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Religious Conservatives Can Remind the Rest of Us How to Argue

Academia seems increasingly incapable of fostering mature, sophisticated debate that respects dissonant voices. We’ve seen numerous conservative professors heckled off campuses and out of their (sometimes tenured!) positions. Anthony Esolen, a prolific English professor and writer, endured widespread protests at Providence College following his criticism of student irresponsibility and immaturity. Catholic theology professor Paul J. Griffiths endured similar opprobrium at Duke Divinity School after he complained about diversity training. Both left their respective employers. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson in turn has been unfairly maligned and misrepresented by students. Protests at Evergreen State College, Middlebury, and Reed College have, often violently, targeted academics who have diverged from liberal orthodoxy. This is the intolerance of the tolerant.

If universities are really interested in open discourse, they should take a lesson from how conservative academics debate each other. The many controversies and debates surrounding associate professor of philosophy Edward Feser at Pasadena City College provide ample example of this. For a number of reasons, Feser has acquired a knack for inciting controversy within religious conservatism—his sparring partners include many prominent thinkers and academics, including Griffiths (cited above), Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart, and popular Catholic writer Mark Shea, among others. Feser’s work has elicited contentious and emotionally charged reactions, sometimes deteriorating into ad hominems and name-calling (with some subsequent apologies). In spite of these mistakes, a level of professionalism, charity, and wit is visible that puts the dogmatic, intolerant discourse of contemporary academia to shame. Let’s consider a few examples.

Feser wrote two books in 2017, both published by Ignatius Press, which have received widespread attention. The first, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment, co-authored with Joseph M. Bessette, has been the far more contentious. As the title suggests, Feser and Bessette seek to defend capital punishment on theological and philosophical grounds, reliant on Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Catholic Church. This comes at a time when many Catholics, including many devout ones, have come to believe that the death penalty is essentially immoral and unjustified. It’s an opinion that relies on the interpretations of the current and last two popes, underscored by a particular reading of the 1995 papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the 1992 Catechism (nos. 2258–2330), and the statements and literature of Pope Francis.

Griffiths offered a strong criticism of Feser and Bessette in First Things. Yet the most acerbic language he mustered was to label some of the contents of their book “disingenuous,” urging the authors to “go to bed with a cold compress,” the idea being that they seemed a bit too excited about supporting the death penalty. Aggressive? Sure. But hardly the intolerance of American campuses. Feser and Bessette responded to the review, observing that Griffiths accused them of “flat-­footed” readings of Scripture and magisterial documents without providing a single example. Griffiths then replied, arguing substance while maintaining a palpable degree of condescension towards the authors. Yet condescension is still a far cry from being labeled a fascist, a racist, a homophobe, or Hitler.

Before Griffiths, popular Catholic writer and apologist Mark Shea set his sights on Feser’s support for the death penalty, accusing him of advocating a “right wing culture of death,” and of holding a position commensurate with wanting “to kill the maximum number of people I can get away with killing.” Ouch! Yet Shea later apologized for many of his comments and praised Feser for his work in philosophy and apologetics. Feser accepted his apology. David Bentley Hart in turn claimed that Feser’s book “exhibits a moral insensibility that is truly repellant” and that it “would exhaust the ruthlessness of Torquemada.” Hart also accused the authors of not even bothering to read many of the sources they cite. Again these are accusations of a peculiarly academic nature: they don’t create an unfair, vilifying caricature of their opponent, or seek to physically remove him from his place at the table.

Capital punishment is only the tip of the iceberg for Feser. Hart, for example, has been debating Feser for years (with a good mixture of amusing wit and stuffy scholarly disdain) on such topics as natural law theory and whether or not animals will be in heaven. On the latter, Hart mocked Feser as intellectually enchained to Thomistic thought (what he derisively labels “The System”). He further claimed Feser was uninterested in Scriptural evidence (Feser responded to Hart’s attacks in a number of articles, including at Public Discourse). Can Hart be a bit biting in his rhetoric? Sure. Has he demanded Feser be run out conservative intellectual circles? Hardly.

This is not to say that one side or the other hasn’t sometimes failed to play by the rules. As Feser noted in a response to Hart and Griffiths:

But the ad hominem attack is the first refuge of those unable to marshal facts and logic in their defense, and character assassination is one form of killing Griffiths and Hart seem to approve of. Hart is especially egregious in this regard, and in three places in his review one is tempted to charge him with deliberate misrepresentation.

Feser is himself no saint in this regard, and a perusal of his blog shows that he has little problem poking fun at his critics (including memes with superimposed images of his opponents’ faces on various things). If one were to put Feser in a room with his detractors, there would surely be fireworks. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone organizing a student protest aimed at banning him from campus or calling for his head on a pike. Indeed, as noted above, the arguments between Feser and others keep going—some of these debates are now years in the making. These men may dislike one another, but their appreciation for the rules of debate and their demand for respect and charity set the terms for proper and improper etiquette.

Those who exhibit an exceptionally acute level of logic are dangerous—and frustrating. Dangerous because they expose the fact that many of us believe and promote all kinds of flawed ideas that need to be either adjusted or jettisoned entirely. Frustrating because they often prove us wrong without the kind of carefully worded sensitivities and kid-gloves we seem to require to avoid hurting our over-inflated sense of self. Nobody likes to be told they’re wrong. When a person does it without bothering to sandwich it between effusive praise and kindness, adding “but you’re a good chap” at the end for good measure, we get irked. This, I suspect, has something to do with the treatment of conservative academics across North America. Like Jordan Peterson, Feser serves as an important counterbalance to the trends of irrationality.

As Feser has recounted, he grew up in a Catholic family, but rejected faith for atheism. It took a number of years for him to return to the Church, a journey based fundamentally on rationality and philosophical study. Feser is a man thoroughly steeped in precise logical argumentation, who carefully evaluates and dissects premises and sub-premises. This probably explains why he has been at the forefront of engaging the New Atheist movement, led by religious skeptics Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and the deceased Christopher Hitchens. A 2010 book by Feser, The Last Superstition, systematically addresses and refutes the best arguments offered by popular contemporary atheists. Last year, he published another book on a similar topic, Five Proofs of the Existence of God, which is not actually a recounting of St. Thomas’s famous “five proofs,” but a defense of arguments from Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, and Leibniz, some of which overlap with the famous classical arguments.

There’s simply no room here to do justice to even one of Feser’s arguments. Yet anyone seeking to present himself as a rational atheist needs to be familiar with Feser’s work, especially his books on atheism, arguments for the existence of God, and Thomistic thought. For those who would rather hear than read Feser, he has offered numerous interviews explicating various arguments for God’s existence and analyzing the positions of prominent atheist thinkers. Moreover, with his recent books, increasingly innumerable public debates, and compelling interviews, it’s clear he’s currently on his A-game. His arguments with the New Atheists, in particular, demand a response. Quite surprisingly, his work has elicited surprisingly little reaction from prominent atheists, apart from Jerry Coyne.

We live in a time largely devoid of sophisticated, mature argumentation (as I’ve noted in a number of previous articles for The Federalist). Ad hominem, red herrings, and question-begging run rampant in Internet discourse. University campuses, the very places where we send our children to be exposed to different challenging ideas, have become stale swamps of intellectual laziness and conformity. If we seek a way out of this, the often heated debates among religious conservatives provide some helpful guidance. It is there that we see strong rhetoric mixed with charity, respect, and, most importantly, a willingness to keep talking. And for those taken with the mission of firebrands like Jordan Peterson, Ed Feser would be a good supplement.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

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