Who the Blank is Leah Libresco?

You know you’re hopelessely out of touch when a blog post manages to go viral without containing a single word you can make sense of. At a tender age of 24 hours, former atheist blogger Leah Libresco’s announcement that she’s joined an RCIA class in preparation for baptism is standing on 12,700 Facebook shares. Plus 1,721 tweets. To put this in perspective, “Sorry, Young Man. You’re No Longer the Most Important Demographic in Tech,” which earlier this morning reigned as the Atlantic’s fifth most popular article, has been shared barely one-tenth that many times, though it first appeared 11 days ago.

At last counting, Libresco’s readers had posted 728 comments, which is to say her combox has become a world unto itself. In a year or so, mark my words, Catholic portal managing editor Elizabeth Scalia will receive at least one e-mail to the tune of: “My spouse and I met in the thread following Leah Libresco’s conversion post. Here’s a picture of our firstborn.”

In one sense, the numbers add up perfectly, so to speak. Now that atheists are gaining new confidence, evangelizing and undertaking good works in the manner of the competition, the public defection of one is just cause for buzz. But how did Libresco become that one? So little in her style and persona follows the recipe for blogging superstardom, at least as I’ve always understood it. Libresco never traffics in snark or indignation, and seems have no interest in being a phrasemaker or a Personality-with-a-capital-P. She does blog about sex, but in drier language than typically sells. Her acquaintance with the 24-hour news cycle is distant and cordial, at best.

The opening sentence of Libresco’s conversion announcement conveys a fair sense of her headspace. “For several years,” she writes, “a lot of my friends have been telling me I had an inconsistent and unsustainable philosophy.” Well, shit, lady, I confess thinking. Who doesn’t? But Libresco goes on in that vein, describing her evolution from “A virtue ethicist atheist whose transhumanism seems to be rooted in dualism,” to a believer in a “Moral Law” that is more than “a Platonic Truth, abstract and distant.” Throughout, she remains blissfully — touchingly — unaware that a big share of humanity would perceive talk like this as an invitation to blackjack the speaker for her milk money.

Honestly? I belong to that share of humanity. Though I have a dim idea what Libresco’s talking about here, I can’t quite stretch into the shoes of anyone who defaults to jargon when organizing her inner experiences. My religious convictions, such as they are, reside in my gut, far from the long arm of reason. Rightly or wrongly, I think of God as a bearded baritone with one bitch of a duodenal ulcer who lives in Orange County and joined the Republican Party around the time Reagan first ran for governor. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone here. Yet Libresco’s eggheadery has won the day. It is playing like Star Wars, even in Peoria.

Call me crazy, but I’d say this points to some new developments in the national conversation on religion.

Among millennials, belief versus unbelief is a big issue. Last year, Pew researchers found that 26% of Americans aged 18-30 declared themselves “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination. Moreover, 46% — as opposed to 64% of Gen Xers and 69% of Boomers — agreed with the statement “religion is the key to a nation’s success.” Libresco, falling right in the middle of that age range, is well qualified to argue faith’s case with her people. When we old farts try, we sound pompous, if not downright misinformed, which is to say we sound like David Brooks when he’s writing about Jeremy Lin.

Old-style culture war is getting musty. Last week, Sister Joan Chittester told Christiane Amanpour that the feminism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religous was hardly more radical than the patriarchal thinking of the Vatican. To anyone using women’s current status in the U.S. as a baseline, she’s right. Many of the same conservatives who recently defended Ann Romney’s stay-at-home momhood, had backed the Mama Grizzlies during the previous midterm elections. More than half of all Americans support gay marriage; servicemen and women are asking and telling to their hearts’ content. To claim any measure of relevance, a Christian apologist must be conversant with these realities. She can’t get away with simply wishing aloud for a return to simpler times or calling Spongebob gay.

On her “About” page, Libresco declares her intention to “skip past the normal scripts and have the weird arguments.” For example, a few weeks ago, she challenged Christian readers: “Go Ahead: Tell Me What’s Wrong with Homosexuality.” Right away, she struck any references to “gay brownshirts” off the table. If respondents were going to breathe fire, it couldn’t be the same old fire. The post got 153 responses — not quite a barn-burner, but far from a dud. The numbers may reflect a topsy-turvy, Karl Rovian sort of reality: that Librecso’s reluctance to play grievance politics, which I’d taken for a weakness, is actually a strength.

These days, Christians had better sound smart. The dice are cogged against authority. Cite the Bible, any pope, or either Vatican Council, and you’ll probably hear “So what?” If Christianity wants to survive as a cultural force, or inform public policy, it had better explain itself in terms intelligible to people who reject its supernatural basis. At the very least, it had better entrust its message to people who talk the talk of the academy. If a few middlebrows like me are left cross-eyed — oh, well. We’re collateral damage, a small price to pay for intellectual street cred.

In some ways, Ross Douthat has been filling this bill. As Michael Sean Winters observes in his review of Bad Religion, Douthat’s arguments can be facile and nostalgic, but the man has a Phi Beta Kappa key and sticks words like “numinous” into bestsellers. Therefore, he connects with New York Times readers in a way Rick Warren could never dream of doing. Libresco has roughly the same skill set. And, though she enjoys reading Chesterton, she does not channel him like a drag queen doing Miss Ross. For that alone, may the Lord bless and keep her in His loving care.

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  • Satan

    I am very glad that you have become Catholic for now I can tempt you into sin!

    [Show up at eight, sharpish.]

  • Elizabeth Anne Gill

    And yet there are some people who read both Leah’s type of blog (and Chesterton) as well as yours. We weirdos like the dichotomy of your gut’s bleedings against the blathering of those intellectual types. It keeps us balanced.

    [Hang on just a second there. Don't put words in my mouth. To me, "blather" means, "to ramble on in an undisciplined way." I never said Leah did that. Jargon or no jargon, she always seems to have a pretty fair idea where she's going, and gets there quickly enough. I do wonder whether she might increase her readership by using more accessible language. But for all I know, if she did that, her current readership would accuse her of selling out.]

  • Paul

    She just wants the attention and money from it.
    I was raised a Catholic and that was the exact reason
    I became an Atheist, because of the stupid teaching of the Catholic church.
    Here are some examples I was taught in a Catholic boys school in the 1960′s;
    If I wear a scapular medal when I die, I will never suffer the pains of hell.
    If I communicate for 9 first Fridays, I will never suffer the pains of hell, so I did it twice to be sure. so if their rules are right, I get a go to heaven pass for free.
    I tried to do a confession before my brother’s wedding and I told the priest, the definition of a sin is something you know is wrong and something you did on purpose, that was their definition, not mine. I said even after 10 year of not going to confession, I have no sins.
    I never tried to hurt anyone or lie or anything on purpose. I am far from an angel, I was just using their definition, he refused to absolve me or give me communion at my brother’s wedding.
    I started to think, they make the rules then they refuse to follow their own rules.
    And half the priests and brothers are child molesters. or some big percentage because they don’t allow them to marry, why don’t we hear about Protestant priests or Rabbis raping little boys ?? just the Catholics do it.

    If this girl wants to find religion, fine. But choose a more sane one please.


    [I can't speak for her, but I know I like getting lots of page views, both for the bragging rights and the money they bring. To my way of thinking, as long as I put out a quality product -- by which I mean all facts checked, commentary not too mindlessly inflammatory -- there's nothing dishonorable in that. I can assure you, however, that my reasons for conversion did not include the promise of a market for my writing. When I began attending RCIA classes, I barely knew that any such thing as the Catholic media existed. (Some days, I look back fondly on those innocent times.)

    I grew up hearing stories like yours. My mother, who left the Church (at the age of 18) pretty much on the eve of the first session of Vatican II, used to reminisce about this or that demented nun the way some parents tell old service yarns. I won't say they attracted me to the Church, exactly, but they did intrigue me. As I began taking instruction, I decided to find out for myself whether the place is really as crazy as all that. I'm not sure I've settled on an answer yet.]

  • Galloway

    I realize you didn’t make this news item yourself, but the subject is a hyper-inflated *snore*. A reification, an invention of a thing that doesn’t really exist. Blame a slow news day on CNN. One obscure, unsure, untested vacillating lack of self-confidence undoes the accumulating trend toward free thinking since Ingersoll? NOT.

    [Last I checked, she had well over 20K Facebook shares. In this market, that's enormous. The attention, which continued over several days, didn't come from nowhere. Does it signal some mass reversion to Christianity? Of course not. But I do think it deserves to be taken a little more seriously than, say, a cute YouTube video of a kitten mauling a toddler.]

  • Elizabeth Anne Gill

    Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth. I use blather to mean talk a lot with big words. And it’s fun to say. ;)

    [Okay, that's cool. Some people on Facebook seemed to think I was being overly critical of Leah. My point was that, though her work doesn't really speak to me, personally, I can see how she's the right person with the right voice and the right background to meet a challenge peculiar to this time. That's about as high a compliment as one writer can offer another.]

  • WrennNYC

    Well.. I may be out of the loop, but I had no knowledge of her before this. What I do know is that CNN headlines it as ‘Prominent athiest blogger…’

    I wondered at the ‘prominent’ thing.

    I know. I’ll ask David.



  • +bc

    My first awareness of Leah’s writing came less than a week before her conversion. It was  lovely to read the generosity displayed in her back columns—and not least to her own incomprehension, which she also witnessed to in her About profile. (It is of a sort I nearly shared in a generation past.) Of completing her college prep studies five years ago she writes, “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.” :-) 

    Believers are called by a Shepherd to share His joy. We do, happily.