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One of the reasons I’ve enjoyed reading about Leah Libresco‘s conversion is it’s such a clear, current and vivid illustration of a phenomenon whose existence many would fervently like to wish away, would like to declare impossible. Namely, Libresco is demonstrably intelligent, with an actively questioning mind, and young; and she once actively declared herself belonging to the atheism that she has now rejected in favour of Catholicism. Many people find the existence of such a person really hard to take.

The clearest example of this is JT Eberhard, a young atheist blogger who remains a young atheist blogger. In his reaction, Eberhard proclaims: “I’m reading through all her posts and I’m floored. Leah’s really smart. I cannot believe the things she’s writing are coming from her mind.” How could a smart atheist possibly become “religious”? Surely that’s not possible. How could this happen?

It’s not only atheists who have such a problem. Travelling in Thailand long ago, I once spoke to an Australian fellow backpacker of partially Thai ethnic origin, who was persuaded by Buddhism and thought Christianity was “crap”. I mentioned that there were significant if small numbers of Thai Christians, that I’d been to a Catholic church constructed like a Thai temple. He responded, “Oh, they must be from those animistic hill tribes, right?” When I said no, they were Bangkokians who had converted from Buddhism, he was stunned. How is that possible? How could smart, civilized Buddhists possibly embrace Catholicism?

The answer is: the same way a smart Catholic becomes atheistic or Buddhist. You start by recognizing that you don’t know everything, that your current worldview has gaps. You spend a lot of time reading, discussing and thinking about the great perennial questions that have occupied human beings for millennia – what is good and bad, and why? should we immerse ourselves in mundane everyday life or seek to transcend it? – and you explore the worldviews of those who do not agree with you. Gradually you come to realize that they have figured things out that you hadn’t – so that their worldview, as a whole, makes a lot more sense than you thought yours did. And then it makes sense to adopt the bulk of it. As an old BBS tagline once had it: if the exceptions outnumber the rules, exchange them. (My own awakening to Buddhism was a weaker version of this process, one that doesn’t illustrate it as clearly as Libresco’s does: I never proclaimed myself a Buddhist, but I did come to accept key Buddhist doctrines in a way that required rejecting significant parts of my previous worldview.)

This process of intellectual conversion can happen both from “religion” to atheism and from atheism to “religion” – just as it does from one “religion” to another. Even if we grant that only one of these worldviews (whether atheism, a single “religion”, or some specific combination) happens to be true, there are still going to be many intelligent people who move away from it. The big questions have been examined in great detail by many towering intellects over thousands of years, and there continue to be very intelligent people on each side. If the truth is somewhere out there to be found – and I suspect that it is – it is a truth so subtle, so nuanced, so detailed, so precise that one would be very lucky to reach it within a single lifetime. The errors available on opposing sides have enough grains of truth in them that they can be very persuasive to those who do not see the whole truth, even if they grasp a relatively large fragment of it.

The classical Jain tradition encapsulated a view something like this in its doctrine of anekāntavāda (many-sidedness), often expressed in the parable of the blind men grasping the elephant. One man grasps the legs and says an elephant is thick and tough, one grasps the tail and says an elephant is thin and flexible, and so on. We’re all grasping at a partial and one-sided truth; nobody gets the whole. The difficulty with such views comes with the question: how do you then know the whole truth is out there? The Jains were able to say: we limited humans can’t see the whole truth, but the >tīrthaṅkaras, the superhuman Jains who have followed the path to its completion and attained supernatural awakening, can indeed. A similar insight seems to animate many Christians – as I understand Bishop Berkeley, he defended his claim that everything is ideas in the mind by saying ultimately it’s an idea in God’s mind.

But then the question arises: does this kind of viewpoint, this attention to one’s own partiality, make sense for those of us who don’t believe there are such omniscient beings? Without the perfect being who can see the whole elephant, how do we know the elephant is out there, and not just the portion we happen to touch?

Well, for one thing, we can talk to the other blind men, and we can do it in a constructive way. Rather than arguing over whether an elephant is thick and tough or whether it’s thin and flexible, the blind men can try to infer how all these views might be true at once if one is grasping a different part. That still leaves the possibility of additional vistas nobody sees, but we can still take our best shot. Even the idea of a whole and larger truth is itself a best guess. We don’t have certainty about most matters, including that one; only an omniscient being could have that. But then the positing of an omniscient being doesn’t solve that problem – for we are not ourselves that being. The very idea that there are omniscient beings could itself turn out to be partial, superseded by a higher truth. What a recognition of partiality does is remind us to doubt, to acknowledge uncertainty even as we try to grasp higher and less partial truths – we just need to remember that we still need to live and act even in the face of this doubt.

In Eberhard’s case, Libresco has agreed to a dialogue with him, which I greatly look forward to. From what Eberhard has written so far, it sounds like he sincerely wants to know Libresco’s reasons and understand her; he’s ready to have his mind opened. And let me not risk any confusion here: by “have his mind opened” I do not mean that he’s likely to convert to Catholicism or even away from atheism, just that, if his dialogue is really entered into with the good faith he proclaims, he’s likely to begin to start seeing the real reasons underlying the side he disagrees with. He’s already learned, to his astonishment, that it’s possible for a smart person to convert from atheism to Catholicism; now he will learn how it’s possible. I suspect those of us who watch the dialogue happen will learn some very interesting things as well. Hopefully, everyone involved will exit the process knowing parts of the elephant they had not previously grasped.

EDIT, 7 Aug 2012: The BBS tagline I quoted above originally read “if the exceptions outnumber the rules, change them.” It should have been “exchange them”, and I’ve changed it accordingly.