Former Secular Student Alliance Leader Converts to Catholicism

This is Joshua Horn in 2010, when he was president of Arizona State University’s Secular Free Thought Society:

This is Horn now, recalling what happened a couple of months after that video was taped:

“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.


Ok, that makes two.

I still say these atheist-to-Catholic conversions are rare and they only get attention because Catholic-to-atheist transitions occur much more frequently. When someone’s story contradicts a popular trend, reporters are interested, and I’ll admit Josh’s story is unique and fascinating.

But it doesn’t mean he’s right. The story doesn’t really explain any rational reason that Horn changed his mind — he just did.

Catholics don’t mind that explanation at all. When you set the bar for evidence right on the ground, you’re excited whenever someone says they believe what you do, regardless of how that person arrived there. I’d rather be around people who can convince me of their way of thinking — and strong feelings doesn’t cut it in atheist circles.

(via Feast of Eden)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • MargueriteF

    I get the “mystical sense” thing. I grew up agnostic, but as an adult I was sure God wanted me to convert to Lutheranism (my husband’s religion) because when I was wavering and struggling to make up my mind, there was a quote on the church bulletin the very week I had to decide: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” A sign! Once I saw that, I KNEW God wanted me to convert. Besides, I could feel God working in my life, and I was certain he was there.  Therefore I became a Lutheran… until life forced me to reevaluate my faith, and eventually my own sense of logic chipped away at it till there was nothing left.

    It’s hard to argue against a feeling. The problem is that it seems people of every religion get that “mystical sense” that their god is real. Moreover, that mystical sense doesn’t hold up well against too much logic. Eventually, it wears down in the face of reality, and we often realize it wasn’t a sense of God, but some sort of self-delusion, or simply the normal human response to wanting life to somehow be more than it is.

    Good luck to Joshua. Whatever path he chooses to walk, I hope it’s a happy one.

  • bettsoff

    Well there’s what–him, that blogger, and Dawn Eden? There’s more deconversions amongst myhigh school friends, and we were one small clique in one small Catholic high school. 

  • A3Kr0n

    Of all the religions he chose Catholic. WTF? It just goes to show that you can’t trust anyone, even yourself.
    I can, however, trust in the Happy Octopus Who Says Hello!

  • ecchymosis

    Feelings aren’t facts. 

  • Alessandro Bernardi

    “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,”
    Well, that explains it!???!

  • Hayley

    I get it somewhat. I converted to Catholicism when I was a teenager. I loved the sense of ritual and history that stretched back much further than anything else I had experienced. And I loved the art and architecture and ancient music. But at a certain point, if you develop the ability to objectively look at emotionally-charged subjects, your rational mind will start to see exactly *how* that spiritual feeling is created and fostered independent of whether or not the claims of the subject are true. And then when the claims start to fall like a deck of cards when you apply logic to them…well, then you lose your religion.

    So while I can see why someone would convert to Catholicism (or Evangelical Christianity, or “Woo,” as they can have a similar pull on spiritual feelings), I have a hard time understanding why an atheist would do so without that person having been an atheist by default, and not as a result of critical thought.  It’s possible, but I just don’t get that.

  • Philo Vaihinger

    Remember William James. Psychological upheavals – religious experiences – in adolescence or early adulthood precipitate conversions all the time. Sometimes the effect is lasting, and sometimes not. Sometimes, later, one rethinks the meaning of what happened as one falls away from religion, again. Ordinarily, the religion in which one was raised, or the one that dominates the culture. 

    Arguments don’t actually play all that big a role in all this. People are what they are. “Rational animals”? Yeah, sure.

  • julie

    I think if you’re an atheist who’s never encountered that “mystical” thing, it would probably be pretty shocking when you first felt it.
    I read that he was raised in an extremely strict Southern Baptist home, so I doubt he ever felt much affection for his religion and probably did not feel any emotional connection to a god. I guess that if you never feel this, you’re much less prepared to understand it or think about it in a logical context. It would catch you off guard and you’d think it was exactly what [insert most dominant religion in your area]s were talking about all along.

    I felt very connected to God and felt these huge, sweeping emotions when we’d be singing in church and I’d feel comfort talking to him at night. Then I realized I felt the same thing when I would sing in choir, even during non-religious songs. And I realized that other people of other religions felt this too. When I would talk to God, I would constantly go back and forth between talking to him and talking to myself and I could never really tell which was which. There were plenty of times I felt nothing and it was bullshit because why should I pray if God wouldn’t listen, answer, help, or even just comfort me. And of course, I could never get any sort of direct answer. The only time I ever did was during a very stressful time in my life where I felt God telling me to do exactly what my emotions wanted me to do, but when I actually thought it through, it would have been the stupidest decision of my life. Funny how God’s voice lines up so perfectly with people’s emotions.

  • Helanna

    You know, I’ve never had a problem with, say, Deists, or people who believe that there is a god somewhere but not necessarily interacting with us. So if an atheist wants to say “Yes, I had an amazing spiritual experience, I believe there may be a god”, well, I’m certainly not buying it but whatever.

    It’s when people say “I believe there’s a god and also here’s a list of his beliefs” that I get weirded out. Why do these atheists keep converting to Catholicism, of all things? How does this guy feel about gay rights? Transubstantiation? Birth control? It just seems really,really weird to me that someone will jump from atheism straight over to Catholicism.

    Of course, that’s assuming this is real. I’m sure it is, but wow those first two sentences sound like a bad parody of religion. 

  • Lagalmor

    Baboom! Another one bites the dust.

  • C Peterson

    That mystical thing he experienced is part of our brain function, and I certainly understand how it might be strong enough that a person with a weak intellect, or an inability to truly engage in introspection, might turn it into some sort of religious conversion. But the true shallowness of Horn’s thinking skills is revealed in his decision to become Catholic. To believe in some sort of vague, parent-like god is one thing; to adopt, wholesale, a body of obviously false, frequently crazy, and unmistakably man-made dogma is quite another.

    I don’t believe Horn was ever an atheist to begin with, except in the most restricted sense of the word. I’d guess he was a social atheist- somebody who had never really given the matter any deep thought, but liked the clubs he was in. Now he’s made another shift in viewpoint… again without any deep thought. A mind that can blow wherever the wind takes it.

  • mikespeir

    Well, I, for one, experienced this “mystical sense” a lot as a Christian.  I can testify that while it can be powerful, it ain’t legit.  Now, I can understand how someone who didn’t grow up with the thing could be moved after having stumbling upon it for the first time.  The problem is that this guy will likely spend the rest of his life seeking to duplicate the experience (and occasionally succeeding) so as to authenticate his interpretation of it.

  • CanadianNihilist

    You think that’s something, you should keep track of how many religious people become atheists.

    If you really like the “Baboom! Another one bites the dust.” line you’ll get a lot of use out of it. Probably more than you could count.

  • james Hampton

    They always come back to Reason

  • advancedatheist

    Basically we have this problem because we don’t come with instruction manuals, and we have had to write them for ourselves in a less than satisfactory fashion by what we can infer through scientific research. In some speculative enlightened society out of science fiction, children starting around puberty would receive instruction in cognitive science to give them the rudiments in understanding their subjective experiences so that when they have “mystical” episodes, they would know to accept them without attributing metaphysical significance to them, kind of like watching a movie. 

  • Gregory Lynn

    How the bloody hell does anyone even think about associating with a group that engaged in a global conspiracy to rape children?*

    It’s one thing if everyone in your family for generations has been Catholic and your grandmother will have a heart attack and die if you leave the church but to willingly sign on because you felt some fuzzy wuzzies?

    I don’t get it, and I hope I never do.*Note, not an exaggeration.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    I just read through the “Litany of the Sacred Heart” which is what gave him the spiritual experience. Nothing for me other than a bit of boredom over its repetitiveness.

    Heres a link to it if anyone else wants to see if it’ll convert them:

  • Coyotenose

     Hi, little Happy Octopus! Awww, aren’t you cephalopodic? Yes you are, yes you are!

  • james Hampton

    It’s only a matter of time before he Re-Conceives the Ridiculousness of it all

  • Joe Zamecki

    Hemant, yes “setting the bar right on the ground,” is exactly what this is, imho. They’re impressed with just a warm body coming over to their side. We’re more impressed with reasoning. Their standard is so low on this as to barely exist at all, and it always fills me with a sense that this individual is really just playing the Christians.  Why? Because it’s obviously way too easy.

    How does one go back to believing in Santa Claus? If they’re a thinking adult, it’ll have to involve some amount of dishonesty. But for sure, if Christians really cared, they’d be as skeptical as we are. This is more about a feeling, and that’s often really wishy washy in the long run. Like the wind, human feelings are subject to changing directions suddenly and without need for much reason. It is my sincere hope that all ex-Atheists figure this out, and re-join us.

  • C Peterson

    They always come back to Reason

    Unfortunately, they don’t. Only those with the ability to reason can do that… and Horn may have never been strong in that area to begin with (his conversion is certainly strong evidence of that).

  • Rickster

    I’m surprised no one else has suggested a this yet, but perhaps his conversion is a calculated career decision. From his time in SSA I’m sure he is familiar with discrimination against atheists and possibly has even started encountering it while searching out career jobs since he had a visible atheist past. For him a conversion might be the best, most visible way to remove some discrimination and even earn some bonus point with some employers. As for why Catholicism; who knows. But from my experience it seems like a fairly safe choice as they are not bible literalists, don’t shun members who don’t follow their exact stances, and most of their members don’t really believe what the popester says anyway.

  • Joe Zamecki

    It would be interesting to see an in-depth news report every time a theist leaves religion. Well it would be interesting to me, but obviously the media doesn’t think it would be very interesting. lol

  • Mandocommando23

    Former Catholic turned atheist right here if that makes anyone feel better. Where’s my media coverage?

  • Mdwelch27

    I think we should all recognize how inticing all of this mysticism is.  It must be really nice to turn over your most difficult problems to a higher power – especially if you are young and feeling overwhelmed.  But it being nice does not make it so.  I think we all agree that we would rather deal with the world as it is than make up some hocus-pocus to give us an out. 

    On the other hand, can we not get better about emphasizing our connections as human beings as an alternative to the cop out.  I know that many of us don’t like the connotations of spiritual but I am something more than the sum of my chemicals and I do feel a strong connection to my fellow humans – with their individual struggles and our collective efforts towards progressive evolution.  We need each other’s support to do our best.  How well are we providing that to our compatriots ?

  • jose

    The stoics were right. They warned us! When first hand experience takes over, there’s nothing rationality can do to combat that. Not even when we remain rational the whole time. Haven’t you ever done something knowing full well that it’s not going to work or that isn’t the correct thing to do? Everybody has done that at some point.

    We should be prepared to judge those experiences afterwards in order to remain reasonable when it happens, to be in control of these experiences, in short: to surf the wave instead of being swallowed by it.

  • Antinomian

    Call me a cynic, but dollars to doughnuts, it’s about a young woman….

  • FTFKDad

    anyone know what he was studying?

  • Roxy

    I don’t think it is fair to say he was never an atheist to begin with any more than it is fair to say a person who becomes an atheist was never a true believer. He analyzed the situation and came to a conclusion.  Whether you agree with the analysis or the conclusion  is another matter.

    I hope Horn keeps thinking about what he hears in church and comes to reject it for the same reason he rejected religion the first time. That would be a valuable experience.

  • C Peterson

    You are oversimplifying what I said. I think he was never an atheist in the sense that he actually gave the matter any deep thought. He was an atheist the way a child who has never been exposed to religion or philosophy is an atheist. I think it likely that such a lack of analysis is what made it easy for a simple emotional response to overwhelm his reason, allowing him to adopt an irrational world view.

  • Coyotenose

     It’s telling that you equate religion to death.

  • TnkAgn

     As I sometimes tell people who ask about my religious proclivities:  Baptized Roman Catholic, raised Lutheran, and an atheist by dint of the power of reason. Really just another 15%er.

  • C Peterson

    Religionists become atheists all the time. It’s a natural progression, nearly inevitable in any theist who engages their thinking skills. Going in the other direction is rare (although I’m not sure it’s particularly newsworthy) because it requires an actual failure of mental processes.

  • TnkAgn

     I once went to a Catholic Mass at the insistence of my then girlfriend. After repeated guffaws from me during the sermon, and a heated exchange between myself and Fighting Father Feeney, or whatever the priests name was, she was embarrassed enough to never invite me to mass again. She didn’t actually dump me for another year, so it wasn’t that.  I wonder what…

  • dantresomi

    He’s young. So I expect this. Many of us make big life changing decisions when we are in college and then revert to being just like our old school parents when we leave. People get mad when i tell them i don’t put much stock in what young people believe in because just like me, they are going to change their minds several times over throughout their entire lives. I can introduce you to several fundies who were hardcore atheists while in high school and college. It happens quiet often. 

  • Drew M.

    I was born into Catholicism and I’m a bit surprised that someone would voluntarily join it.  I hope he learns better as I did, but if he’s genuinely happier this way, I won’t begrudge the guy. 

  • Drew M.

    Ugh. Thanks for the flashback.

  • Patterrssonn

    That makes it what? 3?

  • Deven Kale

    I’ve recently started taking psycho-active medication and occasionally, I get this amazing feeling which I’d never felt before. It’s like my whole body is humming and my thought processes work slightly differently. I sometimes feel like if I really tried, I would be able to fly because I feel like I’m literally being pulled towards the sky. It’s both frightening and exciting at the same time.

    I can’t help but wonder if maybe these “religious experiences” people have are basically no different. Just a sudden flood of some neurotransmitter or another with no good reason. A random imbalance which quickly resolves itself but feels powerful nonetheless.

  • jose

     Are you just making this up or did you speak with the guy or read something he wrote to support your opinion of him? The stuff you’re saying doesn’t necessarily follow from the quotes in this post.

  • AxeGrrl

    It’s hard to argue against a feeling.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more succinct explanation for the entire phenomenon of religion than this.

    bravo :)

  • C Peterson

    I’m making an educated guess about the mechanism behind his conversion. His own comments don’t provide much help in understanding the process.

    I don’t think it is possible for an atheist to become a theist- especially a religious one- unless that person’s process of rational thought is damaged or has otherwise failed (for instance, when an emotional response overwhelms analytical reasoning).

  • AxeGrrl

    This reminds me of what many said about Jim Carrey’s sudden embracing of pseudoscience while he was with Jenny McCarthy:

    “it’s the power of the vajayjay”

  • jose

     Then Roxy is right. Lots of Christians say “surely the guy never really had a personal relationship with Jesus, if he had truly seen the light it would be impossible to deny it” or something along those lines whenever they hear about a deconversion.

    You should be more prudent with your guesses.

  • jose

    Serves the same function as the drums in shamanic rituals. It would be more fun if peyote were involved, though. The incense catholics use doesn’t quite cut it.

  • Deven Kale

     We’re going to have to assume that he was an atheist, if for no other reason that he claimed to be one. There are many examples of atheists (even well informed, prominent atheists) who have converted to some form of Christianity, for various reasons. Most of the time those reasons are personal and emotionally charged and have little to do with any arguments whatsoever. This doesn’t make their previous atheism invalid anymore than a the Christianity of one who converts to atheism.

    Bob Seidensticker made a pretty good post on his (fellow Patheos) blog Cross Examined. I think it does a fairly good job of showing how even a well-informed atheist can convert, even if he does wander off subject a bit.

  • Debbie Walker

    Catholics are masters at ritual and group think. You can get caught up in it for a while, but once that glorious majesty (for lack of a better word) wears off the messages they spew will turn any thinking person off.

  • TCC

    I don’t believe Horn was ever an atheist to begin with, except in the most restricted sense of the word.

    If by “restricted” you mean “inclusive,” then yes. Being an atheist doesn’t require thoughtfulness or critical analysis of your positions, and although we’d like it to be, it isn’t a criterion for being an atheist.

  • C Peterson

    I don’t think the comparison is a valid one. Rational thought processes lead one towards atheism. Irrational thought processes lead one towards theism. Of course, it’s possible that Horn has an actual physical problem, like a brain tumor. But absent that, it is much more common for people’s thinking skills to evolve towards rationality than irrationality.

    What appears to be the case here is that rational thought was overwhelmed by emotional response. It’s much easier for that to occur if strong rational conviction was lacking in the first place- just the thing you are likely to find in a person who has not thought deeply about their personal philosophy. I think that sort of shallow belief system is extremely common in people Horn’s age. I’d bet that a high percentage of atheists in college are fairly shallow in their convictions (and that many of those convictions are the product of social experience and not deep reflection).

  • Arthur Byrne

     Not all that rare, in absolute terms. In the West, the irreligious tend to be less doctrinate in their children’s instruction, making comparatively large drift relatively common. Something around a quarter of those raised irreligiously end up in a religion.

    I’d also say “failure” overstates things a little. Rather, it’s more the reflexive dominating the reflective. Religious conversion tends to be more common as a relatively abrupt transition from an emotional experience; deconversion to atheism tends to be more common as a relatively gradual and intellectual process. There are individual outlier anomalies that exist for both, though.

  • Kacy

    I get it.  I was also raised Southern Baptist and became a Catholic in college.  I understand how Josh would use his atheism as a form of rebellion against his anti-intellectual upbringing.   I can also see how he would feel emotionally tied to Jesus and Christianity, even while rejecting the anti-intellectual tendencies.  Liturgical Christianity, especially Catholicism provides an alternative for intellectual minds who want to stay Christian and have mystical experiences.  I did it, and spent 5 years in the RCC after my conversion, and I enjoyed reading Thomas Aquinas as well.   Maybe Josh will come around one day.  Reading Josh’s story, inspired me to blog about my own Catholic conversion (now as a de-convert), with the ability to see my own emotional projections in the “mystical” experiences I had leading up to my conversion.  Those who convert (or de-convert) tend to ask questions and look for answers from multiple angles.  Catholic apologists and cheerleaders should be careful when celebrating new converts.

  • Arthur Byrne

     You might find this study by Altemeyer and Hunsberger of interest, then. They study both directions.

  • Arthur Byrne

     There’s always the chance his kids will come back, even if he never does.

  • C Peterson

    As previously noted, I defined his atheism as narrow in the sense that I doubt it was reflectively considered. He was certainly an atheist in his stated belief in any deity.

    Thanks for the link to Seidensticker’s post. I agree he has some interesting things to say, but I take exception to his use of “well-informed” in referring to these examples of people who left atheism. It is one thing to be “well informed” in the sense of understanding arguments for and against theism, and something quite different to have actually applied critical thinking during deep reflection. I’m extremely well-informed about Christianity, but that hardly makes me a Christian.

    In any case, no matter how well informed one is, emotional responses can dominate decision making under some circumstances… particularly when we are not already deeply invested in our beliefs through rational processes.

  • Richard Wade

    Joshua’s description of his experience is vague, and such things often seem to be beyond being articulated well even by articulate people, so I don’t know if my take on it is relevant. I’m pretty sure Joshua would not agree with me, at least not for a while:

    I think extraordinary experiences can happen spontaneously in the human mind/brain, and we dislike inner experiences that have no explanation we can use to talk to ourselves about them.  So we cast about looking for some meaning, significance, framework, explanation, a label to attach to it. We might use concepts we learned in childhood and are still practicing, or grasp at ideas that we discarded, as Joshua did.  The following is from a post I wrote about this kind of thing:

    …But those are all contrivances. They are all unnecessary add-ons.
    The experience needs no “meaning” outside of itself. The painting is the
    painting. The thrill at the mountain pass is the thrill at the mountain
    pass. The ecstasy of the perfect symphony is just that, nothing more,
    and certainly nothing as artificial and contrived as the “significance”
    we want to stick on it. They don’t need any of that stuff, and neither
    do we.

    I call these Peak/Peek/Pique experiences. “Peak” because they seem to
    be the apex of our joy, or ecstasy, or aliveness. “Peek” because we
    fancy that they are a glimpse into a hidden super reality behind the
    screen of reality we normally see. “Pique” because they arouse our
    interest or curiosity about whatever significance we invent for them. I
    think it is a mistake to treat them these ways. We can spend our lives
    chasing after them and their imagined value, like prospectors who die in
    the desert searching in vain for the Lost Dutchman Mine. Just let them
    be what they are, remarkable moments. No point or explanation is

    The whole post, if it is of any helpfulness to this discussion, is here:

  • Arthur Byrne

    Slightly hypnotic. But, having dabbled in more recreational aspects of hypnosis, it seems rather unimpressive.

  • Larry Meredith

     He didn’t really analyze the situation though. He had a feeling and came to a conclusion purely over emotion. As Hemant said, he gave no rational basis for why he converted other than a vague description of feeling something he never felt before.

  • Deven Kale

     You’re ignoring the third possibility, that irrational thought can also lead to atheism. It’s a faulty assumption to say that all atheists have reached their position rationally. Starting with faulty assumptions isn’t guaranteed to lead you to a faulty conclusion, it just adds to the likelihood that you will. If you come to your conclusion that no gods exist for bad reasons, it makes you more likely to convert to some form of theism once your reasons for being an atheist are disproved. I’m not saying that’s what happened here, but whenever an atheist converts to some form of theism, it’s something that I always consider.

  • C Peterson

    I’m not ignoring that possibility at all. In fact, that’s very similar to how I’m suggesting that many people (including Horn) come by their atheism- without deep analysis or contemplation. Your analysis here is very nicely stated, and I agree completely. In considering this, I’d go a little farther and emphasize a qualitative difference between arriving at atheism (or anything else) by explicitly irrational thought versus by a simple lack of rational thought.

  • julie

    I think part of it is the context of the experience. If you have that experience while you’re in a Catholic church, you might assume it’s the correct religion/denomination. After all, why would God give you overwhelming spiritual feelings if you weren’t at the correct church?
    Also, if you’ve mainly been interacting with Catholic people prior to your conversion and then have that experience, you’ll think “I guess this is what these people have been talking about.”
    It is really lame that it’s not given more thought than that.

  • FractalHeretic

    I once knew an atheist who believed that all rivers flow south. He also believed in every other superstition, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theory you can name. Lesson learned: you don’t have to be a genius, or even a skeptic, to lack belief in God.

  • Sailorsguide

     as Asimov said: “You can’t reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into”

  • Bryan

    I agree, and I would analogize my atheism to the lights coming on. I’d always suspected that, with the lights off in the room, others were full of it when they said someone was there watching me. You can believe either which way, that Someone’s there or not, but once the lights come on (i.e. you rationally consider everything), the answer is pretty clear. Most can’t just go back. I just don’t understand returning to such profound ignorance as Catholicism.

  • smrnda

    I think Catholicism works (and folks as far back as TS Eliot became adult converts) because unlike Evangelical denominations which spend lots of time making simple but explicit claims about what is true and what is not, Catholicism relies heavily on ritual, tradition and states it claims in a more inflated, philosophical sounding language.  There’s also the aesthetic dimension, along with the fact that nobody attends any Protestant church without agreeing with the doctrines, but Catholics can feel like they are still Catholic (in some mystical sense) without believing fully in what the church teaches.

  • Lauren Eve Pomerantz

    I’m not an atheist for any rational reason.  I’m an atheist because trying to be a believer was too damned difficult.

    I was raised Jewish.  I thought the rabbis who taught my Hebrew school class were hypocrites.  I thought my Bat Mitzvah was a farce.  Immediately after being Bat Mitzvahed I stopped attending synagogue and started looking for something that felt real to me.

    I read Robert Anton Wilson and got into the occult.  I read Tarot cards.  I played around with Discordianism.  I studied Wicca in college.  I invented my own religion out of bits and pieces of things, from CS Lewis to Robert Heinlein.  I read a lot of New Age crap and spent tens of thousands of dollars on seminars in the Human Potential Movement.  I read the White Goddess and Drawing Down the Moon.  I wrote songs in praise of the Great Goddess.  I had a jar of bent pins under my bed.  I hung out with psychics and spent Saturday evenings playing with ouija boards and going ghost hunting and doing seances.  I kept a dream journal.  

    And everything was just so much work, because the truth was I didn’t feel anything, and I was kind of forcing myself to pretend that I was getting something out of it.

    I tried to go back to Judaism.  I bought books on the subject and a tallis.  And I actually told myself if I was going to be half-assed about religion, I should be half-assed about the faith of my forefathers.

    And one day I just said, “You know, if there really is a God or a Goddess, why is believing in him or her so much work?  Shouldn’t it be easy to believe in the entity that created us?”  And when I made that realization, and gave myself permission to fail at religion, it was like a huge burden had been lifted from me.

    I’m an emotional atheist, not a rational one.  I still haven’t read any of the “required reading,” like Dawkins or Hitchens or anything.  Admitting that I can’t believe has allowed me to see a lot of the negative things religion does, and how it’s used to oppress people and squelch ideas.  I’ll never go back.  I do miss the ritual, though.  I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the two atheists we’ve heard of going to religion have gone to Catholicism.  Margot Adler details the story of a very influential Wiccan priest who became a Catholic and wrote incredible poetry dedicated to Mary.  I wrote some great songs when I was a Witch, and it’s much harder to write poetry about not believing in things.

  • Keulan

    The one thing I’ve noticed with both of these conversions of atheists to Catholicism is that their reasons for conversion make absolutely no sense.

  • Anthony Rosa

    Eh, it’s the sort of thing where you have to be there. It’s got a rhythm to it, a hypnotic rhythm. I was born and raised Catholic, so… this sort of thing happened. I recognized its method immediately… jose, who responded before me, is absolutely right.

  • Gregory Marshall

    I still don’t get how you could be a serious atheist and then jump right into a particular religion. I know that my personal transition from Catholic to atheist had many stops, points, whatever you want to call it along the way.
    I mean seriously, knowing what I no know about how Christianity came to be, how could anybody that knew how it came to be join it. Not only join it, join a particular sect?

  • Gus Snarp

    Ah well. I hate the way his conversion will be used by theists as an argument for the existence of god, I don’t understand how anybody picks Catholicism as their religion of choice upon conversion, except through blind ignorance or willful cherry picking of their theology, I wish he hadn’t had a leadership role, and I wish this weren’t such a public thing (because who really cares if a student secular leader at one college suddenly gets religion?), but I am glad that he isn’t actually claiming that there’s evidence for a god. 

    It’s instructive of the point that the Venn diagram of atheism and skepticism, while it has considerable overlap, is not a circle, nor is one circle entirely contained within the other. Obviously he is not familiar with how the brain works, how easily we fool ourselves, and how many things can cause what might seem to be a mystical experience. I myself had one that made me mostly convert from Methodism to Southern Baptism at a revival. But that was back when I was in college and my beliefs were fluid and I was still learning a lot about the world. I still had a stint of nebulous self-defined Christianity, followed by neo-paganism, before I would become a firm atheist.

    I don’t mean to denigrate anyone’s spiritual journey or the conclusions they may reach along the way, and certainly many college students have reached a much better and firmer understanding of atheism than I have even now.  But we should not forget that young brains operate differently than our old ossified ones. They are still being wired, and we should expect dramatic swings and changes. That’s part of what makes young people so important to any movement that is seeking change or is out of the mainstream. But it also means that cases like this will occasionally arise out of which the theists can attempt to make some hay.

  • Gus Snarp

    I agree that the ritual and tradition are a big part of what makes Catholicism appealing and that Catholics can feel like they are still Catholic without fully believing Church teachings (though how they get there is beyond me, given how clearly delineated Catholic teachings are, unlike so many other sects), but this:

    along with the fact that nobody attends any Protestant church without agreeing with the doctrines

    is simply not true. “Protestant” is an enormous category, and in most protestant churches, whether Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, or something else, you will find people in the pews who believe in very little of the official teachings of the particular church in which their butts happen to be seated.

  • Gus Snarp

    That sort of thing when done with full ritual just sort of creeps me out. I can’t sit through a Catholic mass without looking around and thinking that I was playing a bit part in Invasion of the Brain Snatchers, or some kind of B-movie about satanic cults. All these people who would seem normal and reasonable if I met them on the street standing here chanting this mystical mumbo jumbo. Yeah, I sometimes get chills. Chills of fear.

  • Ray

    This is what I would think happened. I’m in Arizona and they stare at you if you mention you don’t do any worship on Sunday. Heck, my child development teacher is teaching us science, yet dismissing it as the same time (I am very unconformable in that class). As for Catholicism, Arizona is mostly Mormons or Evangelical Protestians, but we do have a large group of Catholics.

  • SJH

    I don’t think he is basing his conclusion on a feeling as you suggest. He says that he “perceived or experienced” something other than himself. Based on that experience he has drawn a conclusion. Seems reasonable. In the article you cited, it reads:

    “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.”

  • Mikesavino85


  • Deven Kale

     I’m absolutely amazed at how hard you’re trying to excuse this argument you’re making, and the amount of effort you’re putting into making this seem like something other than the Scotsman fallacy that it is. It’s completely bewildering to me, to say the least.

    What everybody is trying to point out to you here is that if somebody doesn’t believe in gods, they’re an atheist. Period. How much thought they’ve put into it doesn’t matter. Whether they got there logically doesn’t matter. Whether they’re skeptics or batshit crazy whackjobs doesn’t matter. An atheist is an atheist because they don’t believe in gods, and that’s it. You can say there’s a “qualitative difference” all you want, but unless you’re going to start making up different categories of atheists, you really have no leg to stand on. You’re argument is fallacious, and people are going to keep pointing that out until you finally realize it yourself.

  • John of Indiana

    OK, so he found a Catholic girl to rock his world. Been there, almost did That.

    It’s strong, this pull they exert. We broke up 35 years ago, she’s passed away, and still hardly a day goes by that I don’t miss her…

  • C Peterson

    Your point escapes me. I didn’t say he wasn’t an atheist- quite the opposite.

    It seems self-evident to me that there are different kinds of atheists, however. Certainly, the world view of somebody who is an atheist because they have never been exposed to religion will be different from somebody who becomes an atheist because her boyfriend is one, or from somebody who spends 10 years studying philosophy. That doesn’t seem like a very controversial idea to me.

  • The Other Weirdo

     I think you’re not giving yourself enough credit here. You say that you’re emotional atheist, not a rational one, but when I read your account, I’m struck by the idea that you found God too hard to believe in. That tells me that your rational side was rebelling against the demands your irrational side(everybody has them) was putting on it. In other words, you may well have arrived at your atheism rationally; you may just not have been aware of it.

  • The Other Weirdo

     No, they aren’t, but they are harder to deny.

  • The Other Weirdo

     For all its faults, let’s not buy into conspiracy theories about  those who oppose us. We are not Christian, after all. I sincerely doubt there was ever a conspiracy to rape children. Historically, there wouldn’t have been a need. It existed always because raping children has existed always, human sexuality and mentality being what it is. When it burst into the public view and public consciousness, it probably caught the Church by surprise(the public airing of its dirty laundry), and like all large, monolithic organizations with delusions of superiority, they crafted some truly brain-dead policies to deal with it. Or sweep it under the rug, as the case may be.

    If there’s a conspiracy at all, it’s to brainwash the sheep into thinking that it’s all Satan’s fault or all homosexuals’ fault or atheists’ fault or whoever’s fault. Everybody else’s fault but not theirs.

    I truly don’t believe that they, as a whole, WANT to rape children. I think they suffer from pride and hubris, an overwhelming superiority complex, a holier-than-thou attitude, a wildly misinformed view of humanity and an inability to even admit that they need help to deal with the problem. That they have purposely cut themselves off from human sexuality means that they will always take the wrong side on the homosexuality vs pedophilia issue as it concerns the child rape in the Church.

  • The Other Weirdo

     Forgot to mention that this doesn’t excuse the flock of sheep who fill the pews every Sunday. If their followers demanded, every Sunday, real answers and solutions from their priests, I’m pretty sure this problem would have been resolved decades ago in ways that would have worked for everybody.

  • Pascale Laviolette

    I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt transcendent, spiritual (in the Harris sense), or part of a greater picture/connectivity — but I’ve never once attributed it to a God.

    I get these feelings when I listen to Melodysheep songs about science and evolution – especially when Attenborough or Sagan are talking.  Gettin’ choked up just thinking about it!

  • MZ

    Rationalizing, rationalizing, rationalizing.
    To be sure, I’m rather glad I became a Catholic due to the evidence rather than supernatural experiences, as Josh here had. But he’s got a seriously good head on his shoulders, for the record – I’ve joined a FB group that he is also a part of and I’ve read some of his posts; anyone who thinks he is of weak intellect is kidding themselves. A year beforehand, you guys would have been PROUD of his cognitive ability. He was simply willing to concede a point that most atheists bend over backwards to deny, since it challenges the nice pretty little philosophies they’ve already cooked up for themselves and don’t want anyone to ruin.
    There are more college atheists coming from theism than the other way around, sure; that’s because it’s a numbers game. There are simply far more theists than atheists. If the numbers were reversed, you would see a reverse in statistics as well. Moreover people like to try out new stuff when they hit college, and rejecting the very basis of rules and morality is a pretty sweet step to take since it means you can do whatever you want and not have to answer for it later. Then they pull out all these scientific-sounding “New Atheist” books to make it sound like they know better than everyone else. It’s a perfect storm: it lets them rebel against unwanted authority, sound intelligent in the process, and go on to live a life of debauchery.
    Never mind that it falls to pieces when the hard questions are asked. Never mind that it presents an empty world without any foundation for objective morality. Never mind that it takes impossibilities (getting STUFF from _) on ludicrous amounts of faith in the “magic of big numbers”. We’re in rebellion, and this stuff sounds plausible, so let’s believe it!
    I’ve been there, too. I’m speaking from experience.
    It was stupid. I knew for a fact that the universe had no reason to stay so orderly. I knew that the most dogmatically atheistic scientist had to put faith into the rational nature of the universe. I knew there had to be some sort of force keeping it that way, because there was absolutely no reason for it to be such without a God – or Gods.
    Then I read history. I found out that Jesus’ resurrection was the only plausible explanation for what happened with the empty tomb and the martyred eyewitnesses.
    And then I found the Catholic Church as the only church that could claim the authority as “keepers of the original faith”. And I’ve never regretted it since.
    Using science to “disprove” God is like an ant in a car engine. The ant sees all the wonderful workings of the carefully calibrated engine operating around it, and is so inspired that it writes a thesis. At the end of the thesis, the ant says “… And based on the wonderful, rational workings of the engine I see around me, I conclude that there is no sense or reason or purpose behind any of it.” What a ridiculous notion! Science has demonstrated over and over again the wonderful comprehensibility of the universe around us, and we say “Boy, guess that puts God out of the picture.” Absolutely not! It deepens and enriches our understanding of the awesome Mind that conceived of it all in the first place! There HAS to have been a God; there’s no other rational reason for any of it to have come about, much less in the way it did.
    Here’s the question. Are you brave enough to actually consider the possibility that your home-brewed philosophy is a bunch of make-believe? Or will you keep rationalizing your way out?
    The choice is yours.

  • Deven Kale

    We’re in rebellion, and this stuff sounds plausible, so let’s believe it!
    I’ve been there, too. I’m speaking from experience.
    It was stupid. I knew for a fact that the universe had no reason to stay so orderly.

    So what you’re saying is that, despite the fact that you believed a god truly existed, you rebelled against him in college and decided to try “living a life of debauchery … without having to answer for it later.” Well, that’s nice for you, but don’t try projecting that onto all atheists. Not all of us are like you, and for a large number of us, it’s the evidence which has directed us away from religion: not simple, childish, anger or rebellion.

    If you really believe there is conclusive evidence pointing towards anything supernatural, please let us, and the rest of the world, know what it is. Many of us here actually care about believing things which are true, myself included, regardless of our own personal desires. We won’t just accept anything though. You need to provide good, solid, compelling evidence and it must be conclusive. If you cannot provide this evidence, then I see no reason to care about anything you’ve said in this little rant of yours.

  • MZ

    Well that’s considerably nicer than most of the treatment of theists I see on this page. I thank you for that.

    I did not actually live out this life of debauchery I make reference to; it is merely a trait that I observed of many atheists around me at the time. And I realized that I could not blame them. I was raised right with sound Christian morals, and I was always a “good kid”; I merely found that there was no sound argument I could make against the lifestyle choices I saw before me without appealing to a higher, transcendent authority of some kind.

    Please note that this is NOT the reason I became a theist; it was simply a logical implication of atheism that I recognized as a necessity. If we are simply particles without any further significance, then all moral codes must have a certain amount of wishful thinking embedded in them, since there is nothing inherently “wrong” in anything; we are slaves to our genes, our genes are slaves to their chemistry, our chemistry is enslaved to particle physics, and so on and so forth. Atheism, at its purest form, must deny the existence of evil. All secular humanists I have met elevate humanity as an end in itself, but there is no objective reason why we must do this other than, as I said, wishful thinking: taking up a “cause” of some kind that could be blown away at the next solar flare, living a life of meaningless “virtue” because it appeals to our dopamine receptors as a result of societal conditioning. Empathy becomes a weakness; all that is commonly recognized as “good” becomes a tool for carrying out your own ends – whatever those are – until you die and rot and are forgotten within the decade.


    Anyway, as I said, that’s not why I became a theist; it was merely an uncomfortable truth that I realized I couldn’t rationalize my way out of as an atheist. When I later accepted the existence of God, and specifically the Catholic conception of Him, I could do away with that hollow world and discovered the meaning of what had previously been meaningless. As the expression goes, it was like turning on a light where there had been nothing but cold darkness.

    Now. You asked for “conclusive evidence pointing towards anything supernatural” in your comment. May I ask what, in your book, would qualify as “conclusive evidence of the supernatural”? The very nature of the supernatural is that it transcends the natural world, and while it may affect the natural world in certain ways, the way we perceive these effects would be in our limited perspective from here in the natural world. If you have ever read the story “Flatland”, it is comparable to a 2-D shape (say, a square) on a 2-D plane trying to conceive of a 3-D entity (say,a sphere) within his world. The square would only be able to observe a cross-section of the sphere and would interpret it as a circle. But that does not mean the sphere does not exist in its entirety, even if the square can only conceive of the circle due to his limited perspective.

    In the same way, much of the evidence of the supernatural takes the form of natural phenomena. Jesus was “true man” in everything he was and did, in the same way that the sphere is rightly a circle when taken from the limited perspective of the square. But Jesus was also far more than that, as evidenced by the Resurrection – which, I suppose, could be the “evidence” you were asking for.

    Moreover, God is not just a sphere. He created the concept of spheres. All the laws of the universe owe their existence to Him. He is not bound by time and space since He created the very CONCEPT of time and space. This is hard (or indeed impossible) to actually conceive, but try to tell the square what a sphere is and already you’ve given him too much to swallow. However, just because something is difficult to conceive of does not mean it does not exist. I’m not very good at aeronatuical physics but that doesn’t mean aeronatuical physics is impossible. The sphere is still a sphere even if the square finds the idea inconceivable.

    I realize that this is not “conclusive evidence” of anything. Which is why I ask: what form would such evidence have to take for you to concede the existence of God? Ask a scientist sometime what he’s conclusively proven lately; he’d laugh at you and remind you that all of science is inferred based on the theory that best matches the observable results, no matter how counterintuitive. Just look at quantum physics, one of the most counterintuitive concepts you’ll ever meet. Yet, it fits the data, and goes further to accurately predict future observations.

    The same way with God. We are in the process of discovery about Him, and every once in a while there will be a jolt of discovery of some new facet of His nature. Vatican II did not introduce any new doctrine, it merely clarified existing doctrine based on new understandings of an eternal Law since it fits the available data much better and goes on to explain other observations that had previously lacked explanation.

    I guarantee there is no better explanation for the existence and consistent, orderly nature of the universe than the God hypothesis. And not just a “man in the volcano” sort of physical God, but a transcendent Mind who is unaffected by time and space, since time and space began at the Big Bang. While God’s existence brings a host of other questions, they are not unanswerable; that is the job of theology. Likewise, the discovery of subatomic particles brought with it a host of other questions, but that does not mean it is untrue; the questions then fell to quantum physics to answer.

    So. Assuming you are being intellectually honest, what else would it take for me to convince you of the existence of the transcendent God I just described?

  • Deven Kale

    conclusive evidence is evidence which points to a specific conclusion, which your statements do not do. You claim the resurrection of Jesus Christ is evidence for a god, and yet the mere existence of Jesus Christ is still highly contested. There is no evidence which points conclusively to him even being a real person, much less being resurrected.

    The flatland scenario is also ridiculous in that, from the perspective of a 2-dimensional being, there is even no such thing as a circle. In order for a 2-dimensional being to observe the true nature of another 2-dimensional object, it must be viewing it from above or below. To a 2-dimensional being, nothing exists but lines of varying lengths, constantly in flux, since even a rotating rectangle would appear to be nothing more than a line which grows and shrinks. So even a sphere passing through it’s plane would be nothing new, in that from it’s perspective it’s just another line fluctuating in length. It must know the existence of a third dimension to even notice the difference in sphere or rotating rectangle. The difference here is that, if a single 2-dimensional being can view objects in 3-dimensional space, all of them must be able to as well. Which is where your analogy falls apart. Only those who already believe in gods are able to see them, which is more evidence that they’re imaginary than real.

    Maybe you’re starting to see what I mean by conclusive evidence of a god. I mean evidence which points directly to their existence, which you haven’t provided yet. Neither has anyone else whom I’ve asked to do the same. I’m fairly confident that nobody ever will, but I’m still willing to concede that there is a possibility that, one of these days, somebody might. Which is why I’m always willing to ask a person for said evidence, even when I’m quite sure that no such evidence exists.

  • MZ

    You are woefully ignorant if you think there’s still hot debate over whether Jesus existed. There is practically no doubt on this particular point; we have more evidence of Jesus’ existence than we have of Tiberius Caesar, the ruler of Rome at the time. You basically have to reject the entire study of archaeology in order to doubt Jesus’ existence. Otherwise, why believe in Socrates or Plato or Aristotle or Homer? Do you doubt that they existed too? There has been no – none, zero, nada, zilch – archaeological evidence that contradicts the New Testament, and bucketloads of discoveries that support it. The Old Testament is historically accurate as well, if you keep in mind the understanding that we are not and never were supposed to interpret some of the earlier content literally (e.g. Genesis). And don’t even try to trip me up there; proper interpretation is necessary for the entire Bible. Peter even warns in 2 Peter 3:16 that the Scripture is hard to understand and that ignorant people can twist it to their own destruction. That’s why we need the Church to help provide context and authority for proper interpretation.

    Our knowledge of the Resurrection is derived from multiple factors, as most archaeological knowledge is inferred. There must have been an empty tomb – lest the Jewish leaders at the time would have been able to point it out otherwise. There were many skeptics who could have easily shut down the whole process by the simple presence of a body still in the grave. Instead, the Jewish leaders of the time did not deny that the tomb was empty; rather, they started spreading the myth that it was the work of graverobbers and that the Roman soldiers who had been stationed in front of the tomb fell asleep. But this is also implausible as a theory: Roman soldiers at the time were incredibly well-trained and disciplined, sort of the Navy SEALs of their day. Moreover, they risked death if they fell asleep and the body was stolen. But even if they DID fall asleep, the tomb was not easy to break into in the first place since there was a gigantic stone blocking the entrance. The noise of moving the stone against the rock of the cave would have woken the soldiers in the implausible event of them all sleeping at the same time. And it was hard enough to move the stone in the first place given its size, weight, and the fact that you would have to be fighting gravity in order to get it out of place. Moreover, if all this was somehow circumvented, then why on earth would the graverobbers have left behind the expensive silken headcloth? Because that’s exactly what they did; the linen cloths and the slken headpiece were left behind in the tomb. It doesn’t make sense!

    What about the disciples? Let’s consider that a moment. They couldn’t exactly say Jesus was up and walking around if there was still a body lying around. So first they’d have to get around all the problems facing any graverobber, one, and then cart out the body without anyone knowing about it. Unlikely, but not impossible. Great. So why on earth did they DIE for it?

    Ten of the remaining eleven disciples were martyred for their faith – all but John, and even he was exiled. In modern archaeology, that’s powerful evidence that they really believed what they were saying. If you were making up a religion, you would quickly abandon your story if someone was busily nailing you to a cross or picking up rocks to stone you for your beliefs. Were they all crazy? Perhaps, but they’d still need to get the body out of the tomb (with its aforementioned difficulties), and then force themselves to believe that Christ had risen from the dead to the extent that they were willing to die or be exiled for this belief. All eleven? Really? And they weren’t exactly willing to die for it BEFORE the Resurrection. To the contrary! They were all gloomy and afraid. Their teacher had died a criminal’s death, due to the betrayal of one of their own, and that one had just gone and killed himself. and everything seemed lost. But then, after they’d locked themselves away from society for fear the the Jewish people would want their heads, they came out of it claiming to have seen Jesus. St.Thomas was not among them at that time, however, and he refused to believe until he had not only seen Jesus but actually stuck his fingers in the wounds left by Christ’s Passion. Jesus showed up again and invited Thomas to do exactly that, which he did. His response? “My Lord and my God!”

    Doubting Thomas was so convinced that he was martyred for his belief, along with the others. But it doesn’t stop there. At Pentecost, Peter gave a speech to the citizens of Jerusalem in which he mentions eyewitnesses (Acts 2:22). He says “As you yourselves know.” No one disputes the truth of his words, you’ll notice… Acts 2:37 says they were instead asking what they needed to do. Luke, who wrote Acts as well as his gospel, was scrupulous about getting the facts straight – one archaeologist looked carefully through his references to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands and did not find a single error. Amongst other things. But let’s suppose you’re unwilling to give credit to Luke for whatever reason, say because you don’t know if it was written at the time of eyewitnesses around to verify it. Our current estimates are somewhere around 60-62 AD and no later than 70 AD, or less than 40 years after Christ’s Assumption into heaven (believed to have been around 33 AD); otherwise Luke probably would have mentioned the fall of Jerusalem.

    In any case, let’s say you throw out Acts for no reason. The Apostle Paul made reference in 1 Corinthians 15:6 (dated between 53 and 57 AD) to “more than five hundred brothers, most of whom are still living” to whom the risen Christ appeared to. More than five hundred!

    There are tons of other clues as to the integrity of the Gospel: there were things in there that no one making up a lie would have ever included, such as Christ’s demanding teachings on adultery and murder, and the fact that he had his feet cleaned by a prostitute. They used the testimony of women – one of whom was a former demoniac – when women would never have been listened to in courts of the day. And remember, people were persecuted and DIED for this stuff. Your claim that there is no evidence betrays a severe lack of knowledge, at best. There’s far more than just what I’ve presented here, if you’re interested.

    Now, you clearly have not read Flatland. I highly recommend it: it’s an interesting read and stimulating thought exercise. But the book covers everything you just brought up: the flatlanders, as you correctly surmised, only see lines, and they know of the different shapes by feeling. Indeed, one of the tip-offs to the main character (who is a square) that not all is normal with his mysterious 3-D visitor is that he feels him to be a circle, a most unusual shape.

    And this is about where you lost me. I have never stated that I have “seen God.” maybe 3 people in the history of forever have “seen God”, and two of them were completely overwhelmed by the experience. I’m willing to believe that Josh Horn had a limited experience of the supernatural – although these are necessarily unrepeatable and unverifiable using scientific means. In Flatland, the square is indeed taken up out of his plane to see those around him (including their insides, he notes with disgust) as they really are, but back in the real world, God is seldom in the habit of making Himself observable. Why? That’s a question for theology. There is an answer, but first you need to determine whether there even IS a God in the first place; once you’ve done that, THEN you can ask questions over why He isn’t obvious.

    (By the way, the square was thrown in a mental asylum for telling other shapes about his experiences in the 3-D world. I’ll let you interpret that how you will.)

    Finally, I note that you have not actually addressed my points about the consistent order of the universe, or the absence of any real basis for objective morality under atheism. Allow me to add one other: if you accept Big Bang cosmology (thanks to Father Georges Lemaitre, the Jesuit priest who came up with the idea in the first place), then you must accept that the universe had a point of beginning. Do you really believe it came out of nothing for no reason?

    And lastly, I will again pose to you: what would it take to convince you of the existence of the supernatural, transcendent God that I describe? What would you need to have happen, or read about, or observe, in order to cause you to consider God’s existence? If you cannot give me criteria, then you have boxed yourself out of the very possibility and are no longer being intellectually honest.