Not every atheist’s conversion to Catholicism gets covered by CNN or MSNBC or The Blaze. But Leah Libresco did. Why? Well, for starters, she’s responsible for what was, until quite recently, a rather popular atheist blog who is the antithesis of the caricature of Catholics, that we’re irrational, misogynistic drones. Her conversion was a surprise to many, Christians and atheists alike, to say the least. More than that, her conversion story itself is utterly unique, even compared with other conversions.
Leah was gracious enough to agree to an interview, which I think gives some real insight into what the process of converting from atheism to Catholicism is like. I’d love to hear your reactions in the comments section, from Christians and atheists alike:
Q. Jen Fulwiler (another atheist-to-Catholic convert) recently pointed out that we Catholics are fond of giving atheists books on the faith. What do you think of this approach?
I love giving people books on anything. But I think you have to gauge what engages the person and what background they’re coming in with. Some books might have good data, but bad tone (for example Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition has a really good introduction to Aquinas, but your atheist friend would have to have the patience of a saint to get past his snide asides at atheist writers).
And, ideally, any book exchange would be two-way. Ask your friend to share with you the books (philosophical or not) that have most informed their worldview. That way you’re tailoring your pitch to what your friend actually believes, not a straw man. If both of you are sharing recommendations and asking hard questions, it will push you both into a deeper consideration of your position, and, hopefully, the harder and more honestly you question, the easier it is for the truth to win out.
Q. Are there any books that you would recommend sharing with loved ones who are atheists?
|C.S. Lewis statue (Belfast, Ireland)|
Yes, only the first three are Christian books. But if you want someone to change their philosophy, start by beefing up epistemology and critical thinking. The great thing about Flatland is that it’s all about learning to about abstract things in a way that’s still useful. The book is about a square that lives in a 2D world and is visited by a Sphere. The Sphere is trying to explain three dimensions to him (which he can’t really experience directly). So as he learns to think three-dimensionally, the reader learns how to think about four-dimensional topology.
It’s a great skill to have: trying to make and test predictions about worlds or features of worlds you can’t personally experience. GEB is just possibly the most beautiful book I’ve read, and, again, great at sparking critical thinking by working through a conceptual understanding of math, computer science, and music. And the LessWrong stuff doesn’t just highlight cognitive biases (you can just go to Wikipedia for that), they spend a lot of time trying to figure out practical strategies to move past them.
All the apologetics in the world won’t be of much help if your interlocutor isn’t interested in thinking about metaphysics/philosophy/ethics/etc, and I think my recommendations can help people fall in love with Truth, which is totally a gateway drug to Christ.
Q. How big of a role did books play in your own conversion?
Huge. (Not that surprising, given that they play a big role in every aspect of my life). But reading was what made me quasi-fluent in Christian philosophy. I needed that kind of background to be able to think critically about what properties divided the world with no God that I thought I lived in from the Christian world my friends claimed I lived in.
Beyond philosophy, some books, especially The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce were pretty good at catching me out in my moral failings, including some I hadn’t thought of as weaknesses. These books were a pretty good counterpoint to the more abstract moral philosophy I was reading.
|Leah in her atheist days (at the “Reason Rally” in May)|
Q. What was the strongest argument you heard in favor of theism? What was the weakest?
The weakest is almost certainly the Pascal’s Wager kind of appeal. Ideas have consequences, religious ideas especially so. If you believe in God to maximize the chance of heaven, you’re being negligent to the people (yourself included) you’ll harm by following false moral dictates. (Not all commandments are as relatively harmless as kosher dietary law),
The strongest is maybe Thomistic philosophy about objects not being able to sustain themselves in existence? Honestly, I don’t find any pitch for generic theism that convincing because the theism people tend to pitch is generally to generic to be useful. A lot of these theisms look like God of the Gaps — just pointing to whatever you’re currently confused by and saying “God did it.”
Q. What was the strongest argument you heard in favor of Catholicism? What was the weakest?
|Raphael, Christ’s Charge to Peter (1515)|
The weakest might be: it couldn’t have lasted this long and made it through all these scandals without a Divine Guarantor! This is offered semi-in jest, but is totally unconvincing. It’s basically the equivalent of the stock tip scams where a con artist gets a big list of email addresses and sends messages to all of them saying he’s got a preternatural ability to pick stocks. He tells half that a certain stock will rise tomorrow and the other half that it will fall. After splitting and taking both sides for several days, some fraction of marks have received only correct predictions and are likely to believe him and hand over their money, but it’s just a statistical accident. The Roman empire could have made the same claim that Catholics make now, up til when they couldn’t.
One of the strongest is the weight Catholicism places on Sacred Tradition and institutional structure. It’s pretty clear that the sola scriptura approach doesn’t yield the kind of consistency it promises (it’s like the religious equivalent of constitutional originalism). So where are you supposed to go to interpret what God has given? Catholicism does a pretty good job of creating a forum for debate without getting so loosey-goosey that everyone is essentially functioning as a prophet.
Q. Do you have any other tips for Catholics dealing with friends and loved ones who are atheists, or are struggling with their faith?
I think most of that advice would be specific to the situation. Remember that everyone has access to the natural law, so you might be of the most help to your friend just helping them stick to that (and letting them help you) even if you don’t exactly speak the same language about why those choices are correct. That way you’ve got a solid friendship and, if you like, you can talk about how you both come to your moral beliefs and try and puzzle out together how it is that you’re out of step.
|Raphael, St. Paul Preaching in Athens (1515)|
Q. In your interactions with Christians, what were the most productive techniques that you saw used in evangelizing for the faith? What were the least productive (or the counter-productive) techniques that you encountered?
In college, I ran into tabling Christians who had pretty much no familiarity with standard atheist objections (How are the truth claims of your sect differentiated from those of everyone else? Aren’t some of your requests (pray/read the bible until you feel God’s presence) tests that can never fail, even if your claims are false?). If they hadn’t grappled with common objections, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in their conclusions, whatever the pitch.
I was in a philosophical debating group, so the strongest pitch I saw was probably the way my Catholic friends rooted their moral, philosophical, or aesthetic arguments in their theology. We covered a huge spread of topics (R: Defeat McCain, R: All the World’s a Stage, R: Eat the Apple) so I got so see a lot of long and winding paths into the consequences of belief. I know this strategy may not be available to everyone, but all the more reason to bring back debating salon culture!
Q. What’s your favorite Bible verse?
A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)
I’m much worse than I should be at making love and charity my default approach to other people. I usually have to get there by hyper-intellectualizing, but I want to be freed to act out of genuine love instead of duty, however fervent.
When I used to think primarily in terms of duty, I didn’t care much about other people. I saw them more as multiple choice ethics questions I could ace than as, well, people. This isn’t typical of atheists or anyone else as far as I can tell, but it’s what I struggle with a lot.
St Catherine of Alexandria (1606)
Q. Who’s your favorite Saint?
St. Catherine of Alexandria. Patron saint of teachers, philosophers, librarians, and haberdashers! I love that, after her conversion, the pagan emperor sent theologians and philosophers to talk her out of it, and they all kept fighting until they all yielded and converted. And I so love pugilism expressed through debate.
Q. What’s the most exciting part about becoming Catholic?
The most exciting part is having access to grace through the sacraments. It’s like an exception to moral entropy.
Q. What’s the scariest part about becoming Catholic?
I don’t understand the Church’s teaching on queer relationships, and I don’t believe that, even if they’re right, that would be sufficient reason for civil government to deny committed same sex couples the legal protection of marriage. It’s one thing for me to personally give up dating girls while I ask for explanation (and I have the luxury of being bisexual) but my queer friends feel that I’m allying myself with an institution that wants to break up their families.
Q. What more can we, as Catholics, do to help you and others in entering into the Church?
Not all of the Church’s moral teachings make sense to me, and, when I ask questions, it’s much preferable to have people point me towards explanations than to accuse me of distrusting the Church or trying to sneak in as a heretic. Some claims aren’t really available for scrutiny (the Immaculate Conception comes to mind), but the more a moral teaching touches on quotidian life, the more I’d expect to be able to see an explanation of how the Church’s stand promotes growth in Christ. When people try to quash questions or demand more fervent trust at the first sign of confusion, they’re robbing their interlocutors of the chance to engage fully with the truth they’re ostensibly defending.
P.S. Be sure to check out the post and comments over on Leah’s side.