Not long before his 20th birthday, Antony Byrd decided to put his atheism to the test: “I just started examining my beliefs, on the premise that I could be wrong about anything.” Byrd, who today studies music at the University of Warwickshire, was a fan of Richard Dawkins’s arguments for atheism, so he started watching videos made by critics of The God Delusion. That led him to other resources: a YouTube channel devoted to CS Lewis; the Instagram channel Catholic Teen Posts. “I went searching for God, hoping He was there,” he says.
Byrd was drawn to Catholicism, but he had his doubts. He was “quite comfortable” with the idea of being annihilated at death – could he really believe in the immortality of the soul? And then there were ethical issues. “I would have said I was pro-life, but I would have made exceptions for the ‘hard cases’ .” But in these and other areas, Church teaching came into focus. Eventually, he stepped into a parish church and spoke to a priest. The internet is “a double-edged sword”, he says, but “in large part” he owes his faith to it.
The way that the grace of conversion reaches people has changed. Last week, in a video which is approaching 150,000 views, the YouTuber Lizzie Estrella Reezay announced that she was becoming Catholic. Reezay’s videos partly resemble those of other young “vloggers”: upbeat 10-minute discussions of mental health, make-up and “how to make the best vegan breakfast smoothie” … but, unlike other YouTubers, Reezay also makes videos about Scripture, theology and – on one fateful occasion – “What I Love and Hate about Catholicism”.
That video brought many comments, especially from Catholics offering their encouragement and support. “I was getting a lot of hate on some of my other videos at the time, so this video’s comments section, in my notifications, was just so loving and so nice and so uplifting,” she said in a video explaining her conversion. People also started sending her book recommendations, Bible verses and links to articles. One advised her to read through the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, which persuaded her of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist. Another recommended that she attend a Traditional Latin Mass, which she loved. Most importantly of all, Reezay says, she knew that they were praying for her.
In a sense, both Byrd and Reezay followed the same path that has been trodden by innumerable others over the past 20 centuries: someone hears the Gospel from a persuasive preacher or a Catholic apologist, or comes to know Catholics personally and is able to explore the faith. But now those things take place over the internet.
One of the most discussed essays of the last couple of years was Andrew Sullivan’s “I Used to be a Human Being”, in which he described his internet addiction. “It felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades – a wind tunnel of deafening, deadening noise,” Sullivan wrote in New York magazine. “I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.” Sullivan urged religious leaders to realise that “the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction” – the endless updates which prevent us from focusing on the one thing necessary.
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