In a dynamic, engaging presentation last night, blogger, author, and radio host Jennifer Fulwiler gave a powerful presentation on her journey from atheism to Christianity. While using the framework of her book, Something Other Than God, which chronicles her conversion, Ms. Fulwiler also managed to touch on a wide range of subjects, from the cultural differences between the Texas Bible Belt and the East Coast, to raising children in a culture which is increasingly hostile to Christianity. Along the way, the attendees at the Catholic Information Center here in DC were given much to laugh about, and much to think about, over the course of the evening.
It’s hard for me to imagine the kind of atheism that Ms. Fulwiler grew up with. She noted that when she was little, her father used to read books by Carl Sagan to her, alongside the more typical Nancy Drew stories, and she recalled being a 4th grader and hiding all of the Bibles in a bookstore in the “Fiction” section. Her atheism was so intrinsically a part of who she was, that as an undergraduate she transferred from Texas A&M to the University of Texas at Austin, because she couldn’t stand the highly Christian environment of the former.
Ms. Fulwiler took the time to speak about the “new” atheism, without lingering upon it too much, since this was her story rather than theirs. She did however make a very salient point, which is that even though a lot of the new atheism is based upon a shallow understanding or even misunderstanding of the teachings of Christianity, Dawkins, et al., had done one thing well: they were great at marketing and branding. For young people in particular, being a new atheist can be a way of signaling to others that, “I’m smart,” and wanting to fit in with a group of one’s peers.
I could relate to her childhood fascination with the study of fossils, and her desire to be a paleontologist, something which I, too, experienced. But whereas I saw the fossils as evidence of the wonder of God’s Creation, Ms. Fulwiler saw them as depressing shadows of herself. If she was no different from one of these long-dead animals, who would exist, have a series of chemical reactions, and then disappear, then what was the point? Her book develops her thought process from this nadir.
One key point which I suspect may of us in the Gen X/Gen Y crowd related to during Ms. Fulwiler’s presentation was the theme of the shallowness of not only many people’s understanding of their faith – whether that faith be Christianity or atheism – but also her critique of the American education system our generation grew up in. Our grasp of subjects is only supposed to be deep enough for the purposes of regurgitation, rather than developing the ability to think and reason, and for the achievement of test score results. As a result, when in college she began to counter the arguments of Christians with questions like, “If God exists, why then is there suffering?” feeling rather smug and an original thinker for doing so, she was completely unaware of the fact that people of Faith have been attempting to address these questions in philosophy for over 5,000 years.
In eventually coming to believe in God, Ms. Fulwiler pointed to the realization she experienced that atheism did not have the lexicon to explain the human experience, particularly after her first child was born. This triggered a willingness to give prayer a go, to start reading the Bible, and to engage in conversation online with atheists and theists alike, as she searched for answers to her questions. It just so happened that those whom she engaged with online who had the answers that made the most sense to her, in countering the arguments of her fellow atheists, were the Catholics.
During the Q&A portion of the evening, I was particularly struck by one concept which Ms. Fulwiler has put into practice. She noted that when you are trying to make God and the Sacraments the central theme of your life, you tend to live very differently from those who do not, even fellow Catholics who are not quite there yet; there may be parishes full of Catholics, but there are Catholics and there are Catholics. To that end, particularly in the present malaise, she noted that it was very hard to constantly be swimming upstream against the culture, and the importance of periodically trying to take a break and just be around other devout Catholics who are also trying their best – not to debate theology or the like, but to form communities and enjoy each other’s company. This is something which she herself has done on rather a large scale for Catholic women, as you can read about on the site for the Edel Gathering.
On a personal note, it was also great to finally meet Ms. Fulwiler, after having been “Tweeps” (Twitter friends) for some time. She was just as gracious and smart in person as I expected she would be. I’m looking forward to reading her book, and for those of you who may get the chance to hear her speak in your area, do go: you will not disappointed. And be sure to check out her new weekly radio show, over on the Catholic Channel at Sirius XM.