This morning, atheist blogger and 2011 Yale graduate Leah Libresco announced on her blogging network, Patheos, that she will no longer post in the atheist section of the site. She will still be blogging, but instead as a Catholic. Several months ago, she decided to convert to Catholicism.

Drastically reversing any position—particularly a public one—is a seriously daunting thing to do. Though Leah and I don’t see eye-to-eye on many philosophical issues, especially this one, I admire her integrity. The reason for her conversion—realizing that she believes that the Moral Law is real and a Person—is hard for me to understand. Most charitably, it seems that her justification is opaque and too complicated for one blog post. At worst, it may be philosophically confused. But I’ve read enough of Leah’s writing to know she’s a smart and thoughtful person who must have good reasons for what she believes, particularly since she’s been sitting on this since April.

I’ve noticed that among atheists, the general reaction seems to be either “dafuq?” or “yeah, I guess that makes sense,” with little in between except for suggestions that she’s had a stroke or was never a “real” atheist at all (Leah has very cleverly replied to the stroke accusation here).  Since Leah describes herself in her post as “a virtue ethicist atheist whose transhumanism seems to be rooted in dualism,” it’s pretty clear to me which commenters have actually read her work (or understand any of those words).

I’m in a kind of weird spot where I’m sympathetic to a lot of her positions, but I don’t understand her rationale at all. I go back and forth between brands of consequentialism and Neo-Kantianism as my ethical theory of choice, and I’m almost certain that if the former is true, abortion is terrible and we are all awful people for spending money on vacations and pets and videogames instead of donating the vast majority of our earnings to assist the global poor. All of this goes to say that I seriously empathize with someone struggling for philosophical consistency, and I understand that it can lead you to some bizarre and unintuitive conclusions. And when faced with those conclusions, it’s frankly an unsatisfying cop-out to avoid them by simply rejecting the premises you started with. It seems that she has opted instead to bite the bullet—Catholicism must be the most consistent with her moral conclusions (and many commenters and bloggers have missed the point that this is more in reference to Aquinas than abortion).

I’m sorry to say that I can’t provide much personal insight—we belonged to very different circles while at Yale, and even our interests in Christianity split: she spent her time studying Catholicism with friends, and I explored evangelicalism with the Yale Students for Christ—so until she writes more on her conversion, I can’t begin to understand the finer points of her philosophical conclusions.

But I’ve generally found the reaction to be both predictable and disappointing, and I think it shows a serious lack of empathy and intellectual curiosity in many atheists. The most common reaction I’ve seen is just blatant incredulity, which I think not only reflects an inability to understand why anyone would convert to Catholicism, but why anyone would be a Catholic to begin with. I see the “there is no evidence for religion, all believers are brainwashed” narrative almost accepted as the default atheist position (pandered by American Atheist President Dave Silverman at just about every opportunity), but it seems so clearly absurd to me.

There are basically two options for atheists here. First: everyone is just evidence-insensitive except for us, in which case atheists are the uniquely rational group that, either upon our births or conversion, had a “rational” switch flipped on in our heads. If the evidence leads only to atheism, how could anyone else looking at the evidence believe anything else? Well, they must not be looking at the evidence, then.

I prefer the second option: that people generally believe things for good reasons (qualify “people” with “thoughtful” if you must). If it doesn’t seem like it to us, either we don’t know enough about where they’re starting from (we don’t all have the same philosophical commitments), or we don’t know enough about what evidence they’re applying (evidence, of course, is usually interpreted much more broadly than many atheists would like to admit). It’d be a failure of empathy and critical thinking to assume they’re simply brainwashed or indoctrinated.

I think it’s an inconvenient position, but some people have good reasons for believing in God. Whether or not their reasons are available to us is a different matter—I’m still not sure how Leah’s philosophical commitments lead her to Catholicism—but I don’t doubt that she’s rational enough to see the world and decide that those commitments are probably true, and that Catholicism most logically follows. If she’s made a mistake somewhere, we can certainly try to find it.

Otherwise, any argument or debate is started by assuming the other person is brainwashed or irrational, and how can that turn into anything other than a “look how smart I am!” parade? It’s not so much a conversation as a sparring match with an imaginary partner. Other than reciting your talking points while the other is left with little more than the feeling that you’ve addressed a caricature, what’s the point?

I think we atheists ought to consider seriously and carefully why others believe what they do, in a way that isn’t either self-congratulatory or pointless. It’s too easy and unproductive to simply wave our collective hands while vaguely appealing to psychology in order to explain why people are religious. So instead of disappointment or incredulity, I’m looking forward to Leah’s future posts with curiosity—how better to understand Catholicism than by reading about a peer’s conversion?


Vlad Chituc is a recent graduate of Yale University, where he studied Psychology with an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal members of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing for several campus publications. Next year, he will be a lab manager and research assistant at one of Duke’s social neuroscience labs.

33 Responses to “The Dramatic Conversion of Leah Libresco”

  1. Evil Guy Says:

    Leah’s reasoning so far looks like “I really want there to be objective morality, therefore God.” I think you’re overestimating her ability to be rational. But I agree that accusations of indoctrination are weak.

  2. Nolan Says:

    I think your post is very refreshing. I’ve found most atheists to show that same troubling lack of empathy and intellectual curiosity. I certainly disagree with her rationale, but I think it’s clear that most of the hand waving explanations are just denials of the uncomfortable fact that intelligent, thoughtful, even rational people sometimes believe in God.

  3. Leigh Says:

    I went through a born again Christian phase when I was in my early to mid 20s. And it was lovely and it all made sense and helped me through the difficult transition from school to working life. But then I began to experience life and all its ups and downs and I started to question things around me. Essentially I was trying to make sense of it all. And my conclusion that none of it made sense with a deity in the equation. I read widely of science, history, theology, philosophy. By the time I was 30 I was firmly in the atheist corner. I will be interested to see how Leah is going in her journey in 5 to 10 years time when she has gained a little more of life experience. I don’t think anyone should hold you to beliefs and views that you have when you are younger and yet to experience life.

  4. Hubi Vedder Says:

    Why Catholicism though? Surely the happy-clappy brigade at least don’t follow a sexist agenda. If you’re going to follow an imaginary sky god’s association on planet earth why don’t you chose the bunch that are less hypocritical.

  5. Bijan Says:

    Very well-written, Vlad. I’ve been vaguely keeping up with both your blog and hers, and I’m definitely interested to see more explanation for her current set of beliefs.

  6. Mike de Fleuriot Says:

    I think the case here is that she really did not understand why being a Scot was the correct option.

    There is nothing that I have seen that would convince the worlds atheists to change positions. Yes, they might change, as in this case, but does that invalidate the atheist position, I suggest not. And in fact, I would suggest that this case actually strengthens the atheist position, as to how a need to believe can corrupt one’s thought processes.

    I would not be surprised, to see her returning to non belief in a few years, especially after she runs into the restrictions of that religion. Or at the least, she will seek out a watered down version of it, that she can live with.

  7. Hannah Says:

    Thoughtful post–loved it.

  8. Puzzled Says:

    What baffles me is her choice of spiritual path. There are dozens of choices, yet her choice seems to indicate an indifference to the church’s history and teachings. A trip through any qualified historian’s description of christian history would show that the RCC has a record of murderous authoritarian violence reaching back to 381 AD that resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. In addition, they marginalize women, are proudly homophobic, harbor pedophiles and have always been disinterested in the actual teachings of the man, Jesus. And she chose them because of an interest in moral law? Surely she could have done better than that.

  9. JoAnna Says:

    Technically, Leah has not yet converted to Catholicism. She’s attending RCIA with that eventual goal in mind, but to officially convert one needs to be baptized and confirmed.

  10. Matthew Mark Luke John Says:

    May I just state for the record, “Who the hell is Leah Libresco and tell me again why is this important?”
    Its a matter of young, intelligent woman who, after getting an outstandin education, is overthinking the obvious. We all take philosophical wrong turns at one point or another in our lives. I am pretty sure Leah will look back at this time and say, “um…yeah, I’m not too sure what I was thinking in 2012.” After all, don’t Catholics make the best atheists? :-)

  11. Christine Says:

    Back when I was a confused Christian I spent a lot of time in pursuit of the intellectuals who had thought things through and still chosen religion. It was a pretty disappointing quest. Sometimes I’d come across ancient philosophers whose worldviews were so unscientific and full of mistakes (God put us at the center of the universe) that it was hard to take them as anything other than curiosities. Or there would be people who would declare that God was so obvious that their own position was clearly intellectually superior. Then there would be people who would put forth arguments so long and convoluted and so full of unsupportable assumptions that I began to wonder if they were insincere or deluded.

    I read Leah’s argument and now I’m hovering between “I can’t understand it” and putting her in some combination of “It’s obvious!” and “Long argument no one understands” camps. Say Moral Law exists. Why would it be a person? I think a lot about moral law yet I can see no justifications for it being a person. So I read the rest of what she had to say in hopes of some insight and just gave up.

    I’m hoping that they’ll be some clarification out there eventually.

  12. Jason Tippitt Says:

    A lot of atheist pundits spend time beating up straw theists that represent only a portion of the mass of believers. There ARE young-earth creationists, there ARE fundamentalists of various stripes, but sitting back with a smug grin after pointing out various contradictions in the Bible or any other religious text is going to be met with a “Yeah, we know; that’s why we don’t read it literally” from a lot of people (including most American Catholics).

  13. Joe F Says:

    These supposedly rational souls are mostly taken up in a need to belong, to be on a team and to find some identity that way. I can’t recall hearing a story where someone suddenly joined a religion held by a tiny minority in their local neighborhood. We don’t see many who fit the, frankly, ‘WASP’ profile declaring that Sikhism or Shinto is the path for them.

    People who entertain faith are mistaken, not necessarily delusional or brainwashed. We have all been mistaken, and no number of fellow mistaken would make them correct.

  14. John Says:

    I don’t think it is that atheists have their “rationality switch” turned on. It’s simply that the inexplicable intrusion of Grace has not yet occurred to flip the other switches necessary. I was a lapsed, atheistic Catholic in name only that was hit by a series of startling events beginning about five years ago. I am now devout. Religious people used to make me puke. Now I am one. Something happened, and it was not “brainwashing” nor the suspension of “free thinking.” Quite frankly it came from elsewhere and is not rational. I might only suggest you try to suspend your disbelief and “seek the Truth” holding open the possibility that there could be a God. Beyond that, you can’t “think” your way into it. Once on the other side, I guarantee you will be very concerned for your former atheistic colleagues who still stand with arms crossed, certain they are the “rational” ones. We are born with our backs turned to God and, in my case, sprinting the other direction. There is a phenomenon known as Grace, as well as further phenomena known as Sanctification and Justification, etc. They sound completely non-sensical (and are) until they happen to you. May you proceed with an open heart.

  15. Amen Says:

    Amen, John! I had a similar conversion experience to yours. Mine only began 1 year ago, but I’m now devout. At some point after my grandfather’s death last year, I felt something, and everything it seemed, calling me back to the faith. When God communicates himself to a soul He makes his existence so real that there’s no way you can doubt it. it feels more real than anything you’ve ever experienced and it stays in your soul every day after. You can’t meet him by rationalizing him, but only by surrendering some pride and having a little faith.

  16. Karl Johnson Says:

    To me she has just joined a club, you will never know whats really going on inside her head, just like you will never know god, you will never really understand the universe, life is very specialdont get too distracted by your big brain, just sit back and enjoy it.
    You can join a club like Leah and use their guidlines or you can make your own.The best you can do is look back at your life the moment you die and say have I been good (heaven)or have I been bad (hell)

  17. timberwraith Says:

    I dunno, maybe both religious people and non-religious people could dispense with the condescending comments? Oh, I know, you didn’t mean to be condescending toward others, but you were.

    If you’ve found a sense of peace in your new found beliefs or non-belief, then by all means, stick with it. However, your experience of spiritualism or materialism is as subjective as the next person’s. What rings as truth for you will seem quite false to believers of different faiths and non-believers of no faith.

    I like my coffee black with sugar. Some prefer tea with milk. Others are satisfied with a simple glass of water. This world and it’s inhabitants manifest so many ways of being. Why insist upon painting the world in monochrome?

    Respect the boundaries of others and move on.

  18. Me Says:

    Refreshingly rational take on this, Mr. Chituk.

    I am compelled to ask if you meant to say you explored evangelicalism rather than evangelism.

    Surely Catholics are involved in evangelism, while evangelicalism is a subset of protestant Christianity.

  19. Vlad Chituc Says:

    I’m a bit confused by the comment system (maybe I’ll ask Chris about it?) but I haven’t been able to see how to respond to individual comments.

    Anyway, at the very least, thanks for the kind words. “Me,” I mean precisely that, and thanks for bringing up the mistake. But to clarify: I made friends with, discussed theology with, and went to events put on by the protestant evangelicals on campus. I wasn’t evolved in evangelism broadly.

  20. MIke Michaels Says:

    Fell in love with a theist? Need a way to get attention?

    I wonder what her family believed? My guess is catholicism. Never fully converted to Atheism one might argue. I mean, her sitting there with her radio show gear on makes her up to be some kind of star, I never heard of her. Much ado about nothing, me thinks. Though, great PR for catholics maybe? I think the struggle for “origin” of moral law is always going to have been influenced by religion– That’s kinda their thing. They’ve actually developed some good practic and diplomatic paths to harmony in their morality if you can extricate it from supernatural elements. In our judeoxian society its impossible to not know or be influened by that paradigm. But, its one thing to like a moral understanding that you think originated in religion, it’s quite another leap to say that you have to embrace and join the religion to adhere to moral consruct. Why do it? For the authority? I think that’s irrational. Like I said either a loved one, SO, or some other social pressure led her to this conclusion; not the logical tools of her mind.

  21. Cameron Says:

    Converting to Catholicism… for ‘moral’ reasons…

    Wow! I didn’t think that possible for an educated individual who is aware of even the smallest amount of the moral outrage against the conduct of the Roman Catholic Church in recent centuries.

    I hope she remains skeptical of the clergy who will now claim to speak on her behalf as a Catholic.

  22. ginckgo Says:

    It’s one thing to agree with the values of a certain philosophy, but it’s another to then go for all the supernatural baggage as well (and in the case of Catholicism the central authoritarian structure and all its bigotry that everyone is supposed to agree with). There really is no good reason for a rational person to develop their own philosophy based on many ‘formalised’ others; but to chose a particular religion, and all its dogma, to me says that the main reason for conversion was other than philosophy.

  23. joanna Says:

    I’ve noticed a few people similarly commenting on atheists lack of effort to seriously understand why religious people believe (along the lines of leah’s ideological turing test). I think it’s a really interesting question, and I do find myself extremely hesitant to fully imagine myself in the place of thoughtful religious people and to empathize with their beliefs. Personally, I consider myself highly imaginative, not very grounded, and extremely suggestible, so that seems like a dangerous game. Another commenter said “I might only suggest you try to suspend your disbelief and “seek the Truth” holding open the possibility that there could be a God”. If fully empathizing with religious people requires suspension of disbelief, I’m probably going to avoid it because I don’t fully trust my own strength to re-suspend it later and not get sucked in. I doubt that’s many other atheists reasoning though. I think it’s an intriguing topic, for sure.

  24. James Cook Says:

    Frankly, I have never heard of Leah Libresco until I noticed a video under “Top atheist blogger turns Catholic” at CNN. She appears to be a smart, beautiful young women but I really don’t understand her position.

    From the evidence, I rejected the Bible and became an a-theist some 52 years ago now; one immediate consequence being there is no (Jewish, Christian, Muslim) God given absolute morality. I was unhappy with this conclusion but accepted it.

    I do not deny the possible existence of supernatural entities. My mind could exist in a virtual reality (VR) for instance. Even if so, I have no reason to believe these supernatural entities ( or design team), my creators, have a superior moral system.

    Now I could build up an ethical system based on assumptions like “pain is bad” with qualifiers on the words “pain” and “bad” like “mostly”, etc. One must be careful as one can come to conclusions like killing is not wrong if it instantaneous without anticipation, fear or pain. One may reject it not on logical grounds (depending on assumptions) but simply because it feels wrong.

    I have morals. Chimps have morals. I believe they have fundamentally come from the same place; evolution. An ethical system must everywhere match up with what “feels” right.

    Leah “believes” morality is objective, whatever that means. Evidence has led to the theory “mass energy is conserved” and is thought to be fundamental. I accept it. Does she mean statements like “X is right/good/correct (whatever)” is in some sense fundamental? If so, I would very much like to see the evidence/reasoning. And even if so (and I would like that), why become Catholic?

  25. James Cook Says:

    On my previous post, just made, I forgot (I’m getting old) to add a question which perhaps someone can answer.

    If “X is right/good/correct(whatever)” is in some sense fundamental; what are the logical implications?

    In a certain sense I know what is a correct action in a deterministic physical universe. The universe will respond to its physical laws. In a physical universe with self determination and where there actually is a “correct” response to kill or not to kill something; what are the implications about that universe.

  26. Cronos Says:

    ‘Prominent Atheist’ turns Catholic! Hell I was expecting to see Penn Jillette go f*cktard! Thankfully, it was just relatively unknown some ham & egger looking for some free publicity.

  27. someguy Says:

    She should die. How dare she convert to a bunch of indoctrinated retarded religious nutjobs. Instead of being rational, logical, and reasonable; she converted to stupidity.

    i guess she didn’t like thinking for herself anymore. She should go back home and become a housemaid, go pleasure her man, ignore science, and just die off. the world is a better place without her

  28. Andrew Says:

    Excellent post. I can’t really grasp her reasons for converting either, though my assumption is that this was a thoughtful process with roots in her particular constellation of emotions. However, I am reasonably well-versed in the theological debate concerning morality, and I think that the Moral Argument for God’s existence is easily the worst one. Postulating the existence of a deity only complicates matters further. If God is the source of morality, then he could have just as easily and legitimately placed rape in the Thou Shalt rather than the Thou Shalt Not column of his divine rule book. If he couldn’t have just as easily or legitimately done this, than there is a standard of morality independent from God. After all, if there is a god, he could conceivably be evil or a trickster, meaning Christians and atheists alike are in the same boat when it comes to the epistemology of moral facts.

  29. Marc Says:

    How sad your comments are. How dismissive, arrogant, and foolish. The truth will set you free. Convienient lies will only bury you in your own baloney. Why did she convert to Catholicism? Why don’t you look at it seriously and prayerfully and find out for yourself! Read Edith Stein. This isn’t the first time on this merry go round for the Church. End of the day, she now has a profound joy and peace that you absolutely do not and cannot. Read Merton. Your empty pride prevents you from going to God and makes one repugnant to him and utterly Lost. Humbly pray for God to reveal himself to you, quickly, in Jesus’s name, (don’t dare mock or dismiss him) and he will reveal his… amazing grace to you just like he did to her. God bless

  30. Christine Says:

    Many atheists have humbly prayed to God to reveal himself and have not gotten any sort of answer.

    When we point this out to theists they usually shout back that we were not actually sincere.

    Of course we cannot prove that we were sincere so the theist walks away smug and the atheist walks away frustrated.

    And the next time a theist calls the atheist arrogant, the theist gets a face full of nasty.

    Telling atheists to pray is a dead end and decisive unless you have a better explanation of why your program didn’t work.

  31. Sarah Says:

    I’m a troll, but I’m friendly! Nice blog post, very thoughtful. Far too much vitriol from both sides when it comes to the atheism vs. believer-ism debate. If we all used such a voice, the arguing would be more peaceful, I think.

  32. S Belen Says:

    I do appreciate Leah Libresco’s dramatic conversion to be a Catholic. When you are still young, you could be enthusiastic to argue a religion and the existence of God. But, when you become older and mature, your perspective could be changed and you start to see more evidences about God’s role and existence. In my encounters and interactions with Buddhist followers, I do appreciate their faith not merely because of the teachings of Buddha but mainly because of their practices of the teachings, especially in the service of loving all people from a variety of religions and faiths. Some Buddhists told me that as long as you follow the enlightenment way of Buddha, you can be judged as a Buddhist follower. I do not mind to be categorized as a Buddhist follower although I am still not convinced about the reincarnation teaching. Likewise, if you want to judge Catholic religion, don’t judge mainly based on your observation of Catholic teachings. More importantly, judge this religion based on its service to the others through Catholic schools, hospitals and other social institutions. This applies to other religions too. Personally, if you want to judge a converted Catholic like Leah Libresco, don’t judge her in terms of what she says about Catholic doctrines but please judge her in terms of her practices as a converted Catholic. It’s fair enough, isn’t?

  33. S. Patnubayan Says:

    Lea Libresco has come to a dramatic point of her own life i.e. conversion to Catholicism. Such a dramatic conversion should have led her to start a new life for the rest of her life. May she find joy and peaceful heart and mind in the new faith she has believed in.

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