How I researched my way into Christianity

December 7, 2009 | Uncategorized | 21 comments

This is a post I wrote a while back in response to some correspondence I was having with Jeff Haws, an atheist and proprietor of the now-defunct Atheocracy blog. It was originally published on June 21, 2008.

I frequently refer to the fact that I converted to Christianity for intellectual reasons (usually when talking about how I initially didn’t “feel” God’s presence), yet I haven’t attempted to summarize what I mean by that. As you can imagine, an entire book could be written on the subject. Here’s an attempt at fitting it into a post:

At some point I began to believe that it could be possible that there’s more to life than just the material world at hand. A lot of things led me to consider this possibility: the universal human belief in some other world and/or afterlife; the universal human sense that there is objective “right” and “wrong” with a source above human opinion; a realization that our five senses are very limiting; personal intuition that there was an essence to myself that transcended the chemical reactions in my brain (a “soul“), etc.

One of the big roadblocks for me in terms of believing in any kind of spiritual realm had always been the lack of repeatable, systematic, observable results: if there is some kind of God or gods or spirits who are aware of what’s going on here on earth, why can I not simply snap my fingers and tell them I want to hear from them and get an answer? All my life I’d assumed that this proved that nothing else was out there. But at some point I realized that this shouldn’t be a deal-killer. Maybe our communication with the other side is spotty for a reason: perhaps it’s a test, perhaps we’re in a Flatland-esque situation where it would be impossible for us to fully see anything that exists in other dimensions — who knows. But I was willing to set aside the issue for the moment and do a little exploring.

Here is where religion came in.

I started to see religion in a different light, realizing that perhaps the universal human tendency to seek religion was based not on superstition or power grabs, but on an attempt to explain the reality of another realm. But, given that lack of repeatable evidence in matters of the nonmaterial world, how is a person supposed to determine which religion has the most accurate information?

There are three criteria I used for evaluating this. For each religion, I asked:

  1. Where does it claim to get its information?

  2. What are its teachings? Specifically:
    – What does it say about death?

    – What does it say about suffering?

    – What does it say is the meaning of life?

    – What does it say about how we can have communication with or knowledge of the nonmaterial world?

  3. What are the fruits of following its teachings?

I took these questions and started reading. It seemed to me that the obvious place to start when evaluating world religions would be Christianity, since it’s the only one whose founder claimed to be God.

As you can guess from the subject matter of this blog, I was blown away when I evaluated Christianity against these questions. Truly, I was shocked. My entire life, Christians had been “the others, ” people with whom I had nothing in common, whose lives were based on some odd belief system that someone made up. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be one of them. And yet, if I were to be honest with myself, I had to admit: I think this is true.

Though I didn’t do as much deep investigation into other religions once I started exploring Christianity, I did enough to see that it did seem like almost all religions had elements of truth and probably did facilitate contact with the divine; but this one, Christianity, was by far the standout in terms of seeming to have the fullness of truth.

In order to avoid turning this post into a small book, I’ll only briefly touch on the answers I found when evaluating the religion of Christianity against these questions (I can go into it more in other posts if anyone’s interested). Here’s what I found:

1. Where does it claim to get its information?

The founder of Christianity claimed to be God. I found that compelling. No other major religions made that claim, and it’s a tough one to pull off if it’s not true.

2. What are its teachings?

I’ve said before that reading the Catechism was like reading the natural law that was written on the human heart poured out into words. The way the Church of this religion explained itself, its Scriptures, its God, its teachings — and, really, the entire human experience — was stunning. It was imminently reasonable and intellectually consistent. In particular, I had never seen such a compelling treatment of the subjects of suffering, death, prayer, and the meaning of life.

Obviously, there was no laboratory experiment in which I could prove whether these Christian claims were true. All I could do was evaluate it against the claims of other belief systems and see how it compared. And after reading the Catechism and the New Testament cover-to-cover, the verdict was in: this religion offered the most coherent, sensible explanation of “life, the universe and everything” than any other belief system I’d encountered — including atheism.

3. What are the fruits of following its teachings?

This was a tough one. Growing up as an atheist in predominately Christian areas, I witnessed (and was sometimes on the receiving end of) plenty of unkind behavior by Christians. It’s something that hurt me and stuck with me for a long time. Also, I’d read enough history to know about some of the terrible things done during the Crusades, and could list plenty of other examples of behavior by Christians throughout history that ranged from questionable to deplorable.

If this religion truly comes from the Source of all love, would you not expect to see better behavior from its adherents? This was probably one of the bigger stumbling blocks for me.

What I realized, however, was that this religion does not claim that merely saying the words “I am a Christian” conjures up some magic spell that automatically makes someone an angel. Anyone can claim to be an adherent of this religion, regardless of whether or not they are truly seeking to follow Christ. Also, I saw that it is actually a tenet of Christianity that even people who truly seek to live a Christian life can expect to mess up sometimes, since everyone — including even the most dedicated Christians — faces constant temptation to sin.

Also, I began to see that there is tremendous anecdotal evidence of people’s lives being transformed in powerful, unimaginable ways by conforming their lives to the teachings of this religion and seek deeper communion with Christ. I was particularly struck by reading about the lives of the saints and the early Christians, many of whom went to their deaths for their beliefs.

And, finally, once I became a Christian, I saw the fruits of this religion for myself. I saw that by seeking to follow the founder of this religion, Jesus Christ, and to live the way he said we should live (even the hard parts), my life was transformed inside and out. These teachings worked a little too well, fit a little too perfectly, and brought me too much deep peace for them to have been made up by men.

That’s the quick (well, as quick as possible) summary of what I mean when I say I converted to Christianity for intellectual reasons.

It’s worth noting, though, that this is really the least important part of my conversion. The only result of all this research was that it ruled out the notion that faith and reason are incompatible. Once that was cleared up, my conversion really began. And what I found is this: God is not something you prove; he is Someone you come to know. To know God is to know love. And love is not something you find in a book.

21 Comments

  1. Roxane B. Salonen

    I love how you think this all through and share it with us, Jen. It is always so interesting, especially because this is not how I came into my faith. So much of this was truly a given for me in my faith journey, though I inevitably had to wrestle with some of it as I became an adult and moved through those early adult years. But seeing it from your eyes is always insightful. Not that my own conclusions would change any, of course, but it's amazing how so many people can come to the same basic conclusion but through totally unique lenses and experience. Have a blessed week!

  2. Meredith

    I have been lurking on your blog for quite some time now, and it was one of the things that pushed me to finally join an RCIA class after years of feeling pulled towards Catholicism. I am now officially a Catechumen!

    I am really struggling, though. I was raised an atheist, and I am having trouble with a couple of things. The biggest one is getting my mind around the reality of God! I remember your post about it being difficult for God to prove himself. I had a very powerful instance of an answered prayer back in September which instantly prompted me to start attending mass and join the RCIA group. And some days I still know that I am on the right path even if I don't understand it (someone pointed out to me that this IS faith!) But most of the time I am just going through the motions, without truly believing it. Is that enough?

    I have read several times on your blog that living the life showed you the fruit of the religion. Maybe this sounds silly, but what do you mean by that? I am going to mass, and working towards being received into the church at Easter. I am trying to pray with my children, we are reading children's books about Christianity and the saints. I go to mass every Sunday. And yet something tells me this isn't really what you are talking about – or at least not the ONLY thing you are talking about! Can you point me in the right direction?

    Thanks!

  3. Anonymous

    "What I realized, however, was that this religion does not claim that merely saying the words "I am a Christian" conjures up some magic spell that automatically makes someone an angel."

    My reflection on Jesus in the desert in Luke's Gospel made me realize that the devil quotes Scripture. We can all fall prey to self-deception.

    Cheers

  4. That Married Couple

    Your last paragraph is beautiful.

  5. Anonymous

    but, did you ever come to a point of true repentence? without this, it is just a 'decision', head knowledge, not a condition of the heart. one has to truly understand what a wretched sinner one is and repent to an almighty God for one's sins. until that point, God cannot even look at him. a person can decide all he wants that Jesus is who He claimed to be, but until one comes to the end of himself, humbles himself, truly understands what a wretch he is, and repents…then it is only a 'decision' and not true salvation. the demons know who Christ is, and they tremble….but are they saved?

  6. Anne

    "Love is not something you find in a book." Amen to that! Amen that love is real in a heart pounding, mind numbing, blood and sweat pouring, sweet and painful way all wrapped into One Divine Trinity!

  7. Emily

    Thankyou for reposting this, I am glad to see you found the love in God not just the reason.

  8. Duncan

    "I can go into it more in other posts if anyone's interested"

    More posts like this PLEASE! I have been in the "search" on and off for years now and just can't get past my own mind. One day I see beauty and depth and TRUTH in Christianity, the next is all seems like bunk. I would love to see how you got there.

  9. lissla lissar

    We had a similar experience reading the Catechism, although we started from a different point- we were Protestants. My husband started to read through it with a notebook in which he would write down everything he disagreed with, and then we would discuss our disagreements.

    The notebook remained blank. We entered the Church in 2007.

  10. Anonymous

    I like this post a lot, and really want to show it to someone. However, as they are also very intellectually atheist, I think that they might find your post very easy to disregard given that you say Christianity is the *only* religion founded by God Himself. I know what you mean by that in the rock of Saint Peter way, but wouldn't you say that Judaism was also founded by God? I mean, the Israelites were the people made holy and chosen by God. The Jewish faith was founded by God as well. Again, I really liked the post, but what do you think about saying that only Judeo-Christian religions were founded by God?

  11. Molly

    I'm in the same path right now… I started "researching" Catholicism because my husband and his family are Catholics and I wanted to understand, even though they don' expect me to convert. But the longer I study (on my own, no one is "teaching" me at the moment) the more I am drawn to it. It is an interesting path to be on.

  12. Arkanabar T'verrick Ilarsadin

    @Anonymous;

    Judaism's original leaders were Moses, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (aka Israel) more than any others. Those are the men that Jews typically hold up as exemplars. None of them claimed to be God. Christians follow and emulate Jesus, did.

  13. Barbara C.

    Another great post, Jen!!

    Meredith, part of what Jen is talking about is following all the teachings of the Church, especially the ones that seem really hard (like confession, throwing out artificial birth control). Those are things that seem like they should bring more strife and worry but they bring more peace. Some of it is about moving beyond rules and into a real relationship with God, understanding God as your parent (having kids yourself can really help you understand God in this way). And don't worry about "going through the motions" right now. Sometimes we all have to "fake it 'til we make it". And once you're able to feel God's love through the sacraments it will make it easier to love him back.

    2nd Anonymous, if a Catholic is going to confession and feeling God's love through the sacrament then they most certainly have repented their sins and continue to repent.

    3rd Anonymous, what Jen is saying is that in no other religion did the founder claim to be God incarnate. None of the Jewish Patriarchs ever claimed to be God, while Jesus did.

  14. in response to Meredith

    Meredith– I am not sure if this is the "answer" you are looking for, but here goes nothing.
    I think that when we think of God as coming to meet US, rather that our making our way toward HIM, everything changes. The pressure is off. We become free to go to Mass, expecting to encounter God (rather than out of some social expectation to do so, or a variety of other reasons).
    You mentioned that you had an answer to prayer that prompted you to reconsider your views. This is another way to view God has having "come to you." In the Christian faith, this is what we believe: we believe that the grace to see God is always available, we just need his help in recognizing it sometimes.
    Peace.

  15. Nick

    I am sure the Immaculate Conception had a role in your conversion 😉

  16. Rebecca

    Your last paragraph is perfect – and one I will pray on this evening. Thank-you for this post.

  17. Michelle aka Catholic Lady

    Hi. I am new to your blog. I have seen that the authors of several blogs that I follow, follow you!

    I am completely mesmerized by your blog!

    I, myself, am a "Cradle Catholic". I fell away for a bit in my young adult life, but came roaring back when we had our first child baptized.

    I have SO much to read on this blog and I LOVE your style and LOVE your story.

    God has blessed you!

  18. Jason

    How did I miss this the first time you posted it? Because this is right in my kitchen. Love it. This is great to share with people who think that becoming a Christian means a shaft of light comes through the stained glass window and hits you in the face, making you want to hug everybody and cry all the time. It doesn't help that, too often, Christians themselves promote the idea that Christianity is a purely emotional state. But all good things come from God, including reason.

  19. Genny

    Jennifer,
    I love how you say God is not something you prove, but Someone you come to know. That has been so true for me.
    Best,
    Genny

  20. 'Becca

    This whole post, but especially this sentence

    What I realized, however, was that this religion does not claim that merely saying the words "I am a Christian" conjures up some magic spell that automatically makes someone an angel.

    gives me the impression that when you say "Christianity" or "this religion" you must mean Catholicism or "the subset of Christian denominations that I thought worthy of serious consideration" because, living in Texas, you must be aware of the many sects that believe people are saved by saying magic words and that their subsequent behavior has nothing to do with it! I was surrounded by that belief growing up in Oklahoma, and it was a big stumbling block for me as I approached the point of being able to say, "I am a Christian." 21 years after joining the Episcopal Church, I still find myself tempted to follow that statement with disclaimers: "I am a Christian, but not that magic words kind that think they're so saved they can be nasty to everyone."

    Did you really find it immediately clear that the belief in salvation through magic words is not a tenet of TRUE Christianity, or did you have some struggle with that which you've left out of this concise story?

  21. ALI

    give information about christian.

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