Tag Archives: conversion

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 3: My Own Little Damascus Moment

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described how I became an atheist but how I later began to learn that belief in God was not unreasonable. In Part 2, I described how I learned about the Catholic Church and even came to respect it.

I still did not believe, however, and I had no desire to believe. I was perfectly happy at the thought of dating – and eventually marrying – my cute Catholic girlfriend, and she was happy with her atheist but well-meaning boyfriend.

No Proof is Possible

Stuart Chase said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” I was definitely in the latter category. I had come to understand that you cannot prove that God does not exist. I had even seen scientific evidence for the existence of God. I had come to learn, in as first-hand a manner as possible, that the universe is delicately balanced in a way that science really can’t explain. I had come to see that science is a tool for understanding how the universe works, but it cannot approach the question of why.

But it wasn’t enough. I know now that it shouldn’t be. Faith cannot come from a textbook.

Advent

I didn’t know it then, but it was the Advent season.

In order to keep this very large physics experiment staffed, the project rented an apartment in Italy for the professors, post-docs, and graduate students and also leased an automobile on a yearly basis. The car was leased out of Milan, a two hour drive north of the laboratory. The lease was up that December, and as I was the last American on site that year – scheduled to fly back to the States shortly before Christmas – it was my job to drop the car off then return to the lab via train and bus.

So Christmas was coming. My return home was coming. Something else was coming that I definitely wasn’t expecting.

When Nothing Seems to Go Right

Have you ever had a trip where nothing seems to go right? This was it for me, at least until the end. It seemed simple enough. Drive to Milan. Turn in car. Take cab to train station. Take train to seaside town of Guilianova. Take bus from Guilianova to Paganica. Be home by bedtime. I had the train schedule and the bus schedule and the timing all planned out. Being a graduate student, I didn’t have much money (and no credit card), but there was cash for the cab, cash for the train, cash for the bus, and a little extra for food. No problem.

Well, some problems. Like delays at the rental agency. Like traffic on the way to the train station.

I raced into the station right at my scheduled departure. The train was about to pull out, and the line at the ticket booth was at least a dozen people deep, so I skipped the ticket booth and went straight for the train. I knew that, if the conductor came by for tickets and you had none, you could buy one, though at a penalty. I had done it before. Once safely on board, I carefully counted my money. There was enough to cover the penalty, but I wouldn’t be doing much eating the rest of that day.

The train was packed, and I was one of the last on board. Standing room only on a smoking car. Miserable and hungry, I stood and stared out the window as the countryside slowly went by. Very slowly. Then we stopped, and I didn’t recognize the station.

I pulled out my map. Yes, I was going the right way, but this station wasn’t on the map. In my broken Italian (which tended to be laced with a lot of French and a little bit of Russian, but that’s another story), I asked the other passengers and heard the word I had learned to dread in my days in Italy: Strike.

The express train conductors were on strike, and all express trains were out of service. I was on a local train.

I looked at my watch and made frantic mental calculations. I had to be in Guilianova by 8pm to catch the last bus out. At the rate we were going, I didn’t think we would make it.

The anxiety grew at each stop. A fold-out bench opened up, and I was able to sit. My mind rehearsed the remainder of the trip. Soon the conductor would come by and ask for my ticket. He would take the majority of my money. I would have the 10,000 lire for the bus ticket but little else. I would arrive in Guilianova with no money, no place to stay, and no way out till morning. And it was cold, likely to snow. I wondered what it would be like to sleep in an outdoor railway station in the middle of winter. I was scared.

Presence

I felt something set in that was an incoherent overlay of panic and despair. Would I suffer in the cold? Would I be arrested? Would I die? Would somebody, anybody, help me?

There are people that confront those questions every day of their lives. But I was a pampered graduate student who had never had to worry about food or shelter. For me a big horrible thing was about to happen to me, and I could not stop it. All I could do was wait and watch it happen, and more than anything else, I felt all alone in the world.

Then, all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I don’t know what happened, what triggered it. The best way I can describe it is this. Try to think back to when you were a child and your mother gathered you into her arms. How did it feel? I felt gathered and held and comforted. I felt as if someone had come up to me and told me he loved me and would take care of me no matter what.

There was a physical sensation to it. A communication. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was not alone. I don’t think I heard a voice, but I thought maybe I had. Words were in my head. Words of reassurance. Comforting. Like a parent with a small child.

I was told, in that voiceless way, not to worry. I was told that I was loved and would be taken care of. I was told to trust.

And so I did. I spent the rest of journey focused not on my plight but on this wonderful experience of being loved by something or someone I could neither see nor touch.

He Provides

Before I knew it, it was around ten o’clock at night. I was in Guilianova, and the conductor had never come by to collect tickets. If that was a miracle, it was a pretty low grade miracle – perhaps it was policy not to collect tickets during a strike, I don’t know – but it felt like a miracle to me. One of the things I have come to understand is that God works miracles for us every day, miracles that seem absolutely mundane until you look on them with the eyes of faith.

But now I had the next step of my journey. The last bus was long gone, and I was in a freezing cold and empty train station long after dark. I wasn’t worried. I was filled with a sense of wonder at what might happen next. I walked out of the train station into a dark and sleeping town.

Guilianova – at least the part I was in – did not have a bustling nightlife. Or any nightlife that I could see. I picked a dark street at random and started walking.

Soon I saw a light. As I approached, it resolved into a small bed and breakfast. Still trusting, I walked in.

No, there were no empty rooms. Then the owner hesitated, and a look of motherly concern came over her face. “You’ll take one of our rooms,” she said, “But it does not have a private bath. You will have to share with our family. Is that all right?”

I agreed enthusiastically, in my best Italian. While she prepared the room I spoke haltingly with a guest who claimed to be an alchemist. He was excited to learn that I was a physicist and wanted to share his theory on how to create gold.

The innkeeper had no food, so she gave me directions to a place that she thought might still be open. It was nearing midnight, but I set out again anyway. I was hungry, but I was more motivated to just live out this strange and wonderful moment of my life.

Several hundred twisty-turny yards later and I found myself in a pizzeria. I sat down with a pizza and a beer and watched the movie showing on the bar’s TV. I wish I could say the movie had a spiritual meaning. It didn’t, but it was comforting. I spent the evening watching Walt Disney’s Robin Hood, feeling like a little child whose Father loved him.

Next: The Way of the Cross

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church Part 2: Visions of Truth

In Part 1 of my conversion story I described my atheistic background and how God “tilled the soil” in preparation for my conversion. He wasn’t ready to plant the seed of faith quite yet, however. I think He needed me to see some things for myself first.

There’s Always a Woman

Is there a woman in every story? Well, there is in this one.

In the autumn of my first year of graduate school, I chose the experimental physics group with which I would eventually complete my Ph.D. It was a group doing experimental particle astrophysics – looking for exotic particles in the ubiquitous shower of cosmic rays that constantly bombards the earth. I chose the group both for the grandiosity of the subject as well as for the fact that it would give me a chance to live in Italy. I had been at the school over the summer, so I already felt at home the day I first walked into the lab.

Now, to set the picture, I still looked the part of a hard partying college student in southern California, even though I had recently transformed into a non-partying graduate student in the northeast. I had hair down to my shoulders, a snake earring in my left ear (sometimes it was a dagger or skull), and dark glasses. I wore t-shirts and shorts, but I had given in to wearing shoes again.

I followed my new advisor into a lab where electronics were being prototyped and equipment was being calibrated in hurried preparation for shipment to Italy. The room was full of undergraduate research assistants all working diligently. One stood out.

She stood out in one sense because she was a she, the only she in the lab. But she wasn’t just any she. She sat on a tall stool with a soldering iron in her hand and her long brown hair tied back in a ponytail. We were introduced, and she looked at me with those big brown eyes, and I didn’t think physics students were supposed to be so pretty. I did know that she was way too pretty for a guy like me to be asking out.

It was a year later when we started dating. I’ll skip the details; that’s another story. Suffice to say she gets the credit for getting the ball rolling. It was in the first two weeks when I got a little surprise. I asked her out for dinner on a Sunday night. She agreed, but said she couldn’t go out until after she got out of Mass.

I wanted to impress her. I really wanted to impress her. So I said, “Want me to come with you?” Oh so suave. Oh so debonaire.

Hesitantly, she said yes. So I attended my first Catholic Mass. It was not a conversion experience. I wasn’t reverent. I was just confused. And the crucifix – I had never seen anything like it, and it made me uncomfortable (as well it should).

It would be nice to say that attending Mass with my new girlfriend inspired me to believe in God and to accept Christ, but it didn’t happen. What did happen was that I developed a respect for her faith. I saw she was serious about it and that the people there really believed what they professed. I just didn’t (and couldn’t) share that belief. One very important thing happened: I became aware of the Catholic Church as more than just the caricature we find sprinkled throughout pop culture.

Italy

I started going back and forth to Italy, working on a cosmic ray detector deep under a mountain near the town of L’Aquila, and I missed that pretty physics student terribly. The internet was primitive then. No webcams. Not even voice. We could “chat” occasionally when I could get access to the right terminal, but other than that our contact was limited to very expensive weekend phone calls.

On weekends I took the bus to Rome to sightsee. I saw all the ancient sights of both pagan and Catholic Rome, and I barely distinguished between them. The churches I found to be awesomely beautiful, moving in a way I did not understand. Saint Peter’s. Saint Mary Major. Saint Paul Outside the Walls. Saint Peter in Chains. I saw the bones of martyrs and the fragments of the manger of Christ. I saw tombs of popes. I saw Michaelangelos and Caravaggios.

The thing that struck me from all of this was that this church was an ancient church. It was a critical and inescapable factor in history. Again, I was learning to respect the faith, even though I didn’t accept that there was any truth to it.

At that point, I can only surmise that God decided I was ready.

Next: The Seed is Planted

How an Atheist Ph.D. Physics Student Found God and the Catholic Church – Part 1: Tilling the Soil

Late at night, in the middle of winter, traveling from town to town through central Italy on a slow-moving train, with precious few Lire in my pocket, God talked to me.

But it didn’t start there.

As the Gospel says, the seeds of faith sprout and grow on fertile soil. For most of my life, though, I was the rocky path, where seeds fall and die. But eventually God, unbeknown to me, began to sweep away those rocks, one by one.

The Young Atheist

In high school, I decided I was an atheist. It wasn’t a momentous decision. It wasn’t a rebellion or a walking away from the youth of my childhood. It was more an acknowledgement of a state of being.

My family was nominally Methodist, but we never went to church. The only vague memories of church I had were of felt banners with pictures of doves and fish and loaves of bread and a few pleasant stories that sounded to me like tall tales. In my mind, Paul Bunyon, Sampson and Delilah, Jesus, and the Lone Ranger all had equivalent claims on historical verisimilitude. I saw the stories of Jesus as moral tales used by certain adults to teach their children how to live. That was pretty much it.

By high school, I was an avid reader of science fiction and I was taking my first physics class. I fell in love with science. Science – and physics in particular – could explain anything, answer any question. My newfound passion for science solidified a vague idea I already had, which was that religion was nothing more than myth. But that didn’t really matter to me either way. The important thing to me was that I had found my passion. I was going to be a physicist. A Newton or an Einstein. The fact that I had “decided” that I was an atheist was, to me, seemingly only a natural consequence of that.

Living the Lack of Faith

After high school, I moved on to one of the premier science and engineering institutions in the nation, a home to Nobel prize winners and other assorted verified geniuses. Everything there confirmed to me my atheism, as religious faith was found on campus about as frequently as bigfoot sightings. If I knew anyone who went to church weekly, they didn’t talk about it. Drugs, alcohol, and sex were everywhere and dominated the recreational side of student life.

I had been a wallflower, but I embraced the party atmosphere. I grew my hair long, got my ear pierced, stopped wearing shoes, and developed an unhealthy appetite for beer. The partying was soon more important than my classes – which I frequently overslept – but somehow I maintained a ‘B’ average. My mental state, however, didn’t fare so well. I was confused and lonely, and I didn’t know how to be happy without drinking.

Still, my love for physics persisted. I developed a fascination for that most basic of fields, particle physics, and I finished my bachelor’s and moved on to graduate school.

Clearing Stones from the Rocky Path

The first gift God gave to me in graduate school, though I didn’t realize it as such at the time, was to get me to a new school, off campus, and away from the party culture. Being away from campus meant I had nothing to do but focus on my classes and find a Ph.D. topic. I stopped drinking so much and began enjoying life again.

The first two years of graduate school consist of core classes, and that’s where God began to do his work. What I learned in these classes dispelled some of my more naive notions about science in general and physics in particular and opened my mind not so much to the possibility of God but to the understanding that science itself wasn’t a god.

Unanswered Questions

I found that science as wonderful and powerful and amazing as it was, couldn’t answer a handful of difficult and important questions.

– Why is the universe ordered the way it is and not some other way? Why is the universe here at all?
– Why are certain fundamental physical constants of such precise values to allow for a universe capable of sustaining life?
– Why does mathematics describe the universe? If the universe arises because of mathematics, then how does mathematics arise?
– What is this consciousness thing anyway?

Essentially, I came to understand that science explains how the universe works, not why it works in a particular way or why it is there at all. And while I wasn’t thinking too much about the issue of God, his existence having been so thoroughly dismissed from my mind for so long, I did come to the uncomfortable conclusion that my assumption that science could disprove his existence was false.

Science can’t disprove the existence of God because it can’t talk about God. Science, I came to understand, is a part of this universe. God, by definition, is outside of the universe. So science has nothing to say on the subject.

None of these things made me believe in God. They didn’t even make me think of God all that much. But they did prepare me for a later conversion. They made me see that the concept of God, at least in the abstract, was not unreasonable, and they made me see that the universe was more mysterious and complicated and wonderful than I had theretofore imagined.

In Part 2, I will talk more about my graduate research and that fateful moment when God stepped unmistakably into my life.