O James Bishop| In December of 2008 a popular anti-religious blogger known as “The Raving Atheist” announced his conversion to Christianity and changed the site’s slogan to “The Raving Theist,” dedicating it “to Jesus Christ, now and forever” (1). His radical change was met with much anger and bigotry from many within his atheist readership.
However, he has rejected any claims of his transition as being a hoax. His conversion has also received harsh condemnation from other atheists, some of whom one would have thought were mature and above slinging school bully insults. PZ Myers, for example, dismissed the Raving Atheist’s conversion as “another mind poisoned” and “throw[ing] his brain out the window” (2).
On a last note, since I could not find a name or a photo (3) to put with The Raving Atheist we will be referring to him simply as John (forgive my lack of imagination when it comes to pseudo names).
John grew up in a largely secular area of Long Island. His mother was the daughter of a Protestant minister while his father was an agnostic whose family was once active in Communist circles,
"Although I attended my mother’s church every week until sixth grade, it was more for cultural and social reasons than spiritual ones. I didn’t have a relationship with God; that wasn’t even something we talked about. But I remember once, when I was seven or eight years old, my mother fainted, and my first reaction was to run upstairs and pray about it, to ask God for help.”
However, it was during high school that John began taking a greater interest in the things of religion. He became close friends with a Reform Jewish kid who had a brilliant scientific mind and who also openly mocked religion. That same year John read Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell’s essay really captivated him because of its humourous and whimsical tone as well as its rational appeal, “His reasoning made perfect sense to me, and by the time I entered college, I considered myself an atheist as well.”
During his freshman year at college John worked for a short time as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman. He then settled into a clerical job and found much of his free time holed up in the Los Angeles library reading about religious cults and deprogramming. This was also the first time he was convinced of the utterly ridiculous nature of all religion,
"One afternoon I just happened to loiter near a corner where the Moonies were proselytizing. They invited me into their group, and I hung out with them for a weekend retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. When they tried to convince me to send for all my worldly belongings, my suspicions were confirmed. I packed my bags and headed back to college, determined to write about my experiences and my conviction that all religions were cults.”
John went on to write an essay of his experience. This assisted him in putting his views and opinions of religion into perspective. His piece was then published in the college newspaper although the editors cut a section that attempted to draw parallels between the Moonies and the Catholic Church. However, having completed college and obtained his degree, John had little time to think about religion or atheism,
"I was too busy going to law school and having a life,” explains John, “My career as a lawyer flourished, and eventually I began teaching law as well.”
Not long after did John begin his blogging for atheism. John also explains that his philosophy professor, who was quite openly an anti-religious atheist, would have a big influence on him, “In the late nineties I attended a series of continuing education courses in philosophy. The professor, a philosopher who edited and wrote the introduction to Bertrand Russell’s collection of essays, was very sarcastic. He hated religion and religious people.
I got to know him and soon was engaging in debate with other lawyers about atheism. My focus on atheism as a lifestyle led a friend to suggest that I begin a blog. So in late 2001 I began co-writing a political blog with a college acquaintance, my posts focusing frequently on religion.”
John then started his own blog “attacking religious people as demented, deluded “Godidiots.”” He penned further essays explaining how he believed the “culture of belief” was destroying America, “I would track down faith-based blogs, ridicule their motives as suspect, and pronounce them guilty of insanity—despite the fact that these people lived simple, good lives.”
Surprisingly, unlike many other atheists, John admits to the fact that his atheism possessed the very religious concept of evangelism, “True atheism, I believed, was not about “live and let live.” It was a cause that needed an evangelist as much as any faith. In an effort to provide a set of atheistic principles for such a ministry, the “basic assumptions” of my blog declared that all definitions of God either were self-contradictory, incoherent, and meaningless or could be refuted by empirical, scientific evidence.”
However, despite his “bold posturing” online John felt ill-versed in scientific matters and recognized that his logical disproofs could only go so far, “In fact, in an early essay I conceded that it was technically possible for a rational person to have a belief in God. To my mind, however, it was still only possible in the sense that one might be sharing the room with a purple hippopotamus that evaded detection by darting away the moment one tried to turn around and see it. In other words, there was no evidence for it. So while it was a possibility, it wasn’t worth much consideration.”
John meets a Christian
In late 2002 John attended a blogger party where he sat next to a Catholic blogger named Benjamin. At one point the conversation turned to abortion and he asked for Benjamin’s opinion of the practice. Benjamin, in a calm and confident matter, answered, “It’s murder.” This response stunned John, “Here was a kind, affable, and cogently reasonable human being who nonetheless believed that abortion was murder. To the limited extent I had previously considered the issue, I believed abortion to be completely acceptable, the mere disposal of a lump of cells, perhaps akin to clipping fingernails.”
This conversation spurred John to further investigate the issue on Benjamin’s blog, “I noticed that pro-choice Christians did not employ scientific or rational arguments but relied on a confused set of “spiritual” platitudes. More significantly, the overwhelmingly pro-choice atheistic blogosphere also fell short in its analysis of abortion.
The supposedly “reality-based” community either dismissed abortion as a “religious issue” or paradoxically claimed that pro-life principles were contrary to religious doctrine. Having formerly equated atheism with reason, I was slowly growing uncertain of the value of godlessness in the search for truth.”
Nevertheless, he continued his atheistic ravings full force, “In early 2003 I engaged in a particularly venomous exchange with an online Catholic scholar over Thomas Aquinas’s “first cause” argument. In a later, conciliatory gesture, I linked to a post-abortion healing blog favored by my religious adversary—an act that brought me into contact with a group of pro-life advocates whose selfless dedication to their cause moved me deeply.
I was inspired by their gentle and reasonable writings, particularly the story of a woman named Ashli, who wrote with painful honesty about how her late-term abortion had affected her. She now channeled her suffering into efforts to help women in similar situations and save them from the fallout of abortion.”
John began communicating with Ashli who eventually asked him if he would be willing to assist with some of her pro-life work. In 2004 when Ashli gave birth to a healthy baby girl John decided to announce that the Raving Atheist would become, in part, a pro-life blog,
"This decision stirred an angry mutiny among my readers. But I had become convinced that the secular world had it wrong on the very foundational issue of life.” John then became a volunteer at a crisis pregnancy center, “Suddenly I was surrounded by life. Here were people who were kind and loving and who lived out their faith in a very tangible way. The pictures on the walls of the center confirmed this. Smiling babies were everywhere. The tangible expression of pro-life work was life itself.
It was becoming clear to me that people who lived out their Christian faith were happier and better people as a result.”
However, despite all this promising moral and intellectual progress John maintained an attachment to his atheism. In fact, in 2004 he organized a blog interview with the bestselling atheist author Sam Harris (The End of Faith). Assisting in John’s interview was the filmmaker Brian Flemming. The interview, recounts John, “led both me and Harris to appear the next year in Flemming’s anti-Christian documentary, The God Who Wasn’t There.”
John attended the documentary’s premiere in New York, however, “At the end of a subsequent summertime showing in the city, however, I found my atheistic enthusiasm waning. The appearance of my pseudonym in the credits inspired less pride than I had expected. As the lights turned on, I felt alienated from the audience and its contemptuous, antireligious laughter.”
After the premiere John briefly considered joining a small group that had come together to discuss the film over dinner. John followed them for several blocks while debating with himself whether to attend the dinner “But halfway across a darkened midtown street, I walked away.”
John has a spiritual experience at church
That same year John began a friendship with a Catholic blogger, Dawn. He frequently guest-posted on her site about pro-life issues while also working on certain “hard cases” with Ashli, “Near Thanksgiving of 2005, Ashli opened her heart (and home) to a young woman coping with a particularly difficult and tumultuous pregnancy. Dawn, other bloggers, and I came together on this woman’s behalf. In June 2006 I saw the woman’s sonogram ripen into a baby. In honor of Ashli’s efforts, I vowed that the birth of the child would spell the death of atheism on my blog. Late that month I announced that I would no longer mock God on my site.”
Although John still remained a doubter his subsequent posts entertained the possibility of the existence of God. He asked Dawn if he could join her at church. John also at Dawn’s suggestion he began daily prayer,
"I still didn’t believe in God, but I wanted to change. I wanted the deep, abiding joy I’d observed in my pro-life Christian friends. Because of Dawn’s great kindness to me, in the summer of 2006 my wife and I began attending church with her.”
It was then that John had an unusual experience while taking Communion, “On July 23 we went together to the Church of Our Saviour on Park Avenue and 38th Street. I walked up for Communion (though I learned later that I shouldn’t have). At the very instant that the wafer touched my lips, an angry, mocking voice from behind hissed,
“So much for the atheist.””
John returned to his pew but said nothing, “I tried to tell myself that I had misheard what was said, although the voice was so articulate that there was really no doubt in my mind. Colin, a friend of Dawn, had been in line several people behind me. He sat down next to me and asked if I had heard the same thing he had. He had looked at the speaker (I had not), a disheveled and possibly schizophrenic man. Colin did not realize that the timing of the utterance coincided with my taking Communion.”
Dawn, just behind John in the line, had also heard the voice. She was late in returning to the pew because right after hearing the voice she went over to a row of candles to say a prayer for John, “Very matter-of-factly she hypothesized that Satan had been stirred. He was enraged at the prospect of losing one of his most “faithful” advocates.”
But despite what he thought he had heard John remained skeptical, “My atheistic instincts compelled me to categorize the event as the sort of worthless spiritual personal experience that nonbelievers immediately recognize as a sign of credulity, mental illness, or simple lying. I was ashamed to even pretend to take it seriously.
Two witnesses though. It did make enough of an impression on me that I memorialized it as my “Quote of the Day” that evening. And freed from the compulsion to launch a blog-attack on God, I was eventually able to view the incident as a rational person should: if not conclusive proof, at least evidence pointing distinctly in one direction.”
John applied this approach to his consideration of theology in general and, in time, “found it impossible to believe that the universe was created out of nothing. There was order, direction, and love. Those things all pointed to some larger, unfathomable consciousness. I realized I could not believe that human hearts and minds came into being randomly.
My eyes were also opened to the core truth of Christianity.
Whereas I had formerly concurred with Nietzsche’s appraisal of the faith as a “slave’s philosophy,” a cruel celebration of senseless suffering, I saw that his experiences had brought even him to appreciate the nobility of sacrifices made for the sake of life.”