'Having better fights about religion' was the title of a talk given by blogger Leah Libresco and hosted by the Irish Catholic last Wednesday.
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.
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”.
Both her atheist and Catholic friends told her that these views were incompatible with atheism, but her breakthrough moment came when she realised that for her, morality was not so much an abstract law, as something close to a person.
She was accepted into the Catholic Church in 2012.
‘Aim of debate’
It leaves her very well placed to discuss “better fights about religion”. She says the aim of debate should not be to beat opponents around the head with the brilliance of your arguments, but to move towards truth together.
She suggested that if someone breaches this in a face-to-face or online debate and resorts to personalised abuse, that it helps her to reframe it, to hear someone saying, “I hate you! I hate you!’ as really expressing “I’m in pain! I’m in pain!”
You may or may not be responsible for that pain but it is much easier not to be defensive if you can see that the person is coming from a place of pain. However, it may not be good either for you or the person to continue to engage at that point.
I thought about a letter I had just received from a gay Irish woman who is expecting her first child. It exemplified how to have better fights, if not about religion, at least about social policy. Her first comments were to apologise for the level of vitriol I had been subjected to over recent months, and to say that it was not representative of the gay community.
The letter-writer then gave a respectful and sincere explanation of why she believes that gay marriage should be passed. It is a very great pity that more debates, particularly in the media, cannot be conducted in that spirit. Many producers appear to believe that a programme only comes to life if there is heat rather than light in the studio.
Even as a listener or viewer, I find the kind of debate where people are forced into soundbites in order to get any point at all across, and where people attack the good faith of others deeply frustrating. Most people who are interested in current affairs seem to agree. In this online era, we need playful, intelligent, kind debate as exemplified by Libresco even more, or else our allegedly tolerant age is just a screen for new forms of bigotry.