UPDATED: Sacred Heart speaks to atheist’s heart

It’s a familiar tale in atheist circles: a child of fundamentalist Christian parents rebels against the strictures of organized religion. But Arizona State University student Joshua Horn’s story has a glorious twist, one which shocked his skeptic friends.

In January 2010, as president of ASU’s Secular Free Thought Society, Horn was a dedicated spokesman for skepticism, as you can see from this video clip:

Less than two months later, Horn had an encounter that transformed his life, as he recently told the ASU State Press magazine (hat tip: Big Pulpit):

[In] March of 2010, Horn — the avowed and vociferous atheist — had a religious experience while reading the Litany of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic prayer.

“The best way I can explain it is it wasn’t just perceiving something or experiencing something, it was experiencing some particular thing in a whole new way of experiencing it,” Horn says. “And it was the fact that it was a new way that was strange, more so than the interaction with the new thing … The only word I can use for it is a mystical sense. I had never experienced it. I had never perceived anything that way before and I would maintain that what I perceived mystically was Jesus Christ.”

Contrary to most tales of divine encounters and mystical happenings, this one doesn’t have an ostentatiously emotional climax—no arms thrown in the air in jubilation, no praising the lord with gospel-choir lungs, no golden rays emanating from the clouds. Instead, the thoroughly rational Horn was irked.

“I was actually kind of annoyed that it happened, and scared – not comforted in the least,” Horn says. “I didn’t want it, I didn’t think it was possible. It just happens, and you come out of it realizing that this obliges you to change your life and the entire course you thought it was taking immediately.”

He resigned his presidency the next day.

Today, as a Catholic convert, Horn “hasn’t lost any of his fervor,” writes State Press reporter Leah LeMoine:

He’s just channeling it into new places in new ways, like doing intensive volunteer work at ASU’s All Saints Newman Center, a haven for Catholics on the Main campus and in the surrounding community. He helps teach classes, serves as a mentor/sounding-board for potential and new converts, reads the church fathers (St. Thomas Aquinas is a particular favorite —Horn studies his work daily), and continues to explore himself and the religion he changed his life for.

The entire interview is a must-read. Check it out—and then take another look at the above video of Horn in his atheist days. What I find remarkable about the video is that, in retrospect, it’s so clear that grace was even then working in his heart. I mean, what atheist talks about how life is “the only thing of absolute intrinsic worth, and that from which all other worth springs”? He goes on:

Being alive is truly a great privilege, and there’s great meaning in knowing that all of the atoms in your body come from the center of stars. And knowing that, in that sense, not only are you in the universe, but the universe is inside of you. And knowing that matter flows from place to place and must temporarily come together to be you—that makes you want to grab people on the street and say, ‘Do you know this?’ I mean, this is wonderful knowledge, and it’s true meaning-full knowledge, and it’s true meaningful meaning in life, and it’s substantial, and it’s demonstrable.

All those words were part of the pre-Catholic Horn’s attempt to explain why he didn’t feel the need to believe in an afterlife or “fairies” (e.g. anything supernatural. Yet, to the Christian, his words are God-haunted. I remember skeptic Carl Sagan attempting to express wonder over the “billions and billions” of stars, but I can’t recall hearing him or any skeptic speak with such genuine awe about the mystery of the creation of human beings. [Regarding that last point, see update below.]

Yet, amidst Horn’s atheist awe, there was a logical disconnect. On the atomic level, one atom is as good as another. A carbon molecule can be taken from diamond or dung. If we’re just collections of atoms, with no spark of divinity within, then there really is nothing special about being made of stars.

No, what makes being created meaningful—whether we are created from stardust, or simply the dust of the earth—is being created in love:

[Christ] delivered us, so that each one of us can say with the Apostle: The Son of God “loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). By suffering for us He not only provided us with an example for our imitation,(26) He blazed a trail, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning. [Gaudium et Spes 22]

How beautiful, then, that the Litany of the Sacred Heart, which points to the “flaming furnace” of divine love that seeks our own heart in return,  moved Horn to open his heart to Christ. Will you join me in praying it in thanksgiving for Horn’s conversion (as well as that of the two friends he has helped bring into the Church)?

The Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, graciously hear us.
God, the Father of Heaven, have mercy on us.
God, the Son, Redeemer of the World, have mercy on us.
God, the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us.
Holy Trinity, one God, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, Son of the Eternal Father, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, formed in the womb of the Virgin Mother by the Holy Ghost, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, united substantially with the word of God, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, of infinite majesty, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, holy temple of God, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, tabernacle of the Most High, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, house of God and gate of heaven, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, glowing furnace of charity, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, vessel of justice and love, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, full of goodness and love, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, abyss of all virtues, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, most worthy of all praise, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, king and center of all hearts, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Divinity, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, in whom the Father is well pleased, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, of whose fullness we have all received, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, desire of the everlasting hills, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, patient and rich in mercy, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, rich to all who invoke Thee, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, fount of life and holiness, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, propitiation for our sins, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, saturated with revilings, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, crushed for our iniquities, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, made obedient unto death, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, pierced with a lance, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, source of all consolation, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, our life and resurrection, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, our peace and reconciliation, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, victim for our sins, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, salvation of those who hope in Thee, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, hope of those who die in Thee, have mercy on us.
Heart of Jesus, delight of all saints, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, spare us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, graciously hear us, O Lord,
Lamb of God who takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
V. Jesus, meek and humble of Heart.
R. Make our hearts like unto Thine.

Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, look upon the Heart of Thy well-beloved Son and upon the acts of praise and satisfaction which He renders unto Thee in the name of sinners; and do Thou, in Thy great goodness, grant pardon to them who seek Thy mercy, in the name of the same Thy Son, Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee, world without end.

For more on devotion to the Sacred Heart, listen to my interview for Pat Gohn’s “Among Women,” in which I  talk about the Sacred Heart in relation to redemptive suffering and spiritual healing.

UPDATE, 10/6/12: Joshua Horn writes: “you might wish to add a caveat that the reason my words hearkened to Carl Sagan so much in that video is because I mined almost every sentence from him :P. I was hardly original in my think as an atheist…”

  • http://quinesqueue.blogspot.com Quine

    Yes, ritual can invoke auto-hypnosis and psychosomatic effects. Your point?

    • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.ca Randy

      So a rational mind can be transformed into an irrational mind that easily and without the person knowing? So that could happen to you? Your wife? The president? Anyone? Suddenly they can lose their mind in this particular way. Of course you have some proof that his mind is defective and did not actually perceive anything real. You would not just assert that because you are unwilling to question your belief system.

  • Susan

    >If we’re just collections of atoms, with no spark of divinity within, then there really is nothing special about being made of stars.

    What do you mean by “just” atoms?

    There’s nothing special about being made of stars without Yahweh? Really? Can you explain why not?

    We can place “just” in front of any mind-boggling fact about reality, sneak in the necessity of a divine spark, provide no clear definition of that divine spark, nor any evidence and conclude that the whole thing is meaningless without our particular choice of a deity. Yahweh in your case.

    But you haven’t shown your work.

  • Matthew

    “Yes, ritual can invoke auto-hypnosis and psychosomatic effects.”
    Reading a litany is “ritual”? Then, how come more atheists don’t convert after studying world religions as a subject in college?

  • Susan

    >So a rational mind can be transformed into an irrational mind that easily and without the person knowing?

    What do you mean by “transformed”? Human minds are not entirely rational. There was no suggestion that Horn possessed a purely rational mind that was “transformed” into a purely irrational mind. Quine seems to be pointing out powerful mechanisms that lead us to irrational thinking.

    The only legitimate methods we have for determining whether our subjective experiences extend into reality must begin with acknowledging our innate propensity for deluding ourselves and others. This is why evidence is so important. The earth orbits the sun. No matter how powerful one’s experience is to the contrary, the earth does exactly that. Unless you can provide evidence that suggests otherwise, I think that point stays.

    >Of course you have some proof that his mind is defective and did not actually perceive anything real.

    His mind is human. I’m not sure what you mean by “defective”, but it seems obvious that our minds are limited. There is an awful lot of evidence that shows us how we get things terribly wrong, if we don’t painstakingly check our experiences against the evidence.

    Can you “prove” that a human who hears a god telling him to kill people is not actually perceiving anything real? Your question doesn’t make much sense to me. The burden of proof is always on the side of whoever makes the claim. How much more so when the person is making ultimate claims about all of reality?

    All experiences are “real” to the extent that they are experienced but that doesn’t mean that they are accurate perceptions about what is really going on.

    >Reading a litany is “ritual”?

    Well, yes. It certainly is. Any advertiser, music industry executive, preacher, marine sergeant, cheerleading coach, propaganda minister, etc. recognizes the power of the call and answer response. Repetitive, rhythmic language using the same call with variations in answer is an ancient method of button-pushing that is designed to circumnavigate our rational thinking.

    Quine was spot on. Unless you’re suggesting that we are NOT vulnerable to ritual and that ritual does NOT have a track record of invoking auto-hypnosis and psychosomatic effects.

    Is that what you’re suggesting?

  • Spambot

    Thank you, Dawn for posting this conversion story. It is an inspiration for those of who sometimes struggle with our faith.

  • Michael

    There are different forms of atheists, just as there are different forms of religious personae. Some atheists become so because they are not “satisfied” by religious dogma’s explanation of existence. Others have developed a limited view of atheism because of a recognition of the serious flaws in the major religions.
    A percentage become so because of the influence of a person in their lives, whether familiar or other. The largest group has likely developed through exposure to a different explanation of existence: science. Science carries with it a dedication to a method of learning. Do not accept tradition as an explanation of reality; Do not accept epiphany either. When there was no other explanation for the universe, no other philosophy which challenged the beliefs of the wealthy and armed it was understandable for the masses to accept whatever was available. For the last several hundred years It came, originally as a trickle. Now a river. But those living far away from the waters can live out their lives in ignorance. Understandable when you realize that science ( biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and cosmology) has produced a massive amount of information in the last 50 years. Almost beyond what any one individual might be expected to comprehend in one lifetime. Certainly more than most of the people living in the US know anything about. The reality about gods and the origin of the universe has been disproved, just as evolution is not a theory but fact. That does not require that the majority of people accept it. They do not even know what science is, and it crushes everything they need to believe in order to remotely comprehend their lives. Whether politicians, auto mechanics, librarians, attorneys, or physicians, the vast number of humans on this planet have neither the inclination to challenge life-long beliefs, nor the capacity to understand the reality of existence. An atheist without an understanding of the sciences can certainly have an epiphany and change his/her mind without knowing why.
    Why not!

  • Melia

    For me, an experience itself does not de facto prove the existence of God, but rather is validated by prior beliefs (ie, if I already accept previous arguments from contingency or history or whatever). Perhaps this particular atheist was not so much against the God of philosophy as he was against the God of his childhood, which are of course, two completely different things.

  • Pingback: Former Secular Student Alliance Leader Converts to Catholicism

  • John Moriarty

    “so you were never a TRUE atheist?” Comment please Joshua. TIA with interest.

  • Spambo3049
  • Bill M.

    A born Thomist. God bless him.

  • Joe Shepherd

    Don’t just read the litany posted above. Pray it. The grace to convert is available to any of you.


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