It seems like the “atheist movement” is quick to be up in arms about things it knows little or nothing about, and usually about things that really mean very little.  We’ve seen it in the whole “sexism” nonsense and now we’re seeing it regarding the conversion of Leah Libresco to Roman Catholicism.

So what?

If that’s what makes her happy, more power to her.  I’m not going to tell her that she can’t convert to whatever religion she wishes and I’m certainly not going to tell her that she was never an atheist, as some people have done.  Clearly, she had no belief in god(s), thus she was an atheist.  That’s all it means, after all.  I think the word everyone is looking for is “skeptic” and I might agree that she was never a skeptic.  In fact, let’s investigate that right now.

Since I don’t have Leah here to question directly, I’ll have to go by her introduction on her blog.  Let’s dissect that, shall we?

I was raised by in a non-religious household on Long Island, so I didn’t meet any outspoken Christians in real life until I went to college. I had seen people like Jerry Falwell on TV, but my community was so isolated from religion that, when we learned about the Reformation in AP European History, one student raised his hand to ask if Lutherans still existed.

Now to be honest, I find that a little hard to believe, that she never knowingly encountered a Christian until she was in college?  Christians supposedly make up more than 80% of the U.S. population, it is somewhat inconceivable that she’d never have met one.  Certainly she passed by churches in her travels, right?  I don’t think the community was that isolated, perhaps she simply ignored it all, knowingly or unknowingly.

When I went to college, and started hanging out with a politics and philosophy debating group, I met smart Christians for the first time, and it was a real shock. My idea of a Christian was the Young Earth Creationists, and now I was meeting people who not only were converts to Russian Orthodoxy and math majors, but they thought the beauty of mathematics was evidence for God. I still thought my new friends were wrong about the existence of God, but I had to recognize I’d been pretty wrong why they believed what they did. And if I hadn’t really understood their arguments in the past, it was only prudent to give them a second hearing.

Immediately here, we have problems.  She identifies “smart” Christians, but what I feel she meant is “smart people who happened to be Christians”.  I have plenty of friends who are religious and, in most areas of their lives, I would consider them very intelligent people.  However, religion is a different story.  Religion is an entirely emotional, non-intellectual pursuit.  It has nothing to do with being smart, in fact, people have to compartmentalize their beliefs away from the rest of their intellectual lives because the two do not mix.  Where they may be entirely rational, logical and critical people in other aspects of their lives, with religion they simply cannot be and remain religious.

I was ready to cross-examine them, but there were some big gaps in my defense of my own positions.  When a friend turned one of my own questions around on me and asked “What would convince you that Christianity was true?” I came up with bupkis.  I realized I didn’t have a clear enough idea of what Christianity entailed to be able to imagine a world where it was true.  I felt embarrassed and told my friends to take their best shot at convincing me.

That demonstrates that she was never a skeptic right there.  There were big gaps in defense of her own positions?  What gaps were those?  The only position an atheist has is that the existence of any god has not been demonstrated by their followers.  Full stop.  A skeptic, however, has a full toolkit of methods for examining claims and logical and rational standards to measure them against.  Of course, the biggest signpost here was the fact that, instead of going out and finding what Christianity said and evaluating it critically, she asked her friends to prove it to her.  Certainly, she got only the “good” side, the happy claims, the empty promises and all the blind faith they could find.  It’s hard to rationally evaluate the claims of any position, religious or otherwise, if you only listen to the practitioners.

I started dating one of these smart Christians. We knew that religion could be a pretty big impediment to our relationship (the title of this blog comes 2 Corinthians 6:14 “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers”). We ended up making a deal: I’d go to Mass every week with him, and he’d go to ballroom dance class with me. And we both recommended books or blogs to each other that fueled our all-night debates.

Yet another problem.  Now don’t get me wrong, you really can’t control who you fall for, but you can, and indeed must, decide if there is a future with someone that you share so little in common with.  Here, you had a Christian boyfriend and a passably, default atheist woman, it’s no wonder he was able to talk her into his irrational beliefs.  She had neither the background in skeptical evaluation, nor the emotional interest to find out the truth.  In fact, she had a vested emotional interest to open herself up to just about anything he wanted, just because she wanted to be with him.  Their deal was nothing to be proud of either.  She went to an indoctrination center with him every week and he went to something that had nothing whatsoever to do with religion with her.  Some deal.  A better deal might have included him going to “freedom from religion” meetings or something, although I have no idea if such things actually exist.  That would have been more equal and might have ended up with things going quite differently.

He gave me Lewis and Chesterton (I’ve got an apologetics bookshelf, now), and I kept having trouble finding books to pass back. A lot of atheists are focused on rebutting evangelicals –after all, they tend to be the biggest political threat — but I had more trouble finding people who address the more sophisticated ideas. Atheism spends a lot of time playing defense, so I had even more trouble finding books and blogs talking about what we should believe instead of what we reject.

Clearly she didn’t look very hard.  There are plenty of books out there that aren’t aimed at evangelicals, but even those books are quite useful when arguing against theist ideals.

Here’s what you should believe:  the truth.  Why you needed a blog or a book to tell you that is beyond me.

So I started this blog to try and crowdsource my arguments and to find more people to ask me tough questions and force me to burn off the dross in my philosophy. I talked with deacons, priests, and Dominicans and attended RCIA classes (until I got kicked out). Neither my boyfriend or I looked likely to switch teams in the near future, and, after two years of dating, we were at the point where a relationship that was incompatible with marriage seemed foolish, so, regretfully, we had to split up.

I’m not going to say that wasn’t probably a good idea, just because I have yet to see an atheist and a strong believer actually make a long-term relationship work.  I’m guessing that her ex-boyfriend was a serious theist, not just someone who gave it lip service and that tends to be a problem.  Someone who insists that God must be inserted into every aspect of life isn’t going to have a long-term relationship with someone who is just as adamant that God has no place in life.  This causes issues with finances, children and upbringing, etc.  It is fundamentally problematic which is why I don’t suggest that atheists and theists become romantically involved.  It almost always ends in tears.

I hadn’t changed my mind about the existence of God, but here are some things that arguing with people on the internet and in real life has convinced me I was wrong about: I’m now in favor of covenant marriage, I’ve abandoned my former commitment to stoicism, and I think some forms of Christianity are internally consistent and even attractive.

There are some things in religion that are attractive and probably even some that are good ideas, although for bad reasons.  It really doesn’t matter what’s attractive, that has no bearing on what’s actually true.

I just still don’t think they’re true.

And that right there ought to be the only thing that matters.

I’m still seriously exploring Christian claims, especially as atheists and Christians have ganged up to tell me that some of my beliefs (objective morality, teleological sympathies, transhumanism that bears a passing resemblance to Gnosticism) logically imply the existence of a God, and probably a Christian one. So I look at Aquinas and Augustine to see if they’re right, and I post about my best understanding of ethics and metaphysics so people can call me on my errors and be swayed by what I get right.

Ethics have nothing to do with the factual correctness of a position.  It’s not like I haven’t shown that there is no objective morality already, but I can’t really speak for her other positions because I know nothing about them.  However, here’s the problem, what someone claims “logically implies” a god, any god, that doesn’t actually provide a shred of evidence that said god actually exists and that should be what’s important.  No actual evidence ought to mean no belief, period.

On this blog, I try and skip past the normal scripts and have the weird arguments. You can go somewhere else on the internet to find Christians who rely on Leviticus to explain why they disapprove of gay marriage, and don’t understand that the people they talk to don’t accept the bible as authoratative. The Christian who guest-posted here for a debate on gay marriage wanted to talk about the importance of having friendships that you know will never be sexually charged. And I talked a bit more about the way marriage restricts our choices (in a good way), and a lot less about the live and let live arguments you may be used to from my team.  (Other guest posters welcome!).

There’s nothing wrong with going for the oddball argument, those get overlooked far too often but the fact remains that most Christians who seriously oppose gay marriage do it for no other reason than the fact that it appears in their ancient book of mythology.  I will agree that it gets pretty boring if that’s all you talk about, but it’s unrealistic if you restrict arguments entirely away from the mainstream.  Let’s be honest, there are no valid, rational arguments against gay marriage, any more than there were valid, rational arguments against interracial marriage.  Every claim I’ve seen that hasn’t relied on the scribblings of a holy book has been fundamentally flawed at it’s foundation, little more than “ick, I don’t like it so nobody can do it”.  Honestly, I should do a deconstruction of some of the non-religious reasons people dislike gay marriage and show why they’re all fundamentally unsound.

The one thing I’m certain of after a couple years of blogging about religion is that a lot of our arguments are unproductive because we don’t understand what the other side is saying. I set up an Ideological Turing Test, where atheists and Christians tried to imitate each other well enough to pass for each other, and we found a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings on both sides.

I’m sure you found a lot more of them on the Christian side because the majority of atheists started out being religious.  We understand religion.  We were there.  In fact, we probably understand religion better than most theists, it was our degree of understanding, as opposed to blind faith, that led most of us to abandon religion in the first place.  I think you’d find more about religion by asking ex-Christians than you ever would by asking current Christians.

So welcome to the conversation. Play nice, but play to win. And don’t be afraid to show your hand. If you’re doing someone a service by pointing out their errors, be grateful when someone catches you out in one.

The problem is, the skeptic, if acting in a consistent skeptical manner, has very few errors to be caught.  Skepticism is a methodology, not a belief system.  It examines claims rationally, it looks for objective evidence, it seeks to remove emotional biases and if all of it’s standards are not met, the claim is rejected, at least temporarily, until the evidence becomes more clear.

And, as we all know, the religious don’t welcome anyone pointing out their errors, mostly because they have so many.  Especially from a skeptical point of view, they are very unhappy when people point out that their beliefs are full of logical holes, rife with scientific error and void of objective evidence.  I don’t think you’ll find many theists who will welcome having their beloved faith shredded by a skeptic and certainly you won’t have many of them admitting that their beliefs are factually wrong, no matter what is brought to bear against them by skeptics.

In other words, Leah has very unrealistic expectations from her audience, which makes me wonder about the entire endeavor.  Worse, it makes me wonder why anyone is taking any of this seriously.  What’s the point?

Of course, after we read this, it becomes obvious that Leah had some problems to begin with.  Clearly, she had no initial experience with the religious, especially personal experience where she was invested with a religion, upon which she could rely.  She never grew up a Christian, she never had any openly Christian friends and during her formative years, according to her, she never encountered any open Christians anywhere in her life, except on TV.

Next, it becomes clear that her primary motivation for learning more about Christianity is emotional.  She had a boyfriend who was actively trying to convert her to Christianity and she wanted to stay with him.  She had friends who were pressuring her regarding religion.  She clearly had never researched religion, but allowed her religious friends to frame the debate and provide all the data.  So I’m confused where the problem is, we have a default atheist being talked into religion without having the proper tools or expertise, clearly influenced by her emotions.

Happens every day.  Why is this a story?

In closing, I wish her the best of luck in whatever she chooses to believe.  Certainly, she didn’t adopt it for rational reasons, any more than she adopted atheism for rational reasons.  She’s just blowing in the wind, wherever her emotions take her, at least that’s as much as I can glean from her writings.  I don’t agree with living one’s life that way, but it’s her life to live and she deserves to be as happy as her actions and beliefs can make her, so long as she hurts no one else.

Maybe one day she will actually embrace rationality and logic and look at Christianity through those lenses, rather than the clearly rose-colored ones she’s currently using.  Either way, this remains much ado about absolutely nothing.

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