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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.