Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” – G.K. Chesterton
Although friends call me “Reefer,” I’ve maintained an admiring spectator’s distance from the Nass’s smoky headquarters on Washington Road. Tickled by urbanity and impressed by erudition, I’ve made Nass articles a staple of my week. But none has so amused or annoyed me as to provoke a response until my friend Tim Nunan’s Anscombe Society “exposé.” His has been a prolific Nass career, but one supposes that stubborn deadlines and salivating editors can occasionally reduce even the best to puzzlingly pitiable lows. When I learned that Nunan had critiqued the group of which I had once been the president, I braced myself for a boisterous battle of wits in which the best ideas would win. As I opened the Nass that week, a great and strong wind rent the pages; but Tim was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but Tim was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but Tim was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice. It’s to that tentative whisper of a “critique” that I now reply.
The Still, Small Voice
After a generous overview of Anscombe’s first two years, Nunan gets to our recent intercollegiate conference. It was held, he rightly reports, to “educate students on the positions ‘Anscombers’ hold in regards to marriage, family and sexuality”—to which a breathless Nunan ominously adds: “This was no exaggeration.”
Exposed indeed. Cover your ears, children: a student group founded to advocate strong marriages and families and healthily-integrated sexuality shared its ideas on marriage and family and sexuality. And from this it follows that Anscombe “can be best described as a front organization for a peculiar brand of Protestantism and politics usually associated with the Republican Party.” Sigh.
Yes, having considered the competing arguments we judge that marriage is properly understood as the union of one man and one woman. We also believe that certain currently unpopular ethical norms best integrate sexual desire with personal, marital and societal wellbeing. Yes, the former judgment is shared by many Republicans and the latter by many Protestants. One or both are also held by Catholics, Muslims, orthodox Jews, some Buddhists, Aristotle, and Hillary Clinton, to name a few. But until Anscombe begins preaching the primacy of Peter or the Prophet, the reality of Sheol or Nirvana, or the need for natural slaves or nationalized healthcare, our group is identical to none of these—or else, absurdly but consistently with Nunan’s logic—to all of them.
Oh, but wait—there was one speaker out of the conference’s eight, two of whose 93 slides mentioned religion and one, the G-word! Nunan reports that speaker’s descriptive (not normative) claim that children learn “the fundamentals about God and the transcendent issues of life” from their families. There you have it: three passing references to religion or God prove Anscombe’s Protestantism. Applying the Nunan Method of Deduction, then, if Tim has more than three U.S. coins in his pocket, we have more evidence of his trust in God than he has of Anscombe’s.
But tread carefully now, lest you tumble into the howling chasm between Nunan’s premises and his threefold conclusion. He somehow infers that (1) Anscombe excludes the non-religious; that (2) its supposed Christianity (concealed in “bad faith”) means Princeton now funds groups with “identical goals”; and that (3) its “organizational monopoly” crowds out secular social conservatives.
By now one needn’t even be fully conscious to refute Nunan’s charge (2) that Anscombe is so exclusionary or crypto-Christian as to render University support for it unjust or inefficient. To call his endearingly risible argument “forced” would be unfair to B- Comp Lit majors everywhere. But without real evidence, why did he call us (1) exclusively religious and furthermore suppose that (3) reference to religion would automatically exclude others from the discussion? Because of the blithe assumptions without which his ethereal critique evaporates: that social conservatism must be defensible only religiously, and that ideas confirmed by religion are rationally inscrutable. On both counts he is wrong—and of that there is ample evidence.
Why Nunan Is Wrong
Though it was surely by Nunan’s investigative prowess that the Nass got a copy of a conference talk (one wonders whether his “anonymous source” was one of the many journalists in attendance…), he makes no mention of any other. Why? Because they can’t, even by Nunanite leaps, support his preconceived equation of social conservatism with religion. University of South Carolina Professor of Philosophy Chris Tollefsen, for example, argued for traditional sexual ethics from the rationally intelligible goods of psychosomatic integrity, marriage, and human life. Marriage advocate Maggie Gallagher drew on sociology to argue that the conjugal conception of marriage as an intrinsically male-female union best serves children, parents and thus societies. Universty of Virginia Professor Steven Rhoades argued that behavioral and psychological sex differences are more than social constructs, and that knowing so helps close the gap between Dr. Gray’s Mars and Venus. Did no one leak these to Nunan?
The fact is, Anscombe has always drawn on philosophy, sociology, psychology and other disciplines. Since (as we’ve seen) Nunan had no real evidence of our exclusive religiosity, his burden was to show that this has been a vast cover-up for theological and otherwise untenable principles; under that heavy burden his paranoia was pulverized, and the dust became his article. But behind his further worry about religion’s alleged exclusionism lies a larger error, about reason’s relationship to faith.
Why Nunan Is Really Wrong
Anscombe clearly has no theology, but we wouldn’t in principle reject arguments from any faith, nor do we think that this excludes adherents of any (or no) tradition. Religious tenets about sexuality are no less susceptible of rational understanding (or critique) than allegedly neutral secular ones. Both require a sort of faith in (or at least non-inferential grasp of) some irreducibly basic premises which anyone is free to accept or reject based on the plausibility of the conclusions they yield. Both must obey the laws of logical consistency, even if they leave a place for paradox in their finite grasps of a complex world. And both can be evaluated against our previous general principles and specific judgments in the open-ended but fruitful dialogue of reasons—dialectic.
For example, the Genesis account of creation has played no small role in shaping Western thought on sexual matters. But one needn’t be Jewish or Christian to evaluate the ideas that human beings have a transcendent origin and destiny; that the physical complementarity of men and women inscribes a law of fruitful, mutual self-gift onto our very bodies; or that fig-leaf modesty in a fallen world protects us from the use and abuse that mar a divine image and likeness within us.
Now these ideas are no more conceptually basic—and no less open to rational scrutiny—than such non-self-evident secular notions as the plasticity of human sexuality to the autonomous agent’s ends, say, or the unique value of utility-optimization. Were either incontrovertible, then Peter Singer as well as Robert George would be jobless. But examining these competing premises in light of what we believe most securely—and tracing the concrete specific judgments that they entail—can dissuade or persuade us of their plausibility. Studying by social science the effects of these principles on the lived experience of those who adopt them can also advance the discussion. And as we’re reminded by Benedict XVI—a religious leader publicly regarded as an intellectual equal by no less an atheistic heavyweight than Jurgen Habermas—if it turns out that our deliberations are most logically coherent, humane and rationally fruitful when we reason sicut Deus daretur (as if God existed), then reason may finally compel theism. We can’t know until we inquire. But to begin with the unyielding dogma that “religious” reasons (always left conveniently undefined) can’t possibly speak to nonbelievers is, ironically, the ultimate act of blind—and self-blinding—faith.
The neutrality and unique universality of secularism, then, are illusory. Anscombe really is free of political, religious and philosophical affiliation—not by being equally dismissive of all these sources, but by being equally open to any. The group trusts human reason. So the scope of our non-sectarianism embraces even that peculiar contemporary sect known as secularism—but not it alone. Nor can we dispense with all value systems: social science cannot be humanly reported, much less interpreted or prescriptively applied, without some evaluation.
In fact, if what Nunan calls the “rules of the liberal academy” (which he thinks require keeping our “philosophy secular”) rule out appeals to values on which people disagree, then he cannot justify his own (contested) position. A secularism (or any philosophy) that requires consensus for political legitimacy is straightforwardly and irredeemably self-defeating. Secularism should certainly be entitled to enter the game, but it cannot designate itself as umpire and declare itself the winner by ruling out of order any challenge to its hegemony. The alternative isn’t a campus theocracy but vibrant democracy. How tragic it would be if our discussions were weaned only on exclusive secularism’s meager diet of colorless extract, deprived of the tonic of faith and other forms of human variety.
This doesn’t mean that all discourse is finally irrational; we philosophy majors would never so undermine our own delusions of relevance. Instead it means that we can and must rationally examine values as well as facts—axiomatic as well as derived, secular as well as religious. To dismiss any of these before the debate begins is to flout the true rules of the academy.