Society of Christian Philosophers Invites Eminent Philosopher, Then Apologizes for His Views on Homosexuality

By The Stream Published on September 28, 2016

A gathering of high-powered philosophers isn’t a place you expect public fights and embarrassed apologies, but when someone talks about sex the wrong way, that’s what you get.

One of the English-speaking world’s most eminent philosophers offended some members of the midwestern branch of the Society of Christian Philosophers by calling homosexuality a “disability” and saying that homosexual people who couldn’t develop heterosexual desires were “incurable.” Invited to give one of the keynote addresses at one of the group’s annual meetings, with the subject, “Christian Philosophy and Public Engagement,” retired Oxford professor Richard Swinburne found himself attacked in the question time and then indirectly disowned by the society’s president.

Swinburne, 81, who was until his retirement in 2002 Oxford’s Nolloth Professor of the Philosophy of Christian Religion, is the author of over a dozen highly respected works of philosophy and apologetics, whose contribution to his field has been described as “immense.” He notes on his Oxford University page that “I have been a Christian all my life, and a member of the Orthodox church since 1995.”

Homosexuality is a Disability

Though the text of the Swinburne’s talk isn’t available online, the idea seems to be one he offered in his scholarly work Revelation: Metaphor and Analogy, published in 2007. There he writes that “homosexuality is a disability. For a homosexual is unable to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is as such procreative.”

He then argues that homosexuality has both genetic and social causes but the causes “will also surely include the acceptability of homosexual practice among peers and society more widely.” That being the case, he continues,

part of both prevention and cure (where that is now possible) must consist in deterring homosexuals from committing homosexual acts. Homosexuals can help to prevent the spread of homosexuality and help to cure others by setting an example of not indulging their inclinations and of seeking a cure.

In the question and answer period, a philosopher named J. Edward Hackett responded with a “mixture of abhorrence and overwhelming anger,” as he himself put it. In a later blog post, he accused Swinburne of “dehumanizing” homosexual people by his use of disability.

The official reaction to Swinburne’s remarks came quickly. In a Facebook post, SCP’s president Michael Rea expressed his “regret” for the “hurt” Swinburne’s remarks caused. Rea, who teaches philosophy at Notre Dame, insisted that the SCP does not hold Swinburne’s views and declared his commitment “the values of diversity and inclusion” as part of the SCP’s intellectual life. He concluded with an apparent rebuke to Swinburne: “As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again.”

The SCP’s executive director, Calvin College philosopher Christine Van Dyke, endorsed her colleague’s comment and added that the SCP is “committed to being a diverse and inclusive organization where anyone not only is but feels welcome.” Also writing on Facebook, she added:

This is a case of someone in a position of considerable authority advocating a position that compares homosexuality to disability and talks about “treating” or “curing” them both. Richard is welcome to hold and espouse that view. Michael Rea and I just want to be clear that his position is not that of the SCP, and that we acknowledge that considerable harm has been caused by well-meaning people who hold those views and deeply regret the harm caused by this particular iteration of that view.

Denying that the SCP was trying to remove anyone’s right to free speech, Van Dyke also said that ideas like Swinburne’s “have caused incalculable harm to vast numbers of already disadvantaged people. Having someone in a position of power advocate that position furthers that harm.”

A Heated Debate

The debate over Swinburne’s remarks and the SCP leaderships’ response became heated in the tight world of Christian academic philosophy. Hundreds of comments on Rea’s Facebook notice, for example, alternated between defenses of Swinburne’s words and right to speak and critiques of his views mixed with denunciations like “I had no idea that hate, narrow-mindedness, unsubtle reading skills, and total oblivion about one’s privilege were so rampant in our profession.”

On the popular site for academic philosophers DailyNous, the main writer argued that Swinburne “was explicitly expressing a really stupid view, held by some Christians (and others), that gays and lesbians are defective humans” (an idea he didn’t say nor imply). In the comments, several philosophers argued for his view or defended its reasonableness, while others disagreed.

Philosophers more publicly supportive of the Christian moral teaching were not pleased with the SCP’s action. “Disclaimers like this are only issued when an organization regards someone’s views as embarrassing or problematic and thus effectively amounts to a censure,” writes Taylor University philosopher James Siegel, who heard Swinburne’s lecture.

For an academic society to do this to an invited speaker is really bad form, but it is especially inappropriate when the speaker is someone of the stature of Richard Swinburne, who is one of the top philosophers of religion in the world and whose work for the Society of Christian Philosophers for more than three decades has been immense. If I were Swinburne, I would feel humiliated by this. Talk about “hurt” that is worthy of “regret.”

Noting that Swinburne’s remarks were not as strong as those of St. Paul, much less Leviticus, Siegel doubted that Rea would have posted a disclaimer if a speaker had taken the other side. The SCP leaderships’ reaction, he wrote, “is indicative of a dramatic and alarming shift regarding discussions of sexual ethics within the Christian academic community.”

Similarly, in a detailed critique (worth reading in its entirety) of the Society’s behavior, philosopher Ed Feser argues that SCP president “Michael Rea Owes Richard Swinburne an apology.”

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