Briggs on TLS and tone

Statistician William M. Briggs is beginning a series of posts on my book The Last Superstition.  In the first installment he considers the polemical tone of the book and tells his readers to get any remarks on that subject out of their systems now so that he can move on to more substantive matters in future posts.  Briggs writes:

Feser gives us a manly Christianity, in muscular language.  His words oft have the tone of a teacher who is exasperated by students who have, yet again, not done their homework.  The exasperation is justifiable…

Feser… does not suffer (arrogant) fools well—or at all.  This perplexes some readers who undoubtedly expect theists to be soft-spoken, meek, and humble to the point of willing to concede miles to gain an inch.  Feser is more of a theological Patton: he is advancing, always advancing, and is not interested in holding on to anything except the enemy’s territory.  This stance has startled some reviewers.  Typical is [one reviewer] who ignores the meat of the book and whines about “ad hominems.”
And of my characterization of certain New Atheist writers as ill-informed, incompetent, intellectually dishonest, etc., Briggs says:

Keep in mind… that these are all questions of fact, not metaphysics.  If Feser can prove them—I say he can—this is fine.

This is something that people who complain about the tone of the book should keep in mind.  If a critic haughtily dismisses arguments of the caliber of Aquinas’s while at the same time showing that he has got his basic facts about the arguments wrong, then to point out that such a critic is either incompetent or intellectually dishonest is just to make a straightforward statement of fact, and one that is highly relevant to evaluating the critic’s work.  If you think it commits an ad hominem fallacy to call attention to unpleasant but relevant truths about a writer’s knowledge of his subject (or lack thereof), then you don’t know what an ad hominem fallacy is.  (By the way, it would be an ad hominem fallacy to dismiss my own arguments simply because you don’t like my tone.  Just sayin’.)

You also don’t understand Christian morality if you think it forbids ever rhetorically taking the hide off of an opponent.  Former atheist Leah Libresco recently objected to the tone of The Last Superstition, and even implied that it was contrary to “put[ting] on Christ.”  As I wrote in response:

Re: the polemical tone of my book The Last Superstition, I understand that it is not to everyone’s taste. That’s fine. However, I must object to the suggestion that the tone of the book is contrary to Christian morality. That is not true. Those who suppose that polemics are always wrong are like those who suppose that violence is always wrong in failing to make some morally crucial distinctions. I’ve defended the appropriateness of polemics under some (by no means all, but some) circumstances in several blog posts, which interested readers can find here:

Nor is a polemical approach to adversaries by any means unusual in biblical and Church history. Christ’s harsh words against the Pharisees are well known. Elijah was sarcastic with the priests of Baal, and God with Job. Many saints have engaged in harsh polemics over the centuries. You’ll find examples in chapter 20 of a 19th century book called Liberalism is a Sin by Fr. Felix Sarda y Salvany, and a theological defense of the appropriateness of polemics under certain circumstances both in that chapter and in chapter 21. You can find the book online here:

As the title alone indicates, that book too is bound to be offensive to some. (As the reader will discover from the introductory material, a critic of the book at the time it appeared tried to get the Vatican to condemn it. The Vatican responded by praising it.) But whatever one thinks of the overall book, the points made in the chapters I’ve referred to are sound.

And in response to one of Libresco’s readers, who suggested that an aggressive tone was counterproductive even if not strictly contrary to Christian morality, I wrote:

Re: the… tone of [The Last Superstition], please keep in mind that no single book can reach every reader at the same time, and not all potential readers are gentle, fair-minded atheists like the pre-conversion Leah Libresco. There are, first of all and most importantly, a lot of people both on the religious side and on the fence who are so impressed by the absurdly self-confident rhetoric and apparent prestige of the New Atheists that they suppose there must be something powerful in their arguments, and this supposition will remain even after one has patiently explained the defects in their books. Sometimes, “breaking the spell” of a powerful rhetorical illusion requires equal and opposite rhetorical force (if I can borrow Dennett’s phrase). When you treat an ignorant bully arguing in bad faith as if he were a serious thinker worthy to be engaged respectfully, you only reinforce his prestige and maintain the illusion that he might be onto something. You thereby make it easier for people to fall into the errors the bully is peddling. Again, see the blog posts I linked to and the chapters from Fr. Sarda y Salvany for more on the reasons why polemics are sometimes not merely allowable but called for.

I also think people overstate the extent to which atheist readers will be put off. Some atheist readers, sure. But there are also atheists whose confidence in atheism is largely sustained by the vigor and self-confidence of the people on their side coupled with the timidity, defensiveness, and halfway-apologetic responses of some people on the other, religious side. To see people from the religious side hitting back with equal force and exposing certain prominent atheists not merely as mistaken, but as ignorant and foolish, can shock some of these atheist readers out of their complacency.

Finally, not all atheists are that sensitive. They can read a book like The Last Superstition with a sense of humor and realize (as I have made it clear in that book and elsewhere) that the polemics and sarcasm are directed not at all atheists but rather at (a) certain ideas (and a reasonable atheist should be able to carry out the intellectual exercise of separating himself from his ideas so as to look at the latter objectively) and (b) at obnoxious, puffed up atheists like Dawkins and Co. (and a reasonable atheist should be willing to admit that Dawkins and Co. are asking for it). If the shoe doesn’t fit some particular atheist, I’m not forcing him to wear it.

Finally, if that special atheist someone you are trying to reach simply doesn’t like polemics, there is of course always the respectably genteel Aquinas.  Something for everyone!
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