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When an Atheist Discovered Sin

April 30, AD 2012 15 Comments

I was an atheist. I didn’t believe in God and tried to convince those who did that they were stupid for doing so.

If you had asked me then whether I thought “sin” existed or whether I had ever sinned, I would have laughed. “Sin is a Christian concept intended to induce feelings of guilt for imagined offenses against an imaginary god.” I may have even started singing “Spirit in the Sky” to you for satirical purposes.

No, I had never sinned. But, like anyone, I knew that sometimes I did things that hurt people. And afterward if I thought about it, I would feel bad and even go and apologize. Maybe these feelings of guilt were genetic in origin, or socially constructed, but I didn’t try to explain away my hurtful actions with such popular rationalizations. Even as an atheist, I had the sense that free will existed and that there were objective moral standards–whatever their origin–that it was wrong to transgress.

After fighting a losing battle against social anxiety disorder, panic attacks, and depression, I gave Christianity an honest look for the first time in my life. I ignored my gut reaction against the word “sin,” and started trying to understand what the Christian Faith said was the cause of sin…and the remedy for it. As I prayed, and as faith was given to me by God, I realized that the evil things I had done not only hurt others; they also were offenses a good God, who loved me and was deserving of all my love.

We never want to hurt someone who loves us. Much less someone who, if it were possible, loves us perfectly, with complete selflessness. When I came to believe in Jesus Christ, I realized that I had hurt Him through my sin, and the pain of it was great. But the remedy was even greater: God’s mercy. Discovering that Christ was mercy and love–merciful love itself–literally evoked tears of sorrow and gratitude. While we Catholics downplay the “conversion experience” that Evangelical Protestants consider the moment of salvation, the fact is that repentance and joy in receiving God’s forgiveness is just as much a part of Catholic theology as it is that of Protestantism.

All those years of living without hope and without God in the world, all the weight of decades of unrepented sin, were gone in an instant. The waters of baptism flowed over me, and God’s grace filled me. I now understood the parable Jesus told of the servant who was forgiven for much and in turn needed to forgive the little that his brother had done against him. And I long for all people, especially my friends and family who don’t know Christ, to turn to Him in faith and receive the mercy He longs to give them.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Devin Rose is a Catholic writer and lay apologist. After his conversion from atheism to Protestant Christianity in college, he set out to discover where the fullness of the truth of Jesus Christ could be found. His search led him to the Catholic Church. He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and has released his first book titled “If Protestantism Is True.” He has written articles for Catholic News Agency, Fathers for Good, Called to Communion, and has appeared on EWTN discussing Catholic-Protestant topics.[/author_info] [/author]

Filed in: Columnists, Sacraments, Spirituality • Tags: ,

About the Author:

Devin Rose is a Catholic writer and lay apologist. After his conversion from atheism to Protestant Christianity in college, he set out to discover where the fullness of the truth of Jesus Christ could be found. His search led him to the Catholic Church. He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard and has released his first book titled “If Protestantism Is True.” He has written articles for Catholic News Agency, Fathers for Good, Called to Communion, and has appeared on EWTN discussing Catholic-Protestant topics.

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  • Hey Devin. If you don’t mind me asking, what made you become an atheist in the first place (e.g. before you converted to Christianity)?

    Also, I’m curious as to why you were living without hope prior to converting to Christianity? I’m an atheist and I’m anything but hopeless.

    Just curious and I always looking to engage in respectful conversations with theists of all walks. Hope to hear back.

  • Hi Lightnin’,

    I became an atheist because I was raised by atheist parents and came to believe that God didn’t exist. We never prayed growing up, never really talked about God or the possibility that He existed. We just lived our life and my parents taught me to believe in atheistic materialism/scientism with evolution being the rebuttal to creationists.

    Well, there’s two kinds of hope I’d say:

    1. As an atheist I had hope that my life would be good, productive, fulfilling–the things that every human being hopes for. And I had that hope up until anxiety disorder, depression, and panic attacks made my daily life one of constant pain and dread. Then I had not hope for a good life. If things are going pretty well for an atheist, then they can have this kind of hope. But when life begins to crash and burn and nothing works to make it better, this hope can be extinguished.

    2. But at a greater level, a spiritual one, hope is a virtue that God plants in us like a seed when we are baptized. It is hope for eternal life, that this life is not all there is, that we don’t just become worm food when we die. It is a hope that we will see God face-to-face one day, as well as our loved ones who died in God’s friendship. As an atheist I was totally lacking in this hope as I had not received it from God and also would have thought it was a fantasy.


  • Thanks for responding, Devin. Fascinating stuff. I was raised by a mother that became a born-again Christian when I was like 7 years old and by a father who is decidedly non-religious (though not necessarily atheist. He basically just doesn’t even address it at all). Also, I have a two-year old son and I recently bought him a variety of books that cover religious stories (Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist) and I plan on exposing him to any and all religious doctrines as well as humanistic and atheistic points of view. I’ll also teach him about ancient tribes that didn’t even have a word for god in their vocabulary because they idea did not occur to them at any point in time and was only introduced by a Christian missionary that they promptly helped lead to de-conversion. I think that it’s best to provide kids with all of the information available.

    I am a little bit confused about one thing that you mentioned: “with evolution being the rebuttal to creationists.”

    The theory of evolution only address diversity of life on Earth. It does not account for a variety of other aspects commonly associated with the creation story offered up by the Torah such as:
    -the origin of life on Earth
    -the origin of the planet Earth
    -the origin of the physical universe

    Did you parents somehow misrepresent what the theory of evolution is while you were growing up?

    You make some fairly bold – an in my opinion unfounded – assertions about what happens to atheists when their life is not going well. Are you familiar with support groups and organizations dedicated to atheists that are going through rough times? Many atheists have life fall apart around them and they seem to deal with it fairly well.

    As for your assertion regarding “worm food” it’s actually one of my favorite topics and one that I’ve written about and will continue to address moving forward:

    Would love to get your thoughts on this contrasting opinion on what it means to accept that there is no afterlife. There are also some great videos on the topic that I’d love your thoughts on if you’re willing to share them:

    In any case, thanks for sharing some of that personal background. It’s much appreciated. Feel free to hit me up any time if you’d like to chat.

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  • enness

    Someone I know once professed not to believe in evil. My feeling is if you don’t believe in evil, you are probably in the privileged position of not having personally experienced very much of it.

  • @enness – what qualifies as evil in your book? Selling drugs? Gang activity? Physical violence and death?

    If any of these qualify, then I’d probably qualify as someone that has “experienced very much of it.”

    And yet, I consider the word “evil” to simply be a word that describes a dualistic viewpoint of reality (e.g. evil vs. good, bad vs. good, right vs. wrong). All interesting words with interesting meanings, but definitely not the end all be all in terms of understanding the nature of physical reality.

    For example, if you were put in a position where you had to murder one person in order to save the life of multiple people or allow that one person to live knowing that multiple others would die, what would you do? And would that make you evil?

    Interesting experiments like these are conducted. You can read more about them here:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  • My hope rests in the promise that Jesus has forgiven my sin, and will raise me from the grave.

    Raise me from the grave…and give me new life again, when I really need it.

    Outside of that, I know of no other lasting hope.

    Thanks, Devin.

  • David

    Hi, Lightnin’ Lives! Evil has traditionally been defined and understood as being “undeserved (or innocent) suffering.” While I can’t speak directly to the situation of Enness’s acquaintance, using this traditional definition of evil might actually fit with Enness’s claim: “If you do not believe in evil, then you are probably in the privileged position of not having personally experienced very much undeserved suffering.”

    If, on the other hand, evil were merely one part of a dualistic view of “good” vs. “bad,” then it would be easy to dismiss any problems associated with morality, ethics, or any resulting human suffering for that matter, since morality could be completely relativized. And that would just be the beginning. But I think that one of the main dilemmas facing this concept of evil is that it is simply too limited in its scope. At the very least it appears to trivialize the problem of innocent suffering that literally billions of people experience every day. This is difficult because we usually want to assign blame for evil – someone must have caused it! In the traditional understanding of what evil actually IS, however, no one need to have directly caused the innocent suffering. All that is required is that someone is suffering who ought not to suffer, someone is undeservedly deprived of some part of their intrinsic human dignity who ought to not have it taken from them.

    The example you gave (neat link, by the way), is interesting because strictly speaking, it’s a case of “less evil” vs. “more evil” – in other words, you can only choose between two undesirable choices that both result in innocent suffering. St. Augustine (the principle of double effect) and many others have been mulling over ethical dilemmas like these going back thousands of years (incidentally, most of them side with 90.5% of the people in the study). It’s really hard to say that there is a “good” answer to questions like those, only a “less-bad” one. Kind of like voting during elections. Anyway, I’m belaboring the point; I appreciated your thoughts and your comments, but I wanted to put out the traditionally accepted definition of “evil” so at least everyone would be speaking the same language. Have a great evening; cheers!

  • @Steve – thanks for sharing. Did you get a chance to read the articles and watch the videos on the finality of physical death above?

    @David – I really like the “Kind of like voting during elections” line! That made me chuckle out loud at my desk. Funny you mention that because the only reason became involved in activism is due to the fact that people like my mother (a devout, born-again Christian) make their voting decisions based on the faith of the candidate and/or based on their religious doctrine as opposed to weighing the issue using critical thinking skills. That, to me, is very dangerous. I have no real issue with an individual deciding to believe in an unfalsifiable concept (e.g. god, the afterlife, etc.) but if the doctrine they decide to adopt turns them into an non-skeptical, non-critical voter that will simply tow the line for a particular political party that can lead to some serious “evil.”

    Kind of reminds of this fascinating piece on the strategic move the Republican party made a few decades ago (e.g. incorporating the “Christian Right” into their platform):

    Thanks for sharing all of your thoughts. It’s much appreciated!

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  • Ah, Hugo, I apologize. I just noticed that one of your comments went to spam jail because our filters catch anything with more than 3 links. Sorry. I just now saw it. 🙁

  • Thanks for the heads up, Stacy, and no sweat at all. Have a good one!

  • Hugo,

    Ah, I was wondering why you responded to everyone else but not to me..silly spam filters!

    Certainly some atheists hit bad times and manage to recover or find some homeostasis/equanimity without turning to God. But that did not happen to me. I ran into the brick wall, and in spite of medication, professional psychological help, self-help books, etc. I only got worse and worse, to the point of suicidal contemplation.

    Yes evolution doesn’t address, for instance, how life came about, though ideas like abiogenesis have been put forward for a long time. Evolution was more of a tool for supporting my atheistic materialism against Christians who believed God created man from dirt (and who explicitly rejected evolution in any form).

    When as an atheist, my life was going fine, I accepted that death was the end of the story without too much problems. I wanted to “make a big mark” on the world to be remembered by humanity for ever after. I hoped to do this through scientific discovery, getting fusion power to work, inter-stellar space travel, colonizing of other planets, to spread the human race throughout the universe (ultimately).


  • Thanks for sharing, Devin! Definitely very interesting.

    By the way, earlier today I heard about the passing of an individual that personifies just how productive, meaningful, and socially beneficial life can be for an atheist (and a homosexual):

    That book had a huge impact on me at a young age. Props for a great life and my condolences go out to his loved ones.