Some people love watching the sport of tennis, but I am not one of them. This should in no way reflect on that no-doubt fine sport, the talented people who play it, and the fans of said talented athletes. I’m sure it’s a deficiency on my part, nobody’s perfect, right? Similarly, I just can’t get too worked up over the ongoing theist-atheist tennis match, the way some read so much meaning into every “point” scored by each side, how “heroes” and “villains” are created, how “experts” in the commentary box try to explain how one point was more devastating than another point, or how one player’s career is on the decline. Worst of all is when a prominent player on one “team” decides to switch teams, then things really start to heat up!
Such was the case when fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco, formerly on the atheist channel here, decided to convert to Catholicism. Faster than you could say “Bristol Palin” traffic to her blog went insane, and CNN dubbed her a “prominent atheist blogger,” much to the chagrin of prominent atheist bloggers (it’s a Catch-22, if CNN is reporting on your conversion, you must be prominent, because CNN is reporting on your conversion). Now, everybody has an opinion about Ms. Libresco, with many giving interpretations as to this conversion’s importance, or lack of importance. One Catholic blogger even opined that “heaven is roaring with joy” over this conversion (which makes one wonder what sounds heaven makes when a Catholic becomes an atheist, but I digress).
For my part, I was just going to ignore the whole thing. As a Pagan I have no real emotional investment in atheists and Catholics debating over conversion, or the significance of Libresco’s turn towards Rome. It’s like, well, like watching tennis. I can intellectually understand why some people get worked up about it, but it isn’t my game. Indeed, Pagans, in general, don’t much care about conversions. Patheos columnist Carl McColman, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism,”still has plenty of Pagan friends, despite becoming a Catholic (the same is true of Pagans who’ve become atheists). We believe that a person’s relationship to the gods is their own affair, and it only becomes an issue for us when those converted decide to turn against us. To use their conversion as a means to sell books about our defaults, or to demonize us. Sadly that is an all-too-common phenomenon.
For many Pagans, when we hear that one of us has converted to Christianity, we wonder when the book is coming out. You think people love atheist-turned-believer stories? Well, there’s a certain segment of Christians that just can’t get enough ex-Pagan/ex-Witch narratives. Books with titles like “Taken From the Night,” or “Generation Hex,” or “Wicca and Witchcraft: Understanding the Dangers.” Some of these narratives have elements of truth in them, but most are exaggerated or fabricated to make for a more dramatic telling. The simple truth, you see, is far too mundane. The truth is that thousands of people, perhaps even millions, shift in and out of different religious identities every day. It’s as common as crabgrass, and it really means little to the larger trends that are driving religion.
Those trends show that the biggest growth isn’t in atheists, but in people who refuse to label their religious beliefs. The “nones,” who now comprise around 16% of the population in the United States, and a possibly influential majority in certain states. Atheists only account for around 1.6% of that 16.1%. Only slightly bigger than the modern Pagan movement here. Meanwhile, Christianity in the West is in crisis, especially in America, where it’s becoming increasingly politically polarized. In the anxiety that is created by this situation, the still-dominant but increasingly worried religious majority starts to look for signs of “winning” the ideological/theological struggle. It starts to worry that maybe their impressive numbers are inflated, that there are far more heretics in their ranks than they ever suspected. It starts to see a minor atheist blogger converting as quite a big deal.
As to this current ruckus, let me quote Stephen F. Roberts who famously opined that “I contend we are both atheists, I just believe in one fewer god than you do.” Early pagans called Christians atheists because they didn’t merely prefer their god over other gods (henotheism), they said those other gods were demonic figments of their god’s dualistic evil counterpart. Once they grasped real power, Christians went on a campaign of eliminating those other gods, actions that would make the most militant atheists of today blanch (censorship, destruction of religious property, social pressure, and when those didn’t work, killing). Those gods that couldn’t be completely destroyed were either (literally) demonized or sanctified. That some are now trying to finish off that “last” god no doubt creates a unique tension for monotheists.
Into that tension steps an atheist who converts, who says, let us add one god. Who swings the door in the other direction, towards theism. The problem with that is that it creates its own tension. Christianity is still very much in the game of eliminating all the other gods, of stressing that there is only one god. But once you say, there is at least one god, one power in this universe that is beyond humanity, you open the door to the questions that any reasonable person would then ask. Is there more than one power? What came before Christianity? Why God and not Goddess? Is the Christian conception of God the correct one? What if the moral universe Catholics like to claim was actually acquired from other religions? Why would an inquisitive person stop at mere Christianity? The answer is that reasonable people ask these questions all the time, and certain Christian institutions spend a lot of time and money to stop people from finding the answers.
I wish Leah Libresco well, and I wish her happiness. While I profoundly disagree with Catholicism, thinking it a flawed and troubled faith, I hold no ill will towards its adherents, so long as they are committed to coexisting in a pluralistic secular society with us Pagans. I hope that her faith can develop away from the tennis match that this has all become, complete with cheering sections on each side. If you ever decide that maybe your world needs more than one god, feel free to drop me a line.