The (Epistemic) Floor is Made of Lava

The (Epistemic) Floor is Made of Lava June 20, 2012

I’ve been trying to be dilligent about following the trackbacks to people who have been discussing or critiquing my conversion post, and I found one I have to share.  Scott is linking in the context of a broader discussion about philosophy and the fundamental strangeness of finding really smart people who hold to improbable beliefs that you don’t share.  He pretty much took the words right out of my mouth.  This is probably an egregious amount of blockquoting, and I apologize to Scott, but I just like it so much I couldn’t help myself. Plus I’m pretty sure this can only whet your appetite to click through and read the whole thing.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to think of this; in fact, I’m sure this isn’t even the first time I’m thinking about this, but there have to be local maxima of coherence in ideaspace well away from the global maximum. That is, maybe in reality Islam and deontology and liberalism are true, but if you believe Buddhism and consequentialism and conservativism are true, then changing any one of those beliefs produces a paradox or seems obviously wrong. Leah, the atheist blogger who converted to Catholicism, lampshaded this when she said :

“Based on my in-person arguments to date, it seems like most of my atheist friends disagree two or three steps back from my deciding Morality is actually God. They usually diverge back around the bit where I assert morality, like math, is objective and independent of humans. As one of my friends said, “Well, I guess if I were a weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist, this would probably convince me”

If I were a weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist, converting to Catholicism would probably be my next step too. And if I were a weird quasi-Platonist Catholic, perhaps I would feel a need to follow virtue ethics. And if I were a quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist Catholic, I might well follow it up by becoming weird. So that’s one local maximum / attractor. And I’m pretty happy as a reductionist atheist consequentialist, so that’s a good local maximum too.

That raises the disturbing possibility that I and a conservative Catholic might be equally smart, know all the same arguments, and just have ended up at two different local maxima. And that we may both be totally justified in rejecting all individual arguments against our positions, while the only genuinely convincing argument – the entire worldview of the other person – is too complicated to fit in our brains at once.

This was a big concern for me, too (on both sides of belief).  And it’s part of the answer to the “Why Catholic?” question that people want me to tackle.  I ended up pretty confident (for reasons that I’ll flesh out in other posts) that both atheism and Catholicism were local maxima in exactly the way Scott describes.  This is also the precis of why I didn’t just pick a nice religion like Deism or UU or certain Protestantism, as some commenters have asked.  I didn’t think they seemed coherent and consistent enough.

So a lot of what I’ve been doing for the past, oh, let’s say six months, is thinking about when you should try to jump from one optima to another.  Or, put another way, if you have two plausible descriptions of the world, how do you check which world you’re living in?  When both sides have access to the same data, they’re going to come up with explanations and theories that are at least reasonable sounding on the surface, so you end up admiring the way the other peak is constructed with little idea if it’s true.

It’s pretty hard to come up with good tests to distinguish between local explanatory optima in high-level physics physics (funding is not the only barrier to checking if we live in a multiverse), and it’s at least as hard to create good Popperian tests of locally optimal metaphysical explanations.

I was trying to be epistemologically conservative, so I wasn’t going to be convinced by Catholicism just explaining something that different flavors of atheism hadn’t yet addressed.  Atheism hasn’t been working on these problems for as long, so the tools just might not be available to us yet.  I was looking for something that needed an explanation that atheism probably couldn’t address or denied needed an explanation at all.  And then I leapt from peak to peak.

There is a Chesterton quote that seems apropos, though I guess now it’s more hackneyed for me to quote him.  From Orthodoxy:

It is very hard for a man to defend anything of which he is entirely convinced. It is comparatively easy when he is only partially convinced. He is partially convinced because he has found this or that proof of the thing, and he can expound it. But a man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.

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  • BMTA

    I came THIS close to quoting the bit about the bookcase, the coals, the piano and the policemen in the Facebook message I just sent you (not having read this)!

  • Don’t you think that that your peak-switching is going to lead to a lot more epistemic slippage than you would have experience if you had stayed? That is, while perhaps within the local maximum of atheism, you were left having to explain objective morality and failing, whereas now you are left defending Jesus, the Bible, and possibly the entire Catholic Church. Is the switch simply worth it insofar as you’re more willing to do the work on these things because the gain in certainty of where morals come from is so great?

    Also, what is this thing that atheism cannot explain, even in principle?

    • leahlibresco

      I’d rather have a good epistemic tool and a lot of mess to sort it out with, than a lot of probably right outputs that come from a too-flawed system.

      • Charles

        This is a dividing characteristic between the atheists I most disgree with and the Catholics I most agree with…. the atheists always seem more hung up on the messy stuff to do with Catholicism than the Catholics do! I have struggled with the “If/do you *REALLY* believe this…” problem for quite awhile myself. I recall watching a debate between Christopher Hitchens and a priest and at one of the priests responses Hitchens was almost taken aback that if the priest wasnt going to disagree on some point that Hitchen’s felt required atheism then they couldnt debate.

        • Paul Moloney

          “the atheists always seem more hung up on the messy stuff to do with Catholicism than the Catholics do!”

          Well, of course. It’s uncomfortable having cognitive dissonance pointed out to onesself.


          • Brian

            Cognitive dissonance? Whatever do you mean? Seriously. Atheists do not know how incredibly unimpressive this or that scandal from century X is to the question of Why Catholicism? They are an utter non sequitur.

          • Ted Seeber

            Most of the messy stuff I know about Catholicism, comes from the cognitive dissonance of NOT following Catholicism.

            Take the recent sex abuse scandals. 98% of Catholic priests keep their vow of celibacy, 2% do not. Of those 2%, half abuse children, which means 1% abuse children. But that 1% *do not believe in the vow of celibacy to begin with* and are thus *willing to break the vow for their own pleasure*. Thus, there is no actual cognitive dissonance- priests who keep their vows, don’t abuse children.

          • jose

            Century X… how about last year? By your religious/spiritual guide over at the church? And if what the religious leaders of the ecclesiastic hierarchy do and/or say doesn’t matter, why do you have them at all?

        • JackOCat

          I understand where you are coming from. Basically you are more interested in the ethical and philosophical aspects of being Catholic at a personal level in the present and not very interested in the macro political and societal aspects of Catholicism historically as well as going forward.

          I think your point of view is fine. But I do think that people who are focused on those latter items are raising legit points about Catholicism as well. You just might not currently be the best person to take interest with that and engage with them. Nothing wrong with that.

      • @Leah: How do you know it’s a good tool if it’s only giving you messy output?

        • Erin

          Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think her point was that the output is messy. It’s the input that’s messy, but she finally has a tool to work it out with that she can be confident in.

          • I don’t doubt that, I’m only saying that I’m wondering where the confidence comes from if not good results.

        • Martha G

          And what about the Church’s stance on homo/bi-sexuality? That seems like a messy output…

          • Ted Seeber

            Not within the actual doctrine. It’s actually very simple: sex has a purpose, that purpose being procreation and increasing the friendship of spouses to inseparability for the children. It’s pleasurable so that the human race doesn’t die out.

            Sins against chastity (homosexuality/bi-sexuality/heterosexual promiscuity) all have the biochemical effect in the brain of breaking down the very neurotransmitters that cause sex to be unitive. In addition, thanks to widespread use of contraceptives, almost all of these sexual sins against chastity are either unfruitful, or in the worst case, actually murderous (abortion). Not that the failure of being able to mate with somebody of the opposite gender for life would be the best situation for raising children anyway.

            So, in short, given the assumptions of the Church, which are different from your assumptions, the current stance on homo/bi-sexuality is actually quite logical and reasoned. It’s just that the Church *starts with* a completely different set of assumptions than you do about the purpose of sex. And likely a very different set of assumptions about the role of authority and morality and a lot of other stuff.

          • Do folks object to Catholicism on any other grounds but those of the sexual passions? Is there a single non-Catholic who understands Catholic teaching and disagrees on any other point? Even one? So much hay is made out of this that even if I were not Catholic I doubt I could possibly have any sympathy for the complainant’s case.

            Among a neutral observer, can there be anything but a weary disgust with this obsession? Even if you’re right, please do something to break the tedium. Once in a while say something about the priesthood that doesn’t boil down to sex abuse of minors, or of the teaching of the Church which doesn’t boil down to accusing her of Puritanical sexual repression.

            If I cannot convince you by rhetoric, perhaps an appeal to your enlightened self-interest: Keep hitting with a left jab and you’ll never defend yourselves against our hook.

          • keddaw

            The Ubiquitous,
            Non-Catholics would say less about the priest abuse scandal (and even more scandalous subsequent cover ups) if Catholics said more about it! But you want other arguments against Catholicism, okay, here’s a quick list off the top of my head:
            Contraception, especially in Africa; sanctity of a fertilised egg; stem cell research; health care debacle in the US; Papal infallibility; demonic possession -> exorcism; apparitions of Mary; satanic influences; miracles; angels; efficacy of prayer; vicarious redemption; original sin; the actual and symbolic significance of the eucharist; celibacy of priests and nuns; inspiration behind scripture; divinity of Jesus; healing miracles of the early church founders; resurrection of lots of dead people when Jesus ‘came back from the dead’ (surely that would be mentioned in many, many, many places not just Matthew if it happened?); existence of a soul; religious free will; objective morality; goodness of the Bible; an afterlife; faith as a ‘good thing’.
            I could go on, but you get my point, there is much in the Catholic Church to disagree with in it’s central ideas without completely focussing about how it is put into practice.

          • @ubiquitous

            Sure, I have numerous grounds:

            The idea that the RCC really represents an unbroken apostolic tradition and that the task of interpreting the Word of God belongs solely to the Pope and the Magisterium, the whole concept of a hierarchical church, that “The Pope, Bishop of Rome and Peter’s successor, is the perpetual and visible source and foundation of the unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of the faithful. For the Roman Pontiff, by reason of his office as Vicar of Christ, and as pastor of the entire Church has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered,” and also, I don’t believe that “The Roman Pontiff, head of the college of bishops, enjoys this infallibility in virtue of his office, when, as supreme pastor and teacher of all the faithful – who confirms his brethren in the faith he proclaims by a definitive act a doctrine pertaining to faith or morals…. the infallibility promised to the Church is also present in the body of bishops when, together with Peter’s successor, they exercise the supreme Magisterium.”

            Moving on, I object to infant baptism specifically and the necessity of water baptism as a whole. I certainly don’t believe that “Baptism imprints on the soul an indelible spiritual sign, the character, which consecrates the baptized person for Christian worship.” (I have been baptized, and I suppose that could be why I turned out Christian . . . but I doubt it!) I have no idea whether we are judged at the instant of our death or not and couldn’t honestly say one way or the other (I really liked C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce, FWIW), I significantly doubt eternal punishment of the damned, I have faith that I will exist after death but am agnostic as to whether I will have “my own identity.” I don’t believe in the bodily assumption of Mary.

            Whew. In addition, while I see the value of the sacraments *for Catholics,* I do not think they are necessary for a life in Christ. I object, again, to the necessity of priestly mediation (I’m a priesthood of all believers kind of girl). I find the Liturgy enormously beautiful but also fundamentally unnecessary. I believe that it is possible for all believers to have an unmediated experience of the Divine. I believe forgiveness of sins is possible without the mediation of a priest (or anyone else). I believe repentance is between the penitent and God. I really don’t believe that “Through indulgences the faithful can obtain the remission of temporal punishment resulting from sin for themselves and also for the souls in Purgatory.”

            I strongly, passionately object to the idea that only men are admitted to the priesthood. This objection was my break point with Catholicism.

            Yes, I support homosexual marriage. I also don’t think that ‘open-ness to fertility’ is a necessary part of matrimony. I’m not opposed to masturbation. I think human life begins at implantation, not conception. I think abortion is the willful taking of a human life, but I think it might be morally permissible in some situations. There are other situations where this is morally permissible, such as self-defense, and I think abortion might be permissible along those lines.

            On more theological ground, I don’t hold with the satisfaction theory of atonement, preferring Christus Victor or moral influence. There are a number of more theological grounds on which I disagree with the RCC, but that one comes up the most often.

            Thorough enough?

            I hate how that sounded like a diatribe; I have a lot of fondness for the Church, much like my fondness for my alma mater. Like my alma mater, though, I can’t go back.

          • @The Ubiquitous: Much of my broader objections to Catholicism are objections to Christianity if not Theism altogether. It’s only natural that my comments center on the scandals, on the outdated medical and scientific policies that cause harm (of which women’s issues are included), and on a hierarchy that seems to view itself as above any mortal law or morality. If my objections seem political it’s because the Catholic Church is a political body, but don’t think that if the Catholic church suddenly flipped it’s views on abortion, contraception, homosexuality & marriage equality, just war doctrine, celibacy, papal infallibility, etc that I’d suddenly become a Catholic. I still have problems with core mysteries of the Catholic faith, such as the historicity of Jesus, belief in miracles, the sacrament of reconciliation, the trinity, original sin, hell, heaven, etc.

          • jose

            Is it “sex is only for reproduction” one article of that objective morality independent from humans Leah says to have found?

          • On more theological ground, I don’t hold with the satisfaction theory of atonement, preferring Christus Victor or moral influence. There are a number of more theological grounds on which I disagree with the RCC, but that one comes up the most often.

            I still have problems with core mysteries of the Catholic faith, such as the historicity of Jesus, belief in miracles, the sacrament of reconciliation, the trinity, original sin, hell, heaven, etc.

            Refreshing to read. Still, much of even these comments focused on stem cell research, which incidentally the Church is not opposed to, homosexual passions, contraception, yadda, yadda, yadda. I realize that any stick will do, but does it have to be the same stick?

          • Emily

            The Ubiquitous: Yup. It’s ALL ABOUT sex for me. I am not being sarcastic here, that’s my one major issue with Catholicism, but it affects my own life and those of people close to me to such a profound degree that I can’t just take it as part of the package.

            And yes, this is pretty messed up, and it bothers me, because the rest of the package is not easy to walk away from! But maybe honestly agreeing with your diagnosis will get us somewhere?

      • Does that mean you’re privileging your metaphysical cake layer over your ethical one?

        • One of the reasons why “sex” gets such a high profile in debates with Catholicism is that the Catholic church has no serious hard line on other ethical matters. The Catholic church even takes a “principle of the double” effect approach to euthanasia and killing in war for example.
          There is a strong social justice direction amongst Catholics, stronger than among those with other traditions or none even, but these matters are not considered absolutely important by the hierachy. (Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero and and Mary Mackillop are champions but very outside the Papacy)
          In Australia our national spokesperson, Archbishop Pell, takes a “balanced” view on indigineous reconciliation, anti-militarianism, the environment, wealth redistribution and the treatment of refugees, which is to say that he generally supports the status quo of self-interest as reasonable in those areas. Only in matters of sexuality does he declare absolutes.
          If Catholics were absolutist pacifists or always opposed to ursery that would be interesting but they’re not. In fact people I know in groups like The Catholic Worker are always getting into more arguments about social justice than sex precisely because of those values.

  • This is my first time to your blog. I saw an article about you in my twitter feed and thought I’d pop by for a read.

    I just finished my journey with RCIA and was baptised at the Easter vigil. My spiritual journey though is far from finished, really, it could take lifetimes to attempt to learn anything about any religion.

    I just wanted to say congratulations on your beginning (or middle as it seems you may have been moving towards this for a while). I also wanted to give you a pat on the back for your courage. These days it’s easy for people to point a finger and laugh or toss hurtful, hateful comments about your choice in religion. What most people see is a caricature of what they believe the Catholic faith to be. It’s easier for some people to cut Catholicism (and its believers) down than to look too closely at their own lives.

    Congratulations again. If you would like to chat about the RCIA experience at all, I’d be glad to share my time.

  • Tim Muldoon

    This is the kinda cool thing about postmodernism: there can be no real authority in a premodern sense (Rousseau/Derrida: there is nothing outside the text), so any epistemic starting point, any Archimedean platform, is impossible. So sure, Biblical authority goes out the window, at least for a time, and it would seem (if you’re intellectually lazy) that all truth goes out the window too. But then you get up from the seminar table, you’re hungry, your body needs things, and suddenly discreet truths start to emerge. And the more you pay attention, the more you discover that truths are rooted in expressions of desire, and that some desires are deeper than others. And so truth as an abstraction of the intellect (reductionist atheist consequentialism, or quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist Catholicism, or whatever) starts looking pretty weak in the face of the crushing reality of deep desire. The modern philosophies rooted in the intellect look like pale cousins to the ancient philosophies rooted in behavior–I’m thinking of Epicureans and Stoics and Confucians and Buddhists who didn’t care much for arguments, but cared deeply about how to live. The biggest mistake of modernity was the belief that truth was something you could get to by thinking alone. You start acting your way into truth. For me, Catholicism is about practicing the truth and rejoicing that you’re not alone when you do it. That’s the principle of the Incarnation.

    • anodognosic

      I get this. I really do. Propositional knowledge will only get you so far, and even that is not very far at all. It’s a serious shortcoming of Internet Atheism, and it’s one that we are not particularly very aware of–mostly, that part is taken for granted, even though it’s actually the most important part.

      But. But. The other philosophical systems you mentioned put a lot less importance on propositional knowledge, from what I understand of them. Meanwhile, you can’t get away from the fact that there are distinct propositions that are required for you to be Christian, and still more for you to be Catholic. It must be Actually, Really True that Jesus rose from the tomb, that Heaven exists, that God is personal and in some sense created humans and cares deeply about our lives and behaviors. And that’s just scratching the surface of things you really need to believe to be a Christian.

      • That’s one attraction of the Incarnation on the mythic level. It tantalizes with the prospect of joining propositional truth (the Logos, God) with a lived truth (the Way, the Life, Christ).

      • I have difficulty following some of the more technical aspects here, but I wanted to offer that I, personally, hold a pluralistic theory of the truth. I don’t see the Resurrection as true in the same way that I see evolution as true, but I accept them both. This really doesn’t bother me.

        I am able to see the Resurrection and evolution as differently yet equally true because I see them as two different kinds of proposition. Evolution makes a statement about the material world. To me, personally, the Resurrection doesn’t *necessarily* make such a statement (yay for liberal protestant ‘nice’ denominations where this is OK).

        I wanted for a long time to be able to view Christian claims as physically, materially, true. I am, it turns out, absolutely incapable of accepting a material propsition as true if there is not material evidence to support it. Honestly, I tried. I *can’t* actively believe in the Resurrection physically —no matter how much I want to, or how much easier it would be for me to defend myself as a Christian and to be part of that community. I can, and have, switched which category of “truthiness” it belongs to in my mind, and out of a desire to remain in communion with the wider world of Christians, I also can, and have, willfully suspended any *disbelief* in the physicality of the Resurrection. I don’t think it *didn’t* happen, and in any debate on the issue I refuse to take sides. (I’m very sensitive to how, for many people, the physicality of the Resurrection is absolutely inseparable from its truth. Because I am passionate about the value of Christianity, I would never want to take that belief away from someone if it was the only way they could believe overall.)

        Some Christians still can’t own me as one of them, but I know Marcus Borg has an even fuzzier level of belief in the physical Resurrection than I do (he hasn’t gone so far as a willing suspension of disbelief, so far as I can tell), and N.T. Wright acknowledges him, so I have hope! (I also have a higher view of Scripture than Borg, FWIW, and a more conservative outlook generally.)

        Nevertheless, if the Resurrection was physically disproven tomorrow beyond a shadow of a doubt (I have no idea how that could be, but just hypothetically), *I would still believe in it,* because my belief in its truth has very-little to nothing-at-all to do with the physical fact of its occurence.

        All that to say, I don’t know what Leah’s theory of truth is, but that’s how the propositional content of Christianity works for me. Granted, I’m not Catholic! I have a heck of a lot of an easier time. I can’t believe the bodily assumption of Mary on any level whatsoever, just for example.

      • Emily

        I’m not sure that’s the order it has to go, though, where believing in the literal Resurrection is a precondition for living a Christian life. It was “fake it ’til you make it” for me for a couple years – praying, reading the Bible, joining a Christian community, but only wanting to believe and not really believing – and I did feel like it was faking, but that’s one way of seeking God as a non-believer, I guess. I got to the point where I only believed in the Resurrection propositionally because my lived experience led me to trust God, so I could believe in something that still seemed totally unbelievable. And then I was like, “hey, is this faith? Awesome!”

        I think that the propositional is really overemphasized in Christianity, but it’s easier to explain than the lived.

        • +bc

          Our pastor had been formed in a rather liberal seminary during the seventies. It seemed somehow that his faith was deepening, but much of what he preached I already knew. (Like: be nice!:) He knocked one of his homilies out of the park, however, after the Gospel detailed Apostle Thomas’s insistence that his mates were crazy: “I will never believe until I see the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into his side.”
          “You’ll notice something he didn’t do,” said the Father. “He didn’t separate himself. He hung out. He waited and thought—and he finally SAW the truth given by his Master Whom he trusted.
          “We are called too to wait in faith for revelation of the truth we have received.”
          That is good hope there.

    • Mike R

      This resonates for me because I had the deepest desire to reject a God requiring sacrificial atonement. From this deep desire I acted my way toward truth by discarding my Catholic faith.

      • The thing is: God didn’t really REQUIRE sacrificial atonement in the sense I think you mean. Rather, He freely chose to redeem us in that way – a way that showed the utmost depths of His love. Theoretically, God was not bound to redeem us in that way at all.

        The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were more or less a prefiguring of this Greatest Act of Love, and secondarily a stark reminder that the offense of sin has a price.

        • Faramir

          Very well said. It is the Deeper Magic from Before the Dawn of Time.

          • Alex

            I…. love you. Also, not sure if you’re a poe or not.

        • Alex

          But isn’t this still some kind of Panglossian love? Isn’t it telling that the ‘greatest act of love’ involves heinous torture?

          • An act of true love invariably involves suffering and/or sacrifice of some sort.

            What would you have preferred Christ to do to prove His love?

          • Hmm, but God’s love of himself is the most perfect act of love, and it involves no suffering. So you’re wrong about that one, Dave.

          • Good point, Elliot. I still think that love is put to the test and proven by suffering/sacrifice, at least from a human perspective.

            God could have just sent Jesus to Earth and said, “God loves you all! Really, He does! Verily!” But I think what He did was much more convincing.

          • Only with faith is it convincing, though, so ultimately it’s all on God: he does the thing, and he moves the intellect to understand it. Not sure if the weight comes down really on the specific means chosen, especially since the crucifixion is so scandalous to common sense.

          • Scott Hebert

            Elliot: I would rather say that any act of self-sacrificial love _by an imperfect being_ necessarily involves no suffering. In fact, I would consider this another definition of Original Sin: the loss of the ability to perform acts of self-sacrificial love without loss.

            Of course, this doesn’t really answer the Christological issue that, as a perfect being, Christ was able to avoid this issue. I think a good counter to this is that Christ, as fully human, loved in both modes. Not perfect, but not implausible.

    • Joshua Gonnerman

      Very well said!

    • Ted Seeber

      Platonic virtue ethics is indeed rooted in the deep desires; especially in Catholicism which can be considered at least partially a 2000 year experiment started by a God into which set of ethics actually works and which ones do not.

  • “And so truth as an abstraction of the intellect (reductionist atheist consequentialism, or quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist Catholicism, or whatever) starts looking pretty weak in the face of the crushing reality of deep desire.” Oh, yes, Tim Muldoon. Oh, yes.

  • Martha G

    Fascinating description! Based on this, it sounds like what you’ve done is eliminate the atheism local maximum, and leapt to the Catholic local maximum since you’ve analyzed it closest, are most familiar with it and it is substantiated by your experience (minus its teachings on sexual orientation, and possibly its perspective on other religions, the Trinity, maybe even the physical reality of Christ (?)). Most of my questions stem from the way you’ve cast aside both “nice” religions which you don’t find consistent (and does that make them wrong for everyone? Does that eliminate their potential to be local maxima, period?) along with /all/ other religions. Does Judaism jive with your beliefs less and seem less coherent to you than Catholicism? Islam? Episcopalianism? Greek (or Russian) Orthodox? Have you given them the same potential-local-maximum trial? Did you choose Catholicism after seriously considering the whole menu of options?

    • leahlibresco

      The answer is probably: a bit, but not as much time as I would in an ideal world. To pick out one, I find Judaism really really baffling, because I have trouble wrapping my mind around a God (or G-d) that has a uniquely chosen people. In the Old Testament, the Gentiles seem to serve the same purpose as the waters of Noah’s flood — they’re more a cudgel to keep the Jews on the straight and narrow than people. If you replaced them with p-zombies, the stories wouldn’t necessarily be any different.

      I can give a bit of a longer answer on liberal protestantism. The very short example is that a lot of the time they get to “niceness” by ditching the philosophy of marriage and not replacing it with something more hefty than ‘individual happiness” (which doesn’t really match how I think of it at all).

      I don’t have enough to rule everything out definitively, but I do have enough to make my best guess with a good-enough level of confidence.

      • Martha G

        Cool – I look forward to reading longer explanations of your journey 🙂 After all, Catholicism accepts the Old Testament as truth, too. And another (possible) way of thinking about Judaism is Catholicism with a stronger intellectual tradition (talmud, anyone?), and minus the Christ part. As far as ‘nice’ religions go, I’ve never experienced a liberal Lutheran pastor who flinched when it came to describing marriage as a hefty commitment to devote oneself to your partner – they simply wouldn’t care if you were straight, gay or biracial. Check out the religious signatories of Minnesotans United for all Families to see more on that topic. But what about the question about these other religions not being local maxima, period, if /you/ find them inconsistent?

        • leahlibresco

          Yeah, people aren’t asking about that so much, but the Old Testament is one of the most baffling things to me about Christianity, but I need to do a lot more reading on that.

          To give a sucky answer to your second question: it depends how local “local” is. Some things may really be the best answer available given the data you’ve got, but I think some of these maxima are trumped in a big way by others once you put more work into them.

          • just a quick thought about doing ‘a lot more reading on that’ – I’d spend some time in Paul’s letters in the New Testament (as well as the other books) because much of the purpose was to reinterpret the OT in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In particular they as well as the writings of the early Church spend a lot of time fleshing out the story in Luke 24:13-32 where Christ explains how the Old Testament prophecies and writings apply to Him.

            peace and grace,

            Dan F.

          • Cous

            Leah, seconding what Dan says, and a solid priest recommended the following to me (haven’t read it yet myself, but have every intention to): Reading the Old Testament by Lawrence Boadt.

          • Martha G

            Yale has added Intro to the Old Testament to their open courses list:

          • PJ


            Read the Old Testament with the fathers of the Church, who were well versed in the science of typology. This has been an area of intensive study since my conversion. The Old Testament is alive with beautiful images and figures and shadows of Christ (the near execution of Isaac is one of my favorites).

            I recommend “Christ in the Psalms” by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon.

            It is crucial to read the Old Testament in light of the Cross.

        • PJ

          “And another (possible) way of thinking about Judaism is Catholicism with a stronger intellectual tradition (talmud, anyone?)”

          Catholicism has a “Talmud” of its own: the Church fathers, among them some of the most famous philosophers and theologians in history.

          “. You find Judaism baffling because of the Old Testament – which Catholics accept”

          But the Old Testament finds fulfillment in the New Testament. Israel finds fulfillment in the Church. We do not read the Law, Psalms, and Prophets the law the Jews do. It points toward, speaks about, and illuminates the reality of the Triune God, revealed by Christ.

          • Martha G

            I’ll cede that Catholicism also has a very strong (if not as lengthy) intellectual tradition. As far as Catholicism having ‘some of the most famous philosophers and theologians in history,’ well, I’d call that a sampling error. We live in the West, our most famous list is, of course, dominated by Christians.

            And I was particularly responding to Leah’s Chosen People/Gentiles as Zombies bafflement re: the Old Testament – which isn’t resolved by seeing the NT as resolution.

          • Western philosophical principles underscore the world’s governments. Every single world power abides by Western principles. Even Chinese communism is rooted in a 19th-century German, and when we talk of the Subcontinent’s Ascendency, it is because the Subcontinent is beginning to shape itself like the West.

        • PJ

          The division between Old Testament and New Testament is actually rather arbitrary. All the Scriptures are oracles and testimonies of God’s providence and election. The Jews were the chosen vessel of a special message that was universalized (in the true sense of that word) through the advent of the Logos.

          The Gentiles are very much a part of the Old Testament. They aren’t, pace Leah, simply zombies. They are recipients of the Divine pedagogy through their interactions with Israel. Some of the greatest figures of the Old Testament are Gentiles (Job, Ruth, Melchizidek, Rahab, the Ninevites). The prophets, both major (Isaiah) and minor (Micah), speak of the eventual conversion of the Gentiles to the God of Abraham. Furthermore, we know that there were many “God-fearers” throughout the ancient world: Gentile monotheists who were bound by the Code of Noah but not the entirety of the Law.

          • PJ

            Heck, Ruth is the great-great-great grandmother of David, the foremost type of Christ.

          • Martha G

            People of the Big Three faiths have different interpretations of the Old Testament and the New Testament. And I value & respect your bringing the Catholic/Christian perspective, plus fleshing out more OT details re: the non-Zombie gentiles. I’m looking forward to hearing Leah’s thoughts on Catholicism’s historical narrative/interpretation of Biblical truths.

        • bbtp

          I disagree that the Talmud is a more impressive intellectual tradition than the Catholic philosophical tradition, which is a continuation of the high pagan philosophical tradition (in Judaism, Maimonides but not the Talmud.) The Talmud is a lot of things, but a model of intellectual rigor it’s not. It’s like law: you have to be smart to do it at a high level, but it’s not really scholarly and in some ways it’s anti-scholarly. Large portions are nothing other than extended exercises in casuistry.

          To pick a random example (Baba Metzia 1:1):

          “MISHNA I.: Two persons, who hold a garment, and each of them claims that he has found it, or that the whole belongs to him, (in such a case) each of them shall take an oath that no less than a half belongs to him, and then its value shall be divided. If, however, one claims the whole and the other half of it, then the oath for the first must be for no less than three quarters, and for the second no less than a quarter, and it is to be divided accordingly. The same is the case with an animal, if both are riding; or, if one is riding and one leading, each of them must take an oath that no less than a half belongs to him, if both claim for the whole, and so they divide. If, however, there are wit. nesses, or they admit the fact, then it is to be divided without any oath.

          GEMARA: Why is it stated: “Each of them claims he has found it, or the whole garment belongs to him”–is not one of them sufficient? R. Papa, according to others R. Shimi bar Ashi or Kadi, says: The first part speaks about a found article, and the last one about a transaction, and both cases are necessary. For when the case of a found only, only a found article should be stated, one may say that the rabbis ordered an oath, because it is only a found article, of which each of them may say: My neighbor would lose nothing even if I claim the whole and get half of it, which is not the case in a transaction (as the buyer paid for it, and if it would not be necessary for him he would not do so). On the other hand, if the last part only should be stated, one may say: “The rabbis have given an oath to both of them, because each of them may say: As the same money my neighbor claims that he has given, I also have given, therefore I have a right to keep it for myself, and my neighbor shall go to the trouble to buy another, which is not the case with a found article, and therefore in the former case an oath would not be ordered.” Hence both cases are necessary.”

          Fools need not apply – but it’s not philosophy.

          • Martha G

            There’s really no need to get simplistic and sum up a body of work like the Talmud in a couple sentences, or an offhand comparison to legal texts. And taking two examples of text at random is like me taking two random paragraphs of a work of Aquinas, Augustine, Plato, Aristotle – really, any thinker that you and I admire – and then saying that since those paragraphs happen to not contain a complete philosophical thought, or sound particularly philosophy-like, the entire work contains zip philosophical inquiry. Finally, I’m by no means saying the Talmud is the compendium of all Jewish thought!

          • bbtp

            I can’t reply to Martha G — limited thread depth? — so I’ll reply to myself instead.

            “There’s really no need to get simplistic and sum up a body of work like the Talmud in a couple sentences, or an offhand comparison to legal texts.”

            Cool, because that’s not what I did. I responded to your comment saying that “…another (possible) way of thinking about Judaism is Catholicism with a stronger intellectual tradition (talmud, anyone?), and minus the Christ part.” I pointed out that much of the Talmud is law, not philosophy, and that those portions are of interest mainly to practicing Jews, since they deal with Jewish civil and religious law. Whatever the Talmud’s merits may be, it’s hardly self-evident that the Talmud proves that Judaism has a “stronger intellectual tradition” than Catholicism. If you want to make that argument, you have to do the work, not just point at the Talmud and say, “duh, Talmud.”

            As for the comparison between Plato and the Talmud, it’s spurious. Entire volumes of the Talmud are nothing but legal and quasi-legal reasoning (there are arguments by etymology, numerology, puns, etc., so to the modern eye it reads as a startling mix of close legal reasoning with rather fanciful rhetorical and mystical arguments.) Plato wasn’t trying to bring legal consistency, in accordance with divine revelation and divine ordinances, to members of a religion-cum-race scattered across the globe — Plato and the Talmud had completely different purposes. It’s completely fair to point out that the legal and casuistical character of the Talmud circumscribes its intellectual ambition. The same is true of any legal corpus. While we might admire British common law or Catholic canon law, neither is the most impressive expression of the intellectual or philosophical achievements of the peoples that produced them.

            The interesting thing about the Talmud, to non-Jews, isn’t necessarily its content so much as the effect that its study had on the Jewish race. The Jews were the first race in the world to achieve universal literacy, and they did so much earlier than anyone else, because of the religious obligation to study. Thus, even Jewish laborers, beggars, etc. had more dignity and broadness of perspective than most of their non-Jewish neighbors, since there was no such thing as a totally uneducated Jew. This produced, in my view, a much more convincing “Jewish intellectual tradition” than a naive perusal of the Talmud out of context would suggest — the tradition lay fundamentally in the people and only incidentally in the book.

          • bbtp

            Ugh! “Specious,” not “spurious.” Don’t post on two hours of sleep, kids, and whatever you do, don’t become a lawyer.

        • Ted Seeber

          For that matter, another way of thinking of Catholicism is Judaism with the Full Tradition (including the Talmud, it’s not ignored by the Saints and Doctors) PLUS the Christ and Trinity Part.

          In fact so much so that every Jewish-to-Catholic convert I’ve ever run into is extremely comfortable with standard Catholic Church Architecture- which is all of course based on something of a cross between the Jewish Temples and a Roman Courthouse.

      • Robert

        Since this is along the same lines of Martha’s question I’ll add mine in this thread.
        In addition to the why Catholicism versus any other religion, nice or otherwise, there’s the more basic question of: why force your beliefs into a pre-existing category? It’s sort of a false dichotomy you’ve resigned yourself to.

        Granted, not everyone under Catholicism believes the same, but from an outsider’s perspective why adopt the label instead of clearly stating your position on everything and saying “yeah it’s close to some of this and some of that but in the end it’s none of those”.

        There are tons of other points I’m looking forward to hearing you address but this is essentially the TLDR one when it comes to all the baffled atheist reactions so I’m glad you touched on it first but it’s irrational as far as I cant ell (well, it’s not one, so it must be the other!?)

        • leahlibresco

          Well, the very short answer is that I doubt I’m a prophet. It’s much more likely that there’s a mostly right group that I might be able to help out in than that I’m the only right person and I should build on my own.

          • Robert

            I would disagree with that likelihood but I appreciate your answer. I probably want to ask why you’re willing to doubt your own ability to come to answers but not that of religious “prophets” or the religions that spring up from their teachings and have no evidentiary support but I suspect a lot of your posts will satisfy that question of mine indirectly (including the evidence issue) so I’ll wait for them.

            Also… that cartoon deals with scientific theory not religion, I am one of those people who see no fundamental difference between debates on god and debates on which Star Trek captain is best so while I enjoy the cartoon I can’t help but think that the likelihood youre a prophet is as good as that anyone else was.

          • Martha G

            Community is important – and adopting and working within a framework makes sense, given your previous posts, as well. I still don’t understand why you’d choose Catholicism. You find Judaism baffling because of the Old Testament – which Catholics accept! And group a bunch of protestant denominations together as too “nice” based on their approach to marriage (which varies drastically, but actually frequently aligns with your stated beliefs). You may not have as much time to reflect on the other possibilities as you would in an ‘ideal’ world, but why not make the leap to a specific denominational/religion after reading a few other holy texts, talking with a couple Rabbinical scholars, maybe a few Div school folks (Volf, Hare)? This is an incredibly important decision, and surely you’re not being hasty about it. But so far your explanations aren’t taking the rigorous routes of your previous posts.

          • Martha G

            Interestingly, the xkcd mouse-over applies particularly to your critique of Judaism, but also many critiques of many religions.

          • Well, I agree with you that there’s probably a mostly-right group you can help out . . . but there are a *lot* of potentially mostly-right groups that give one a good framework to start out with and yet give much more leeway on the specifics.

            Catholicism also seems to want one to confirm that it’s more than mostly right, which in itself is an objection.

            I guess I’m still asking what it is in Catholicism, specifically, that a) is right, and b) can’t be found anywhere else.

      • anodognosic

        Your objection to Judaism obliquely gets to a huge problem I’ve always had with Christianity, but which I don’t see getting much play ever: the historical contingency of salvation. If salvation can only happen through Jesus, this automatically excludes everyone who lived before the time of Jesus, as well as a lot of people around the world who were not immediately within reach of his message. In a sense, there is a chosen people here too, namely those that lived after the Resurrection. There are other, similar problems that are not new, but this gets to the heart of them. I’m not sure exactly how the RCC deals with this, but I can’t think of a reasonable argument for the de facto exclusion of so many souls from Heaven. The supposed perfection of God seems fundamentally incompatible with all this contingency.

        • Courtney

          This is a reasonable argument. However, I think you are mistaken about how we view salvation happening through Jesus. The dogma that is coming to mind here is the Immaculate Conception – how Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb without original sin. As Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854 “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.”

          So here, Mary was saved from the stain of original sin (ie. death) through the cross. Except in the time and space of the world, Mary wasn’t born yet, so obviously, neither was Jesus. But God is outside of space and time. Every moment is the present to Him. And yeah, this does feel too big for my tiny brain, but I believe it.

          Also, the dogmas about Mary say less about Mary herself, and more about who Jesus is and what He does for us. If it is true that Jesus could save His mother before she was born, then it is true that He could save those who had been born centuries prior.

          One more thing, this is getting long, but the people who lived during the time of Jesus, but out of reach of His message would be covered under the same Baptism of Desire doctrine that covers those people who don’t hear about Jesus now. God can judge perfectly what they would have done if they had heard of Jesus.

          • “God can judge perfectly what they would have done if they had heard of Jesus”

            This seems to do a fair job of nullifying free will, doesn’t it? If God knows what we’re going to do (or theoretically would do) in any given situation, why bother with this charade? Why not take everyone straight to heaven (or hell)?

          • @Jake:

            Hence, Calvinism.

            (Note to all: I am not Reformed!)

          • Oh, also hence Boethius. I find Boethius more satisfying, personally.

        • Beadgirl

          We believe that all the humans who died before Christ did but did not merit eternal damnation went to the land of the dead/Hades/Hell/Abraham’s Bosom (whatever you want to call it), and basically waited for Christ. When He died and before He rose again, Christ went to the dead and released them all into Heaven — this is even mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Therefore there are no “chosen people” in Christ’s eyes — His sacrifice and resurrection allow all people who ever lived or will live to go to Heaven, assuming they don’t reject God one way or another. We also have provisions for those who never heard of Christ, or who have but because of their circumstances have no meaningful chance to truly convert (“invincible ignorance”).

          I hope I explained that well.

          • Beadgirl

            Whoops, I meant the Apostles’ Creed.

        • math_geek

          “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, 16).

        • anodognosic

          Thanks, that does clear some things up. Still, the contingency of the mechanism of salvation still seems incompatible with the supposed perfection of God. Consider a number of hypotheticals where you might have a meaningful chance to convert: living in an open society where there are numerous competing and exclusive claims about salvation; living in a repressive society where Catholicism is the official religion; living in a repressive society where Catholicism is expressly forbidden; living in a society where it’s perfectly possible to seek out information and then conversion, but where Christianity is a tangential cultural presence so that a person is not likely to have any meaningful contact with it; living in a society whose only contact with the Gospel is through the same people who invaded your land and killed or enslaved your people. It seems positively unjust to apply the same criteria to all of these cases, and hard to square with the idea of a good God.

          • Cous

            hi anodognosic, conversion is neither necessary (non-Catholics can be saved) nor sufficient (baptized Catholics can be damned) for salvation. You’re not going to be damned because of circumstances beyond your control, like the hypothetical situations you give above, but you are responsible for following your conscience as best you can, and if you are lucky enough to be given the evidence and the resources to convert, there is an onus on you to seriously consider it. You might be interested in reading this short article, from which the following quote about the salvation of pagans and Gentiles is taken:

            We begin with St. Justin the Martyr who c. 145 A. D. in Apology 1. 46,
            said that in the past some who were thought to be atheists, such as Socrates and Heraclitus, who were really Christians, for they followed the Divine Logos, the Divine Word. Further, in Apology 2. 10 Justin adds that the Logos is in everyone. Now of course the Logos, being Spirit, does not take up space. We say a spirit if present wherever it produces an effect. What effect? We find that in St. Paul, in Romans 2:14-16 where he says that “the Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the works of the law.
            They show the work of the law written on their hearts.” and according to
            their response, conscience will defend or accuse them at the judgment.

          • Beadgirl

            I’m not sure this will answer your concerns, but the thing to remember is that God knows our hearts better than we do, and He knows when we turn toward Him and when we turn against Him, even if we don’t necessarily realize it ourselves. All those rules we are supposed to follow — the 10 Comandments, believing Jesus is God, going to Mass every Sunday, confessing our sins, etc., apply to us, not God. He can do whatever He wants, and if He wants to admit into Heaven Jews, Hindus, Atheists, Ancient Mayans, whatever, who are we to tell Him no?

          • @anodognosic – I think you may be confusing perfection with abstraction. God, in Catholic doctrine, is not abstract. Neither, for that matter, are we. Rather, we gain knowledge of individual things by abstracting; but the abstraction is a construct, not itself the reality. (I’m afraid Leah’s quasi-Platonism may start quibbling here.)

            So, my point is, when God acts (say, by creating or by interacting with creation), it is not by means of some ideal generality which has imperfect instantiations in the physical sphere. Rather, it is that he creates this world/universe which contains these particles and energies and persons. When he interacts with us, he does so through means suited to our finite, concrete, specificity: so, through words and visual images and healings – and also through the very nature of the world he created: laws of nature and cycles of seasons and patterns of history. He speaks, not to the abstraction “humanity”, but to humans, such as Abraham and Moses and Mary. When he enters into his creation, he does so not as an abstract “person” but as Jesus of Nazareth, son of Mary, at a particular time and place.

            This may cause all sorts of problems, but not with the notion of God’s perfection. After all, “perfect” simply means “thoroughly made” or (since God isn’t made) “complete, whole, not lacking anything.”

        • Most Christian traditions have work-arounds that address the issue in one way or another.

      • Leah,
        As you learn more about Catholicism, you will learn more about Judaism, as Catholicism is basically the completion of Judaism. You are right, though, that Judaism doesn’t make a lot of sense as a permanent condition (i.e. a chosen race which God “cares” about more than others)

        In a nutshell, Judaism was God’s mechanism to introduce a “chosen” people to God’s truth, beauty, and goodness very incrementally until such time as the “plant” was ready to blossom with the most glorious flower of the Incarnation.

        None of this is to say that Jews do not still hold a special importance in God’s plan.

        I am delighted to have you as a fellow traveller on this journey. Personally, I converted from agnosticism to Catholicism 23 years ago, and the longer I go on this journey, the more I discover that I have only just begun to tap the depths of the Faith.

      • Except Catholicism and Christianity both accept the uniquely chosen people idea of Judaism. We add that there’s a reason for it that ultimately redounds to the benefit of all, showing that Gentiles are also objects of God’s care. But as I understand it, various strains of Judaism also have arguments or explanations why God would Choose a People that do not entail that gentiles are lesser categories of beings or exist only for the sake of Israel.

        Or one could simply say that God gives effect to people’s wishes and desires and choices within parameters, and Abraham’s desire was to create a people in relationship with God.

        I think you should spend more time thinking through the interaction between God and Abraham from your virtue standpoint. It very well may deepen and illuminate your nascent Christianity.

      • PJ

        I think Leah would definitely like Raymond Lull.

      • Cous

        Re. “Gentiles as cudgels,” that may not be a surprising impression, given that the OT is the chosen people telling their own story, but from a “small c” catholic (i.e. universal) point of view, things look quite different; from Frank Sheed’s book “Theology and Sanity”:

        God then had singled out a particular family, which was to grow into a nation: not for their own sake but for the sake of all mankind: they were chosen not simply for a favor but for a function, something God was to do through them for the whole race…Let us repeat that the Jews were chosen because of something God meant to accomplish through them for the entire world. The essence of their function lay in this – that from them was to come the Redeemer, who should redeem all mankind. Meanwhile, they were to bear witness to truths which were in danger of perishing…the truth that there is but one God, the truth that God will send a Redeemer of mankind.

      • To pick out one, I find Judaism really really baffling, because I have trouble wrapping my mind around a God (or G-d) that has a uniquely chosen people.

        At the risk of pointing out the blindingly obvious, you do realize that Catholicism also posits a God that has a uniquely chosen people, right? After all, the Old Testament in all its bloody strangeness is incorporated by reference into the New Testament.

        • Molly

          From your link: “The document that is incorporated is usually not treated as a part of the will itself but as an external source from which the meaning of the will can be determined.”
          The relationship of the Old and New Testaments is exactly opposite of this, as the meaning of the Old Testament is determined by, or becomes clear in, the New Testament.

      • Thomas R

        When I read the Bible I maybe read it too much like a book and, this might be really horrid of me, my reading of science fiction may have had an influence in how I read. So the OT bothered me less than I expected. It was like the journey of the Jewish people. They start out a bit primitive doing some things that don’t seem quite right to me than they evolve so to speak. This might be totally heretical of me, I don’t know for certain.

        I am a bit surprised you’ve joined us in a way as I’m not sure how LGBT-rights-movement or transhumanism is going to fit with Catholicism, but maybe you’ve really changed. (I’m bi, in attractions, but I was never “in the community” and there’s a straight blogger here who’s made out with at least one more guy than I ever have)

      • Emily

        Do you think the philosophical “heftiness” of the position on marriage is more important than the social effects, though? I consider churches mobilizing against, or standing up in favor of, same-sex marriage, gay military service, anti-gay bullying, etc., a justice issue that matters to me a lot more than how strong their philosophical positions on marriage are. And church social advocacy and philosophy are not necessarily linked, but the current situation in the US is that they are, sometimes more loosely, sometimes more directly.

        That’s why “niceness” marries to this liberal Protestant – not for the surface value of not seaming “mean,” but for the conscious prioritization of a “do no harm” principle over philosophical consistency regarding marriage and the body. Particularly because not everyone marries, but everyone is implicated in building a just and loving society, which I think Jesus was pretty clear about.

        I know it’s pretty early in your journey to be jumping on you and saying, “how are you reconciling this?” so I’m sorry. But I am curious how you will do so, and if your priorities differ, why.

  • deiseach

    You’re quoting Chesterton already?

    I’ll just be over here in the corner, cackling gleefully 🙂

    And thank you for noting that, whatever its other functions, religion is not intended to be nice.

    • leahlibresco

      I already was! My friends made fun of me.

      • deiseach

        I think I saw (in one of the thousand or so comments/reactions) a groan from someone who hoped you wouldn’t turn into one of those Catholic converts/reverts/never left so never get the fun of coming back types who always quote Chesterton because he’s such a bad writer and it’s so boring and such a cliché.

        Too late, eh? 😉

  • Will keep you in prayer for the imminent spiritual battles – God bless you!

  • Charles

    I think I have experienced exactly this thought in the past. Upon reinvestigating Catholicism my initial thoughts were that it seemed WAY closer to my brand of atheism than I had thought, and than what I knew about other protestant brands of Christianity. I was actually quite taken aback by this and on several occasions thought “well it seems the only differences I can find stem from the least important stuff (mainly belief in what an atheist would call the supernatural aspects) – obviously however the least important stuff to the atheist is precisely the most important stuff to most theists (sola fide and all that). So its very easy for a Catholic to ally with a protestant since they see that they agree on the “big” issues, AND its very easy for me to see my agreements with the church beause from my Maximum we agree on the “big” issues! Facinating.

    • Ted Seeber

      I find I can’t ally with Protestants at all, their theology is too young. I have more in common with a Buddhist or Confucian than I do with an atheist as well, for the same problem.

      • Thomas R

        You know me too. I just seem to “get” Confucians or Taoists or Zoroastrians more than I think I get Protestantism. Which in principle makes no sense as I know Protestants, but I’ve never met a Zoroastrian or Taoist or Confucian.

        Oddly though I don’t know if it’s just age for me. I kind of “get” Sikhism, what I know of it, and it’s about the same age as the Reformation. Buddhism, when I really read about it, was a bit harder for me to see the appeal. It seems kind of too detached and I have trouble with the concept of reincarnation. (I think Sikhs also have reincarnation, but they have other stuff)

  • Hugh

    Kudos, respect and much regards Leah. You’re awesome.

  • abb3w

    “Or, put another way, if you have two plausible descriptions of the world, how do you check which world you’re living in?”

    Loosely speaking, the one that allows inferring all the specific facts from the least starting premises is more probably correct. See (doi:10.1109/18.825807) for the rigorous definitions, derivation, and expression. The theorem extends to models involving non-zero ordinal degrees of Turing hypercomputation; it’s also independent on the Axiom of Choice.

    Of course, you can only achieve a probabilistic certainty; there’s some potential issues with the halting problem if someone gives you an invalid model to consider; actual full implementation, rather than just approximations, is computationally infeasible; and, since it does result as an implication the assumption that there is a pattern, it omits the possibility that whatever appearance of order to the universe is just a local illusion emergent per Ramsey’s theorem from a sufficiently large infinitude of chaos. Which is a valid but uninteresting alternative possibility.

  • Noe

    Atheists need not pick a ‘nice’ atheism with weak ‘foundations’ for morality or moral imperatives in socio-biology, etc, to be “consistent” while living morally in the face of “morality without foundations” – should someone compelled by a Catholic logic for morality-with-foundations compromise with WASPy New Englandisms because they don’t know how Catholicism could oppose abortion, same-sex marriage, triclavianism, etc? I’m sure atheists have their own non-personage-based corollaries to John 6:68-9 when faced with a given materialism-compelling train of thought or mound of evidence.

  • Steve

    I’ve been chewing for a while on the notion that religious thinking might not be strictly about matters of fact, but rather about making the believer feel good/justified/validated about the correctness/virtue/goodness of his or her actions. This “peak” discussion seems to map onto that well. If I understand your assessment correctly, and I probably don’t, it’s not strictly important whether the details of Catholicism are true, but rather how supported you feel by those details.

    But then, applying this to deontological territory is where things get messy for me, because it trips over questions of authority. If, as a matter of fact, the assertion that God and Jesus and all the saints exist and the Catholic bible is true, then grounds for reasoning about what others ought to do is solid. But pull away those matters of fact, and what authority are you left with?

    Genuinely grateful for your writing on this. I feel like I’ve been missing out not reading you before last week, but not anymore 🙂

  • Frank Weathers

    I used to think I was “too smart to be a Catholic.” But I kept bumping into smarter people than I am who were Catholic, like Blessed Raymond Lull. What a story his life makes!

  • A Philosopher

    But Catholicism isn’t even a local maximum. This is a classical framing fallacy – you’re unduly restricting the space of options. Just take Catholic teaching and eliminate (or negate) its least plausible inferentially independent teaching (for example, drop/change the teaching on the ethics of same-sex relationships), and you’ve got a local defeater for Catholicism. Maybe there’s no organization that endorses that position, or maybe even no one who holds it, but that’s irrelevant to the epistemic considerations.

    • A Philosopher

      Following up to say that I see that Robert has raised more or less the same point above. I agree with him that your answer isn’t sufficient. We’re not asking that you view yourself as a prophet, but we are asking that you treat your own epistemic priors as reliable guides. Indeed, you have to think the same yourself, or the putative fact that Catholicism is a local maximum wouldn’t be of epistemic interest.

      • Ted Seeber

        Why would a disordered narcisism be a reliable guide of anything?

        • Oh, come. There is a wide range of possibility between “I accept the teachings of the RCC in all things” and “a disorderd narcissism.”

        • A Philosopher

          I imagine it probably wouldn’t.

    • leahlibresco

      But the actual argument is whether the things you’re trying to strike are independent.

      • A Philosopher

        Just about everything is independent (or independent enough). Catholics like to talk the “seamless garment” talk, as if everything in Catholic doctrine is so deeply inferentially interwoven that you can’t drop one thing without dropping anything. But anyone who’s done philosophy for a while knows that consistent positions can be constructed just about anywhere. Finding arguments against things is very very hard.

        • Internally consistent positions can be constructed just about anywhere. And positions that are consistent with my individual desires or perceptions can be constructed anywhere within the range of my personal experience. But positions that are both internally consistent and consistent with my experience of the world (to say nothing of consistent with other people’s experiences of the world) are few and far between.

          And, just to establish that I have “done philosophy for a while,” I hold an MA in philosophy. It taught me that there’s a lot more to learn about philosophy, but also that there are a few truths I cannot deny are true.

  • Cous

    Just to add the Lewisian equivalent of your Chesterton quote,

    I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

    • As the critic said: “Lewis wrote us milk for children and / Chesterton wrote meat for men.”

    • jose

      I believe in batman as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by batman I see everything else. Empty, deep-sounding statement.

      • PJ

        How can it be empty when it describes the lives of so many people? Batman is a fictional character. Jesus Christ was — is — the most important Person, the most inspiration Figure, the most transformative Force in all human history. You cannot even begin to understand the depth of that statement, for you do not know the love of God. You do not know its height, depth, width, or breadth.

        • jose

          It’s empty because it is quoted as a reason why someone believes, but there is no reason there. What the quote says is the equivalent to “I believe because I believe”. The fact of the matter is the guy who wrote that has seen the sun many times but he has never actually seen God, Virgin Mary, or any other character Christianity holds dear.

          You don’t know it either and you haven’t seen any of it either, just like I don’t know or see elves. You believe you know it and see it, which is known as having faith in that: believing what you have not seen. That’s kinda the point of faith tbh. Didn’t Jesus say something like that to Thomas? You have believed because you’ve seen. Yay for those who believed without seeing anything. (And then Thomas felt like a total loser.)

          If christians were able to see God, faith (and the church) would be rendered obsolete.

      • James H, London

        Sorry, as retorts go, that’s about as hollow as it gets.

        OK, being charitable: What is it about the teachings of Batman that make sense of the human condition?

        I think you get the point…

        • jose

          Justice, humility, etc. All superheroes stories have moral virtues as well as superpowers.

      • As with Unicorns and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Batman is neither necessary nor permanent and has such superfluous features your comment fails at cleverness.

        • jose

          It’s so funny when people argue why their favorite superhero is better than all the others. Fine, he might be necessary, butbut has he got X-Ray vision?! Eh?! 🙂

      • leahlibresco

        This really doesn’t look like a fight that’s going anywhere, team. Perhaps you’d all enjoy this Cowbirds in Love cartoon about Batman instead?

  • David E

    “If I were a weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist, converting to Catholicism would probably be my next step too.”

    This seems a strange conclusion to me. Both the Platonic idea of the independent existence (in some sense) of ideas and virtue ethics are quite compatible with atheism.

    • Thomas R

      But it is true that when I mentioned her to some atheists I talk to elsewhere they seemed to figure that as she rejected evolutionary psychology type stuff, and or rejected relativism too, to start with that made her abandoning atheism inevitable.

      But in fairness the one atheist “virtue ethicist” I could think of, the late Philippa Foot, looks to be the only atheist “virtue ethicist” I find.

      • Rejecting relativism was, perhaps, the ultimate cause of my own conversion.

    • jose

      Do atheists believe in a supernatural, somewhat magical world beyond this world (the world of ideas)? I thought atheists believed the shadows in the cave are actually all that exists.

      • There is no canon for atheism, and atheists can vary dramatically (see Leah prior to recent events), but the skeptical position is that we don’t see a need to accede to propositions that can not be tested.

        There may indeed be realities beyond our own, but in the absence of any means of constraining or testing such hypotheses, there’s no point in speculating.

        Personally, I’m a materialist, but I believe that we all live in mental worlds that are readily inclined to magical thinking if we let them. For instance.. was that a ghost I just saw out of the corner of my eye, or was it a flicker in my higher level perceptual cortex arising from noise in the visual system?

        As a skeptical materialist, I assume that it was an artifact of the brain unless and until there is more solid evidence to some other conclusion.

        So it is with philosophical speculation about hidden worlds. I know that my brain is capable of conceiving such, but I think that the level of confidence that should be applied to such speculation is closer to the level of confidence I should apply to my nocturnal dreams, and further from the level of confidence that I should apply to wanting to avoid a car rushing towards me.

        Your mileage may vary.

        • TL;DR: what cave?

        • leahlibresco

          I wouldn’t say there’s no point in speculating. For one thing, it may turn out some things can be tested, but you have to spend a lot of time turning the idea over to spot it. Also, even if it doesn’t pay out in that way, perhaps it will prompt good science fiction.

          • Absolutely right, I stand corrected, speculation is valuable. Just remember that keeping track of the appropriate level of confidence in your speculation is every bit as important as generating the hypotheses in the first place.

        • jose

          It just seemed strange to me for someone to reject the supernatural when it comes to God but accept it no problem with ideas. As in a person does research and come up with a theorem, a product of her work – she just thought it through, everything took place in her brain – she didn’t access some magical realm where the theorems frolick, outside this world, waiting to be picked up by humans.

      • David E

        I see no reason to equate the proposition that numbers are real with propositions like “magic works” or “angels are real”. Plenty of atheists are mathematical realists.

  • Cous

    Patheos fluke: you show up in the “More from” section on other Catholic blogs, but you’ve still got the “More from” on your blog pointing to the Atheist channel. Though it would certainly be appropriate if that was intentional; stay in touch with your roots, keep the 2-way dialogue flowing, etc.

  • Ben L

    It is completely missing the point to remind you that a theory that explains everything explains nothing, but nevertheless I can’t resist.

  • Martha G

    There is a substantial lack of understanding of other faiths in the chains off these posts. Judaism isn’t about God “caring” more about Jews than other people, and there’s a long line of Talmudic debate about what “chosen” means (to deprive that debate of nuance: more obligations, not more valued by God). Protestantism, including Luther & Calvin, arose out of very real problems within the Catholic Church – which challenged the concept that that physical, temporal, entity is the representation of Christ. And strong, vibrant intellectual traditions exist in non-Western traditions, too. Islam, obviously, Buddhism, Confucianism… More power to Leah if she chooses Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition has frequently done a marvelous job studying other faiths with eyes wide open – but to disqualify other options based on false pretenses is… well, kinda silly. Of course, that’s presuming that conversion is a choice, that Leah chose the Local Maximum that made the most sense for her.

    • David


      It’s fine to say that you think Catholicism is the one true religion, that you find it most convincing, that that all other religions are hopelessly, dreadfully wrong, etc. But to act like Catholicism is the only religious (or moral) tradition with a substantial, intellectually consistent, well reasoned approach to understanding the world, while completely failing to understand the content or history of other religions is really unfair. Many of you get (quite fairly) upset at atheists who misrepresent Catholic teaching, history, etc, or act like simple objections to it are brilliant revelations that no Catholic has ever dealt with. But then you treat other religions in exactly the same way. (This is mostly not directed at Leah, though her comments about Judaism do fit somewhat into this pattern).

      • Molly

        I somewhat agree. As I do with Martha G. above. The correct understanding of the Church’s position is that other religions (major monotheistic at least?) are based on some truth, or have in their possession partial truth. The Church would say that it is the only entity that possesses the fullness of the truth, but nowhere officially claims that it “is the only religious (or moral) tradition with a substantial, intellectually consistent, well reasoned approach to understanding the world” (although I know that David is also not claiming that the Church officially says this). Quite the opposite actually. I actually find JPII’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” to be a a really nice summary of the Church’s official thought (SUMMARY, the book itself is not doctrine) on this topic. For example the Church would hold itself far more in line with, say, Buddhism, because of their common acknowledgement of an objective truth (although their ideas of what that truth is are quite different), than it would with a religion based on relativism. Just as Maria is saying above about Judaism, many don’t go to the source for their information about Catholicism.

    • Drogo


      It’s kind of annoying (as someone from a Jewish background) to hear the OT being called baffling… When the Christian tradition is where we get concepts like demonic possession, eternal hell,

    • Molly

      My understanding, from official Church teaching, is that the Old Testament taken as a “stand alone” document, from either Jewish or Chritian tradition, would cause some major misconceptions. Maybe I’m being too simplisitic (and also having very little formal education outside of one college class in Judaism) but both traditions see the Old Testament as something to be fulfilled, answered, completed, etc. which takes us back to “what chosen even means”. As if you can simply put a peroid after “chosen people” and let this idea expleain itself, which it won’t. I think much of this confusion about the Old Testament comes from the idea that scripture needs no authoritative interpretation, which is an idea neither Judaism nor Catholocism officially hold to. Maria correct me if I’m wrong on from the Jewish perspective?

      • Molly

        And wow I’m not really that bad at spelling, geez.

    • And strong, vibrant intellectual traditions exist in non-Western traditions, too. Islam, obviously, Buddhism, Confucianism…

      1. Islam’s philosophers in the Middle East were either Christians or persecuted by the other Muslims.
      2. In China, the word for education — or is it teaching? learning? — is related to the word for stuffing a goose.

      • David

        And this proves my point. You have no idea what you’re talking about. I know China far better than Islam, so I’ll speak to that. First, your little anecdote has no basis in fact; there may well be some idiom in Chinese in which stuffing the goose refers to studying, but that’s little different from the usage of the word “cramming” in English to describe studying for a test. The words meaning education (教育), teaching (教學), and learning (學習 or perhaps 學問, depending on what precisely you mean) all have nothing to do with goose stuffing.

        But to address your actual point; the notion that Chinese education consists (and has always consisted) of no more than rote memorization and is thus inferior to Western education is a massive exaggeration. Further, Chinese writing on morality, the nature of existence, the proper form of government, man’s nature, etc (basically all of the topics we consider important to European philosophical thought, though often framed in very different contexts) is part of a well developed intellectual tradition dating back to centuries before Christ; it is at least as old as both the Greek and Jewish traditions that form the basis of Christian thought. Chinese thought was dynamic; Confucian thought, for instance, was transformed both by the so called “neo-Confucians” of the Song Dynasty, most prominently Zhu Xi, whose ideas formed the basis for the examination system in the late Imperial period, and then again by the so-called “evidential scholarship” (考證) or “Han learning” (漢學) movement of the late Ming/early Qing. There is no sense in which the Chinese intellectual tradition of the past few thousand years should be seen as inferior to that of Europe/Christianity. Let me repeat, it’s hard to take seriously all this talk about Catholicism being the only viable way to understand the world (other than perhaps atheism) when it comes from people who know virtually nothing about the world outside of Europe (not that I think that sort of rhetoric is particularly fair to Protestantism, Orthodoxy, or Judaism either, but that’s a somewhat different problem).

        As Molly’s comment’s make clear, this sort of thinking isn’t a problem for all Catholics, or (at least at times) for the church institutionally, but the idea that people who believe other things might come out of equally impressive intellectual traditions seems quite difficult for some of the Catholics who comment here to grasp.

        • Keeping in mind your comment about not speaking up when you don’t know what you’re talking about, I have only this to say:

          There is no sense in which the Chinese intellectual tradition of the past few thousand years should be seen as inferior to that of Europe/Christianity.

          If so, you’d think that China would have its own form of government instead of one inspired by a false twist on Christianity. (And China don’t have science except through the West, by which we mean a methodical process in uncovering truths about the physical world, &c.) China organizes.

        • How about a source?

          China did not have a scientific revolution. In fact, as Nathan Sivan once wrote: “China had sciences, but not science.” We might say that China never had an Aristotle. They never had formal logic, Euclidean geometry, optics, lens-grinding, either.

        • James H, London

          Mike Flynn had a good set of posts about how other cultures ‘lost their groove’ (his words): He thought it significant that learning in China was controlled by bureaucrats, who were servants of the emperor, whereas learning in Europe was done in universities, which were created to be independent of both the church and the crown.

          Case in point: when Ricci introduced the telescope to China, the imperial ministry in charge of calendars was mainly concerned with astrology, where disruptions in heaven were warnings of disruptions on earth and vice versa. They believed in a flat, rectangular earth, and had no spherical geometry. In Europe, astrology was already viewed scepticism because of the Christian concept of Free Will, and we knew about the sphericity of the Earth from Ptolemy. This is just one example, and I think the claim that Chinese learning was ‘in no sense inferior’ is just inaccurate.

        • Irenist

          One reason I prefer Catholicism to the Neo-Confucianism pioneered by Zhu Xi is because Zhu Xi’s influential glosses on the Four Classics (Analects, Great Learning, etc.) make the Rousseau-esque assumption that people are basically good and that what’s needed is for that to shine through. I find that the dogma of Original Sin better comports with both my own introspection and the empirical evidence of human history.

    • Everything you said, Martha!

  • Hibernia86

    To some degree, Leah is right. If you don’t have enough evidence to decide between two theories (the multiverse vs God, for example) then you should generally use Occam’s Razor to choose the best guess. Choose the one that requires you to make the fewest assumptions. The problem is that I don’t think that theism fills that role. We already know that there is a universe (if our senses are to be trusted). Isn’t it more likely that there are multiple universes rather than there just happens to be an invisible superbeing that we just haven’t found yet? The number of assumptions you have to make multiplies dramatically when you start choosing a specific faith like Catholicism. Sure Catholicism could be true just as the Flying Spaghetti Monster could be real. But the probability of that is so ridiculously small that it isn’t worth devoting our life to.

    • How do multiple universes even help? Wouldn’t that make it even harder to explain the universe(s)?

      The data to be explained is that there is something rather than nothing.

      • Hibernia86

        Multiple universes allow universes to create other universes. It seeks to explain where universes come from (perhaps an infinite loop or other mathmatical formation like that). If you say that God created the universe, that doesn’t explain how something came from nothing because you never explained why God just happens to exist (or why he has all of these powers).

        • The answer, such as there is, is that God doesn’t “exist” on the same level that we exist. He exists outside the space/time continuum, where the laws of causation don’t apply. So the question of what caused God to exist is invalid in that context. He just IS. That’s His name, after all, “I AM”.

          Of course, that doesn’t help us understand much, but it solves the problem of causation, which would otherwise be infinite. Christians and, I assume, other theists do not claim to be able to fully understand or explain God. Not even close. And I feel safe in saying that the existence of a God that could be fully understood or explained by the likes of us would be a self-refuting proposition.

          • Hibernia86

            Okay, but even if you suggest that God exists outside time and doesn’t require causation, that doesn’t prove that he is conscious or all powerful. You are personifying the creation of the universe without providing any evidence that there is a person. At least with the multiverse theory, while there isn’t any experimental physics supporting it, there is a lot of theoretical physics and mathematics supporting it. It is our best guess given what the physicists find in the world.

      • abb3w

        Multiple universes have the potential to (formally) simplify the math for explanation, increasing probable correctness of the resultant description. They don’t always, since you have to indicate which universe of the multi- you’re looking at has your data.

        The data to be explained includes quite a bit more than “there being something rather than nothing”; and that particular point may be partly explained from points also required in explaining other observations. The net mass-energy of the universe (including the positive sign mass-energy of bosons and fermions and negative sign mass-energy of space-time curvature) is zero; going from Nothing to a Universe doesn’t violate the First Law of thermodynamics. The formal (statistical mechanics based) definition of entropy is associated with the log number of microstate arrangements; as there’s only one way to arrange Nothing, and there’s multiple microstate arrangements for the universe, the entropy goes from log(1)=0 to log(positive number)>0, making the transition an expected one. Since Nothing includes having no space-time, and thus no time “to keep everything from happening at once”, this implies Nothing Tends to explode into a Universe At Once.

        This, admittedly, is kind of weird.

      • Contrarian

        The more interesting question is whether “creation” is actually an explanation.

    • Thomas R

      I never found that very compelling even in times I considered atheism. From a skeptical standpoint a bunch of other Universes or God is both involving things that maybe can’t be proved. On the God idea if it is correct you’ll at least get proof after you die whereas if it’s incorrect you’ll cease existing so such questions become irrelevant. On the multiverse thing it just seems to be to be an almost “Godlessness of the Gaps.” You don’t know so you feel in multiple universes, which maybe never be able to be proved by science.

      What would maybe make more sense to me is something like “Time just began, there is no ‘before’ or ‘outside’ the beginning so just deal with it” or “We don’t know why the Universe is like it is, so it’s best not to make any declaration either way and not making one is a kind of agnostic atheism.” (There could be any number of things, including a God, but the multiplicity of possibilities means non-theism is more likely than theism)

      • Hibernia86

        But the multiverse idea does have some theoretical physics and mathematical support to it. Even though we can’t get physical proof yet, we can still have some reason to think that it might be true. For God, all people really have is the feeling that God exists and I don’t think feelings are good enough reason for believing something, especially when all of our other senses do not support it. Even if you could find out about the existence of God after you die, that doesn’t mean you should believe it just for that reason. You should stick with the most likely explanation first and you can change your mind after you die if need be. (Don’t let people threaten you with Hell. There are plenty of religions that say that you have to believe in them and only them to be saved. You can’t believe in them all just to be safe)

        • Contrarian

          “Theoretical physics and mathematical support”: Please explain how theoretical physics and mathematics can “support” a truth claim.

  • There is an assumption that the only thing involved here should be reason. If you have an atheist system and a Catholic system and they both seem logically consistent then how do you choose? It is like a man finding that several women would make reasonable life partners. Which to choose? Maybe beauty? Maybe the one that inspires you? Maybe the one that give you the best children? Logical consistency is a needed condition. It is by no means the last.

    I was struck by his comment that people who were smarter than him and in majorly different worldviews bothered him. To me it was the idolatry of intelligence. I guess since I have always been good at math and science I am under no illusions that smart people can’t be totally messed up. I would feel much more uncomfortable disagreeing with Mother Teresa than with Stephen Hawking. I just don’t feel being smart makes you wise or insightful. Religion does not make anyone smarter or dumber. It can make them more or less wise and insightful.

    Ultimately it has to be true. Leah, you have been amazingly open to all opinions. I think you have been rewarded for that. I shall pray for you and all those who are confused by your journey. Next Easter will be your first day in sacramental union with the church. It will mark 10 years for me. No regrets. It keeps getting better. Never easy but always good.

    • Hibernia86

      No, it does not have to be true. You are making your decisions based on emotion, not logic. You say it yourself. Wisedom is living well, knowledge is learning facts. Both need logic. If you make your decisions based on anything other than logic, then you are highly unlikely to be right. We need leaders of our nation that only make decisions based on logic otherwise things will go horribly wrong.

      • I dunno, it seems to me that people make decisions not based on logic all the time, and it turns out OK so long as the decision or belief is then consonant with logic.

        For example, I didn’t derive my belief that homosexual marriages were equal to heterosexual marriages (and not disordered) logically. I got to that belief through my observation of some obviously blessed homosexual marriages. Then I checked my belief with logic, and found the two to be consonant.

        I think we do this all the time with questions of morality. Do any of us really think that torture is immoral based on . . . logic? I don’t think we do. I think we get there in other ways, and then justify ourselves with logic.

        I think there are some beliefs that are hard or impossible to get to via logic alone (or at the very least that there are some beliefs which are logically derivable but very few of us use logic to reach [my mother loves me]) and that it’s then OK to use logic to kind of back-fill our justification, and also as a secondary check.

        I don’t think you can derive God logically, but I think once one intuits God, God is consonant with reason.

  • Fred

    Hey Leah, check out The Dialectic of Biblical Critique: Interpretation and Existence by Brayton Polka

  • Leah, I saw an article referring to your blog and your conversion. Congratulations. My advice, as a Christian, keep an open mind and listen to God. You can hear Him in His Word (Bible) and you will hear Him in your life. You will obviously struggle with what you know from your “past” life and what you are learning in your “new” life. Just keep an open mind and be obedient to truth regardless of which life is speaking to you.

    When your “past” life speaks to you, discern between what is proven fact and truth (I assume you have a strong faith in science as well) and what is simply unproven hypotheses. Just as your “past” life can misguide you (treating a hypothesis as an unquestionable fact), your “new” life can do so as well. Not all religion is good even if it claims itself to be Christian and you need to discern what is truth (biblical) and what is man’s take on truth. There are many false teachers and many false prophets who lead many astray. The best way to identify these kind of people is that they do not want you to be discerning of good and evil and they do so by saying things like, “God’s love is unconditional,” yet He taught us that we must repent (a condition) to be accepted.

    The best advice I can offer is that you read the Bible as much as possible and pray for understanding. Test every denomination you encounter by God’s Word (Bible) and understand that God comes first then religion. God Bless

    • Molly

      This is also understanding that Church came first, then Bible. But that’s an ENTIRELY different topic.

    • God came first, and then we came next. Our relationship is called religion. (Relationships require work, and sometimes tedious work.)

      • Or our evolved psychologies came first and religion arose out of an extrapolation of tribal instincts and social cognition that let us survive with a weak bodies, smart brains strategy.

        I think there’s a lot of truth in this notion of local philosophical maxima.

        • … and you seen this yourself? Or do you have a control group and have experimented?

          • That’s why I mentioned the local philosphical maxima. My understanding has a nicely compact, very consistent set of assumptions, and I think it’s quite a significant local maxima in ideaspace.

            Also, I offer my understanding provisionally.. evidence may come at any time to over turn my position and I’m fine with that. To the extent that I’m speculating beyond current evidence, I’m also discounting my certainty.

            It’s just that I’m discounting your certainty more. 😉

          • Ah. And we say the same of you and are at an impasse. So this adds what?

          • Insight into the larger terrain of ideas?

          • Speaking of the larger terrain of ideas and consistency, how does Catholicism interact with what we’ve learned about the history of life on Earth?

  • Quite the honor to get quoted on here…and just above G.K. Chesterton, no less. I’m in good company 🙂

    I do hope to talk to you about your conversion someday, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate as my first comment on here, and in any case I should let you finish explaining your reasons. And at some point if you haven’t addressed it already I’d like to ask you more about why you think attempts to explain morality through evolutionary psychology are flawed. But it’s not urgent and I get the feeling you’re *very busy* right now.

  • Matt

    Re: The local maxima hypothesis:
    Fr. Longenecker basically talked about this in a post here:

    “I came to the conclusion that there was no medium in true philosophy between atheism and Catholicism, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.” -Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman.

    • Wow, really? “Suicide or Catholicism?” Thanks for linking that, I needed a laugh. False dichotomies and poor logic for the win!

  • Epicurean

    Hmm, not a consistent reader but my thoughts

    RE: OT weirdness / other religions / etc
    I think this has more to do with your background, than anything else. I know that the religion I find most plausible is Judaism… But that’s because it’s what I was raised with. I could name many aspects of Catholicism that strike me as absurd (Triune divinity, God incarnating himself in a virgin in order to sacrifice himself to himself, torturing people eternally, the idea that homosexuals are “objectively disordered” etc.) But I know that the “extra” absurdness of Catholicism (over Judaism) is probably a matter of my own biases… Which means that if I were staking out my fall-back religion, I’d probably be Orthodox. (And small reflexive-nitpick, Catholicism has “chosenness” for Jews too… Our people were given Jesus first, not the early Aztecs. Even if you think the Aztecs aren’t damned, they definitely weren’t as privileged as we where, according to the Bible.)

    What I find weird, is that it sounds like the parts of Catholicism you like are by-and-large (High) pagan. Where would you disagree with Plato or Aristotle? (Or Plotinus? Or the Stoics? They believed in a divine Reason which they called the Logos. Not too different, to an outsider like me.) There’s a certain flexibility in the pagan tradition (since it doesn’t have the constraints of dogma). If you were in fact a (neo)Platonist, you could comfortably incorporate your views about sexual ethics – for instance – with your views about how morality exists metaphysically. Since they thought morality was a matter of reason (not revelation) you could just chalk up Plato’s misogyny to backwardness. Not so with the Church (unless you’re a heretic – and if that’s the case, why not be a liberal Protestant or Deist?)

    Not that you have to answer any of these questions. Best of luck either way.

    PS. Horrible joke.. But you seem thick skinned and stuff so I’ll go ahead. Isn’t being Catholic convenient? You can keep the “unequally yoked” title, since you’re a woman!

    • PJ

      “God incarnating himself in a virgin in order to sacrifice himself to himself,”

      That’s a laughable caricature of how Catholics understand the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. It bears more resemblance to rationalistic sixteenth/seventeenth century Calvinistic theories of the atonement, but even then it remains crude. Catholics believe that the death-and-resurrection of Jesus is a mysterious multi-dimensional event, transcending space and time. It is a moral example; a conquest; a victory over death; a ransom; a sacrifice; and many other things.

      Furthermore, the Son is not the Father. They are distinct ‘nodes’ of consciousness and will, even if their consciousnesses and wills are in total harmony. The Cross is the Son saying to the Father, “Abba, I know that You love mankind, as do I: I shall die so that they shall have life in abundance.” It is the ultimate act of humble self-sacrifice for the Other — the very essence of Christian faith.

      “torturing people eternally”

      Everybody is responsible for his own fate. Just as some lead torturous lives on earth, so some will lead torturous lives in the next world. At least, it’s a possibility. The Church declares that some are in heaven — it does not declare for certain that anyone is in hell. And, unlike the various sects of Christianity, we believe in a place/process of purgation and purification, which gives hope for those whose faith is weak or (perhaps) non-existent. There is a tradition in Catholicism — from Gregory of Nyssa and Isaac of Syria in the ancient world to Hans Urs von Balthasar in modern times — that is very, shall we say, eschatologically hopeful. In fact, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI seem to be among this crowd.

      “the idea that homosexuals are “objectively disordered” etc.”

      We are all “disordered” in our own ways. The Church is a haven and hospital for sinners.

      “Our people were given Jesus first, not the early Aztecs. Even if you think the Aztecs aren’t damned, they definitely weren’t as privileged as we where, according to the Bible.”

      The Church is clear: Nobody is “damned” (I don’t like this word because it implies that one receives damnation, when in reality one damns oneself) unless they *fully understand* the Gospel and, understanding it, reject it. If you do not understand the Gospel, then you are judged by your the natural law, which is written on the heart. As it says in Romans, “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.”

      Hope this helps clear up some misconceptions.

      • Epicurean

        “That’s a laughable caricature of how Catholics understand the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ. ”

        No doubt. And if I used my first impression of the idea to dismiss the faith, I’d be acting the way Leah did towards Judaism.

        “Catholics believe that the death-and-resurrection of Jesus is a mysterious multi-dimensional event, transcending space and time. It is a moral example; a conquest; a victory over death; a ransom; a sacrifice; and many other things.”

        Nope. The Resurrection is a (purported) historical event. The implications of the event, the reasons why it occurred, and how it happened may be mysterious. But the Bible is clear it happened at a particular time and a particular place.

        “Furthermore, the Son is not the Father. ”

        Irrelevant to my point. But I was probably unclear. I was saying that if I choose the religion that I left atheism from based on my biases (the way Leah did) then I would have skipped over Catholicism based on that misunderstanding. (In the same way, someone might skip over Judaism on the mistaken impression that people were forgiven for sins through blood sacrifices or that God chose the Jewish people for their “specialness.” etc.)

        “Everybody is responsible for his own fate.”

        I don’t want to get into a debate on the justice of eternal damnation. I was merely describing something that would turn me off to the faith, based on biases. (Again, like Leah dismissed Judaism.)

        “We are all “disordered” in our own ways. The Church is a haven and hospital for sinners.”

        I think the Church is immoral on the topic of homosexuality.. But that would be a long conversation. I doubt we’d agree on that, but we have very different worldviews, so most of the disagreement would be deep (like the meaning of terms, etc).

        “Hope this helps clear up some misconceptions.”

        Thanks for the thoughtful reply. Hope you’re having a good day.

    • PJ

      “PS. Horrible joke.. But you seem thick skinned and stuff so I’ll go ahead. Isn’t being Catholic convenient? You can keep the “unequally yoked” title, since you’re a woman!”

      The wife is the servant of her husband, but the husband is also the servant of the wife. Indeed, the husband is called to serve and love his wife as Christ serves and loves the Church. That means that husband is to give himself utterly to his wife — even to the point of death, if necessary. There is no harmony in equality. There is harmony only in complentarity. Two negatives are not attracted, nor are two positives; but rather one positive and one negative, each different from the other, and yet uniquely and perfectly compatible

      • PJ

        *Complementarity, not “complentarity”

      • A Philosopher

        Two masses are gravitationally attracted to one another by virtue of their shared positive mass. It’s a bit risky trying to extract ethical morals through analogy with physics.

      • Epicurean

        “There is no harmony in equality. There is harmony only in complentarity. Two negatives are not attracted, nor are two positives; but rather one positive and one negative, each different from the other, and yet uniquely and perfectly compatible.”

        Well, I come from very pagan presuppositions. I have to disagree empirically – insofar as I’ve seen equal relationships that are harmonious. But you’ve made me feel less guilty about the joke..

  • Camila

    welcome to the Catholic Church!
    my nightly prayer today is for you!
    I’m waiting eagerly for you at the WORLD YOUTH DAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    at Rio de Janeiro, in july of 2013!!!
    the sky is celebrating for your conversion! 😀
    and…you have to believe me: more we seek answers in the Catholic Church, more we find them!!!!! read, read, read! read the Pope encyclicals, read the Saint Faustina diary, the story of a soul from Sta. Teresa, read the saints life, read about the world youth day (you will loooooooooooooove the event!) and know it: you will always can count with the friendship of young Catholics in the world! I am proud to be your sister in Christ! 😀 SHALOM!

  • Obapplepie

    Well, off topic, yet on topic I suppose. I am a convert to Catholicism, in my late 20s, converted about 5 years ago. And yea. Its a tough road. Facing the possibility of losing friends and family for a search for truth isn’t an easy decision to make. Especially since I have never really considered myself heterosexual, and I pretty much had zero people in my life with a stereotypical Christian mentality or even a ‘right wing’ perspective. In fact quite a bit of my life I was ‘trained’ that Catholicism was the real ‘evil’.
    One thing that I think a lot of people misconstrue regarding Catholicism and homosexuality (though I never felt the need to define my sexual appetites, since I find all types of persons beautiful) is that they really don’t have the ‘Westboro Baptist Church’ attitude (also why is a creepy family and organization of 40 people constantly in the lime light, when they really don’t speak for anybody but themselves?). I have never felt hated, or disgusting, or even ashamed of my ssa. Granted its something that I dont participate in because my beliefs don’t coincide, but I don’t hate myself for it and Ive never been made to believe that I am a lesser person for it. If I am not supposed to go around imagining having sex with or fooling around with people of the opposite gender, it applies to all other persons as well. But it was still an issue of confusion for me for a bit. I know love, and I don’t doubt that people of the same gender truly love one another and can be devoted to one another. I guess in a way it comes down to this random quote (I don’t know who said it, but I like it anyway) that the Catholic faith is like the ocean… you can dive into its depths and never reach the bottom, but little children can dabble in it on the shore. There is so much depth and philosophy, and thousands of years of thought went into its theology and scores of different philosophical and creative minds have ‘spelunked’ its caverns that its impossible to truly learn everything about it. How I came to an understanding of the Catholic perspective of marriage and sex is learning the philosophy behind it, and digging into Theology of the Body a bit. Trying to shove the idea into a box for the sake of an already long comment, and poorly put by my simple mind, the idea of heterosexuality isn’t just from a couple of random verses, but the entire Catholic/Christian philosophy of what man and woman is and what marriage is. The concept of man and woman when united in communion (marriage and sex is a form of worship, and sex is often referred to as communion) they are a symbol of God/Trinity, and that our body parts reflect specific aspects of God and ourselves. The external of male reproductive organs representing the giving of ones self completely as a gift, female as receiving and creating an entirely unique creature through the interchange of love and giving. And so the idea being that a coupling of male and female exclusively can create this symbol. Additionally there is the understanding that if the external organs of male represent Gods gift and giving of self, the act of putting it up someones ass and essentially rubbing poop on it and putting it in a foul place is actually a mockery of the act of communion, and vis a vis two women making love symbolically being a rejection of this gift and creation. So, yea, I’m not sure if this did ANY justice to the true philosophy and writings of people much smarter than I. And I know for sure 90% of the people reading it will say ‘what the hell’, it might shed a little more light on the issue for those that were kind of curious of their own beliefs or this Christian idea that they hear so much about but don’t usually hear much more than ‘its wrong, because… you know… I said so’. But yea, one thing that I really love about Catholicism is they really want to understand WHY they are supposed to believe what they believe. I also love that they don’t hate the human body or sex, and that they are a source of such incredible creativity. I recommend looking into Eastern Rites and the icons and murals associated with them, and entire masses sung. Beautiful and unique.

    • James H, London

      Obapplepie: You. Rock.

      You took the lame hand life dealt you, and made an epic verse out of it! Live forever.


    Father Gabriele Amorth, the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, warned about ignoring Satan, saying, “Whoever denies Satan also denies sin and no longer understands the actions of Christ”.

    He also said that Satan is active in such current media as the Harry Potter books and films.

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the Church regards the Devil as being created as a good angel by God, and by his and his fellow fallen angels choice fell out of God’s grace.

    Satan is not an infinitely powerful being. Although, he was an angel, and thus pure spirit, he is considered a creature nonetheless. Satan’s actions are permitted by divine providence.

  • Interestingly, the dynamics Scott describes of a system seeking optimum results and having to deal with the difficulty in moving beyond local maxima to try to find a more global optimum is one of the key mathematical concepts behind a lot of work in neural network modeling and design.

    It’s interesting to see that dynamic projected into the realm of high level philosophical metacognition. 😉

  • frenchman

    I think you would like Jacques Maritain who was great french thomist (he had degrees in philosophy and biology) . He wrote on epistemology (a subject that seems important to you), i’m sure you would love his masterpiece “the degrees of knowlegde”, he also wrote on esthetics, ethics, politics and developped an important “personalist” thought etc

  • Karl

    Welcome to the madhouse of Catholicism. If I did not love it so much to try to work
    at being faithful, I would leave it, yesterday, work diligently to annihilate it or ignore it

    I choose to try to be faithful because of its founder and the only reason to be Catholic,
    Jesus Christ. He said to take up my cross. So be it. This religion is such a messy pigsty
    I have much opportunity to follow Him. Now, if I could only complain less, follow Him more and join my “challenges” with His, maybe some good will come about.

  • Sheryl

    Reading this blog, I see so many very intelligent people. The discourse is very interesting. My faith as a Catholic is so much simpler. The funny thing is that the more we intellectualize the discussion of faith, the more we lose its essence. Faith cannot be boxed in. We can discourse all we like about faith but truly, we cannot fully understand it until we allow ourselves to be like the evangelical child that Jesus spoke of when He said “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”—Matthew 18:3-4

    We cannot conquer God. Belief in a supreme, omniscient being presupposes that we know that we do not know anything. Or at least we do not know everything. It is not giving up our intellect. Actually, it is embracing the truth that there are mysteries in the world that have yet to be understood. Why do we need to fully understand God? The saints who have had mystical experiences of God do not wax proud in their ability to describe Him in His entirety. These encounters result in their prostrating themselves to God. St. Teresa of Avila called herself a ‘worm’ in relation to God. The greatest of all these saints are the ones who claim they know nothing. They are nothing compared to the grandeur of God. I think that unless we reach that state where we give up trying to conquer God by applying our reason to Him, we cannot hope to truly know God.

    • I don’t think that’s what the child-like thing is about at all. In fact my child-version was even more geeky than I am now.

      Of course we can’t fully understand God. But then we can’t fully match his beauty either, so should we all become iconoclasts? Everyone has an own path to God and a geek’s path is no less valid because it turns out to be geeky.

      • Sheryl

        I believe that the evangelical child refers to complete, unconditional trust in God. Perhaps it is very difficult to just trust when you have all these questions in your head. But it will really be difficult to trust like the evangelical child if we keep trying to exclude the supernatural in the equation. God is supernatural and as such cannot be expected to fit neatly into any mathematical equation that scientists can accept. Trust is out of the question. And without the trust of this evangelical child, there is no hope to understand and to experience God. We can’t also remove from the discussion the truth of mystical experiences. How can we understand God if we do not accept that mystical experiences (such as Saul’s conversion into Paul, apparitions, internal locutions) exist? These are pieces of evidence but only to those who have faith. But to be able to experience these, we go back to the humility of the evangelical child.

        Pope Benedict XVI says, “One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation.”
        This encounter is by grace. A suspension of disbelief is necessary to get a glimpse of truth. A leap of faith. The acceptance that we are but a grain in the dessert and as such are nothing in the grand scheme of things. A child accepts that it needs its father or mother in order to live. There is really no need to complicate things. When we overly intellectualize we veer farther from humility, farther from spirituality, and therefore farther from an encounter with God that will give us the proof, the certainty that we need.

        • Please be careful with the way you articulate things. The ‘encounter’ that PBXVI refers to is not one of blind trust, or as you phrased it, a “leap of faith.” It is an ‘encounter’ with Someone who has demonstrated that He is trustworthy. From the evidence – from the repeated signs and actions of His care – one begins to build a certainty that Jesus is trustworthy and that His claim that He is God is true. The child-likeness refers to one who is open to the evidence and does not filter it out by his preconceptions/ideologies. And this is the only way the ‘encounter’ can happen. Because thousands saw Jesus, they even saw His miracles, e.g. the Pharasees, but they did not believe because they filtered out the evidence (this is most poignant in John 14, the episode of the healing of the man born blind)

          Just as we ought not “over-intellectualize,” nor should we “over-spiritualize.” The fact is, we are human, and Jesus reveals Himself to us in the mode that we are made – human, i.e. He desires to engage our full humanity, all of our reason and freedom.

  • Warpspeedepetey

    In my experience of Catholicism it is justified by mathematical analysis of Messianic Prophecy. An expression of Apostolic Messianic belief in explicitly logical terms and empirically proven methodologies. On the other hand my experience of faith is much more organic,

  • David E

    As for the virtue ethics issue, I don’t see the point of calling oneself a virtue ethicist or deontologist or consequentialist. It’s always seemed pretty obvious that each of these positions describe something morally important. Why approach them as if they were in competition rather than each being relevant to moral question?

    I’d also be interested in Leah’s views on the Euthyphro dilemma. I’ve never yet heard a satisfactory response from theists who believe morality can have no basis besides God. (Not that I consider the idea of a basis to be a good metaphor—I prefer the idea of sound moral visions as attractors; something that draws one like the pull of a gravitational field).

    • I think you’re onto something there in that last sentence — to be attracted to a moral vision. What do you think is desirable in the moral visions to which you’re attracted?

      From my experience, I desire to love and be loved (in different modes, e.g. son, brother, father, spouse, friend) infinitely. I don’t want my relationships to cease to exist. How is that possible? (Of course, there is another problem: What is love? Do I define/construct it? How do I recognize it? This is starting to sound like the Meno).
      I desire Truth – I want people to tell me the truth rather than lies. I want to know how things really exist and what my relationships are with them.
      I desire also to experience beauty and justice infinitely.
      Not only do I desire these, but I desire to share them. The moral vision that I am attracted to allows me to experience and share these desires. Furthermore, it embraces all my humanity with all the urgent cries beating forth from my heart for meaning.
      The moral vision I have adopted is a catholic one, because, true to the meaning of “catholic,” which is universal, it embraces all my humanity. And here is another “can of worms” — what does it mean to be human? What does it mean to exist?

    • Doragoon

      The Euthyphro dilemma is not limited to moral truth. There is no reason for any Truth without the existence of a benevolent god. As Descartes said, Science requires the existence of a benevolent god. It’s an axiom common to both scientific and moral reasoning. Why must a scientific experiment give the same results every time it is tried? It’s a rule that is accepted without proof so that you can make judgements about what follows. The existence of a benevolent God in the Euthyphro dilemma is the same way.

      You may reject the axiom, but the result is Occasionalism.

      • David E

        “The Euthyphro dilemma is not limited to moral truth. There is no reason for any Truth without the existence of a benevolent god.”

        The Euthyphro dilemma is the basis of an argument AGAINST God being the basis of morality. Not for it. As to there being no truth if there’s no God, that’s simply an absurd claim (unless you mean by truth something very different when capitalized than it’s standard meaning—if so, then you should define your term).

        “As Descartes said, Science requires the existence of a benevolent god.”
        If the universe is orderly and relatively uniform in how it works then we can do science fruitfully, God or no God. If it weren’t we wouldn’t have been able to make heads or tails of things and science wouldn’t have been invented.

  • How do you justify joining a church that has killed millions of indigenous people as well as involve itself in cultural genocide?

    • Sheryl

      Simple. We cannot blame the sins of people on the teachings of Jesus.

      • David E

        The commenter didn’t say anything about blame the sins of people on the teachings of Jesus. One can follow the teachings of Jesus without joining the Catholic Church.

  • Scott has some further thoughts, having investigated the Catholic blogosphere:

    • leahlibresco

      Hee hee hee. (and quite on point for some parts of the blagotubes)

  • I wrote a comment on your other post but I’ll add something here. As I noted in my other post, I agree that there is something that needs to be explained vis a vis ethics or morality, and I also agree that there’s an objective quality to ethics, but it seems to me your characterization of Catholicism as a “local maximum” seems rather to be based more on the fact that you’ve deeply considered only a couple of systemic possibilities. There are, in fact, a wide variety of alternate explanations and systems of investigation which are more epistemologically minimal than Catholicism which require fewer postulates.

  • John

    Just as atheists point to their own sexual/emotional states as some layer of proof that Catholicism has to be wrong, many Catholics point to their own experiences – mystical but ‘real for them’ of Jesus Christ being right…. ditto with respect for the existence of angelic/demonic beings. It’s one thing to pooh pooh the concept of non-corporeal intelligences that can somehow interface with our perceptions so as to scare us…. and quite another thing to actually experience phenomenon of such presences that terrify and call us to account for this data.

    I think ultimately experience of personal relationships of holiness (defined perhaps as heroically altruistic) account for much faith in God whereas I know personal experiences of relationships with other people who are scandalously selfish if not sociopaths account for a great deal of loss of faith. I’m not sure we’re entirely Spock-like in our intellectualizing given these inputs. It’s one thing to contemplate the question of God or “is Catholicism right” in a lounge at college. Quite another to experience a profound encounter with another person for good or evil who explains themselves in reference to God or some other truth claim.

  • Dear Leah,

    I am so encouraged by your journey, because I see in you someone who really desires to know the Truth. Have you heard of Communion and Liberation? They have a presence in D.C. The purpose of their charism is to educate and be educated in being human, where humans are classified as that animal that has awareness of himself, has the capacity to use reason (the capacity to be open to reality in all of its factors), and the capacity for freedom. The founder, Msgr. Luigi Giusanni, proposes the structure of the human person as a being with infinite desires/need: for love (who wants good relationships to end?), freedom (not so hard to imagine this one), justice, and beauty, etc. Our ‘hearts’ judge when these desires are being fulfilled or not (whether we are aware of that judgment or not). He is very philosophical, yet at the same time concrete. When we are aware of the judgments of our ‘hearts’ and follow our desires, we become aware of an Other for whom we are made.

    You are an example of someone following her desire for Truth, who does not want ideology/presuppositions to get in the way. And it’s beautiful, because that is very rare.

    Let me know if you’re interested to hear more about Giusanni. I think you’d like his style being the philosophical type. You can also get a taste of the charism from my blog.

    Peace and God bless 🙂

  • Cous

    Funny, just came across this quote from Newman’s autobiography, Apologia Pro Vita Sua:

    and I came to the conclusion that there was no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and that a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below, must embrace either the one or the other.

  • It’s called ‘criminal trespassing’ and if you came onto my property here in Tombstone, Arizona in a smoking D9R Caterpillaer bull dozer at 2:00 AM with a 3,000 year old ‘expired’ lease in your again pocket and you insisted your G-d had given you my house and land , you would be uncovered at the county dump next night with a ‘He died with his boots on,’ final epitaph’ carved on your forehead.