How God’s providence led these atheists to conversion


When we use the phrase “the Providence of God”, do we stop to think what those words mean? Despite the effects of Providence being sometimes so dramatic and enormous, the phrase trips lightly off the tongue. My musing comes from further reading of From Atheism to Catholicism, published by EWTN, which I blogged about on Monday.

The nine converts who tell their stories in the book really understand what God’s providence means because, despite starting from a position calculated to keep them stuck in pride, or fear or unhappiness, they have experienced it in all its awe-inspiring and healing manifestations.

For instance, Fr John Bartunek, a bright student at Stanford, happened to be studying the world religions with an atheist professor who was by birth and culture a Jew. Ostensibly discussing Buddhism, Bartunek recalls that these conversations always turned into arguments “about why I shouldn’t be a Christian.” During one heated exchange, the professor said to him, “If you have to be religious – which you shouldn’t be – there are only two real religions in the world. There’s Judaism, and there’s Roman Catholicism. And you’re not Jewish!” Amazingly, he then began to praise the Church as a place “where authentic mystery, worship and transcendence were centre-stage.”

This strange conversation set Bartunek on the road to conversion, a journey into the Church which was also “my journey into the priesthood.”

As incredible is the account of Ronda Chervin who remarks wryly of her childhood that “As right-wing political atheists of Jewish ancestry, we didn’t fit in with anyone around us.” A philosophy major at a secular university, she was disheartened by the pervading atmosphere of scepticism, desperately admitting “I felt hopeless. Where was truth? Where was love? Why even live?”

Providentially one might say, she got to know Dietrich von Hildebrand and his circle and met “brilliant lay Catholics” for the first time. A trip to Europe with these new-found Catholic friends, whose personal joy and vitality were very attractive to this lonely atheist, brought her to Chartres cathedral. She was overwhelmed: “How could this be so beautiful if there is no truth in it?” she asked herself.

Chervin actually pinpoints all the “miracles” in the stages of her youthful journey, when the right person, or prayer or even hymn, opened her mind and heart a little wider and nudged her gently towards the Church.

The final witness I have selected from among the nine authors is Scott McDermott. He became a pornography addict as a boy, having discovered his father’s pornographic collection, as well as “the village atheist at age twelve.” A model student who hid his “pagan gods of lust” under an “image of pristine morality” he got into Cornell, where “I devoted myself to emerging from the closet and becoming a militant gay activist.” This, he felt, was a “great step towards honesty, because even though it meant building up a new façade and conforming to the fashions and requirements of gay culture I could now bring my lust-god out of its private sanctuary and worship it openly.”

A severe panic attack finally led McDermott to seek “the idea of absolute truth” and to read authors such as Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor. The chance purchase of a rosary, he believes, was the “real beginning of my spiritual awakening.” He has now been a Catholic since 1992 and “by God’s grace, I have been celibate for twenty-four years.” He still struggles with “homosexual lust”, regarding it as his particular “thorn in the flesh.” With the on-going help of a 12-step group he now accepts that Christ, “who took upon Himself every sinful condition and every darkness” can be encountered “even through the unwanted suffering of same-sex attraction.” God’s love and mercy, he readily admits, help him on what he describes as his “awkward pilgrimage through the world.”

Buy this book for your atheist or agnostic friends and challenge them to read it and discuss it with you.