You may have heard the saying that you “won’t find an atheist in a foxhole”. It means that in time of war, in the intensity of a battle, most avowed atheists will abandon intellectual ideals and instead implore God for his protection and safety. I was raised nominal Presbyterian, but my parents quit attending church when I was around 8 years old. Unfortunately my sister married a man who disliked religion and filled my head with nonsense about Christianity, claiming it was a “crutch for weak people”. I bought his lies hook, line and sinker.
I am a logical person, and Christianity did not seem logical to me, so by the time I was in high school I entered a phase of atheism, in which I denied the existence of God. My viewpoint changed after I had children, especially since when I married my husband in the Catholic Church, I had promised to raise my children as Christian. I felt the Church would give my children a better foundation than the emptiness I had experienced growing up, and so I sporadically started attending church. But it was difficult taking two rambunctious toddlers by myself, as my husband was a restaurant manager and worked most Sundays.
Parenting is not easy, and my constant fear was that something tragic would happen to my girls. My first conversations with God were about protection for them. Every day children are kidnapped or hit by a car and I knew I could not protect them on my own, so I sought help from a ‘higher power’.
My own experience with atheism has lead me to believe that most atheists have undergone a great deal of pain in their lives, which caused their heart to shrivel up, leaving little room for God. In Ezekiel 36 God promises “Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Our savior promises to “save” us from our grief, shame, guilt and anger, and instead fill our heart with his tender mercy, love and kindness.
A dead give-away that one’s heart is locked in stone is that you never cry. From the age of 16 to 36 I absolutely never cried – ever! But then I went on my first retreat back in 1993; the leader of the retreat lead us back to memories of our childhood. I was adamantly resistant at first, but the more experienced retreatants urged me to let down my defenses and allow God to heal my heart. I acquiesced, and as the painful memories surfaced, I started crying, and I don’t think I stopped crying for the next six months!
It is far easier to carefully reason and reach the conclusion that God doesn’t exist when you are in good health and employed, and life is on an even keel. My father espoused pantheism, the belief that nature is identical with divinity. But after he realized he was dying from cancer he had a change of heart. One night when I was tucking him in, he patted my hand and said “don’t worry, I want to go to heaven”. I had given him a miraculous medal, and even though he tended to be anti-Catholic, near the end of his life he wore it constantly and held on to it for dear life. I imagine many atheists cling to their ideals until push comes to shove and they know they will soon meet their maker.
In the book “Atheist to Catholic” journalist John C. Wright relates his journey from atheism to Christianity, more particularly to the Catholic faith. As he looked at the shallowness of his fellow atheists, he started reading Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their “solid understanding of the joys and woes of human life”. He examined the logic, the “complexity and thoroughness of reasoning” of St. Thomas Aquinas and compared it to the “scattered and mentally incoherent sentimentality of some poseur like Nietzsche or Sartre.”
Wright explains “I can tell the difference between a rigorous argument and shrill psychological flatulence.” He relates a fellow atheist’s claim “how wonderful the world would be once religion was swept into the dustbin of history, and he knew the chap knew nothing about history. If atheism solved all human woe, then the Soviet Union would have been an empire of joy and dancing bunnies instead of a land of corpses.”
When Wright pondered whether God existed, he simply asked God to reveal himself in some way. Two days later he suffered a major heart attack and was in intense pain. He wife was Christian and prayed over him; the pain disappeared instantly and he was overwhelmed with the presence of God.
In the same book Professor Ken Krabbenhoft at NYU was drawn to atheism because he wanted to be “sophisticated, worldly, and pleasure-seeking, rather than self-sufficiently pious”. He was intrigued by Christianity when one of his students spoke in his class about mysticism. As he relates “I realized at once that, through her, God was speaking to me. I understood quite clearly that, on the subject of mysticism, I had missed the point. The value of mystical writing was inseparable from the truth of mystical experience. What I had tried so hard to grasp intellectually could only be known through transcendent union with God.”
(Above quotes from “Atheist to Catholic”)
Another convert, Malcolm Muggeridge, was a typical leftwing intellectual entranced by Marxist communism. Then in 1932 he investigated Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions in the Ukraine. Censored by his employer, the Manchester Guardian, Muggeridge described the horrific conditions of the “socialist utopia” in his book “Winter in Moscow”.
In 1970 Muggeridge flew to Calcutta, India for a documentary about Mother Teresa. From his own writings his friend Rowland Croucher describes this encounter:
“Well, on that fated morning of their meeting (a morning that would change him for the rest of his life) he met her as she was working out in the streets with sick and poor people in a ghetto like he had never seen before, amid stench, filth, garbage, disease, and poverty that was just unbelievable. But what struck Muggeridge more than anything else, even there in that awful squalor and decadence, was the deep, warm glow on Mother Teresa’s face and the deep, warm love in her eyes.”
As a result of this encounter he and his wife, Kitty, eventually converted to the Catholic faith. Atheists are drawn to Christianity for a myriad of reasons. Some are drawn to Christ because of dangerous or troubling circumstances, while others are drawn by friends who take the time to dialogue in an even exchange without judgment or criticism.
As St. Paul encourages and warns us concerning our faith in Colossions 2 “May their hearts be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments… Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
So if you are an atheist, don’t be taken in by the empty and seductive promises of the world; ask God to reveal himself to you. If you are praying for family or friends to turn to God, be patient, pray and try to live out your faith in a way visible to everyone, leading by example. Just as in Luke 1:46 Mary sings “My soul magnifies the Lord”, we too should try to be a magnifying glass for Christ.