A university student recently asked me, “How do I evangelize my atheist friends?” Here’s my angle based on experience. When I was a non-religious scientist working in lab, I sensed that science pointed to a greater truth. The order, symmetry, and predictability in this Book of Nature was not lost on me. I worked on artificial photosynthesis and nanotechnology and often stared at the actual leaves flapping in the actual wind and wondered, “Who designed it all in the first place?” But those insights did not cause me to convert back then.
I knew Catholic scientists too. Their obedience to ancient traditions impressed me. Their confidence was admirable. But I still did not convert. After I graduated from college and started my dream career at DuPont as a research scientist, I had a despair in my personal life, an overwhelming darkness. All my relationships were a mess, and I was alone and lost. One night, I cried out to God for a second chance, and it was granted a few months later when I met the man who is now my husband. Even though my prayer was answered, I still did not convert. Then I read in the Catechism that children are gifts, and I became open to life because I knew it was one of the truest things I’d never accepted. I left my career to stay home and raise my children, committed to leading a better life. Still, I did not convert. The Five Ways of St. Aquinas did not convert me because they sounded circular (though they greatly aided my faith later). No apologists won any arguments, in my opinion, that inspired me to convert.
From my lab days to my conversion wound a fifteen year span of time. Conversion was not owed to any one person, place, or thing. The moment of conversion—my metanoia—was when I gave assent of my will to God. I said “yes” not knowing what would happen next. I took the proverbial leap of faith. And? It was scary. I had tried to lead a better life without God because accepting God meant facing my sins, and I did not want to do that. I feared what the truth would demand of me, and I feared I would fail. I did not know that grace makes the burden light because I had no experience of accepting grace. At first, I even wondered if my prayers were attempts to brainwash myself. The leap of faith felt like flinging myself into a chasm. Odd, isn’t it?
So my advice to the student was simple. Keep doing what you are doing—keep being a friend, living your faith, and praying for the conversion of sinners. Evangelization has to be done in a spirit of friendship because faith is relational. Maybe your friends will not convert right away, but when and if they are ready to give assent of the will, be someone trustworthy to help them face their fears and find the answers.