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Sean SalaiJanuary 14, 2015

Leah Libresco is a writer and school systems analyst based in Washington, D.C. A former atheist blogger and writer for the Huffington Post, Ms. Libresco stunned her readers in summer 2012 when she announced that she was converting to Catholicism. Raised in an atheist household on Long Island, she had graduated from Yale University in 2011 with a B.A. in political science.

Ms. Libresco now writes about her conversion and newfound Catholic faith in the Unequally Yoked blog at the Patheos Catholic portal. A frequent commentator on Catholic issues, she has appeared on CNN and other national media outlets to discuss her conversion from rationalist atheism to Catholicism. Her writing has also appeared in First Things magazine and the American Conservative. Her first book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer, will be published by Ave Maria Press on May 11. On Jan. 14, I interviewed Ms. Libresco by email about her ongoing faith journey.

What were your first experiences of religion?

I grew up on Long Island, where most of the people I knew were non-religious Jews. So, religion was so far from most of our minds that, when I was in AP European History, and we were learning about the Reformation, one of my classmates raised his hand to ask if Lutherans still existed.

The main exposure I had to religion was through politics (I was the kind of kid who hurried home to watch "Crossfire"). When your experience of Christianity is filtered through politics, you wind up only seeing whatever parts of Christianity are most tied to current cultural controversies, and all of theology seems interesting only insofar as it informs policy preferences.

How and why did you become a self-professed atheist?

There wasn’t really a time when I wasn’t an atheist. My parents are both atheists, so that’s how I was raised. Religion didn’t really rise to the level of plausibility for me to think about denying it as a major part of my identity, any more than “UFO skeptic” is how anyone would introduce themselves.

As an undergraduate student at Yale, how did you experience religion?

Yale was the first time I met and talked to smart, interesting Christians. I joined the Yale Political Union as a freshman, which is a debating society. I say society, not team, because competitive college is a very different beast than what the YPU did. Debate teams practice rhetoric and clever reasoning, training to argue any side of an issue as adeptly as possible to be awarded a win by a judge. In the YPU, we only made arguments we actually agreed with, and score wasn’t kept in points, but in conversions (not just religious ones—someone leaving behind Objectivism counted), and there was as much honor in admitting you were wrong as in forcing an opponent to admit that she was.

So, when I started coming to debates, I was suddenly hearing from thoughtful, creative Christians, and, because the weekly debates covered such a broad range of topics (everything from “R: Legalize Prostitution” to “R: End America’s Special Relationship with Israel” to “R: Guillotines are the Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread” [it was a death penalty/vengeance debate]). I started hearing about how Christianity played a role in every facet of my classmates’ lives, not just how it shaped their votes.

It turned out that a lot of the atheist writings I’d read were pitched toward rebutting contemporary American fundamentalist Protestantism and had ill-prepared me for picking fights with the Catholic and Orthodox people I was meeting at Yale. So, I settled in to listen to their speeches, read the books they recommended, and sharpen my arguments.

What drew you to the Catholic Church?

Like Alasdair MacIntyre, I kind of found my way into virtue ethics and, once I was convinced that was the most likely model for how morality works, I had to figure out what virtue ethics implied, and I wound up believing that it was the Catholic faith. Virtue ethics is a system of moral reasoning that is very focused on the changes that choices produce in the moral actor making them. The goal is for us not to do good, but to become good—developing a practical wisdom and sensitivity to conscience that guides our actions.

Catholicism seemed to be pointed at the same end. The Catholic Church wants to help us to become Christ-like, not just to make the correct choices while remaining analytically removed from them. This focus helps answer the question of why we care so much about human flourishing, in the first place. We’re not just trying to create more or happier humans because that’s what we can measure (as some forms of utilitarianism seem to do), but because humans have this unique potential to know and love the good, and to be changed as the result of that love. 

All of our ethics is aimed at becoming most fully ourselves (which is to say, again, like Christ), and all of our practical, quotidian choices are aimed at offering and receiving love from others, to learn how to participate in God’s love for us.

This teleological focus attracted me, as did some of its consequences—the prizing of all people for this potential, to the point where we could echo Martin Luther King’s statement, “I love you. I would rather die than hate you.” No one is discardable in this framework.

What were your biggest obstacles to becoming Catholic and how did you resolve them?

My two biggest obstacles were the two heresies that tempted me most: Gnosticism and Pelagianism.

Gnosticism, and its attendant hatred/suspicion of the body, has made intuitive sense to me ever since I was little. I’ve been interested primarily in the abstract and the intellectual, so I’ve tended to think of my body as the thing that carries around the real me—my mind. I wanted to keep it in good enough repair for it to not inhibit or interfere with me, but, beyond that, I saw it simply as a tool, and one I wouldn’t care about switching for an engineered, robotic one, if the opportunity ever presented itself.

Ultimately, I knew I couldn’t be both Gnostic and Catholic, and I wound up more confident that Catholicism was true than that Gnosticism was. A faith that has God deliberately make these bodies part of who we are and has his own Son come down to meet us, incarnate as we are, doesn’t look favorably on having contempt for this aspect of creation. 

After I made up my mind to convert, I got sourdough starter and started baking regularly, since putting more effort than was strictly necessary into eating (rather than refueling) seemed like the most anti-gnostic thing I could do on short notice.

As for Pelagianism (the ideas that we can perfect ourselves, by ourselves), it was hard for me to imagine mercy as a gift, rather than as a way to cheat at morality and get away with it. I’ve had a lot in common with Les Mis’s Inspector Javert, who would rather be judged solely by his own merits and efforts than to be dependent on anyone else.

I had trouble imagining a God who wanted to help me, rather than just to judge me “fairly.” Ultimately, this was a problem that I kind of adjusted to by using a lot of perspective reframes (i.e. I don’t despise other people when they need help, so why would I assume they/God would feel annoyed by my pleas and prayers?).

Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?

Blessed Ramon Llull—for his nerdy, systematizing approach to evangelization (he tried to assemble an argumentative Choose Your Own Adventure book, where you would begin at the page corresponding to your current views and answer Socratic questions by flipping to the appropriate page, until you arrived at orthodox Catholic teaching).

St. Augustine—my confirmation saint, and someone who pairs both an extraordinary love for God and a history of sharing some of my temptations (Manicheanism). I figured it would be good to choose a saint who knew the way out of some of my weaknesses.

St. Maximillian Kolbe—the love he showed in a concentration camp, when he volunteered to die in the place of another prisoner, who still had family living, didn’t conquer death in the sense of preventing it, but exposed death as smaller and less important than our ability to offer Christ-like love to each other and to receive Christ’s love for us.

How do you pray?

Since I’m a convert, learning to pray was basically like learning a foreign language, and I had to rely a lot on the best secular analogies I could come up to find my way into prayer.  As I discuss in my forthcoming book, Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer, one prayer I struggled with was the Rosary. It was the most stereotypically Catholic prayer I could think of, but it was hard for me to progress through the beads and Hail Marys without getting frustrated or self-conscious.

I kept worrying about whether I was getting enough out of the prayer or thinking hard enough about the meditations. I wanted something I could succeed at (shades of Pelagianism again). What helped me make peace with the prayer was thinking about my experiences learning ballroom dance.

When I started learning to waltz, I spent a lot of time just practicing the basic waltz step—the same kind of endless repetition as the Hail Marys of the Rosary. The reason I was supposed to keep practicing was so that my feet could keep the rhythm, no matter what. 

Since I’m a follow when I dance, I don’t need to have learned every step to be able to dance it—usually, if I have a good enough connection with my partner and a reasonable grasp of the basic, I can follow my lead through more complicated steps than I could execute alone, since their motion leads me into the next place I should be.

I wound up thinking of the rosary as my chance to follow a “basic step” for prayer. My goal wasn’t to produce epiphanies about the lives of Christ and Mary, but to fall into God’s rhythm and to be ready to move if he led me.

How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a writer?

It makes it a lot easier to resist weighing in on every hot button or controversial issue/news story to come along. I didn’t write anything on the Synod on the Family, for example.  I feel freer to choose the topics I have actual expertise in and where I have genuine joy to share, because no one’s salvation will ever turn on what I write or don’t write. 

If I am doing good, it’ll be mostly by getting out of the way of God, and letting him shine through me more clearly, so I try to focus on writing about whatever delights me most or whatever strikes me as beautiful (hence, a lot of math and Sondheim).

My job isn’t to explain the whole church and every bit of its theology, or to trace out what Christianity says about every question that might come up (I’ll leave some of those to the Vatican astronomers!). A lot of what I do try to do is give a sense of why I find the church beautiful and plausible enough to be worth asking questions about, and, once someone’s sold on that point, they can do what I did and find the people who are specialists on whatever troubles them.

What is your favorite scripture verse?

Ezekiel 36:26—“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.”

I tend to be pretty good at the intellectual/analytics and pretty terrible at kindness/empathy/agape/etc., so this promise is comforting to me. God didn’t come and adopt only the people who were already adept at all this; he has a plan for people like me, too.

What’s your next step in life?

I have my first book coming out this May (Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers that Even I Can Offer). It is, I hope, a guide to many of the things I found both perplexing and beautiful about Catholic prayer. Since my conversion, I’ve loved making connections between some of my old, secular loves (like mathematics and musical theatre) and the spiritual life. I love seeing how beauty winds up pointing back to God, albeit along some very odd paths on the return journey.

Outside my professional life, I like trying to figure out how to adopt and adapt virtues of hospitality to new contexts. I’m unmarried, as of yet, so I’ve been working to figure out how to build up a welcoming home for friends (a la Robert Farrar Capon), when my own life lacks the rootedness and stability that a family with children must acquire.

Do you have any final thoughts?

I think it’s common to approach many conversations about our faith as an argument, or as intrinsically challenging to others (and that last isn’t entirely wrong!). I’ve profited a lot out of the advice of one of my friends, who said to never point out other people’s flaws unasked, but to frequently ask help with your own. It’s better evangelization (and better for me) when my non-Catholic friends wind up learning about Catholic teaching when I ask them to help me remember to leave a party in time to pray Night Office without being exhausted or if I ask them to provide a friendly ear when I’ve had a frustrating day, but emphasize that I also want help looking with compassion at the person who’s irritating me. It’s helpful for them to see what the faith looks like as practiced, rather than as prescribed to outsiders, and it helps me open my life to them and receive their love.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.

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Lisa Sutton
9 years 4 months ago
Excellent interview. Thank you!
Chris Phoenix
9 years 4 months ago
Ms. Libresco's chain of reasoning has a weak link right at the start. I don't say broken, but it is a link that need not be followed. She writes, "I kind of found my way into virtue ethics and, once I was convinced that was the most likely model for how morality works..." If morality is actions consistent with a concrete, real, universal, ideal of goodness, it is only a small step from there to theism, and from theism to Catholicism. I suspect that Ms. Libresco believed, at least implicitly, in morality before she encountered the arguments for Christianity. However, personal belief in morality, and even the existence of morality, are not obviously necessary to either being a good person, or striving to make oneself better. There are many kinds of goodness that do not depend on an absolute ideal of goodness. There are well-respected and well-established belief systems that do not rely on such an absolute. The implication of this interview is that any person facing the arguments Ms. Libresco confronted might have decided as she did. But there remains the option to be good but not Godly, striving for indefinite improvement without belief in ineffable perfection - today, just as in all the years B.C.
Anne Chapman
9 years 4 months ago
Thank you - this needed to be pointed out. One might also point out that there are at least 5 billion people in the world today who are not christians, and many of them live very good lives and have excellent standards of morality - not just those who lived before Jesus' birth. Many of the "goodest" and most moral people I know personally are Jewish, but apparently this young woman never got to really know the faith of those with whom she grew up in Long Island. I doubt they were ALL atheists! Sometimes it seems that those who were raised as atheists or agnostics are most susceptible - or to use a more positive term - open - to being "converted" to a religion. Many young American Buddhists grew up without religion, and are put off by much of what they see in most organized religion. They see in Buddhism what they often don't see in much of christianity. They don't seek dogma and doctrine, but a way to live. Compassion is the operative word for most Buddhists. Compassion and love and mercy are also hallmarks of Christ's teachings, but few would know this from observing christianity as an outsider. They see what is in the news - the "culture warriors" and are not attracted. The Dalai Lama and Pope Francis attract. The question is - will Francis be able to continue to walk the fine line he is walking now on remaining 'orthodox" on doctrine, but teaching love and compassion? I would be interested to hear back from this young woman in 20 years, when she is past the romance/honeymoon period with Catholicism/religion in general.
Cesar Chavira
9 years 4 months ago
Hmm. I don't think I inferred, as it appears you have, that by "non-religious Jews" she meant to say "atheists." But the subject of the article does make explicit that the encounters she had with the Christians at Yale had a greater effect on her journey to religion, and Catholicism in particular, than did the Jews with whom she interacted earlier in her life. Never does the subject suggest that Jews are not moral or even that Jews are less moral than others. Further, I admit, I find it curious that you appear to defend non-Christians and Jews, in particular, though I struggle to find from whom or from what it is you are defending them. In your second paragraph, you suggest that American Buddhists are put off by organized religion, but this seems an odd statement to me because you appear to suggest that Buddhism is not organized. I wish you would clarify your argument so I can better understand you. Finally, you close with a statement that I find very curious. Provocative, really. Am I wrong to say that I 'hear' a touch of cynicism in your question? What would YOU expect to hear from the subject of the article 20 years hence? If you could hazard a guess, what would that guess be?
Anne Chapman
9 years 4 months ago
This is what I was responding to - "But there remains the option to be good but not Godly, striving for indefinite improvement without belief in ineffable perfection - today, just as in all the years B.C." My main point is that goodness and morality are not confined to Catholicism, nor to christianity, nor to religion. One can find goodness and standards of morality in all religions, and in those who have no religion. This is the case today, just as it was in the time before Christ. I have no idea of the future course of this young woman, but since she is an intelligent and intellectual young woman, I would be interested in following her religious journey to see where it leads. Since she is a writer, this should be easily accomplished. I do not know many people whose beliefs do not change at least somewhat as they grow older. With life experience, many moderate or even change the ideas they held when they were in their 20s.
Janean Stallman
9 years 3 months ago
I totally agree with Anne on the point of experience and maturity. This young woman has seemingly based her conversion decision on a intellectual pursuit, one that appears to have eliminated other religions of the basis of ethical and moral content. In some ways, she went the route of St. Augustine of Hippo, but something is missing here. Augustine, after his intellectual search, had a spiritual/mystical experience in which he "knew" the truth beyond his book studies. When one comes to know Christ through prayer and personal experience, faith becomes real and ritual prayer takes on new meaning. I think this is the honeymoon for her. Let her enjoy it, and hope that she can develop and sustain a deeper Christian life as she matures.
Cesar Chavira
9 years 4 months ago
A very refreshing read. Thank you for sharing this story.
Sean Salai, S.J.
9 years 4 months ago

Thank you all for reading. I'm glad the interview provided some good material for discussion. If you want to find out more about Ms. Libresco's conversion, please follow the hyperlinks in our interview to her blog.

Molly Rolen
9 years 3 months ago
Truly compelling article and equally interesting comments. One thing, however, remains unclear. Do you believe the Christ-story (an actual man existed, born of a virgin, who was the Son of God), as this is typically what makes one a Christian, or is Christ a symbol for your approach to this religion? I think either approach could influence one to participate in/towards the greater good.
Kevin Van Horn
9 years ago
Leah writes, "I kind of found my way into virtue ethics ... I had to figure out what virtue ethics implied, and I wound up believing that it was the Catholic faith." Ethics deals with "ought"; it tells you nothing about "is", that is, the actual state of the world around us. Even if you view ethics as dealing with the "is" question of "what practices and behaviors promote human welfare," the kind of evidence that would point towards virtue ethics as well suited to promoting human welfare has no relevance at all to (1) cosmological questions such as whether there exists an omniscient, omnipotent creator of the universe; nor to (2) cognitive science questions such as whether human minds continue to function even after the brain dies; nor to (3) historical questions such as whether the Jesus of the Christian gospels performed the miracles claimed of him, or indeed whether he ever even existed; nor to (4) materials science questions such as whether a priest saying a few words over some wafers and wine can turn them into actual flesh and blood (that nonetheless look, taste, and feel exactly like wafers and wine).

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