Libresco and the Secular Moral Life I

When I was in the seventh grade, I would often debate religion on the internet. It was sort of a pastime for me after school. Between the final bell and the martial arts classes I took later in the evening, I was set up on one of the unused computers at my dad’s office, I would log onto Myspace, and then visit the forums with names like “Atheism vs Religion” and “Creation vs Evolution”.

As anyone who knows me could probably guess, I was among the ranks of the atheists. This was a formative time for me, and valuable in my intellectual development. Although internet debates have a reputation for being scummy, repetitive, and generally unproductive, I found the opportunity to articulate my ideas and engage with people—often intelligent articulate people– who genuinely did not share my world view to be somewhat exhilarating.

I cannot say what has changed about internet debates in the meantime or why I cannot easily return to the state of mind where I found these debates enjoyable. Perhaps the quality of the internet has gone down. Or more likely I have grown more experienced, and arguments that were once novel and interesting have become repetitive.

Regardless, I bring this up because I wanted to talk about particular experience on these forums. It was after I had been in the community for a while, and after I felt like all of the well-arguments had been made, I decided I would try something new. I decided that I would go on the forum and play for the other team for a bit.

So I made a new account (a girl named “Amy”, aged 15, one year older than I was at the time, whose picture I lifted from the internet– sorry!). Amy was a sweet, compassionate, sincere, and intellectually curious liberal Christian, and in the skin of this new alter ego, I started participating in debates.

The point of Amy was not to ape or parody Christian beliefs. Her point was to see if I could adopt the position of a liberal Christian and make compelling the sort of arguments that a liberal Christian could make. I also wanted to try to do Christian apology “correctly”, without arguments that I thought were faulty.

Unfortunately, Amy never got into any serious debates with atheists. I never quite made her views noxious enough for the atheists to take issue with them (though one of the atheist guys was pretty clearly trying to flirt with Amy—that was super classy). In the end, Amy got into more debates with conservative Christians than she did with Atheists.

Here’s the thing about Amy. The other liberal Christians on the forums loved her. Of course, part of it was likely that they were happy to see a young, articulate person engaged and curious about her religious belief. They didn’t always agree with her (for example, when she argued that it didn’t make sense for god to value her above any other person); her theology was a little shoddy. But they believed that her concerns were the sorts of concerns that a legitimate Christian might hold.

Of course, part of the reason why I was able to be Amy so easily is because, deep down, she wasn’t that different from me. This was also likely the reason I got bored with Amy was because it wasn’t that different from going on the forums as me—I would still get into mostly the same arguments with the same people. I didn’t want to make arguments that I knew I could argue against.

Fast forward to the present day when I, though the network of blogs that I read, discovered the blogger/author/radio personality Leah Libresco.

Leah Libresco is a blogger on religion, known initially for her Ideological Turing Test, which challenges her readers to distinguish between a sincere believer (either atheist or Christian) and a fake (a Christian pretending to be an atheist, or visa versa), based on their answers to a personal/philosophical/ethical question. As this exercise demonstrates, telling the reals from the fakes is challenging, and attempting it often reveals prejudices and misconceptions about both the outgroup and the ingroup.

On her blog, she seems to have cultivated a very thoughtful approach to religious debates, framing them not as a contest, but as an opportunity for intellectual collaboration between people who do not agree with each other.

The other interesting thing about Leah Libresco is that, in 2012, she converted to Christianity. The atheism blog became a religious blog, and she has since become an interesting and influential apologist. She also has a book out, which I read pieces of, talking about her experiences as she adopted her new religion, and how the new rituals and practices contributed to her intellectual/spiritual growth.

So basically, Leah Libresco is the person I intended Amy to be.

Reading her story, I felt a personal affinity with her. Like me, she grew up in a relatively non-religious household. Like me, she developed a premature interest in philosophy. Like me, she was pleasantly surprised to encounter Christians whose intellect, curiosity, and conviction in their beliefs matched her own. Like me, she found great value in engaging with these people, taking their ideas seriously, and using debate as a form of intellectual collaboration, rather than a contest.

However, unlike me, she has actually become a Christian.

An important difference to be sure, and one that makes me deeply inclined to read more, if only to understand what the hell is going on there. The  most interesting difference are those that are stand out of a field of similarities. Plus, you don’t often get windows into this sort of personal and intellectual growth, or see them rendered with such clarity.

My primary goal in analyzing her articles is to help clarify and define my own philosophical positions. To quote Lev Vygotsky, one of the fathers of developmental psychology, “Through others, we become ourselves.” I expect that I will find my ideas clarified in her writing. I also expect that I will be moved to articulate ideas more clearly in opposition to hers.

But finally, I think that she offers some important and cogent criticisms of atheism and humanism, which are worth exploring. In her words (from before her conversion)

“Atheists and humanists were hurt by a lack of community or sense of responsibility for other people who shared their beliefs. Although atheism may be a very important political category when dealing with church-state issues and creationism, it is pretty well near useless as a philosophical category.

Atheists belong to some other group, even if that group doesn’t have a well-known name or tradition.  Some atheists are nihilists, some are existentialist, and some are crazy, mixed up proponents of absolute moral law like me, but we all have actual beliefs to defend beyond our lack of belief in God.  If you talk about atheists as having a primary loyalty to the philosophical category of atheism, you’re going to run into trouble.”

This is a criticism of atheism that I take seriously. Taking this criticism seriously is the reason I identify (albeit loosely) as a Unitarian Universalist, which offers something approaching solidarity to people who are skeptical of religious doctrine. It is also why I think it is important to build a solid atheistic tradition– a tradition upon which people can build their houses and return after they have ventured in the world.

For better or for worse, Leah Libresco seems to have found such a tradition within the Roman Catholic Church. Of course, it doesn’t feel good when someone switches away from your team, but I can’t help but feel some joy at seeing someone like me find a place where they fit. It gives me some hope for myself, even if their place would be ill suited for me.

As for myself, well, I think that for the time being my flag has been planted. My atheism is, at this point, almost a product of the way I frame questions about god, about divinity, and especially about humanity. The world, as I have come to understand it, does not have a personal god. This isn’t to say that my confidence in my atheism is unshakable (for confidence should never be truly unshakable). But it is to say that if you were to uproot my atheism, you would take a lot of my worldview with it. It is sewn into my beliefs like thread in a tapestry. To give a thorough account of this tapestry would require more pages than I can write right now, but the short version is this: I think human troubles make more sense if you accept that nobody has a personal relationship with an omnipotent source of truth and goodness.

Once that premise has been accepted, it invites the question: how the hell have people have managed to muddle through all of this time? This question has as many answers as there are people in the world. But, for me, deepening my understanding of these answers is about as high a calling as they come.

Of course, for many people, the answer to this question has been “faith”– Leah Libersco being one of them. But me, my flag is in the faithless tradition. I would see atheism become a strong, philosophically meaningful category for more people. I would show how the philosophy and epistemology of faithlessness has helped me find something that approaches meaning and intellectual fulfillment, and answers to questions of human nature.

In my next post, I plan to talk more about the questions of morality. Morality is  central to Christian theological discussion. Indeed, Leah Libresco claims that her conversion was motivated in part by her repeated failure to reconcile her moral philosophy with an atheistic universe. Other apologetic writers, particularly C.S. Lewis, have argued that the existence of a “moral law” is proof that there exists a God. I want to unpack this argument and reveal some of the assumptions about human moral and intellectual life that I view to be faulty.

Until then, I’m out.

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