We Have Failed Leah Libresco

Update: Thanks to Jesse Weistein for the suggestion that links to the works of the philosophers mentioned in this post be provided. Here are his helpful links:

The full-text of Corliss Lamont’s ‘Philosophy of Humanism’ is available online, here:http://www.corliss-lamont.org/philos8.htm .

Felix Adler was the founder of the Ethical Culture movement; here’s his WP entry:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Adler_%28professor%29

Here is Paul Kurtz’s homepage, with a bio and list of his books:http://kurtz.pragmatism.org/

The conversion of Leah Libresco, a formally atheist blogger at Patheos who recently turned to Catholicism, has sparked all sorts of thoughts within me. I have a number of posts coming exploring various aspects of her decision, but here I just want to express sadness, frustration, and a sense that we, the Humanist community, have failed her.

Reading her account of her conversion, it seems to have stemmed from an inability to construct a compelling, coherent view of atheistic morality, despite years of trying. Reading over her last posts, it’s certainly true that the question of a foundation for ethics was a preoccupation. And Libresco roamed further and more adventurously than many atheists in her search, kludging together (by her own analysis) a not-particularly-coherent form of ethical idealism in which objective moral truths exist separate to human beings.

Ultimately, however, this kludge was insufficient to resist the challenges of religious friends, who kept prodding at the weak-spot of her system (the link between the Moral Truths she felt existed “out there” and or knowledge of them) until she turned to theism to “solve” the problem.

There are many problems with Libresco’s movement from a not-very-convincing ethical Platonism to a less convincing Christian theism, but here I want to ask why someone like Libresco was unable to find a potent naturalistic, atheistic account of moral values which was satisfying enough to answer the critiques of her religious friends.

I think part of the answer is that we Humanists, as a community, have often failed to rise to the challenge of presenting a coherent, compelling ethical viewpoint of our own which is capable of competing with religious worldviews. This is not to say that Humanists do not have such an account to offer, but that we haven’t always been fantastic at presenting it.

Too often, in my experience, Humanists treat the problems of morality as simply reducible to questions of science – thinking, as Libresco alludes, that evolutionary psychology or neuroscience will solve the problem for us. We frequently seem uncomfortable speaking in the language of morality, leaving talk of good and evil, and even the word “values” itself, to the religious. Sometimes we simply allow our ethical commitments to be occluded by our atheism, as if non-belief in God is the Humaist’s only or most significant value. Most movement atheists who have joined the movement recently have never encountered texts like Corliss Lamont’s ‘Philosophy of Humanism’, or the writing of Felix Adler, the books of Paul Kurtz, or any of the work on ethics done by significant Humanist philosophers. And it seems from reading many of Libresco’s past posts that no atheist friend ever pointed her in that direction.

I don’t know her personally, and all I know of her comes from reading her blog periodically over the past couple of months, but I think these might be some reasons why someone like Libresco would embrace theism. To those of us deeply committed to a set of moral values, it can seem like theistic systems offer less equivocal support for them. It can sometimes seem like religious groups are the only ones talking about moral questions at all, let alone other “existential” questions such as the attempt to find meaning in life.

Furthermore, religions offer a vast range of resources to assist people who are grappling with just the sort of ethical, philosophical and existential questions which Libresco is struggling with. It is surely significant that at the moment of her conversion she immediately began to pray, using the liturgical resources of the Catholic Church to support her transition in belief.

To an extent, then, I think Humanists need to consider whether we are in part responsible for losing people like Leah Libresco. If we want to keep intellectually honest, morally engaged people committed to Humanist principles, we need to engage more energetically and more publically with moral and ethical questions. and provide resources for those who are profoundly committed to seeking moral truth. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing more to the Catholics.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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