Not by argument alone. But, a few good arguments can help.

A while back I blogged about Brian Leiter’s book, Why Tolerate Religion?, or at least a review of the book by the A in GAG (see Greg’s post). While I would rather be addressing the really important questions Greg raised about marriage, I’m afraid I’m in the process of digesting Leiter’s book and think that the issue of the reasonableness of religion needs some attention. (I promise this actually has to do with the issue of the defense of marriage; I’m just taking it bit by bit.)

Leiter thinks that religious claims are not fundamentally different from other claims of conscience, at least as far as claims for legal protection go. This isn’t a book review, so I’ll just go ahead and say that one of the key premises to get him there is the supposed ‘fact’ that religion is “insulated from the standards of evidence and reasons that have been vindicated a posteriori since the scientific revolution”. In other words, we religious people do not have to provide evidence for our beliefs; we can simply aver them. This is distinguished from what we might still term “beliefs” in science, because “beliefs based on evidence are…revisable in light of the evidence,” whereas  even in the most intellectual traditions of religion (i.e., in which doctrines/beliefs might answer to evidence in some way), “the whole exercise is one of post-hoc rationalization, as is no doubt obvious to those outside the sectarian tradition.”

Ok, fine. I’m going to go ahead and admit that the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, any number of miracles – these probably don’t stand up to the scrutiny of normal scientific reasoning. (Leiter has yet to answer why it is that these are the only acceptable reasons in the public sphere or in law, and I’ll go ahead and blaspheme one of the superstars of legal theory and say that he should know better.) Does this mean that I am unreasonable to hold them as truth? No, and my goodness, has ink been spilled defending that proposition. Since I assume I’m writing largely to a friendly audience, let’s not repeat it for the time being.

What I want to ask, rather, concerns education. Are we as Christian…intellectuals, parents, educators, people, name the hat and put it on – are we doing enough to educate young Christians about the, er, reasonableness of Christianity? Leiter’s view of religion – “insulated from evidence” – is far, far from the fringe; if I had to guess I would say that he is friendlier to religion than the average academic, though that would have to be qualified quite a bit. But as a teacher of undergraduate students, many of whom were raised Christian, I wonder if we’re doing enough to provide young people with a third way, as it were. That is, they do not need to leave their beliefs wholly unexamined, but nor do they need to exalt science (or philosophy) in the place of God and insist that all truth appear in the same form.

I worry about this in large part because of the peculiar mix of students I teach. Georgetown undergraduates, speaking from experience are somewhat more religious than average college students,  above average in intelligence and motivation, and probably average on my imaginary scale of Figuring-Things-Out. That is, perhaps they were (as many in fact were) raised in Catholic schools their whole lives but don’t quite know if tradition has enough to get them through this new, confounding and exciting world they face at university (and in Washington). Or maybe they were raised as Evangelical Christians and are very enthused about the new opportunities to practice their faith that college, a new city, and new ideas present them with. Or they’re secular, having been raised by well-educated parents who themselves never placed a high priority on religion, and a Jesuit school requires – sometimes meeting with interest, other times not – that they study at least some theology and philosophy.

So what are we offering them? While entirely conceding that no culture has been evangelized (or re-evangelized) by arguments alone, I nevertheless think it’s critical that the Catholic student learns how her dry introduction to the Summa is every bit as profound as the (not making this up) Freudian reading of Genesis she is now being subjected to (by which I mean, infinitely more so, but I would settle for parity). The Evangelical student, who, in my experience, has usually had church (faith) and school (reason) separately up until this point, needs to be exposed not only to the wonders of the scientific revolution but also to Christian metaphysics. And the secular student often needs to learn that those weird religious people might not just be brainwashed or supremely old-fashioned; maybe Augustine actually was really smart, after all. And maybe he’s worth considering, even with all of the fancy Freud and physics and lit crit he is learning for the first time.

Why? Let me use Plato to defend the use of Plato. In Book VII of the Republic, Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the need for prudence in bringing philosophical enlightenment to those still living “in the cave.” There are risks, Socrates implies, in pulling individuals away from justice-by-convention, i.e., living according to how one was raised (see students above) and directing them towards the philosophical life.

(Socrates): But what happens when such a man confronts the question: what is honorable? After giving the answer he learned from the one who taught him the laws, he is refuted in argument. Many and diverse refutations follow, upsetting his faith and making him believe that there is really difference between being honorable and being base. When he goes through the same thing with justice and goodness and all the things he values most, will he honor and respect them as before?

(Glaucon): Impossible.

 (Socrates): Then when he no longer regards the old beliefs as binding and true principles still elude him, will he not be likely to settle in to the life that feeds and flatters his desires?

He will.

Then he will have ceased to be a law-abiding man; he will have become an outlaw.


So what will happen when my students, raised to live as “good Christians,” start to think about “what is the good?”  When the Brian Leiters of Georgetown and University of Wisconsin and Carroll College teach them that their beliefs are mere belief, not tested by or answerable to either philosophical or scientific standards, will they be able to turn to other professors, pastors or parents to keep both their faith and intellects alive? Or will they be offered the mutually exclusive choices of either convention–including their Christian upbringing–or the philosophical life?

I don’t think that important issues like the defense of marriage or religious freedom will be settled by Christians making the best philosophical arguments available; culture and face-to-face relationships matter so much more directly in so many more cases. Nevertheless, I’m glad that GAG and others like them are making those arguments and doing the hard work of presenting the reasonableness of Christianity to a generation raised on Leiter-esque attitudes toward religion. Why? Because the people who will be building culture and establishing those face-to-face relationships in the future are more likely to be Christians if, when presented with scientific and philosophical challenges to their faith when they were 19-year-old freshmen in college, they also knew a professor who could nurture their intellects while also, if indirectly (and probably better that way), feeding the faith in their souls.

3 Thoughts.

  1. “The reasonableness of Christianity.” Hey, that’s catchy! Someone should write a book.

    Obviously I’m broadly on your side here. But isn’t the implication of what you say here that GAG are not actually doing what they purport to be doing – writing apologetics to persuade non-Christians of the reasonableness of the “conjugal” (Lord, what an unappealing choice of terms) view of marriage, but rather intellectual calisthenics for the faithful under the guise of faith-neutral apologetics? In short, that they’re writing a sort of Summa Theologica for marriage under the guise of writing a Summa contra Gentiles?

    Not that I mean to attribute insincerity to them, of course, but wouldn’t it be better all around if we all realized they’re doing this? Presumably the job of edifying Christians will be better accomplished if those who do it realize that’s what they’re doing; meanwhile, the job of reaching the Gentiles can be handed off to those who are prepared to speak to the Gentiles in a way they might hear. As C.S. Lewis said, when we send missionaries to the Bantus we expect them to learn Bantu, but we send missionaries to the English without teaching them to speak English the way the English people speak it.

    If you ask GAG, they say they’re writing for the Gentiles. I say the argument they’ve provided is true, even irrefutable if you accept their philosophical methodology, but it’s not the truth the Gentiles need or are willing to hear at this time.

  2. Two things for now (because this needs much more thought): a) I agree that most of the “Gentiles” just aren’t that interested in deductive logic, first principles, and natural law, so in that sense, I agree that this is not effective. But I think that that doesn’t leave only “edifying Christians” as the only possible alternative. What if they are also reaching those few Gentiles who DO care about deductive logic, arguments, and, if not natural law, then at least law? Put more simply, isn’t GAG still making the Christian position(s) on such matters at least respectable in legal and (some few) academic circles?

    b) Still, I actually was talking, in this post, neither about reaching the Gentiles nor about edifying Christians. Rather, I meant to, in awful terms, make Christianity safe for philosophy. Not for those who already know that it is, nor for those whose biases will persist no matter how much reason and logic you throw at them, but for those students who are still wondering how to make sense of both, I don’t know, Camus, or, shoot, Socrates, and their Biblical or Catholic or whatever type of Christian upbringing. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that for many kids brought up as Christian, reaching college still means choosing between continuing in their faith or continuing in their intellectual development. I would like it to be the case that more students don’t think that that (false) choice is necessary.

    • a) Certainly GAG are doing that. I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of that. On the other hand, they’re doing it in a way that actually makes the tasks of others in the movement harder. I’m preparing a post about that so I’ll hold fire for now, but here’s a sneak preview: did they have to invest so much in the word “conjugal”?

      Moreover, I’d object to their Thomistic methodology that presupposes natural reason can operate more or less autonomously without demanding we confront issues of metaphysics and even revelation. This is what I was getting at during this exchange over public nudity.

      b) But isn’t that “edifying Christians?”

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