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From Atheism to Theism in the Catholic Church

  • SEBASTIAN MAHFOOD & RONDA CHERVIN

"Everyone believes in God deep in his or her heart, even atheists!" so think some believers. When this is proclaimed, I reply, "No!"


mahfood"You only say that because you were brought up in a basically theistic home.  In such families, even if no one practices the religion(s) of their ancestors, it is taken for granted that there is a God somewhere out there.  And usually this God is conceived of as personal, that is, a conscious being capable of love."

There are, however, families of total atheists.  Such people talk about whether God exists as often as you might talk about the possible reality, outside of children's books, of Dr. Seuss' quirky animals.  And it was into such a family that my twin-sister and I were born in New York City in 1937 of the co-habitation of unmarried parents who met in the Communist party.

Of course, all communists were atheists.  Most of them, however, in those times, came from homes where there were some remnants of religion, such as celebration of Christmas or Chanukah.  Many such children of atheists showed up in churches or synagogues for specific rituals such as baptisms, bar-mitzvahs, marriages or funerals.  At such times God was certainly mentioned.  But in my case, I never participated in any ritual or set foot in any religious building until I was 20.  And, I never heard the word God spoken in my home.

My mother's parents, Dr. and Mrs. Rosenson, were of German-Russian descent.  They were professional German Jews who were invited by the Czar, at the end of the 19th century, to migrate in order to help modernize Russia.  Once arrived in St. Petersburg, most such German Jews became fervent atheistic socialists.  When news reached these Jews, who expected to live in Russia forever, that the police were rounding up suspicious leftist revolutionaries in the squares to shoot them, my grandparents, the children, and some of the Polish servants, fled to the United States.  They arrived in this country in 1899 where they became part of the socialist intelligentsia of New York City.  They not only detested their remote Jewish religious background, but also shunned everything to do with the Yiddish culture so prevalent in that city in the first half of the 20th century.  Although my mother's German-Russian father, a doctor, practiced medicine among Jewish immigrants in New York, her immediate family never spoke Yiddish, a mixture of German and Hebrew.  Instead, they exulted in being free-thinking socialist Americans whose brotherhood was with all mankind, certainly not with ghetto Jews.

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My father's father was of a Sephardic (Spanish) Jewish background.  As a young man, he came to the United States from the island of Curacao off the coast of Colombia to study dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania.  I can't remember ever wondering, as a child, how come a Hispanic youth would think of studying in Pennsylvania.  Decades after the death of Solomon De Sola, my grandfather, I would meet a Hispanic woman in Philadelphia who had traced her own ancestry way back and discovered that these dental students were given scholarships to come to the States in order to help found and increase secret Jewish Masonic societies! My father, in his own old age, corroborated this.  When I asked him about a ludicrous, seemingly paranoid theory some Catholics held, about secret Jewish masons, he replied humorously, "Well, Ronda, your grandfather, the dentist, was the head of the secret Jewish Masons in New York." 

Jewish Masons left the faith of their forefathers and rarely practiced any religious rituals, substituting Masonic rites.  Just before this grandfather died, he asked us, his only grandchildren, if in the public High School we went to they ever mentioned God.  I think he was hoping there might be a personal God who could offer him the possibility of life after death.  "Never is God mentioned at my school," was my truthful reply.

However, there was one person in our family who was totally theistic.  This was my father's mother, a Pennsylvania Dutch (Deutsch, German, pronounced Dutch in English) devout Christian, who met my grandfather when he was doing his internship as a dentist.  Grace Geist, an ethereal blond farm girl, was infatuated with this young Hispanic Don Juan, so different from anyone else in her small town near Allentown, Pennsylvania. 

In spite of the influence of his Bible-reading, Jesus-loving, mother, my father one day in his early teens, stood up in the Presbyterian Church and announced loudly that he couldn't be confirmed because he had become an atheist.  He walked out of the Church to begin his journey through Communist atheism to eventually working with the famous Madalyn Murray O'Hair on promulgating atheism throughout the United States.  He enjoyed researching the lives of the Presidents to prove that most of them were atheists.  He didn't know that non-Church-going presidents were mostly Deists (believing in a Creator God even if shunning main-line Christian Churches).

In spite of the influence of his Bible-reading, Jesus-loving, mother, my father one day in his early teens, stood up in the Presbyterian Church and announced loudly that he couldn’t be confirmed because he had become an atheist.

Whether my father's teen atheism came from the influence of his Masonic-Jewish ancestry grandfather I do not know.  The effect of this stance, however, was to turn him totally against his very loving, affectionate, mother whom he regarded as a crazed idiot for her piety.  My grandmother was rarely allowed to visit us lest she spread the poison of religion.  But, for a reason I could not fathom, my sister and I were sent to visit our grandparents once a week.  We had never opened a Bible, viewing the many books of Scripture on my grandmother's bookshelves as something disgusting; the way a Christian might view a collection of porn! From heaven, where I hope she is, she should be rejoicing that both these granddaughters became Christian leaders, albeit Roman Catholic.  A charming anecdote told at her funeral back in Allentown, PA, was that she asked to be buried in a perpendicular coffin so that, at the time of the resurrection of the body, she could more quickly get out of her coffin and run to heaven.

In our house, God was never mentioned.  My parents left the communist party over the Hitler/Stalin pact during World War II.  My father eventually became an informer for the investigations spear-headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Just the same, my parent's rejection of Communism as a political theory and their staunch subsequent defense of democracy, did not include any interest in God or religion, still understood by them as something for those who were weak, stupid, or both.  We little girl twins of ¾ Jewish but atheistic background went to school in the region of New York City called the upper nineties.  As right wing political atheists of a Jewish ancestry, we didn't fit in with anyone around us: not with Catholics, not with the sprinkling of Protestants, certainly not with Orthodox religious Jews in full regalia, nor Reform Jews, nor Zionist atheist Jews, nor left-wing non-Zionist Jews.  Later, as a Catholic, I realized that my desire to belong to an identifiable group, forever and ever, had a psychological as well as a theological reason.  God, I find, uses everything, to win us to Himself.

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However, when we were 8 years old, our parents separated for good.  During this painful process we were sent for a few weeks to our grandmother's summer cottage in Fire Island.  I felt miserable being dumped, the end not specified, in the house of this grandmother who loved us tenderly but whom I thought of us an idiot and a weakling.  Seeing her opportunity to introduce us to Jesus, Grace De Sola insisted on pain of missing dessert, that we sing the famous lullaby "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so, Jesus, loves me this I know, yes, Jesus loves me."  Even though, in loyalty to our parents, we acted as if we sang that hymn only under duress, I never forgot the words.  Was that the first time I heard you, Jesus, calling my name? 

Fast forward: I was an eleven year old New York City girl at a public school.  Once a week we had show-and-tell.  Pre-selected students had to get up and display, say, a toy plastic turtle from a Christmas trip to Florida with a two sentence narrative.  Amusing.  No pressure except for the child who had to speak. 

But one time something different happened.  There was a pause.  Probably the teacher was Catholic.  There were a sprinkling at public schools, though they never talked about God, Jesus or the Church.  One day at show and tell a quiet boy none of us paid attention to normally, came walking in wearing a long black robe with a white linen blouse like thing on top of it.  He stood absolutely still, hands steepled in prayer, and started singing Adeste Fidelis.  It was the first time I had ever heard sacred music.  I listened in stunned, bewildered, but joyful, silence. 

At the time I didn't realize that this lad must have been an altar boy at the Catholic Church.  My knowledge of Catholics was limited, negative, though in hindsight, somewhat humorous.  We lived in the same neighborhood that is depicted in West Side Story.  Before the Puerto Ricans came it was partly Jewish and partly Irish Catholic.  There were only about 2 Catholics at the public school because most Catholics children in those days went to the Catholic school.  The only ones I saw on the street were incipient or actual members of gangs.  Why did I think they were Catholics?  Because in those days all Catholic girls wore crucifixes around their necks and the boys wore scapulars and sometimes also had rosaries dangling out of their pockets.  Besides you could tell they were Catholics because they looked so mean.  Since the girls also looked sexy, I used to think that was a mark of a Catholic!

Why did I think they were Catholics? Because in those days all Catholic girls wore crucifixes around their necks and the boys wore scapulars and sometimes also had rosaries dangling out of their pockets. Besides you could tell they were Catholics because they looked so mean.

One day I was walking home with my sister and a group of pre-teen boys circled us. 
"So, what are you?
No answer from us trembling kiddos. 
"Are you Catholics?"
"No."
"Are you Protestants."
"No."
"Are you Jewish?"
"No."  (Our parents had never told us we had a Jewish ancestry.)
"So what are you?
"We're atheists," we answered proudly.

Having never heard of this category, they strolled off instead of beating us up as "Christ-killing Jews."

How did we find out we were Jewish?  Well, the public school was 99% Jewish.  So on Jewish holidays everyone had a holiday.  When we mentioned at home that we were the only ones there besides 2 Catholics and 1 Protestant, our parents reluctantly admitted, "Well, you are Jews.  You can stay home."  Hurrah!

Affluent Jews sent their children off all summer to camps in New England.  Being lower-middle class, after the separation of our parents when we were 8 years old, we went to the YMCA camp for 2 weeks.  Although the YMCA was only nominally Christian, there was a tradition of having a Christmas celebration right in the middle of the July session of the camp! A nativity was assembled and the Christian counselors taught all of the campers how to sing Carols.  If the parents of Jewish children got wind of this, they were allowed to have their kids excused from the practice and the "idolatrous ceremony of kissing the little "doll."  But my sister and I were atheists, so our mother didn't mind if we learned Carols.  Superstitious religious stuff was garbage as doctrine, but okay as just an old custom. 

Hearing Silent Night and Come Holy Night sung, not on the radio, but live by beloved counselors, I was enchanted.  Such beauty; somehow different from the beauty of secular classical music or popular songs. 

Junior High School English class: the assignment was to write a page about what you want to be when you grow up.  It had to be done on the spot.  "How can I know what I want to be, if I don't know the meaning of life?" I wrote spontaneously.  I don't think I would have remembered this precocious philosophical answer, a prophecy of my later choice to become a philosophy professor, had the teacher not graded it A plus and the word "profound" at the top of the paper.

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After studying at Bronx High School of Science in High School, I went to City College and became a philosophy major searching for the meaning of life.

Then, in junior year, I transferred to the University of Rochester in upstate New York.  Looking for pictures for my dorm room wall, I gravitated toward a cheap print of Salvador Dali's crucifixion, just because of its aesthetic value.  Placed in a dorm wing of almost all New York City Jews, the other young women assumed I was a Catholic.  Even though they were not very religious, they suggested I take it down since I was Jewish by culture if not by faith.  I refused, without knowing why.

Like many, though not all, atheists, I was brought up to think the sexual morality of religious people was ridiculous.  Out of fear of pregnancy, I had avoided going as far as sexual intercourse in High School.  But being on my own in college, my great wish was to shed my virginity as soon as I could find some attractive young man willing to initiate me.  By God's providence I didn't get pregnant, since I would surely have had an illegal abortion if I had.

One of my "friends" happened to love the music of Bach.  One afternoon he sat me down in the lounge and made me listen to a Bach's Wachet Auf.  I didn't like choral music at all, but I sat riveted to the chair listening with profound attention to the sacred song.

My third intimate male friend was a foreign student, in the philosophy graduate program.  He was a German who had been in the Nazi Youth as a teen, but who had been saved by a Catholic priest from remaining in that terrible movement.  Many of his friends became Catholic because of the ministry of the priest.  He did not become a Catholic, but he somehow believed that Catholicism was the only salvation! He hoped to become a Catholic someday after sowing his wild oats.  This man started feeding me apologetic books from G. K. Chesterton to Karl Adam.  Not having ever read the New Testament, I hardly understood a word of these treatises.  But something stuck, because I started wanting to meet Catholics even after my relationship to the German broke up.

During a trip, a friend wanted to visit the National Museum of Art in Washington, D.C.  Hanging on a wall was Dali's Last Supper.  I didn't like the picture at all from an aesthetic point of view, but I felt glued to the spot.  I stared and stared at the table and the Christ, feeling mystically drawn into it.  Fifteen minutes later my Jewish friend had to drag me away.

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Majoring in philosophy had been my way of searching for truth.  In the secular universities I attended, skepticism was so much in vogue that by a year of graduate school I felt hopeless.  Where was truth?  Where was love?  Why even live?  In this frame of mind, Thanksgiving vacation in NYC, 1958, my mother, who never watched TV during the day and never surfed channels, turned on a program called The Catholic Hour.  The guests were Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Alice Jourdain, soon to become Dietrich Von Hildebrand's second wife.  (He was a widower.) They were talking about truth and love.  Spontaneously, I wrote a letter to them c/o of the station telling them of my unsuccessful search for truth. 

It turned out they both lived on the West Side of NYC: Alice 2 blocks from me and Dietrich 10 blocks from me.  Alice invited me for a visit.  Her roommate, Madeleine (later to become the wife of Lyman Stebbins founder of Catholics United for the Faith) met me at the door and ushered me into a small room.  There was this very European looking woman (she came from Belgium during World War II) who looked at me with such intense interest I was immediately drawn into her heart.  She suggested I sit in on classes of Dietrich Von Hildebrand and Balduin Schwarz, his disciple, at Fordham University.  In case you do not know about the life of Von Hildebrand, he was a German philosopher who stood up against Hitler, fled to the United States during the War, and became one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century.  (For more about his writings, google Dietrich Von Hildebrand)

What impressed me most was not the ideas of these Catholic philosophers which I didn’t understand very well, but their personal vitality and joy.

I sat in on a few classes.  What impressed me most was not the ideas of these Catholic philosophers which I didn't understand very well, but their personal vitality and joy.  Drawn to this joy, as well as the loving friendliness with which everyone in this circle of Catholics moved out to greet a newcomer, I quickly switched from Johns Hopkins to Fordham to continue my graduate studies.  The wife of Balduin Schwarz, one of my professors, was a Jewish woman, Leni, converted from an atheistic background of German Jewish doctors.  Her background, so much like mine, and her loving personality certainly also made my entry into this new phase of my life easier.

After a few months at Fordham, I could not help but wonder how come the brilliant lay Catholics and the brilliant Jesuits in the philosophy department could believe those ideas such as the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, the reality of objective truth, moral absolutes, and the need for Church-going.  Obviously, my parents had been wrong.  It was not only stupid and weak people who thought this way.  What is more they could prove, in a few sentences, that the mind could know truth and that there were universal ethical truths. 

You can read about such proofs in Chapter 6 of this book where we write about how Catholic Realism refutes atheist ideas about morality.

Studying with Dietrich Von Hildebrand, Balduin Schwarz and great Jesuits, I was immersed in thrilling refutations of the ideas I was brought up with.  I was sad to think that I would not be able to study with these wonderful people during the summer, since they went back to Europe every year during those months.  By now I found it also hard to enjoy my sinful relationships with cynical if interesting men.  Unexpectedly, Professor Schwarz suggested I go on a Catholic art tour with them that summer. 

To understand the miraculous character of the events that follow you have to know I hated all but modern art.  This was owing to forced trips to museums as a child.  I liked colorful impressionistic pictures but nothing earlier than the 20th century, and certainly not old-fashioned Catholic art.  And, even though by now I thought there was truth, I had no knowledge of God, Christ, or the Church and no interest in learning more.  So, my only reason for going on the tour was to cling to my dear new friends.

The first miracle came when I saw Chartres Cathedral in France.  I looked at the amazing shape of that Church with the beautiful stained glass windows and I started to cry.  The line from Keats: "Beauty is truth, truth is beauty," came to mind and I asked myself, "How could this be so beautiful if there is no truth to it, just medieval ignorance?"

The pilgrims on the Catholic Art Tour all went to daily Mass.  Out of curiosity, I started going.  Seeing my noble wise philosophy professor on his knees astounded and disgusted me.  I wanted to jerk him up and say no man should kneel.  "You are the captain of your soul, you are the master of your fate." 

Finding out that I had never read the New Testament, my god-father to be, searched through bookstores in Southern France until he found a New Testament in English for me. 

Second miracle: on the tour bus, reading the Gospels without understanding much, I fell asleep.  I had a dream.  There was a large room with tables.  Jesus and Mary were sitting backs to the wall.  Mary beckoned me and said in Hebrew "Come sit with us."  (I don't know Hebrew but in the dream I did.)

Third miracle: I got the impulse to kneel on the floor of the hotel and say a skeptic's prayer I thought my professor had told me as a joke:

"God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul."

For the first time I thought of myself as a sinner.

The next day we hit Lourdes.  My godparents to be, the Schwarz's, were praying that I would not be put off by the rows of trinket vendors.  I said, "I'm used to 42nd St., nothing bothers me."  Fourth miracle: I was touched to the core by the Immaculate Mary hymn of the pilgrims sung in candlelight procession in many languages.

Fifth miracle: again, the art I thought I hated, was used by God to reach me.  In a museum in Florence I saw Da Vinci's unfinished Nativity.  I looked at the Virgin Mary, so simple, pure, and sweet, and I wept.  She had something I would never have: purity! For the first time I thought of myself as a sinner.  I felt impelled to tell my mentors, sure they would banish me.  Of course, they didn't.  Jesus came to save sinners.

Sixth miracle: The face of Christ in a tapestry of Raphael came alive, not for the others, but just for me! In this way, I experienced the divine nature of Christ before even becoming acquainted with arguments for God's existence.  These arguments did impress me later on.

Seventh miracle: the tour included viewing Pope Pius XII at St. Peter's.  I had dreaded being bored at museums, but having to be in a crowd watching the Pope, who I thought of vaguely as dressed up in the gold that belonged to the poor, was more than I could stand.  I would go shopping instead.  My mild professor insisted I go.  So I went.  At the end of the ceremony the Pope was blessing the disabled and sick.  It was hard to see him because of the crowd.  My rather old not very strong god-father to be lifted me up so I could see the charity of the face of the Holy Father.  Pope Pius XII had exactly the same expression in his eyes, as the living face of Jesus from the tapestry.

Stunned by this profusion of supernatural happenings, but too much a thinker to proceed on that basis only, I studied books like C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  Lewis' famous chapter was an intellectual turning point.  He shows that it is no good fence-sitting by deciding Jesus was just a wonderful man or a prophet.  When a man claims to be divine he is either really God, insane or a liar?  Since no one thinks Jesus was insane or a liar, he must have been divine.  Reading books of Chesterton and Cardinal Newman made becoming a Catholic seem inevitable.

January 4, 1959, at 21, I was baptized.  There has never been a moment in my life when I have regretted being a Catholic.  Later my twin-sister, mother, and husband became Catholics, making us into a sort of Hebrew-Catholic family.  In the last decade of his life, my father used to say that having worked so long with atheists he did not want to call himself an atheist anymore because they were just as bad as Christians! However, just before he died I handed him a copy of a biography of Abraham Lincoln with post-its on all the pages mentioning how much he believed in God even though he didn't go to Church.  I met some neighbor friend of his, years after his death, who told me that he had talked to a priest just before his final heart attack!

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The way God saved them and me during the rest of my long life can be found in my autobiography, En Route to Eternity, and also in other books by me that you can find at www.rondachervin.com and www.enroutebooksandmedia.com.  

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Acknowledgement

Ronda Chervin. "From Atheism to Theism in the Catholic Church." Catholic Realism: A Framework for the Refutation of Atheism and the Evangelization of Atheists (St. Louis, MO: En Route Books & Media, 2015).

Reprinted with permission.

The Author

Sebastian Mahfood, OP, serves as Vice-President of Administration and teaches at Holy Apostles College & Seminary in Cromwell, CT, Provost of the Sacred Heart Institute for the Ongoing Formation of Clergy in Huntington, NY, and Director of the Catholic Distance Learning Network of the National Catholic Educational Association’s Seminary Department. He is a Lay Dominican of the Queen of the Holy Rosary Chapter in the Province of St. Albert the Great. He holds a doctorate in postcolonial literature and theory from Saint Louis University along with several master’s degrees in the fields of comparative literature, philosophy, theology, and educational technology. He lives in St. Louis with his wife, Dr. Stephanie Mahfood, and children, Alexander and Eva Ruth.

chervinchervin1 Ronda Chervin teaches at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She received a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Fordham University and an MA in Religious Studies from Notre Dame Apostolic Institute. She is a widow, mother, and grandmother. She converted to the Catholic Faith from a Jewish, though atheistic, background and has been a Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Loyola Marymount University, the Seminary of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is an international speaker and author of some fifty books including Catholic Realism: A Framework for the Refutation of Atheism and the Evangelization of Atheists, What The Saints Said About Heaven: 101 Holy Insights On Everlasting Life, Holding Hands with God: Catholic Women Share Their Stories of Courage, and The Way of Love.

Copyright © 2015 En Route Books & Media
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