)

A book that seems to be coming up frequently on American Catholic websites is Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God. I read it the other day and can see why it is so popular. It is the honest, funny, self-deprecating account of a bright young graduate – an atheist, naturally – who slowly and painfully discovers that atheism as a creed isn’t enough. Atheism couldn’t provide a satisfying answer to her emotions when she fell in love and had a baby. Having always believed religiously that “our very selves are nothing more than the result of a bunch of neurons firing”, she was thrown off balance by her implicit recognition that love is more than brain activity. As she put it: “I had been plunged into an experience of love that I’d never had before… Atheism could not account for the bond that Joe and I shared.”

Atheist readers will respond: “Of course it can! Don’t you realise that all your emotions and experiences are just the result of chemical reactions in your brain?” They assume that religious people must have left their reasoning faculty behind when they “get God”, not realising that using your reasoning powers to their full extent, but in a spirit of humility and openness, can take you into unknown territory where the intellect takes its place in an infinitely wider, deeper and richer scheme of things.

Interestingly enough, an atheist friend emailed me this morning to suggest I watch a programme about “the soul” on iPlayer, as he thought I might like it, although it’s above his own “pay grade” as he put it. I have emailed him back to say it is his soul, which he neglects, that makes him fully human. I think I might suggest to him that he reads Jennifer Fulwiler’s book.

One of the chief things that Fulwiler struggled with, as she fought not to accept the claims of Christianity (she is now a Catholic, as is her husband, and they have gone from two children to six), was the question of abortion. As a modern woman she was a feminist; and feminists believe, as a fundamental tenet, that women have the “right to choose”. Then she saw a picture of her unborn baby on ultrasound and was horrified by the realisation that unborn babies older than him were routinely aborted. Even as her feminist head told her that the Catholic Church was oppressive to women, her more truthful heart told her that this was the Church that had always protected the right to life of the unborn. As her husband, Joe, who was on his own quest for truth, pointed out to her when they had an argument on the subject: “They’ve had 2,000 years to think about this, and they keep saying the same thing.”

Recognising abortion for what it is led Fulwiler to see the connection between contraception and abortion; to discover that rates of abortion had gone up, not down, with the advent of easy contraception in the form of the Pill. She then began to see that the modern world, in which she had been such an enthusiastic if unthinking participant, had lost the connection between sex and babies.

There is much more to her story than this and I do recommend it to readers of this blog, both in and outside the Church; for those in the Church it shows how hard it is to change your beliefs when “protecting any unborn life under any circumstances was just not part of the culture”; for those outside the Church it asks hard questions on moral matters which need to be answered.

It so happened I was sitting on the Tube in London on Saturday when above me I saw a Bpas (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) advertisement. What made me sit up was the clever catchphrase “What do you call a woman who’s had an abortion?” The answer, on the line below, was “Mother. Daughter. Sister. Friend.” The next line added: “One in three women will have an abortion”, followed by “Bpas provides NHS-funded abortion care and support” with their contact details. Everything about the advertisement was designed to normalise abortion, to make it seem like any other medical procedure; one might just as easily substitute the question “What do you call a woman who’s had cancer?”

Jennifer Fulwiler used to subscribe to the Bpas message; then she had a baby herself and she could not escape the realisation that, however you dress it up, it means the sacrifice of a baby, who has no say in the matter, for the sake of others.