Yesterday, the atheist blogosphere and social networking sites were abuzz about the conversion of an atheist blogger, named Leah Libresco, to Roman Catholicism.
I would like to address two topics. One is the substance of the arguments she made (or alluded to) in her post and in its comments section. I want to address the problems with her line of reasoning, as far as I can infer what it was, and where there are lessons atheists should learn about how to discuss metaphysics and ethics in general.
But first, in this post, I would like to quickly address several kinds of reactions atheists have had to this news. Even though most people adopt faiths as children, before they are not yet good enough critical thinkers to find the whole thing nonsense, there are still plenty of people out there who come to religious belief later in life. It is not everyday that you find someone who was an avowed atheist writer who does this, but it is not unheard of.
In either case, we self-conscious identity atheists of the blogosphere are not used to it happening often and, as we see no good reason for someone who presumably understands and endorses our usual views on epistemology and ethics to turn around and start believing in patently fictitious and morally dubious nonsense, it is a little baffling to see one of us become a Roman Catholic.
And also, the atheist movement is filled with people who want to morally blame religious people for spurning people who think different from them and for (either formally or informally) excommunicating family, friends, and members of their churches when they deconvert.
So what has the reaction been like amongst a somewhat shocked and dismayed atheist commentariat as it has learned of someone who identified as “one of us” turning around and saying she thought we were wrong and publicly submitting herself to the Roman Church?
1. Some atheists are trying to take a magnanimous high road, congratulating Libresco on following her intellectual conscience wherever it led and bravely being willing to alienate people in order to be honest to what she now believes. These atheists seem to be at some pains to avoid being atheist analogues to the religiously excommunicating tribalists that so many atheists suffer so much grief from.
2. Some atheists (including me) are primarily baffled at how her metaphysical and moral philosophy concerns that make her think there is something to Catholic philosophy at all justify the leap to the numerous wild beliefs of Catholic theology. Personally, I will say, having studied philosophy at a Jesuit university, that there is a fair degree of sophistication to Roman Catholic philosophy. While I think Catholic philosophers are needlessly and culpably closed-minded (for dogmatically theological and covertly misogynistic reasons) when it comes to applied ethics in a number of areas, I can see where someone could rationally appreciate some of the metaphysics, as stripped of its mythological public face.
I know many Catholic philosophers and most of them are quite far afield from superstitious creationist Protestants (or average Catholic laypeople). What they mean by words like “God” is quite abstract and in many ways not that offensive to reason. But it is the theological fictions that I find so hard to swallow any people of reason buying into. The philosophical types do not actually believe many of the literal superstitions but simply chalk them up to analogies and metaphors and “God’s use of imperfect human vehicles to convey Himself”.
But at least some of it has to be literally believed and it is, to me, beyond ridiculous that a rational person not already raised and indoctrinated to powerfully identify as a Catholic (or at least as a supernaturalist) would just pick up and start believing. Rude (and potentially ad hominem) as it is to start questioning someone’s psychology as a matter of understanding their changes in beliefs, the very premise of Libresco’s blog was that she was romantically involved with a Catholic and, therefore, did have a powerful non-rational incentive to embrace the faith, even if it was not the usual one.
3. Speaking of psychological explanations, a surprising number of commenters at blogs have been seemingly accusing her of some sort of literal mental deterioration, judging that that is the most rational inference as to how a thinking and blogging atheist could become a Catholic. That sort of psychological analysis just reinforces the inference that at least some members of the atheist movement are still woefully unwilling to understand or to take seriously either the powerful psychological mechanisms by which religions work within sane, neurotypical, average human brains, or the actual metaphysical arguments and rational priorities that sophisticated religious thinkers at least give more well-developed (if not actually better) answers to than the average atheist.
Writing off religious conversions as a sign of mental degeneracy is a nice way of Othering converts as just incapable of rational thought so that one can continue to feel superior. But it is quite counterproductive to introspection or philosophical development among atheists. What we need to learn from these cases is the need to proactively develop both more robust, well-publicized, and debated accounts of metaphysics and metaethics, and better institutions that preemptively meet people’s “religious” needs and desires without bogus supernaturalism and dangerous authoritarianism.
4. Another major response to her has been moral condemnation for aligning herself with an institution as corrupt as the Roman Catholic Church. The heinous ways that it has actively accommodated and shielded child raping priests and has fought tooth and nail against progress for women and LGBT people has made the Church so basically evil to many atheists that deliberately joining it is interpreted as an act of betrayal against LGBT people, women, victims of rape, and people of conscience everywhere. Libresco’s reasons are particularly cause for head scratching in this regard because she cited Roman Catholicism’s supposedly better account of metaethics, and particularly its supposed robust account of moral truth, as its main point of convincing philosophical superiority over atheistic philosophies.
Even in converting, she admits to not agreeing (at least yet) with the Church’s position on gays. Many atheists are quite understandably both bemused and angry that someone ostensibly so very concerned with moral truth would choose a tidier metaethics that came with morally objectionable conclusions over adherence to her moral convictions on practical matters, even if it meant not being able to fully square her metaethics.
5. Finally, some atheists want to write her off as never having been sincerely an atheist. Others say we should not do that because the apostates among us do not like having the sincerity of our prior religious commitments and beliefs doubted. All I have to say about that is the very premise of Libresco’s blog, at least with the 20/20 hindsight of retrospective perspective, gives the impression she was leaning towards converting from its inception. And, in fact, when I was first told the premise of her blog months ago, I already found it dubious. And so did the close atheist blogger friend of mine who told me about it.
Below is her narrative in which she describes the origins of the blog and some of its influences upon her. It looks to have been written when she was still identifying as an atheist. You can hear in it all sorts of ways she is describing her boyfriend as opening her eyes and making her think. And while she may have come in non-religious, in the beginning of the narrative, she essentially chalks up her non-religiousness to the way she was raised and her having only been exposed to completely idiotic forms of Christianity prior to college:
I was raised by in a non-religious household on Long Island, so I didn’t meet any outspoken Christians in real life until I went to college. I had seen people like Jerry Falwell on TV, but my community was so isolated from religion that, when we learned about the Reformation in AP European History, one student raised his hand to ask if Lutherans still existed.
When I went to college, and started hanging out with a politics and philosophy debating group, I met smart Christians for the first time, and it was a real shock. My idea of a Christian was the Young Earth Creationists, and now I was meeting people who not only were converts to Russian Orthodoxy and math majors, but they thought the beauty of mathematics was evidence for God. I still thought my new friends were wrong about the existence of God, but I had to recognize I’d been pretty wrong why they believed what they did. And if I hadn’t really understood their arguments in the past, it was only prudent to give them a second hearing.
I was ready to cross-examine them, but there were some big gaps in my defense of my own positions. When a friend turned one of my own questions around on me and asked “What would convince you that Christianity was true?” I came up with bupkis. I realized I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what Christianity entailed to be able to imagine a world where it was true. I felt embarrassed and told my friends to take their best shot at convincing me.
I started dating one of these smart Christians. We knew that religion could be a pretty big impediment to our relationship (the title of this blog comes 2 Corinthians 6:14 “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers”). We ended up making a deal: I’d go to Mass every week with him, and he’d go to ballroom dance class with me. And we both recommended books or blogs to each other that fueled our all-night debates.
He gave me Lewis and Chesterton (I’ve got an apologetics bookshelf, now), and I kept having trouble finding books to pass back. A lot of atheists are focused on rebutting evangelicals –after all, they tend to be the biggest political threat — but I had more trouble finding people who address the more sophisticated ideas. Atheism spends a lot of time playing defense, so I had even more trouble finding books and blogs talking about what we should believe instead of what we reject.
So I started this blog to try and crowdsource my arguments and to find more people to ask me tough questions and force me to burn off the dross in my philosophy. I talked with deacons, priests, and Dominicans and attended RCIA classes (until I got kicked out). Neither my boyfriend or I looked likely to switch teams in the near future, and, after two years of dating, we were at the point where a relationship that was incompatible with marriage seemed foolish, so, regretfully, we had to split up.
I hadn’t changed my mind about the existence of God, but here are some things that arguing with people on the internet and in real life has convinced me I was wrong about: I’m now in favor of covenant marriage, I’ve abandoned my former commitment to stoicism, and I think some forms of Christianity are internally consistent and even attractive.
I just still don’t think they’re true.
I’m still seriously exploring Christian claims, especially as atheists and Christians have ganged up to tell me that some of my beliefs (objective morality, teleological sympathies, transhumanism that bears a passing resemblance to Gnosticism) logically imply the existence of a God, and probably a Christian one. So I look at Aquinas and Augustine to see if they’re right, and I post about my best understanding of ethics and metaphysics so people can call me on my errors and be swayed by what I get right.
On this blog, I try and skip past the normal scripts and have the weird arguments. You can go somewhere else on the internet to find Christians who rely on Leviticus to explain why they disapprove of gay marriage, and don’t understand that the people they talk to don’t accept the bible as authoratative. The Christian who guest-posted here for a debate on gay marriage wanted to talk about the importance of having friendships that you know will never be sexually charged. And I talked a bit more about the way marriage restricts our choices (in a good way), and a lot less about the live and let live arguments you may be used to from my team. (Other guest posters welcome!).
The one thing I’m certain of after a couple years of blogging about religion is that a lot of our arguments are unproductive because we don’t understand what the other side is saying. I set up an Ideological Turing Test, where atheists and Christians tried to imitate each other well enough to pass for each other, and we found a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides.
So welcome to the conversation. Play nice, but play to win. And don’t be afraid to show your hand. If you’re doing someone a service by pointing out their errors, be grateful when someone catches you out in one.
Based on that narrative, no, she was not exactly a fire-breathing New Atheist with a well-developed scientific or philosophical approach to the world. Nor was she one with a strong sense of her own epistemology, ethics, and metaphysics in naturalistic terms. Nor was she one who had already, within that context, investigated serious Christian thought much at all before defaulting to non-belief. She was clearly a genuine atheist insofar as she did not believe in gods, but it is not clear she was not like most of us well-educated movement atheists/identity-atheists/New Atheists who have a clear sense for naturalistic epistemology or science. It’s not that one of us in that sense has suddenly realized these things were false and explained to the world at last why our shared epistemological standards and naturalistic metaphysics are false based on rational conclusions.
Of course that’s not to say that will never happen and one of us could never become a Catholic either. It’s not that simple of course. But she sounds from that self-description like someone who was an emptier philosophical vessel to start with who then was exposed to robust Catholic tradition and philosophy and thin, blogworthy, atheistic philosophy and under those conditions she not-so-stunningly opted to believe the more rounded out philosophical option of the two. What does she really know about naturalistic philosophy as developed by academic philosophers who do not write for popular audiences? From her own account of major influences and conversation partners, probably not much.
So that’s a summation of what I am gleaning from atheist replies to Libresco’s conversion about various response inclinations the identity atheist movement has to public betrayal of our little tribe, with my own initial impressions and responses to both the atheists I’m reading and to Libresco herself thrown in.
In another post, I would like to address her actual stated reasons for converting and the few arguments she has made.
In the meantime, Your Thoughts?
For more Camels With Hammers on Catholic philosophy and theology:
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