Guest Post: From Catholicism to Unbelief… and Back

This is a guest post from Joe Landi. He says, “I am a marketing major at Clemson University in South Carolina. I suck at multiple things, some of which include golf, rapping, and philosophy. I plan to attend law school with the hope of getting in as much debt as quickly as possible.”. You can read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter at: @almostorthodoxy.

Saint Therese of Lisieux

Saint Therese of Lisieux

I come on this website as an outsider. I’m a Roman Catholic.

Don’t worry, I not writing this in the hope of converting anyone. As Camus said, no one has ever died for the ontological argument, and it is my best guess that I won’t have atheist readers of this article dunking their head in the baptismal font anytime soon either. It took Newman twenty-one years to make the move from high church Anglicanism to Catholicism. My expectations are poor.

But what I can do is attempt my best at telling a simple story of why I reverted to Rome. Nothing more. Nothing less. So here I go.

I grew up in a Catholic family and I became an atheist. Same old story; you know the deal. I haven’t room for details.

On a chilly Saturday morning last fall, I entered back into the Church. Why?

Well, I’ve been trying to write a piece like this for the past six months, attempting at no end to explain precisely why I reverted to Catholicism. I have given up. It ‘s pretty much like trying to explain why you think so-and-so piece of art is beautiful. It can’t be done; especially by an idiot like myself. But my failure will not end in silence.

Thinking about how I should go about this, I originally planned to provide a strictly intellectual, “rational” account of things. If I didn’t do so, then I figured readers would get on me for not providing “sufficient evidence.” But – against my best judgment – I will simply tell you a few of the many reasons why I love being a Catholic.

Love is thinking at its finest. No, not pondering existential quantifiers. No, not reading De Beauvoir while sipping tea. No: love.

See, there is this title available for saints in the Church of “Doctor of the Church.” It’s meant for those saints that were, may I say, smart. Basil, Jerome, Bonaventure, Augustine, and… Aquinas – I think you get the point. But wait a second, I see someone that doesn’t belong. Is that Thérèse? Thérèse of… Lisieux? That uneducated nun whose most intellectually sophisticated and only writing was her autobiography, who died before her twenty-fifth birthday, and who just happens to have her feast day on my birthday? Yes, that Thérèse. And that’s why I love being a Catholic.

The Trinity – to use technical language for a moment – secures an epistemological position where love, not the intellect, is what will truly lead us to the truth. It, so to say, levels the playing field, putting us in a world where an uneducated cloistered Carmelite can know just as much as, lets say, Aquinas. As the proverb says: “wisdom is easy,” in the sense that you don’t need a P.H.D. to attain to it. And this is precisely what puts the “catholicus” in Catholic.

Anyways, even while I was an atheist, I still had looked up to the saints. I had read pretty much all the classics – Chrysostom’s sermons, Theresa of Avila’s “Interior Castle,” Augustine’s “Confessions,” the writings of Francis of Assisi, John of the Cross’ poetry, the “Epistles” of Ignatius of Antioch, and last but not least Therese of Lisieux’s “Story of a Soul” – just to name a few. Needless to say, I had, in some sense of the phrase, developed a relationship with these people. Augustine’s writings had had a huge effect on me, and after reading Therese’s “Story of a Soul,” I could say without a doubt she would be the person from history that I would most like to meet. The thing was, all of these people were Catholics.

Before I move on, let me take a step back and clarify something.

A point that gets lost on most atheists is that religion is first and foremost a way of life. As Wittgenstein said, “although it’s belief, it is really a way of living, or a way of judging life.” Therefore, for me, being Catholic primarily means doing certain things, not simply intellectualizing them. I’m a Catholic not when I sit down and decide that the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection looks rather good, but when I go to confession and confess my sins.

With this said, part, not all of the reason, why I came back to the Church was simple. I was moved by the thought that my way of “judging life” would be the same as all the many saints that I had so looked up to. When I pray the Rosary, I am reciting the same prayers that reverberated off the walls of James Foley’s prison cell as he awaited his execution at the hands of Islamic militants. When I receive the Eucharist, I am doing exactly what made Aquinas cry. And – when I go confess my sins I can say right along with Augustine, “in my deepest wound I saw your glory, and it dazzled me.”

That is the “beauty so ancient and so new.” That is Catholicism. And that’s why I love it.

This was a guest post from Joe Landi. He says, “I am a marketing major at Clemson University in South Carolina. I suck at multiple things, some of which include golf, rapping, and philosophy. I plan to attend law school with the hope of getting in as much debt as quickly as possible.”. You can read his blog here, and follow him on Twitter at: @almostorthodoxy. If you would like to be a guest blogger on godlessmom.com, please click here.

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  • Well, the important thing is that we all support gay marriage and the reproductive rights for women.

  • Bad Girl Bex

    Thank you for taking the time to write a very eloquent post, describing your faith and the reasons, or lack thereof, for believing. It’s actually a nice change to see someone just coming out and admitting that the reason they follow such and such a religion, is because it just makes them feel good inside. Far too many apologists seem hell-bent (no pun intended) on trying to intellectualise that which – as you have very clearly said – has no real logical, scientific or rational explanation. They are forever on the back foot, because try as they might to give some kind of intellectual credence to their belief set, very few people convert to a religion because they found the expositions of some apologist, to be a convincing reason to believe.

    Most people come to religion through their family. That belief is often bolstered by the community and the fact that most of the people in their town/city, also subscribe to said belief set. Some wander into it later in life, be it after a crisis or after the kindly intervention of a religious party, but most people hold the religious belief that is predominantly held by their family, friends and surrounding community. As these people go through all the in-doctrinal training of the faith, it becomes as common and familiar a part of the mindset as any other part of their lives. Going forward, having been trained to do so, they turn to this religion in times of need, despite it not really ever offering anything in the way of real assistance, because their cognitive functions are used to approaching everything this way.

    Ultimately, people stay with and defend their religious positions, not because they actually examined every religious belief on the planet and came to the conclusion that their particular flavour of belief was the one which offered the greatest explanation, or held the most intellectual weight. They do so because it feels good. And at least you are being honest in declaring so. You can’t explain why you really came back to the church, but deep down, when you examine it logically, you know that it’s merely a product of your raising. That the initial programming goes too deep and it just doesn’t feel as nice when you don’t allow yourself to capitulate to the catechism.

    People are religious, because it feels good. The sooner apologists stop trying to use science to disprove science in the hope of proving ‘god’ the better. They like everyone else, just go with it, because they like it. And try as they might, they just cannot offer a really good explanation for it.

    • Almost Orthodoxy

      Thanks for such a thorough and kindly worded comment! If you don’t mind though, I thought I ought to make a few comments.

      I completely agree with you that far too many (if not all…) apologists seem overly concerned with intellectualizing their religious beliefs. They may be well off to take Wittgenstein’s comment that “If Christianity is true, then all the philosophy about it is false” a tad more seriously.

      With that being said, I am not a fideist. I do believe one can provide reasons “for the hope which lies within” them. But as to what faith precisely is, I have to admit I have no opinion on it. To define “faith” is to get into an absolutely scary amount of surrounding bits of philosophy, and I feel more than less than qualified to speak on such an entangled topic. But I do believe that the modern dichotomy between faith and reason is mislead, and minus my sympathies with Kierkegaardian/Tillichian reading of faith (which is helpful getting us to focus on the primacy of the existential aspect of faith which engages us as a whole person), I see that to speak of a Kantian “pure reason” opposed to an a-rational “faith” is unnecessarily Cartesian (body and soul are separate/unrelated) and not enough Aristotelian (soul as form of body) in its anthropology.

      As for why I didn’t provide any “intellectual” reasons for how I order my life, it was not because my belief is irrational/a-rational, but I didn’t want to go down that particular road for such a short piece. To undertake such a project would be to commit myself to writing multiple books the size of “War and Peace” – a project of which I am both incapable and too lazy to undertake. Therefore, I just wrote down a couple reasons why I love being a Catholic. But let me say again, I do believe that Catholicism is true, that one can in fact provide reasons in its favor, and I would be more than happy to talk to you about it if you would like! 🙂

      • Bad Girl Bex

        Good Morning,

        Apologies for not getting back to you sooner. I did notice on Twitter that you had responded to my comment, but my sleeping tablet was already kicking in so I figured I’d wait until the morning; although, having barely wiped the sleep from my eyes and as yet to feel the benefits of caffeine coursing through my veins, I must admit that I’m probably not in the best frame of mind to thoroughly address what you’ve written above. But what the heck. I’m game if you are!

        You’ll have to excuse my having only the most rudimentary understanding of some of the philosophers you mentioned. Being of a more scientific bent, I can’t say that I’ve been particularly attracted to the somewhat arrogant sounding mixture of semantics and sophistry, that seems more concerned with obfuscation than elucidation. And please forgive me, if this sounds a tad dismissive, but I fear that this discussion is in itself in danger of falling prey to said elements of obfuscation and sophistry, when a much more pragmatic approach would more than suffice. I think it was Arthur Koestler who said that philosophy is “the systematic abuse of a terminology specially invented for that purpose.” 🙂

        That is not to say that I do not understand and appreciate you taking the time to further expand upon your initial post – I really do! It’s nice to have a counter position offered up for discussion and I’m really glad that you chose Godless Mom’s blog as a repository for your story. Sometimes we as atheists are so used to having to field the usual trite accusations and declarations of spiritual warfare that have become de rigeur online of late, that we tend not to get to see the bigger picture of religion being an entire way of life for the believer. Refuting the arguments presented by apologists involves little more than having a basic grounding in logic and a knowledge of the inevitable fallacies that said apologist will attempt to employ.

        But as you pointed out in both your original post and subsequent response, faith is not something that the believer comes to via an intellectual investigation. You acknowledge Kierkegaard’s ‘reading of faith’ (not being familiar with Paul Tillich, I’m afraid I cannot begin to comment on his particular philosophy) which I take to be the idea that one cannot begin to apply a finite human understanding to the allegedly infinite concept of God. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my interpretation of his perspective is that one is not to become so embroiled in the complexities of doctrine, to the detriment of a true spiritual experience?

        Setting aside the fact that Kierkegaard was a bit of an arse in his castigation of those he felt weren’t doing Christianity properly (as are so many theologians who fall prey to the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy) for all his profundity, his POV boils down to little more than the argumentum ex silentio: reason/logic/science admits it can tell us nothing about God, so you can’t deny that God exists! Okay, so perhaps he isn’t quite so adamant about faith and reason – and one might be tempted to point out my own arrogance in trying to use reason to explain that which someone has already stated is beyond reason – but Kierkegaard to me, doesn’t present anything particularly constructive, within the realm of philosophy. But then as a godless heathen, I suppose I would say that! Lol.

        Going back to your original post, where you mentioned Thérèse of Lisieux, one can draw comparisons between some of her own musings on faith and those of Kierkegaard. As you said, she was a relatively uneducated girl; her believing that one doesn’t need complicated doctrine or complex liturgical pronouncements in order to be close to/have a personal relationship with God/Jesus, does echo the aforementioned sentiment of Kierkegaard. The corollary of you having such a large amount of reverence and respect for her would be for you to at the very least tip your hat to the musings of Kirkegaard!

        Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I find it slightly amusing to hear a person of faith say: “But as to what faith precisely is, I have to admit I have no opinion on it.” Faith as I – and many other atheist/skeptic types – see it, is nothing more than believing in something for which you have no evidence. It has the perfect escape route within debate, because the premise upon which it rests has no way of being proven or disproven; at least it doesn’t right now, with our current understanding of the universe. Kierkegaard and Thérèse of Lisieux therefore, are somewhat justified in their urging of others to refrain from attempting to approach the issue of belief and faith from an intellectual angle.

        Which really just brings us back to what I gleaned initially from your first post in that, the origins of one’s belief are rarely found in the sophisticated expositions of pseudo-intellectual apologetics, but from the seemingly anodyne introductions made by family, friends and people withing positions of authority within the community. Kierkegaard himself received his own religious indoctrination from his devoutly religious father who had wanted him to become a pastor. He didn’t happen upon religion by accident – it was bred into him from the get-go. So too is the case of Thérèse of Lisieux. Her parents were massively devout Catholics! All of her sisters and one of her cousins ended up in convents of some shape or other, after a brief but strict Catholic education. Again, for her religiosity was not a concept she stumbled upon outside of the family home that she chose to pursue and investigate to her own conclusion. She was practically raised to become the quietly devout nun she was.

        That is not me attempting to cast a slant on her by the way – I’m not in the habit of trying to defame anyone to make a point. I’m merely pointing out that ‘great interconnectedness of all things’ that Dirk Gently so often referred to! Lol! No, seriously though. We can go round in circles quoting this person and that person in an attempt to bring a wider perspective to the debate, but it does nothing to address the issue of belief on a personal level. You don’t believe in God because of anything Kierkegaard said, any more than I refrain from jumping off a building because I read about Newton’s law of universal gravitation. You believe, because you believe. I don’t, because despite being raised as a Methodist, I just wasn’t ever able to accept the things I was being taught.

        It’s always the personal stories of belief that we as atheists want to hear, rather than the same old arguments or attempts to outwit us at our own game. Faith, to those who have never experienced it, is a bizarre and intangible concept that believe it or not, we would love to have explained and clarified for us, by those professing to possess it. Not because we want to know the secret to ‘getting God’ but because we’d just like to understand believers better. So, if you’d like to talk more about your own journey from the beginnings of belief, through to atheism and back to Catholicism, I for one would love to hear it. But perhaps lessen up on the philosophical sophistry! That’s not a dig, just a request for a more transparent and heartfelt explanation of the whats, whys and whatever else you want to share about what you believe and why.

        And on that note, I really must stop waffling! If I don’t get some coffee really soon, I fear my eyes may start bleeding and woe betide anyone who dares to cross me before I get my morning fix. Apologies to all for having spent so long typing what probably could have been condensed into a much shorter and more direct few paragraphs. I’m well known for my long rambling rants at the best of times, but at this time of the day BC (before coffee!) I’m inexorably worse!

        Have a lovely morning y’all!

        Bex

        The First Law of Philosophy: For every philosopher, there exists an equal and opposite philosopher.

        The Second Law of Philosophy: They’re both wrong.

  • Margaret Tombs

    I just read your very interesting piece and I would like to say that I understand completely why you draw so much comfort from the art, beauty and history of the Catholic Church, especially as this was the culture you grew up in. I have visited many Churches and grew up in Oxford, England surrounded by buildings many of which were over a thousand years old, and most of which had a religious origin. But I also know this is because of the massive wealth and political power of the Church at the time, until Henry VIII broke with the Church and took the wealth for himself.

    A quick glance at your blog shows you have a deep appreciation for art and history and what you say idicates that you have a need to feel a connection with that history which I do totally understand because I feel that too, and that feeling was fed by having grown up surrounded by historical buildings and artifacts. In fact everywhere you go in the UK is packed with around 6,000 years of history, from Stonehenge to the Roman city of Bath etc. Everywhere we walk we walk in the steps of our ancestors, and that is a comforting thought. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have been brought up in a country that has only been occupied by my ancestors for a few hundred years.

    What bothers me about your post is that you don’t actually say if you think God is actually real, or if when you were describing yourself as an Atheist you actually believed he wasn’t. You say you haven’t got time for details, but I think details of why you left your faith are an important part of the story, because you can’t make yourself believe something you know to be untrue just because you think it’s beautiful.

    I don’t think anyone has to give up that feeling of connectedness with the past because they have given up religion, there are many ways of gaining that feeling such as visiting historical sites and studying art and archeology. There is a 6,000 year old stone circle just up the road from us called Callanish which has many visitors from all over the world. I think it’s better than Stonehenge because you are actually allowed to touch the stones, which really does feel like touching the past.

    About the Catholic Church specifically though, I do see that there is a lot of beauty in the art and the ritual, and that is very attractive. But to me there would also always be in the back of my mind the downside of the Church, the past persecutions and the present stance on Abortion and Gay marriage, and even if I did believe in a deity I could never reconcile myself to that.