You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

You Shall Know Them By Their Fruits October 5, 2012

Bob Seidensticker of Cross Examined (the one who sparked the discussion of the Atheist Prayer Experiment), put up a post earlier this week titled “I Used to be an Atheist, Just Like You” where he talks about three groups of atheists. Let me quote the relevant part:

Group 3. These are the well-informed atheists. They understand both sides of the ontological, teleological, cosmological, transcendental, fine-tuning, and moral arguments and more. They are at least well-educated amateurs on evolution, evolution denial, and the Big Bang. They can make positive arguments for atheism, not just rebut Christian apologetics. And so on. I put myself into this group.

But here’s my point: I’ve never heard of anyone in Group 3, the well-informed atheists, who converted to Christianity because of intellectual arguments… Well-informed Christians deconvert to atheism (and are happy to explain, using reason, why they left), but well-informed atheists don’t convert to Christianity through reason. More education about the history and origins of Christianity increases the likelihood that the Christian will deconvert, but more education increases the likelihood that the atheist will stay put.

…Well-informed atheists, now Christians, wouldn’t make the arguments that apologists make. They wouldn’t make arguments to which I have a quick rebuttal. Indeed, they would focus on those arguments which they knew (since they’d been just like me) I had no response to.
These former atheists would know all the secret passwords and trap doors to get into my secret atheist lair, and, as Christians, they would walk back in and blow it up. But we never see this. Christians are still making the same old arguments, banging on the atheist stronghold with a rock hammer. I never see an “ex-atheist” who hits me where I live, who explains why my arguments are wrong from my perspective.

Today, he examines case studies of hypothetically Group 3 atheists who converted for intellectual reasons, and he picked Anthony Flew, Richard Morgan, and this fearsome apologist:

Not peace but a nerf gun

His rebuttal of me is concise, so I hope he won’t mind me quoting it in full:

Our final case study will be Leah Libresco, a fellow Patheos blogger (at Unequally Yoked). Immersed in a Catholic environment, she seemed to find the center of gravity of her moral philosophy gradually move from atheism to Catholicism. It was as if the vocabulary available within atheism was inadequate, with Catholicism much better able to express reality.

In an interview, Hemant Mehta (the Friendly Atheist) pointed out that Leah’s conversion hasn’t led to a flood of other conversions (or perhaps any). Like Richard Morgan’s conversion four years earlier, there are no new insights or arguments to which an atheist might say, “Oh, that’s interesting; I need to think about that” as the first step toward Christianity.

First, a nitpick: I think it would be more accurate to say that my moral philosophy gradually moved from deontology to virtue ethics, and then, like MacIntyre, I found that the more I queried my new moral system, the more it seemed to rest on a metaphysical system that looked an awful lot like Catholicism.

But on to his main point: my conversion is demonstrably not intellectually compelling because it hasn’t prompted conversions.  I think Bob is giving me more credit than I’m due when he suggests I’ve brought new arguments to the table and they’ve been found wanting.  Most of my posts aren’t particularly original; at their most off-beat, they’re old wine in new (math-related) wineskins.  I may have translated some ideas into a system of reference that will be more attractive to a certain subset of geeky atheist, but I haven’t brought in anything big they couldn’t find somewhere else.

I don’t have acolytes to trot out (and I don’t expect to have very many, even if I’m given more than three months to convert them).  The best that I’m aware of is one reader who converted to Catholicism before I did and found some of my stuff persuasive/helpful as he was making up his mind, another reader whose gone from atheism to a Thomistic-y Deism, and some friends who are still pretty comfortably atheist but said my argument did more to shift their posterior odds than other discussions.  No links, I’m afraid; not everyone blogs this stuff.

But I also don’t expect, as one of Bob’s commenters does, that

[I]f any atheist were to convert because of argument, they’d know exactly what argument convinced them and they could convince another atheist with that very argument. Anyone who converts for some other reason will know that no argument they can make will convince anyone.

It matters where people start.  I disagree(d) with plenty of atheists on things that don’t directly touch on atheism (whether there are any ‘safe’ opportunities to hate is the first pre-conversion example that comes to mind).  I do agree with Bob, that it would probably be misleading to say “But I was an atheist, just like you” but I think the gap between us has more the result of disagreements about metaphysics and moral law than knowledge about Dawkins, Harris, or Russell.  So, when I run into other virtue-ethicist atheists, I’m ready to make a bit of a run at it, but otherwise, my atheist interlocutor and I have a long argument ahead of us that doesn’t sound like an argument about religion particularly.

If you want to have that one, I think some of my most helpful tags are “dirty hands/sin eaters” “offering resistance” “accepting gifts” and “inculcating morality.”

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  • Apparently he’s never heard of C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton.

    • Na, he won’t count them either.

      Basically he defines a well informed convert for rational reasons as someone who does so for reasons people who are still atheists find convincing. No can ever meet that test as long as anyone remains atheist. The same type of rigging could of course be used to show well informed Christians never apostatize for intellectual reasons, but that presumably wouldn’t count because only atheists are rational(TM).

      Really, this argument is so spectacularly Poeish, if the prayer experiment works for him I will suspect him of having been a submarine all along.

      • Too be fair, I wouldn’t put Chesterton in this category. The reading I’ve done of him gives the impression that he never bought into this whole “science” and “human reason” thing to begin with.

        Lewis is a better example, though I’m still not sure I would want him as the shining example of a well-educated-in-atheist-arguments Christian. In particular Mere Christianity, which I actually enjoyed very much, basically ignores the entire field of evolutionary psychology as a plausible explanation for the moral law.

        • Ignored my foot. He wrote Mere Christianity in the early 1940’s. Evolutionary psychology wasn’t an established field until the 1960’s.

      • grok87

        Agree- nice post. Seidensticker’s framework does seem, to me, to have a whiff of intellectual arrogance about it. I don’t mean to be harsh- pride is something we all struggle with I think.
        Relatedly I heard Bill Clinton speak today at a conference. He was very interesting. Apparently he has recently read and been influenced by E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth.
        So President Clinton is very into talking about the need for cooperation today and the perils of arrogance. See the end of this article for instance.
        I think the shift from atheism to faith is often less about intellectual argumentation and more about awakening to a sense of humility and awe in the face of our creator. Today’s reading from the book of Job and today’s psalm captures this well to my mind:
        “The LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning and shown the dawn its place.”
        “Truly you have formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb.
        I give you thanks that I am fearfully, wonderfully made; wonderful are your works.”


        • Gordon

          Nothing says humble like “I have a relationship with the creator of the universe who designed all of this with me in mind”

          • jenesaispas

            What about “I have a relationship with the creator of the universe who designed all of this with me but not just me in mind”?

    • Gordon

      Or found them underwhelming!

  • Bob Seidensticker

    JoAnna: I could’ve missed a counterexample to my argument. If you have specifics, feel free to let me have it.

    Leah: Thanks for the critique and corrections. My interactions with Christian apologists aren’t always this thoughtful and pleasant.

    • leahlibresco

      This is because you fight with boring fundamentalists! 🙂

      Lewis might be a lot more fun to take on, since he always seems very good-spirited in his arguments.

      • +1 – makes it tiring to read (most) atheist blogs. I spend more time thinking “you’ve missed the entire point/argument/nuanced reading/etc.” and less time thinking “here’ s a good critique of my belief system that I should take seriously.” Leah, you were a pleasant exception to the rule.

        I suspect that most Atheists focus on the fundies because fundamentalist Christianity seems to have the most political force combined with being an easy intellectual target (for Catholics and Atheists).

    • Ted Seeber

      Funny, Joanna just gave you TWO specific authors who were once well read atheists. Of course, they didn’t have the benefit of your knowledge of authors who lived after they did. But they did write a great deal on the subject, both of them.

      Is there something specific that science has discovered since 1940 that proves God doesn’t exist beyond any shadow of doubt? Fr. Spritzer debunked that idea.

  • Ted Seeber

    I just wish I could meet a Group 3 atheist who didn’t turn out to be a Group 1 atheist in disguise. *every single one* seems to think they know what the Church teaches, only to prove two posts in that they only seem to know some rumors of what somebody thought the church taught at some point in history.

  • Andrew “KarmaKaiser” Summitt

    Atheist turned Thomisticy Deist here. Hi There! with I was too impressed with Catholic Metaphysics and found contemporary Phil. of Mind a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I think Catholic Philosophical Claims can in principle be true without the historical claims being true. Currently evaluating that part.

  • Is it impossible for a well informed atheist to become a Christian through intellectual argument? By intellectual argument alone, I would say no (let me also say from the start I was once an atheist and I am now a Christian/Catholic). One can make a good argument for the existence of a transcendent & immutable God and one can be persuaded; arguments to contrary can also be made. But ultimately the atheist’s argument will fall short. The modern day atheist lives in a world that is flat & while it seems that universe revolves around him, he is deluded & ultimately naivete to a greater reality. That is not to say he can convince that Christianity is the truth by reason alone. Reason can argue that God can enter into his own creation in the form of a man. But it can only argue that it is possible. It cannot be proved by reason. At this point, one must enter into the realm of faith, prayer, meditation and yes mysticism. The spiritual life, the mystical life, is not archaic but essential. Carl Jung wrote about the evolution of the psyche. Jung wrote of a “imprinter” who left an impression, left a mark on all human kind. If one were born in a bio-sphere & analysed photosynthesis, one could extrapolate that there once existed a powerful sun that shaped the evolution of plant life. It is the same with mankind: man/woman was born for the spiritual life & it is naive to think otherwise. The book of Genesis is inspired poetry not a scientific textbook. In Catholic theology one does not have to accept that mankind began with one woman & one man (monogenism) but is free to believe that mankind came into existence through more than one woman & one man (polygenism). Finally one cannot become a Christian by argument alone. But one can argue that it is possible for God, the creator, to enter into his creation and that such a belief could be true.

    • Jack

      If one were born in a bio-sphere & analysed photosynthesis, one could extrapolate that there once existed a powerful sun that shaped the evolution of plant life. It is the same with mankind: man/woman was born for the spiritual life & it is naive to think otherwise.

      You seem to be suggesting that humans are born with some physiological machinery specifically adapted for a relationship with a god or gods, just as plants have the physiological machinery for photosynthesis. Am I understanding you correctly? If so, can you be more specific? What is it about human physiology or behavior that makes you feel this way?

      • You understand me. Though my example of photosynthesis is only a metaphor for a spiritual process. As for physiological machinery, I suppose one could speak of the human brain and its evolution and development, but it is human consciousness, human spirituality that I have in mind. As for examples of behavior, the list is endless, just look at the history of mankind. From the beginning man/woman has sought refuge in religion, tales of the gods, myth, in acts of prayer and worship. Furthermore, these acts are not something one can jettison without losing one’s psychological balance. The spiritual life is as essential to mankind as food and water and the loss of it will lead to psychological disease and disaster.

        • grok87

          Agree. As Augustine said “”You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

    • Alan R.

      Dear BillyBlueJames,
      Can you refer to any authoritative teaching by the Church that allows for the belief in either monogenism or polygenism or in polygenism by itself?
      Alan R

      • I am a poet not a theologian, however, I am a Catholic. Below are statements made by our current Pope, John Paul II and Saint Augustine: where Augustine first argued against a too literal interpretation of Genesis nearly 1,500 years ago.
        Pope Benedict XVI: “even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation.”
        John Paul II: “new knowledge has led to the recognition in the theory of evolution of more than a hypothesis” and restated from Humani Generis that “if the human body takes its origin from pre-existent living matter, the spiritual soul is immediately created by God.” However, as John Paul II recognized in his Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “In his Encyclical Humani generis [1950], my predecessor Pius XII had already stated that there was no opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the faith about man and his vocation, on condition that one did not lose sight of several indisputable points.”
        “The Literal Interpretation of Genesis” (early fifth century, AD), St. Augustine wrote: “It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.” (Augustine, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1:19–20 [AD 408])

        “With the scriptures it is a matter of treating about the faith. For that reason, as I have noted repeatedly, if anyone, not understanding the mode of divine eloquence, should find something about these matters [about the physical universe] in our books, or hear of the same from those books, of such a kind that it seems to be at variance with the perceptions of his own rational faculties, let him believe that these other things are in no way necessary to the admonitions or accounts or predictions of the scriptures. In short, it must be said that our authors knew the truth about the nature of the skies, but it was not the intention of the Spirit of God, who spoke through them, to teach men anything that would not be of use to them for their salvation.” (ibid, 2:9)

      • deiseach

        We do run into a quandary (or a seeming one) where the belief in polygenism is specifically disallowed, thanks to the 1950 encyclical Humani Generis of Pope Pius XII:

        “37. When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.”

        Now, encyclicals are important statements of teachings of the Faith, so they generally demand the assent of all those addressed. However, there is technical wiggle room: to quote the 1913 “Catholic Encyclopedia”:

        “As for the binding force of these documents it is generally admitted that the mere fact that the pope should have given to any of his utterances the form of an encyclical does not necessarily constitute it an ex-cathedra pronouncement and invest it with infallible authority.”

        If a Pope did not authoritatively speak out, saying that this was intended as an infallible teaching, regarding polygenism (and Pius XII issued an encyclical but made no such declaration), then it may therefore be possible to hold a form of polygenism and not be contrary to the beliefs of the Church – if one does not deny Original Sin or the Fall, and that you accept the disobedience to the will of God by our original parents.

        It would certainly seem to be a permissible speculation, seeing as how the question is not settled in the science as yet (even if it is garnering more support in modern times). The emphasis here is not on “We have to believe there were one specific pair of true humans who were the only ancestors of all who ultimately became Homo sapiens sapiens” but “We must believe as revealed truth that disunity, separation from God, and sin came into the world through the actions of our First Parents and we inherit that fallen nature”.

        tl, dr: If you’re not using polygenism to deny Original Sin, you should be okay.

        • Agreed. “Oh happy fault.” Without Original Sin, the need for a Savior no longer exists and Catholic theology collapses. Ironically, unlike the Incarnation which cannot be proven by reason alone, the devastating effects of Original Sin, the empirical evidence of that fall from grace, is clearly visible all around us: in war, murder, hatred, selfishness, pride and so on.

          A quote from the link that I posted earlier regarding monogenism versus polygenism: “The Vatican has avoided making any recent explicit pronouncement on the question of the theological necessity of monogenism (see Neuner/Dupuis, Roberto Masi, the ITC statement above, and especially “Monogenism and Science”

  • Jack

    Hi Leah!

    I confess I’ve not had a chance to follow much of your writing over the last few months. Since you brought up the subject of your conversion here, and since there’s been a chance for some of the dust to settle after all of that, I’m wondering if you ever got around to writing any answers to Adam’s questions? If so, could you give us a link to them? Meanwhile I’m hoping to catch you on the Drew Marshall show tomorrow. Best wishes.

  • Typos: the opening sentence should read, “Is it possible…” . Later on in the paragraph the sentence should read: “That is not to say once can be convinced that Christianity is the truth by reason alone.”

  • deiseach

    Maybe not acolytes, but could we be minions? I’m certainly up for a spot of light henching now and again (so long as it’s not too strenuous and the lava pit has been properly certified by Health and Safety).


    • Xanthate

      As a chemistry student, I can provide any bubbling green goop required to enhance the henching experience 🙂

  • Staircaseghost

    …I found that the more I queried my new moral system, the more it seemed to rest on a metaphysical system that looked an awful lot like Catholicism.

    Finding a metaethical theory about what, in general, grounds moral truths persuasive is one thing.

    But Catholicism is a VERY, VERY SPECIFIC set of claims about, for example, Papal infallibility, the proper relationship of penises to butts, the (in)sufficiency of scripture alone (and which scripture) for salvation, the efficacy of prayer, the triune nature of the Godhead, what happens to the named saints after death, transsubstantiation vs consubstantiation, and so on, and so on, and so on.

    Forgive me, but I’ve not seen anything like an explanation of how “virtue ethics is true” gets you to this VERY VERY SPECIFIC set of silly beliefs suddenly seeming incredibly plausible. The fulcrum on that epistemic lever would have to be light years away to provide the force to move a reasonable person from disbelief to belief on these VERY VERY SPECIFIC propositions.

    If you had simply converted to very very vague deism on metaethical grounds, I doubt you would be getting this kind of pushback, or attention. The fact that you appeared to instantly parlay objective moral truth into a position on the filioque and the bodily resurrection of Jesus makes a lot of us rather suspicious, and I hope you can understand why.

    • joeclark77

      You only have to accept one belief: that the Catholic Church is RIGHT. All of that other stuff follows from it.

      • Doragoon

        You forget, atheist thinking goes the other way. They start with a VERY VERY SPECIFIC set of beliefs, then ask how to justify them. That’s why they have to work so hard and rely on so many more ideas without proof.

        Why is there the assumption that a religion shouldn’t be too much of a challenge to adhere to on the VERY, VERY SPECIFIC details? Is there the same assumption that evolution will make moral decisions less disagreeable and thus the more difficult option must be atavist?

    • Virtue ethical views are also VERY VERY SPECIFIC; they touch on a lot of things, and a number of the major contenders are VERY VERY CATHOLIC. It reminds me of when some commenters were suggesting a while back that it would make more sense to convert to Unitarian Universalism; Unitarian Universalists can be virtue ethicists, but it’s not as if the Unitarian Universalist virtue ethics tradition is particularly robust. And depending on the features of virtue ethics that one thinks are right, one is likely to end up dealing with Catholics, from which one can ask questions about Catholicism particularly; and, while it’s not a simple or straightforward thing, joeclark77 is right that you can get from certain points of Catholic view to others quite easily. But as I recall, Leah mentioned that she was still testing the waters on quite a few of the things you are including in the VERY VERY SPECIFIC belief set. So perhaps the way to put it, assuming no extensive changes, is that she’s currently a VERY VERY GENERAL Catholic.

      I like this capitalization thing; we should make it a FASHION.

      • Staircaseghost

        “X touches on a lot of things in Y” is not an inference form from X to Y. That is what Seidensticker, myself, and many others are pointing out.

        Given that Aristotle’s ethics predate the writings of the early church fathers by some half a millennium, and given that christianity seemed to function for a full thousand years after that without appropriating him (and then only among elites, and only in one provincial corner of a confessionally diverse christendom) there is no particular reason why “virtue ethics is true” should in itself entail catholicism.

        There is still a difference between “very general deist” and “very general catholic”. The only reason to claim to be the latter instead of the former is to claim to be convinced about some of the latter’s very very specific beliefs, over and above the observation that there is a “robust tradition” of virtue ethics there. Belgian monks have a “robust tradition” of brewing damn fine beer, but when I got interested in craft brewing I did not feel intellectually compelled to join a monastery.

        • Obviously; it’s also irrelevant, because what inferences are relevant will depend entirely on what can be associated with what — which depends on the specifics. This is why your second paragraph, while technically true, is also pointless — what can be said about the matter depends on the specific details of the particular virtue ethics in question, not general propositions about virtue ethics generally. Quite a few forms of Aristotelian virtue ethics current today have explicit Catholic connections, and apparent support for those forms (i.e., apparent support for particular positions in these virtue ethics that are especially salient for that form) raises the salience, and potentially the support, of specifically Catholic positions. It’s simply not reasonable to talk only in very vague general terms about virtue ethics but only in very specific terms about Catholicism: they both can be approached specifically and they both can be approached generally, so your original suggestion, apparently still put forward in your second paragraph, that there is some particular problem with moving from virtue ethics (taken in a very general sense) to Catholicism (taken in a very specific sense) involves an illegitimate shift of levels. At the same time, it’s unreasonable to treat these things holistically: some parts of a give virtue ethics are more essential to it than others, being more central, and the same is true with Catholic belief. So any actual movement is from some subset of a particular set of specific virtue ethical beliefs to some subset of specific Catholic beliefs.

          • Staircaseghost

            Your post is littered with imprecations that I attend to “the specifics,” when “the specifics” are precisely what people are pointing out over and over Leah has declined to supply.

            I want to talk about the specifics! I demand to talk about the specifics! So, apparently, does the blogger to whom she is replying. But as far as I can discern, neither Leah nor you nor anyone else wants to actually put those specifics out there to be examined in the light of day.

            Start with the premise “morality loves me.” Which of the very very specific tenets of the Apostle’s Creed does this tend to increase the probability of, over and above very very vague deism? The obvious answer is: none of them.

            But, as far as my (admittedly cursory) examination of the record reveals, Leah won’t detail what specifically catholic beliefs she now holds. I submit that if she did, it would immediately be apparent that those conclusions (virgin births, life everlasting etc.) simply do not follow from the premise. The recalcitrant silence in this post and its comments makes no sense on the hypothesis that Leah has realized there are very good arguments for the very very specific beliefs of catholicism, but they make total sense on the hypothesis that the conversion was the result of non-intellectual processes.

            Please do not mistake any of this for a crude or sneering scientism that denies the validity of the non-intellectual aspects of human existence. I am simply insisting that a conversion story that is being marketed around the internet as being grounded in objective arguments that any reasonable person ought to find convincing actually supply those arguments, or withdrawn with a concession that the atheist has committed no intellectual error.

          • Yeah, but Staircaseghost, who’s doing the marketing? Is Leah, or any Catholic, or any Christian, responsible for living up to someone else’s marketing? While I haven’t read all of the interviews Leah has done on other sites and cannot speak about them, from what I can tell on this blog, she’s never specifically claimed that her conversion story was “grounded in objective arguments that any reasonable person ought to find convincing.” In fact, this very post suggests that you’d need to already be a virtue ethicist to find her arguments convincing, so that’s not “any reasonable person.”
            The same goes for any Catholic. Is someone making that claim? Then your objection holds. Are they not making that claim? Then they do not have to live up to another person’s rumours that they have made that claim.
            (Also, I’m sort of waiting for Leah to roll out those specifics at some point, but that’s a process. It takes time to work out those specifics you want so much.)

    • But Catholicism is a VERY, VERY SPECIFIC set of claims about, for example, Papal infallibility, the proper relationship of penises to butts, the (in)sufficiency of scripture alone (and which scripture) for salvation, the efficacy of prayer, the triune nature of the Godhead, what happens to the named saints after death, transsubstantiation vs consubstantiation, and so on…

      Apart from the second item, none of the other points has anything to do directly with virtue ethics.Virtue ethics (including your second item) existed much longer before Christian morals and owed nothing to it. This is precisely the other way round: Christian virtue ethics only placed natural law precepts in a larger perspective, thus not changing them but asserting them in a remarkably coherent system of thought. This is why virtue ethics look an awful lot like Catholicism metaphysical system.

      • Staircaseghost

        “Apart from the second item, none of the other points has anything to do directly with virtue ethics.”

        Precisely my point.

        At the exact place where one would expect a convert to theism because of intellectual rather than emotive reasons to be able to explain to atheists, at length and in detail, why condoms are worse than AIDS itself and why the bodily resurrection of Jesus is actually really plausible when you think about it — right at this place is a yawning chasm of silence where an argument should be.

        If Ms. Lebrisco had said “the moral argument is sound, therefore from now on my blog will be on the very very vague deism channel,” none of this would be an issue. But as the record stands there is still a glaring omission in the chain of inference.

  • john

    Yeah, I think the main reason your conversion hasn’t triggered others is that you haven’t really *said* why you think God exists 🙂 The closest you’ve come is your replies to JT, but there you mostly vaguely talk about methodology. You may very well have some reasonable idea, we’re just not privy to it.

    You obviously are under no obligation to blog about anything, but I wish you would. You seem like a reasonable sort, claim to have been convinced by *reasons* rather than emotion, and I’d very much like to know what those are.

    I have been listening, and I gather so far that you think certain moral values (and ways of thinking) are really important, and that Catholicism happens to share some of them, but I can’t imagine it’s just that. You and the Catholic church seem to differ on a lot of specific moral values, and even if you didn’t, thinking certain moral values are important surely wouldn’t convince you (by itself) that there was anything supernatural in their origin.

    • deiseach

      Ah lads, let the poor girl work on her own conversion without having to drag the rest o’ yiz, kicking and screaming, into the loving embrace of Holy Mother Church!

      To be more serious, Catholics do not have what has been called the “wretched urgency” model of evangelical Protestantism, whereby if you do not actively seek to convert the infidel, you are responsible for his ultimate damnation. Our attitude is such that we need to be kicked up the backside by the Popes pushing the “New Evangelisation” (ongoing for the past thirty years, and still we are not doorstepping strangers, colleagues and passersby in the street with “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour?”).

      We definitely need to be more involved in sharing the Faith, but there is not the same felt or perceived necessity to start dragging people by the scruff of the neck to the baptismal font.

      • john

        I think I was pretty clear she’s under no obligation to convert the wicked 🙂 I’m just saying what I would like: for someone to give a good reason. I don’t think that’s too much to ask, given that she claims to have such a reason which convinced her. Give it and be done.

        • deiseach

          I’m not saying Leah should not discuss the reasons she found personally convincing; I’m just saying that what works for one person may not work for another. It would be perfectly possible for someone to say “Okay, you’ve explained why X did it for you, but I am not interested in that angle/do not find it as compelling as you do/do not see the application in the real world situations”.

          That does not mean that X is therefore not a good reason, it just means that X is not a universal sockdolager that will automatically work on everyone (like Monty Python’s weaponized joke).

          Fr’instance, Marian piety and devotion is a very big thing in Catholicism, yet despite being a cradle Catholic, I never developed much of a taste or use for it (as I get older, I’m getting a bit more out of saying the Angelus, but despite my best intentions, I still tend to forget about and not use the Rosary). Many Catholics, both cradle and convert, will urge the use of the Rosary as a way into the practice of prayer, etc. Well, it doesn’t work for me and I can quite see it not working for a lot of people – and working excellently for a lot more.

          The Blessed Sacrament, on the other hand, is the devotion that is most fruitful for me, yet Leah described how it didn’t do that much for her (matters may have changed since, but if they haven’t, I wouldn’t be surprised).

          Scholastic reasoning may work for one person to be a convincing motive to convert; for another, it may be the experience of practical charity from the life of a saint, or the question of authority, or a mystical experience, or some obscure corner of a doctrine that hits home on a problem for them.

          • Iota


            Just a thought – I have found saying the Rosary much easier (concentration- and meditationwise) when I add “a clause referring to the mystery being contemplated” after Jesus’s name in the Ave Maria. I first got the idea from this apostolic letter (point 33). Then I just looked around and found a suitably orthodox set of such clauses (or at least I hope it’s suitably orthodox :)).

            I’m still not much into the Rosary anyway (the Chaplet of Divine Mercy being my meditative prayer of choice), but that little tweak has made a significant difference. Especially since I realized it probably might be a good idea to try and pray the Rosary sometimes simply *because* I don’t like it much.

            Obviously, “your mileage may vary” and all that.

      • Alan

        With all due respect, if Leah wanted to work on her own conversion without having the reasoning behind it questioned she doesn’t have to do it in public.

        I’ll leave it to her to say for sure but my guess, since she is openly blogging about it, she doesn’t expect nor want to be left to work through it on her own.

  • Just a brief idea, trotting out something I always write. Compare metaphysical systems by 4 criteria: 1) internal logical coherence, 2) correspondence to facts known by other means, 3) comprehensiveness, 4) consequences (practical and moral outcomes, e.g. “it works”). Atheism and Catholicism vary on each criteria, and they also vary on how they weight the criteria. Both, by their own standards will consider themselves to be the best on all counts, but that is because they delineate their worlds differently. Evaluate them by each other’s criteria and the other fails on all counts. Different varieties of atheism fail in different ways. For example scientism is incoherent (it fails its own criterion of truth), yet people seem to like it because it does well on 2 and 4. Personally, I think the real big difference between atheism and Catholicism lies in comprehensiveness – Catholicism explains more stuff that people want explained (purpose, afterlife, etc.), and atheists get away from that by saying that stuff does not exist. But that is another metaphysical claim. It’s a victory by shrinking the world; cede territory and claim there is no other territory. But the human mind resists – whether for good reasons or bad…

  • Iota

    I find the following argument quite weird. Can someone clue me in on what I’m missing?

    > no new insights or arguments to which an atheist might say […]

    Assuming that:
    1) Bob does not think Leah wasn’t an atheist to begin with (i.e. strong No True Scotsman)
    2) Leah’s conversion will be stable and she will, in fact, remain in the Catholic Church (hoping for it, personally, but – as has been emphasized both by Leah and commenters, it is still in process and I’m lampshading that).
    It follows that:
    3) The augments Leah came across did interest and convince her (an atheist).
    4) That other atheists, at present, aren’t convinced – or never will be, perhaps – does not invalidate #3.
    5) As Gilbert pointed out, it seems somewhat circular: “I am an atheist, I do not find argument A convincing (and neither do most other people I know, who are atheists), so this argument is demonstrably not interesting for atheists (category) and, if it so happens that it IS for some member of that category, then it doesn’t change anything because I am an atheist and I do not find argument A convincing (and neither do most other people I know)…”

    Given that, it seems I have to assume by “atheist” Bob means “People who don’t believe in God/gods AND are like me in other aspects of their philosophy”. Which is a bit awkward since it seems a bit like saying that:

    a) because I am a Catholic AND
    b) a Trappist monk is Catholic
    c) I should find Trappist monastic discipline compelling and interesting
    OR IF c = false THEN
    d) One of us (either the monk or me) isn’t Catholic (well, technically we both might be but one of us isn’t a REAL ™ Catholic)

    Which would be true if eiethr I or the Trapist monk were a gold standard for Catholicism (and neither of us is). [NOTE: This argument Would make sense, form the perspective of Catholic teaching, if I actually chose something that is considered a “gold standard”, e.g. baptism within the Church]

    Similarly Bob – presumably – isn’t the gold standard for atheism. And I assume he knows this, this in fact being one of the common selling points of atheism (We are independent thinkers, we are not like all kinds of religious ‘borg’, we don’t have popes or leaders or whatnot).

    If so, it’s actually a BAD idea to go around comparing yourself to others and making an argument from some kind of collective idea of what “atheists” are like. Because they are actually all different (there is no gold standard), which pretty much guarantees some of them will be convinced by things some others aren’t convinced by.

    In other words, this just looks like a BAD argument to me because it’s either demonstrably false (if you use the minimalist definition of an atheist) or ends up being a more convoluted/politer form of No True Scotsman (Well, yes, you are technically an atheist, but…). Both of which don’t seem like good results. What am I missing? Why would you make a collectivist argument (“It does not convince [category]) rather than an individualist one (“It does not convince me”) here (other than fuzzy, warm group-feeling)?

  • But we shouldn’t forget about the religious vocations! According to twitter, you carmelized three!

    [Yeah, mentioning typos is obnoxious. But in this case the pun in just too good.]

    • leahlibresco

      Hee hee hee!

      • deiseach

        I’m warning you in advance – being haunted (and hunted) by Carmelites is a scary thing. Oh, sure: it starts with an innocent-seeming typo about cooking onions, next thing you know, the Little Flower has got you in her sights and you are toast.


  • Erick

    First Corinthians Chapter 1 already addresses this idea of intellectual arguments being the greater evidence of truth, which is really what he is arguing with his Group 3 atheists.

    Actually, if you think about it rationality, intellectual argumentation is an ability limited to a small percentage of the human population in any age. To promulgate and reveal your truth as God then, intellectual argumentation would be one of the least effective appeals.

    19 As scripture says: I am going to destroy the wisdom of the wise and bring to nothing the understanding of any who understand.
    20 Where are the philosophers? Where are the experts? And where are the debaters of this age? Do you not see how God has shown up human wisdom as folly?
    21 Since in the wisdom of God the world was unable to recognise God through wisdom, it was God’s own pleasure to save believers through the folly of the gospel.
    22 While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom,
    23 we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness,
    24 but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God.
    25 God’s folly is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.
    26 Consider, brothers, how you were called; not many of you are wise by human standards, not many influential, not many from noble families.
    27 No, God chose those who by human standards are fools to shame the wise; he chose those who by human standards are weak to shame the strong,
    28 those who by human standards are common and contemptible — indeed those who count for nothing — to reduce to nothing all those that do count for something,
    29 so that no human being might feel boastful before God.

  • I’m convert from Atheism to Catholicism as well. I think one of key things is that people aren’t reasoned into something, be it Atheism or Catholicism. I converted because I developed this attitude: “It can’t harm to look into things, because if Atheism is true, it will prove itself.” It did not in my case. I really think the reasoning comes after this open attitude, the willingness to accept the possibility that you can be wrong. Most of the Atheist (including most of my still Atheist family and friends) just don’t want to talk about theism or faith, because they don’t want their views to be challenged. Atheists who are at that point are clinging to a belief system they don’t want to leave as much as the Evangelical who is defending Creationism without even to bother to look into the claims of the Theory of Evolution.

    When people claim that Atheists aren’t reasoned into Theism because some high profile smart Atheists like the Raving Atheist and Leah here convert to Catholicism, they are probably right: “He that complies against his will, is of his own opinion still “.

  • Leah, I’ve followed your blog ever since news of your conversion rocked the atheist blogosphere, though I haven’t commented much. I can’t seem to figure out how to get Patheos to email me when someone replies to my comments, making it a bit hard to participate in the comments. But I’m an avid reader of yours and several other blogs. (I’m a lifelong UMC Methodist and so a theist, but I also am studying philosophy of religion so I like discussing smart people saying smart things about religion. Your blog qualifies.)

    For a long time I tried to dialogue with atheists. I still do, on occasion, particularly ones I know personally. But at a certain point I realized that in many people’s eyes there simply wasn’t a way to be a good person and a Christian at the same time – that it was a character flaw that poisoned my intellectual capacities. Around that time I started focusing my blogging on those where I felt the conversation was still productive. Part of that was pragmatic, but a big part of it was also my realizing that I didn’t think “truth” was coextensive with “knowledge” – that a big part of faith was recognizing there were some things worth wrestling with and thinking about, but that could not be reduced to arguments in the usual form, with logically-valid proofs and numbered premises.

    When it comes to moral progress, it is not so simple as learning facts and accepting them as true. It requires a community, a relationship with a mentor to spur you toward virtue. It’s not surprising to me that a virtue ethicist like yourself would take the approach you do. (Also: keep up the blogging! You rock.)

  • First, Ed Feser would be another convert from atheism to theism.

    Part of the problem with the words quoted in the OP is this: what is the standard for ‘more educated’? Is a person who reads through, say… William Lane Craig’s books and comes to be aware of new arguments for God’s existence or the truth of Christianity counted as ‘more educated’? Because in my experience, activist atheists deny this immediately. “More educated” ends up being defined in terms of conclusions: did you previous doubt Christ’s resurrection (or in some cases, even existence), and now you don’t? Something happened alright, but in no way can ‘you became more educated’ be used to describe what went on.

    Right there the standard seems to be, ‘Give us someone who converted from atheism. Also, any arguments that would merely establish theism or deism don’t count. Also, if people don’t convert like crazy as a result, or if I off the cuff believe your argument isn’t compelling, you didn’t meet my standards.’

    Another problem: conversion to mere ‘deism’ or ‘theism’ is at least implied to be a non-issue, or unrelated to Christianity. That’s ridiculous, since arguments that raise the probability of or establish a mere theism or deism work into the plausibility of Christianity.

  • John

    Oh, you want us to give detailed, specific arguments for specific details of Catholicism? Sure. How’s this for starters…we believe in One God, the Father Almighty…and in Jesus Christ His Son, and in the Holy Spirit…. IOW, that our God, the “what” we believe is a trinity of 3 distinct “who’s” or persons. Uh huh.

    Now, how would we prove this based on the universe and our own souls experience of the cosmos?

    Well, for starters, if our truth claim is true…that the Cosmos was created by God and God is Trinity…then it follows that all of creation would have a reflection of Trinity in it. We ought to expect to see 3 dimensions in a single being everywhere.

    Golly gee, looks like within our own intellect – by which you are cognating the symbols on this chat – we have 3 distinct dimensions that co-exist and yet are distinct. Yes analogical, but there. Then there are the 3 spatial dimensions. The wave/particle/cruciform nature of light.

    Thus, phenomenologically, there are more “proofs” for a Trinity at the cause of the universe than for non-personal or uni-personal agents.

    • Owlmirror

      Holy Gematria, Batman!

        “The wave/particle/cruciform nature of light.”

      Ah. Light=broccoli, therefore, God. Yeah, that’s totally sane and completely convincing.

    • ACN

      Nonsense! My bizarre religious system that I’ve just thought of right now incorporates exactly four core spiritual entities.

      There are four fundamental forces of nature.
      There are four rocky planets AND four gas giant planets.
      There are four bases of DNA.
      There are four valence bonding electrons for carbon, the basis of all known life!
      Moreover, SR/GR treat space-time correctly as a 3+1=4 dimensional system.

      Therefore the four aforementioned entities exist, catholicism is wrong, etc etc.

      Isn’t numerology fun?

      • Owlmirror

        I wish to provide support for your bizarre but not-at-all-arbitrary religious system!

        There are four quadrants to the Cartesian plane.
        There are four standard phases of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma).
        There are four letters in the word “four”.
        Four colors are necessary and sufficient to color a planar map (tangent: do blind people speak of the “four-texture map theorem”?)
        THERE ARE FOUR LIGHTS! /classic SF geek
        There are four faces on the lowest-order regular polyhedron.

  • To me it looks like he is making a series of truth-claims which are, frankly, groundless. Here are two which are easy to rebut:

    More education about the history and origins of Christianity increases the likelihood that the Christian will deconvert, but more education increases the likelihood that the atheist will stay put.

    I find this something strange. I will bet money that no study has substantiated this statement (unless he is willing to admit Christian anecdotal evidence, he should avoid using it), but even more importantly, this author seems to be ignorant of the fact that the people who know Church history the best… are members of a church (the most thorough scholarship on the history of Christianity is still done at schools associated with seminaries). I will wager that for every Ehrman there are at least two Glasov’s (a former professor of mine who came into the faith intellectually).

    Indeed, they would focus on those arguments which they knew (since they’d been just like me) I had no response to.

    This is another truth claim that is dubious. It makes the assumption that the value-judgments and weighing of evidence of one will be the same of all. If that were the case, then we should also expect that people converting to atheism would similarly decimate Christian thought. Indeed, my experience is that it is often atheists who are making the same. old. tired. arguments. Since that does not happen (or, at least, he has cited no study which suggests that it is happening), I think it is fairly safe to say that his argument is flawed. The fact that there is no massive migration from one group to the other suggests that there is far more involved here in “making the same old arguments”.

  • Loaded terms are like loaded guns. Don’t point them towards someone unless you want them to go off. This is to say: Define “reason.”