My Dear Sherif,

Given the dust of the earth, God created Adam; given my article, you created this. It was with pleasure and confusion that I read your response for the first time: pleasure, for while I must wonder if we will convince no one other than our friends and the others’ enemies, this exchange must represent some blip to public intellectual debate at Princeton; confusion, because I have struggled to understand several of your arguments. But that is my fault. Finding myself in the post-earthquake world that you mention in your letter, I shall content myself with playing the Candide to your Pangloss.

But since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes – especially so for a philosopher such as yourself – I will be brief. In response to my claim that Anscombe is a front organization, you point out the diversity of those who would agree with your “certain currently unpopular norms:” Aristotle, Hillary Clinton, and some Buddhists. I think this rather misses the point. Yes, it is true that the above listed share some common points of view with Anscombe. But this is a meaningless qualification: a Communist might agree with the average free-market proponent that murder ought be illegal, but what matters when we say that two groups or individuals have similar beliefs is the similarity of the totality of their ideologies. And be it granted that both Anscombe and the GOP, as groups of humans, have liquid ideologies, I struggle to see a meaningful difference between the GOP’s position on sexual ethics and yours. Perhaps this is why it is no surprise why the Bush Administration paid one of your two-time speakers, Maggie Gallagher, over $40,000 to write articles and make media appearances supporting GOP marriage policies.

But I must apologize. For my one great error was labeling Anscombe as a group predominantly Protestant in character: this, because so many of the slides at your conference’s presentation used the terms “creature” and “creaturehood,” both of which are meaningless in modern secular discourse (not to mention Muslim and Buddhist discourse), but were invented by the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. It was indeed my error in Crypto-Christianity to have assumed that Catholics would not pick up the concept. It was an error in judgment not to see that, though there be some evangelicals in Anscombe, Catholics are the intellectuals of your movement. And I should have known better. Every speaker at your recent conference was a Catholic. As far as I can tell, every speaker your group has ever invited to campus has been the type of Catholic cut from the Robert George cloth: the conservative Catholic who has learned the liberal game well enough to make natural law arguments basically identical to Catholic positions, but that can never directly be proven as such. And I know that you say that you base your claims in secular arguments; we will examine that in a moment. The founding members and leadership of the Anscombe Society not only here, but of their sister versions at MIT and Harvard, consist almost exclusively of Catholics. Granted: perhaps it is just sheer chance that what seems like literally every intellectual making arguments for your ideology just happens also to be from this particular mold. But tell me: how would you feel if conservative Muslim students had gotten the monopoly on a Princeton conservative sexual ethics society before you and invited only Sharia experts who dressed their arguments in the language of a “divine image and likeness and image within us?” Perhaps you can consider this with the Muslims of Anscombe.

Some of your other arguments are not so strong. You say that only two of Fagan’s 93 slides mention “God,” as if to insinuate that I am exaggerating. This does not make a lot of sense to me: if I had a presentation with a million slides, but one of them was: “The staff of the Nassau Weekly should be liquidated,” the sheer number of slides in that presentation would not outweigh the strength of the one claim in the one slide. You say that Fagan’s claims were only descriptive, as opposed to prescriptive. With this logic, I could defend the above presentation – or, for example, a theory of the state that said, “the role of the state is to stop the homosexual agenda” – by saying, “well, that’s just a descriptive claim of the state.” You have a strange argument involving U.S. coins, but this argument misses the fact that I have no say in what is printed on currency, and don’t ipso facto endorse “in God we trust” whenever I use money. But the Masonic temples on dollar bills: there’s something I really agree with, except for when I use credit cards and checks.

You write that I overlook the other talks at the conference. Perhaps if you had advertised the event at all to Princeton students I might have gone. But I will admit it: not all of the speakers at your event are so openly religious as Fagan. Unfortunately for you, mentioning that there were other speakers does not refute any of my claims about the content of Fagan’s lecture. But let’s look at some of the actual rhetoric. What we tend to see is less “drawing on sociology,” and more claims like the one Maggie Gallagher made when you hosted her in 2005: “Marriage is not something we’ve dreamt up ourselves. It was an idea that was bequeathed to us.” The elephant in the room, Sherif, when it comes to arguments like this, is: from whom? Insofar as history and anthropology show that humans historically invented marriage, who can Gallagher possibly be referring to when she says that marriage is bequeathed as an idea? What we tend to read are terms like Tollefsen’s “bodily reality of persons” (again, a meaningless term in non-Christian discourse) used to justify his opposition to abortion and assisted suicide. Combined with statistics shuttled from conservative think tanks (kids of single mothers have problems only because their moms aren’t married) I think my case is more subtle than it once was, but the pattern is clear: arguments that seem question-begging from any perspective but that of “Crypto-Christians.”

Before I briefly deal with some of your philosophical claims, what can we agree on? I think we know that the real intellectual firepower of Anscombe is basically supplied by conservative Catholics funded by the GOP or groups closely associated with it (The James Madison Program, the Heritage Foundation) and who, with a mix of social science and boutique natural law, argue for “what happen to be” Catholic positions on sexual issues. If there is anything I must concede, it is that there is nothing illegal about a Catholic-natural law group to exist at Princeton. But two things seem unfair to me. It seems that one could establish such a group, but one that was explicitly Catholic, and enjoy the benefits of two Catholic natural law groups: one that masquerades under the fiction of secularism, one that does not. But secondly I feel, perhaps cynically, that you only defend the Society because you and other conservative Christians happened to be the first religious group to gain the monopoly on “the” conservative sexuality group. Maybe you would appreciate my claim that Anscombe excludes the non-religious more had religious students of a radically different group (say, polygamist Mormons) founded the conservative sexuality group before you, masked the views of their creed in similar ways as do your speakers, and claimed that Catholics were not excluded.

But I would only incompletely respond to your letter if I did not mention some of your reasons why I am “really wrong.” You say that religious tenets about sexuality are no less susceptible to rational understanding or critique than secular ones, that both religious and secular a priori principles demand some kind of faith and that they are therefore in some sense all equal. Even if this were true, which I don’t think it is, this isn’t how anyone actually makes decisions. Maybe I am wrong: maybe, when a Wahhabist comes to you and makes claims about sexuality, you actually think to yourself that his “irreducibly basic premises” are no less parsimonious than the necessary presumptions of secular thought, like induction or non-solipsism.

Indeed, as soon as you begin to wade into waters dangerous to your Catholicism, you retreat to defend a kind of general religious sentiment instead of specifically Catholic (or just Christian) claims. For example, neither the Catholic or Christian claim is as simple as “human beings have a transcendent origin;” what you have to defend is not a vague transcendentalist claim about humans, but rather specifically the claims of Genesis and the New Testament. But I must say it was a wise move on your part to pretend as if this were about “all religious claims” versus “secular claims.” Insofar as your religious basic principles not only claim some transcendent God, but also implicitly claim that all other God assumptions are incorrect, your presumptions must not only produce plausible conclusions, but also demonstrate why your transcendental God claim is more powerful than every other competing God claim. You think that humans have a “transcendent origin:” why are you atheistic when it comes to Islam, to Hinduism, to Shinto? You mention sicut Deus daretur, but give us no idea of how we could independently tell if out deliberations were actually “logically coherent, humane, and rationally fruitful.” I think it’s difficult to have an independent heuristic for what these terms actually mean, and given that theologians have failed for 2,000 years to come up an answer to this, all I can say is, “good luck.”

A final point: you say that “secularism” (what does this mean?) is not actually neutral. Secular discourse is universal precisely because it is not neutral. A rules of discourse that says, “the only acceptable presumptions are induction and non-solipsism” is anything but neutral towards vague religious claims of “transcendent origin” or “law of mutual self-guilt” that are difficult to prove or falsify. Perhaps you will understand why this is an appropriate solution for a heterogeneous society when you ask yourself whether it would be fruitful for you to have a debate with Wiccans, Scientologists, or Satanists who based their argumentation entirely from their own quixotic first principles. The above-described secular discourse is the only universal public philosophy insofar as we all accept induction and non-solipsism in our existence as social beings; by taking these secular principles as the only legitimate basis for public argument, we avoid the situation your world would lead to, one in which different groups would argue over what you seem to think are ultimately faith-based presumptions. Insofar as you cannot tell me why you accept transcendental origins but are an atheist with respect to the specific Muslim claims, yours is a world in which no religion’s tenets could conclusively be shown correct, in which the only relevant political question would be who could come to power first to establish their worldview as the basis for a political order. I am confused, Sherif: as the liberal, shouldn’t I be the one advocating relativism?

It is time for me to end this letter, Sherif. Perhaps, once you have become our generation’s Dinesh D’Souza and are writing your God and Man at Princeton, you will think enough of this debate to devote an anecdote to me, when you find yourself needing an example of a well-meaning but misguided liberal. And if Gallagher’s payola or the diversity of the yearly speakers calendar of Anscombe Societies is any indicator, I suspect that you will not be unemployed anytime soon. But no more sarcasm: I hold nothing against you personally, Sherif. I just cannot understand many of your positions. But I must say that I appreciate the fact that, though I disagree with you, you are actually concerned with a real issue (the discrete trivialities of Anscombe’s organization aside). Perhaps you can say the same of me. I wish you a long life and many political failures.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.