This morning, atheist blogger and 2011 Yale graduate Leah Libresco announced on her blogging network, Patheos, that she will no longer post in the atheist section of the site. She will still be blogging, but instead as a Catholic. Several months ago, she decided to convert to Catholicism.
Drastically reversing any position—particularly a public one—is a seriously daunting thing to do. Though Leah and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many philosophical issues, especially this one, I admire her integrity. The reason for her conversion—realizing that she believes that the Moral Law is real and a Person—is hard for me to understand. Most charitably, it seems that her justification is opaque and too complicated for one blog post. At worst, it may be philosophically confused. But I’ve read enough of Leah’s writing to know she’s a smart and thoughtful person who must have good reasons for what she believes, particularly since she’s been sitting on this since April.
I’ve noticed that among atheists, the general reaction seems to be either “dafuq?” or “yeah, I guess that makes sense,” with little in between except for suggestions that she’s had a stroke or was never a “real” atheist at all (Leah has very cleverly replied to the stroke accusation here). Since Leah describes herself in her post as “a virtue ethicist atheist whose transhumanism seems to be rooted in dualism,” it’s pretty clear to me which commenters have actually read her work (or understand any of those words).
I’m in a kind of weird spot where I’m sympathetic to a lot of her positions, but I don’t understand her rationale at all. I go back and forth between brands of consequentialism and Neo-Kantianism as my ethical theory of choice, and I’m almost certain that if the former is true, abortion is terrible and we are all awful people for spending money on vacations and pets and videogames instead of donating the vast majority of our earnings to assist the global poor. All of this goes to say that I seriously empathize with someone struggling for philosophical consistency, and I understand that it can lead you to some bizarre and unintuitive conclusions. And when faced with those conclusions, it’s frankly an unsatisfying cop-out to avoid them by simply rejecting the premises you started with. It seems that she has opted instead to bite the bullet—Catholicism must be the most consistent with her moral conclusions (and many commenters and bloggers have missed the point that this is more in reference to Aquinas than abortion).
I’m sorry to say that I can’t provide much personal insight—we belonged to very different circles while at Yale, and even our interests in Christianity split: she spent her time studying Catholicism with friends, and I explored evangelicalism with the Yale Students for Christ—so until she writes more on her conversion, I can’t begin to understand the finer points of her philosophical conclusions.
But I’ve generally found the reaction to be both predictable and disappointing, and I think it shows a serious lack of empathy and intellectual curiosity in many atheists. The most common reaction I’ve seen is just blatant incredulity, which I think not only reflects an inability to understand why anyone would convert to Catholicism, but why anyone would be a Catholic to begin with. I see the “there is no evidence for religion, all believers are brainwashed” narrative almost accepted as the default atheist position (pandered by American Atheist President Dave Silverman at just about every opportunity), but it seems so clearly absurd to me.
There are basically two options for atheists here. First: everyone is just evidence-insensitive except for us, in which case atheists are the uniquely rational group that, either upon our births or conversion, had a “rational” switch flipped on in our heads. If the evidence leads only to atheism, how could anyone else looking at the evidence believe anything else? Well, they must not be looking at the evidence, then.
I prefer the second option: that people generally believe things for good reasons (qualify “people” with “thoughtful” if you must). If it doesn’t seem like it to us, either we don’t know enough about where they’re starting from (we don’t all have the same philosophical commitments), or we don’t know enough about what evidence they’re applying (evidence, of course, is usually interpreted much more broadly than many atheists would like to admit). It’d be a failure of empathy and critical thinking to assume they’re simply brainwashed or indoctrinated.
I think it’s an inconvenient position, but some people have good reasons for believing in God. Whether or not their reasons are available to us is a different matter—I’m still not sure how Leah’s philosophical commitments lead her to Catholicism—but I don’t doubt that she’s rational enough to see the world and decide that those commitments are probably true, and that Catholicism most logically follows. If she’s made a mistake somewhere, we can certainly try to find it.
Otherwise, any argument or debate is started by assuming the other person is brainwashed or irrational, and how can that turn into anything other than a “look how smart I am!” parade? It’s not so much a conversation as a sparring match with an imaginary partner. Other than reciting your talking points while the other is left with little more than the feeling that you’ve addressed a caricature, what’s the point?
I think we atheists ought to consider seriously and carefully why others believe what they do, in a way that isn’t either self-congratulatory or pointless. It’s too easy and unproductive to simply wave our collective hands while vaguely appealing to psychology in order to explain why people are religious. So instead of disappointment or incredulity, I’m looking forward to Leah’s future posts with curiosity—how better to understand Catholicism than by reading about a peer’s conversion?
Vlad Chituc is a recent graduate of Yale University, where he studied Psychology with an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal members of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing for several campus publications. Next year, he will be a lab manager and research assistant at one of Duke’s social neuroscience labs.