I have come across on the internet many atheists who were once christians. With church attendance dropping in most western countries, it may seem like changes in belief are all one way. But statistics show otherwise – that there are almost as many people changing from atheism to belief in God as are going the other way (see note 1).
Australian writer and musician RJ Stove is one of those who converted from atheism to christianity.
RJ Stove grew up with atheist parents, and his father was a professor in the philosophy department at Sydney University. He had some involvement in the Anglican church as a teen (mainly it would appear, because of his interest in organ music) but this didn’t last long, and he considered himself an atheist at least until he was in his thirties.
But family tragedy in the form of his mother’s immobilisation by a stroke caused both he and his father’s ‘faith’ in atheism to unravel, leading eventually to his father’s suicide and to Stove reconsidering his beliefs. An order of Catholic nuns who lived next door to the family property on the outskirts of Sydney apparently had a significant impact on him, and so he began to examine Catholicism. He read widely, and eventually came to came to agree with the words of novelist Evelyn Waugh:
the [Catholic] faith is absolutely satisfactory to the mind, enlisting all knowledge and all reason in its cause…it is completely compelling to any who give it an ‘indifferent and quiet audience’
Stove was baptised into the christian faith in his early forties. I have written his story out in more detail in An atheist legacy?
Reflections on Stove’s story
The story of his parents’ end is not pleasant, and Stove obviously believes his atheism was inadequate to provide any meaning or comfort during this difficult time. This does not demonstrate that atheism is false nor that Catholicism true, but it does lead me to a few tentative conclusions:
- Whether we believe that human beings are the creation of God, or the result of natural selection, or both, it does seem that whatever is true ought also to generally work in real life. In this family at least, atheism didn’t work, and it seems quite reasonable to me that this would lead a thoughtful person to re-think their beliefs. Whatever the truth of christianity, it does seem to work for billions of people.
- His father’s emotional difficulties of coping with illness and death portray, to me at least, some of the practical challenges facing the committed atheist. This may perhaps help non-atheists understand some of the reasons why modern atheism has begun to take on some of the trappings of a religion – a greater sense of corporate solidarity and the need for atheists to support each other, the appearance of an almost priestly class of heroes and giants of the ‘faith’, and the development of shared dogma and arguments (especially some that have little basis in fact). It seems to me that we all share the human impulses which lead to these behaviour patterns, and the atheists are starting to recognise this; the christians have of course known it for some time.
Note 1: In the UK, a 2009 study showed that conversions to atheism only exceed those to theism by less than 10%. In the US, the percentage of atheists hasn’t substantially changed in decades, but there is a growing number of unaffiliated people (currently around 16%), with large numbers of people changing their affiliation, both into and out of faith, through life.