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Conversion Story: From Atheist to Catholic

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The latest in a series about religious callings

The upbringing I underwent in New South Wales, Australia —partly in Sydney, but mainly in the village of Mulgoa— was one of complete, although predominantly quiet and civil, atheism. Both my parents (who are now dead) spent their childhood as Presbyterians, but shed religious belief soon after attaining adulthood.

My father was the philosopher and political polemicist David Stove. During his undergraduate years, he fell under the spell of the militantly atheistic guru John Anderson of the University of Sydney’s philosophy department. Except that "fell under" seems a much too gentle phrase to describe what my father and thousands like him experienced at Anderson’s none-too-scrupulous — and, where females were concerned, lecherous — hands.

To those who, like myself, are too young to have known Anderson (he died in 1962, the year after my birth), the mystery of his charm to hordes of students will always be impenetrable. Certainly nothing in Anderson’s viscous prose explains his charismatic appeal. It is only fair to add that by the time I was born, this crusading fervor on his acolytes’ part had mellowed; or rather, it had become part of the furniture. The atmosphere of my childhood and adolescence was one more frequent in late-Victorian England than in Australia or even America: one of "clean living and high thinking." It was a compound of introverted heathenism, dusty second-hand books, long dignified silences, the smell of dry sherry, and a perpetual fog of tobacco smoke. When I read a biography of Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf’s father, I found the mental climate of Stephen’s existence so similar to my own nonage as to be positively scary. It was as if the author was describing my own home life, quite as much as Stephen’s.

In adolescence I converted to what I imagined was Anglicanism, but what was in fact a creed devoid of any significant religious content whatsoever. It was simply a teenage crush on my part: the same emotion that other teenagers have experienced for Sylvia Plath or Lady Gaga. Besides, it had no effect on my manner of life, which was unflamboyant, but nevertheless fairly thorough-goingly sordid. On numerous occasions I was roped in to play the organ at hymns in the local, and very evangelical, Anglican church.

I am dumbfounded that I was able to maintain my religious facade for so long, not only to myself, but to my fellow parishioners. They understandably became rather vexed when I eventually, at the age of eighteen, announced that I could no longer attend church. With characteristic cowardice I made this announcement through an intermediary rather than in person. I experienced no crisis of lost faith, merely a sense of relief at no longer needing to deceive others and no longer being able to deceive myself. Perhaps I should mention that my father made a bizarre hobby out of reading early theologians. He did this (I am more and more convinced in retrospect) as a deliberate means of testing the limits of his atheism. He wanted to purge his irreligion to a high point of steeliness.

During my early childhood, Catholicism — when my family thought about it at all — had two negative characteristics that meant more to us than any positive feature. First, it was considered vulgar. Second, it was considered totalitarian.

As to the first feature: the Catholics whom we knew generally had Irish surnames, always procreated abundantly, often had little interest in the life of the mind, and usually voted for the Australian Labor Party. This last was the worst sin of all in my parents’ eyes, during the Vietnam War years.

As to the second feature: both my parents during my childhood had invested heavily in the belief that Catholicism was philosophical treason, the deadliest foe of free thought, and a kind of Stalinism mixed with holy water. Once I grew much older, I could face down this bogeyman without undue difficulty. But I would be lying if I minimized its impact upon what passed for my early thinking.

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