Throughout the month of February, this column will be featuring stories of noted atheists who experienced dramatic shifts in their views, eventually becoming Christians. The stories will highlight the reasons why they held their atheistic views to begin with, and the reasons they became convinced of the truth of Christianity.
As a schoolgirl, young Holly Ordway stood at the bus stop waiting to be taken to school when a boy asked her conversationally, “Do you believe in God?”
Holly had to think about this. Her family put out a nativity scene at Christmas. They listened to carols on the radio, and her mother wouldn’t let her say “Oh my God!” because of the implied disrespect. Beyond that, there was not much consideration given to God or religion in her household.
Finally, Holly responded “I don’t know. Maybe God’s real, and maybe not.”
“Oh,” replied the boy, “you’re an agnostic.”
Holly was happy to have learned a new word. She was an avid reader, even at the age of eight, and was always interested in expanding her vocabulary and opening new horizons. Her precocious quest for knowledge would become evident as her school career rocketed her toward academic success.
As far as the issue of religion went, Holly was quite concerned with meaning, belonging and issues of right and wrong as a teenager, but it never occurred to her to seek out any answers in religion or theology. By the time she was in college, she had dismissed religion entirely, and from there, transitioned into a hard-core atheist as an adult:
“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.”
Ordway’s love of reading from an early age was decisive in her career path. She pursued and obtained her PhD in literature from UMass-Amherst. She then obtained a professorship teaching English literature and composition at MiraCosta College in California, passing on her passion for literature and writing to the next generation while pursuing her other passion of competitive fencing on the side.
One of the struggles that Ordway continued to have was finding an anchor for her moral sense within her atheism:
“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.”
This came sharply into focus for Holly during the events of 9/11. As the towers toppled, Holly faced an internal struggle. Part of her knew that the true and proper response to this event was a sort of universal anguish and grief: that this was indeed a tragedy. However, the atheist in her rejected this notion. People died every day. Hundreds of thousands of people died every day. To call this event “tragic” or “evil” would have taken her into a realm of objective morality; one she simply couldn’t justify.
So she grit her teeth, turned her head, and pretended the conflict didn’t exist.
Ordway had been enthralled from childhood with the beauty of words and literature. This appreciation and sense of beauty was also something difficult to ground within her atheistic worldview, especially since it was her daily job to pass this appreciation along to her students:
“It is a universal human experience to appreciate beauty, and this leads to the consideration of whether beauty might in fact be objectively real – not solely in the eye of the beholder – and if so, whether there are other transcendent values beyond beauty, like truth and goodness. To be sure, there are cultural variations in what people describe as beautiful, but these variations are minor compared to the fundamental shared experiences. Not all cultures respond in the Western Romantic way to landscape as an experience of the sublime, but it is difficult to imagine a culture where the typical response to seeing a sunset was “That’s ugly! I wish the sky wouldn’t turn those weird colors.” Conversely, although people may become accustomed to living in poor sanitary conditions, I can’t imagine someone saying, “Our house will be made more beautiful by throwing trash on the floor.””
It was Ordway’s appreciation of the beauty and meaning found in literature which eventually led her to the belief that there might be a deeper – indeed, spiritual – reality: Looking back across her lifelong love of reading, she came to understand that this was a realization that was dawning upon her since childhood:
“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.”
This investigation was spurred on by her fencing coach, a man whom Ordway greatly respected. She had been working with this caring, patient and very intelligent man for over a year when she discovered, to her surprise, that he was a Christian. She had always thought of Christians as pushy and thoughtless, and realized that this man did not fit her preconceptions at all. She felt safe in asking him questions about Christian beliefs.
She also expanded her reading into legitimately Christian works, starting with C.S. Lewis, for whom she already had a great appreciation. Her reading included Mere Christianity, Does God Exist, In Defense of Miracles, and The Resurrection of the Son of God.
Ordway became a Christian in 2007. Since then she has gone back to graduate school to study Christian apologetics, receiving her second MA from Biola University. She currently sits as the Chair of the Department of Apologetics and Director of the MA in Apologetics at Houston Baptist University. She describes herself as a “teacher of teachers,” equipping the next generation of apologists for the Christian worldview. She regularly travels, speaks and debates on Christian Apologetics, and has published several works on the subject, including her autobiography, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms.