12 July 2012

Reading into the Faith

“It is not bigotry to be certain we are right,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his 1926 book The Catholic Church and Conversion, “but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.”

The recent announcement by prominent atheist blogger Leah Libresco that she has decided to become a Catholic has inspired a cavalcade of commentators expressing indignation and astonishment that any supposedly reasonable person could have come to subscribe to such gibberish. As one said, “as we see no good reason for someone who presumably understands and endorses our usual views on epistemology and ethics to turn around and start believing in patently fictitious and morally dubious nonsense, it is a little baffling to see one of us become a Roman Catholic.”

Some, predictably, have argued that she was never a real atheist, others have attributed her conversion to mental deterioration, and still others have dismissed her decision as easily explained given that she had had a Catholic boyfriend.

“Oh yeah. Duh,” sneered one, writing how his initial confusion on hearing of Leah’s decision had been dispelled once he’d been reminded of Leah’s former boyfriend: “Thing is, there’s a lot of evidence that religious conversions are mainly driven by people’s personal relationships.”

There’s some truth to that, of course, but this cuts both ways. If we’re to argue that a cradle atheist can become an active Massgoer who attends RCIA classes and prays the Office and the St Patrick’s Breastplate simply because they went out with a Catholic for a couple of years, we need to recognise that people are even more likely to slip from religious practice and belief if they mainly associate with atheists, just as spending most of one’s time with sedentary people who eat unhealthy food is liable to make one fat.

Reducing Leah’s decision to a matter of herd mentality really doesn’t work, anyway: by her own account, she was raised atheist and attended a high school alongside many people who were culturally Jewish, without really believing in their ancestral faith; she broke up with her Catholic boyfriend six months ago, and the four people closest to her now are respectively atheist, secular Jewish, Catholic, and Russian Orthodox.

Before starting college, Leah hardly knew any Christians, such that she thought the typical one was a Young Earth creationist. At Yale, however, where she studied political science and wrote for the Yale Daily News as well as for the Huffington Post, she befriended intelligent, informed, articulate Christians who challenged her assumptions. She still thought they were wrong, but realised that she’d been deeply mistaken as to what they believed and why.

Just as importantly, she began to see her own position’s flaws. When a friend turned one of her questions around and asked what would convince her that Christianity was true, she had no answer. She simply hadn’t considered that possibility; she couldn’t imagine that she was wrong.

She started going out with a Catholic, joining him at Mass, just as he’d join her for ballroom dancing; they debated religion constantly, and recommended books to each other. She read books he recommended by Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, and read more widely too, building an apologetics bookshelf including works by such modern Catholic philosophers as Edward Feser and Alasdair MacIntyre.

Starting her ‘Unequally Yoked’ blog in order to crowd-source and test her arguments, she experimented last summer with an ideological Turing test, repeating the experiment this year. Alan Turing had famously asked in 1950 whether a machine could mimic a person well enough in a written conversation to be indistinguishable from human. Leah’s tests asked Christians to write as though they were atheists and atheists to write as though they were Christians, and subjected their statements to polls to see whether readers were convinced by the impersonators.

Along the way, she found herself in sympathy with Chesterton’s description of historical orthodox Christianity as “a truth-telling thing”. Chesterton, she realised, “was converted not by a single metaphysical proof, but by his conviction that Christianity was in accord with his most essential beliefs about the world, and that, when he and the Church diverged, he usually came around to the other side after investigation. The beliefs he was absolutely sure of pointed him towards the theology.”

Leah largely agreed, but the fact remained that she didn’t believe in God. She longed for an atheist author in whom she felt as much kinship as she did for C.S. Lewis, and in this seemed to echo Lewis himself, who in Surprised by Joy described how, while still an atheist, he came to the view that “Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together, bating, of course, his Christianity.”

Eventually, the night before Palm Sunday, Leah had a discussion with a friend about morality. Leah was convinced that morality existed in and of itself, rather than something that had merely evolved or developed. As she put it in a recent CNN interview, she was really sure that “morality is objective, human-independent, something we uncover like archaeologists, not something we build like architects.”

Explanations of moral law that attempted to justify it as naturally embedded in us tended, she found, to display a fundamental misunderstanding of evolution, moral philosophy, or both. Her friend pushed her as to where she thought moral law came from, and eventually admitting her ignorance she said: “I don’t know. I’ve got nothing. I guess Morality just loves me or something.”

Realising what she had said, she froze and asked for a moment while she considered whether she believed that. She did: “I believed that the Moral Law wasn’t just a Platonic truth, abstract and distant. It turns out I actually believed it was some kind of Person, as well as Truth. And there was one religion that seemed like the most promising way to reach back to that living Truth. I asked my friend what he suggest we do now, and we prayed the night office of the Liturgy of the Hours together.”

Many of those who’ve been notionally willing to accept as reasonable Leah’s conviction that morality is a person have been scathing about her decision to become a Catholic, seeing this as arbitrary or even perverse. It’s not that mysterious, really: convinced of the existence of an morality to which we owe a duty, she’s read widely in the Christian tradition which most interested her and become familiar with both the philosophical and the historical plausibility of the Faith.

It’s still early days, of course, and Leah admits she has some difficulties with some aspects of Catholic teaching, but she seems to have embraced its heart with joy, saying on CNN that “It’s exciting to be able to participate in the Mass and thinking that it’s actually the Eucharist.”

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 5 July 2012.

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