Philip Kaplan is a 38 year old non practicing attorney living in Towson, Maryland. He accepted Christ in 2016 and feels called upon to speak about his conversion from a nonbeliever to a Christian. In the following series of blog posts, he will reflect on both his personal life and the philosophical issues pertaining to faith.
Growing up as I did in a home without faith, I had developed a cynicism and skepticism while still very young. I had become a declared atheist by age ten, much to the amused pride of my equally non-believing parents. In my family, one of the main values was “independent thought,” which seemed to mean rejecting traditional Judeo-Christian theology. My parents were liberal secular Jews and raised me to be “culturally Jewish.” That meant we celebrated the major Jewish holidays like Passover and Chanukah, and I had a Bar Mitzvah, but little was spoken about God or deeper meaning. In fact, the implicit message I got was that the Bible is a fairy tale, believed in only by the gullible and unenlightened.
I was by most respects a normal boy. I had neighborhood friends, I liked to ride my bike and climb trees, and I enjoyed television and video games. My life seemed to take a downward turn, however, by my early teens. A series of geographical moves had left me in new schools where I did not fit in. I had no friends and was bullied by other kids.
Any child or teenager who’s ever been bullied knows what an exhausting struggle it is to pretend that one is not bothered by the continual cruelty of one’s peers. It slowly took its toll. By early adolescence, I wished I was dead.
At age 15, I was practically flunking high school because I was not motivated for my classes. I felt like I couldn’t concentrate. All I wanted was to die. A therapist diagnosed me as suffering from severe depression. The next few years were a nightmare of medications, psychiatrist appointments, hospitalizations, outpatient programs, and horribly despairing moods. I ended up transferring to an alternative high school for teens with emotional problems.
During this period, I struggled to feel good about anything. I had no friends, my grades were mediocre at best, and I was not involved in any activities. By all measurements, I seemed to be failing at life.
Then came my first big dose of external validation.
I took the SAT. My math score was below average, but my verbal score was 700, which placed me in the 96th percentile nationally. I had always been told I was good with language (my mother was a former English major), but to see it confirmed in a standardized test was the solid evidence I needed and wanted so badly. Evidence that I was smart, that I was talented, and that I had the potential to be a “success.”
Fast forward to college. My adolescent depression had ended. I was a philosophy major and also in the college honors program (to which I had been admitted based on my verbal SAT score). My grades were excellent, as I was now in a setting in which my intellectual aptitudes could be better applied. I began feeling more and more confident and hopeful about my future. At graduation, I was singled out as one of a small number of students who had completed the honors program. I had also won the prize for writing the best philosophy paper of the year. I graduated magna cum laude and with honors in philosophy.
These academic achievements were like food for my starving ego. I wasn’t a loser, I told myself happily. In fact, I was a winner!
The legal profession beckoned. I wanted so badly to be respected by others. To have power and status in society. A career in law, I reasoned, would give me that. And so I set out to become a lawyer.
Life became a series of hoops through which I had to jump in order to reach the next goal. Law school. The bar exam. Getting hired as an attorney. Winning my first trial. Establishing a good reputation among judges and other attorneys. All of this was done in the belief that if I could only be “successful” enough in the world, by the world’s standards, then I would be happy.
Fast forward to my early 30s. By this point, I was a well-respected trial lawyer. I had won cases that are considered unwinnable.
Additionally, every year, I would volunteer as a scorer in regional high school mock trial competitions, deciding with one other attorney which team would advance or be eliminated. Afterwards, we would give both teams feedback on how they did.
It felt great to be involved in the community, particularly with young people and in an activity in which I could be a type of positive mentor and authority figure. But I also had to admit I loved the power and prestige of it. How did this happen? I thought to myself. As a teenager, I had felt so hopeless about my future. And now these smart, high-achieving teenagers– a million times more confident and successful than I was at their age– were looking up to me and trying to win my approval!
It was almost dizzying. It confirmed that I had risen to great heights.
Moreover, it confirmed that my way was working. My reliance on my own abilities, my own will, my own determination. I didn’t need faith! That was a crutch for the weak. I didn’t need to believe in God! That was simply a fairy tale for those who needed something nice to believe in. I was living the right way! I had taken charge of my life and had become a success in the world through my own efforts. That’s what counts!
And as it turned out, I was wrong.
Note: The author welcomes any comments or questions about his faith and journey. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org