Pro-life atheism? Most people would call that a contradiction in terms. But it isn’t. I was one, and there are more.
Although I was raised Catholic, Catholic grade school and high school filled me with an enormous disdain for the Faith. As a teenager, I realized that none of my teachers were able to answer any serious questions about the Faith.
“It’s a mystery!” they would say, which I soon realized simply meant "Shut up, please."
“You just have to believe!” they would say. “No, actually, I don’t,” I would think.
I noticed that only old women taught school, only old women and children went to church. The schools were no better. Apart from a couple of sterling examples, most of the men teaching in the Catholic high school were just on the make for female students. Apart from those same few sterling examples, most of the teachers were rejects from public schools. As for the Catholic theology I was taught, I have never liked glitter, glue sticks or collages. I wasn't impressed.
“I could just put away the things of children and become a man.”
So I did.
I wanted to be a scientist, be someone important, discover something new, be an adult. But, as number four in a family of eight children, my mother had taught me something very important very early on: babies were wonderful. Throughout my studies into genetics, biology, chemistry, I never knew if there was a God in heaven, but I knew there was a baby in the womb.
Atheists are not renowned for their logical consistency, and as a pro-life atheist, I certainly missed some points early on. At first, I was fine with fornication and contraception, but opposed to abortion, except in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality. I argued the points with others constantly.
An atheist history professor whom I greatly admired, and who had been trained by Jesuits as a teen, pointed out the inconsistency in my position. If a child exists from conception, then what difference should rape, incest or abnormality make?
He thought he had me.
Three days later, after long thought, I told him that I agreed with him. I couldn’t hold both positions at the same time. “So,” I concluded, “abortion for rape, incest or fetal abnormality is also unacceptable, and I now oppose that as well.” He wasn’t pleased.
As I argued the abortion position, I became aware of many other logical inconsistencies as well.
For instance, I began to realize that the assertion, “I can have sex without wanting a child” was logically absurd. It’s like saying, “I can eat ice cream all day without wanting to get fat.” Sure, you can. But what does your "want" have to do with it? The biological reality was going to hit you either way.
I thought it was a good analogy, but I quickly discovered a flaw. Having sex was different from eating cupcakes all day. Every time I ate a cupcake, I added calories to my body. Every time. But it is not the case that every act of sex creates a child. The analogy wasn’t perfect.
I gnawed on that for awhile.
And I began to see… something
Something I didn’t expect.
Ultimately, it was this point - the point that sex does not always create children – that converted me back to the Faith.
This is what I saw.
Precisely because sex does not always create children, yet it always holds the promise of creating children, that sex stands for something greater than itself. Because sex is designed to produce children, yet does not always produce them, the act is transformed from a simple biological action into… there was no other word for it… poetry.
Because sex contains not a hard reality, but only a future promise, it becomes a promise, the promise of the man to the woman "I will be with you always, even if this does produce that for which it is designed."
And by this act, the man gives himself not just to the woman, he gives himself primarily to the not-yet-conceived child.
It was the poetic biology of the thing that snared me.
Because I had some medical training, I knew the biology of sexual intercourse pretty well. The man doesn't become a father in the instant of orgasm. Indeed, it may not be for several days, he may not be in the country, he may not even be on the same side of the world when it happens. He becomes a father, but he does so long after the act is completed.
Precisely because the act of sex itself does not create anything, the act itself becomes its own symbol.
It is a commitment towards a future that the two participants don't even know will ever come into existence. If every act of sex always produced a child, it would have a much different meaning. But precisely because it does not, sex is transformed into a commitment to hope that such a future does come into existence, or at least not to hope that it does not.
This was the beautiful thing, the marvelous image of the human person, I saw hidden behind the veil of the sexual act. This both intrigued me and frightened me. It intrigued me because it was beautiful and it was true, and I had never heard tell of this explanation before this moment, when I explained it to myself. It frightened me because I knew there was only one organization in the world that taught about a promise to generations yet unborn.
When I answered my history professor, he didn’t like it, and I knew he wouldn’t, but I had to go where the logic took me. I had no choice.
Now, I had found an answer that sent me somewhere I didn’t like, but I had the answer, and I had to go where the logic took me. I had no choice.
I went to confession.
I received Jesus in the Eucharist.
I returned to the Faith.
Steve Kellmeyer is the author of numerous works of Catholic apologetics and is webmaster of CultureWarNotes.com. The above essay is edited from a talk he gave that is available on CD from Bridegroom Press.