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The Convert Conundrum

The long parade of worldly believers.

May 17, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 33 • By MARY EBERSTADT
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We interrupt the latest bilious rants about religion with a respectful bulletin. Mid-April marked the passing of British philosopher Antony Flew, perhaps the most famous atheist-turned‑theist of recent times. It’s a moment that seems especially worth reflecting on these days, as the West’s media-intoxicated celebrity atheists lunge once again for the wheel of public debate.

The Convert Conundrum

A scourge of believers for much of his life, Flew penned numerous works attacking theism over the years, including one of the most famous atheist tracts of the 20th century (“Theology and Falsification”). Yet over 50 years later, via the straightforwardly entitled book There Is a God, he announced to the world that he’d changed his mind and become a deist, albeit one who still rejected the specifically Christian conception of God. Research on DNA, Flew submitted, “has shown, by the almost unbelievable complexity of the arrangements which are needed to produce (life), that intelligence must have been involved.”

Retaliation was swift—one might even say Darwinian. The same enforcers now dangling handcuffs at Pope Benedict leapt to deride Flew for his newfound belief, insinuating odiously here and there that the philosopher had simply lost his mind. Beneath the grandstanding, though, these former atheist allies also betrayed a distinct uneasiness about l’affaire Flew—and understandably so. For quirky though that late nod to deism may have appeared, Flew’s story is nevertheless emblematic of a tradition far deeper and more interesting than today’s increasingly hysterical baiting of believers.

That is the long, rich, and multi-dimensional history of individual conversion to some form of belief—and not only by those “poor, uneducated, and easy to command,” as a Washington Post reporter once described rank and file believers. In addition to the impoverished illiterates—among whom conversion stories abound—there is what might be called the convert elite: the long parade of educated and worldly men and women, beginning back with one called Saul and continuing on to the 21st century, who have deliberately, often seemingly inexplicably, signed on to wearing the Christian label.

It’s a history all the more remarkable given the liabilities that such a turnaround often guarantees. In many of the best places, after all, the surest route to laughingstock status is declaring oneself a believer. And yet the parade into Christianity continues, including with high-profile conversions and a slew of recent books offering testimonials (Chosen, A Century of Catholic Converts, Women in Search of Truth, and Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts among them). Why?

For some, the answer appears to be personal epiphany—though not all experience it quite so dramatically as Paul. Whittaker Chambers, for example​—one of the more notorious converts of his own day—reported that it was in studying the ear of his infant daughter that “the finger of God was first laid upon my forehead.” Sir Alec Guinness, one of many in the venerable tradition of English converts to Rome, had one of the more unusual wake-up calls; it came to him as he was playing Father Brown, the detective in the G.K. Chesterton series.

Other converts apparently find faith another way—via a search for intellectual communion with some of the great minds of history. The 2009 collection Chosen, which presents the personal stories of 23 Catholic converts, offers several examples. Some, like anthropologist Steven Mosher, cite the powerful effect of reading Thomas Aquinas (followed up, in Mosher’s case, by witnessing a forced abortion in China). Convert Austin Ruse, now a prominent Catholic activist, reports that his own search began as a rebellion against the easy disdain of his professors toward “the thing that has occupied the greatest minds of all time”—only to find his own search for that same thing ending in Rome.

And still others opt for faith precisely because of the teachings that today’s atheists along with many secular people find most risible. Malcolm Muggeridge, for example, who toyed with the idea of converting for much of his life, cited finally “the Catholic Church’s firm stand against contraception and abortion.” Other converts, shocking though it might seem in these secular times, evidently agree. In recent weeks came another prominent convert: Hadley Arkes, professor of jurisprudence at Amherst and a leading figure in the pro-life movement, who cited his conviction of the Church as a “truth-telling institution.”

The question of why so many thinking people cross the convert Rubicon even now—or perhaps especially now—is just one of the many imponderables raised by even a brief consideration of religious conversion stories. It also reminds us that there is more on heaven and earth than is dreamed of in the philosophy of our celebrity Christian-bashers—as the departed Antony Flew, however belatedly and with whatever qualifications, would roundly have agreed.

Mary Eberstadt is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, consulting editor to Policy Review, contributing writer to First Things, and author of The Loser Letters: A Comic Tale of Life, Death, and Atheism.


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