A startling thing happened last week on Patheos, a website for conversation about “religion”. Atheist blogger Leah Libresco wrote a post entitled “This is my last post for the Patheos atheist portal”. Not for the reason you’d normally expect – that she had no time for blogging and was moving on to other ventures in life. No, Libresco wrote this because she was now going to start writing for the Catholic portal. For exactly the reason you might expect: she has converted and become a Catholic.
This is particularly surprising since Libresco describes herself openly as a geek. I can vouch from personal experience that communities of geeks, built around shared interests in role-playing games or computers or science fiction, tend to be strongly atheistic; anything more than a vague deism seems a bizarre affectation or worse. Among her close friends, Libresco will likely be going this alone.
But, as also befits a geek, Libresco’s conversion, by her own account, was primarily intellectual. In line with what I understand to be Wittgenstein’s claims about conversion, the conversion did not seem to come about as a direct result of persuasion by argument per se – there was no conversation where someone came to her saying “P and Q, therefore God exists”, with her slapping her head and going “Wow! You’re right!” But intellectual it remained – she was searching for explanations and reasons, trying to put together a philosophy and worldview that made sense internally and with the world around it.
In spite of Karl Marx’s epigram-epitaph that the philosophers have only interpreted the world and the point is to change it, all the Marxists I know became Marxist not because they sought a program for social change but because Marx’s thought was the only way they could understand, make sense of, the social world around them. And so it was with Libresco and Catholicism. The worldview that made most sense of the world to her in general, did not make sense without God. Her line of reasoning was not far from the argument for God I discussed last fall. We need to explain the existence of value and goodness – not merely the fact that people happen to believe in them, but the fact that they are in some sense real. For this reality is something we can’t deny unless we accept the radical relativism few seriously defend, where Pol Pot was not really wrong but just different.
Where we go from that understanding is another matter. It might just be to a metaphysics of human nature; but it might also be to a metaphysics of reality itself, and that’s where Libresco ended up. She was used to arguing against insufficient evolutionary explanations, discussing what morality and its explanation are not, but had a hard time defining her conception of what morality and its explanation actually are. A friend pressed her hard to do so – “your best guess” – and the first response she came up with was “I guess Morality just loves me or something.” Her friend was left speechless, and she added: “Ok, ok, yes, I heard what I just said. Give me a second and let me decide if I believe it.” It turns out that she did: she realized in the instance of that conversation that she saw morality not merely as a truth but as a person. With that step taken, it didn’t take long to identify who the person in question was.
I recognize a lot of myself in Libresco’s early story: taking a great many ideas from Christian tradition without wanting to make a wholesale conversion. One of Libresco’s friends said that s/he would also have probably been convinced by Libresco’s reasoning if s/he, like Libresco, had been a “weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist.” That last phrase describes me reasonably well. But unlike Libresco I have not converted to Christianity or any other monotheism, certainly not now and I would guess not ever. There are a lot of reasons for this, but one stands out in the current context, one which is the biggest problem with theism from within a theist perspective.
There’s been a lot of buzz online about the difficulties that will come for someone in Libresco’s position; much of it focuses around her bisexuality, which is of course disapproved of in official Catholic teaching. But I bet that Libresco is going to wind up spending a lot of time over the next few years or decades butting her head against a much bigger question: the problem of suffering (or even of evil). If morality is both a person and a Platonic form underlying the universe, how can it possibly be that the universe is so full of immorality? Never having identified as a theist, I never really thought much about the problem of suffering until I started to take theistic claims really seriously – above all in order to teach them fairly and sympathetically. And it was exactly as I did so that the problem of suffering appeared to me as a real problem.
We are dealing here, I think, with a perennial question: one that I once called the problem of bad and the problem of good. A theistic account, which places goodness at the heart of reality, finds it very difficult to account for the existence of bad things. (This is true for at least some non-Abrahamic quasi-theisms as well, includes the account of early Buddhism – finds it difficult to account, not for the existence of good things, but of goodness and badness themselves. I suspect this is why certain later Mahāyāna forms of Buddhism, such as Yogācāra and Pure Land, wound up turning to theism or theism-like beliefs themselves. But those systems then face the need to ask questions of the form: if the bodhisattvas have the ability to save us all and get us to a pure land without suffering, why haven’t they done that already?