From Atheism to Catechism
Imagine society’s collective shock if Hillary Clinton were to join the National Rifle Association, if members of the Westboro Baptist Church were discovered frolicking at a gay bar or if Quentin Tarantino were to announce plans to make a Justin Bieber documentary.
Josh Horn’s friends were hit with a shock wave of that magnitude when Horn, then an ardent atheist, announced his resignation as president of the Secular Free Thought Society, an ASU club known for its skepticism of religion. Horn had committed the ultimate taboo and sealed his self-imposed excommunication with one act: he decided to become a Catholic.
Sowing the seeds of devotion and revolt
This wasn’t the first time Horn had radically changed his worldview. Horn, a history junior, was raised in Tempe by Southern Baptist parents so strict that as a child he had to have a “multi-hour” conversation with them pleading for permission to watch Pokémon (it was forbidden “because they evolved,” Horn says). From the ages of 3-13, he attended a private Christian school that Horn describes as fundamentalist, “denial of evolution…‘Left Behind’ series stuff,” and attended church up to three times a week. He was a model child who impressed teachers and clergy with his preternatural intelligence, his disarming command of logic and his fervent religious devotion.
Horn’s zeal began to dim when he started public high school. For the first time, he was exposed not only to non-Baptists, but to the broad spectrum of the secular world. His curiosity and desire for knowledge were piqued and he began consuming academic texts — religious, philosophical, mathematic, scientific — like a starving man at a buffet.
“My parents thought I’d been brainwashed by my school,” Horn says. “All the things they told me not to look into, I decided to look into on my own … I started examining the evidence and figuring out that there wasn’t some vast conspiracy (against Baptists) going on.”
Within a month he became a deist, and shortly thereafter transitioned into atheism.
“I had a lot of anger and I sort of took on a victim mindset,” Horn says. “I was pretty antagonistic toward religions in general … I gave myself this personal mission to prove to everyone that every one (religion) was wrong.”
A curmudgeonly and controversial conversion
It was this Horn who started college at ASU and quickly made his way to the highest position in the Secular Free Thought Society, propelled by his new passion for privileging truth and reason over religious dogma and manipulated spirituality. He came prepared with an arsenal of arguments and counterarguments informed by his extensive reading, ready to verbally scrap with anyone foolish enough to get in his line of logical fire.
“He used to really live for debate and changing people’s minds,” says Ryan Jungbluth, a close friend of Horn’s and a fellow Catholic convert. “He has a low threshold for stupidity, but it’s rarely uncharitable. A lot of people who are logically and rhetorically gifted are the same way.”
Indeed, Horn’s intelligence “can be almost threatening,” says Fahad Alam, who has been Horn’s friend since high school and has seen him through his ideological transformations. Alam was raised a Muslim but has also converted to Catholicism. (Horn’s influence played no small part in Jungbluth’s and Alam’s paths, and the men have formed a strong support group for each other.)
Three months into his presidency, in March of 2010, Horn — the avowed and vociferous atheist — had a religious experience while reading the Litany of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic prayer.
“The best way I can explain it is it wasn’t just perceiving something or experiencing something, it was experiencing some particular thing in a whole new way of experiencing it,” Horn says. “And it was the fact that it was a new way that was strange, more so than the interaction with the new thing … The only word I can use for it is a mystical sense. I had never experienced it. I had never perceived anything that way before and I would maintain that what I perceived mystically was Jesus Christ.”
Photo by Stephanie Pellicano.
Horn, usually so articulate, was at a loss for words to describe his experience.
“And yeah, that was weird, but it was more that this was a mystical thing that was weird, even than who I was perceiving,” Horn says. “It was a whole new way of experiencing reality, to which there is no analogy in anything else that I’ve experienced, and because of that it’s very difficult to explain.”
Contrary to most tales of divine encounters and mystical happenings, this one doesn’t have an ostentatiously emotional climax—no arms thrown in the air in jubilation, no praising the lord with gospel-choir lungs, no golden rays emanating from the clouds. Instead, the thoroughly rational Horn was irked.
“I was actually kind of annoyed that it happened, and scared – not comforted in the least,” Horn says. “I didn’t want it, I didn’t think it was possible. It just happens, and you come out of it realizing that this obliges you to change your life and the entire course you thought it was taking immediately.”
He resigned his presidency the next day.
Backlash and befuddlement: “What the hell just happened?”
“I thought it was an April Fool’s joke,” Jungbluth, a senior studying German, says.
Some of his friends and acquaintances in Secular Free Thought Society took a different tack.
“There were suggestions that I was mentally ill,” Horn says. “I expected that. I was describing an intense internal experience … (and) it’s a group based entirely on rejecting this. I just decided to move on with my life.”
Averroes Paracha, another former president of the Secular Free Thought Society and a close friend of Horn’s during his atheist days, recalls the group’s collective shock when they heard the news.
“There were a lot of questions and doubt,” Paracha says. “It felt like, ‘What the hell just happened?’ The easiest way for most people to overcome doubt is to blame the person. He suffered the same kind of persecution, albeit more mild, that atheists feel when they leave faiths.”
There were also implications for the club’s cause.
“It became a scandal in a sense,” Paracha says. “Most of our stance had been antireligious, almost harassing religious people. The club was notorious for that. (Horn’s conversion) became a sort of validation for other Christian groups on campus.”
Peace at last
Two and a half years later, the cosmic dust has settled and Horn has fully immersed himself in Catholicism. He hasn’t lost any of his fervor. He’s just channeling it into new places in new ways, like doing intensive volunteer work at ASU’s All Saints Newman Center, a haven for Catholics on the Main campus and in the surrounding community. He helps teach classes, serves as a mentor/sounding-board for potential and new converts, reads the church fathers (St. Thomas Aquinas is a particular favorite —Horn studies his work daily), and continues to explore himself and the religion he changed his life for.
“Whatever my worldview is, I am passionate about it and its implications, primarily because I’m not a relativist,” Horn says. “I never have been.”
Horn says he’s the happiest he’s ever been and has let go of a lot of the corrosive anger he felt during his Southern Baptist childhood and atheist young adulthood. Still, he’s no Pollyanna — his dry sense of humor, impatience for irrationality and deadpan intellectualism are still intact and likely always will be.
“He can tend toward skepticism and cynicism because of his past,” James Ryan Ponce, a close friend of Horn’s who is also involved with the Newman Center. “Every semester he gets more and more effective, understanding that people think differently and that the world’s not as dark as he thought.”
Ultimately, Horn hopes that his journey can be used in service of his faith and to help others who are seeking truth and meaning in their lives.
“Aristotle said that the purpose of a good flute is to be played well,” Horn says. “I think the purpose of a good story is to be told.”
Horn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reach the writer at email@example.com or via Twitter @religiouswrite