Book Matters

“Young Girl Reading”
Seymour Joseph Guy, 1877

Book Matters

Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms

By Holly Ordway

This book was first brought to my attention by the writer Johan Herrenberg, who wondered whether it was another book by a woman in the “confession” genre of Augustine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Having now read it, I think it belongs to a different genre: the conversion or paradigm-shift genre.  It describes the author’s mental/spiritual journey from one view of reality to its contradictory — with just two opposing views on offer.  Having myself shifted paradigms more than once, I read conversion stories – if they seem honest — with rapt attention.  This is an honest book.

As sympathetic witness to Ordway’s journey, I’d like to go through Ordway’s mental milestones, numbering them step by step, and then make note of how I might have experienced that same milestone.

1. Starting her journey as an intelligent atheist, Ordway must think that Life has no inherent meaning.  In her, that produces despair. Though some atheists find that they can still carry out meaningful tasks and activities — even if Life Itself is meaningless – she is unable to block off the meaninglessness looming in the background.

1a. Though I’ve been an atheist, I don’t recall feeling despair on that account.  For me, atheism didn’t drain the beauty from nature and art, nor take the fascination from friendship and philosophy.  There, she and I differed.

2. As atheist, Ordway still reserves a place of honor for truth and moral values.  She never thinks the latter are merely subjective or relative.

2a. In my atheist days, I also continued to prize truthfulness and trying to do the right thing.  But, for me, these values lived in the context of social, personal, and natural bonds.  They were woven into that web of relationships.  For whatever reason, Ordway writes as if she were making consequential decisions almost in a vacuum.

3.  Ordway gravitates toward (what I would call) zones of refuge from despair.  Thus, she loves poetry that gives spiritual insight, fantasy fiction where good combats evil – and fencing!  Take that, Wicked Knight!

3a.  Ordway herself notes that her zones of refuge enable her to enact a world of meaning.  To truly appreciate a poem, one must feel it anew as the poet felt it.  (When Aristotle describes the acquiring of a virtue, he says character is gained by habituation.  So, it really works to act as if we already had the character trait we want!)  I would say that Ordway is following a reliable method for acquiring the power to detect meaning in experience.

4.  Ordway enters into an intellectual argument with her fencing coach, who is a believing Christian.  He persuades her that the chain of causes in nature must end in an Uncaused Cause.  Otherwise, we get an infinite regress of explanatory principles, which is unacceptable to reason.

4a.  In some domains, an infinite regress is not a problem.  For example, you can always add #1 to a number series and reason will not be offended.  But if we are addressing those natural conditions that depend in turn on further conditions, explanations would hope to reach an unconditioned condition – something that encompasses totality – a “theory of everything.”

5.  At this point in her step-by-step argument, Ordway comes under the sway of an attractive force that feels more-than-intellectual.  Be it noted that the “everything” to be explained by her Unconditioned Condition has to include the beauty of poetry, the chivalric aspirations of fantasy fiction and fencing, and the objective character of righteous deeds.

5a.  I never became an atheist because of an argument nor a theist as a result of a philosophical argument.  

6.  At this point, Jesus steps into the realm of experience she’s entered.  The scholarly books she pours through persuade her that his resurrection is a historical fact.  Not a did-he-or-didn’t-he kind of fact.  Rather, to her, his resurrection meant “he had done something to death itself” (p.112). 

6a.  Years ago, I watched Rabbi Irving Greenberg’s presentation at the Rainbow Group, formed under the creative direction of philosopher/theologian Michael Wyschogrod, for interfaith dialogue between professional religionists.  Greenberg said that, in the case of Jesus, there might have been a real resurrection.  Providence might even have seen to it that such a resurrection would be disbelieved or discounted by his fellow Jews.  Why?  Because God wanted both types of religion: the Jewish type that deals with life here in history, co-partnering with God in situations on the ground, and the Christian type, stressing the vertical dimension, pointing toward transcendence and an unearthly purity.

Under pressure from his peers, it’s been my impression that R. Greenberg eventually retracted most of what he said that afternoon.

But he might have been right.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Book Matters

  1. Abigail says:

    Dear Johan, I think that’s right. There is a felt, sub-theoretical connection — a connection underneath it all. Thanks for your Comment!

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    ‘Dear Abbie’. When I mentioned Holly Ordway to you and wondered if her book fell into the _Confessions_ kind of autobiography, I did realize that a big difference between her and you is: you’re Jewish. So, you may have had a spiritual and intellectual journey where certain convictions were embraced and then rejected, there always was and is that central, inescapable fact which keeps you connected to and rooted in God: you’re Jewish. The way you dissect Holly Ordway’s book comes as no surprise, then. You have read it very well. And I really love Rabbi Greenberg’s take on what through all the Christian ages has been viewed (and still is viewed) as a tragic rift. I had the pleasure and privilege to have been present at a Sabbath here in the Synagogue in Delft, and was really struck by the joy of it, and the lightness: Christianity has a very heavy side to it, and a very dark. It felt like experiencing God as a happy child.

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