Atheist Professor Becomes Christian

Dr. Holly Ordway has published a book titled Not God’s Type, telling her personal story. She begins “I had never in my life said a prayer, never been to a church service. Christmas meant presents and Easter meant chocolate bunnies–nothing more.” But her views get hardened: “In college, I absorbed the idea that Christianity was historical curiosity, or a blemish on modern civilization, or perhaps both. My college science classes presented Christians as illiterate anti-intellectuals who, because they didn’t embrace Darwinism, threatened the advancement of knowledge. My history classes omitted or downplayed references to historical figures’ faith.” Still later, “At thirty-one years old, I was an atheist college professor–and I delighted in thinking of myself that way. I got a kick out of being an unbeliever; it was fun to consider myself superior to the unenlightened, superstitious masses, and to make snide comments about Christians.” (p.15-16)

Ordway was a trained academic without a history in religion. But she was no disinterested intellectual: “There was something about the idea of faith that made it stick with me. I didn’t have faith, I didn’t want faith, but I felt compelled to have a good reason why not. I constructed an elaborate analogy for myself, one that I felt gave satisfying explanation of why ‘faith’ was impossible. . . I could not believe, no matter how much I might want to . . .I thought ‘faith’ was a meaningless word, that so-called believers were either hypocrites or self-deluded fools, and that it was a waste of time to consider any claim that Christians made about the truth. . . . I didn’t want to deal with that. Easier by far to read only books by atheists that told me what I wanted to hear:¬† that I was smarter and more intellectually honest and morally superior than the poor, deluded Christians. I had built myself a fortress of atheism, secure against any attack by irrational faith.” (p.17-18)

Ordway had carefully built up a defense, but not so careful as to protect her mind from the ideas of the great English poets. She speaks of being surprised by such writers as John Keats, John Donne, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, men who wrote of a beautiful concept: hope. A day of hope . . . was there such a day to hope for?

The rest of Ordway’s book tells of her meeting a fencing coach that she trusted, a person who she did not discover was a Christian until after she had begun working with him. He and his wife merely answered her questions, not pressing anything religious on her. She is intellectually honest enough to investigate the sources . . . When she asks for reasonable works on the resurrection of Jesus, she is given N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, 740 pages of scholarly examination. She reads Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, and Does God Exist? by Kreeft and Moreland, among others.

Both Ordway and C. S. Lewis were credentialed professors of literature before becoming Christian. Both were committed atheists who had created intellectual defenses against belief in Jesus. Later in her story, Ordway writes, “I read through the Gospel narratives again, trying to take in what they said. I had to admit that — even apart from everything else I had learned — I recognized that they were fact, not story. I’d been steeped in folklore, fantasy, legend, and myth ever since I was a child, and I had studied these literary genres as an adult; I knew their cadences, their flavor, their rhythm. None of these stylistic fingerprints appeared in the New Testament books that I was reading.” (p.117)

So here we have a trained, experienced, atheist professor of literature, who if anything knows a myth when she sees it, declaring that it is not such, but rather “The Gospels had the ineffable texture of history, with all the odd clarity of detail that comes when the author is recounting something so huge that even as he tells it, he doesn’t see all the implications.” (p.117) Like Lewis, who was a professor of literature at Oxford and Cambridge, Ordway made the conclusion of an expert in literature, that the New Testament has all the signs of an eyewitness account.

Ordway gives a very personal account of what it was like to be changed, speaking of how difficult and fearful it was for her to change her beliefs and become a Christian: “It is a hard thing to look at the truth when it runs contrary to what you’ve always believed. The experience is like pulling back the curtains in a dimly lit room and looking out the window to see what’s really inside. When your eyes are used to artificial light, the bright sunlight is almost blinding; your eyes may sting and even water at the brightness, and the temptation is to turn away to the more comfortable dimness.”

But in the end she knew her intellectual drive for truth could not let her turn away. She knew she was drawn to the truth, that the New Testament is true and Jesus is real.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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33 Responses to Atheist Professor Becomes Christian

  1. Debilis says:

    That is definitely an encouraging story.
    I’ve heard from a few places that belief in God (much as it is being attacked on the internet) is making a comeback among college professors. I think this is very good news for the next generation.

  2. Pierre says:

    Wonderful news. Ultimately, it is the power of the Word that convicts and regenerates the heart so that human enmity against God is overcome, and the truth brightens the new way of life that comes by grace in Christ.

  3. Grundy says:

    Do you find conversion stories compelling as a marker for truth? We can always pull examples of converts, personally I’ve interviewed two, Bruce Gerencser and the David Hayward who were previously giving sermons at their churches. Since theists become atheists and atheists become theists from time to time, there doesn’t seem to be anything to show which worldview is true here.

    • humblesmith says:

      Testimonials do not attest to truth as a logical argument would. As you pointed out, lining up conversion stories does not determine what is true. (If only our friend Hume would’ve realized this….)

      Stories such as this are, however, useful in countering a common theme in popular atheist circles: that ‘thinking people’ will inevitably be atheist, and the only people who are theists are unthinking, uneducated, or have some guilt complex. Ordway provides yet another example of an educated person without any background in religion who, when objectively considering the facts, decided Christianity is true.

      What seems to be a key issue, at least to me, is not necessarily whether someone has considered the logical arguments for Christianity, for many do so and reject them. Orday’s story demonstrates that sometimes the differnce is meeting someone who puts a human face on the argument. As long as we’re arguing against some strange guy with funny hair and cheesy furniture on TBN, it’s easy to dismiss the whole theism idea outright. Ditto with professional academics met on youtube videos. But if we meet a regular human who we see in regular life who seems relatively normal otherwise, it’s more difficult to stereotype the other side’s argument as inane. I think this is true of all sides of these arguments….Christians are just as guilty as anyone.

      • humblesmith says:

        …..However, like C. S. Lewis, I do give Dr. Ordway credibility as to the nature of what makes up a fictional account compared to a non-fiction, since they were both professors of literature.

  4. Kaitlin says:

    That is so wonderful! I too was committed to Evolution, and when I met Jesus it was very difficult to give that belief up. Now I couldn’t be happier as a conservative, creation believing, Christian. Thanks for the encouraging testimony!

  5. Arkenaten says:

    While a nice story, from a Christian point of view, I am more inclined to side with those that were professional clergy and have turned their back on religion, and in this case, Christianity.
    Their understanding of the bible and all it encompasses is, in all likelihood, far superior to this woman’s, who although an ‘expert’ in myth/fantasy literature, is probably not an expert in bible study.
    Besides, it is not difficult for the lines to become blurred when imaginary figures are posited among a few historical characters in an actual area, Judea.
    Even Ankh Morpork sounds ‘real’, and Sam Vimes is a darn sight more believable than any apostle.
    While crackpots sects of Evangelical Christianity are on the rise, more liberal forms of Christianity are slowly but inexorably coming to terms with the reality that their salvation based diatribe will go the way of a toothless T-Rex, and while this woman may consider she has had a wonderful epiphany those ‘in the know’ , the original proponents of this faith, will on occasion grimace.
    It will take time, there is no denying. But eventually, stories like this will seem like nothing but an anachronism. And thank the gods for that. Amen.

    • humblesmith says:

      Oh, I wouldn’t necessarily agree about the professional clergy. The work of Eta Linnemann demonstrated that many of them haven’t really done their homework. If you look at the seminary classes, especially among the mainline liberal denominations, they really don’t do all that much bible study. A lot of counseling, budgeting, how to speak, …..

      And I would not be quite so quick to dismiss the work of a tenured professor from Oxford and Cambridge, who said the same thing as Ordway:

      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2010/06/09/c-s-lewis-christianity-and-myth/

      • Arkenaten says:

        My follow up comments have a nasty habit of disappearing into the ether.

        • humblesmith says:

          Your follow up comments have a habit of violating my comment policy. I’ve been a bit lenient, allowing you to post things that are mostly cynical comments. You’ve spent the afternoon traipsing through my blog dropping sentences here and yon, almost all of which are mere opinions. I’ve found it to be not much use debating opinions.

          The atheists who will play nice and say something meaningful to assist the topic are allowed to stay, while those who merely call names and express unsupported cynical comments are blocked, as you are now.

    • Ken says:

      I could have an entire library of “knowledge” but until I read and internalize and apply that “knowledge” it is useless and ineffectual. Sadly many people, including “pastors” do exactly this. They act the part without being changed at the heart of their being. Others find it easier to just pick some viewpoint they’ve been exposed to, perhaps a politically correct one that will not result in too much grief from their acquaintances, and adopt it as their own without really examining it or the opposing views, which is what Ordway did. Conversely, Ordway’s becoming a Christian entails more risk, and will result in a lot of backlash from her colleagues.

  6. Pingback: SiftingPoint | Atheist Professor Becomes Christian

  7. Mrs. H says:

    Interesting article, I appreciate the fencing instructor & his wife’s approach. Personal beliefs are not something we can convict another of. It is an internal process, and in the case with Christianity, the Holy Spirit is what brings the conversion, instead of Bible-bashing, but a gentle encouragement to dig deeper. If one’s heart has not become hardened, it is impossible to refute the Bible’s historical accuracy, literary significance, and also accept it’s theology.

  8. Pingback: Stories of Conversion: Wolverine, an Atheist Professor and a Former Member of Wesboro Baptist. | The Heart and Mind of Dave Hershey

  9. rautakyy says:

    I found this conversion story to be very interresting. I have loved the Lewis books, both the fantasy and sci-fi stories from my childhood. I totally agree, that putting a human face for any ideology makes it more approachable. If it is intentional, is it also propaganda?

    Did this woman not only give up her atheistic stance, or did she also give up her stance on the natural sciences like biology, geology and cosmology? To be a college professor requires some universal understanding of science in general, does it not?

    As an atheist, I have never really thought the Gospels as anything other than a historical source. Yet, if they are put to the same scrutany as any other historical sources from around the world and especially from that time period in the Mediterranean antiquity, the supernatural parts need to be dissected out (a bit like Thomas Jefferson did). We do not think there were dog-headed people beyond Sarmatia even though Tacitus who, as archaeology confirms, knew a great deal about the Germanic tribes and even people beyond them, claims there were such. Nor do we think that there appeared burning ships in the sky sent by Juppiter as a sign to the Roman people, that Hannibal was about to attack, even though this was confirmed by Polybius a sound historian who swore on the factual integrity of historical accounts. Do we?

    • humblesmith says:

      I do not know the author’s stance on the natural sciences….I do not recall her saying in the book. But I suspect she is no longer holds to pure materialism. But this is no surprise, as many in the naterual sciences are not pure materialists. I never saw Christianity and science as being anything but compatable.

      As for dissecting out the supernatuarl part, the great skeptic David Hume was perhaps the leading holder of this view. His stance has been shown to be flawed, which you can see here:

      http://humblesmith.wordpress.com/2012/09/25/can-miracles-happen/

      As to Tacitus and Polybius, if they had predicted the year of their own birth and risen from the dead, I would indeed give their words more credibility.

      • rautakyy says:

        Thanks for the reply. If I have the time I will look up your post about Hume. If you have read this book, surely you can tell, did it really not mention anything about her wider world view? I would have thought, that since there is a debate between the scientific community and the Intelligent Design proponents of what should be taught at schools a college professor after having this revelation and conversion would have wanted to share her view on this matter. It should interrest her professionally even though it is not her field of speciality.

        I presented Tacitus and Polybius as historical sources, that are dealt with historical scrutany. I doubt there are any people in the world today who think there were dog-headed people beyond Sarmatia, or that what ever caused the contemporaries of Polybius to think there were miracles from Juno, Juppiter and some other gods were actually any sort of miracles. I do not see how anyone could predict the year of their own birth, nor rise from the dead, alltough there are several claims about people rising from the dead, sometimes even en masse. These are unverifiable claims and that is exactly why such claims are not plausible even when presented by otherwise sound historians like Tacitus and Polybius, not to speak of sources, wich have less than reliably credited authorship like the ones in the Bible. Historical credibility is not gained by obscure prophesies, or by performing miracles. On the contrary, claims of predictions and miracles eat historical reliability, even when we recognize the mundane events described by the same sources. That is how the historicity of a source is resolved. Anything other would be special pleading.

        • Jason says:

          Did Tacitus claim to have actually seen dog headed people beyond Sarmatia, or was that something he reported that other people had said? If the later then it is very different to the testimony of early Christians like Peter and Andrew, who claimed that they had not only seen the risen Jesus but touched him and eaten with him.

          Basically your criteria for historical inquiry says that only those things you decide can happen happened. That is the worst way to approach any field of study I can imagine. It is the very definition of special pleading.

          • rautakyy says:

            @Jason. No, no. Tacitus did not say he saw dog headed people. He said he was told there were such. Exactly like the early Christian writers such as Peter claimed they were told Jesus died on the cross. For some reason his resurrection is so very, very important, but it happened when no-one was looking. Why? Bad management? To infer a miracle from a man who was alive after his execution is simply superstitious.

            My criteria of historical inquiry is the one universally used in historical research methodology. Extraordinary claims like resurrections would require extraordinary evidence. Correct? How do you mean it is special pleading?

            If there ever even was such a man as Jesus, who was actually crucified and appeared alive after the event as alledged, then is it not by far more likely, that he simply survived the crucifixion process, than that an actual resurrection happened? That would be perfectly natural and thus the most likely explanation to a possibly historical event. I expect you are aware, that we do know from historical sources, that people could survive crucifixion and even the Gospels tell us that Jesus was on a cross for a very short period of time.

            Not a single miracle has ever been verified by scientific methods (that after all, are the best way of evaluating reality we have), but the world is full of miracle claims by all sorts of religions. That is why a miracle claim – historical, or modern – is an extraordinary claim. Yes? If we start to take any historical claims of supernatural interference in material reality at face value and do not require other than anecdotal evidence for it, then what is the criteria by which we conclude which claims about the supernatural are true and which ones are made up? Especially, if these are mutually contradicting?

            Testimony of a personal experience of supernatural is not a very good method of verifying wether the claim is true, or not. Or do you think angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammed who said he had this experience?

          • humblesmith says:

            Well, this wanders a bit far from the topic here and covers a lot of ground. The answers to most all of these are found on this blog in other posts. Rather than side track the post here, I encourage you to go to the search box and search for “Hume” and “miracles.” The skeptic David Hume expressed most of your criticisms, and he has be refuted.

      • rautakyy says:

        @Humblesmith, I am sorry if I got somehow sidetracked, but I was merely answering critique by Jason, who seems to think, that any alledged eyewittness from antiquity bears the same truth value as evidence. And did accuse me of special pleading whithout really explaining how was I guilty of it.

    • Why would someone have to “give up their stance on the natural sciences like biology, geology, and cosmology” because they became a Christian? This idea is always interesting to me. The great news is that our understanding of these sciences is finally catching up to the Bible. These sciences actually point to God’s creation, to our Creator.

  10. James Crooke says:

    I am one of these people that dont have a problem believing in God and also Darwinism. Supposedly God Created us in his own image but we each view ourselves differently from the way other people view us. Just as we dont truly hear our own voice the way others hear it. Who is to say that god left room for us to grow and change, to adapt to our ever changing surroundings.

  11. Pingback: Yet Another Anti-Religious Intellectual Turns Christian | Thomistic Bent

  12. CB says:

    Very interesting, I have a similar story. Not a college professor, but just thought I was too smart for religion. And it was John Donne that got to me first, as well. “Batter my heart, three-personed God.” Irresistable! Even now I suddenly find myself amazed to be a Catholic after all those years of really rather contemptuous atheism. Now I’m on the receiving end of the contempt, it’s not nearly so fun.

  13. Jim Soldini says:

    Scientifically, faith is all there is. Our brains get signals from our ears, eyes, etc. and build models that predict the future from those inputs. Your belief in those models is faith and the only way to understand reality. You believe, through faith, you are reading this and another person wrote it. All reality is (imperfectly) understood through faith.

  14. Pingback: Atheist Professor Becomes Christian | A disciple's study

  15. Salli G. says:

    Thank you for the very good article and also the civil discussion was informative. I am a dabbler in apologia and hope to improve my skills and confidence, so this is helpful.

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