Updated: 2013-06-29

Leah Libresco is a fairly well-known blogger and self-identified geek, and the reason I’m paying attention is because she was an outspoken Atheist discussing religion, and now she’s an outspoken Catholic discussing religion.

Why do I care about what a complete stranger does? I identify with Leah a bit. We both grew up in secular households where our parents did not discuss religion (though unlike her all my friends were Christian). After leaving home we spent a hefty chunk of time researching and debating religion. We both have nerdy proclivities and we both enjoy debating religion. But I became an even more staunch rationalist/skeptic/atheist, and that’s where Leah and I diverged.

Besides being irked about losing a member of our team, I think Leah is too grounded in logic to be a theist. I assert that there are very few logical reasons to be religious. The only absolutely convincing one I can think of is the argument from personal experience: i.e. God(s) has visited someone, identified themself(ves), and performed an irrefutably supernatural act. It doesn’t prove a lick to me or anyone else, but I’d understand why that one person would be a believer. On the other hand there is a cornucopia of emotional reasons to be religious: fear of death, desire to see the deceased again, feelings of identity, to maintain social harmony with your religious friends and family, etc. But as far as logic is concerned, in most cases Kirkegaard was right, a blind leap of faith (or suspension of reason) is required.

I will not criticize anyone for being religious for emotional reasons, after all we all have irrational emotional needs. If you don’t, you will probably not pass a turing test. But I have a bugaboo when people are religious for emotional reasons and they claim a logical base. Usually their logic is flawed. So I asked Leah if her conversion is based more on reason or emotion:

My goal is either to deconstruct her logical reasons, or to learn a new logical reason. Unfortunately she does not make it simple to understand her reasons because she’s a prolific blogger and there is no single post or two that simply lays out her logical foundation. Even her explanation of “Why I am a Catholic” skips a ton of steps. I have read some of her material and will attempt to portray her positions accurately. I tweeted and emailed her for further help understanding her positions and her response was that her logical basis is explained in the first few chapters of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.

If I were to make a pseudo-logical proof for Leah’s conversion, I think it would read like this:

  1. There exists a moral framework intrinsic to the universe
  2. The moral framework had to come from somewhere
  3. There must be a God who created the moral framework.
  4. ???
  5. Therefore Adam and rib-woman catalyzed original sin because knowledge is evil, so thousands of years later God was forced to impregnate a human to save humans from a concept he created, and then God was killed by the Romans and he will only save you if you telepathically accept him as God*. And he’s coming back someday, presumably when there’s no longer anything good on TV.


The last part is just not-quite-serious rib-poking. Clearly I don’t understand Leah’s logic beyond step 3. So I’m limiting this discussion simply to Leah’s adoption of theism, not how Leah leapt from theism to Catholicism. Interesting note: the jump from atheism to theism is orders of magnitude smaller than the leap from theism to Catholicism. The latter is a leap Leah has taken without much thought other than “Catholicism is the most serious form of Christianity”. Okay, but why not Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Scientology, etc? These can all fit into the claim that the universe has a morality field (moralitrons convey morality in the same way that gravitrons convey gravity?).

To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time reading or thinking about philosophical morality, which seems to be the basis of Leah’s conversion. I never considered it a very important topic, which seems to be another place where Leah and I differ.

Universal Morality is Neither

There is little or no evidence suggesting that the universe has a moral framework, unless by universe you mean most members of one species out of billions, on one planet out of trillions. It seems presumptuous to assume that your local morals are universal. The burden of proof (that things do not exist until they are evidenced to) is on the believer. Please show that universal morality exists. If there is not sufficient evidence to show the existence of universal morality, universal morality cannot be used to prove the existence of a god.

But For The Sake of Taking the Bait

I’m comfortable admitting I don’t know precisely where human morals originate. And I don’t have to prove their origin to make a valid point; conversely Leah has to prove they come from a god. But I am puzzled why Leah is not satisfied with reasons from evolutionary psychology. I find evolutionary psychology to be the best explanation available. Human beings, alone, are weak creatures compared to the competition. It is only from our societies that we are stronger: sharing resources, specialization of labor, trade, leadership, etc. So it makes sense why humans would be naturally selected with tendencies towards intra-tribal cooperation and inter-tribal coop-etition. The world we see around us fits this evolutionary interpretation quite well - both amazing good and terribly “evil” acts are done. Killing within a society is punished, killing outside the society (i.e. via the military) is lauded.

What is the better explanation for morals: that evolution selects for traits that help us reproduce while driving the diversity that we collectively display, or that an imaginary powerful creature created them but doesn’t quite satisfy the argument from evil or explain why morals are arbitrary across cultures and time?

Mere Christianity

Leah’s short email reply was “I think the first few chapters of Mere Christianity are a decent explanation of my beliefs about moral law. I read that while I was still an atheist with a great shock of recognition.”

So while I replied that I don’t think it’s fair to dodge the question by making someone do research, I checked out a copy of Mere Christianity to re-read the first few chapters (I had read already parts while in college). On my second exposure to C.S. Lewis, I was still underwhelmed.

The Ways that C.S. Lewis Gets It Wrong

In Chapter 1, Lewis misattributes the fact that most people have internalized The Golden Rule to a universal morality. CS Lewis really slips up when he says that humans are the only creatures to have morality. Anyone who has spent time with social mammals can tell you that this isn’t true, as this timely report indicates:

Observation: People have a common sense regarding right and wrong.

Lewis: My imaginary friend did it! No, all those other imaginary friends had nothing to do with it.

Alternative explanation: Evolution is a powerful explanation for why people need to work in both selfish and selfless ways. Evolution and genetics are a better explanation for sociopaths, liars, cheaters, etc., and the amazing variability of ethics in the animal kingdom.

In Chapter 2, Lewis tries to address some common criticisms in Chapter 1. Through muddy logic and strained analogies, Lewis tries to explain that the Golden Rule cannot be purely instinctual.

The thing that says to you, ‘Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,’ cannot iself be the herd instinct.

Alternative explanation: Neuroscience has shown that our brain contains trillions of synapses, many operating independently of the others. The brain is a much noisier, disparate, place than we might think based on our subjective experience of consciousness. We are constantly processing and filtering orthogonal (or weakly, or strongly interacting) thoughts, senses, and motives generated by our neural hardware. It makes perfect sense if conscience is another set of neural circuits shouting to be acted upon.

Second, he explains that just like the Golden Rule is not a product of nature (biology), it is also not a product of nurture, since uneducated people or people in different cultures also have a sense of right and wrong. And when they do something we call immoral, that’s just because they lay somewhere else on the great spectrum of morality.

Alternative explanation: Nature and nurture both play a role in morality (just like they play a role in nearly everything else).

Third, he explains that since we humans compare the morality of say Christians and Nazis (ignoring that most Nazis were Christians), there must be some objective Morality that we are comparing against. By disapproving of Nazi morality, you are, of course, in line with the objective Morality.

Alternative explanation: there is a subjective morality that we are comparing against.

In Chapter 3, Lewis re-elaborates that that people share a general idea of the Golden Rule it must come from somewhere external and is not made up by us.

Alternative explanation re-stated: The Golden Rule is an emergent property of human evolution.

In Chapter 4, Lewis concludes that because of the “Law of Morality” (his words for the Golden Rule) exists externally to humans, it must have been created by someone.

Alternative explanation: not necessary. There’s little point in arguing against a conclusion based on poorly constructed reasons.

These chapters reek of someone with a conclusion trying to prove it. Seriously, this material is intellectually lightweight and I am shocked that anyone as smart as Leah would find it convincing.

Burden of Proof

Since the argument from morality is so unconvincing, the burden of proof remains on you, Leah. Until then, I’ll assume that the real basis of your conversion is something like an emotional need to believe that universal morals exist. Like other people have an emotional need to believe they were given a universal purpose in life, or that they will see their deceased relative again. From what I can tell, you are a person who deeply wants to live an ethical life and for that you deserve praise. But it would be a fallacy to assume that the morals you want to live by are ingrained in the cosmos.

So, How Does a Staunch Atheist Turn Catholic?

After much contemplation on the question, an answer occurred to me. A staunch Atheist becomes religious when they weren’t really a staunch Atheist in the first place. Leah has long been trying to fit her view of morality into the universe; although not totally incompatible with Atheism, since they are independent concepts, morality is really linked closely with religion and fits better there.

To me a staunch, reasoned, Atheist is someone who wants their religious beliefs to be 100% based on reason. And because outside of divine revelation that is impossible I posit that nearly all non-Atheists base their belief, at least partially, on something other than reason.

And just to be clear, I define Atheist as someone who does not believe in god(s). That means you too, Agnostics.

A Book Recommendation for Leah

Honestly, I’m skeptical this will be at all convincing to you, Leah. But since I read a few chapters in Mere Christianity, please read Chapter 11 of The Atheist’s Way titled “We Make Our Ethics”. Personally, I think books by Harris and Dawkins do a much better job of arguing for Atheism (and you, Leah, do not find these convincing), but The Atheist’s Way seems to address some of the issues that concern you.


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