From Atheist Professor to Catholic: An Interview with Dr. Holly Ordway
Growing up, Holly Ordway was convinced God was little more than superstition, completely unsupported by evidence or reason. She later attained a PhD in literature, traveled the country as a competitive fencer, and became a college English professor, none of which left room for God.
But one day a smart and respected friend surprisingly revealed he was a Christian. That sent Holly on a search for the truth about God, one that weaved through literature, aesthetics, imagination, and history. It culminated in 2012 when she entered the Catholic Church.
Holly recounts her probing journey in a new memoir, Not God's Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms (Ignatius Press, 2014). The book debuted and soared up the Amazon charts. Within a few days, it was ranked:
- #1 among all religious biographies and memoirs
- #15 among all Christian books
- #30 among all memoirs on Amazon
- #353 among all books on Amazon
I recently sat down with Holly to discuss her early atheism, the role of imagination in her conversion to Catholicism, and the strongest evidence for Christianity.
BRANDON VOGT: Whenever non-believers analyze an atheist-to-Catholic conversion story, many quickly assume the convert wasn't really an atheist. Would you have described yourself that way during your early life?
DR. HOLLY ORDWAY: I’ve heard that claim often, and I admit, it puzzles me. Even if I hadn’t been ‘really’ an atheist, what does that have to do with whether I’m correct or not in believing Christianity to be true?
But in any case, certainly I described myself as an atheist by the time I was in my twenties. Sometimes people assume there must have been a traumatic event or a rejection of faith, but there wasn’t. It was a gradual process from being non-religious, to being indifferent, to being actively convinced that atheism was true.
I remember a conversation I had when I was about eight years old. A kid who waited at the same bus stop as I did asked me if I believed in God. I thought about it for a moment and said “I don’t know. Maybe God’s real, and maybe not.” The boy said “Oh, you’re an agnostic.” I remembered the conversation not because it seemed important, but rather because I’d learned a new word, and that was always interesting to me as an avid and precocious reader.
My family was ‘culturally Christian’ in a small way: at Christmas, there was a nativity set on display and Christmas carols on the stereo, and my mom at one point reprimanded me for the teen habit of saying “Oh-my-God” as a verbal filler. But there was no Bible or religious books in the house, and we never went to church. As a teenager, I began to be concerned with questions of right and wrong, and felt a longing for meaning and connection, but it didn’t occur to me to explore these issues in religious terms.
In college I absorbed the prevailing idea that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, was just a historical curiosity, and that science could explain everything. By the time I was in my mid- to late twenties, I was convinced that there was no God (or any spiritual reality). I did not believe that I had a soul; I thought I was just an intelligent animal, and that when I died, my consciousness would simply blink out. I thought that there was no ultimate meaning in life, and that people who believed in any form of God were seriously self-deluded. It was a bit depressing, but I believed it to be the best explanation of the way the world is, and truth is better than false comfort. If that’s not atheism, I’m not sure what counts…
Sometimes I’ll hear atheists argue that “you don’t have to believe in God to be a moral person.” I agree! I know from my own experience that atheists can be moral people and do good deeds. What I couldn’t do, as an atheist, was to give a compelling reason why I had this moral sense, or to explain why I recognized that my efforts to be good always fell short of my ideals.
I also didn’t understand, then, that Christian teachings on virtue and morality were anything other than a set of rules and pious slogans – I didn’t know that the Church offered a relationship with a living Person who would, if you would allow it, actually do something to change and transform you into a new person, a fully alive person… But that was a something that took quite a while to understand, and indeed it’s only since I’ve become a Catholic that I’ve begun to fully appreciate the fullness and transformative power of God’s grace, above all through the Eucharist. It’s a completely different paradigm.
BRANDON: You followed a unique route to God, one that was philosophical but just as much literary. How did your background as an English professor fuel your conversion, and how did the imagination play a significant role?
HOLLY: I wasn’t interested in hearing arguments about God, or reading the Bible, but God’s grace was working through my imagination… like a draft flowing under a closed and locked door.
To begin with, classic Christian literature planted seeds in my imagination as a young girl, something I write about in more detail in my book. Later, Christian authors provided dissenting voices to the naturalistic narrative that I’d accepted—the only possible dissenting voice, since I wasn’t interested in reading anything that directly dealt with the subject of faith or Christianity, and thus wasn’t exposed to serious Christian thought.
I found that my favorite authors were men and women of deep Christian faith. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien above all; and then the poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, John Donne, and others. Their work was unsettling to my atheist convictions, in part because I couldn’t sort their poetry into neat ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ categories; their faith infused all their work, and the poems that most moved me, from Hopkins’ “The Windhover” to Donne’s Holy Sonnets, were explicitly Christian. I tried to view their faith as a something I could separate from the aesthetic power of their writing, but that kind of compartmentalization didn’t work well, especially not with a work of literature as rich and complex as The Lord of the Rings.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that I needed to ask more questions. I needed to find out what a man like Donne meant when he talked about faith in God, because whatever he meant, it didn’t seem to be ‘blind faith, contrary to reason’.
The Christian writers did more than pique my interest as to the meaning of ‘faith’. Over the years, reading works like the Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings, and Hopkins’ poetry had given me a glimpse of a different way of seeing the world. It was a vision of the world that was richly meaningful and beautiful, and that also made sense of both the joy and sorrow, the light and dark that I could see and experience. My atheist view of the world was, in comparison, narrow and flat; it could not explain why I was moved by beauty and cared about truth. The Christian claim might not be true, I thought to myself, but it was had depth to it that was worth investigating.
BRANDON: For years you trained as a competitive fencer, traveling to tournaments across the country (and winning not a few awards.) How did fencing relate to your conversion?
HOLLY: Fencing related to my conversion in several ways, but most directly, through the witness of my fencing coach! It was a surprise to me, after working with my coach for about a year, to learn that he was a Christian. He was an exemplary coach, very patient (and I wasn’t the easiest student!), intelligent, and thoughtful, yet clearly a committed Christian, and thus he challenged my stereotypes about Christians as being pushy and thoughtless. So, when I became curious about what Christians really believed—when poetry had done its work!—I realized that I could ask my coach questions and feel safe and respected while having a dialogue about these issues.
After I became a Christian, fencing became an avenue for discipleship and a real-time metaphor for growing in the Christian life. “Taking up the sword of the Spirit” resonated with me!
BRANDON: In Not God's Type, you recount several books that proved helpful during your exploration. What were some of them?
HOLLY: I read a lot of books! C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was one of the most important ones, particularly with regard to his moral argument, but also for the way that he provides vivid images and analogies to illuminate what words like ‘faith’ and ‘repentance’ mean.
For the philosophical and historical questions, I was particularly helped by a book called Does God Exist?, a debate between J.P. Moreland (a Christian) and Kai Nielsen (an atheist), articles by philosopher William Lane Craig, and the book In Defense of Miracles, which includes David Hume’s famous argument against miracles as well as arguments for the possibility of miracles. One of the most important books I read was N.T. Wright’s magisterial scholarly work The Resurrection of the Son of God, which convinced me that the Resurrection was a fact of history.
Literature also helped me along the way. In particular, the Chronicles of Narnia helped me connect my intellect and my imagination, so that I grasped the meaning of the Incarnation and saw its importance not as an abstract idea, but as something that impacted my life.
BRANDON: Perhaps the key hinge of your conversion was when you came to believe in the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What evidence led you to that conclusion?
HOLLY: One of the first steps to that conclusion was my realization that miracles are both possible and rational. Since I had come (on other grounds) to believe that there is a transcendent Creator who is the source of morality, order, and rationality, then it made sense that the physical world was orderly and comprehensible, with natural causes operating in a regular way, but also that there was a supernatural dimension of reality. Just as I could allow nature to take its course in a garden, or I could act to alter the course of ‘natural’ events by planting a tree or pulling up a seedling, it was rational to suppose that the Creator could work with natural causes or could act directly, intervening in history. So I was willing to consider at least the possibility that a particular miracle could have happened: the Resurrection.
There were many pieces of evidence that all fit together to make a convincing case for the Resurrection; I’ll mention just a couple here. One of them is the behavior of the disciples before and after the Resurrection. The Gospel accounts do not portray their behavior after the Crucifixion in a particularly flattering light. Even though Jesus had predicted his own resurrection, the disciples gave up and went away, assuming that Jesus was a failed messiah. If the disciples had made up the Resurrection story afterwards, why would they have included details that made them look disloyal and cowardly? My academic studies in literature allowed me to recognize that the Gospels were written as history, not myth or parable, and that there hadn’t been enough time for a legend to form. It began to seem like the best explanation for all these events being recounted this way, was that they really happened.
Then, after the Resurrection, there’s a complete turn-around in their behavior, and they become bold proclaimers of the Risen Lord. There were plenty of words that people in ancient times could have used to describe visions or sightings of ghosts, and indeed, such language would have gotten them in much less trouble! But they spoke of a Jesus who was alive, bodily resurrected, and in short order were willing to die for that claim.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence for the Resurrection, though, was the Church itself. If I supposed that the Church had invented the Resurrection to explain its own worship of Jesus, I had to ask, how did that worship arise in the first place? If the Church was not the result of a miracle, it was itself a miracle.
It’s important to say that there was no single, knock-out piece of evidence that convinced me; I was convinced by the cumulative claim, the way it all fit together. Historical events can’t be proved like a math problem or tested like a scientific hypothesis, and there’s always a way to form an alternate explanation. But just because an alternative exists doesn’t mean it’s is equally reasonable or likely. Speaking within my own field of literature, there are people who claim that William Shakespeare didn’t really write his plays. There are even a few legitimately fuzzy areas: for instance, a few of his plays were co-authored, and it seems likely to me that at least one passage in Macbeth (Hecate’s speech) was a later interpolation. Nonetheless, the evidence taken as whole points to Shakespearean authorship!
So, that’s what happened with my assessment of the Resurrection, except with even more convincing reasons to support the Christian claim. The evidence was best explained by concluding that the Resurrection really happened. And having come to that conclusion, I knew that there were implications in my life. I had to ask myself: “What does this mean for me? What do I do now…?”
That’s where the imagination had a role, once again: in helping me make the connection between intellect and will. Indeed, imaginative literature continues to play an important part in my Christian life. Great novels and poetry nourish me as a Catholic, helping me to grow in the faith—and to delight in it.
(Photo credit: Lancia Smith)