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.

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.

  • http://jondreyer.org Jon Dreyer

    Or the truth that morality that makes sense for human beings is messy and complicated and organic, rather than philosophically pure, was too much for her. One appeal of religion, at least some forms of it, is that it gives pat (if wrong) answers to hard questions.

    If that was the problem, our hope would have been to convince her that there’s beauty, if not purity, in that messy morality.

  • John James McCargar

    A truly coherent, comprehensive morality which has successfully divorced itself from all notions of spirituality/super natural phenomenon/ Platonic forms doesn’t really exist. Perhaps it is our failure as a community to step up and admit that there are no objective moral truths to be had. To invoke Sam Harris, we can propose any number of ways one ought to live so as to maximize some aspect of what we feel humans need in order to flourish, but labeling that ethical code “Good” only conflates the nuanced argument we have to make. I’ve proposed to my Humanist group that our morality is rooted in our mutual obligations to one another. It’s base, subjective, and always in a state of change. We will never be able to write a universal code of ethics, but we can learn from experience and build something up over time. Perhaps, then, it is our obligation to share our experiences with one another insomuch that morality is involved so as to have a more robust code for everyone. Unless, James, you are proposing that Humanism has some Objective moral truth to it? I lost my affinity to Forms when I lost my God, so I have been an Aristotelian “relativist” ever since.

  • Jim Farmelant

    It’s also interesting to point out that Leah in her blog post referenced both C.S. Lewis and Alasdair Macintyre as examples of thinkers who sought an objective moral law and both of whom converted to Christianity as part of that quest. Most people here are probably familiar with Lewis. I am a bit more interested in Macintyre since his writings on moral philosophy provide a trenchant critique of most of the varieties of moral philosophy that have flourished since the beginning of the modern era. He was also BTW a Marxist at one time too. In reaction to most forms of modern moral philosophy, he has attempted to promote a revival of Aristotelian-type virtue ethics.

    BTW other people who have thought along somewhat similar lines include both the late Elizabeth Anscombe and her husband (still around at age 96), Peter Geach. Both of whom were students of Wittgenstein, and both were converts to Catholicism. In fact, Anscombe was pretty much responsible for the revival of virtue ethics as a serious option in contemporary moral philosophy.

  • http://pqexchange.wordpress.org Rigelrover


    I am not sure if you realized this, or if was unintended, but there seems to be a severe double-standard or at least contradiction among your stated concerns:

    You state, what seems to be fairly true (at least on the surface) that “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”. But you also seem to be critical of or concerned about Leah only on account of her recent change in belief about God, and not about a change in moral values or imitativeness. As far as I can tell, she stated no change in her values explicitly. And may still hold many if not all of her previous humanist values. She rather seemed to have simply changed her belief about the foundation of those values.



    • TempleoftheFuture

      I don’t feel this is a double-standard, no. Atheism is important as an outcome of our commitment to reason, but it is not the ONLY important value that Humanists have. So it makes sense to be concerned with her unreason in itself, even if it shouldn’t be her only concern.

      Having said that, I don’t think it’s clear yet that Libresco’s moral commitments won’t change after her conversion. She has expressed now that she is struggling with the church’s teaching on homosexuality. Well, the struggle in that case is because the RCC is pulling in a regressive direction – who knows what the outcome will be?

  • TychaBrahe

    I’m having difficulty reconciling Leah’s statements with her actions. She claims that she desires to convert to Catholicism because she cannot find a source for morality that she feels she needs in atheism.

    But the Catholic church is morally bankrupt from one end to the other. We are talking about an organization that is bound and determined to promote the spread of AIDS and other STDs by banning condom use. We are talking about an organization that is so opposed to homosexuality that they prefer children stay in orphanages than be adopted by loving gay families. We are talking about an organization that systematically worked to cover up the sexual abuse of children, and when informed that media attention was growing, its leader did not mourn the violence done to children but the fact that the American priests COULD NOT BETTER CONTROL THE MEDIA!!!

    How can anyone searching for moral authority think they will find it in the Catholic church?

    I do not think that Leah knows her own mind about this.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I suspect her response would be that she is finding value in Catholic moral theology and ethics, not in the RCC as an institution.

  • Jerry W Barrington

    Her problem is in the oxymoron of “objective morality”. It is nonsense to talk of morals existing independent of people, as morals are entirely about the interactions of people.

  • http://www.thesecularhuman.com David

    To be honest, atheists and Humanists over intellectualize morality, and reading Humanist literature on ethics can sometimes be like licking superfine sandpaper, pretty soon it starts getting irritating.

    Moral messages in religion are much more simplistic, story based and appealing to everyday people. I think Leah has over-thought the whole thing which exacerbates her own confusion. What makes her suddenly believe in talking snakes and literally eating the body of her newly found messiah is anyone’s guess.

    I don’t think we have failed her in anyway. Overall, people in the USA are losing their faith, but Church’s are built in communities and Humanists need to start figuring out how to do the same.

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I agree, but I’d say the fact that we have paid very little attention to community-building over decades of Humanist activism is itself a signal failure.

  • elaine kilshaw (@humanbeing2)

    Just a simple thought that when many reach their latter years they somehow get a bit afraid of dying, and to be safe turn to some religion in case atheism willnot guarantee them a life in a heaven just in case it is true.I am 77 not afraid of dying, always been an atheist, a good human being which I believe is all we need.

  • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ Jesse Weinstein

    You mention three humanist philosophers, but don’t provide links (or better, summaries of their work) for any of them. This is less than helpful. While it’s easy enough to do a quick google for such things (as I’ve done below), it shows good faith and consistency to provide such links directly in your original post — how better to encourage your readers to learn more about the philosophers you are referring to?

    Here is what a quick google got me:

    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/

    That really wasn’t very hard. It would have been even better if you had done it inline in the post (feel free to update it with these links).

    • TempleoftheFuture

      I shall do so – thanks for the suggestion. I do write about these sorts of philosophical issues frequently here on the blog, so I tend to assume readers will be familiar with the names. This is a mistake on my part, and one I will work to rectify, but it certainly is not an expression of bad faith.

  • http://homeschoolingphysicist.blogspot.com PhysicistDave


    Isn’t the idea that “Humanists” or “Humanist philosophers” have the duty to work out the idea of a naturalist approach to morality just as silly as suggesting that Humanists have a duty to work out a naturalist approach to cosmology or to the evolution of life?

    After all, all of these things have already been worked out by scholars who are not explicit members of any “Humanist community.”

    There are numerous books laying out in some detail a clear, sensible, non-theistic approach to morality, written by a number of people, not just philosophers: Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, Mackie’s Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, even T. H. White’s wonderful parable, The Once and Future King (see also the “out-takes” from that book published as The Book of Merlyn).

    Even C. S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist, gives a creditable discussion in his The Abolition of Man!

    Indeed, this naturalistic approach to morality goes all the way back to Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and, even, to Aristotle and the ancient Epicureans.

    Leah did not convert to Catholicism because the questions she has raised about morality have not been answered. Anyone who has interacted with her (and I have) knows she just does not like to hear the answers: already a year ago, when I was following her blog, it was clear that this was a woman determined to convert to Catholicism, for entirely non-intellectual reasons.

    The give-away is in her famous June 18 posting when she declared, “I guess Morality just loves me.”

    Not “My boyfriend just loves me,” or “My friends just love me,” or “My parents just love me,” but “Morality just loves me.”

    To put it diplomatically, this is an eccentric statement! Indeed, I have not been able to find the phrases “Morality loves me” or “Morality just loves me” used anywhere before Leah’s strange declaration. Leah wanted love and she used her bizarre misunderstanding of ethics as an excuse to pretend that she had found it.

    If you want to, blame Leah’s friends, family, boyfriend, etc. for not giving her the love she wanted. But, the idea that her bizarre behavior is due to there not being clear explanations of the nature of morality?

    No, there are many such expositions easily available. They just did not serve Leah’s ulterior motives, as revealed in her own words.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

    • TempleoftheFuture

      “Isn’t the idea that “Humanists” or “Humanist philosophers” have the duty to work out the idea of a naturalist approach to morality just as silly as suggesting that Humanists have a duty to work out a naturalist approach to cosmology or to the evolution of life?”

      No, I don’t think so, partly because each Humanist must work for themselves to develop some sort of coherent worldview which is going to guide their actions, but also because I was talking about presenting such a worldview in a compelling way, rather than simply developing it in the first place. As I’ve said here, the challenge is not epistemological but persuasive: we have good answers to these questions, as you say, but are not that good at presenting them to people in a compelling way. In my own words:

      “This is not to say that Humanists do not have such an account [of morality] to offer, but that we haven’t always been fantastic at presenting it.”

  • http://askanatheist.tv Becky Friedman

    I’d also add the writings of (Humanistic) Rabbi Sherwin Wine to the mix of Humanist texts, keeping in mind that it’s an exploration of Humanism from a Jewish cultural perspective. Either Judaism Beyond God, or some of his essays.