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From Atheism to Catholicism: A Tale of Three Supermen

From Atheism to Catholicism

Neither bird, nor plane...but Superman!

I was born and raised Catholic, but also Supermanian. Some of my earliest memories involve sitting in front of the television, mesmerized by that incredible, flying man of steel. He was invincible, doing good and daring deeds effortlessly and with a smile. Men respected him, women adored him, and he didn’t even want people to know who he really was. I too would come to don a Superman suit, cape and all, to such an extent that my mother’s friends called her “Superman’s mom.” One fine Saturday in the mid 1960s, mom informed me that Kevin, and not Superman, would be attending a relative’s wedding, so I attended in my street clothes. Fortunately, I was able to persuade an older cousin to take me out to the car. Soon a young Superman (the car would be my makeshift phone booth) sat down in the pew right between his mortified mother and quite bemused father.

So the Man of Steel played a role in my early childhood dreams and play, as he and similar figures do for many children. I would also find though that the Superman theme would keep recurring as I matured, and not just because my wife and friends are constantly giving me Superman cards, ornaments, key chains, pens, shirts, pajamas and just about every Superman thing on the market. Superman embodied for me a striving to make the most of oneself and to do good, as captured in his motto, “Truth, Justice, and the American Way!” His ideal image led me to a lifelong pursuit of physical strength through weightlifting and to the pursuit of truth through philosophy.

On to more serious business though, I did mention that I was also raised Catholic. My mother had five miscarriages before I was born, which is why my middle name is Gerard, in honor of St. Gerard of Majella, patron of childbirth. What I also learned just this year in researching St. Kevin of Glendalough, is that Kevin actually means “of fair or gentle birth.” I don’t even know if mom knew that! Mom came from a family of Irish Catholics and dad converted from Methodism. My brother and sister and I went to Catholic grade school and were taught by the wonderful Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois. I attended a Catholic high school and was taught by Viatorian priests. I was an altar server for several years. At one point I even considered the priesthood. We went to Mass every Sunday during my childhood, though we did not pray or read the Bible at home. In fact, when I needed a Bible for a high school religion class, mom had to take me down to the Marian Center to buy one.

Early in high school when I developed those hypothetical “if-then” thinking abilities adolescents are wont to develop, it occurred to me that if all of this “Jesus stuff” I had been taught was true, then it was truly the most important “stuff” in all the world, and I really should be living my life according to his will. Around the same time in the mid 1970s some of my weightlifting buddies had been “saved” and I started attending their Evangelical and Pentecostal services with them, though I never entertained the thought of leaving the Catholic Church for any other manner of Christianity, since I knew well that we had Jesus too!

MentzerWell, a few years later, a brilliant new Mr. Universe by the name of Mike Mentzer was being featured all over my “sacred” muscle magazines. The heir apparent to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he wrote about a revolutionary system of brief, intense strength training and common sense nutrition that challenged the orthodoxy of the bodybuilding world which had encouraged teenage boys to eat truckloads of supplements and workout twice a day. I read his articles, attended his live seminars, and spoke to him by phone, learning valuable lessons that have served me well for over 30 years now. Mentzer though, also wrote about thinkers who challenged not just traditional strength training methods, but also Christianity. It was Mentzer whose writings first introduced me to the kind of “supermen” I’ll describe in the next section.

Through the reading of some major atheistic philosophers in my late teens, the truth of my “if” – the divinity of Jesus, had been argued away from me, and I would consider myself an atheist for the next two-and-a-half decades. On the home front, as I end this phase of my life story in my late teens and early twenties, I’ll note that my parents had become separated, none of the family went to church any longer, my mother developed a profound major depression, along with congestive heart failure, pretty much living in her bedroom during my teens, while my siblings and I ran the house. Through a risky business venture and careless attention to finances, my parents were also forced to sell my beloved childhood home. You’ll see later though, that God has interesting ways of tying up loose ends, in his own sweet time!

The Ubermench and Me

The ‘ubermench” refers to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s “overman” or “superman,” a hero of the future for those bright and bold enough to have recognized that “God is dead.” (By the way, today as I write, it is the fierce and mustachioed mien of Nietzsche himself that appears on this website’s atheist page!) Nietzsche was not to be my main influence toward atheism though. It was primarily the writings of much more rational and logically consistent thinkers like Ayn Rand, author of gripping novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and founder of the philosophy of Objectivism, and Albert Ellis, the psychologist who founded the system of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, that would most forcefully separate me from what I came to see as the illogical, immature faith of my youth.

Thinkers of Rand’s ilk for example, would note the inconsistency of even the notion of God with questions like this: “If God is all-knowing, then he can’t be all-powerful. If he knows already what he’s going to do tomorrow, then he doesn’t have the power to do something different, does he?” Rand also championed the idea that “existence exists.” We cannot deny the reality of existence. It is the fundamental primary and needs no further explanation.
These folks proposed all kinds of arguments against faith (Rand compared faith and reason to “poison and food”) that my own catechesis had not equipped me to answer. Rand also provided lot of positive exciting ideas, extolling the powers of the human mind and achievement. Ellis had many excellent psychological principles, including ways to remain calm and collected in the face of adversity. He wrote that religion promoted immature thinking that we use to upset ourselves and create psychological disturbances. Through influences like these I came to believe I’d given up the faith of my childhood to embrace the reason of my adulthood, and there I stayed for just about 25 years!

Suprahomines Dei!

Before I explain what “suprahomines Dei” is all about, please let me tell you how God tied up those loose ends I was talking about at the end of the first section. My profoundly depressed mother would undergo major heart surgery, a double valve replacement. In fact, she was still in the hospital when my wife (formerly my most obstreperous weight training pupil) gave birth to our first son in November, 1986. I remember well making the rounds to check on all three of them. After that surgery, mom would experience almost total physical, mental, and spiritual healing. She would go to work at a senior citizen’s newspaper and become their stellar salesperson, while doing people’s taxes on the side (priding herself on never using a calculator), and playing bingo several nights per week. And who took her to bingo? My father. They had reconciled and he treated her grandly the next thirteen years as they both lived to love, cherish, and spoil all five of their grandsons. Let’s jump now to July 12, 2006. The doorbell rings on the seventh anniversary of mom’s death and there on the doorstep are two boxes full of books – Memorize the Faith! (And Most Anything Else): Using the Methods of the Great Catholic Medieval Memory Masters, my first book for a Catholic publisher. It is dedicated to her and my dad.

You see two years before I’d been led away from my atheism and returned to Christ and the Catholic Church. I must also mention that the doorbell that rang was attached to the very house that my parents had been forced to sell. You see, in 2002 God had arranged for my wife Kathy to notice in the newspaper that it had gone up for sale again. A fine Baptist minister and his family, faced with two full asking price offers, sold it back to my wife and me (swayed in part by the “Kevin, Jamie, Kelly, 7/1/71” my father had chiseled into the patio.) You see, by the time I came home to the Church, I had also literally come home as well! And, to make matters better, my book that arrived at the door features an ancient memory system invented by the Greeks and perfected by Sts. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, it includes the use of mental images and a system of locations based on rooms of a house, and the house illustrated in that book is patterned after that very same house of my parents, and now of my wife and my children!

So how did I come back to the Catholic Church? Well, it’s a long story. I’ve actually told it in my book From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me to the Truth. A chapter length version also appears in Lorene Duquin’s Recovering Faith: Stories of Catholics Who Came Home. (This book also includes stories on many others including actor Martin Sheen and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, not to mention well-known Catholic media figures like Teresa Tomeo, Tom Peterson, and many others. I highly recommend it to readers of this site!). For now, let me note that my return is related to that “suprahomines Dei” heading. I just recently discovered that somebody beat Nietzsche to the punch by about 1,400 years in the use of the term “superman.” St. Pope Gregory the Great wrote about “suprahomines,” (supermen), describing not men who had rejected God, but men who become so absorbed in the divine wisdom of God that they become like “supermen.” It was among the greatest of those supermen who brought me back to the faith.

Thomas AquinasI’m running out of time and space, so let me cut to the chase. In my early forties, through a sequence of events I’ve described elsewhere, I came across the firsthand writings of St. Thomas Aquinas for the first time and immersed myself in his incomparable Summa Theologica and other writings by and about him. Pope Leo XIII had written in the 1879 encyclical Aeterni Patris that for scientific types who follow only reason, after the grace of God, nothing is as likely to win them back to the faith as the wisdom of St. Thomas, and this was the case for me. He showed me how true Christian faith complements and perfects reason; it doesn’t contradict or belittle it. He solved all the logical dilemmas. Sure, God can’t be all-powerful and all-knowing if we limit him to human capacities. God though is eternal, and not time-bound. Living in the eternal now, he has no yesterday and tomorrow like you and I. And yes, existence sure does exist, but nothing in existence can give itself its own existence! Through profound philosophical analysis, St. Thomas, a true superman of God, showed that God’s essence and existence are one. He is the only being and the ground of all being that simply must existence, and he even told this quite straightforwardly to Moses, when he asked God about his name, God replying – “Yahweh – I AM WHO AM.” ( Exodus 3:14). From his eternal being, power, goodness, and boundless love flows all of creation.

In 2004, the scales of atheism fell from my eyes and I returned to the Church. My own story of reversion to all the splendor and glory and beauty and goodness and truth of the Catholic Church admittedly has quite an intellectual slant, but please do know it’s been a matter of the heart as well. One of my greatest joys early in my return was to read the words of Christ himself in the Gospels for the first time in 25 years.

So be aware that God may surprise us with his own leisurely timetable. Nine years ago, I would not have believed that God could have reclaimed me after a quarter century of atheism. And if he can bring me home, he can bring anyone.
Originally posted at Why I'm Catholic. Used with author's permission.

Dr. Kevin Vost

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Dr. Kevin Vost has taught psychology at the University of Illinois at Springfield, Lincoln Land Community College, and MacMurray College. A former powerlifter and Highland Games Heavy Events competitor, Dr. Vost has also served as a weightlifting instructor, fitness writer for the International Association of Resistance Trainers, and Research Review Committee Member for American Mensa (the high IQ society). Dr. Vost is the author of many books including From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me to the Truth (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010); St. Albert the Great: Champion of Faith and Reason (Saint Benedict Press, 2011); and Three Irish Saints: A Guide to Finding Your Spiritual Style (TAN, 2012). Follow Dr. Vost at DrVost.com.

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  • Dennis Bonnette

    I was rather surprised to see that this well-written article had no comments on it at all. So, I shall post one.

    Dr. Vost's OP perhaps drew no comments because it is a somewhat typical story of someone raised as a Catholic who lost his faith as a young adult, thinking that the wisdom of today's world was superior to that of an "ancient and outdated" Church. Thus, the seemingly superior logic of the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand led him into atheism -- it taking another quarter century for him to find his way back to the Church of his youth. Dr. Feser tells a similar story about himself.

    What strikes me is the fact that several of those who comment on this site also were Catholic before becoming atheists or agnostics. Some of them appear impressively knowledgeable about at least some aspects of Catholicism.

    I have known many Catholics who were raised in the Church, got all the sacraments, were trained in all the rituals, but themselves left the Church upon reaching adulthood -- in one case, by taking a single college course in world religions.

    My suspicion is that, for whatever reason, many young Catholics today are never clearly taught two things: (1) that the Catholic Church still proclaims that it is the one, true religion, and (2) why number one is true. It is the second thing, solid intellectual defense of the Faith, that most Catholics have not been receiving in the last six or so decades. There has been a lot of preaching, but not much teaching. It is no shock, therefore, to learn that many of these young Catholics leave the Church the moment their inquisitive intellects are confronted with divergent explanations of reality -- usually combined with caustic criticisms of Catholicism.

    My personal suspicion is that, despite a certain knowledge of the history and doctrines of the Church that ex-Catholics have, there must have been some particular element, practice, or doctrine that they did not and do not fully understand -- or some negative personal experience that they felt justified them to leave the Church. My hope for all of them, of course, is that they will eventually -- like Dr. Vost and Dr. Feser -- find their way back to their original home in Catholicism.

    What seems a bit odd to me, though, is that the abandonment of Catholicism should lead so many into outright agnosticism or atheism. Were I to somehow lose my own faith in Catholicism (through my own fault, not the Church's), I am could not become an atheist -- because of over half a century of studying the objections to, and proofs for, God's existence -- starting with my doctoral dissertation and first book being focused totally on the Five Ways. I do not say this as a matter of intellectual pride, but simply from life long experience of looking at the proposed alternatives and finding the sole rational mandate to be theism. I do not criticize those who do not accept the proofs because they do not see them to be conclusive. But for myself, I cannot avoid the metaphysical conclusions.

    And, if I am constrained by classical theism to assent to the reality of the God who comports with Christian tradition, I am logically led to conclude that, since truth is one, there can be only a single true revelation from that same God. As St. Thomas argues, that revelation is both needed and to be expected. That said, of all the world's claimed supernatural revelations, Catholicism stands out as the single dominant historical and universal claim of complete truth. Thus, unaided reason leads my back to the same Catholicism that I would have abandoned. It seems that I cannot leave my starting point!

    That said, I fully understand that all of us can only follow our own lights in the pursuit of truth -- and we alone know the degree of intellectual honesty with which we pursue it. Like Pope Francis, I have no right to judge others. Still, Like Pope Francis, that does not excuse me from defending objective truth -- whether known by reason or revelation.

    • Rob Abney

      There was previously an issue with comments disappearing from older OPs, and Brandon was accused of some sort of malevolence regarding that. I thought that he had fixed the problem.
      If you left Catholicism for Protestantism then you would be preparing yourself to me be on to atheism. An excellent book on that progression is by Brad Gregory titled The Unintended Consequences of the Protestant Reformation, recommended by Luke Breuer. There is also an excellent article related to subjectivism at https://www.crisismagazine.com/2018/german-bishops-employ-lutheran-subjectivism-marriage-agenda

    • OMG

      I agree that the post is well written, but it is also dry, and the reasons for lapsing and for re-converting are dry. Dr. Vost's intellectual conversion story contains no verve, no excitement. His seems a strange journey, unlike the conversions of the most of my acquaintance. Those were mostly due to concupiscence and hence were racy, bizarre, fearful, full of bite, sorrow, and woe. Their stories were easier to compassionate and more familiar. Personally, my intellectual belief has never wavered. I wished only that my conscience would quiet for a while...Those wishes and that voice were at war.