On Gary Gutting on being Catholic


Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking:

I shouldn’t be surprised at the mental gymnastics that even some professional philosophers go through when they talk about their own religion. After all, mental gymnastics (in the positive sense of exercising one’s critical faculties) is what philosophy is all about. Still, the latest defense of Catholicism by Gary Gutting in the New York Times really rubbed me the wrong way. Here’s why.

Referring to something Gutting often hears from fellow philosophers, he sets out to answer the question: “Can reflective and honest intellectuals actually believe that stuff?” As the reader will have quickly surmised, my own answer is a resounding no. But let’s proceed with order.

Gutting thinks that his Catholic faith is a matter of self-respect, and he defines the latter as respect for the sources of one’s self. Fair enough, as far as it goes. The trouble begins immediately afterwards, when he proceeds to tell his readers about the two sources from which his own self identity emerged: the Enlightenment and the Catholic Church. This willprima facie sound a bit strange, considering that it was one of the Enlightenment’s foremost exponents, Voltaire, who famously took to signing his letters with “Ecrasez l’infame,” let us crush the infamous, where “the infamous” was, you guessed it, the Catholic Church! [Incidentally, Voltaire was a deist, not an atheist, and he actually thought atheists were a pernicious element of society. Pobody’s nerfect…]

In order to rationalize (I really can’t find any other suitable term here) his conviction that he can juggle within his philosophical framework both the Enlightenment and Catholicism, Gutting has to explain why he is attached to the latter (presumably he feels — and rightly so — that as a philosopher committed to the role of reason in human affairs he doesn’t have to justify his intellectual kinship with the thinkers of the Enlightenment).