LONDON — According to the commonly held view about her great-great-great-grandfather, Charles Darwin, Laura Keynes has apparently broken all the rules in developing a passionate Catholic faith.
Apart from her family lineage, which includes her great-great-uncle, economist John Maynard Keynes, Laura also holds a doctorate from Oxford University in philosophy.
But in mid-June, the Catholic Herald reported the startling news that this highly educated Darwinian descendant had evolved into a Catholic apologist, joining Britain’s Catholic Voices.
When asked how she found her way to the Catholic Church, Keynes reveals that she was actually baptized Catholic after her mother converted shortly after her birth. However, by the time she was 12, her mother had lapsed, and her faith formation ended.
“From my father’s side of the family, the Darwin-Keynes side, I was getting a different influence: highly rational, scientific, secular, humanist,” she says. “My father is an academic neuroscientist, and I absorbed the view that all phenomena are the product of the material brain. I gradually drifted into agnosticism.”
The reason for her return to the faith of her baptism is quite surprising and something of an “own goal” for Britain’s shrill “new atheists.” She explains that, in her 20s, while she was working on her doctorate at Oxford, the “God Debate” took off, after a flurry of publication from the likes of Richard Dawkins.
Keynes continues, “I expected to be moved from agnosticism to atheism by their arguments, but after reading on both sides of the debate, I couldn’t dismiss a compelling intellectual case for faith. As for being good without God, I’d tried and didn’t get very far. At some point, life will bring you to your knees, and no act of will is enough in that situation. Surrendering and asking for grace is the logical human response.”
Reading and Reflection
During her grandmother’s long illness, Keynes explains that she “returned to the Rosary during those long hours at her bedside and was reminded of the redemptive power of Christ’s suffering. I apprehended a theological underpinning to the question of suffering. Seeing death made me question the spirit: what it is, where it comes from, where it goes. So by this point, I was developing a spiritual awareness, but hadn’t made the step back to the Catholic Church. That step came after much reflection and reading.”
When asked if, partly, she found the anger of the new atheists off-putting, Keynes concurs, saying, “One of the things that made me wary of ‘new atheism’ was the strange mix of angry emotion I encountered there: anger at the thought of God; anger at any restrictions on behavior; anger at thwarted will; pride in the exertion of will; pride in feeling intellectually superior; contempt for anyone who reveals human vulnerability in asking for the grace of God. It’s important to remember that where there’s anger, there’s often pain. I see a lot of pain there. I think it stems from clinging to the idea that we’re in control, that we have autonomy.
“All we can do is be sensitive to the anger and note that it’s odd for people who value reason so highly to make such large concessions to emotion,” she continues. “I gather that there are now some new ‘new atheists’ (for want of a better phrase) who’ve spotted the contradiction and realized that it puts people off and doesn’t do their cause any favors, and they might be the ones to take a little more seriously than Dawkins and company who are, by and large, preaching to the converted.”
The natural question, though, is: How did Keynes’ family and friends react to her newfound Catholicism, particularly with her family’s rationalist pedigree?
“It was a surprise to most, because the process of conversion was not something I shouted about, but nor did I hide it,” she states.
“My family is terribly English: We don’t do emotion, and we certainly don’t do intensely personal spiritual experiences. So word didn’t get out until my confirmation — when I invited my father. That’s when it became clear to them that this wasn’t some vague personal spirituality — which would have been tolerated, so long as I kept it to myself — but I’d actually signed up to organized religion.”
She says that the next time there was a family meal, someone declared, “I hear you’ve gone all Christian.” In their eyes, being Christian colored everything about me, totally defining me. … I hadn’t become a religious fundamentalist, but that was the box they put me in. So it was greeted in two ways: Either people couldn’t get over it, and as soon as they saw me, they would raise arguments against Christianity, unprovoked, when all I wanted to do was get on with a quiet lunch, or else people would look embarrassed if a question led to any mention of my faith, but they wouldn’t query it, just say, ‘Oh,’ and move on as though completely baffled or indifferent. It has been sad to see the confusion and wary distance in the eyes of some family members upon any mention of my faith.”
On her famous ancestor’s theory of evolution, Keynes openly wonders whether she has lived out the perceived struggle of secularist atheism against Christianity.
“I like a good muddle, philosophically speaking, and uneasy truces make for the more interesting intellectual state,” she says. “Atheists prefer certainty and use Darwin’s theory of evolution to state categorically that God does not exist, overegging Darwin in their argument in a way that Darwin himself would be uncomfortable with. He thought agnosticism the more coherent position, saying, ‘I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect.’ Resting in doubt, he allowed others their conscience. He set out to follow the evidence where it led, not bring down Christianity. The evidence did not have to lead inevitably to materialism, but, for various cultural reasons, this is where it led: to materialism and the culture of death. This is the real battle: the culture of life, supported by Christianity, vs. the culture of death, supported by materialism.”
Equally, having studied philosophy, Keynes is well aware of the constant claim that belief in God is irrational.
“To claim that belief in God is beyond reason is to place a high value on reason, so I’d respond by, firstly, asserting that we have this value in common,” she states. “Once we have a shared value, we have a basis for discussion. I would then ask the claimant to consider whether it might not, paradoxically, be anti-intellectual, and therefore undermining reason as a value, to dismiss belief in God as irrational and beyond reason, because this claim represents a threat to the practice of philosophy and theology as academic disciplines. The question of whether the existence of God is demonstrable by rational argument has kept philosophers and theologians busy for centuries. I’d ask the claimant to explain how closing this discussion furthers the cause of reason. So I’d respond gently, but if I really lost my patience, I’d tell them: 'Just go and read Aquinas!'”
Year of Faith Pilgrimage
Having just visited Rome for the first time as part of a Year of Faith pilgrimage, Keynes comments, “Rome certainly put some fuel in the spiritual tank.”
“I’ll need it,” she concludes. “There’s a lot of work ahead.”
Register correspondent James Kelly writes from London.