Published on October 8th, 2012 | by J.Q. Tomanek6
Former Atheist and His Conversion
JQ Tomanek: Mr. Horn, first let me say thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions regarding your conversion from atheism to Catholicism. Can we begin with a brief introduction? Tell us a little about where you come from, where you are now, what you are studying, hobbies, favorite movie, and something random.
Josh Horn: You’re quite welcome Jared; I’m happy to do it. Well, I’ve lived in Tempe, AZ all of my life, in the same house the whole time. I come from a middle class background; my father was a lineman for 41 years before he retired last year, and my mother has always been a stay-at-home mom. I’m the youngest of four, and the only one of them who is adopted. As regards studies, I’m currently attending Arizona State University studying European History, and I’m minoring in Philosophy. For hobbies, I enjoy cooking when I get the opportunity to do it for a group, trying out different sorts of beer, and reading (primarily non-fiction). It’s difficult to choose a favorite movie, but I’ll go with V for Vendetta. Something random about myself?…very open-ended. Well, politically, I am an ex-anarchist. I guess that’s pretty random…
JQ Tomanek: In a prior interview, I read you were raised in a Christian home. What led you to accept the tenets of atheism? What attracted you to atheism? Eventually, you led the Secular Free Thought Society at ASU, what is this group? Did you ever try to convert people to atheism?
Josh Horn: There were a few things that lead me into atheism, though I find the phrase ‘tenets of atheism’ to be a tad strange. There’s a lot of different worldviews which deny God’s existence, and some of them aren’t even materialistic, such as certain varieties of Buddhism. I think that it would be more proper to say that I came to accept the tenets of Western philosophical materialism. That said, it’s worth noting that my rejection of Christianity didn’t automatically result in my being an atheist; I was a deist for a time. I left Christianity for two reasons, the first being the specific kind of Christian I was raised as, and the second being resentment towards how I’d been treated by other so-called Christians.
As regards the first, my Baptistic upbringing inculcated an adamant belief that Christianity and the theory of evolution are incompatible at a fundamental level…the sort of squirming (supposedly) needed to make it fit with Genesis and certain statements of Saint Paul in the New Testament undermining the authority of Scripture. I had heard any denomination which wanted to be open to evolution being maligned as ‘liberal’ and ‘false brethren’, and I shared this conviction that the two are incompatible, as I hadn’t been taught any other way to read the Bible than the way that they read it. So, when I decided to look into the subject for myself, and I discovered within a month that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, my immediate reaction was to deny the reliability of the Scriptures and the truth of the Christian worldview.
As regards the second reason, I was bullied pretty egregiously growing up, and suffered from some PTSD for a couple of years in high school. Again, due to the specific sort of Christian I was raised, I was left to believe that, because everyone doing this to me and to my friends had prayed the sinner’s prayer and been saved, the injustice would never be avenged and corrected against them specifically, but that it was all laid on the back of an innocent man 2000 years ago. Nihilism was genuinely more comforting to me than having an objective morality without true justice, and this the appeal of a secular worldview in addition to its seeming scientific nature, for I’d come to accept evolution, and this was always equated with atheism while I was growing up, so I viewed atheism as more scientific thereby. Little did I know that my reaction to the notion of no justice was sort of an emotional, infantile version of the Council of Trent’s statement that Protestant soteriology renders salvation a ‘legal fiction’. This changed later on in my secularism; I wanted there to be an objective, secular morality later, but at the beginning I would rather my suffering have all been meaningless than have had it be truly evil without it being atoned in the persons who did it.
It is worth noting that the original article paints a rather inaccurate picture of my relationship with my parents and why I left the religion of my youth, and I’d like to take this opportunity to clarify the issue. I have always had a good relationship with my parents, even while I was an atheist, and if they were the only two Baptists I’d ever met, I doubt that I ever would have become an atheist, though I would still likely have become a Catholic eventually. I specifically asked the author of that article not to talk about my parents at all, and as such I didn’t actually give her enough information to show forth an accurate picture of my relationship with them or of their personalities. They’re exceptionally generous individuals who, though they take their faith very seriously, handled my becoming an atheist due to my issues with denying evolution and what happened at the school to which they sent me very intentionally, reflectively, and reasonably. They were not reactionary in the least, and our relationship remained good even through this. They did not drive me into atheism, and my atheism was not motivated by a desire to rebel against my stifled childhood.
The story about the Pokemon conversation was told to demonstrate some other point about my school, not my parents, and the quote, ‘All the things they told me not to look into, I decided to look into on my own … I started examining the evidence and figuring out that there wasn’t some vast conspiracy (against Baptists) going on.’ was connected to my parents by the author falsely. That quote was about the teachers at my school, not my parents. I was taken out of context.
I asked her not to talk about my parents because they have nothing to do with this. They treated me well as a child, handled my atheism reasonably, and have been supportive ever since I became Catholic. I wish to set the record straight in this interview here.
So, those are the reasons that I left Christianity for deism. I became an atheist later on primarily because I thought that the notion of an impersonal God was just ad hoc. It made little sense to me to suggest that a being would create the universe and then just never worry about it again. I had no philosophical reasons for believing in God at the time either, so it was a rather simple jump when I made it based on mere intuition. By this point I hadn’t really looked into non-Christian religions either, but what little I knew of them I found unimpressive at best, and offensive at worst.
When I got to college, I started putting more effort into studies of different religions, and especially philosophy, in order to correct my ignorance, though I expected these studies merely to confirm my already-held opinions. I, eventually, moved along to studying them merely to refute them, so in a totally closed-minded manner. I felt justified in this because I thought that there was a sound, knock-down argument against God’s existence in the Problem of Evil, and so I knew that God didn’t exist.
As regards the Secular Free-Thought Society, it’s a group at ASU devoted to spreading naturalism, secular ethics, and promoting separation of church and state. Officially, the group is willing accept into its ranks deist and pantheists as well as atheists and agnostics, though in practice the social environment of the club drives the few adherents of those ideologies who approach it away.
I did try to convert people away from their religious beliefs into atheism, and I had a couple of successes in high school unfortunately, though in college I only succeeded in shaking a few. I did this mostly out of anger, though I would have feigned benevolence at the time.
JQ Tomanek: Easy one, who is your favorite saint and why?
Josh Horn: It’s actually difficult for me to choose a favorite Saint. My top three are Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Basil the Great, and Saint John Chrysostom. If I must pick, I’ll go with Saint Basil, just barely over Saint John Chrysostom. He’s my favorite because I feel a certain kinship with many of his methods and concerns. He was highly knowledgeable of philosophy, a status which I hope to attain, but also held himself accountable for putting so much stock in the wisdom of men which the Cross has made foolishness, a sin which I hope to avoid. He used philosophy at the service of his ministry in order to defend the faith against the heresies raging at the time, and in order to convert the hearts of his people through their minds. He used his training to show them how to discern the good, how to tell lies from the truth, and to show them their need for God.
He also founded the first hospital (by my understanding), and staffed it with religious sisters in order to provide free aid to the poor and helpless. He created and maintained an extensive network of social aid to those on the extrema of society, and would preach hellfire and brimstone to the rich under his authority who had closets full of clothing while the poor in Caesarea were literally naked and shelterless in the rain. This is the Saint who said that refusing charity to the poor is theft, for what is in our closets and safes belongs to them by right of Divine ordinance. God declares that we must give it to them, and so it is rightly theirs. This Doctor of the Church was both speculative, searching the highest mysteries of God, and immanently practical, devoting himself to curing the spiritual ailments of his time. His example is one I hope to emulate in my own life, given my distinctive gifts.
JQ Tomanek: How about some recommendations? What should a college aged adult be keeping up with so that they can defend their faith when presented with challenges? What would you consider to be the most effective way to bring souls to Christ?
Josh Horn: The biggest issue that I’ve seen among the college-aged myself is a refusal to WORK to understand the faith. They expect their adult faith to be nourished in the same way that their young faith was; they want their adult faith formation to hearken to LifeTeen, but with less Nerf guns (sometimes they even still want Nerf guns…). The simple fact of the matter is that Catholicism is the most intellectually rigorous system of philosophy (for theology is the highest philosophy after all) in existence. The simple fact is that God tells (and is) the Truth. It is precisely because we accept the faith on God’s authority that we can and should ask every question, and this without fear. If the faith is put up against another philosophical system, there is no concern about the other system being more rational or more evidentially supported whatsoever. None whatsoever. We have the advantage in every single field of human discourse, including philosophy and science.
As the theologian Matthew Levering has pointed out, because theology is man contemplating God intellectually, it is itself a form of contemplative prayer even though it doesn’t always engage the emotions. Studying the faith is itself prayer, and should be worked into one’s overall prayer life so that our reason can be redeemed along with the rest of us, and so that we can present the faith to others effectively.
That said, I think that there are very few universal rules from bringing a soul to Christ. At the end of the day, very few will convert from one encounter. There are those who have charisms for sewing seeds in one-off, quick encounters, and they ought to do so, but as far as actually dragging someone across the Tiber goes, someone is going to need to become a close friend to them, and respond to their concerns and the stress inherent in changing a worldview with humility and charity. Pray for them by name, and always follow up when they mention something, but do so with prudence and incredible patience. This can often be a multi-year long process, and this needs to be acceptable to the evangelist. Pushing too hard will push them away; conversion is incredibly stressful. They need to be given time and space, but not so much that you lose touch with them. It’s a difficult line to walk, and it differs from person to person. Getting them into a group of Catholic friends, if possible, is an incredibly effective method.
You’ll note that I didn’t say ‘very few will be converted by argumentation’. I know too many people who have been converted by philosophical and theological arguments, and have even seen many convert for those reasons with my own eyes, to buy into that myth. Different people are converted by different things, but the ability to talk from one’s personal experience and to proclaim the Gospel -distinct from being able to respond to objections to it…this is not sufficient in the modern world or on college campuses. And this is overly Protestant regardless; Catholicism, precisely because it is a relationship with God, is also a system of doctrine to which we must adhere whole and entire.
JQ Tomanek: Who are your favorite authors to read concerning the Catholic Faith? Do you follow any blogs or social media sites? Did any of these have a role in helping you understand the Faith?
Josh Horn: Due to my background in Aristotle, I primarily read Saint Thomas Aquinas when I’m seeking to understand something about the faith. More approachable authors who I like are (for apologetics) Edward Feser and Karl Keating. Intermediate level apologetics books exist by Father Robert Spitzer. I’ve also much enjoyed Peter Kreeft’s ‘Socrates meets…’ series. For theological topics, I enjoy the works of Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, and I like some of what Hans Urs von Balthasar has written. Father Brian Mullady, OP is someone I’ve met in person, and who’s books I also find quite helpful. Spiritually, I’ve found Pope Benedict’s ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ series quite edifying. Saint Augustine, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Ignatius, Saint Ambrose, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and the hymns of Saint Ephraim the Syriac have all been very helpful. Saint Francis de Sales ‘Introduction to the Devout Life’ has also been magnificent. Father Timothy M. Gallagher’s books on Ignatian spirituality have made the words of the Saint wonderfully accessible, and so I must give his books a recommendation as well.
Blogs that I follow include: The New Theological Movement (newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com), Nick’s Catholic Blog (catholicnick.blogspot.com), Edward Feser’s blog (edwardfeser.blogspot.com), and Rorate Caeli (rorate-caeli.blogspot.com). The New Theological Movement especially has been very helpful in coming to understand certain difficult theological questions, such as what the Lord meant when He said that no one knows the time or the hour except the Father, how the Mass is a Sacrifice, and others. Nick’s Catholic Blog has been the single largest help to me in overcoming the interpretations of Saint Paul’s writings that I was raised to hold and in seeing the truth of the Catholic understanding of Scripture, even more than any book that I’ve read, so I’d very much like to give him a shout out.
I would like to express my gratitude to Josh Horn for his time and thoughts compiling these answers. Hey Josh, if you ever need a friend to help you with the beer tasting, waste no time and give me a call. Perhaps our fabulous editors will start a beer tasting group just for the columnists. Cheers.