There most certainly are people who made sincere conversions from a state of godlessness to one of devout certainty. This is actually a very interesting process, and I’d like to know more about it, because I can’t imagine myself ever becoming a god-believer. I want to understand what makes for a persuasive argument for patent nonsense.
One example is Holly Ordway, an atheist professor of literature who became a Catholic. She’s got a whole memoir on the subject, which I haven’t read because all the summaries make it sound awful and unbelievable.
For example, Ordway describes her state of atheism:
Dr. Holly Ordway has published a book titled Not God’s Type, telling her personal story. She begins “I had never in my life said a prayer, never been to a church service. Christmas meant presents and Easter meant chocolate bunnies–nothing more.” But her views get hardened: “In college, I absorbed the idea that Christianity was historical curiosity, or a blemish on modern civilization, or perhaps both. My college science classes presented Christians as illiterate anti-intellectuals who, because they didn’t embrace Darwinism, threatened the advancement of knowledge. My history classes omitted or downplayed references to historical figures’ faith.” Still later, “At thirty-one years old, I was an atheist college professor–and I delighted in thinking of myself that way. I got a kick out of being an unbeliever; it was fun to consider myself superior to the unenlightened, superstitious masses, and to make snide comments about Christians.”
Uh, what? I’m probably about as radical and harsh an atheist as you’ll find on any college campus, and am openly hostile to Christianity. But even I don’t teach what she claims: Christianity is a major force in Western civilization. When I teach the history of science, I most certainly do not present Christians as “illiterate anti-intellectuals” — from Augustine to James Clerk Maxwell, the elites who also happened to be Christian were, well, elite. I make a point of bringing up the religious beliefs of scientists, especially among 19th century scientists, where the conflict between science and religion was brought to the fore by the ideas of Charles Darwin…and I also point out that Darwin himself respected religion (it was one of the reasons he personally struggled with releasing his book), that his wife was a sincere Unitarian, and that there were many thinking Christians who did not oppose the theory, such as Asa Gray. A great deal of the modern conflict comes from the fundamentalist creationist yahoos — a major concern of Christianity was to reconcile the facts of geology and biology with their theology, not to simply deny the science.
So I guess Dr Ordway could have been the victim of educational malpractice, but I have to wonder…she’s a professor of English literature. Just how many science classes did she take? And when surveys have been done of college professors (PDF), it’s typical to find that maybe a quarter of them identify as atheists. The reality is always much more complicated than this vision of godless academe constantly oppressing Christian thought, so I’m already dubious.
But then we get to her explanation of how she arrived at an intellectual acceptance of Catholicism, and we get what amounts to the standard unconvincing trope.
The rest of Ordway’s book tells of her meeting a fencing coach that she trusted, a person who she did not discover was a Christian until after she had begun working with him. He and his wife merely answered her questions, not pressing anything religious on her. She is intellectually honest enough to investigate the sources . . . When she asks for reasonable works on the resurrection of Jesus, she is given N. T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, 740 pages of scholarly examination. She reads Lewis’ Surprised By Joy, and Does God Exist? by Kreeft and Moreland, among others.
Fucking hell. C.S. Lewis? Really? Why is it always C.S. Lewis? I’ve read C.S. Lewis, and Lewis is a glib twit. I know serious philosophers who rag on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for being superficial, but jebus…Lewis is so shallow and unconvincing and unthinking that I cannot believe that anyone is convinced by him without a prior predisposition. Whenever a convert cites Lewis as a source, I immediately lose all respect for the intellectual honesty of their arguments. I can believe they have an emotional response to his writing — he’s surprisingly popular — but don’t try to tell me you became a believer in the Jesus myth because you thought deeply about C.S. Lewis. You clearly didn’t, or you would have gagged and thrown the book in a fire as soon as you saw the Trilemma.
As for N.T. Wright, you must read Robert Price’s review of that book.
Wright’s massive book on the resurrection is, even for the garrulous bishop, an exercise in prolixity. It is several times longer than it needs to be, as if designed to bludgeon us into belief. One might save a lot of time and money by finding a copy of George Eldon Ladd’s I Believe in the Resurrection of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1975), which used most of the same arguments at a fraction of the length, and without skimping. The arguments have not gotten any better. They are the same old stale fundamentalist apologetics we got in Ladd, essentially the same old stuff we used to read in Josh McDowell and John Warwick Montgomery. The same hash reslung. Only now it is getting pretty smelly. Perhaps that is why Wright seeks to perfume it, reminiscent of Joseph and Nicodemus attempting to fumigate the decaying corpse of Jesus by encasing it in an extravagant hundred pounds weight of spices (John 19:39). Wright backs up much too far to make a running start at the resurrection, regaling us with unoriginal, superfluous, and tedious exposition of Old Testament and Intertestamental Jewish ideas of afterlife and resurrection, resurrection belief in every known Christian writer up into the early third century, etc., etc. The mountain thus laboring is doomed to bring forth a messianic mouse, alas. All this erudition is perhaps intended to intimidate the reader into accepting Wright’s evangelistic pitch. But it is just a lot of fast talking. In the end, Wright, now Bishop of Durham, is just Josh McDowell in a better suit. His smirking smugness is everywhere evident, especially in his condescension toward the great critics and critical methods of the last two centuries, all of which he strives to counteract. He would lead the hapless seminary student (whom one fears will be assigned this doorstop) backwards into the pre-critical era with empty pretenses of post-modern sophistication, shrugging off the Enlightenment by patently insincere attempts to wrap himself in the flag of post-colonialism. Genuine criticism of the gospels he dismisses as the less advanced, muddled thinking of a previous generation, as if “cutting edge” scholarship like his were not actually pathetic nostalgia for the sparkling Toyland of fundamentalist supernaturalism. It is a familiar bag of tricks, and that is all it is. The tragedy is that many today are falling for it. Witness Wright’s own prominence in the Society of Biblical Literature, to say nothing of his ecclesiastical clout.
The weight of this book’s argument for orthodox traditionalism is to be found, of all places, in the acknowledgements section, where Wright thanks the hosts of the prestigious venues where he first presented bits of this material: Yale Divinity School, South-Western Theological Seminary, Duke Divinity School, Pontifical Gregorian University, St. Michael’s Seminary, etc., etc. Wright is the mouthpiece for institutional orthodoxy, a grinning spin-doctor for the Grand Inquisitor. What credibility his book appears to have is due to the imposing wealth, power, tradition, even architecture, of the social-ecclesiastical world which he serves as chaplain and apologist. It is sickening to read his phony affirmations of the allegedly political and radical import of a literal resurrection (if you can even tell what Wright means by this last). Does Bishop Wright espouse some form of Liberation Theology? No, for, just as he emptily says Jesus redefined messiahship, Wright redefines politics. When he says the early Christians were anti-imperialistic, all he has in mind is the fact that Christians withstood Roman persecution, valiant enough in its way, but hardly the same thing. Like a pathetic Civil War reenactment geek, he is sparring at an enemy safely dead for centuries. In attempting to co-opt and parody the rhetoric of his ideological foes, Wright reminds me of Francis Schaeffer, a hidebound fundamentalist who began as a children’s evangelist working for Carl MacIntyre. Schaeffer, posing as an intellectual and a philosopher, used to stamp the floor speaking at fundamentalist colleges, shouting “We are the true Bolsheviks!” Right.
So I’m still left with the mystery of why — why do people convert to Catholicism? We cannot trust the self-reporting of the victims of this loss of intellectual rigor, because of course they always fall back on the claim of “I am too really smart”, citing bad books with pretentions that have an elevated reputation in the theological community, despite being what Price calls “pseudo-scholarly attempts to pull the wool over the eyes of readers, most of whom will be happy enough for the sedation”.
I have my suspicions, but these true believers will never confess to them, and most likely are even unaware of their motivations. I think a clue is in Price’s comment above: the credibility of the “imposing wealth, power, tradition, even architecture, of the social-ecclesiastical world”. Catholicism in particular is very good at bombing you with the immense weight of its traditions. It’s a kind of tribalism where you choose your tribe not because of a careful assessment of its positions, but because it looks the most powerful.
I am also all too aware that atheism has the same problem. I’ve met too many atheists who despite not understanding science at all, are very rah-rah about the trappings of science, who like to claim the mantle of the Great and Powerful Science for their beliefs. I do believe that science is locked in a mutually interacting relationship with naturalism, which implicitly rejects a role for a deity, but it’s mighty unconvincing when someone pulls the Science Authority argument as the basis of their atheism, who then spews out bad science arguments.
So I’m still unconvinced by these conversion stories. I guess in order to get a believable answer we’re going to have to strap a few of them to a gurney and wheel in the lasers and giant arcing electricity machines.