Former atheist details how accepting the Holy Spirit changed his world
Grosse Pointe Farms — Ten years ago, if someone were to tell Eric Backman he would be standing before hundreds of people in a Catholic parish, proclaiming his personal conversion to Christ, he would have called you crazy.
As a student at Albion College, Backman was a hardline atheist who didn’t believe in God and was irritated when people invited him to Mass. As a personal challenge, he took an Introduction to Christian Thought class, reading works by C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine and other Christian writers and started listening to debates between Christian and atheist thinkers.
“I was at the standpoint of, ‘there is no God, and I’m going to prove these people wrong,’" Backman said. “But when I took that class, I started to think, ‘OK, there is more credibility here than what I originally thought.
’ I thought everyone was just going to be brainwashed."After graduating from Albion in 2008, Backman moved back to Grosse Pointe Farms to begin his career in financial planning and married his wife, Carrie, in 2012.
Still searching, he established relationships with faith leaders from five different Christian denominations and began listening to podcasts by Fr. John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth. At one point, he even decided to enter RCIA at St. Paul on the Lake — not to convert, but to learn more.
“I’m a very intellectual guy; I need to think things through," Backman said. “So during this time I was battling back and forth between my resistance to change and my continual (thought) that ‘I think this is true, but I don’t know for sure.
’ When I decided to go through RCIA, I started grilling the instructors with questions the whole way."Throughout RCIA, Backman was surprised by the instructors’ knowledge of the faith, and the doubt slowly began to melt away.
“At some point, I came to realize that after 1,500 objections, I wasn’t going to stump them on 1,501," Backman said. “The Catholic Church has been thinking about this stuff for 2,000 years. My objections weren’t unique."Backman formally entered the faith at the Easter Vigil in 2012, but even then said he lacked a conversion of the heart.
“I joined the faith, but I wouldn’t have considered myself strong in the faith," Backman said. “I was loosely kind of in and kind of out. I was still battling back and forth that Easter."After his conversion, Backman was invited to a parish Bible study, and then to Alpha courses at the parish. Eventually, he was asked to lead the Alpha program. The continuous invitations to deepen his faith — and to lead others — worried him.
“I was thinking, ‘I just became Catholic; you don’t know what I’m struggling with," Backman said. “I was asked to go through a quick journey through the Bible. They asked if I could lead a table there. I never even read the Bible."As he became more involved at St. Paul on the Lake, his own faith struggles continued — until in 2017, Backman’s wife suggested the two go to a Companions of the Cross retreat on evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.“(At the retreat,) I had this really powerful experience where I felt the Holy Spirit come over me," Backman said. “I was actually brought to tears. My wife was also being prayed over, and she was brought to tears, which shocked me. And these guys were going through the city of Detroit and praying with people. So I joined them."Backman recounted a story where his friend, a seminarian with the Companions of the Cross, prayed over a man who had trouble with his arm. After praying over him three times, the man tried to move his arm and was able to, shouting, “Man, that’s crazy."By the end of the day, Backman was praying for strangers in public, including a Muslim man who asked where he and his friend went to church.
“Since that day, I’ve been praying for friends and clients, and incredible things have happened," Backman said. “People were breaking down with tears of joy and relief in my office."After years of studying and analyzing the faith, asking hundreds of questions and observing hours of Catholic content, Backman said it was the conversion of heart he found that day, praying on Detroit street corners.
“It wasn’t anything intellectual, and that was the difference," Backman said. “It was the spirit of the love of God just hitting me. This wasn’t an intellectual peace, but just a feeling of the love of God when we prayed. I just felt incredible joy, like nothing else. I was happy. After praying over people, I was walking away with this incredible joy."Now, rather than shying away from leadership roles, Backman is eager to tell his story of conversion and encounter with Jesus to all who will listen, and frequently gives talks at St. Paul and neighboring parishes.
“God gave me that story so I could tell it," Backman said. “All the miracles, all the doubts, all the questions, they came together so I could share it, and now I feel the call to evangelize. I feel called to tell people how I came to faith through doubts."Backman still is the analytical person who first stepped into that religion class at Albion, and he still doesn’t have answers for every single facet of the faith. But taking his cues from 2,000 years of Church teaching, he knows book knowledge will only take one so far.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t know everything," Backman said. “But it’s the institution that has stood, that hasn’t changed its teaching on faith and morals from the beginning, and that’s a miracle in itself. For years, Church theologians, scholars and writers — who probably know more than I ever could — said it’s true. I can either learn from them, or take pride in my own ideas and relativism.
“G.K. Chesterton said, and I may be misquoting him, but it’s true, ‘Being Catholic means having the courage to understand something else may be wiser than I am,’" Backman said. “It’s accepting that I’m not going to know everything that gives me peace. I still wrestle with questions, but I’ve found peace; a true inner peace."