CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

A few days ago I came across a fascinating blog post by a prominent atheist blogger, Leah Libresco...except that it was a post announcing her conversion to Christianity and specifically Catholicism (HT: Stephen Bedard).

This conversion account is worth noting for several reasons. For one thing, it was motivated entirely by intellectual concerns, as is clear from Libresco's About page on her blog. She has been contemplating Christian and other truth claims for a long time, taking them with the seriousness they deserve and with a clear-sighted acknowledgment of their evidentiary force, which is such a refreshing alternative to the usual ignorance and laziness one encounters among atheists, who should look to Libresco as a model for the homework they have to do in order for their atheism to be even remotely rationally respectable. Her testimony shows conclusively that people do not convert to Christianity only for psychological reasons, atheist slanders to the contrary (and which sadly were all too quick to emerge in the comments section of her conversion post).

Secondly, her account is interesting because it demonstrates the force of the moral argument, which I and other CADRE members have been devoting quite a bit of attention to recently (see for example this and this). Specifically, even as an atheist Libresco was convinced that morality had to be objective somehow. As she notes in an early post:

With regard to morality, I am in the same situation I might have been in before the eye was better understood. I receive certain sense perceptions which, instead of being ordered with regard to color and hue, are organized according to right and wrong. I can no more explain how I perceive these than I can explain exactly how I parse electrical signals, but, in my day to day life, these questions are not critical. I do know that I am at least as certain that my moral perceptions are meaningful and correspond to truth as I am certain that my visual perceptions do as well. In fact, I would go farther and say that I am as certain that my moral sense is attuned to something as real and urgent as the existence of physical matter.
The conviction that moral judgments are not mere expressions of personal taste or even collective societal preference but rather are perceptions of some kind of fact is extremely hard to dislodge, as even an error theorist like J.L. Mackie admitted, and very hard to explain away. In our time probably the best attempt to do so comes from evolutionary psychology, which claims that a propensity to believe that objective moral standards exist was a good survival strategy, and was thus selected for in our evolutionary past. But Libresco also came to see that even that attempt is not really successful. After all, it is often a good survival strategy to accurately perceive objective features of our environment! 

It seems that over the past few years Libresco had been searching for a way to make moral realism compatible with atheism, but was understandably disappointed. Over time she became increasingly drawn to virtue ethics and was nonplussed to discover that the moral philosophers who seemed to be most helpful in illuminating the moral landscape (such as Alaisdar McIntyre) had ended up 'taking a tumble in the Tiber' (i.e. converting to Catholicism). Her friends frequently noted that her world-view seemed inconsistent, that she had started quoting Christian authors like G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis more and more frequently, and that she might as well just convert already!

Things all came to a head on March 31, 2012, when she was having an argument with a Christian friend of hers, who challenged her to finally produce her own explanation of moral realism and how human beings have access to moral knowledge. It seems at the time she fell back on a broadly Platonic account, in which moral facts were a part of the Form of the Good. The problem was that she conceived of this Form as existing on a plane remote from that of human, everyday reality, and she could not account for the connection between this Form and our material world:
I could hypothesize how a Forms-material world link would work in the case of mathematics (a little long and off topic for this post, but pretty much the canonical idea of recognizing Two-ness as the quality that’s shared by two chairs and two houses, etc. Once you get the natural numbers, the rest of mathematics is in your grasp). But I didn’t have an analogue for how humans got bootstrap up to get even a partial understanding of objective moral law.
Her friend kept pressing her to account for human access to objective morality, and she came to the inevitable, shocking conclusion:
I guess Morality just loves me or something.
And of course, it's all downhill (or rather, uphill) from there:
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 (I’ve kept up with that since). Then I suggested hugs and playing Mumford and Sons really, really loudly.
I must confess that this account has been very encouraging to me personally, and should be encouraging to all Christians who approach the faith intellectually rather than emotionally or existentially. I highly recommend reading through Libresco's blog, as she has a wonderfully keen and open mind and writes perceptively on all sorts of fascinating, 'big question' issues. See also this recent interview she gave:




Of course people from all perspectives will have all sorts of questions about this. Putting aside disagreements which would obviously arise much earlier in her chain of reasoning (i.e. whether morality is objective in the first place), probably the most interesting question is what led her specifically to Catholicism, above and beyond her 'mere Christianity'. Personally I see the appeal, and I have found Catholic thinkers and writers, such as Augustine and Chesterton, as well as Catholic prayers and liturgies to be stimulating and moving, but I know that some CADRE members (as well as other apologetics bloggers I could think of) will have reason to be dissatisfied with where she ended up within the broader umbrella of Christianity. But she herself acknowledges that her journey is just beginning, so I hope that for now we can all simply rejoice that God has shone the light of truth into her heart, redeeming her from the incoherence and nihilism of atheism. 

12 comments:

Great post JD, but you might want to correct that typo in the first sentence of your second paragraph from "nothing" to "noting." It changes the meaning of the sentence a little... lol

Haha, YES it does. (Facepalm) That was hysterical, thanks for pointing it out.

What I find more interesting is that deconversion stories are so interesting to people. This isn't just with religion, but all domains where the evidence presently isn't enough to decide an issue. E.g., Jaegwon Kim "came out" as a not-quite-physicalist, and Chalmers was all giddy.

Why I find this interesting: I don't think I've ever seen a new argument in one of these stories (e.g., Anthony Flew had nothing new or interesting; not to mention the eight million deconversion stories about how someone "finally started to take science seriously and critically examine the religion my parents taught me" sophomoric confessions on the atheist blogs; Jaegwon's reasons were the same that have been floating around for decades).

In this case, her stuff about moral truths, the analogy with visual perception. How many times has everyone here heard that? Is it a new and bold idea that deserves to literally be put in bold print?

Given the lack of newness in the content of the reasons people give for changing when it comes to 'big issues', why are these stories so interesting?

For one, the natural emotional push people get when someone comes over to, or leaves, their side. Heightened security or insecurity typically follow, especially in people who are insecure about things to begin with (e.g., newly minted atheists and Born Agains are just awful, and love conversion stories, take them as evidence that they are right).

But more than that, I think there is a more heartwarming dimension. Changing one's mind suggests someone has actually been thinking. It's a very unusual event nowadays, given all these overconfident internet commentariat who have all the answers and are smarter than everyone that disagrees with them, and no longer need to think, struggle, or work at getting answers.

In this case we have evidence of someone struggling, working things out, in what seems to be a humble way. This is indeed quite refreshing. And I will announce here, reading it has made me a Christian!

Um, surely you're being sarcastic with that last statement?

You're right about the psychological dynamics of people's fascination with conversion stories, of course. People coming to our side encourage us, while those who leave it destabilize us and make us question. You're also right about the lack of new arguments, but it seems that in religious as well as political or economic conversions (like when an economist goes from being Keynesian to Hayekian), it's not so much about discovering new arguments or evidence as re-evaluating the evidential significance of what one has already been exposed to. In this case, given Libresco's commitment to moral realism, she clearly made a shift over time in her evaluation of the prospects for atheistic moral realism.

Atheistic moral realists definitely doesn't have a well-articulated consensus position.

Yes I was joking.

In terms of her actual moves: under theism, compared with some kind of Platonism, how does it become easier to account for our contact with (nonphysical) moral truths?

BDK,

In terms of her actual moves, particularly the only move JD literally put in bold print, she decided "I guess Morality must love me or something!"

{g}

I agree with your comments generally about interest in deconversion/conversion stories by the way. I just thought it was funny that JD did bold the one point where he quoted her in reference to your practical question. The impersonal moral Forms of Platonism have no interest in connecting with human persons; and being statically inactive they would have no capability of doing so even if they had an interest somehow.

Granted, there's a big difference between deciding that the only way transcendent morality can relevantly interface with human persons is by loving us, and deciding that transcendent morality actually has the required characteristics. But as I argued at length recently in a Cadre article, trinitarian theism has conceptual strengths over what may be loosely called "classical theism" (or rather the different types of classical theism) including in accounting for the interface between that which is objectively moral and derivative persons such as ourselves.

(My article was drafted as a complaint about the peculiar tendency of some Christian theologians to throw the personalistic aspects of ortho-trin under the bus and retreat to an appeal to "classical theism" over-against "theistic personalism" crudely conceived, in order to defend against moral critiques, including from atheists, about God being vicious etc.)

JRP

So given the strong strain within Catholicism that advocates a classical God that is not person, not an agent, and such, is it a bit ironic that she went to Catholicism because the moral laws love her. Could you get more personalistic than that?

I see the pull of this, philosophically, I guess. It was never meant to solve the problem of interaction between our minds and the nonphysical realm, but the problem of the origin of the motivating force behind these truths about the nonphysical world. Why should we care, why should we feel the urge to follow these laws if they are as abstract as '1+1=2'? I had never thought of this dimension of argumentation within the moral realist sphere.

So I guess I did just learn something in a conversion story, just not the bit that JD put in bold :)

Yes, I'd say it's a bit ironic. But not unexpected: if I recall correctly her boyfriend (whom she named her forum surtag after) is Roman Catholic. That has to make some kind of practical difference, even if she's being responsibly self-critical about it.

Not all of RCC theology has taken the impersonalist route, though. Polish theologian Waclaw Hryniewicz (who converted to the Greek Catholic rite from Eastern Orthodoxy and strove hard to foster ecumenical reunion between the Catholic branches), and arguably the RCC's greatest 20th century systematic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, seemed both strongly committed to combining personalistic accounts of God with the metaphysical responsibilities of classical theism. I know Balthasar was hugely influential on both of the recent popes, John Paul and Benedict, too; and I suspect fellow countryman JP2 was familiar with Hryniewicz.

It may or may not be coincidental that both those theologians went as far as possible within Roman Catholicism (without directly opposing prior papal declarations against it) to universal salvation.

(It is definitely not a coincidence that I became a Christian universalist years ago following an in-depth examination that (I believe) metaphysically validates trinitarian theology, though. {g})

Anyway, I wouldn't be surprised to learn she's going their route within RCath.

JRP

Claiming you converted to a religion for rational arguments is common. Few people are willing to admit they converted for irrational arguments. Still this is usually they case. Humans base around 80% of their decisions on non-rational grounds. When somebody starts to accept faith for emotional reasons cognitive dissonance kicks in. A posteriori rationalizations are collected and most of the time the individuals involved actually genuinely believe the rationalizations were the main cause of the change in position.
In this case her boyfriend just happened to be catholic. It is not uncommon for women to adopt the worldview of their partner. It is a biological instinct that causes harmonization to help stable family formation.

If the main argument was the moral argument reason certainly had nothing to do with it as this argument is rotten to the core.
I have never seen a theist posit even remotely convincing evidence for objective morality that is properly measurable or can be reasoned. They usually say: "Moral horror X is really always wrong therefore morals are objective." All this establishes is that most people have a strong personal preference for moral horror X to be always wrong. It basically is an argumentum ad populum. It does not get much more subjective than that.
Also,values, moral or otherwise, are by definition subjective. You value something, this is necessarily mind dependent.
Basing objective morality on God also fails. There is no account of this that provides a coherent and convincing basic for objective morality. God is a person so any morality based on God is by definition person dependent and thus subjective. Morals must be grounded internally or externally to God so there is no escape. If external they are not grounded in God or God's something.
Moral facts can only exist if the definition of morality is sufficiently precise to have a standard to measure morality by.
I have never seen a theist give a meaningful definition of morality so they disqualify themselves even before any discussion would be possible.
Theist morality and the moral argument fail on so many levels that anybody claiming that this convinced them to become a believer is dishonest. It cannot possibly have been convincing. This can only be a posteriori rationalization due to cognitive dissonance.

Compassion is the basis of morality.

"Compassion is the basis of morality."
That is simply false. It is one aspect of it. Morality is composed of many aspects including duty to the self. If you help a person with something minor but in the process totally destroy youself that is a bad thing.

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