Getting from belief in God to Christianity--former agnostics and atheists feel free to weigh in!

For many years now, I have felt a pull to the Catholic Church. It first began around six years ago when struggling with my faith (at the time I was Episcopalian), and has persisted in varying degrees even though I no longer consider myself a Christian. In fact, it was a previous failed attempt at converting to Catholicism resulting in nothing but anguish and frustration that caused me to abandon religion altogether. I don’t know if it is a true interest in the Catholic faith or simply a fascination with certain aspects of Catholicism (reverence for Mary, the liturgy, the beauty of cathedrals, what you might call the “smells and bells”–no offense intended). Probably a little of both, or perhaps there is no real difference.

At any rate, I am taking baby steps toward Catholicism, if only to settle the matter once and for all in my mind, whether or not I’m REALLY interested in Catholicism or just toying with the idea with no real purpose. I went to Adoration today at a parish in a neighboring town for about 45 minutes today, though I’m not sure if it did anything for me. I am planning on picking up the book “Catholicism for Dummies” at the library today, and I have started looking at the Catechism online. I am not committing myself to a specific outcome other than to explore with an open mind and heart and see where that leads me.

When I said I no longer consider myself a Christian, I mean to say I believe in God, but I’m not really clear on what I believe ABOUT God. I guess my current view is somewhat pantheistic or panentheistic–God is everything or God is in everything, but honestly, I have no real defense for that view, other than that I have a difficult time seeing God as a personal being, having interaction with humans. I also have difficulty accepting the miracles of Christianity–virgin birth, resurrection, miraculous healings, etc. It just sounds so far fetched to me–again, no offense intended. I believed it at one point, and I don’t understand what changed that I don’t believe it now, which makes me wonder if I ever really believed in the first place. I certainly thought I did when I was baptized. It’s a strange thing to experience–growing up without religion, becoming a Christian as an adult, then having a crisis of faith and abandoning it to wonder why you ever believed it in the first place, to once again saying, hmmm, maybe there really is something to it.

I was hoping perhaps some former atheists or agnostics might share how they were able to make the leap from believing in God to believing in a personal God to believing specifically in the Christian view of God. Was it just a matter of prayer and time? Was it a book you read or something someone pointed out to you? Did you have some sort of mystical experience?

I don’t think I’d have a lot of trouble believing the Catholic view of God if I were able to get to the Christian view of God (of course I know Catholics would say the Catholic view IS the Christian view, but Protestants would disagree, which is why I made the distinction). What I mean is, I think if I could believe any of it I could believe ALL of it. Or put another way: If I can believe Jesus died and came back to life three days later, how would believing in the perpetual virginity of Mary or the Real Presence or any of the rest of it be any more difficult? It all sounds equally crazy to an outsider :wink:

Feel free to share anything you think would be useful, and forgive me for being offensive if I have been. Lifelong Catholics are welcome to answer as well, but I’m really hoping to get perspectives from someone with some experience from the “outside.”

Thanks!

I was raised somewhat spiritual, but mostly with my parents being hands off in terms of religion. My father’s parents are Catholic, and that side of the family is very culturally Irish/German Catholic, with all those fun traditions, so I was exposed to that sort of thing growing up. Went to Quaker Vacation Bible School (now that was an experience, but for a different thread!), and drifted into different youth group activities with friends and their churches in high school.

By college, I was dabbling in paganism, as I appreciated some of the ritual, the strong female emphasis. I was a unitarian universalist type agnostic - I believed in the divine, but I had no real way of defining what I believed.

After college, I drifted. Started to feel a pull toward the Catholic church, but it was intermittent and not very strong. I’d think about it, but decide I was too busy, or what if I found someone to date who wasn’t Catholic…and then there were my issues with a lot of the teachings. So I didn’t really pursue it.

About two years ago, right around the time I was finishing law school, and thus, already under a lot of stress, I had some disturbing paranormal experiences. Basically, I was scared silly, and all of a sudden, I remembered this little rosary I had purchased for my grandfather years ago at a festival, and then threw it in the drawer and promptly forgot about it. I dug it out, looked up how to say a rosary, and then muddied it all up doing it wrong.

But I felt better afterward, and slept peacefully. The next night, I decided to do it again. I didn’t really believe in anything at that point - I was as muddled as you, but I kept at it because I found it meditative and calming as I was studying for the bar exam and worrying if I was losing my mind with some of the crazy things going on at my house.

Funny enough, the more I prayed, the stronger my faith grew. It was Mary who brought me to the Catholic faith. She comforted me, protected me, and guided me - I turned to her like a small child, and she took care of me. At first, it was a gradual insistence in the back of my mind to look into RCIA, and then, it was like someone had flipped a switch in me. Thins I had scoffed at, or found silly - I believed. And I can’t really explain it. It wasn’t a life or death situation; there wasn’t any significant change in my life to help me along. I just began to believe.

Now, I still had issues with other parts of the church, and approached those matters with an open mind, and am still evolving on a lot of things, but at least in terms of Christian - of Catholic belief - it was Mary and the rosary. It sort of reminds me of the atheist who wore the miraculous medal, and suddenly became converted. I was stubborn, and skeptical, and really who was I to judge evangelicals/muslims/hindus/etc.?. And then with no explanation my heart shifted. I don’t know how to explain it really.

I was also, though not a former Atheist, going to suggest the Rosary or some form of a Marian devotion. It is through the Rosary that I am purging habitual sin from my life.

Haha that’s funny. I’ve been looking at vintage rosaries on etsy (I like the idea of using a rosary that has already been broken in and is soaked in prayer). Last night I decided I would wait a bit before buying one, but maybe I’ll go ahead…

Things like that (both of you mentioning rosaries). I never know if they’re just coincidences or promptings (of course I know what Catholics would say) :slight_smile: But is like when you decide you want to get a certain kind of car and then suddenly you start seeing that model everywhere. It’s not as though that would be an unusual suggestion, after all. I often wonder if it’s just a psychological thing, but then maybe it’s God using psychology on me :slight_smile:

A funny thing about Mary. We have lived in this house for over ten years. The people who sold it to us were Catholic, and they left two Mary statues, one in the front and one in back. I’m sure that has had an influence on my interest in Catholicism, seeing her here everyday.

Thank you both for sharing!

First, you were baptized. That was a “mystical experience” - a supernatural event - an infusing of the life of God - which possibly was undetected by you consciously, as is common. But in reality, baptism changes a person. Really. And eternally - even though that gift and call can be rejected.

For me, my return began with a “sense” that there had to be more than Nothing out there, in the beginning - despite the claims of some scientist/materialists/secularists. Maybe that was my baptismal grace, a shred remaining in me, but I have no doubt it was God, calling me back. Reason itself insisted that human persons could not - no matter how much time passed - “evolve” out of dead matter “accidentally.”

But Christianity became real and personal for me through reading Scripture - the NT - accounts of witnesses of the life and teachings of Jesus, especially John’s Gospel initially. Reading and pondering that, I heard. The Scriptures are inspired, Spirit-inspired, and have the potency to stir a human person to life. “These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, and believing, have life in His name.” (John 20:31).

God visited humanity in a very “Personal” way, in the Incarnation. He became man, that we might be raised into a true and personal fellowship with Him - our destiny and God’s intention from the beginning.

If you listen, you can and will hear. If you hear, you can and will believe. And if you believe, you can and will live. “Everyone who seeks, finds!” May the Lord lead you.

I’m someone who was raised Catholic, then completely lost my faith, then regained it.

When I have had faith, it was difficult to really believe that other people didn’t, on some level, believe in God. When I didn’t have faith, it was difficult to really believe that other people really believed in God. It was difficult to remember that I myself had felt that way. I don’t know why that is: while having faith doesn’t mean a lack of doubts or questions, my personal experience of faith is that it is such a different way of seeing compared to not having any faith.

But towards the end of my time as an atheist, I started sensing that I could go back to having faith any time I wanted, if I just asked. And that was kind of scary: was I ready for that? Did I agree with it? Did I want it? Would I be permanently changing something about how I think, and was I prepared to give up my current ‘freedom’ to not believe, my current understanding of how it felt to not know that God was there?

And I took it in stages: through prayer, and yes it was initially through Mary although I don’t remember if that was intentional on my part, and through repentance, I reached a point where I started working to attend Mass, and then eventually Confession. But all through that, and probably for at least a year after my first prostrate encounter with Mary, I could feel that I was holding back on some of my trust and acceptance. I had reservations, but (and this is sort of hilarious, I imagine God got a good laugh out of it) I explained to God that I wasn’t ready yet for that level of faith and trust, but that I’d get there and I’d let him know when I did. If he could just hold on, I would eventually be ready for that. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a scarily awesome thing, in the traditional sense of ‘awesome’.

So the main thing I would take from this is that my process of returning to my faith was a gradual thing with occasional moments of breakthrough, and that it was characterised by frequent conversations between me and God. If I hadn’t involved him, if I hadn’t engaged in prayer, I don’t think I’d have got there, because faith is almost having an extra set of cones in your eyes that let you see other colours: everything looks a little different. I don’t know how much sense this really makes, but that was my experience.

I understand how troublesome doubting is…I was an atheist. Mine was really a leap of faith.I was much of a thinker and would analyze everything.I want to believe in God but I couldn’t make myself believe. Faith is a very strange thing to me–honestly.It’s almost superstitious.but what helped me most was reading spiritual books and joining many retreats…I was also empowered by many providential spiritual experiences most of which happened during the mass.

I had this particular spiritual experience in a seminar that I was made to understand that Jesus is really in the Holy Host and He is the Host.The speaker was talking about tables and meals at that time—then I felt God was talking to me through that woman and by a sudden insight, I realized that it was the same thing in the mass. I was eating the Lord at His table. He is actually there. After that, everything moved slowly for me. I really felt that I was face to face with God. He is so near me.I felt really one with Him…I was totally God-struck.I walked out of the room totally amazed by God’s revelation. I started to take the mass and the sacraments seriously after that…it also cured my indispositions during mass attendances.

Aside from these, I was highly influenced by the spirituality of St. Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola. I practiced prayer. If before I used to think a lot–I practiced prayer instead to curve my doubts… and yes the Virgin Mary—it wasn’t so hard to accept her. Through prayer I came to know her and get closer to her–and the saints. I think of her as a friend and my mother…think of them as your friends. I dont see them as an equal with God nor God, but my companions…I dont see anything wrong with praying to them.

Thanks everyone for your replies. I don’t see a lot of hope for myself in terms of coming to any sort of religious belief, Catholic or otherwise. Most days I’m not even sure I believe in God, though the I find the alternative–no gods, a deterministic universe with no free will–rather depressing.

It’s interesting how different people can be. Praying to a god I don’t believe in, reading the Bible or books about a religion that just seems fantastical to me, attending churches with their superstitious-seeming rituals, and sitting in a chapel starting at a wafer, trying to see it as something other than a wafer–things that are supposed to help me find faith–make me more depressed, more anxious, more annoyed than just ignoring the religion question altogether. It just seems like an attempt at self brainwashing.

Wanting to believe something is true and actually believing it are two different things. Liking the smell of incense and liturgy and cathedrals, and admiring the openness of Mary to God’s supposed will isn’t enough. There’s simply too much cognitive dissonance here for me. And it made me so miserable before, and is starting to again, that I honestly don’t even want to try anymore. So I’m putting the religious question back on the shelf. I guess I’d rather risk what I see as an imaginary hell and be happy than make myself miserable for the rest of my time on earth, the only thing I actually know I have, in the hope of some imaginary heaven. Kind of the opposite of Pascal’s wager for me–if it’s not true, I’ll have spent my one fleeting life making myself miserable over a myth, and if it is true, I can’t seem to see it, so I’d be in hell anyway. Or maybe God will be understanding that I tried.

But thank you for your suggestions. Perhaps they will be of use to someone else.

I don’t understand. You like the church with it’s rituals and teachings but that makes you miserable. Or have I misunderstood this?

I wonder if you are depressed. There is such a sad, hopeless note in your posts :frowning:

I hope that you find your way back in some way. God is full of surprises.

I’ll pray for you.

I don’t understand. You like the church with it’s rituals and teachings but that makes you miserable. Or have I misunderstood this?

I wonder if you are depressed. There is such a sad, hopeless note in your posts

Thank you so much! Your reply, in combination with the previous replies and other conversations I have had here and other places, and looking back at my spiritual history, has really helped me clarify something once and for all.

I am actually quite happy as long as I don’t try to believe in a particular religion or to understand the “meaning” of life, because I simply can’t come to any real, satisfying conclusions. I only get depressed in regards to religious belief. Whenever I approach Christianity (or other forms of spirituality, to a lesser extent), I begin to get anxious and depressed, unreasonably so. The times I have given up on it, I have become happy again. I don’t know why I never saw this before.

I’m sure I will always be drawn to the beauty of Catholicism–its symbolism, its ritual, but I don’t have to convert to appreciate that beauty, just as I don’t have to convert to Buddhism to enjoy meditation. The truth is, when I think about it, I see beauty in most religions–their art, their architecture, their stories, their practices. Appreciating something, though, isn’t the same as believing everything it teaches to be true.

I am not religious. Trying to be otherwise make me unhappy–deeply, unreasonably so. As far as I can tell, this is the only life I will ever have. I am choosing happiness in this life, since it is the only thing I absolutely know I have.

Thanks again for helping me see what was right in front of my own face, and best wishes to you all! :slight_smile: :slight_smile: :slight_smile:

I can’t help but feel the short interval between the posts containing these remarks makes your conclusion seem a little abrupt. This change in attitude would be easier to understand if it was accompanied by queries or difficulties with Catholicism itself, but it seems as if you are more interested in condemning yourself prematurely than in working out your difficulties with Catholicism and/or religion in general. If you’ve felt this attraction for quite some time, is the current aversion you’re feeling a good enough reason to discard it?

Is it religion that makes you unhappy, or a fear of failing to discover the truth? Certainly, deciding not to pursue the truth would alleviate that fear, and remove the possibility of failure entirely. But ignoring a problem doesn’t resolve it. You might feel better for a time, but eventually those nagging doubts will resurface and sabotage the “happiness” of ignorance.

I find it interesting that the rituals you were so drawn to before so suddenly turned into a source of discontent. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it almost seems as if you could appreciate them when they appeared to be merely symbolic, but in attempting to enter the Church, you tried to instantly grasp the layers and depth of their meaning. When this did not succeed, you then rejected them altogether, which some might consider a tad premature. There are (regrettably) hoards of Catholics (and even priests!) that do not fully understand what they are seeing or doing in Church; intentionally or not, you put undue pressure on yourself as an inquirer.

Then don’t try to. Don’t look for the answers; let them come to you. If you slowly expand your reading, understanding, and experiencing of Catholicism, the pieces will gradually fall into place.

I am sure that you resolved to make an earnest effort to explore Catholicism, but also suspect you (perhaps subconsciously) set unattainable goals and expectations in order to facilitate your withdrawal once those impossible conditions inevitably failed to be met.

If you ever decide to reexamine Catholicism in the future (I will pray for this to occur), I recommend that next time you allow yourself to feel more satisfaction from the little victories you have accomplished. You said you went to Adoration, but you weren’t sure it had any effect. Nothing happened during those 45 minutes. For you, this was probably another source of unease, or dejection. Personally, I’d be doing backflips if half of the Catholic population ever decided to step foot into an Adoration Chapel, let alone spend five minutes praying or meditating in it.

You have a fondness for the Blessed Virgin Mary; indulge it. Focus on Marian devotions while you figure out the rest. Having trouble with the Mass? You appreciate the aesthetic nature of the liturgy and ceremony; start with that. Once you learn the meaning of all these “superstitions”, you might be pleasantly surprised to find they help you understand the rest of the Mass.

I could give you a dozen inspirational accounts of stagnant indifference being instantaneously transformed into faith, but I don’t believe that’s what you need right now. Some people convert after experiencing a spiritual bombshell, or after everything suddenly “clicks”. This could very well be the case for you someday, but it is better to proceed under the assumption that slow, steady construction of one’s beliefs will gradually lead to full understanding. This will preserve you from feeling an excess of frustration, and instead hopefully allow you enjoy the fulfillment in advancing in the faith at one’s own pace.

Thanks so much for your long and thoughtful reply. I do agree with you about not looking for answers. I already feel lighter and happier. Best wishes to you.

I am sure that you resolved to make an earnest effort to explore Catholicism, but also suspect you (perhaps subconsciously) set unattainable goals and expectations in order to facilitate your withdrawal once those impossible conditions inevitably failed to be met.

Is it religion that makes you unhappy, or a fear of failing to discover the truth? Certainly, deciding not to pursue the truth would alleviate that fear, and remove the possibility of failure entirely. But ignoring a problem doesn’t resolve it. You might feel better for a time, but eventually those nagging doubts will resurface and sabotage the “happiness” of ignorance.

J Reed, thank you for these insights.

I wonder if perhaps the first quote is true, but not necessarily because I fear failing to discover the truth as suggested in your second quote, but perhaps because I fear finding it. Or maybe I fear both possibilities.

As you predicted, those pesky “nagging doubts” have resurfaced, much more quickly than I expected them to, though if I am being honest with myself, I knew they would at some point. Like it or not, the only way through this is through it, and like you said, ignoring it doesn’t really solve anything.

Just wanted to let you know your words were helpful to me, once I let them really sink in.

,

My journey to belief from unbelief all started with a dream. I had a dream that remains burned in my memory. I was raised atheist. In this dream, Jesus came to me, and I did a most unexpected thing. I bowed and humbled myself before him. When I awoke, I thought why would I do a thing like that? However, looking back, a seed was planted. Later on, I went to see a doctor since I was suffering from depression. Now, I was not feeling happy or sad, just nothing. The doctor said a most unexpected thing. She said I was neglecting my spiritual side. My thought at first was, I have a spiritual side?

Anyway, later on I had a chance to work with two astrophysicists as a research assistant when I was at University. Both were devout Christians with one of them being Catholic. Conversations with them started me on a journey, culminating with me learning about the Eucharist. This was when I decided that I belonged in the Catholic church.

So, in short the journey started with a dream, science helped me along but it was the Eucharist that finally me brought me home.

I recommend doing a lot of reading and learning about the faith, either through here, in books, and other types of media. However, above all pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Speaking both in jest and seriously, the virgin birth, resurrection from the dead, the transforming of bread into the body of Christ, sounds no more fanciful to me than the concepts of Quantum Mechanics or Differential Geometry.

Differential Geometry has what you call a Poincare upper half plane which models the event horizon of a black hole. But before I geek out on you, let me just recommend that you try to find a spiritual advisor or several of them. They need not be clergy, just someone you respect and has a working knowledge of the faith. For me, it was the two astrophysicists that I worked with. They can help guide you along in your spiritual journey.

Last but not least, try to actively cultivate an attitude of humility. When I was at University, my physics professors were always pointing out to us that in science one Must have an attitude of humility. Advances in science come not from the answers received but from the questions asked. Why? Because it is the questions that lead us to new territory. If we are convinced we have all the answers, we will get nowhere… fast.

Finding the truth can be difficult. Once the bell is rung, you cannot go back and unring it. One must do something in response to truth.

I was born and raised Mormon. I knew the Mormon church was the true church and that Joseph Smith was the prophet who restored the true church. Then I learned that everything I was taught was not true. Smith was a false prophet and a con man. I could never go back.

When it came to what I believed after that, I had to go back to square one. Is there a God? I had studied some philosophy at the university and went back to that. I decided that it was reasonable to believe in one God as I found Aristotelean metaphysics and Natural Law to make sense (thank you St. Thomas Aquinas). It just made so much more sense than the Enlightenment and modern philosophers.

But why Christianity and why Catholicism? I didn’t have to believe in a personal God. Believing in God is one thing. Believing that He actually cares about human beings enough to reveal Himself to us is another. I looked at Jesus’ claims and the response of the Apostles to those claims. I found it compelling and reasonable to believe them. I believe there was an empty tomb and that Jesus rose from the dead and the Apostles then went out to tell the world. They died to tell the world about Jesus when they could have easily gone home and back to their old lives.

Accepting the truth that God became incarnate, died on the cross and rose from the dead changes everything. It is scary and awe-inspiring at the same time. Even after accepting it as truth, I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be baptized and change my life. It would have been easier to just live my life and not worry about it or think about it, but the bell had been rung. I couldn’t go back. I wanted to go back, but I couldn’t. God even reminded me of what could happen to me if did not act on the truth and faith He had given me. God did give me a mystical experience. On a bright and sunny afternoon, I saw and felt incredible darkness, loneliness and despair. I knew this was a taste of what could happen if I didn’t act on the truth and faith God had given me.

So, at the end of the day, I am Catholic because of reason and faith. To me, belief in God is reasonable. When learning the historical context of the life of Jesus and the Apostles, I found it reasonable to believe the Apostles. God also gave me the gift of faith. I can see how God has worked in my life and the lives of those around me and throughout history even. Does being a believing Christian seem crazy? Sure. But I also think that believing that something just popped out of nothing without a Creator is crazy too.

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