Before I Start Reading / First Impressions
Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms by Holly Ordway was a birthday gift for myself from my parents. The rant about how a “please be Catholic again” gift is perfectly appropriate in their eyes to give to me for an occasion, when I’m sure all Hell would break loose if I gave them a “please at least consider that you might be wrong in some of your scientific conclusions” gift completely outside of their birthdays or any holidays, is a topic for another post.
This book in particular was chosen for me because I have been a fan of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. From the cover, it seems this is the personal story of a woman who had been an atheist but was converted to Catholicism by reading the “wrong” books, including those two authors.
My educated guess is that Holly converted for emotional and not intellectual reasons. Let’s see if the book tells that story or surprises me by actually answering any of my intellectual reasons for leaving Catholicism, well or poorly.
Foreword / Preface
“Intellectuals have given themselves a bad name.” -pg. xi
Wow, first sentence and I hate this book already!
“It was imagination that made Christian concepts meaningful to me.” -pg. xv
This is a huge red flag. If you need imagination to make something meaningful, and not facts, how can you be sure it is really reality and not fantasy?
“When I encountered arguments and evidence for Christianity, my reason was finally able to align with my imagination, which, like a compass needle, had tremulously pointed toward true north for many years.” -pg. xvi-vii
Hopefully we see these arguments and evidence.
Chapter 1: A Glorious Defeat
“At the time I became a Christian, outwardly I seemed to have my act together. But I was inwardly wounded, having just come out of a disastrous long-term relationship, one that had been wrongly entered into–as the Church teaches, though I didn’t know it at the time–and painfully ended.” -pg. 2
In other words, this woman rebounded to Jesus. Granted, rebounds are not always the worst thing, and another person going to Christianity for emotional reasons doesn’t automatically make it false, but this does demonstrate that Holly was emotionally vulnerable when she converted. If someone claimed to have left Catholicism for atheism because atheism is true, and then said they were extremely emotionally vulnerable at the time of deconversion, almost any Christian would say, “Oh, so you just are angry at God!”
This chapter also talks about how the author saw herself as “‘nice’ and ‘good’” before her conversion but now sees herself as full of fault. Does this sound like an abusive relationship to anyone else?
Chapter 2: The Dark Wood
“The difficulty was not a lack of opportunity to hear about God. The problem lay deeper: in my very concept of what faith was. I thought faith was by definition irrational, that it meant believing some assertion to be true for no reason. It had never occurred to me that there could be a path to faith in God involving reason, or that there might be evidence for the claims of Christianity. I thought you had to ‘just have faith’–and the very idea of faith baffled and horrified me.” -pg. 7
As I mentioned before, hopefully we see some of that reasoning and evidence. Maybe it will even be better than the same old faulty reasoning and barely-worthy-of-the-name “evidence” that I grew up with and have seen a million times.
“I set it up like this: imagine that you tell me, ‘If you believe that there’s an invisible pink unicorn in the sky, I’ll give you a new BMW.’ I see the car in the parking lot; you jingle the keys in your hands. If I can believe what you want me to believe, the new car is mine. Cool! But it’s a waste of time: I know there’s no unicorn. No matter how much I want that car, I am incapable of believing something contrary to reason in order to get it.
“Believing something irrational on demand to get a prize: that is what the evangelical invitation to ‘accept Jesus and get eternal life in heaven!’ sounded like to me.” -pg. 7
Hey, this is a good sign! This author actually has a basic understanding of the atheist position! As I’m sure all of my atheist readers know, this is extremely rare to find in atheist-to-Christian conversion stories, works of apologetics, and Christian writing in general. It’s pleasant.
“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 than the poor, deluded Christians.” -pg. 9
Well, she may understand atheism, but she didn’t (I’m guessing doesn’t) have a firm grasp on skepticism, which is an important part of most people’s path to atheism. Unlike her, I do know a great deal about Christianity, and it is largely not by reading books by the likes of Richard Dawkins that I “maintain my atheism”; during my formative years and my deconversion years, it was almost exclusively pro-Christian works to which I turned, and I found that the arguments just didn’t stand as the fortress I had thought they were.
Chapter 3: Alone in the Fortress of Atheism
“I didn’t believe in God, but I had a worldview that felt perfectly satisfactory. It wasn’t a particularly cheery view, but I preferred truth over comfort any day.” -pg. 10
This does describe where I am now.
“I held that I was the product of blind chance working over millions of years, a member of a species that happened to be more intelligent than other mammals but was not unique. I thought I was a social creature because that was how humans evolved; the language that I delighted in using was just a tool that humans had developed along the way.” -pg. 11
Most if not all of that is objectively true and provable. A true religion would account for those facts, not contradict them.
“If I had been consistent, I would have embraced the theories of literary criticism that treated stories and poems as language games with no meaning outside the text, or that pronounced language itself to be self-contradictory and meaningless, but I didn’t; one of the reasons I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the little-regarded genre of fantasy was that I wanted to avoid that kind of literary theory and stick to a more traditional, meaning-based interpretation of the books. Even though in doing so I was contradicting the principles that undergirded my atheism, I treated art, music, and literature as if they had real meaning. I studiously avoided thinking through why I did this.” -pg. 11
I don’t see how this makes any sense; there seems to be a huge non sequitur here, or perhaps there are just a lot of steps missing in the logic. After all, it is humans that put meaning into literature, because we are the ones that invented it. I don’t see how whether god exists could affect the amount of meaning in literature.
“I vaguely thought of ‘personhood’ as defined by self-awareness and intelligence, though I found that this position raised disturbing questions. I thought abortion was acceptable, but how was that so different from infanticide? If what made a genuine ‘person’ was a functioning mind and body, were the lives of the profoundly disabled or the mentally handicapped meaningful at all? Once the mind was gone, did a person have a right to live? One day I caught myself thinking favorably about euthanasia for the severely handicapped. Although I backed away from the idea immediately, I felt queasy that I’d taken it seriously even for a moment. I was aware that there was something badly wrong with the reasoning that led to ideas like this, but I preferred not to think about why.” -pg. 11-12
This is an appeal to consequences. Not liking the results of an idea does not make the opposite true. Also, it is entirely possible to be pro-life without a deity (see Christopher Hitchens) and to be pro-choice without discussing whether the fetus is a person (see the bodily autonomy argument).
This paragraph is where the book really starts to sound like just another in the long line of apologetics books written to bolster the faith of those who already accept Christianity.
“Behind all of my consciously articulated views was the same premise: there is no God, no ultimate meaning beyond ourselves.” -pg. 12
This is a neat sleight-of-hand, because there are actually two premises here. Whether there is a god is a separate question from whether there is ultimate meaning. If there is a god, it could very well still be the case that there is no ultimate meaning. Christians often act as though Yahweh is the only god worth considering (I’m guilty of that myself), ignoring that there are approximately 3000 other gods humans have worshipped. To me, choosing my own life meaning of “I will strive to do as much good and as little harm as possible, leaving at least some portion of the world better than I found it” is much more meaningful than a deity, who clearly doesn’t care enough about me to make sure I know he exists, ordering me to worship him.
“Atheism, when consistently lived out, leads to self-deception or despair. Self-constructed meaning is only a stop-gap: it is real only in the sense that a stage set of Elsinore Castle is a real place. One can suspend disbelief while Hamlet is being performed, but at some point, the curtain falls and one must leave the theater. What’s to be done when Helping Others, Doing Good Work, and Having Friends are recognized as paint and canvas and trick lighting?” -pg. 12
Why does choosing meaning for ourselves make it a trick? Why isn’t helping others (which is the same as doing good work) and having friends enough reason to live? Why do you feel the need to prostrate before some deity to have worth instead of seeing yourself as worthwhile simply for being one of the extremely few beings lucky enough to exist?
The chapter continues on in this vein, including a dig at those countries which are “dogmatically atheist” for having a poor track record of human rights. This of course ignores the fact that some of the best places to live today are almost entirely populated by atheists (see Norway). It also ignores how many human rights violations have been the direct result of religion (Crusades, ISIS, and the author herself has already admitted that becoming religious has made her stop being a feminist, just to name the top three examples off the top of my head). Again, this is an appeal to consequences. It’s subtle but clear that this author is edging her readers towards the idea that religion should be followed even if it isn’t true. That’s simply unacceptable to me as a person who values integrity.
“My atheism was eating into my heart like acid. On 9/11 I was genuinely shocked by that vicious destruction of innocent life, until I began to rationalize myself out of my emotional reaction. What did these people matter to me? Weren’t thousands killed every year in automobile accidents? Why should I grieve for strangers? It worked; I stopped caring.” -pg. 16-17
That isn’t atheism; that’s nihilism. Lots of atheists are not nihilists, and lots of atheists were shocked by 9/11 because it was a time when our citizens were murdered on our soil by religiously motivated terrorists. You can’t claim religion is a source of peace and then talk about 9/11. Humans almost never kill each other without religion (or more general tribalism), orders, or mental illness. On 9/11, the motivation was pretty clearly religion.
The chapter also mentions many of the common ways that Christians often claim atheists are inconsistent, such as an inability to account for rationality or morality. I won’t go into those arguments here because I don’t really see a need; they are rehashed all over the atheist and Christian blogospheres, and surely my readers are already familiar.
The book has Interludes periodically, and the first one is after this chapter. Judging by the first, I will not have anything to say about them. This one was a personal anecdote about how she was touched after her conversion by Good Friday prayers that just a few years prior were for her.
Chapter 4: The Invisible Lamp
“Long before I gave any thought about whether Christianity was true, and long before I considered questions of faith and practice, my imagination was being fed Christianly.” -pg. 24
This quote is the main idea I took away from this chapter. It mainly talks about the books Holly read, and how much she enjoyed Star Trek. It also basically says that Tolkien’s books are what prepared her for Christianity, along with King Arthur and Narnia. This is unsurprising; after my deconversion, I find I can barely enjoy Tolkien anymore much of the time, because the Catholic themes are so haunting. I do not mean that I avoid books because they are Catholic; it’s just that my experiences of being Catholic and finally leaving Catholicism were deeply traumatic and sometimes a reminder is more than I can handle and stay healthy.
I’ll repeat here what I said during the preface: If you need imagination to make something meaningful, and not facts, how can you be sure it is really reality and not fantasy?
Chapter 5: The Pen and the Sword
“Somehow for Hopkins the sweet and bitter were not opposed; they were part of the same experience of being in the world, and undergirding all of it was something I did not understand at all, never having experienced it or known anyone who had: the reality of God, not as an abstract moral figure or as a name dropped to show off one’s piety, but a dynamic awareness of being in relationship with the trinitarian God, an experienced reality bigger by far than the words used to point to it.” -pg. 33
This chapter appears to largely be describing how deeply Holly emotionally wanted a god. So far, there is absolutely no indication that she converted for anything but emotional reasons and then convinced herself that her imagination reflected reality. She even says, “No: imagination was one thing, and reality was another.” on page 33 as though she no longer understands the difference.
Holly also spends some time in this chapter describing her introduction to and love for fencing, and once again reiterating that she had been rather thoughtless in her atheism.
I worry at this point about misrepresenting this book, but I really haven’t seen anything of substance so far. Holly Ordway has offered no reason to think there is a god in reality, only explained that believing in one has made her happier and better fits the way she wants the universe to be. I happen to agree that reality would be better with a loving figure watching over us, but that doesn’t mean I’m at all willing to believe something without evidence, especially an issue as important as the existence of god.
Chapter 6: Winter and Spring
“I chose to do my dissertation on fantasy because I wanted to spend my time thinking about stories filled with marvels and strangeness, excitement and meaning, even if those stories had, as I thought, no bearing on reality. I focused on Tolkien, because–as I would have said then, just as I say now–The Lord of the Rings is the most important fictional work of the twentieth century. And so it happened that my topic immersed me in a sacramental world and brought me face-to-face with Tolkien’s stirring proclamation of the evangelium in his essay “On Fairy-Stories”. The hook had been set long since, and now the thread began to be drawn in.” -pg. 38
Ok, I’m only gonna say this once. The reason we as a species like fantasy is because we see it as better than reality. If someone converts to a religion because it matches their favorite fantasy, that’s a pretty clear case of just wanting reality to be different than it is.
“It was the winter of my soul. I had no conscious desire to find God; I thought I knew that he did not exist. And yet something was at work in me, just as Hopkins wrote in “The Windhover”: “My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird…”. My heart stirred–for what? For something beyond my experience.” -pg. 42-43
This whole chapter is yet more of Holly talking about how much she wanted more of life than what her atheistic worldview offered. I can sympathize – but wanting something to be real does not make it so.
The second Interlude is at this point, and talks about how the first priest this woman met was genuinely caring and helped her to think “maybe these Christians weren’t so bad after all.” (pg. 46) Good for her – she found out that religious people can be good people. That’s an important lesson to know regardless. What she appears to have forgotten, however, is that religious people can also be the worst of the worst. Also, this is irrelevant to whether religion is true.
Chapter 7: Inching Forward
“I had a lot of negative stereotypes about Christians, and Josh didn’t fit any of them. By now, I knew he was genuine; I couldn’t use my typical explaining away tricks for dismissing his faith. He was a caring and gentle person–though not a pushover–and there was something different about him, something I had never seen before: a kind of peace.” -pg. 47
This chapter is quite short and really just about how getting to know her fencing coach made Holly want to investigate Christianity, because he wasn’t a hypocrite. Really?
Chapter 8: Perfect Justice or Perfect Mercy
This chapter is about a long conversation Holly had with her fencing instructor and his wife.
“I was stunned by the very concept that there were rational arguments for the existence of God.” -pg. 54
I’m not sure how someone could miss that, especially the First Cause argument Holly mentions in this chapter. I’m also not sure how it “made more sense than I wanted to admit” (pg. 55). Sure, it makes some intuitive sense, but we really don’t have the language to talk about it accurately, given that our language doesn’t allow for a “cause” that comes “before” time. It doesn’t appear that this book goes into the actual argument and how it makes sense at all, just that it exists and Holly thought it made sense at the time.
“The coffee cup came into play when I argued that there is no way of knowing if there is an afterlife or not: that when you’re dead, you’re dead and you don’t get to come back and give a report. By way of illustration, I pushed my paper coffee cup into the center of the table. “Look,” I said, “my cup has a lid on it. You can’t tell by looking at it whether or not it has any coffee in it. I might wish it had coffee in it, but I don’t know. The afterlife is like that: it may be there, or not, but there’s just no way for me to know on this side.” Hah! I thought I had it nailed.” -pg. 55
This is a terrible illustration. Anybody could tell whether there is coffee by picking up the cup and seeing whether it weighs something more than an empty cup should. In fact, if the coffee were hot, you could see the steam and know there is coffee that way.
Of course, that is not how Josh the fencing instructor responds. He turns it into a trust exercise, asking if Holly would believe him if he claimed a coffee cup contained coffee. Of course, she would. What Holly failed to realize, perhaps ever, is that there is a world of difference between the claim that there is coffee in a lidded coffee cup and the claim that there is an afterlife. For starters, anyone who lives in a developed country like America can experience a paper lidded coffee cup containing coffee for just a few dollars. It is also a claim of little significance, because even if it turns out that the cup does not contain coffee, a cup of coffee is not horribly expensive. That is a claim that I would accept from a complete stranger, someone I did not trust at all. I might not accept the claim from somebody that I actively distrust, but I would certainly accept it from pretty much anyone. The claim of an afterlife is completely different; it is hugely important, because it could affect how we should live this life, and it is an extraordinary claim, one none of us can claim to have experienced. It isn’t really repeatable, testable, verifiable. It requires more than just somebody’s word; it requires extraordinary evidence, and that just isn’t forthcoming. I would not accept the claim of an afterlife on anybody’s say-so, no matter how much I trusted them. If nothing else, the most honest and trustworthy human individual in the world is still a fallible human who could be deceived or mistaken.
The chapter moves on to the moral argument. Josh asks Holly:
‘“If you could do something wrong that would benefit yourself, and you knew that no one would ever know about it, would you do it?”’ -pg. 56
Of course, Holly says no, but fails to find an answer in her atheistic worldview as to why not.
My answer is different. I would say something like, “It depends on the thing, because maybe I wouldn’t even consider it wrong.” For instance, if I find a hundred dollar bill in a Walmart parking lot, I have at least two options: a) keep it for myself or b) submit it to lost and found (I could also donate it to charity). The odds are pretty good that I’d get it back in thirty days if I turned it in, because unclaimed lost items revert to the person who found them. So, it’s at least somewhat wrong of me to just keep it, right? I might anyway. I almost definitely would keep a twenty dollar bill found in the same manner.
Now, would I steal thousands of dollars from a bank if I knew I would not get caught? I don’t think I would, because I know that hurts the customers of that bank. And that’s the crux of it: I know what actions cause suffering, and I try to do my best to avoid those actions. If something is going to benefit me and not cause suffering, I honestly wouldn’t even consider it wrong in at least 90% of scenarios. This question in particular specifies that no one would know, which could mean that no one would suffer from whatever the action was. However, it could also mean that no one would know the person who did the thing was me. Those are two different scenarios; wrong is wrong regardless of whether the perpetrator is caught, but if there is no injured party, where is the wrong?
“I wanted to know what was true even if I didn’t like it; I wanted to know the answers to these difficult questions more than I wanted peace of mind.” -pg. 57
That was exactly the thinking that led me to atheism.
Chapter 9: On Guard
This chapter expands on the theme that intellectual honesty is important to Holly. She emphasizes again that she wants to believe based on what is true and not what will make her happy. She mentions two books lent to her by her fencing instructor. One is Does God Exist? by Peter Kreeft, an author I have dealt with before (indeed, he is the one who wrote up the list of twenty arguments for the existence of god to which I responded in a series of posts). The other is Making Sense of the New Testament, no author mentioned.
Chapter 10: Crossing Swords
Finally, we get into at least some of the meat of the argument. One of the first things in this chapter is Holly saying that Kreeft refutes her argument “that humans had invented the idea of God for comfort, or out of fear, or to control people, or to explain what was inexplicable in the days before modern science.” (pg. 65) She quotes Kreeft, “when is it reasonable for us to look for such psychological explanations for the origin of an idea? Only after we know, or think we know, that the idea is false. We don’t give psychological explanations for the origins of the idea that 2 + 3 = 5 or that the sun is round. Thus the Freudian argument begs the question. The God-question cannot be settled that way, psychologically.” (pg. 65)
But does it beg the question? After all, what reason do we have for suspecting there is a god in the first place? One of the reasons Kreeft himself gives (if not in that book) is that people believe in god. Doesn’t it then exactly respond to that argument to point out that the idea of god could easily come from the evolutionary advantages of Type 1 cognitive errors? That’s a slightly different argument from what Holly puts forth, but I’m slightly more skeptical than she is, as she shows on the next page.
She talks about how she could no longer justify some of her previous reasons against believing in god.
“Regretfully, I crossed off several of the atheist arguments as implausible. I might not believe in God, but I did not think that the idea itself of God was logically self-contradictory–goodbye, no. (3)–and I rejected no. (5), “the negative consequences of belief in real life”, as being just as irrelevant to the pursuit of truth as the positive consequences of belief. I found that I was unwilling actively to assert con no. (1), that the existence of evil disproves God; at most it would disprove a kindly God. Similarly, I didn’t feel that no. (4), “it is not proved that God exists”, was much of an argument; after all, I might not be able to prove mathematically that I, myself, really existed, but I was nonetheless quite sure that I did.” -pg. 66
There’s a lot wrong in this relatively short paragraph, and that’s an understatement. I’ll start by pointing out that I completely agree that examining the consequences of belief is not a good argument for or against that belief, which is why I pointed out the appeal to consequences fallacy Holly used in chapter 3 of this book. I also at least am on the fence about whether the idea of god is logically self-contradictory, so I’m not willing to argue the point here. However, the dismissal of the problem of evil is troubling at best, because although she is mostly correct that it only disproves a kindly god, that is exactly the type of god claimed by Christianity. I hope she returns to that argument later in the book and offers at least an attempt at explanation.
Holly’s crossing off “it is not proved that God exists” and indeed approaching the exercise in the way she describes here, cons before pros, shows exactly how poor of a skeptic she was, or maybe that she just doesn’t understand how to go about answering a question with reason and evidence. As I’ve said before, “god does not exist” is no claim; it is a valid way of stating the null hypothesis. By definition, it is reasonable to assume the null hypothesis until evidence for a contradictory hypothesis is presented. The fact that Holly so early on dismisses this, one of the best arguments for atheism, gives me very little hope that anything good is yet to come. After all, if she knows how to prove the existence of a god, wouldn’t she do that, rather than saying she does not have to? This is a huge problem, because if “it hasn’t been proven” is not a valid reason to reject a claim, we might as well believe anything that comes along. “The moon is made of green cheese” hasn’t been proven. “Hinduism is the best possible religion” hasn’t been proven. “There is an undetectable magic teapot orbiting Mars that grants wishes if you pray during the right orbit alignment” hasn’t been proven. Is Holly willing to accept any of these claims? If not, she should not be so eager to dismiss “the existence of god hasn’t been proven” as an argument to not accept that god exists. (See also: Russell’s teapot) Side note: if Holly had read any Descartes, she would know cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am”, proves the existence of self, and is indeed the only thing any of us can absolutely 100% prove. Everything else requires at least some assumptions, of varying degrees of reasonableness. There’s a world of difference between the assumptions needed for “that light is really green so it is really safe for me to cross the street” and the assumptions needed for “there is a god”, and another order of magnitude to get to “there specifically exists the god of the Bible despite all evidence to the contrary”.
“That left me with only no. (2), “the existence of God is not necessary to explain nature.” I circled and starred it: my last, best hope for atheism?” -pg. 66
No, your best hope for atheism is the argument you dismissed above about the whole thing where god’s existence cannot be proven. This is also a valid argument, but not really one I would use as a go-to.
The rest of the chapter describes how Holly could not as easily dismiss many of the 25 reasons she had placed in the “pro god’s existence” list. She was eventually left with four arguments she considered solid in that list, and several more that she wanted to examine further. Those four are suspiciously familiar to me. The first she says is solid is the argument from morality, which she mentioned before. The other three are the First Cause argument, the unmoved mover argument, and “the argument that time is meaningless if uncreated and infinite”. I don’t think I’ve encountered that last one before, but I don’t see how it could possibly be relevant from that description. Perhaps she will go into it more later.
Holly does delve a little into the First Cause and unmoved mover arguments in this chapter. It’s all very standard stuff that we’ve all seen (and atheists have dismissed) before. The Kalam cosmological argument is mentioned. She asks, “If the Big Bang started it all off, what caused the Big Bang?” (pg. 69), which I’m the first to admit sure sounds like a reasonable question. Unfortunately, asking about the “cause” of the origin of time seems fuzzy at best. After all, a “cause” is by definition within time. What does it even mean to speak of the “cause” of time itself? I stand by we just don’t have the language yet, and we certainly don’t have any evidence. At this point in time, it’s not a question we can answer, and I, like many physicists, would argue that it isn’t even the right question to ask.
Interlude 3 follows this chapter. It describes Holly praying to give glory to god through her fencing.
Chapter 11: Searching for the Source
“I turned the idea of the First Cause this way and that way, turned it upside down, shook it, and it still held together. I tried to find a fatal flaw in the arguments, but at last I had to confess that I was convinced. At that point, to hold on to an atheistic or even an agnostic position would have been in defiance of logic and reason. All right: I accepted the existence of the philosophical First Cause, a unique Creator who brought the universe into being. This was not an emotional experience for me, unless a growing sense of discomfort counted as an emotion.” -pg. 75
Did she at any point look at arguments against the First Cause? I just did, and I found a resource that may not have existed when she was examining the argument. As it points out, there are at least three reasons not to be convinced by the First Cause argument. First, there is nothing to say the First Cause can’t just be the natural process of the Big Bang, and at best, it really only points to deism (I think Holly will be addressing how she got from deism to Christianity, but we’ll see). Second, there is nothing to say there are not multiple first causes. Third, we actually have observed, in modern science, phenomena with no cause, such as radioactive decay and the spontaneous generation of virtual particles. It just seems to me Holly was not being a good skeptic, again, more than anything.
I will note, though, that the last sentence about her emotional state is remarkably similar to my own emotional state upon learning that evolution is true, which started me on the path to atheism.
“Looming very large here was the fact I believed that there is such a thing as good and evil. I held that there were such things as objective moral values. Somehow. Inconveniently.” -pg. 75
I also think there is good and evil, and some moral values are objective. I don’t, however, agree that all moral values are objective, so I don’t think I can reasonably be said to accept that there is such a thing as objective morality. I’ll explain more in a bit.
“I had to be honest or this whole journey wasn’t worth anything. I had to look at the evidence and concede that morality was not a human invention.” -pg. 77
She then describes her fencing instructor getting her to admit that she is more sure that killing an innocent person is wrong than that a trash can is in a certain familiar place.
“Frighteningly sure. Because that knowledge pointed outside myself. It was not something I needed to be taught; it was simply true. I could try to convince myself otherwise, but I knew certain things were good (kindness, honesty) and certain things were bad (murder, cruelty) in a way that was independent of myself.” -pg. 78
I can at least somewhat agree here, too. Although, in a world of absolute morality, assuming lying is absolutely wrong (I completely agree that lying is immoral by default), wouldn’t it be wrong to lie regardless of the circumstances? What if the gestapo is looking for Jews and you are hiding one in your attic, would it be wrong to lie and say you are alone? If lying is absolutely, objectively wrong, if there is objective morality, then I would say yes. However, if morality is situational, then lying under those circumstances is actually the right thing to do.
“What was the best explanation for this kind of moral knowledge? That there was an Ultimate Goodness, from which all virtues were derived, that transcended individuals and was beyond culture. Given that I accepted the existence of a First Cause, a Creator, on totally independent grounds, it was rational to conclude that the two were the same: that my innate sense of morality showed me something about the nature of the First Cause, that this Creator was also the source of all goodness.” -pg. 78
I know this book isn’t so much as highlighting any of the logic, but how in the world is that a conclusion and not just an assumption? Why can’t the first cause be the Big Bang and the source of morality be evolution (after all, we see rudimentary morality in other social species)? Why assume the First Cause is something that still exists? For that matter, given evolution and how long humanity has existed, why assume the origin of morality still exists, if it is a being of any sort? Instincts are innate to a species, and to me, the source of morality (empathy), sure feels more like an instinct than “knowledge”. If a social species can survive better when the members have empathy for each other than when they don’t, wouldn’t we expect a sense of morality to evolve naturally?
I just don’t see why we need anything else to explain morality, and I see problems with the Ultimate Goodness explanation. If morality were really objective knowledge placed within us by a divine being, why did it take so long for humans to figure out that slavery is wrong? Or that children are not property? Or that women are not property? Or that genocide is not ok? And, if you accept the god of the Bible specifically as that “Ultimate Goodness” and source of morality, why did he sanction slavery, sexism, and genocide? Not only that, but you have to bring up the problem of evil at this point, because if there is an Ultimate Goodness that is a being, that being sure hasn’t done much of anything to prevent natural disasters, or child rape, or slavery, or genocide, or infants dying of starvation. Is that Ultimate Goodness powerless or non-existent? Those are the only options I see, if you’re going to claim a being worthy of that title.
“I was looking for an explanation of the world that made rational sense. At this point, I had realized that my naturalistic framework was inadequate: it could not explain the origin of the universe, nor could it explain morality. On the other hand, the theistic framework for understanding reality was both consistent and powerfully explanatory: it offered a convincing, consistent, and logical explanation for everything that naturalism explained … plus many things that the naturalistic view couldn’t account for.” -pg. 79
I’ve just shown that my naturalistic worldview can explain both the origin of the universe (Big Bang) and morality (species survival benefits of empathy). Not only that, but I’ve followed the principles of Occam’s Razor, and have only used things we already know happened from the evidence, rather than multiplying entities beyond necessity. What other things does Holly think the naturalistic view can’t account for?
Holly is, at the end of this chapter, willing to use the word “God”.
I have, for this chapter, been glibly acting as though any theist with half a brain won’t just say “Well what caused the Big Bang?” I’m well aware that this would happen. The best answer to that question, as you might already know, is, “I don’t know, and neither do you.” We simply don’t have the evidence, or even the language, to speak of before time began. Even saying “before time began” is incoherent.
Chapter 12: Experiment House
This chapter details Holly devising an experiment to prove whether Christianity works for her, whether it gives her some sense of the god she was beginning to accept, helps make Christianity make sense, or gives her “a more effective ethical model”. She even gives lip service to the idea of a failure condition.
“If there were no failure conditions, if any result could be interpreted as proving Christianity to be true, I would be skeptical of the value of the experiment. Josh suggested that ‘failure’ would be if I got nothing out of it or if I had feelings of increased confusion as a result. So far, so good: this experiment was evidently not rigged in favor of Christian theism.” -pg. 83
This part certainly seems reasonable to me, at least until I turned the page.
“He explained that if I didn’t get a result from my experiment, or if I got a negative result such as confusion, the question would still be open: God might still exist even if I did not experience him in a particular circumstance.” -pg. 84
The fencing instructor also references Narnia, saying, “He is not a tame lion.”
It’s subtle, and I almost missed it myself. Did you catch it? She has just overturned the worthiness of her experiment, because if it works, Christianity is true, but if it doesn’t, Christianity might still be true. That isn’t true falsifiability. A better question she could have asked is, “What experiment could I do that would fail only if Christianity is true and succeed only if it is false?” In science, it is not enough to go about trying to show a hypothesis is true; scientists are meant to try their hardest to prove their hypotheses false.
Nowhere does Holly mention (at least not yet) that she considers experimenting with any other religion. Nowhere does she give an indication of trying to make the experiment repeatable, asking others to try as well. As I see it, she uses linguistic tricks to try to seem that she played a skeptic, but looking at it from my perspective as a skeptic, this is not at all how this should be playing out. She never even claims to examine non-Christian sources during this journey! (Again, at least not yet, there is hope she might in a later chapter.)
Knowledge of psychology would also indicate that this experiment is flawed, even my very slight knowledge in that field. Humans are more likely to rationalize an idea if they have invested time and emotional energy into it, and exactly what Holly is doing is investing time and emotional energy to see if she can make an idea seem rational. It’s the sort of thinking that keeps people in relationships just because they have been in them for years. It’s the sort of thinking behind the sunk costs fallacy. It’s why psychologists recommend that if you want someone to like you, ask for favors; it forces them to invest in you, which makes them think you are worth investing in.
One major point that this whole jumping from the First Cause argument to “let’s try Christianity” totally misses is that there are other ways to go about building a case for Christianity besides this near-worthless experiment. One could examine the evidence for the veracity of the Bible, looking at the historicity of both Old and New Testaments (spoiler alert: not great for Christianity if you look at any non-Christian sources). One could actually just read the Bible, and realize that no Ultimate Goodness could possibly order the atrocities described in the Old Testament, so that innate sense of morality could not have come from that god. One could look at the history of the world and see whether Christianity has made more of a difference for good or bad (although that might be more of a wash, especially if you don’t look at the harm caused to members of the LGBT community, or women in general).
“These new philosophical ideas about God made rational sense of the world as I saw it, but they did not show me that the God of the philosophers would have anything to do with me as an individual–much less that his concern for human beings would extend to becoming incarnate, as the Christians said that he had. God’s morality might apply to me, yes, but like gravity, indiscriminately to all people; or like a law code, written down and handed over, with its authority coming from a distant Law-Giver. Surely he could not, would not, take notice of me: I was too small; he was too big. Surely he would not enter into his creation; it was grubby and messy and material, and he was spiritual and orderly and infinite.” -pg. 86
To me, this is the paragraph in the chapter where Holly seems the most thoughtful, if only because she acknowledges that there is a leap to get from the philosophical arguments to Christianity.
I honestly have begun to wonder how much of this conversion story is a fabrication. I hate to accuse Holly of lying on this scale, but conversion stories sell well, and this really doesn’t read like the investigation of someone who is a learned atheist and skeptic. Perhaps it is just that Holly has left out many of the details of her story; maybe she did not want to bore or turn off her intended Christian audience with how she examined the atheist authors and found them illogical. But wouldn’t that have been much better at showing that she turned to Christianity out of rational thought, if she at least claimed to have examined any other perspective? In my own story, I can truthfully say that during my time of deconversion I read primarily Christian books, and in them I found numerous flaws (the only atheist book I attempted to read in that time, I still have not finished because I found it flawed as well). Why doesn’t Holly mention any flaws she found in non-Christian or anti-Christian books during her time of examining Christianity? She can’t possibly have been unaware of them if she was as strident of an atheist as she claims, right? Wouldn’t it be a strong conversion story if someone said they converted to Christianity based on reason, despite struggling to stay atheist by reading Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris?
I don’t want to say that she is definitely lying; she could be telling the truth in all points. At best, she is just not a good skeptic. I myself am not a very good skeptic (too gullible), but at least I know to look for counters to a philosophical argument outside my own head.
Chapter 13: Light from the Invisible Lamp
This chapter explains the classic Argument from Desire, which claims that because there is a “god-shaped hole in our hearts”, there must be a god. Because such is the style of this book, Holly describes how she is finally admitting (or feeling for the first time) this desire for the infinite in her own conversion experience.
I also have the feeling of desire for more to my life, a desire I have previously labelled as desire for god. However, I now blame my upbringing. My boyfriend does not, as near as he can tell, experience such a desire. Are we to think he is fundamentally flawed, or that desires can be learned? I think the latter.
An excellent refutation of the Argument from Desire can be found here.
Chapter 14: Results
“I had accepted God as an idea; now, here, on the Coast Highway, I was confronted by a glimpse of his reality as a Person. And he made himself personally known to me in a way that I could recognize without being completely overwhelmed: in a way, perhaps, that might seem oddly anticlimactic to someone else. There were no visions, no voice, no tears: just a profound and inescapable recognition of the Other. Trust me, it was quite enough.” -pg. 96
That’s it? That’s the proof Holly accepts for Christianity? Did she look into any other religions in the slightest? Did she look into any other explanations in the slightest?
“The fact that I recognized, beyond any reasonable doubt, that my ‘experiment’ had returned a shockingly positive result before I had consciously started it was the sting in the tail to this encounter. If I had known more what to expect, I might have accused myself of manufacturing my own results (disregarding the fact that it is the mark of a valid hypothesis when its predictions are fulfilled). If I had been actively seeking God when he came to meet me, I might have doubted the reality of the encounter, wondering if it was mere wish fulfillment and therefore to be disregarded.” -pg. 96
That’s really it. She had an experience and accepted it as 100% proof. That’s not how scientific experiments work in the slightest, because one of the main reasons scientific experiments are so trustworthy is because they are repeatable. The experiment described in this book has NOT been repeated with the same results by everyone who has tried it.
Additionally, there is a conundrum that Holly here ignores (or perhaps she is simply ignorant of it). If Holly experiencing God is evidence Christianity is real, what of the experiences of the many atheists who left Christianity because they could not experience God no matter how much they begged, myself included? Many deconversion stories include prayers wherein the person begs god for anything to help them stay Christian, and they get no response. Can’t we submit that as evidence Christianity is false?
And what of the personal experiences of Hindus or Muslims or Mormons or other religions? How could Holly explain them?
Occam’s razor almost demands that no religion is true when looking at personal experiences, for the more reasonable explanation is common human psychology.
There’s another interlude here, about how Holly is prayed over and realizes that god is with her and all Christians are her church family. It’s wholly uninteresting to me.
Chapter 15: Between Two Worlds
This chapter is an email exchange between Holly and Josh. Holly says:
“So my heart says, Yes, though my intellect says, wait, let us have more time for reason and evidence! I guess I just have to face up to feeling that way.” -pg. 100
Many readers would miss what just happened here. Holly claimed earlier, and quite possibly believes, that she converted for reason and evidence. However, this is a clear admission that her emotions took hold – when it came right down to it, she wanted to believe, she is emotionally motivated to think Christianity is true, and so she does.
It is quite telling that the book never looks at any intermediary steps, but goes straight from “some sort of First Cause seems reasonable” to “Christianity is the only religion I’ll investigate, and oh look! How fortuitous! It happens to be the one true religion because I had a personal emotional experience!” At no point in this book is evidence for the veracity of the Bible or any other claims of Christianity even mentioned, let alone examined from a dispassionate viewpoint.
I’ll say it again: the story of a skeptic converting to Christianity would look very different.
Chapter 16: Holding On
“Now it made sense why the world was both so beautiful and so broken: two pieces I had never before been able to fit into the same puzzle. Beautiful, because the Creator, who is goodness himself, made it so; broken, because we in our pride (which I could feel in my own heart) turned away from him and made a mess of things. And because his goodness includes respect for us as individuals, he did not force us back into relationship with him, but instead allowed each of us, graciously, to come to him of our own choice, even while giving us the grace that enabled us to make that choice.” -pg. 104
There’s about a million problems I could pick out of this. First of all, not everything broken in the world is a result of human agency. We don’t cause tsunamis or earthquakes or brain cancer (at least, not on purpose). We are afflicted by those and other natural disasters and diseases. If there is a god who could prevent things like brain cancer in children and child rape, and he is not doing so, he is as far removed from infinitely good as an ant, because a good person would prevent children from suffering by definition. If god’s goodness does not include that, and it clearly doesn’t because children suffer and die every day, his goodness is not worthy of praise (or non-existent). There just isn’t a way around that.
My other main objection is another idea I’ve gone over repeatedly. I tried everything I knew how to keep my relationship with god and he was not interested in helping, or not capable of helping in a way that I was able to receive (so why call him god?), because he didn’t. I tried to make the choice to stay a theist and it proved impossible.
This was a very short chapter.
Chapter 17: One Miracle
“As I read, I found that the arguments for the possibility of miracles were more convincing than the arguments against miracles. I had accepted God’s existence on other grounds, and it was reasonable to conclude that the Creator was capable of interacting with his creation and quite likely interested in doing so.” -pg. 108
Holly, would you like to share with the rest of the class any details of any of those arguments? No? Huh, okay then.
For the record, I have no problem with miracles as such. I don’t think they are possible mostly because I don’t have any reason to think there is anything supernatural that exists. Further, it is always more rational to assume natural causes than supernatural ones, because every time the answer has been found, it has turned out to be natural causes. We used to think the sun moving across the sky was a miracle, but then we learned about gravity.
“Either the Gospels were sophisticated works of fiction in the modern realistic style, approximately seventeen hundred years ahead of the development of the genre–which as a literary scholar I knew was ludicrous–or the Gospel writers were describing what the man named Jesus of Nazareth had really said about himself.” -pg. 111
Bullshit. That’s the most blatant false dichotomy I think I have ever heard. The Gospel writers could have been mistaken. They could have been deliberately lying. They could have written very differently than we see in our modern translations, because the originals are lost. These are anonymous sources; by definition we know nothing about these four men. We don’t know how many changes these texts underwent or how much embellishment was added before the tales were written down. It was common at the time to historicize mythology and entirely possible that this is all the Gospels are.
“There were many miracles that I could think about, but they all paled into insignificance next to the singular miracle of the Resurrection.
“Had it really happened?
“Because if it had, then Christianity was true.” -pg. 113
That is the crucial question. Unfortunately, given that the historicity of Jesus is highly questionable and there’s no actual evidence for an interfering god being, it is almost definitely the case that Jesus’ Resurrection is a complete myth.
Oh, sorry, did I jump the gun? I assume the next chapter is about how Holly was convinced the Resurrection actually was a historical fact. If she follows the pattern established in the book so far, she won’t give any details about why she suddenly began accepting the Resurrection as historical fact, just “it is reasonable”.
Chapter 18: Body and Soul
“The earliest Christian documents–which, I discovered in my research, are so early as to include eyewitness accounts–indicate that from the very beginning, the followers of Jesus believed that Jesus had been physically raised from the dead, vindicating his claims and inaugurating the new Kingdom of God, which would include their own future bodily resurrection. So, Wright asks, what is the best explanation for this belief?” -pg. 120
We don’t actually have eyewitness accounts. We have anonymous accounts that claim to contain eyewitness accounts. Those are different things. There was plenty of time to build the legend that Jesus had resurrected by the time we have any knowledge of clear record of it – and we have 0 unbiased sources.
Of course, Holly is quick to deny exactly what many scholars (who aren’t Christian) willingly point out–that there was time for legend. Should we believe the scholars who have a vested interest in a claim being true, or the ones who are arguably less biased who say that claim is false?
“If the Church was not the result of a miracle, it was itself a miracle.” -pg. 121
False. See Not the Impossible Faith by Richard Carrier. Did Holly read any non-Christian sources on her super unbiased reason-based skeptical journey, or only ones that agreed with the conclusion she seems so eager to draw?
The rest of the chapter is the usual apologetic conclusion list about how Jesus clearly historical resurrected despite the fact that we don’t actually have any eyewitness testimony or outside sources, and totally ignores that eyewitness testimony is unreliable and that people rarely actually do fact-checking, especially in the first century.
Dull. Granted, I’m willing to look more into the historicity of the Resurrection, but the fact remains that there really isn’t enough evidence for the empty tomb to believe it was a real thing. Even the claim that Christianity’s enemies accepted the empty tomb is suspect, because the only place we hear that claim is in Christian documents.
Chapter 19: Taking a Dangerous Step
“Between Habermas and Lewis, there was no way of escaping the recognition that, if I assented to the truth of Christianity, a truly radical commitment was required, which ran counter to what, formerly, I’d thought Christians believed. I told Josh that this ‘commitment’ idea was nothing whatsoever like the ‘accept Jesus and be sure you’ll get into heaven’ idea that I’d heard so many times.” -pg. 126-127
I believed in a radical commitment. Now, I’m not sure I would worship the god of Christianity even if I were convinced he exists, and if I did, it would be out of pure fear. Luckily for the world, there is absolutely no good reason to suspect that Christianity is any more true than any other religion.
Holly quotes Josh’s metaphor for the faith he claims Christianity requires:
“‘The metaphor I like is of aviation. Let’s say you are afraid to fly because you are afraid the plane will crash. I could sit and explain to you about aerodynamics and plane construction, step-by-step, until you are intellectually convinced that planes can safely fly. I could show you an airplane’s logbook that shows it has been checked and signed off as safe to fly. You could even say that you believe that if you got on the airplane you would make it to your destination. It’s a different step for you, yourself, actually to get on board that airplane and go on the flight.’” -pg. 127-128
There’s an obvious problem with this metaphor, similar to the problem with the coffee cup metaphor earlier in the book. Simply put, that an airplane can safely fly is not at all an extraordinary claim. It is a mundane claim that is obvious to anyone aware of the modern world. We all know that airplanes are capable of flying safely because we’ve seen them. Another problem with the metaphor is that it talks about teaching aerodynamics and plane construction, when the much easier way to convince someone that airplanes fly safely is to take the person to an airport and show them the planes landing safely and people getting off. Of course, a Christian has to use a metaphor like this, because there is no way a Christian can take someone and show them the Resurrection or Jesus or anything else that is empirical evidence. Interesting, isn’t it, how we don’t need philosophical arguments for the existence of the sun, but we do for the existence of god?
Chapter 20: Founder
“I had read all that I could read; more would do me no good. I had worked through the arguments sufficiently; I knew where I stood. It was a fact of history that Jesus died on the cross and was raised on the third day, vindicating his claim to be the Son of God. It was true. I felt strangely calm, as if I were at the eye of some internal storm.” -pg. 129
It’s too bad Holly doesn’t know mathematics. If she did, she would know to show her work. It is not the case that Jesus’ Resurrection is a historical fact; his existence as a historical figure is in question. Besides, even an extremely unlikely natural explanation (like that Jesus survived the crucifixion and recovered) is more likely than a supernatural explanation. Therefore, it is never rational to assume the Resurrection; it is something you are taking on faith, assuming without reason.
“Then, in the dream itself, everything came together, and I knew, not just understood but knew, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of living God. In the dream, I realized the falsity of the scene before me. After Easter morning, the tomb didn’t matter. And why not? Because what happened that day was so big, so shattering, that it overshadowed everything else. The tomb was important only because they had laid the body of Jesus in it–and because on the third day it was empty.” -pg. 133
Again, there is no evidence for the existence of the empty tomb outside of the claim of the Gospels, which are anonymous sources written decades after the events recounted within, and two of the four clearly copy from the first.
Saying “I just know” is not a convincing argument. Nowhere does Holly really explain how she knows any of the conclusions she arrives at in this story.
Chapter 21: Crossing the Threshold
This chapter describes Holly’s prayer accepting Jesus as her Savior. There is nothing really for me to comment on, which I suspect will be the case for the rest of the book as well.
She has put another Interlude here, the sixth. Again, no comment.
Chapter 22: The Blade
In this chapter, Holly donates her fencing sabre to a statue of St. Michael. Neat, but boring for my purposes.
Chapter 23: The Water
In this chapter, Holly is baptized, unsurprisingly. What is surprising is how much she skips over any distinction between the various Christian denominations, but is immediately baptized Catholic, even though it is unclear whether her fencing instructor is. Usually, that’s the focus of this sort of story.
Chapter 24: The Morning Star
“I wanted not just to know about Jesus, but to know him.” -pg. 159
That’s a little bit impossible… but Christians think they know him all the time, so I’m sure it seemed reasonable at this point, when Holly has fully indoctrinated herself.
Chapter 25: Paradigm Shift
It appears I was wrong before – Holly was baptized into the Anglican church. It is in these last three chapters that she converts to Catholicism.
She focuses, in this chapter, on the fact that she came to think the Catholic Church contains the fullness of truth. As is usual in this story, she gives no indication of how this happened.
I will note that I once believed the Catholic Church was the right religion because I was convinced it is true. I left when I found evidence that I was wrong. That seems like much more of a paradigm shift than finding that Catholicism accurately fits with currently held beliefs to me, which is the paradigm shift Holly describes, but I’ve only ever been Catholic or atheist.
Chapter 26: Magnificat
Predictably, this chapter is mostly about Mary. I have no comments.
Chapter 27: Coming Home
This chapter focuses on Holly learning to be like a child, to set aside her prideful desire to control her own life and instead surrender in obedience to the Catholic Church. It’s a bit creepy, to be honest, from my perspective now, and yet also attractive. How easy it would be to set aside the responsibility to think for oneself, to make decisions about what seems to cause the least suffering in a given situation, and instead let someone else think and decide for me. If only Catholicism were true after all… but it isn’t, and no amount of wishing will make it so.
Takeaways / After I Finished Reading
Before I started this book, I guessed that Holly converted for emotional and not intellectual reasons. It is true that she says she converts for intellectual reasons, but after a careful reading, I cannot say I believe it. For one thing, as I mentioned several times through this review, she never describes her intellectual reasons for believing, only states that they exist; at best, she mentions a conclusion (e.g., that Jesus’ Resurrection is historical fact) or the existence of a philosophical argument (e.g., the first cause argument). She never admits to looking at any works from an opposing viewpoint like I would expect of a skeptic. She never re-examines the Problem of Evil, or at least never records that examination, instead recording a dismissal. Reading this book, it seems to me nothing more than an example of how a person could indoctrinate herself if she really wanted to. Holly was dissatisfied with her life as an atheist (her descriptions of atheism are accurate enough that I am willing to accept her claim that she was one), and she found community among Christians when she became one. It makes sense. I don’t believe that she actually was convinced for intellectual reasons, but I think she believes she was because she refuses to admit emotions could have that much sway in a person’s life, or maybe just her own.
I certainly would not recommend this book to atheists. It will most likely just frustrate you. It does not contain enough intellectual meat to really argue against, and maybe some atheists find conversion stories interesting reads, but I only do when they actually go into the why question instead of glossing over it as Holly does.