Thursday, March 14, 2019
Wrath darkens the mind
A straw man fallacy is committed when you attack a caricature of what your opponent has said rather than addressing his actual views. Hypocrisy involves blithely doing something that you admit is wrong and criticize in others. But what do you call it when you bitterly criticize someone else for doing something you approve of and praise in yourself and others? I don’t know if there’s a label for that. “Being an unhinged weirdo” is about the best I can come up with, and I’ve got a couple of examples.
Take our old buddy Jerry Coyne. I can perfectly well understand why he doesn’t like me. Over the years, he has made a fool of himself and and and and and again, and I cruelly keep calling attention to the fact. Now, longtime readers will recall that some years back I had an exchange with David Bentley Hart about whether there will be non-human animals in the afterlife. Hart had argued that there will be, and I argued that there will not be, on the grounds that non-human animals (unlike, , human beings) are entirely corporeal, so that there is nothing in their nature that can survive death. Coyne found this dispute . Or rather, he pretended that he did. , it was obvious that in fact Coyne was merely irked that I had recently exposed one of his idiocies du jour, and pounced on my exchange with Hart as a way to try to change the subject. Standard Coyne shtick.
What’s odd is that this has turned out to be more than just a one-off ad hoc attempt at distraction. The question of whether there will be animals in the afterlife is not one that I am terribly interested in. Had Hart not raised the issue, I probably wouldn’t have addressed it, and I haven’t revisited it since. Coyne, by contrast, seems obsessed by it. It’s been over three years, and he keeps bringing it up, every time I say something that inspires one of his periodic anti-Feser rants. The latest example is from . He there characterizes my view that “dogs don’t go to Heaven” as “deranged.”
Now, that’s the really bizarre thing. Why is it “deranged” for me to say that there is no afterlife for dogs and other non-human animals? Does Coyne think dogs do go to heaven? Does he agree with Hart? Of course not. Coyne is an atheist, and a very militant one at that. He too thinks that dogs don’t go to heaven, and that there is no aspect of their nature that survives death. In other words, Coyne calls me “deranged” for agreeing with him. And while agreeing with Jerry Coyne no doubt often is a sign of derangement, it is strange for Coyne himself to think so!
Could it be that what Coyne really finds objectionable is rather that I think that there is an afterlife for human beings? Is it that I hold that there is in human beings, unlike non-human animals, something incorporeal? The trouble with that supposition – apart from the fact that, as usual, Coyne has absolutely nothing of substance to say in response to my arguments – is that that isn’t what Coyne actually says. He doesn’t say that Feser is deranged because he thinks there is an afterlife for human beings, but rather that Feser is deranged because he thinks there is no afterlife for non-human animals.
Go figure. Near as I can tell, what is going on is simply that Coyne dislikes me so intensely that he cannot help but sputter whatever pops into his head, however ill-thought-out. It’s not that Coyne is stupid. On the contrary, he’s obviously very intelligent, and even sometimes interesting when he comments on a subject other than religion. It’s that his obsessive hatred for religion and religious people has so distorted his judgment that he cannot even see when he is being incoherent and (yet again, alas) making a fool of himself.
Needless to say, religious people can be guilty of the same thing, which brings me to my other example. , Mark Shea is what you get when you marry the letter of Catholicism to the spirit and style of New Atheist polemic. Take your average rant from one of Coyne’s or P. Z. Myers’ teenage combox dwellers and replace the shrill and superficial secularist content with some shrill and superficial theology, and you essentially have your typical Shea blog post or Facebook entry. Very different targets, but the same venom. Though at one time he devoted his efforts to writing helpful works of popular apologetics, Shea has in recent years become utterly obsessed with left-wing politics, and with demonizing any of his fellow Catholics who do not share his politics. And unlike Coyne, he is no longer even occasionally interesting. He has a little bag of talking points, epithets, and caricatures he’s mostly borrowed from others (“Right Wing Noise Machine,” “Christianist,” etc., Always All In Caps) and robotically pulls one or two out of the bag and flings them at whichever person is the object of his hatred on any particular day. Snore.
However, one of Shea’s stock epithets is very curious, and the occasion for my commentary here. Shea frequently accuses the conservative and traditionalist Catholics he so intensely dislikes of regarding themselves as the “Greatest Catholics of All Time.” This is a very strange accusation. I cannot think of a single conservative or traditionalist Catholic who can plausibly be said to take such an attitude toward himself or his fellows. On the contrary, conservative and traditionalist Catholics tend if anything to have a rather low opinion of contemporary Catholics, including themselves. They tend to think that even the most orthodox and devout Catholics of today simply don’t come close to measuring up to the heroic figures of Church history. When they complain about the low state of the Church and the heterodoxy and cowardice of so many churchmen, they often suggest that contemporary Catholics – including, again, conservative and traditionalist Catholics themselves – are simply getting the bishops they deserve, and suffering divine punishment for their sins.
By contrast, Shea and other left-wing Catholics tend to take the view that the contemporary Church has much deeper moral understanding than the Church of the past did. In particular, they hold that the views expressed by Pope Francis and other contemporary churchmen on topics like capital punishment, torture, religious liberty, interreligious dialogue, divorce and remarriage, feminism, homosexuality, social justice, etc. reflect a deeper understanding of the demands of the Gospel, and of the dignity of the human person, than was possessed by churchmen of the past. When modern popes and other churchmen apologize for the sins of the historical Church, or suggest (as ) that churchmen of the past had “a mentality more legalistic than Christian” and a “concern for preserving power and material wealth” that “prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel,” these progressive Catholics applaud, and regard such actions as evidence that today’s Church has matured morally, spiritually, and doctrinally.
In short, if anyone is plausibly accused of thinking that contemporary Catholics are the “Greatest Catholics of All Time,” it is Shea and Catholics of like mind. Like Coyne, Shea is criticizing people he dislikes for an attitude that in other contexts he takes himself, and approves of in others.
What explains such incoherence? The answer is that hatred blinds the intellect. More precisely, and as I discussed in a blog post on , anger that is excessive or otherwise disordered has as one of its byproducts what Aquinas calls “clamor” or “disorderly and confused speech.” Anger has the function of prodding us to make things right when in some way they are not – when there is some injustice to be redressed, some error to be corrected, or what have you. When guided by reason, anger can result in coherent speech and action, but in a wrathful person anger comes to dominate reason, and he lashes out incoherently. If he’s frenzied enough, he may even lash out with a condemnation he would in other contexts regard as a commendation.