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The Irresistible Beauty That Draws Atheists to God

September 5, 2018


I am grateful that Word on Fire has brought “leading with beauty” to the fore of Catholic evangelization. Beauty is a universal human experience that is impossible to ignore. It often plays a crucial role in the conversion process for precisely that reason. The beauty of Catholicism captivated me long before I appreciated its theology. Beauty is the trump card of Catholic evangelization, and we should never be afraid to play it. Beauty is also natural and automatic for the Church when we embrace our rich traditions. It is the Church’s auto-evangelization. We can do it just by being ourselves. The danger is forgetting about the auto-evangelization machine and letting it rust in the corner. Two simple ways to refurbish it? Emphasize sacred music and sacred liturgy. 

In their handbook on apologetics, Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli offer the following argument for the existence of God: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. They follow up this somewhat tongue-in-cheek “argument” by admitting, “You either get this one or you don’t.” The remarkable thing is how many do. We easily associate beauty with God because it transcends ordinary experience and explanation. Music is particularly effective in this regard. C.S. Lewis said that “for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity.” Regardless of belief, music naturally evokes a powerful sense of the transcendent.

Although Catholic worship effectively uses many forms of music, I want to emphasize Gregorian chant for a few reasons. First, because Gregorian chant is both thoroughly Catholic and surprisingly effective in evangelization. Anyone in social media evangelization is familiar with the inevitable atheist troll in the comment boxes below a religiously-oriented article. With that in mind, check out some chant videos on YouTube. You will find something unexpected: atheist reverse-trolls. In response to a video of Westminster Cathedral’s choral vespers one commenter wrote, “This is glorious! As an atheist I really do miss sometimes the mysticism of sacred music.” Similar comments follow almost every chant video I’ve come across on YouTube.

I can relate to this phenomenon. When I was molting my atheist skin, Gregorian chant gave me some of my first spiritual experiences, and I continue to be surprised at the number of secular non-believers I meet who use Gregorian chant in some form of meditation. Neurological studies have even suggested that Gregorian chant changes the human brain (for the better). Thus, chant is a foot we have in the door of those many souls who, consciously or unconsciously, yearn to encounter God and instinctively hear the sound of divine intimacy in this rich tradition.

Second, because Vatican II encourages it. Musicam Sacram, the Vatican II document on sacred music, has a specific section on musical training that says, “Above all, the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music.” Of course, sacred music easily spills over into sacred liturgy, and perhaps the best thing we can do to enhance sacred liturgy is to emphasize sacred music within the liturgy. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document regarding sacred liturgy, again emphasizes chant: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.”

However, liturgical auto-evangelization is not limited to sacred music. Beautifying the liturgy should involve a myriad of different forms: vestments, decorations, candles, statues, icons, etc. But one thing comes to mind that is unpredictably evangelistic: incense. Yes, really, incense is evangelistic! Psychologists have long known about the powerful association of smell with memory. It is therefore unsurprising that many fallen-away Catholics re-live moments of their foregone spirituality in the sweet smell of frankincense. Years ago, I remember reading an article in a major publication, perhaps Time, about a fallen-away Catholic who said (and I remember the quote nearly verbatim), “I hate the Church’s teachings but love the incense.” In today’s blogosphere, you see the same sentiments from lapsed Catholics and unchurched “nones” who have attended a Mass or two. In an interesting post I recently came across, a lapsed Catholic, whose blog is typically quite hostile to Christianity, discussed her deep yearning and nostalgia for a Mass filled with ritual, ceremony, and incense. The comments following the post are even more intriguing, some of which deserve direct quotes:

“I can definitely see how that ancient, rich tradition that has included so many beautiful things could be so appealing. I’m not Catholic and I love it too.”

“I wish I could find that outlet and the sense of timeless ritual in secular life….Maybe I should just go to the symphony more often and bring some incense!”

This rings true for me as well. Before my conversion, I too had deep suspicions about the Church. Yet I was drawn into, in fact fell in love with, the beautiful liturgical traditions of the Church. Coming from the spiritually-starved secular world, the incense and ceremony of the Church’s liturgy enhanced the mystery of Mass and facilitated my first encounters with Christ.

Ultimately, Kreeft and Tocelli’s “argument” from aesthetic experience isn’t really an argument at all. But that’s the point. Beauty is universally experienced as transcendent and is therefore the gateway to religious experience. In turn, once a person begins to have religious experiences, the need for “arguments” naturally fades. Many that spurn organized religion still long for a mysterious sense of the sacred. The problem is that we’re not giving it to them. I can’t help but suspect that the reason for this is attributable to the kind of beige Catholicism that Bishop Barron has inveighed against. Instead of accommodating the culture, we’ve bored it. So let’s resist the temptation of beige Catholicism and start auto-evangelizing through the irresistible beauty of our rich traditions: the irresistible beauty of being ourselves.