Leah Libresco engages Catholics and atheists in ‘better fights about religion’

Opinion: Personalised abuse indicates if someone says “I hate you!” they may really be in pain, she suggests

‘Leah Libresco’s unusual qualities may be indicated by the fact that it was livestreamed by iCatholic.ie, but she was also extensively interviewed by Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland.’

‘Leah Libresco’s unusual qualities may be indicated by the fact that it was livestreamed by iCatholic.ie, but she was also extensively interviewed by Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland.’

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 00:01

‘Having better fights about religion’ was the title of a talk given by blogger Leah Libresco and hosted by the Irish Catholic last Wednesday.

Her unusual qualities may be indicated by the fact that it was livestreamed by iCatholic.ie, but she was also extensively interviewed by Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland.

Leah was a well-known atheist blogger, or at least well-known enough that CNN covered her conversion to Catholicism. She grew up in a non-religious household on Long Island with college professor parents, in a “community [that] was so isolated from religion that, when we learned about the Reformation in [high school] . . . European history, one student raised his hand to ask if Lutherans still existed”.

In fact, it wasn’t until she joined Yale Union, the philosophical and political debating society, that she fully realised that all Christians were not fundamentalist Young Earth Creationists. When she started dating a Catholic, she made a playful deal – she would go to Mass with him every week if he went to ballroom dancing classes with her, and they would also exchange books that best represented their positions.

She then set up a blog, which she called “Unequally Yoked”, to widen the scope of discussion. The relationship with her Catholic boyfriend ended, but she continued having debates about atheism, faith, morality, maths and sometimes, Les Misérables.

‘Turing tests’

Her blog features among other things, “ideological Turing tests”. Alan Turing devised a test which examines whether a computer can be programmed so that it could fool a judge into thinking that its responses to typed questions were produced by a human. (A computer passed for the first time recently, mimicking a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy.)

Economist Bryan Caplan invented ideological Turing tests. He challenged economist Paul Krugman to attempt to pass as a libertarian economist.

To do so, you would have to understand the worldview of an opponent very well indeed, which Caplan was convinced Krugman did not. (Krugman declined to take the test.)

Libresco asked Christians to answer questions online anonymously as if they were atheists, and vice versa, followed by an online vote to see if the real atheists and Christians could be detected.

It proved fascinating, because as she said in her Irish Catholic talk, sometimes the position you think you are engaging with is not what the person believes at all.

Largely because of engaging in this kind of playful but robust intellectual debate, this young woman argued herself not so much into Catholicism, as out of her atheist beliefs. Her belief that there is such a thing as objective morality proved crucial. Just as she believes that mathematical rules exist before humans, and are discovered by them, she believes discovering what is right and wrong is more “archaeology than architecture”.

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