Thwarting a Catholic conversion?

I recently learned that a friend of mine, and a long-time atheist (and atheist blogger), is planning to convert to Catholicism. It seems the impetus for her conversion was increasing frustration that she had no good naturalistic account for objective morality in the form of virtue ethics; that upon reflection, she decided she felt like morality "loved" her; that this feeling implied God; and that she had sufficient "if God, then Catholicism" priors to point toward Catholicism, even though she's bisexual (!) and purports to still feel uncertain about the Church's views on sexuality. (Side note: all of this information is material she's blogged about herself, so it's not as if I'm sharing personal details she would prefer to be kept private.)

First, I want to state the rationality lesson I learned from this episode: atheists who spend a great deal of their time analyzing and even critiquing the views of a particular religion are at-risk atheists. Eliezer's spoken about this sort of issue before ("Someone who spends all day thinking about whether the Trinity does or does not exist, rather than Allah or Thor or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, is more than halfway to Christianity."), but I guess it took a personal experience to really drive the point home. When I first read my friend's post, I had a major "I notice that I am confused" moment, because it just seemed so implausible that someone who understood actual atheist arguments (as opposed to dead little sister Hollywood Atheism) could convert to religion, and Catholicism of all things. I seriously considered (and investigated) the possibility that her post was some kind of prank or experiment or otherwise not sincere, or that her account had been hijacked by a very good impersonator (both of these seem quite unlikely at this point).

But then I remembered how I had been frustrated in the past by her tolerance for what seemed like rank religious bigotry and how often I thought she was taking seriously theological positions that seemed about as likely as the 9/11 attacks being genuinely inspired and ordained by Allah. I remembered how I thought she had a confused conception of meta-ethics and that she often seemed skeptical of reductionism, which in retrospect should have been a major red flag for purported atheists. So yeah, spending all your time arguing about Catholic doctrine really is a warning sign, no matter how strongly you seem to champion the "atheist" side of the debate. Seriously.

But second, and more immediately, I wonder if anybody has advice on how to handle this, or if they've had similar experiences with their friends. I do care about this person, and I was devastated to hear this news, so if there's something I can do to help her, I want to. Of course, I would prefer most that she stop worrying about religion entirely and just grok the math that makes religious hypotheses so unlikely as to not be worth your time. But in the short term I'd settle for her not becoming a Catholic, and not immersing herself further in Dark Side Epistemology or surrounding herself with people trying to convince her that she needs to "repent" of her sexuality.

I think I have a pretty good understanding of the theoretical concepts at stake here, but I'm not sure where to start or what style of argument is likely to have the best effect at this point. My tentative plan is to express my concern, try to get more information about what she's thinking, and get a dialogue going (I expect she'll be open to this), but I wanted to see if you all had more specific suggestions, especially if you've been through similar experiences yourself. Thanks!

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Catholicism of all things

Of the branches of Christianity, and perhaps of all religions, Catholicism has the most developed theology, the most rigorous set of justifications for belief, the longest intellectual tradition and tries the hardest to be convivial with reason. Other branches and other religions would be a lot more surprising (unless you're counting Quakers and Unitarians, for which religion has very little to do with "belief" as we understand it here.) Especially for a self-described virtue ethicist.

I think you're forgetting about Orthodox Jews, who have the Catholics beat on pretty much all counts (age, complexity, and at least arguably "reason"). Of course, it's all mere rationalization -- the bottom line has already been written. And the Orthodox tend to reason within their framework rather than trying to justify their framework to outsiders, presumably because they're not seeking converts.

Catholicism has probably spent a heck of a lot more money on complex proselytizing than Orthodox Judaism. Also Catholics were competing with the Protestants - rabbis have no real competition, since their only audience is Orthodox Jews. But mostly, my point is just that there's this huge, worldwide organized Church that has spent who knows how many equivalent billions of dollars on theology. It's amazing how little they've accomplished, really, given how much they've spent and how many geniuses it wasted (theology was the string theory of its day), but they still did end up with something. Probably an equivalent amount of raw genius, if not money, was wasted on Orthodox Judaic halacha, but in a much less competitive, outside-world-facing way.

The remarkable thing about halacha is that an effective legal system grew out of it. When Jews in Europe didn't have access to the mainstream legal system, rabbinical courts worked well enough.

The remarkable thing about halacha...

Even a broken clock...

Of the branches of Christianity, and perhaps of all religions, Catholicism has the most developed theology, the most rigorous set of justifications for belief, the longest intellectual tradition and tries the hardest to be convivial with reason.

I don't think inventing incredibly convoluted ways to rationalize a bottom line is trying to be "convivial with reason". In fact, it's the exact opposite.

I don't think inventing incredibly convoluted ways to rationalize a bottom line is trying to be "convivial with reason". In fact, it's the exact opposite.

"Convivial with" doesn't mean "conforms to the prescriptions of". One way to be convivial with reason is to invent convoluted rationalizations so that reason hums along happily without realizing that it's being thwarted.

There is a base level scaffolding here called A. A is based on shaky assumptions and essentially a choice to 'believe' in something, and nothing else. People standing on A refuse to look below it, or question why/how it came about, but instead they build these fabulous castles and really intricate structures, the supports and beams for which they easily carve out of A -- since nobody is going to think about how A came to be, or what supports it, we can just have it give us more pillars and beams for the next floor of the castle. Let's build as many floors, as we want.

I do not see this as rigour, or worthy of any merit.

Is your background Catholic? Asking because although I haven't delved in depth into 'justifications for belief' of various religions recently (I stopped shopping around for a religion 16-17 years ago), I don't remember Catholic justifications as being particularly stronger than that of the others I was reading up about (Islam/Buddhism/Hinduism).

unless you're counting Quakers and Unitarians, for which religion has very little to do with "belief" as we understand it here.

What you're talking about has more to do with the typical person's relationship to their religion than belief. (Or "belief")

My formerly agnostic girlfriend of over 5 years just joined a local Catholic congregation.

The best thing you can do for your friend, is to be a friend. Listen to her and support her as a fellow human being. If you have an agenda for what you want her to be, she will most likely be able to sense this.

Just be her friend and accept her for who she is. If she finds that the Catholic community doesn't accept her wholeheartedly, be there for her. If she finds acceptance there, then accept that too.

Hating people for being wrong is a seductive and tricky thing and can lead to unproductive situations. Limited but generous forgiveness and acceptance are optimal strategies in an imperfect world with imperfect communications channels and fallible actors. (Refer to: Axelrod's Prisoner's Dilemma tournament, and a Tit-For-Two-Tats.)

There's always the possibility she will change her mind again. Ask yourself, would you want to be permanently shunned because you didn't come to the correct conclusion fast enough? What would you think of a community with members that acted in that fashion?

It's difficult. I decided to end a friendship recently, due to the friend's wholehearted embrace of catholic doctrine. I just didn't want to be around someone with her views on homosexuality, abortion and contraception. Not sure if this was the right decision, but I no longer found her company enjoyable, and I thought I was unlikely to change her mind.

I find it much easier to be friends with more liberal christians. They are wrong, but in a way that I find easier to deal with.

ETA: could someone explain why this has been downvoted twice? I'm quite new to this site, and would like to know how to avoid this.

ETA2: No longer downvoted, so ignore previous question!

Picking your friends by their politics seems like a bad way to maximize personal well being, unless they insist on talking about it all the time. Indeed people who ostracise others because of ideology are often the ones who can't stop talking about it:

A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject. --Winston Churchill

Most people compartmentalize quite well and most humans are hypocrites. In the real world people with weird or "evil" ideologies can still make great friends and can be good people. And people with wonderful sounding belief systems can be horrible human begins. Don't underestimate the utility she may bring you and how much utility you can bring her by continuing the relationship.

Note that if she is into virtue ethics she may view severing your friendship over religion a breach of loyalty, not something she would do, which means you are sort of defecting. (;_;)

As I say below, she did insist on talking about it too muuch :-).

It would be interesting to discuss the utility of choosing your friends based on politics, but I fear we'd be going too far off topic!

I'm getting to be quite old, and I have very little tolerance for people with strong political beliefs. For people I meet in passing, I generally ignore stupid beliefs and simply transition the conversation elsewhere - it's not worth the time and effort.

However, for anyone I'm going to spend more than passing time with, I usually ridicule and/or contradict what I consider unproductive beliefs if they are expressed strongly. This puts the target on notice that I don't approve and that they had best not talk about it in my presence; occasionally, it gets rid of the target completely, a fact for which I have been grateful many times.

My reasons for so blatantly violating social norms centers largely around the fact that no matter what action I take, I will have at best minimal impact on this person. If I support their view, it is reinforced. If I do nothing, they assume I don't have a problem with it, and it is likewise reinforced. If I directly contradict their view, it also reinforces it, as discussed repeatedly in the articles on this site.

Quite frankly, I have limited time remaining, and better things to do with that time than try to fix an occasional broken belief system in a low- or normal-functioning person. If you're not going to lead and you're not going to follow, then get out of the way.

I just didn't want to be around someone with her views on homosexuality, abortion and contraception; Not sure if this was the right decision, but I didn't find her company enjoyable, and I thought I was unlikely to change her mind.

What was disagreeable about her company? Was she trying to convert you, or constantly telling you you are wrong? Would she be amenable to simply avoiding those topics, and would you be able to deal with that? Why do you need to change her mind?

She did want to discuss moral issues quite a lot, and yes she did want to convert me back to catholicism. I couldn't see what could be gained by continuing the friendship.

And I wanted to change her mind, because it's better not to be a catholic!

And I wanted to change her mind, because it's better not to be a catholic!

Just because you know it's better doesn't mean you have to harbor a burning desire to change her mind. If you want to change her mind for her benefit, ask yourself, is it better for her to continue to be her friend, or to stop? Of course, this can only work if she can take the same stance with you.

You are also free to choose to otherwise, of course. It's enough for me to have posed the interesting questions.

Why were you friends with her in the first place? I understand not wanting to be around someone with terrible mental hygiene habits (because of the epistemic danger), but that sort of thing becomes rather obvious long before they start telling you all about their new religious conversion.

This post has fluctuated a bit. I should clarify that I wasn't suggesting that he or she shouldn't have been friends with her in the first place. I was simply posing the question in order to elicit clarification. (I understand how it may have sounded like I was suggesting that though, which is why I'm writing this.)

I didn't care too much that she's never been much of a rationalist. If I decided that I only wanted to be friends with rationalists I would have to end friendships with a lot of people! I found that her views made her annoying to be around! Perhaps if she'd talked less about her views things would have been different.

There's always the possibility she will change her mind again.

Is she someone likely to be prone to spiritual binge-and-purge? Does she tend to be intense about beliefs or the lack thereof in general?

She tends to feel everything more intensely, resulting in a great deal of anxiety, but hides this behind a poker face. Many people, including her relatives, thought she'd become a nun before she started going out with me.

spiritual binge-and-purge

Gotta love that phrase.

Some people seem to need something to believe, and they are often quite driven people. It may not be religion - we've seen a few around LessWrong, who give up religion and pursue the Singularity with the same intensity, or go the other way.

When I first read my friend's post, I had a major "I notice that I am confused" moment, because it just seemed so implausible that someone who understood actual atheist arguments (as opposed to dead little sister Hollywood Atheism) could convert to religion, and Catholicism of all things.

Catholicism is actually one of the intellectually more formidable religions. If you accept a few key axioms of Christianity (and even most atheist Westerners do) and think about their implications for a lot of time it seems remarkable how vulnerable you are to converting to it.

In Christianspace, for the intelectual who likes playing around with very abstract dry concepts Catholicism seems to be a strong attractor. While protestants have played around with reversing its stupidity traditional Western civilization is fundamentally Catholic civilization. It gets the halo effect from a whole lot of art and great thinkers and pretty Churches. Then there is also the sheer majoritarian argument in its favour since it is by far the largest denomination and has institutional continuity going back more than 1500 years. When people around the world think Christianity, they think Catholic.

Also as Moldbug says:

Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake. Maybe they both did. Have you checked their work? One bad variable will bust your whole proof.

Adjacent to your point but:

John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason.

Late Rawls abandons these pretensions. His theory of justice is more like an rational extrapolation of moral instincts in Western cultures.

(Edit: Just realized my description of Rawls could be taken to suggest it in some way resembles "coherant extrapolated volition". I mean no such comparison.)

Thomas Aquinas derived Catholicism from pure reason. John Rawls derived progressivism from pure reason. At least one of them must have made a mistake.

And/or their ‘pure reasons’ were different from each other.

Yes but Moldbug obviously dosen't think they are that different and I can kind of see his point.

I guess what I mostly meant is that she jumped straight to Catholicism, rather than something more general, like deism. And while I respect that Catholicism makes more of an attempted to provide a coherent, logical framework for divine revelation, it also ends up saying awfully specific and awfully silly things about various subjects. If you start off very firmly believing that same-sex romantic relationships can be normal and healthy, and you're then trying to decide "what religious tradition should I join that makes the most sense given what I presently believe?", then Catholicism would appear to be an unlikely candidate. There's at least that one major red flag which suggests a pretty important error somewhere in the reasoning.

If you start off very firmly believing that same-sex romantic relationships can be normal and healthy, and you're then trying to decide "what religious tradition should I join that makes the most sense given what I presently believe?"

Fallacy of consequence.

I'm not sure I understand what you mean. If I already had strong reason to think that the whole of Catholicism was true, then I couldn't just say "well, but I don't want same-sex romance prohibited, so I'll decide not to believe in Catholicism." That would be fallacious reasoning. But if I start off fairly certain that there's nothing wrong with same-sex romance but am also looking for some sort of theistic tradition that makes sense given what I already know, then Catholicism's views on sexuality would seem to count against it.

Perhaps you could compare this issue to the "it all adds up to normality" sentiment. Even if I decide I have to abandon my old theory of gravity, my new theory better be one that has pencils falling down and not up when I drop them. Likewise, even if I have to abandon my general thoughts on theism, I had better not pick a religious tradition that conflicts with strongly held moral sentiments of which I am still reasonably confident. What's the fallacy there?

But if I start off fairly certain that there's nothing wrong with same-sex romance but am also looking for some sort of theistic tradition that makes sense given what I already know, then Catholicism's views on sexuality would seem to count against it.

Depends on how strong my evidence is for this position. If it's nothing stronger than "I can't think of any reason why same-sex romance is bad", then it doesn't take much evidence for Catholicism to overcome it.

But if I start off fairly certain that there's nothing wrong with same-sex romance

Assumes meta-ethical realism in order to be a valid inference (but then, I suppose, so does Catholicism).

If you start off very firmly believing that same-sex romantic relationships can be normal and healthy, and you're then trying to decide "what religious tradition should I join that makes the most sense given what I presently believe?", then Catholicism would appear to be an unlikely candidate. There's at least that one major red flag which suggests a pretty important error somewhere in the reasoning.

Most Catholics I've met are pretty immune to this sort of red flagging. That is, they just red-flag the parts they don't like, and continue to believe in the rest.

I can understand why people raised as Catholics would be so immune. But if you're making a decision to convert to Catholicism, presumably you like the whole integrated, no-exceptions theology. Isn't the whole appeal of Catholicism that you're not supposed to partition, and isn't that the element that's supposed to make it "intellectually formidable" as religions go?

People like the idea of science and the scientific method due to the whole integrated, no-exceptions approach. They express their support to it even if the scientific consensus sometimes says things they think are nonsense.

I can understand why people raised as Catholics would be so immune. But if you're making a decision to convert to Catholicism, presumably you like the whole integrated, no-exceptions theology.

As with most, if not all, religions, one would be surrounded by people giving off signals to the effect that this or that contradiction is no big deal. Combined with a relief from whatever discomfort remains from childhood indoctrination, plus the halo of being "intellectually formidable," it seems a rather seductive package.

I wonder if anybody has advice on how to handle this

I personally would refrain from publicly criticising her thinking, life choices and core identity on the internet. For example:

But then I remembered how I had been frustrated in the past by her tolerance for what seemed like rank religious bigotry and how often I thought she was taking seriously theological positions that seemed about as likely as the 9/11 attacks being genuinely inspired and ordained by Allah. I remembered how I thought she had a confused conception of meta-ethics and that she often seemed skeptical of reductionism, which in retrospect should have been a major red flag for purported atheists. So yeah, spending all your time arguing about Catholic doctrine really is a warning sign, no matter how strongly you seem to champion the "atheist" side of the debate. Seriously.

... this is insightful and valuable as a warning to others and for your own future reference. But it is more something to do once the victim has already been written off and attempts at influence abandoned.

This is a fair point, and I'm presently debating whether to go back and remove or at least soften this language. For most people, I think you would be right. But I think the situation may be different here because my friend has a long-running atheist blog where she deals with exactly these sorts of criticisms all the time (indeed, I myself have often posted to the effect of "I really think you're taking this too seriously, being too tolerant, etc."). She was also part of the same college debating society that I was in, and I know that she enjoys intellectual sparring even on subjects this personal -- indeed, she's welcoming it right now on the very post I linked to above.

So I think it's unlikely she'd be seriously offended by any of what I'm saying now. Your general point is still a good one, though, so I appreciate the advice. The Internet is a smaller place than we think.

Too late, Jay! I found the thread :)

But you guessed right, I don't mind the comments above at all, but they'd be more conducive to a productive fight if things like "taking seriously theological positions that seemed about as likely as the 9/11 attacks being genuinely inspired and ordained by Allah" were hyperlinks.

Ah, well that certainly saves me from having to decide what to do here. I initially wanted to avoid linking to your blog too much in my original post, just because I didn't want to send people off discussing particular religious issues that weren't really relevant to what I was talking about. But the specific episode I had in mind when I wrote this was the debate you hosted with Matt -- in particular, his assertions that we need to put homosexuals back in the closet to protect same-sex friendships. Likewise, perhaps, with the literal-but-not-physical understanding of transubstantiation.

Relatedly, my apologies for not realizing you were at least a quasi-regular member here. I knew you were familiar with a lot of the core Sequences material, but I didn't know you read or posted on day-to-day stuff with any regularity. I stand by the substance of what I said, of course, but I probably would have structured it differently if I'd expected you to be interacting in this forum. I certainly didn't intend to create anything like a "she's turning, get her!" dynamic.

I read the curated blog, not the discussion forum so much. You got rumbled by google analytics, which showed me a lot of traffic coming from here. I'm actually going to the July rationality minicamp, so if any people in this thread are going to, they can distill the best of this thread for what I assume are forthcoming fights.

I'm actually going to the July rationality minicamp,

Please, please, please blog this. I would love reading it.

Perhaps we should fight over whether one should actually convert? Of all actual institutions and traditions I lean most towards Catholicism but have not converted due to e.g. moral uncertainty about what counts as consent to delusion and what counts as unjustified endorsement of suboptimality. Catholicism has more and subtler truths in it than you can find anywhere else, but...

"Discernment is not a matter of simply telling the difference between right and wrong; rather, it is telling the difference between right and almost right.”

— Charles Spurgeon

I would like to ask this:

Do you expect any experience (before death, of course) that you would not predict using an atheist point of view?

No fights, just opportunities for us to use each other's brains to update for greater accuracy!

My gut instinct is to find ways to get her to think about other religions instead. If she's basing her belief on an emotional feeling and needs an anchor, you might be able to point out that there are other religions which have more general anchors, instead of extremely specific ones. I could see the discussion going along the lines of "which is more likely, a major earthquake happening in california, or a major earthquake happening in california that strikes los angeles?", eg "which is more likely, the existence of a god, or the existence of a god that also happens to be made in the image of man?"

Regardless, the more general her anchors are, the easier it will be for her to give them up, or convert them into something more correct. I've seen people go from "some arbitrary god is out there" to "god is the universe" to "there is no god" pretty easily, but to shed the shackles of "I believe in our lord and saviour jesus christ who died for our sins" is much harder, if only because it's so much more specific and detailed.

Maybe it's just me, but the premise of this post rubs me the wrong way. "Thwarting" a conversion? It seems kinda... I don't know. And I'm probably one of the most anti-theistic people that I know or have interacted with on the Internet. It's not like you're trying to prevent her from slipping into alcoholism. As long as she stays fundamentally the same person, I don't see what the big deal is. People should be respected for how they treat others, not what they believe.

That said, I've read a few "convert back to Christianity" stories and a lot of them have similar hidden/leading indicators. There's always some sort of family/significant other factor; it was usually a huge sticking point during their deconversion from religion. I don't really know a lot of this blogger's backstory, but are her family and/or significant other Catholics? That would explain the jump straight from atheism to Catholicism without some sort of intermediary stage (e.g. deism, generic Christianity, etc.) based on my own personal prior probability about how these things happen.

So if that's the case, "thwarting" again seems sort of insensitive. At least to me it would be insensitive language in this context.

Okay, "thwarting" may have been a bit strong. I probably got a little carried away with the title and picked that word more for style than precision.

But as to the "I don't see what the big deal is" point (which a number of people have raised), I do have some concern, because I know how seriously my friend takes integrated belief systems. Some have suggested that this may be a "belief in belief" issue, but that's definitely not the case. She's very much committed to there being a truth of the matter here, and my guess is that if she really did commit to Catholicism, she would be more like a "full-strength Catholic," not a "pick and choose what feels nice and go on my way" Catholic. My model of her was obviously mistaken before today, but I find it hard to believe that someone could go from atheist advocate to committed, full-strength Catholic and yet stay fundamentally the same person.

As to the family/SO factor, I don't think that's in play. She previously had a Catholic boyfriend, but they ended up separating a while back (again, this is info she herself has blogged about). I'm not aware that he in particular was involved in this process, nor that family pressure played a significant role.

My model of her was obviously mistaken before today, but I find it hard to believe that someone could go from atheist advocate to committed, full-strength Catholic and yet stay fundamentally the same person.

On the contrary, I'd say that if your friend was always committed to philosophical truth in matters of religion, then her conversion to a fully committed Catholic is more "staying fundamentally the same person" than becoming a cultural, belief-in-belief style of Catholic would be. She has just reevaluated her assessment of some very abstract philosophical arguments about metaethics, metaphysics, reliability of testimony of miracles, etc, and followed her new assessment to what she saw as its logical conclusion. This need not imply any direct change in her basic personality, whereas changing from a committed truth-seeker to a "pick and choose what feels nice and go on my way" would imply more of one, I think.

But as to the "I don't see what the big deal is" point (which a number of people have raised), I do have some concern, because I know how seriously my friend takes integrated belief systems. Some have suggested that this may be a "belief in belief" issue, but that's definitely not the case. She's very much committed to there being a truth of the matter here, and my guess is that if she really did commit to Catholicism, she would be more like a "full-strength Catholic," not a "pick and choose what feels nice and go on my way" Catholic.

This seems like a more substantial objection to her conversion. If she becomes a full-strength Catholic, do you see her arguing against abortion, homosexuality / same-sex marriage, responsible birth control, using condoms in Africa, etc. because she'll see those acts as being against her ethics, since now her ethics are going to be that of the Catholic church? Those are actually harmful beliefs (and actually cause people to die in the case of anti-abortion legislation and condom use in Africa), and should be thwarted as strongly as possible. But then again, you might be able to just argue against those points and not so much her Catholicism.

Pick a bunch of passages about ethics from several sources - the Bible, the Koran, Buddhist writings, secular writings, etc.

Have her read them, but don't tell her which ones are which. Have her write down her thoughts and feelings about each one, whether she thinks they stand up to logical scrutiny. Then after, tell her the sources of them and ask her whether she might reconsider.

Of course, you'd have to select them carefully so that there are no obvious giveaways (e.g. mentioning God), and also you should be careful not to cherrypick sources that make secularism look good and religion look bad.

There must be a way to write a script to do this automatically, and there must be someone who has the skills and text files already at their disposal to do this.

I think that'd be difficult, unless you manage to find a source that's already mined a lot of religious texts for ethical instruction and put them down in a common format; it's not like there are any obvious textual markers of ethics that you could plug into, say, a Gutenberg search.

I suppose you could grep for stuff along the lines of "good" or "moral" or "the superior man", but that'd miss a lot of stuff and include a lot of other stuff with obvious markers of religion in it.

I was just thinking you'd search random passages and remove ones with "god" or whatever in them.

I guess my conception of what goes on in holy texts is probably not quite on spot.

To be honest, I doubt that her true rejection matches her stated objections.

For several years, a lot of my friends have been telling me I had an inconsistent and unsustainable philosophy.

Emphasis mine. Her friends are Christian (probably Catholic). They heckle her when she writes atheist material for debates. Her good friend she talks about theology with is a Christian. That's all there is to it.

Humans are still tribal monkeys who follow the customs of their tribe. You put any person around a bunch of Christians (or Buddhists, or Muslims, or Jews), and they'll probably convert. It takes an extremely unusual person to not adopt the religion of their peers, even with all evidence against it.

Nobody says "hmm, according to my understanding of evolutionary theory, group selection wouldn't be a strong enough force to mediate selfish pressures in evolving human moral inclinations, therefore evil is caused by a talking snake." To answer the question directly, you convert any person the same way you change someone's football team, by surrounding them with members of the tribe you want them to be.

Actually, it was more often my atheist friends who made these comments. They told me that you couldn't think about morality as objective or in terms of telos and be an atheist. And then we'd have a fight. (But Jay's right, above, that this was in the context of a philosophical debating group, so being blunt about picking fights was only polite). The Christians tended to hang back more, it was the atheists who were most frustrated by the inconsistencies. Which left me only more determined to reconcile them (if possible) and prove them wrong.

That is interesting and goes against my model. I notice that I am confused. Actually, looking further in your stuff, I'm very confused about a lot of your beliefs. Eg, objective morality as an atheist confuses me too.

How big part of the confusion about "objective morality" is the confusion about specific meaning of those words?

That is, do you have a clear definition of "objective" and "morality", and the problem is putting those two definitions together and evaluate the evidence for/against the result... or is it more like there are dozen possible meanings of "morality", combined with a few possible meanings of "objective", and the problem starts by having to choose which of these meanings is right according to some unspecified criteria?

In other words, if you wrote here your best argument for/against "objective morality", would you expect counter-arguments in form "you have ignored or misinterpreted this" or in form "no, objective morality does not mean what you said, it means this"?

When I first read my friend's post, I had a major "I notice that I am confused" moment, because it just seemed so implausible that someone who understood actual atheist arguments (as opposed to dead little sister Hollywood Atheism) could convert to religion, and Catholicism of all things.

I'll rejoin Jack and GLaDOS to say that Catholicism isn't the worst of religions. If I was to convert to a religion it would probably be Catholicism, and I've sometimes semi-seriously played with the idea of checking out the local church - and yes, I understand actual atheist arguments, and no, none of my family is pushing me towards religion.

(A significant part of the attraction of Catholicism is being a contrarian for the sake of it, which is not a very good reason. But there's also a good deal of curiosity, and a feeling that they're pretty good at community. On the minus side, they are responsible for a good deal of anti-epistemology, and of course, God doesn't exist.)

I've sometimes semi-seriously played with the idea of checking out the local church

Churches can be nice for the community, even if you're atheist. Julia and I regularly [1] attend the local Quaker meeting, and occasionally go to churches with organs and singing. Neither of us believe, but that doesn't mean we can't go enjoy it.

[1] Actually, not recently. Hmm. But regularly up to a few months ago.

God doesn't exist.

So... were you presented with a convincing argument that this statement is unprovable, you would consider Catholicism (or a version suitably sanitized from "anti-epistemology") seriously?

I already don't think that statement is provable - it's informal, something more specific would be "the supernatural divine interventions described in religious traditions did not happen", and even that may be described as "unprovable"; proof is for maths.

Maybe just asking for explanations is the best bet?

"I don't understand the mechanism by which God could make something right or wrong."

"Even if I accept that God must exist, I don't understand where Jesus enters into things"

"If the Catholics have it right, why don't they do any better than the rest of us ethically?"

"The only evidence you have for God is a feeling that morality must have certain properties. What would constitute evidence for or against your views on morality? And if there is no evidence, why believe one way or the other?"

I remembered how I thought she had a confused conception of meta-ethics and that she often seemed skeptical of reductionism, which in retrospect should have been a major red flag for purported atheists.

From my view, reductionism is the basic question. If someone is right on evolution but wrong on reductionism, that really doesn't buy them much- and I would wonder how deeply they grasp evolution.

As to how to navigate this: suppose that she has a psychological need to profess a belief in some sort of deity, such that she could not fully thrive without professing that belief. Would you want her to be an atheist then? How can you tell if she has that need or not?

The main reason I've seen for people professing belief (and actually believing) is that there is a community of like-minded individuals that think the same way. This changes when you're talking about people with very little social cognition, but that's not the majority.

As to how to navigate this: suppose that she has a psychological need to profess a belief in some sort of deity, such that she could not fully thrive without professing that belief. Would you want her to be an atheist then? How can you tell if she has that need or not?

"How can you tell if she has that need?" is a little silly - you do what humans do all the time and make your best guess, mostly based on what humans are like on average. Being careful, of course, not to privilege the hypothesis just because it's in the rhetorical question.

But second, and more immediately, I wonder if anybody has advice on how to handle this, or if they've had similar experiences with their friends. I do care about this person, and I was devastated to hear this news, so if there's something I can do to help her, I want to.

Why are you so convinced this is bad for her? Most people are somewhat religious, and every study I've seen suggests they are just as happy, well-adjusted, and moral as non-religious people. I certainly think it is generally better to believe what is true, but is something like this really worth being devastated about? Can't you just be open-minded about her lifestyle choice?

Do people here, in general, think it is productive and worthwhile to spend time and energy on deconverting friends and family (provided the religious beliefs in question are mainstream and not threatening to their physical or financial health)?

That's a genuine question (not rhetoric) in case it wasn't clear.

Do people here, in general, think it is productive and worthwhile to spend time and energy on deconverting friends and family (provided the religious beliefs in question are mainstream and not threatening to their physical or financial health)?

Setting out to change other people is almost always going to end poorly. Helping people who have set out to change themselves has a chance of ending well.

7 points