Ethics, Mathematics and the Rosary: An Ex-Atheist Discusses Her Conversion
Author and blogger Leah Libresco Sargeant was convinced of Catholicism’s truth after a rigorous intellectual journey.
Leah Libresco Sargeant, once a prominent atheist blogger, converted in 2012 to Catholicism after engaging and challenging her readership to present an intellectually rigorous, spiritually rewarding response to her questions on life. Sargeant continues to blog, only now from a Catholic perspective, and also is a contributing editor at America magazine.
She is the author of Arriving at Amen: Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer. Sargeant recently spoke with the Register about what motivated her conversion and the surprising changes she experienced in her life afterward, including how she learned to pray through the Rosary. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us a little about your background as an atheist.
My family wasn’t religious. And I didn’t know anyone who was religious and took it seriously. I grew up in a part of Long Island that was mostly ethnic-secular Jewish. So most people in my high school had bar mitzvahs but didn’t really pray or do anything besides the cultural parts of Judaism. So most of my exposure to religion would be things like The 700 Club — the kind of religion that makes the news. And it wasn’t until I went to college that I knew practicing Christians who were smart, who were comfortable talking about their faith, and who honestly weren’t kind of rounded up to the nearest stereotype, i.e., evangelical Americans.
Was there ever a point when you chose to be an atheist or were you always atheist by default?
It was always just more of a default position. I thought religion was false. A lot of the examples of religion I found weren’t compelling. And, as I still believe, I don’t think that it ever helps people who believe things that aren’t really true. I don’t think there’s any such a thing ultimately as a noble lie that actually helps people in the long term. So when I was interested in other people’s religious beliefs, if they weren’t true, I wanted to argue them out of it. I have people who are atheists who respond to me that way now. I think that’s a compliment to religion to think that way. Because for religion to be something that is completely innocuous — whether you believe it or not, that if you are wrong about it, that’s fine — implies that religion has no consequences. That’s certainly not how I feel about my faith now that I have one.
So what moved you from being an admiring skeptic to a true believer?
What persuaded me was definitely pushing hard on the question of: How is it we come to know truth? We just can’t kind of bootstrap our way up the way we can with mathematics because mathematics is abstract and true and beautiful. So we can kind of bootstrap our way up because there are things in the physical world that are so apparent to us it doesn’t obviously require any supernatural intervention to know “How did we wind up understanding mathematics?” The basics of addition are graspable just from physical analogies. You can get to all of math just from having integers [whole numbers].
But morality doesn’t work that way. It’s not as easy as decod[ing] the building blocks of the world around us. [I realized that] my grip on whether ethics existed was more tenuous than whether mathematics existed. So the question is: Where is that kind of knowledge coming from if it’s not something I’m building up from very elementary building blocks around me?
Ultimately, I had three propositions that didn’t fit well together: That there was no God. That morality was not dependent on humans — it was not something made, but was something transcendent outside us. And that I didn’t seem to have a way to reach something transcendent on my own. You can’t believe all three at once. So which one will you give up? The one I was definitely most certain about is that morality was transcendent. I kept puzzling away at the third, trying to find out a way to do it. I kept running into problems. Ultimately, the one I decided to give up of those three propositions was there isn’t a God. And it was [through] my conversations with Catholics and Eastern Orthodox friends that I recognized the God they were talking about as the type of God I had been creeping up on without noticing it.
Are there any particular Christian writers or figures from Church history that influenced you?[One] of the big ones [was] C.S. Lewis. I read Mere Christianity fairly early on, and this is part of what made Christianity seem reasonable to me. I read the first few chapters that were just really [on] moral realism. I said, “Finally, someone has written down the way I think — except now he’s going on to talk about God.” It was something that resonated and spoke to me. I liked Lewis. Lewis made Christianity sound reasonable. And I read [G.K. Chesterton’s] Orthodoxy. That does a very good job telling you the story of what Christianity is — and it’s not something you just can idly kick or leave, making it really clear how radical and, hence, important it is.
Augustine is my confirmation saint. I did read Confessions. I picked him as a confirmation saint because, in some ways, he had a similar journey to mine. We’re similar in that he also was searching for truth and searched for it in an extreme way. And I, too, had some interest in Manichaeism — not quite by that name, but in the sense of thinking the physically of the world is intrinsically immoral and only the intellect and spirit is interesting. I thought having a patron saint who shared my weaknesses would be helpful.
What were some of the more surprising changes in your life after your conversion?
One kind of change is that I was trying to do more to actually appreciate the physical world. So one thing I started doing after I decided to convert was cooking more. I started using a sourdough starter. My approach was usually to treating eating like this necessary thing I have to do to power my body to go have more ideas. So I was trying to get beyond that by actively putting effort into food, making it an act of beauty, not just an act of utilitarianism. That’s one change.
Praying at all changed. There are some prayers that appealed to me from the beginning — the Rosary just for being something I can always do. I really liked that you never have to pause and go, “Can I pray a Rosary now?” Yes, I can pick up the beads, and I can go. And Mary herself has given me a way to pray that is pleasing to God. And it’s a nice thing to just have something that you can always do for and with God without getting too much into your own head [and wondering] whether you’re doing it right — whereas contemplative prayer I’m terrible at. I hate quiet. I hate sitting around trying to just be, rather than to do, and I tried doing it and it’s still really hard.
What were some of your first experiences of prayer?
A lot of the times, especially early, it was something I got stuck on a little bit because I spent a lot of time thinking about God, which is not the same thing as what prayer is, which is thinking with God. And I would wind up think[ing] about propositions about God or think about claims about God, as opposed to just try and be with God. My habit of thinking about abstract goodness is still much more like my habit of thinking about math. And I wind up thinking about math sometimes when I’m actually praying. And at that time I pull myself back into prayer to think about how much I like math, to think about how math is true, good and beautiful, and therefore God likes it, too. And therefore God and I were sharing an experience of liking math, even if not in the same way — in the way that you watch a movie with your friend next to you on the couch. You’re both enjoying it together. And then [I try to] think, “I love math so much, and God must love math more perfectly than I do, but God also loves me — even more than he loves math.”
The other thing I tried to do was, whenever I thought about prayer — even if it was a thought like “I’m so bad at praying” — to pray right that second, like even a brief “Glory be.”
Register correspondent Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.