An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

Atheist conversions stories, particularly those involving highly credentialed intellectuals (so-called “unlikely converts”) who have found the evidence for Christianity sufficiently compelling, sometimes give the impression that the project of apologetics is limited to articulating the classical arguments for Christianity’s assertions. To the contrary, there is a growing and dynamic sub-discipline known as “cultural apologetics” that capitalizes upon the truth, beauty, and goodness found in great works of literature, fine art, and film in an effort to bridge the intellect with the powerful inner longings and intuitions we experience as human beings. In other words, while evidential and logical arguments cater to our rationality, cultural apologetics appeals to the imagination. In her conversion memoir, Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, English scholar and cultural apologist, Dr. Holly Ordway, winsomely relates the critical roles both imaginative literature and classical apologetics played in her journey to faith. The result is a testimony that offers sharp insights about the importance and effectiveness of a well-rounded approach to evangelism.

From the outset of her story, Ordway leaves no room for doubting her former atheistic convictions: “I was an atheist college professor, and I delighted in thinking of myself that way…I thought ‘faith’ was a meaningless word, that so-called believers were either hypocrites or self-deluded fools…I was not looking for God. Make no mistake; I did not believe he existed. I did not even wonder.” This worldview was not explicitly instilled in her by her upbringing, which she describes as nonreligious but not antagonistic towards the faith. It wouldn’t be until her years in graduate school that her atheism would crystallize, due in part to a lack of exposure to the philosophical and historical grounds for taking Christianity seriously and negative experiences with misguided Christians.

Yet, with the clarity of illuminated hindsight, Ordway recognizes the unbroken, scarlet thread of grace woven into her life, tracing it back to an early and well-cultivated love of good literature. Mythology and fantasy were her particular favorites, and certain works sowed seeds in her soul that remained dormant for many years, but later bore abundant fruit. “[A]t some point in my childhood,” she writes, “I found J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately…Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with a Christian vision.” In college, it would be poetry that planted more seeds, especially the verses of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her heart exulted in the beauty and profundity of Hopkins’ poems, “But,” Ordway laments, “I didn’t know I’d found something real; I let it slip through my fingers.” The thread held strong through the ensuing years, even as Ordway’s aversion to Christianity was intensifying. Paradoxically, she chose The Lord of the Rings as the centerpiece of her doctoral dissertation, a work that, providentially, underscored truths quite at odds with her atheism: “The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the evangelium, the good news. I didn’t know, then, that my imagination had been, as it were, baptized in Middle-earth.”

It was during her undergraduate college years that Ordway had taken up the sport of fencing—something that, in more ways than one, would become a monumental part of her journey. Fencing held romantic appeal for a young woman who loved stories of sword-wielding heroes (and heroines), and it served as a gleaming link between her imaginative and “real life” experience. After completing her doctoral work, she relocated to the West Coast, but continued fencing competitively while working as a professor of English. It was at her new fencing club that she came under the instruction of a well-educated, thoughtful coach—who also happened to be a gifted Christian apologist. Ordway recounts the admiration and respect she developed for him as both her teacher and her friend; a genuine trust was established that, combined with a shared fondness for Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, spawned a series of philosophical conversations about the existence of God. Over the course of several months, her coach would patiently answer her questions and lend her scholarly books to consider. Eventually, her intellectual stumbling blocks crumbled, and her rationality and imagination finally and fully coalesced. She tentatively embraced theism and soon after, full-fledged Christianity. But her journey would take another important turn years later, this time to the Roman Catholic Church, where she found her true home.

The philosophical arguments that served as a catalyst in Ordway’s assent to theism and the evidence that subsequently convinced her of the reality of the risen Christ are presented with clarity and purpose—that the reader may understand and appreciate the intellectual dimension of her journey. Ordway’s candidness about the contrast between her coach’s wise and charitable approach to communicating the Gospel and that of Christians she had previously encountered is highly instructive: “[He and his wife] offered no Bible quotes. No sharing of how God had worked in their lives. No appeal to my happiness or peace of mind. What, then? Philosophy. Ideas. Dialogue.” Something else that stands out is Ordway’s unapologetic acknowledgement that major elements of her change of heart were, by nature, subjective. Logic and the evidence were integral, but it was her human longings, her inner imaginative life, and the meaning and truth she discerned—often unconsciously—in great literature that had long been preparing her soul to receive the Source of all truth. She demonstrates that man’s existential intuitions and desires are vitally important, and this should make a difference in the project of Christian apologetics.

Ordway’s story is much more than a conversion account; it is a poignant image of Christ’s love and grace, of God’s desire to draw lost men unto himself. Even during the darkest days of her atheism God was doing a secret work in her soul through literature. Moreover, Ordway is a brilliant writer; she powerfully articulates both the bleakness of the godless condition and the magnificence of communion with Christ. The inclusion of key quotations from the works of scholars who were central to her investigation—most notably Gerard Manly Hopkins, C.S. Lewis, and N.T. Wright—lend a special richness to the reading experience. At times, Ordway’s own words spring up and nearly knock the breath from you with their simple, raw beauty. Remembering her years spent as a steadfast atheist, she says, “I had locked myself into my fortress and flung away the key. But even a fortress may have windows; and over it is the sky; and its stones rest on the good earth…” And in describing her first conscious experience of the presence of God she writes, “Everything felt sharp-edged, preternaturally clear; as if the very rocks and trees and sky were poised to reveal some meaning beyond themselves. I felt the presence of something…Someone…that was within me, yet outside or beyond myself. With a feeling something like dread, and certainly like fear, I recognized what it was: an experience of the Other.”

Not God’s Type is a true delight; it is at once spiritually edifying, thoughtful, and erudite. Proponents of classical liberal arts education should celebrate it as a modern testament of the spiritual potency of experiencing God’s truth through great literature. Christian readers will gain essential insight on being intelligent, wise, and benevolent representatives of Christ in their interpersonal interactions with antagonists of the faith. Non-believers will find that the book is never overbearing or preachy; perhaps they will come away with a more accurate understanding of the rational underpinnings of Christianity (it is not, after all, a blind faith), fewer misconceptions about believers, and heightened awareness of the ultimate ramifications of atheism.

This review appears in the Spring 2015 edition of Journal of Faith and the Academy.

Christian Parenting and Education Decisions

Are you struggling to make a decision about your children’s education? Have you been pondering whether or not a change in education method would be wise? If so, this post is for you (but everyone else is welcome to stay, too :-) ).

In my suburban community, I frequently encounter parents (particularly mothers) who exhibit a high degree of concern and awareness about nutrition, exercise, and natural alternatives to pharmaceuticals. They read stacks of books, numerous articles, and follow various blogs on these topics. They even host or attend classes on how to treat common ailments with diet changes, vitamin supplements, and/or plant-based remedies. I enjoy gleaning tips from them and I commend them for acting in accordance with what they’ve determined–through acquisition of knowledge–to be a more physically healthful lifestyle for themselves and their families. The chain of reasoning seems to be:

1. Physical health is of high importance.

2. A lifestyle conducive to excellent health, to the best of my knowledge, includes X, Y, and Z.

3. Therefore, I should do X, Y, and Z.

But what if someone were to say, “Well, I don’t know if good nutrition and exercise is God’s will for me and my family. I’ll have to pray for His direction about that. His plan is different for everyone.”  That sounds utterly absurd, doesn’t it? Of course we should take the best care of the bodies we’ve been given and help our families to follow suit; in this we honor our Creator and reap the wellness benefits.

This is why I am deeply puzzled when someone makes a statement like this concerning a decision about their children’s education. After all, education is instrumental in the health of the soul. If one believes that we are creatures made up of body and soul, and that the state of the soul has eternal ramifications, then soul-health should be our highest priority.

Please hear me: I recognize that having more than one education option is a luxury not everyone has. The point I want to make here is that when it comes to making a decision about a child’s education, when there is more than one option available, the decision to live a healthful lifestyle can be used as an analogy for the education decision-making process.  

I think the chain of reasoning can be similarly formulated this way:

1. The health of the soul is of highest importance.

2. The education one receives (academic, spiritual, practical) directly impacts the health of the soul.

3. The education that best edifies the soul, to the best of my knowledge, includes components X, Y, and Z.

4. Therefore, the best education choice is the option that includes X, Y, and Z..

For Christians, #1 and #2 above should be foregone conclusions. Education instills within a person’s soul ideas about goodness and objective truth. Number 3 is the premise that requires parents to investigate and ask serious questions. What elements of an education provide edification of the soul?

I’ve thought long and hard and researched quite a bit concerning this question, and though I do not claim to be an authority on Christian philosophy of education, I feel confident in some of the conclusions I’ve reached.

  • All truth is God’s truth. Full integration of the academic disciplines with higher truth principles ultimately models what Christians claim to believe about reality. Artificial compartmentalization of the secular and the sacred can undermine (evidence implies it does undermine) the rightful goal of instilling a robust worldview into our children. Those with a strong academic/inquisitive bent will be more affected by such a split, I believe.
  • Regular opportunities to learn in community with peers provide an unparalleled stimulus for critical thinking and learning to extend respect and grace to those with whom one may disagree.
  • The value of conversational learning cannot be overestimated. Spontaneous discussions that arise during a lesson of any kind are incredibly effective teaching opportunities. I say this based on experience as a home educator, Sunday school teacher, and college professor. An emotionally safe environment that fosters lots of conversational learning, with no questions being off-limits, is the ideal.
  • The most effective education is tailored to the individual student’s learning style, limitations, and personality.

If these are my informed conclusions about specific elements of an education that promotes the health of the soul, then I can move on to step #4 (see above). What I’ve done here is combine biblical principles with basic logic. As I act according to my conclusion, I continually pray for guidance concerning the particulars of carrying out my chosen model of education and ongoing insights about #3. I would like to note that I do not believe homeschooling is the only viable candidate.

It is my view that, when it comes to making certain kinds of decisions, a method applies. We can (and so should) use known biblical principles, our God-given rationality, and our research capabilities. Most would say this is true for making decisions about our physical health, and that we don’t have to wait for special divine direction on whether or not good health should be a priority in our lives. I believe this method also beautifully applies to making choices about soul health, and above all else, education should be about the well-being and improvement of the soul.

Postscript: For parents who only have one, perhaps less-than-ideal education option open to them, I believe the principles I’ve highlighted above could be used as a guide for helping to shape their children’s intellectual development through supplementary learning activities. 

Free Will: The Soul is the Sole Option

In my previous post, “The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience,” I discussed one of the logical difficulties that plague physicalism’s claim that we are our brains and nothing more. I now wish to turn to what I believe is an intractable problem for those who deny the existence of the immaterial soul: the impossibility of free will.*

Remember that in the materialist/physicalist picture of the world, there exists nothing other than matter in motion, so there is no such thing as an immaterial soul. The direct implication of this is that every single neurochemical event in our brains must be the result of the neurochemical event that preceded it. Essentially, our thought processes are nothing but chemical chain reactions subject to physical environmental influences. All of our beliefs, desires, emotions, and actions are inevitable and can be comprehensively explained at the molecular level. We cannot really make conscious decisions and we cannot take voluntary actions. We feel as if we do these things with freedom, but that “freedom” is only illusory. Sure, we are conscious that we act according to a desire, but that desire is nothing more than the chemical step preceding the one that produces the related thought or action.550px-Draw-a-Brain-Step-20

In a nutshell: physicalism entails determinism and determinism eliminates any possibility of true free will; you are an organic machine running on chemical software.

In sharp contrast, the substance dualist holds that there is an immaterial soul that serves as the seat of cognition and free will. While all thought and action involves neurochemical activity, the soul is the “self” that transcends brain function and can direct some of this activity. The soul acts as an operator of sorts, one that can freely choose rational and physical actions. For example, I can choose to examine the evidence related to the existence of God, systematically apply the laws of logic to the information I have, and then choose my conclusion accordingly. But if there is no “I” to which my neurochemistry is subordinate, then my conclusion was the outcome of a chain reaction over which I had no control.

Think of the implications here. If physicalism is true, we can’t justify holding anyone accountable for their actions, because humans don’t really have free choice in anything. It would be like prosecuting a machine for doing what its programming predetermined it to do. Furthermore, the physicalist cannot claim that they reached their view by thinking through the evidence in a rational manner, because such a process would involve the ability to deliberate with total freedom. No freedom, no rationality. What a dilemma.

Isn’t it funny, then, that so many physicalists write books trying to convince others of their viewpoint? If their viewpoint is correct, no one can intentionally choose to believe it. Wouldn’t that make those book-writing efforts utterly futile? ;-)

Prager University has a fantastic short video that explains the relationship between the soul, free will, and rationality. Enjoy!

*By “free will,” I mean libertarian free will.

The Existence of the Soul: Philosophy, Not Neuroscience

In the first part of this series on the existence of the soul, “Man: Mind Over Matter or Mindful Matter?” I made the claim that “Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.” Remember, physicalism is the view that we are nothing more than our physical bodies and everything about us, from consciousness to higher rationality, can be explained by biochemical processes.[1] In philosopher-speak: I am identical with my material body. In this installment, I will discuss one of the several major problems with this view.

Many physicalists (both theist and non-theist) point to the great strides the neurosciences have made in correlating brain states (neuron firing patterns) with mental states (conscious experiences). For instance, if stimulation of brain region Q in a subject who is anesthetized but awake results in the subject reporting an experience of tasting an orange, the physicalist conclusion is that the mental state (tasting an orange) simply is an event in brain region Q. They are one and the same thing, and there is no need to posit a soul to explain the conscious experience. This is known as mind-brain identity theory.

I believe this conclusion is unjustified, and my reasons have nothing to do with the hard sciences. In fact, the problems with mind-brain identity theory would not diminish even if neuroscience manages to one day have comprehensive knowledge of brain physiology. Here I will discuss just one of the problems.

We know from the principle of identity that in order for mental events (M) to simply be brain events (B), everything that is true of M must be true of B, or else they are not one and the same thing. Reflecting upon the properties of M and B, we can see that they do, in fact, have different properties. For one thing, mental events are self-presenting to the person having them, and cannot be accessed by an outside observer (such as the neuroscientist monitoring brain events). The subject experiences the taste of an orange, but the scientist only sees neurons firing in a region of the brain and must ask the subject to report the nature of the inner experience. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have taken this fact to formulate an argument against mind-brain identity:

  1. No physical properties are self-presenting.
  2. At least some mental properties are self-presenting.
  3. Therefore, at least some mental properties are not physical properties. [2]

In other words, we can draw correlations between physical properties (brain states) and mental properties (first-person experience) all day long, but the fact remains that they cannot be one and the same thing. Stimulation of a brain region may cause neurons to fire in a certain pattern which in turn causes the orangey taste sensation, but there still must be a transcendent self having the conscious experience. Note that those who believe that immaterial souls exist do not deny the causal relationship between the brain and mental events; rather, they argue that the physical data cannot, by its nature, tell the whole story.

millGottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), famous German mathematician and philosopher, anticipated this kind of argument with his famous mill analogy (think of the old-fashioned mills that were run by flowing water turning a water-wheel connected to gears and pulleys which operated a grinding apparatus inside the mill house). Leibniz likens the mechanical mill to the physical human brain:

If we imagine that there is a machine whose structure makes it think, sense, and have perceptions, we could conceive it enlarged, keeping the same proportions, so that we could enter into it, as one enters into a mill. Assuming that, when inspecting its interior, we will only find parts that push one another, and we will never find anything to explain a perception. And so, we should seek perception in the simple substance and not in the composite or in the machine.

By “simple substance,” Leibniz is referring to the indivisible immaterial mind, which is the perceiver, the experiencer of sensations that are brought to it through sensory organs and brain events. Furthermore, he hints to the problem of consciousness, which continues to plague physicalist accounts of mind.

Ultimately, positing the soul is a metaphysical move, not a scientific one, and is a supplement to neuroscience in explaining our mental lives. Those who claim that science has made the soul superfluous are mistaken. Moreland says that

once we get clear on the central first and second order issues in philosophy of mind, it becomes evident that stating and resolving those issues is basically a (theological and) philosophical matter for which discoveries in the hard sciences are largely irrelevant. [3]

I love Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz’s remark in their book, A Brief History of the Soul: 

One cannot help but wonder if this alleged challenge from science against belief in the soul’s existence is much ado about nothing. [4]

Stay tuned for Part 3!

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[1] For those keeping score, by “physicalism” I mean reductive physicalism; I think non-reductive versions are incoherent, but that’s a discussion I will save for another time.

[2] J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (2003), 234.

[3] J.P. Moreland, Consciousness and the Existence of God (2008), 158.

[4] Charles Taliaferro and Steward Goetz, A Brief History of the Soul (2011), 152.

Mankind: Mind Over Matter or Mindful Matter?

After the question, “Does God exist?” the next most important question a human being can ask is:

“What am I?”

According to the view known as physicalsim, a human being is identical with the material stuff of their bodies. In other words, we are our bodies and nothing more; we are self-aware, animated meat inevitably destined to become dead meat.

The competing view (which I hold), substance dualism, says that man is more than the material sum of his parts. His personal identity is grounded in an immaterial entity commonly referred to as the mind or the soul, which has an interactive relationship with the physical body/brain.

Famous philosophers of the Early Modern/Enlightenment era recognized the centrality of the soul question and some of the major implications of each view. Rene Descartes (1596-1650), the brilliant mathematician and Father of Modern Philosophy, said that if our nature is no different from that of other living things, then “after this life we have nothing to fear or to hope for, any more than the flies and the ants” (Discourse on Method, V). In other words, if we do not have souls that survive the death of our bodies, our existence ends at death, just like that of insects. Descartes was a Christian who strongly endorsed dualism (you may be familiar with the label “Cartesian dualism”).

A contemporary of Descartes’, another renowned mathematician/philosopher, Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) also stressed the importance of the soul question: “The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is…our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject” (Pensees, III.194). He, too, was a dualist and a Christian.

BrainContrary to what you may be thinking, not every Christian theist is a substance dualist; there are some who believe that we are nothing more than our bodies, that our minds are the sum total of our brain activity, and that we will cease to exist at death. Proponents of this materialist view maintain belief in an afterlife by postulating that the resurrection of believers at the end of all things will involve our reconstitution, complete with our same consciousness and memories. I make note of this alternative view because it nullifies the fallacious accusation, “You’re only a substance dualist because you’re a Christian.” In fact, I hold the substance dualism view because I believe it has far more explanatory power and logical coherence than physicalism. It makes better sense of what we observe about ourselves through introspection and about the external world. That it is less problematic when it comes to understanding biblical anthropology is, of course, a huge bonus for the Christian theist.

Another common misconception is that advances in neuroscience have undermined the case for the soul, or that future progress in neuroscience will close any explanatory gaps that remain. This isn’t the case. Some of the deep problems that plague physicalism cannot be solved by simply understanding the material brain better. They transcend neuroscience.

This concludes Part I of a two-part series. In my next post, I will offer examples of the problems faced by physicalism and give reasons why the soul hypothesis is a superior option for explaining  observable reality.