Leah Libresco was raised in an atheist household on Long Island. She gained notoriety as an atheist blogger who focused on such diverse topics as math and morality. She often wrestled with Catholic ideas: the blog, mischievously titled “Unequally Yoked,” initially started as a place where she could interrogate and consider arguments raised by her then boyfriend, a practicing Catholic. Needless to say, readers were startled when, on June 18, she announced her conversion to Roman Catholicism. “This is my last post for the Patheos Atheist portal,” she wrote. The comboxes exploded.
Libresco has captured the attention of some 13,000 Facebook users, 2500 Twitterers, and several major media outlets. She has been interviewed by CNN and MSNBC. Perhaps her popularity is the result of her … unique profile: A bisexual; a math maven; a zealous Harry Potter fan; and the answer to the question, “Who dresses up like the Wasp to see The Avengers even though the Wasp is only an Avenger in the comic books?” Certainly, she breaks the stereotype of the more-Catholic-than-the-Pope convert. She is simultaneously forthright and humble when discussing those areas where she still doesn’t agree with or understand Catholic teaching.
I sat down with Libresco to talk about media attention, prayer practices, and what Catholics most need to keep in mind when discussing the faith with atheists.
ET: What are some of the most surprising things which have happened so far as a result of your conversion?
LL: Well, some things were not very surprising because I’d been studying Catholicism for so long. So it was like an alternative history or a science fiction series where I knew it very well, I could have written fanfic in that world, [so] I knew it too well to be that shocked by it after the fact. There are things that I’ve liked, like C.S. Lewis’s book Reflections on the Psalms. With C.S. Lewis he’s less surprising, more like, “Ah, how intuitive that suddenly is!”
Way back in Holy Week, I was going to the Triduum services, one of which was [not] in a Catholic church. And they had everyone kneel at the rail [for Communion] and I felt a lot more regret that I was up there kneeling with my hands crossed [because I couldn't receive the Eucharist].
The diversity of prayer has been interesting. I’m someone who free associates a lot in the back of my head. I saw Cabin in the Woods, which I thought had a lot of funny moments because it’s Joss Whedon and he’s awesome—but it’s so nihilistic that I felt a little poleaxed by it. The line that came into my head was, “Why do you eat what is not bread?” Especially in contrast to Buffy, where there were things that united them, that they all value. Whereas here, [facing the] destruction of the human race, we’re sort of ambivalent! So that [Biblical quotation] crystallized how I felt suddenly, unexpectedly.
ET: What are your prayer practices like now? What are your favorites?
LL: My favorite prayer is probably Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, which I really like for the reasons I talked about on my blog with the funny free association of math, but also the Chesterton-like contradiction of that last section. It’s also familiar because it’s in [Madeleine L'Engle's novel] A Swiftly Tilting Planet.
I like having the liturgy of the hours a lot, because it’s a nice set-down thing I can do every day without doing the work of coming up with it. I think of the liturgy of the hours as something I’m offering God, not really an emotional high point of my day.
For night prayer, because I’m tired, I’ve been doing those prayers in sign [language], or rather some nouns and verbs in sign, sporadically as I remember them. I read really fast out loud so slowing down is helpful for me. And the very small sign vocabulary I have [means that] if I’m using a verb that’s not quite the right verb then I’ve stopped to think about it: the difference between, “God, come to my assistance,” and [when] I don’t know a word for “assistance” [so] I say “help.” I’m just using the most generic way of saying “help” possible, so I think about what I might prefer to be saying or am missing, so I’m thinking more about the prayer than I otherwise would. So that is good.
ET: Why was there so much interest in your conversion?
LL: One theory I saw is that there was a study a few weeks before saying millennials all don’t believe in God. CNN asked me in the preinterview, “Do you think the study is wrong?” And I said, look, the plural of anecdote isn’t data. And they didn’t put that on the air!
[People often wanted to say simply,] “Goodness! What a thing has happened!”
“Do you want me to talk about why, and the weird philosophical–”
“No, definitely not!”
So I don’t know what they’re covering. One group told me not to say the words “confidence interval” on the air.
ET: Since you’re of Jewish heritage, was Judaism ever a “live option” for you?
LL: I’ve grown up around a lot of Judaism but not studied it as intensively. Some bits of Christianity which are not present in Judaism—or not present yet, in the case of a messiah—make a lot more sense to me. The unique claim to Christianity is that God became man and gave man some way to think about God. You have an infinite thing that shares in some way in humanity, so there’s some way for humans to reach back, which would otherwise be very difficult to understand.
ET: Some atheists criticized you by saying, basically, “She wasn’t particularly well-versed in atheist philosophy and held atheist beliefs as a default, because that’s how she was raised. Why is it surprising that she converted when Catholicism was the first worldview she was really confronted with on a deeper philosophical level?” Sort of the equivalent of the caricature where kids who grow up in a fairly shallow Christianity go to college and someone says, “Did you know that the mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed?” And their minds are blown, and they become atheists.
LL: I’ve read a lot of pop atheism, which isn’t philosophically rich but often contends it doesn’t need to be—which is content. I was looking for better books to recommend to [my then-boyfriend]. I read The God Delusion, The Impossibility of God. Which were mostly really, really trite. Or a lot of them were dependent on not thinking about things outside of space-time, in higher dimensions. So I was looking with an urgent desire to find something better to recommend and I didn’t find that thing.
A lot of people recommended to me The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, which is one of the books for a lay audience, and I found that hugely disappointing. He spends a lot of time saying we can improve society, moving up and up toward a peak, but never says what the metric is. The end implies that it’s happiness, which is weird because many people are made happy by things we think shouldn’t make them happy! Then he says we can use neuroscience to find out what truly makes us happy. [Which requires that] we invest evolution with some moral sense or purpose. Otherwise you’re going, “If I just check what it is I’m really feeling by looking at brain scans I’ll know what really makes me happy” [and therefore what is morally best]. No, you’ll know which neurons are firing.
There are lots of atheists who are postmodernists and just assert they shouldn’t be covering those topics [like the grounding of morality]. Although I didn’t read those as deeply, I did get harangued about them a lot!
The best stuff was not explicitly atheist. The kind of Yudkowsky “Less Wrong” stuff where most of the people working on that are atheists. He gives, as an example that people who are good rationalists in some way can still be wrong, someone who is still an Orthodox Jew and is a great probability theorist. [But] that stuff is really great at taking an analytical eye to [the fact that] we’re looking for true things and good decisions and we’re looking with this very faulty organ called the human brain. So let’s start by tightening up our instrument.
The thing that’s a little frustrating is they’ve got a lot of awesome stuff on methods and I don’t get to see as much output. Like, now that we’ve honed this down, what are we doing with our awesome brains?
One of the problems is that a lot of the time people are writing against the Christians who are most dangerous, like the hardcore evangelical right, who are often not doing philosophy. Very useful, I’m very grateful for people who are working to keep science in schools, but not very interesting.
ET: How did the experience of writing a blog about atheism affect your conversion?
LL: One thing that was kind of interesting to me was how unpersuasive I was to other atheists when I was an atheist! How much of that was, “Ah, 22-year-old, you are unconvincing to people”? But it actually seemed like more people share my assumptions but are not willing to pony up on those assumptions. Most atheists do talk as if there are universal [moral standards] which are binding on everyone. But then say they don’t believe that. Even though it impregnates all their arguments.
It was interesting for me to see, in writing and in speeches, how much my language was shifting toward the other team. One example was that in some of the discussion after Osama Bin Laden was assassinated I said, I’m glad he can’t hurt people, but it seems like one of the worst things is that he didn’t get better and I don’t see any way he could have. And that’s very A Wrinkle in Time [another L'Engle novel], where IT still needs to be loved even if Meg isn’t the one capable of loving IT. [Another example is] whether it’s wrong to hate people even if you don’t do anything to harm them. Is there anything wrong with that? And I said yes, you’re callousing your soul. And they said, “Where do you get off using the word ‘soul’?” And I said, “It’s a metaphor—lay off!”
[Another example is] switching to virtue ethics. I used to think in a very deontological frame of mind. There are rules and I was following them and it is virtue to follow them. But honestly, the way I was thinking about that was not incompatible with solipsism—and moral systems probably should be! My devotion to the rules wasn’t dependent on people existing.
I try not to do this as much, but sometimes when I’m frustrated with someone [I'd wish] the person would be even worse, because then my forbearance would be even better. That’s a terrible thing to wish on someone! But not incompatible with what I was thinking. When I switched to virtue ethics I had to think, “No, I wish this person was better for their own sake.”
That came up one Lent when my ex-boyfriend asked me to try praying with him. That was a bust because you can’t pray to something you totally don’t believe in. He asked me to pray for someone who’d been quite nasty to me. I was like, “I’m not going to tattle to God, or ask God to fight my battles!” He said, “Why don’t you want this person to stop bullying you because it would make them better?” I said, “That’s their choice.”
But that’s [silly]. It was such a relief when I started to understand why you might pray for them because I was able to see them as struggling with something, rather than being that thing. So instead of thinking of this person as defined by their relation to me and by being nasty and flying off the handle toward me, I think, “Oh, she’s struggling with responding appropriately to this situation. That must be frightening, to not have control over a situation! That must be hard.” And it sounds a little condescending but it was really revolutionary for me because I wasn’t thinking of her as being an ass to me but instead there was some ur-[Lisa] which would be freer if she wasn’t doing this. Instead of thinking I should withstand Angry Lisa I could help actual Lisa. [Lisa is the replacement for a different name!]
ET: You’ve mentioned that forgiving one’s enemies is one area where you began to agree more with the Christian way of thinking.
LL: A lot of it was changing my mind on the Lisa stuff, thinking of people as more imprisoned by anger or [other faults]. Because the next thing that has to come out of your mouth is, “I want to set them free.”
There’s this cool set of dialogues between Orson Scott Card and his kids. The daughter kicked everything down and then the son hit the daughter with a block. And Card asks, “Why did you hit her with a block?”
“I wanted her to stop bothering me!”
It’s so clear that the kid lashed out because he was angry and can’t say how this was helping him achieve his stated goal. It feels like you’re getting distracted. Because you can’t achieve the things you want by doing bad things; or you don’t really want what you say you want. But it is the case that we do these things and get distracted.
It’s still weird to talk about the full consent of your will. It’s confusing how someone could end up in hell given sufficient time. How culpable can people be for something that seems to be done out of ignorance? When you really viscerally understand how bad it is you wouldn’t do it, and one of the things which lets us do bad things is getting distracted from how bad it is. The more closely and clearly we’re thinking of it the harder it is to do.
ET: What’s distinctive about Catholicism to you?
LL: It manages to have a structure that binds on everyone, but then has so much diversity within it. It does every excess. Monastics, but also crazy people walking around naked preaching in villages. In the same way that it would be weird to have a religion that could only be spoken of in one language—you’d have doubts about it being universal—but the way Catholicism exists in fasting, in feasting, in everything, you can translate it or come to it from a lot of different languages of human experience.
ET: What do Catholics need to know about atheists?
LL: One thing is just that people are not necessarily starting with an interest in philosophy. Though not all Catholics are either!
And a lot of people who might make what is a philosophically-useful attack have made it in stupid ways before. You should have a good idea of what arguments atheists usually encounter. Because a lot of [good arguments] look like echoes of bad arguments they have heard before. It’s on you to do the groundwork of saying something that sounds new and is new. “What is the grounding of your morals?” [can easily be presented so it sounds too much like] “Atheists are immoral.”
There’s also a tendency to write off people’s lived experience with religion or with religious authorities. When you say, “No, Christ is love,” and the person you’re talking to says, “Most of the Christians I know are keeping science out of schools or kicking their gay kids out,” “Oh but they’re not really Christians” is the least persuasive argument ever, and not grounded in the world as lived. [I would approach it more like], “I agree with you that terrible things are terrible. Let’s talk about why we agree they are terrible,” rather than, “That terrible thing is not as relevant to my argument.”
If you haven’t, read some of the atheist blogs or books. Otherwise it’s really easy to use “dog whistles” that make it hard for someone to listen to you because the last person who used that phrase was dumb or nasty. It’s good to give the benefit of the doubt but you don’t always have the time. So it’s more your job to make it easier for people to listen to you than it is their job to be patient with everyone.
A thing that is more useful to do and looks less combative—but only at first!—is to ask people more about what they believe. Instead of, “Why don’t you accept these ideas?” when they’re not interested in them, “Tell me more about how you approach these things.” As long as you don’t sound like you’re just [baiting a trap].
ET: So what are some posts you’re really looking forward to writing, and some posts you think you’ll have to grit your teeth and write?
LL: What I mean by thinking morality is objective. The fastest preview of that answer is, “You’re in the same situation with reference to morality that we were with sight before we knew the mechanism of how it worked. We thought we were in fact seeing real objects. It’s not clear why two fleshy things in the front of your head caused that to happen, but it was clear that they did. And you were able to deal with the fact that some people were colorblind without thinking that meant there weren’t colors. And we have a sort of “sense perception” of morality. Many of the objections I hear raised against objective morality could have been raised against seeing things.
At some point I’m going to have to write a bit more about gender and embodiment, but I’m putting that off until I’ve read more about them. Anything related to embodiment is the stuff I’m weakest on, because I took it least seriously as an atheist. For me gender just feels so un-salient all the time—which I know is almost no one else’s subjective experience of it.
You can find Leah’s blog here.