Prodigal Sons (and Daughters) Return: 9 Atheist Converts Share Their Stories

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Conversion stories powerfully show the mercy, grace, power, and love of God. There’s a whole parable dedicated to converts—the story of the prodigal son.

“Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’ So he got up and went back to his father” (Luke 15: 17-20).

The rest of the parable tells that the father rejoiced over his returned son and brought him back into his home not as a servant, but as his son.

This is what God does for us every time we turn back to him; every time we sin and repent and go to him, God rushes to greet us and showers us with blessings. The verse mentioning the prodigal “coming to his senses” is resounding—following God is the most sensible thing any of us can do. Perhaps some of the most striking stories of “coming to his senses” are stories of conversion, from the darkness of atheism to the fullness of Catholicism. In the book From Atheism to Catholicism: Nine Converts Explain Their Journey Home, Brandon McGinley has collected the stories of nine converts to Catholicism to tell us of God’s great love and our own need for daily conversion. Here are some samples from the book:

 

 

 

 

1. Scatter the Darkness of My Mind—John Barger

In those days, science was my touchstone. Susan urged me to pray for God’s help; she insisted that he selflessly created us and even sacrificed himself for us. I was sure, on the contrary, that ‘there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch’—until I found out that science claims that there is such a thing as a free lunch.

Celebrated physicist Alan Guth said it all: ‘The universe is the ultimate free lunch.’ About 13.7 billion years ago, according to modern physics, the whole shebang—matter, space, and even time—all surged into existence . . . out of nothing!

That’s about as free lunch as you can get. And, said Susan, it’s what the Church has said from the beginning. Aquinas asserted it in the 1200s, Augustine in the late 300s, and Genesis even earlier, sometime before 500 B.C.: The universe was created out of nothing.

Now, only a person whose sight is clouded (or who refuses to look) can fail to see what follows: Since matter, time, and space came from nothing, then something outside of  matter, time, and space must have brought them into existence. Something, it seems, that loves beauty.

Exit atheism stage left.

 

2. Further Up and Further In—Holly Ordway

How did I ever end up in the Catholic Church? I certainly never expected to arrive here. As an atheist English professor, I never imagined that I’d become a Christian, but greatly to my own surprise, I did. Then, having been baptized at the age of thirty-two, I thought I had ‘arrived.’ I found my place, as an Episcopalian in the conservative Anglo-Catholic tradition—but definitely not a Catholic, thank you very much! And so I would have been bemused at best, or more likely unsettled or even horrified, by the thought of myself today, not just a Catholic, but also beginning my day by praying the rosary in front of a tabletop statue of Our Lady of Fatima. A devotion to Mary? What? No!

So it has indeed been quite a journey, from atheism to faith, then all the way home into the Catholic Church—and then ‘further up and further in’ as I grow in faith as a Catholic.

I was raised in a nonreligious family. We never went to Church; there was no Bible in the house; and with awkward exception of [saying] grace said at Thanksgiving (and no other time), there was no mention (much less discussion) of God at all. The result was that I knew nothing whatsoever about what it meant to be a Christian, but I also wasn’t hostile—merely uninformed and indifferent. I remember a conversation I had when I was about eight years old. A classmate asked me if I believed in God. I replied, ‘I don’t know. Maybe God’s real, maybe not.’ The boy said, ‘Oh, you’re agnostic then.’ I was happy to have learned a new vocabulary word, but the larger question of the existence of God made no impression on me at all. In my teens, I began to be concerned with questions of right and wrong, and I felt a longing for meaning and connection, but it didn’t occur to me to explore these issues in religious terms.

 

3. Like the Dewfall—Mark Drogin

People ask me if I had one ‘aha’ moment. Recently, I remembered a Good Friday Liturgy I attended in 1974. At that time, I had begun saying the prayer to Our Lady of Perpetual Help but still had not decided whether I wanted to be baptized. During my lunch hour, I went to a nearby Catholic Church. I still was unfamiliar with Catholicism, and I knew nothing about Good Friday. It was a parish near downtown with an elementary school, and all the students were in the church wearing their school uniforms. I paid close attention to the entire liturgy and was fascinated by the children.

I went up and kissed the cross, and watched the children kissing the cross. To my great surprise, tears began flowing down my cheeks as I watched the children; it was then that I realized that I would become a Catholic. For the first time, I knew I wanted to be baptized.

 

4. My Search for Meaning—Fr. John Bartunek, LC, SThD

In place of religion, my dad believed in hard work and honesty. He modeled both of those virtues, and he inculcated them in us intentionally. My dad was also an avid athlete: he had played several years of minor-league baseball and had been an amateur boxing champion. His discipline and work ethic grew out of and fed into his love of sports. And so, natural values such as discipline, focus, integrity, respect, and achievement became the core elements of our worldview growing up under his fatherhood.

During those years, with my dad’s encouragement, I became an avid reader. This is important, because my faith journey took a particularly intellectual slant later on. I think my love for ideas and culture began in my childhood with my love for reading. Any free time I had would usually be spent with a book. My dad had given me the green light, but my mother’s absence influenced this development, as well: my middle school had a yearly Read-a-Thon to benefit multiple-sclerosis research. I felt my participation was a way to show my love for my deceased mother by reading as many books as possible and getting as many sponsors as I could to help the cause. This too absorbed the energy of my mind and heart in a constructive way.

Looking back, I wonder if, without realizing it, I was experiencing the reality of the spiritual realm—the love that links us to each other even beyond the grave. Maybe even then the Lord was planting seeds in my souls that would later bear fruit in discovering and accepting the Catholic Faith.

But you can keep religion at bay for only so long.

 

5. Called by Name—Ronda Chervin, PhD

I imagine that my twin sister and I were among the most alienated little children in New York City. I have never met anyone with our peculiar background. We were the children, born in 1937, of unmarried parents who met in the Communist Party but had left it shortly before our birth to become informers for the FBI. (Apparently, enraged communists threatened to bomb our cradle.) Both father and mother, though militant atheists, had Jewish backgrounds, but neither had been brought up as Jews; they didn’t even observe the High Holy Days at home or at a synagogue.

As right-wing political atheists of Jewish ancestry, we didn’t fit in with anyone around us: not with Catholic, not with the sprinkling of Protestants, certainly not with Orthodox religious Jews in full regalia—nor Reform Jews, nor Zionist atheist Jews, nor left-wing non-Zionist Jews, and so on and so forth. Later, as a Catholic, I realized that my desire to belong to an identifiable group forever and ever had a psychological as well as a theological foundation.

 

These stories are join by acclaimed authors Kevin Vost and Joseph Pearce, and several others. Get Brandon McGinley’s From Atheism to Catholicism: Nine Converts Explain Their Journey Home.

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