Although the Midwest Conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers is not exactly the rollicking, boundary-pushing saturnalia that its name may imply, this year’s event, which took place two weeks ago, did manage to produce quite the headline-grabbing scandal. The keynote speaker, Richard Swinburne, who is an emeritus professor at Oxford University and an all-around giant in the field, said something that set the philosophical community ablaze.
Here is the offending passage from his paper, “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life,” which he delivered at the SCP conference:
I come next to homosexual sexual acts (between consenting adults). It has been traditional to assume that the Bible and subsequent Christian tradition has condemned such acts…. Where, after all, do we ever find before the twentieth century any explicit approval of such acts by any theologian orthodox in other respects?
So I pass to consider what reason God would have for prohibiting such acts; and I suggest that the same kind of consideration applies to the prohibition of homosexual acts as to the prohibition of divorce or extra-marital intercourse. Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment….
[A]s I read the much disputed evidence available on line about whether children nurtured by homosexual parents flourish as well as other children, the balance of that evidence seems to me to indicate that children whose nurturing parents are also their male and female biological parents in a happy marriage flourish better than all other children. And so that is the kind of reproduction and the kind of marriage which we should be encouraging; and those who cannot provide it for their children have a disability…. Disabilities should be prevented.
The evidence seems to me to indicate clearly that genes and environment (nature and nurture) both play a role in determining sexual orientation; and also that this orientation is sometimes to a considerable extent reversible. So if there was a general recognition in society of an obligation to abstain from homosexual acts, that would prevent homosexual behaviour being presented as an option for young people of equal value to the heterosexual one which makes possible procreative marriage…. Such a climate of opinion that homosexual acts are wrong would encourage those who have begun to develop such an orientation to go no further; and it would encourage research into how the orientation can be cured.
In response to Swinburne’s address, the president of the SCP, Michael Rea, issued the following statement in a public post on Facebook:
Christians Backtrack On Orthodox Christian Doctrine?
Rea’s statement, not just the content of Swinburne’s talk, has generated much of the controversy. Some applauded Rea for distancing the SCP from Swinburne’s views. The SCP hosted a talk that construed homosexuality as a disability, and Rea’s statement expressed regret over it and assured the public that Swinburne’s views do not represent the society’s perspective.
Others, however, were greatly concerned by Rea’s statement. To them, Rea’s post — which amounted to an apology — appeared to represent a public condemnation of Swinburne’s views. But if Rea’s post is indeed a repudiation of Swinburne’s views, then it is also by its very nature a repudiation of orthodox Christian teaching on sexual ethics. Rightly Considered, a team blog of conservative philosophers, first broke this story with their post “Did Swinburne Get Swindled?” Two of the criticisms they direct at Rea have to do with the unprecedented nature of his statement and with the message it sends to members who adhere to orthodox Christian views.
It is certainly not standard for the president of a philosophical society to apologize over the contents of a paper. Vehement disagreement is typical — welcome, even. But philosophers, and scholars more generally, tend to prioritize academic freedom above nearly all other values. Although some respond that Rea’s statement does not threaten Swinburne’s academic freedom, a case could be made that public apologies offered by heads of academic societies officially signal the views in question will be henceforth considered undesirable.
Second, Rea’s detractors find it odd that the president of the Society of Christian Philosophers (emphasis mine) deemed it necessary to distance the organization from Swinburne’s views, which, again, are standard components to an orthodox Christian conception of sexual morality. It would be one thing if this condemnation came from the leadership of academic communities hostile to religious views in general and Christianity in particular, but this was the Society of Christian Philosophers officially expressing regret over the reading of a paper whose contents are standard Christian sexual ethics.
The post erred by suggesting this was all an elaborate set-up, engineered to bait Swinburne into presenting the Christian view of homosexuality only to then destroy him when he did so. Framing the post around an unsubstantiated possibility — “Did Swinburne Get Swindled?” — is perhaps not the best way to go for a piece filled with otherwise solid investigative moments.
No Apology Forthcoming from Christian Haters
On the other side of the aisle, Yale University professor Jason Stanley supported Rea’s statement and said, in a private Facebook post whose contents later became public, “Fuck those assholes. Seriously.” This message was directed at Swinburne and at those who reacted negatively to Rea’s Facebook statement.
In the days that followed, Stanley offered an even stronger response.
I am really mortified about this. My comment ‘Fuck those assholes’, posted on a friend’s private FB page about homophobes, was *photographed*. Even *worse*, it made it into *the right-wing hateosphere*, where it is being linked and relinked. I really wish now I hadn’t said that!! I PROFOUNDLY regret not using much harsher language and saying what I really think of anyone who uses their religion to promote homophobia, you know that sickness that has led people for thousands of years to kill my fellow human beings for their sexual preferences. Like you know, pink triangles and the Holocaust. I am really, truly, embarrassed by the fact that my mild comment ‘Fuck those assholes’ is being spread. This wildly understates my actual sentiments towards homophobic religious proponents of evil like Richard Swinburne, who use their status as professional philosophers to oppress others with less power. I am SO SORRY for using such mild language. I am posting this on ‘public’ so that there will be no need for anyone to violate any religious code of ethics and take pictures of private FB pages to share my views about such matters.
In response, The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher, who was already tracking the Swinburne/Rea controversy, came out with a post criticizing Stanley. Dreher’s posts on this topic offer lots of insightful commentary, but it was strange for him to make such a big deal about the tenor of Stanley’s post. Dreher seemed to imply that a philosopher’s public response to an item of disagreement should be philosophically rigorous. Like Stanley, I teach philosophy at the university level, and while I do my fair share of analysis, I don’t formalize every reaction into an argument. It is bizarre to expect philosophers not to have visceral reactions.
If we put Dreher’s point in its best possible light, perhaps he has a critique such as this in mind. What’s really striking about Stanley’s post is that his reaction is indistinguishable from the sort of low-engagement wokelore social justice warriors offer up daily on Twitter. If Stanley’s considerable philosophical training and expertise makes no discernible contribution toward his response, then a safe conclusion would be that we’re not getting rational engagement with Swinburne or his defenders, but mere hysteria.
This “enhanced” reading of Dreher leads me to a broader critique of how Christians sometimes react when they receive strong, visceral, at times even hate-filled reactions. There’s a sense in which it’s obvious why Swinburne’s detractors reacted so negatively. The claim that homosexuals are deficient, no matter how nuanced, is just not going to be a crowd pleaser. Yet isn’t it a feature of holding to Christian beliefs that “the world” will not accept them, and indeed, will persecute Christians for having them?
What Is and Isn’t Responsible Disagreement
While an organization styling itself as a Society of Christian Philosophers should, at a minimum, allow its members to freely hold and discuss Christian views, some of the reactions stop short of calling for censorship. Some of the reactions simply involve expressing strong disapproval of Swinburne’s remarks.
But why is this a problem? Of course some are going to have a problem with Swinburne’s views. But isn’t this to be expected? And isn’t this sort of reaction, however strong, perfectly fine given that it doesn’t involve a call for a shuttering Christian ideas? In other words, to the degree that a reaction simply registers disapproval or disagreement with Swinburne, this shouldn’t be considered problematic in the slightest. The problem comes when a reaction, either intentionally or unintentionally, weakens the freedom to hold and discuss certain beliefs.
There is another notable aspect to criticism of Swinburne and his sympathizers. It appears to be far more aggressive than the reactions other comparable claims have generated. For instance, within the philosophy of mind, I’ve heard the suggestion that the inability of eliminativists to affirm the existence of consciousness represents a mental impairment. Their critics say eliminativists have deficient minds. Yet it would’ve seemed over-the-top to hear “Fuck those assholes”-type responses to this argument. It would have seemed a bit much to respond this way. Yet it doesn’t seem so to Swinburne’s critics; to them, the exact right chord was struck.
A commenter on Stanley’s Facebook post, Georgetown philosopher Rebecca Kukla, generated some controversy of her own when she wrote the following post:
A conservative blog devoted to Georgetown University matters flagged Kukla’s post. It appeared to this organization that Kukla’s comment was an extremely strong dismissal of anyone holding to a traditionally Catholic view of sexual morality. The problem is that Georgetown is a Catholic university, and Kukla’s comments assaulted all of those who hold to that church’s teaching on homosexual acts and marriage.
Like any good scandal, this one has had its share of new developments. In a follow-up to their original post, the folks at Rightly Considered produced a screenshot that shows Christina Van Dyke, the executive director of the SCP, responding with “Haha” to Stanley’s second “Fuck you assholes” post. The SCP has declared itself neutral on its members’ views. Yet the team at Rightly Considered raised the worry that Van Dyke’s reaction to Stanley’s post demonstrates her sympathies lie with Swinburne’s opponents.
The philosopher Edward Feser also commented on this episode and gave a nuanced take about why Van Dyke’s seemingly-innocuous “Haha” should actually be taken quite seriously. Imagine, for example, that Stanley read Swinburne’s paper, commented on it in the same way as above, and Van Dyke replied with “Haha.” Feser writes:
Probably no one would be saying she should step down as Executive Director of the SCP — certainly I wouldn’t be, nor, likely, would I be devoting any time at all to blogging about it.
The fact is, though, that she responded to Stanley’s remarks in the way she did precisely at a time when the SCP leadership’s capacity to be fair to the conservative side is in question. It’s like a presidential debate moderator wearing either a Trump or Hillary button while appearing the Sunday talk shows the day before the debate, while insisting that he can be fair to both sides — and then, when told that he should not be the moderator, saying ‘What, you’re upset over a little button? Isn’t that an overreaction?’
How fitting that a post about a scandal ends with a mention of Trump and Hillary.