An atheist convert

April 5th, 2012

R J Stove

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.

Stove’s story

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

8 Comments

  1. A nicely written article, however, you pre-suppose that atheists have a “faith”. Atheists have no faith per se, other than in their own rationality.

    Terrible things happen to people every day which make them question the “meaning of life” and therefore seek answers. Life is evolution and has no meaning in itself – when we die, we cease to exist in a sentient sense and subsequently become an organic waste product (worm food / fertiliser). Why do the “deluded” insist that there is more to this process? The answer is simple – we think too much and think ourselves to be more significant than w actually are!

  2. G’day James, thanks for commenting.

    No, I didn’t presuppose atheists have a faith, I put that word in inverted commas to indicate I wasn’t using it literally, but the font I’m using (which I’m about to change for this reason) didn’t show the inverted commas very clearly. So I think that misled you slightly, I’m sorry.

    I guess you include me among the “deluded”, so I can only say that I believe what I believe because the evidence points that way. It has nothing to do with thinking I’m significant, because I don’t. Why do you think life has no meaning?

  3. No apology necessary. I personally think that the word religion and delusion are interchangeable.

    I understand the temptation to find comfort in a “belief system” during difficult times, however, comfort and reassurance is accessible to almost all through the development of ones emotional intelligence – in that one can identify for oneself pathways to cope with grief and pain.

    We all have significance in (at least) the eyes of our kith and kin, beyond that an individuals life is a solitary “tic” on mankind’s evolutionary path – some amongst us may feel that we contribute more, however, this contribution is most likely insignificant on a macro level.

    Catholicism / Christianity is abhorrent, has had its day having served its masters (Romans thru to Hitler)in keeping the masses in order. Lets face it, Christianity is a bastardised religion based upon “The King of the Jews” fictional adventures which have manipulated the weak and uneducated of years gone by.

    Our pale blue dot, is becoming more educated and rational every day – a new world order of non-theists is emerging in Europe, China an Australasia and even gaining ground in the USA.

    Religions have had their day – we have evolved – we do not need them – should only be accessed in the fiction or social psychology section of a library.

    As a child I was shamefully subjected to catholic rituals from baptism to first communion which I proudly walked away from prior to taking “the body of christ” – that is child abuse and force-able indoctrination and no child should be subjected to the same through their parents irrationality.

    I recognise the positive impact that organised religion has had on education / art through the ages, for which I am grateful – now it is time for religion to reap what it has sowed and deal with the systematic disassembly of the same over the next 200 years or so. This assumes , of course that the mongers of religion have not caused the worlds annihilation in that time in the name of God / Allah / Abraham / Vishnu / Jesus / Yaweh /Muhammed et al or whatever fictional deity is en-vogue at the time.

    Be well, live well.

    James

  4. G’day James,

    I guess you must feel better having got all that off your chest! : )

    Of course I don’t believe a word of it, and since you haven’t offered any reason why I should believe it, there is really nothing much to say in response.

    But I am glad I am not nearly as dogmatic as you have been here, for such dogmatism is probably a big cause of the problems you seem to be afraid of.

    So thanks for dropping by, thanks for your good wishes. My wishes to you are that you be wise and be gentle.

  5. Hello again.

    It is good that two people from polar opposite positions can debate it a civil manner. Your use of the word “dogmatic” shows you have a good sense of humour and appreciate irony.

    I was in no way “venting”, I was merely expressing opinion / observations (historically factual) that you invited me to put forward. Furthermore, it is not me who has any problems that I am afraid of (real or imagined).

    Time will tell who is/was the wisest.

  6. Thanks James. I am happy for you to express your opinions, but whether they are “historically factual” is yet to be established. Certainly, I think they are historically questionable.

    Yes, time will tell who is the wisest; not sure how we’ll know who is the gentlest! : )

  7. It is interesting that the chap in this story becomes a Catholic. I must say I had a little chuckle,as Catholics are generally not regarded as Christians by almost every one of the 35,000 odd Christian sects.
    In fact, there are many of the more extreme fundameltalist Christianswho would venture that Catholics might be worse than atheists.

  8. Yeah, people say all sorts of things, but we don’t have to take notice. I found the story interesting, and so reported it.

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