In December of 2008, the popular atheist blogger formerly known as "Raving Atheist" announced his stunning conversion to Christianity. He changed his blogging name to "Raving Theist" and dedicated his site "to Jesus Christ, now and forever."
His horrified readers reacted with unprecedented (but hardly surprising) vitriol. A friend sent me a link to his conversion post and I, too, was amazed. Except, unlike his atheist readers, I rejoiced with him.
Raving Theist and I began an email correspondence and discovered interesting parallels to our journeys of faith despite having nearly polar opposite starting points. Last month I asked him if he would allow me to interview him and share his conversion story here on my blog. Graciously, he agreed.
A vague childhood belief
RT grew up in a largely secular area of Long Island. His mother was the daughter of a Protestant minister and his father was an agnostic whose family was once active in Communist circles. Although RT attended his mother's church every week until 6th grade, it was more for cultural and social reasons than spiritual ones.
"I didn't have a relationship with God," RT explained. "That wasn't even something we talked about. But I do remember once when I was about 7 or 8 years old, my mother fainted and my first reaction was to run upstairs and pray about it, to ask God for help."
During his last year of high-school, RT began taking a greater interest in religion. He'd become close friends with a Reformed Jewish kid who had a "brilliant scientific mind" and who openly "mocked religion."
That year he read Bertrand Russell's essay, "Why I am not a Christian." He was captivated by the irreverent humor and whimsical tone. It made perfect sense to RT and by the time he entered college, he considered himself an atheist as well.
Religion & "The Moonies"
In the summer after his freshman year of college, RT hopped a bus to California. He was excited by the prospect of adventures out West, but his enthusiasm quickly waned after a couple of weeks on skid row and a failed stint as a door-to-door encyclopedia salesman.
After settling into a clerical job and finding less seedy lodgings, he spent much of his time holed up in the Los Angeles Library. In addition to having a devout Scientologist landlady, he'd begun noticing the "Moonies" all over L.A. He started reading about cults and deprogramming.
One afternoon he just 'happened' to loiter near the corner where the Moonies were proselytizing. They invited him to their group and he hung out with them for a weekend retreat in the San Bernadino mountains.
When they eventually tried to convince him to send for all his worldly belongings, his suspicions were confirmed. He packed his bags and headed back to college, determined to write about his experiences and how all religions were cults.
The piece he wrote helped formulate most of his thoughts about religion. Eventually it was published in the college newspaper although the editors cut a section which attempted to draw unflattering parallels between the Moonies and the Catholic Church.
Leaving religion behind
After college, RT had little time to think of religion or atheism. He was too busy going to law school, becoming a lawyer and, as he says, "having a life." His career as a lawyer flourished and eventually he began teaching Law school as well.
In the late 90's, RT attended a continuing education course on philosophy. The professor, a philosopher who edited and wrote the introduction to the Bertrand Russell's collection of essays, was sarcastic and hated religion. He also "hated religious people," RT remembers.
RT developed a relationship with the professor and soon was engaging in debate with other lawyers about atheism. His focus on atheism as a lifestyle led a friend to suggest that RT begin a blog.
Blogging as "Raving Atheist"
In late 2001, RT began co-writing a political blog with a college acquaintance, his posts focusing frequently on religion. Soon he started his own blog which he used to attack religious people as "demented, deluded God-idiots." He wrote scathing essays about how the culture of belief was destroying America.
He would find faith-based blogs and despite the fact that these people lived simple, good lives, he would ridicule their motives as suspect, and find them guilty of insanity.
True atheism, he believed, was not about "live and let live." In some ways, RT describes himself as becoming an evangelist for atheism.
Statement of atheistic principles
In an effort to provide a set of atheistic principles, the 'Basic Assumptions' of RT's blog declared that all definitions of God are either self-contradictory, incoherent and meaningless or can be refuted by empirical, scientific evidence.
But despite his bold posturing, he felt ill-versed in scientific matters and recognized that his logical disproofs could only go so far. In fact, in an early essay he admitted that yes, it was technically possible for a rational person to have a belief in God. To his mind, however, it was still only possible in the sense that one might be sharing the room with a purple hippopotamus that evaded detection by darting away the moment one tried to turn around and see it.
In other words, there was no evidence for it. So while it was a possibility, it wasn't worth much consideration.
Using religion to support abortion
In late 2002, RT attended a blogger party. He happened to sit next to a Catholic blogger named Benjamin Kepple. At one point, the conversation turned to abortion and RT asked Kepple's opinion of the practice. The calm, confident reply: "It's murder."
RT was stunned. Here was a man, a kind, affable and cogently reasonable human being who nonetheless believed that abortion was murder. To the limited extent he had previously considered the issue, RT believed abortion to be completely acceptable; the mere disposal of a lump of cells. Perhaps akin to clipping fingernails.
This unsettling exchange spurred RT to further investigate the issue on his blog. He first noticed that the pro-choice Christians who promoted abortion did not employ scientific or rational arguments, but relied on a confused set of "spiritual" platitudes. More significantly, he discovered that the overwhelmingly pro-choice atheist blogosphere also fell short in its analysis of abortion.
The supposedly "reality-based" community either dismissed abortion as a "religious issue," or paradoxically claimed that pro-life principles were contrary to religious doctrine. Having formerly equated atheism with reason, RT was slowly growing uncertain of the value of godlessness in the search for truth.
Gentle & Reasonable
RT nevertheless continued his atheistic ravings full-force. In early 2003, he engaged in a particularly venomous exchange with an online Catholic scholar over Thomas Aquinas' "first cause" argument. In a later, conciliatory gesture, he linked to a post-abortion healing blog favored by his religious adversary–an act which brought him into contact with a group of pro-life advocates whose selfless dedication to their cause moved him deeply.
He was inspired by their gentle and reasonable writings, particularly the story of one woman: Ashli McCall. She wrote with painful honesty about how her late-term abortion terribly affected her. Ashli channeled her suffering into efforts to help women in similar situations and save them from the fall-out of abortion. Eventually, she asked for his assistance in some of her pro-life work.
So, when Ashli gave birth to a healthy baby girl on Mother's Day 2004, RT decided to use the occasion to announce that The Raving Atheist would become, in part, a pro-life blog.
Christians who showed him Christ
This decision stirred an angry mutiny among his readers. But RT had become convinced that the secular world had it wrong on a very foundational issue: life.
With Ashli's encouragement he began volunteering at a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Suddenly, he was surrounded by life. Here were people who were kind, loving and who lived out their faith in a very tangible way. The pictures on the walls confirmed this. Smiling babies were everywhere. The tangible expression of pro-life work was life itself.
It was becoming clear to RT that people who lived out their Christian faith were happier and better people as a result.
A slow change of heart
Despite this evidence, RT maintained a lingering intellectual attachment to atheism. In late 2004 he organized a blog interview with the best-selling atheist author, Sam Harris ('The End of Faith'). Assisting in the questioning was filmmaker Brian Flemming. This association led both RT and Harris to appear the next year in Flemming's anti-Christian documentary, "The God Who Wasn't There."
RT attended the documentary's New York premiere. At the end of a subsequent summertime showing in the city, however, he found his atheistic enthusiasm waning. The appearance of his pseudonym in the credits inspired less pride than he expected.
As the lights turned on, he felt alienated from the audience and its contemptuous, anti-religious laughter. He briefly considered joining a small group that had formed to discuss the film over dinner and he followed them for several blocks while debating whether to invite himself.
But halfway across a darkened, midtown street, he walked away.
To the love of Christ
That fall, RT began a friendship with a Catholic blogger, Dawn Eden. He frequently guest posted on her site about pro-life issues. He also continued working on certain "hard cases" with Ashli. Near Thanksgiving of 2005, Ashli opened her heart (and home) to a stranger coping with a particularly difficult and tumultuous pregnancy. RT, Dawn Eden and other bloggers came together on this woman's behalf.
In June 2006, RT saw the woman's sonogram, which he linked to on his blog, ripen into a baby. In honor of Ashli's efforts, he vowed that the birth of the child would spell the death of atheism on his blog. Late that month he announced that he would no longer mock God on his site.
Although still a doubter, RT's subsequent posts entertained the possibility of God. Soon he asked to join Dawn Eden at church and at her suggestion, engaged in daily prayer. He still didn't believe in God, but he wanted to change. He wanted the deep, abiding joy he'd observed in his pro-life Christian friends.
In time, RT found it impossible to believe that the universe was created out of nothing. There was order, direction and love. Those things all pointed to some larger, unfathomable consciousness. He realized he could not believe that human hearts and minds came into being randomly.
RT's eyes also opened to the core truth of Christianity. Whereas he had formerly concurred with Nietzsche's appraisal of the faith as a "slave's philosophy," a cruel celebration of senseless suffering, his experiences brought him to appreciate the nobler meaning of sacrifices made for the sake of life.
Dedicated to Jesus Christ, now and forever
For the last three years, RT has served as webmaster for the website of Ashli's book: "Beyond Morning Sickness: Battling Hyperemesis Gravidarum." It's a comprehensive, 500 page work of cold, hard science devoted to the treatment of the pregnancy-related disease that led to the loss of her child. Ironically (or miraculously), distribution of her work has been funded by proceeds from Dawn Eden's book: a book about chastity.