Religion seems to be a topic I simply cannot get away from at the moment, there being much that is written else on the subject that merits comment, either because it is very good or very bad – the ‘middle ground’ seems rather absent in this present debate, an observation of which you can make what you will.
Dave Hill’s observations on some of the commentary on the recent efforts of religious hardliners to prevent the introduction of the Equality Act (Sexual Orientations) Regulations in Northern Ireland falls generally into the good category for all that it includes the odd bit of flawed argument, such as his reference to “the Dawkins delusion that religion is the root of all evil?”, which rather confuses a bit of slick Channel 4 marketing of last year’s two part polemical documentary with Dawkins’ own views – he actually hates the title applied to the documentary and certainly does not argue that religion is the ‘root of all evil’ in his book, The God Delusion.
Minor quibbles aside, the general thesis put forward in his article is a sound one. Yes, in debating religion and religious belief, those of us who argue from a liberal secular/atheistic position should be mindful of the need for a measure of semantic precision in our arguments and avoid making use of sweeping generalisations of the kind that unnecessarily and unfairly tar all religious believers with the same brush. For all that the Arbramaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) do incorporate a view of homosexuality that is bigoted, prejudical and thoroughly irrational, that view is not uniformly accepted by all followers of those religions and it is, therefore, both immoderate and misleading to make reference to ‘the religious’ as being opposed to these regulations rather than make the proper distinction between those religious fundamentalists (or ‘extremists’, ‘hardliners’ or even ‘literalists’, any of which terms will do) who do espouse such illiberal values and the believers who are more liberal and, dare I say it, enlightened in their interpretation of the requirements of their faith.
As such, Dave’s criticism of Polly Toynbee’s intemperate commentary on this subject stands as being entirely valid. Of his comments. Of his remarks on AC Grayling’s article, I am considerably less certain that his critique has merit.
Grayling, for the most part, confines his commentary to impersonal matters. To describe religion, in general terms, as a “stone-age superstition with a tendency at one of its extremes to end in suicide bombings” is to take a strong, polemical, position on the subject, but not necessarily one that is either invalid or derogatory in the personal sense that labelling ‘the religious’ as, uniformly, holding homophobic views and values carries. Only in the final paragraph does Grayling skirt close to the line that was crossed so obviously by Toynbee, in which he notes that “this effort to halt the fight against the evil of discrimination is a step too far by the religious, so ready to squeal like pigs when it is they who feel they are being discriminated against”, and even in this it is questionable as to whether he makes an invalid use of a generality, i.e. “the religious”, given the the present propensity of religious believers to ‘squeal like pigs’ and claim discrimination when some of their many privileges are questioned and subjected to challenge, runs much wider than the narrow confines of the Sexual Orientation Regulations.
While Dave’s general position, cautioning us to be mindfully of the harm that can spring for the injudicious use of generalisations, is sound, the conclusion he advances in the final paragraph of his article is one about which I am much less certain:
Many religious people are liberal to a fault. And while in some cases religious disapproval of homosexuality is fuelled by hate, in others it is not. There is a saying, “hate the sin, not the sinner,” which summarises a principle liberal secularists are rightly eager to apply to many whose behaviour or attitudes they wish to change. Why not to religious conservatives too?
Why not to religious conservatives too? Mmm… perhaps the most apposite answer to that question requires the use a scriptural reference, specifically Matthew 7:15-20, which is part of the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. (text from KJV, naturally).
 Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
 Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
 Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
 A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
 Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
 Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. Yes, that seems about right, and is rather nicely illustrated by this particularly nasty, smallminded piece of sophistry from the House of Lords debate on the Sexual Orientation Regulations:
Some things about this legislation give me concern. First, there is the question of those exemptions which are granted. In shorthand, one could say that to qualify for these exemptions one would need to establish that one had, or belonged to a group which had, a profound religious objection to some of these matters. What has happened to liberal values? Why is a thoughtful agnostic or atheist to be compelled to do that to which these regulations would give thoughtful deists a waiver? Is that not itself a prime example of discrimination?
Perhaps we should have some legislation to protect those who are not deists in the way protection is being given to those who are of a religious frame of mind. Is it not possible for such a person to hold the view that it is wrong for the state to compel him to refrain from arguing that sodomy is a social ill or to conscript him or his children into aiding and abetting it—if that is the right expression? Is it not possible for a person without religious beliefs to reasonably hold the view that it is wrong for the state to compel him to refrain from making arguments which he could make were he a member of a religious group?
Lord Tebbit (from whose speech that passage is taken) poses what might, to some, seem to be reasonable questions…
Why is a thoughtful agnostic or atheist to be compelled to do that to which these regulations would give thoughtful deists a waiver? , and
Is it not possible for a person without religious beliefs to reasonably hold the view that it is wrong for the state to compel him to refrain from making arguments [aginst homosexuality] which he could make were he a member of a religious group?
Of course, as a merely practical note, there is nothing in these regulation that would prevent anyone, religious or otherwise, from advancing arguments against homosexuality, provided they do so in a reasonable manner and within the law – the regulations do not impose any restrictions on legitimate free expression.
That being said, before one even gets to the question of whether it is right that a ‘thoughtful agnostic or atheist‘ might be compelled by the regulations to a course of action from which ‘thoughtful deists’ are example, one first has to ask both how and why a thoughtful agnostic, and most certainly a thoughtful atheist, might arrive at the broad conclusion that homosexuality (or rather sodomy, as Lord Tebbit would have it) is a ‘social ill‘.
What is the line of rational argument that might lead a non-believer to the conclusion that homosexuality is a ‘social-ill’, something that sufficiently harmful to the well-being of society that it merits disapproval?
Perhaps the simplest of all arguments is what one might call the ‘yuck factor‘ – a revulsion or discomfort that influences a person’s attitude towards something – it is, after all, a common enough source of unthinking homophobia amongst heterosexuals of both genders. Some people just don’t like the ‘idea’ of homosexuality and/or the sexual practices associated with it, it makes them personally uncomfortable.
There are two basic problems with that argument.
First and foremost, its an argument grounded in personal psychology, it tells us what some individuals feel or think about homosexuality at a personal level and, by inference, something about their perception of their own sexuality, but says nothing whatsoever about the sociological impact of homsexuality; what effect, if any, it has on wider society.
Second, the yuck factor does not operate consistantly within individuals. A heterosexual male may experience a strong, visceral, aversion to male homosexuality but not towards lesbianism – in fact one might argue very convincingly that that is the prevailing view of homosexuality within the male heterosexual population given that many heterosexual males are anything but averse to lesbianism.
Okay, we can rule that one out, so what about a purely Darwinian argument – homsexuality removes valuable genetic material from the human gene pool because it does not afford the opportunity for reproduction.
No, again that’s not a convincing argument at all.
Homosexuality does not actually prevent reproduction, it merely predicates a choice in some individual not to reproduce, and a choice that does not, necessarily, result in genetic material failing to be passed on to future generations either ‘indirectly’ (by siblings who carry most of the same genetic material) or directly (homosexuals of both genders actually do have children).
Nor, indeed, is homosexuality unique in (possibly) interrupting the transfer of genetic material to future generations – many other things can have the same effect; infertility, celibacy, deliberate choice, or even just being too ugly or socially inadequate to find a sexual partner.
I think we can rationally exclude the Darwinian argument as well.
What about the idea that homosexuality somehow ‘disrupts’ the fabric of society; that it impacts negatively on valuable social insititutions like marriage and/or the family – that at least sounds sociological.
Btu can we really say, rationally, that is has any such effect?
Homosexuality may be disruptive within individual families, in circumstances where other family members find it difficult or even impossible to come to terms with sexual orientation of a particular family member. But again such effects are not uniform in application – some families fail to cope with such situation, but many more ‘cope’ just fine and may well regard the sexual orientation of family members to be of no consequence whatsoever to their position within the family.
And while the same can be said in relation to marriage – marriages do fail in some cases due to the discovery that one of the marriage partners is a homosexual or due to the inability of marriage partner to reconcile conflicting views towards, most often, a child who, it transpires, is a homosexual, but such event are relatively rare and, again, have no appreciable sociological impact on the institution itself.
Having ruled out all those lines of possible argument, one is left only to address the idea that homosexuality is, in some manner, against, contrary to or in defiance of ‘nature’ – that homosexuality is not a ‘natural’ human condition.
Such a view may be, and most often is, rooted in a somewhat simplistic notion of what is and is not ‘natural’ for human beings, one that if examined closely is found either to be an attempt to rationalise the yuck factor or to have been heavily, if unconsciously, influenced by the religious view of homosexuality – i.e. having been taught that homosexuality is wrong, and give the rationale for that idea that is against god’s ‘law’, the concept of god is rejected and replaced by an understanding of the world based on the concept of ‘nature’; however the idea that homosexuality is wrong is not re-evaluated in the process, merely given a replacement rationale that holds that it is (now) against nature’s ‘law’.
One can also, and more fruitfully, review this argument in a much more sophisticated form.
One starting point for such an analysis is to be found in the work of Richard Norman, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent (and vice president of the British Humanist Association).
Norman’s view is that the many choices that humans need to make to shape their lives take place against an extensive background of ‘conditions’, many of which are not, or perceived not to be, open to choice; for example (and in no particular order) sex and procreation, death, nurturing, aging, maturing, work (and its necessity/inevitability), illness, the existence of pain, and a whole range of other conceptual ‘forces’ that are nominally outside of human control.
Norman suggests, with particular reference to technology, that anything that alters or revises the ‘facts’ of any of these conditions, such as contraception or cloning or IVF treatment, i.e. a sudden paradigm shift in a concept that serves as a fixed reference point in the individual’s understanding of themselves and the world around them, will cause many people to experience discomfort and a sense that their capacity to lead a ‘meaningful life’ is, somehow, under threat, a threat that is often expressed in terms of their concept of nature and what is (and isn’t) natural. For those who do experience this sense of sudden cultural dislocation, ‘nature’ is being interefered with, even though the background conditions by which the individual define their perception of nature (and natural) are, in reality, only cultural (and culturally specific) constructs, nature been perceived to synonymous with whatever is perceived by a particular culture as being the core background conditions to human life.
As one might expect, common reactions to sudden changes in any of these core background condition may often be fear and/or hostility, responses which Norman considers to be unjustifed. This view is not, however, shared by Stephen Holland, of the University of York, who in his book ‘Bioethics: A Philosophical Introduction’ contends that an appeal to nature is not only a means of expressing hostility towards a change in a culture’s core ‘understandings’ of the world but that such reactions are, in fact, rational – within limits. Holland does concede that not all potential threats to such background conditions will, necessarily be perceived to be sufficiently threatening to engender hostility, and of those that are some will generate such an effect only in the short-term before becoming accepted.
A good example of this is IVF treatment, which initially spawned reactions ranging from doubtful acceptance -‘a treatment for infertility is a good thing in principle, but could the technology be used for other, unacceptable, things in future’ – to outright hostility – ‘it’s unnatural, so it shouldn’t be allowed’ – and yet, today, not only is its use widely accepted but many would argue that it is wrong to withhold such treatment from those who need it.
IVF treatment altered the background condition that links sex with procreation, by enabling conception to take place not only without the performance of a sexual act but actually outside the body of the putative mother, but over time the benefits accrued from the use of this techonology have acclimatised most of us to its use and we have, as a culture, come to accept that the background condition for procreation includes the use of this form of technology.
Holland’s theory affords both considerable utility and explanatory power. One can readily see, for example, how this theory may be used to account for ‘events’ that take place at the point of interface between cultures that possess somewhat different sets of background conditions. In the case, for example, of the niqab, which was a matter of consider debate over the latter part of last year, one can readily see how Holland’s theory would account for the observable hostility that this garment engenders is some parts of ‘western culture’ – its wearing constitutes a perceived threat to a number of commonly held background conditions, from that of not covering the face unless out of necessity to conditions relating to perceptions of the nature of gender equality. One can also see that this would also account for why such reactions provoke both a hostile response in those whose background conditions have formed under the influence of Islamic culture and sense of confusion as to why such a reaction has arisen. For all these two cultures share many common background conditions, which enable understanding between them, in this particular case the respective background conditions in each culture are marked at odd.
Moreover, and this validates Holland’s efforts as a theoretician, the observable reaction on both sides of this debate could be readily predicted from the theory itself, provided that one can identify the relevant background conditions in each culture, even if the two cultures has not come into contact.
Whether any of this supports Holland’s contention that such reactions are rational is, however, rather more open to question, a question that is not answered either by his theories capacity to make sound predictions or that such predictions as can be derived from the theory can be shown to be well-supported by observational evidence.
Having necessarily digressed to provide a theoretical platform for the rest of this discussion, one must return to the subject of homosexuality and the question of whether one might be capable of forming a rational view of it as a ‘social ill’.
Clearly, Holland’s theory provides a basis upon which one can explain, in rational terms, why homosexuality provokes fear and hostility in some people, not least as his theory does an excellent job in accounting for the existence of the yuck factor.
Homosexuality may, quite reasonably, be considered to ‘threaten’ a number of perceived cultural background conditions in some segments of even western society, for example, a condition that connects sex and procreation or a condition that connects sex with attraction to the opposite gender (and there no doubt other conditions on might reasonably bring into play) and knowing this to be the case one can also safely predict that, as a result, homosexuality will, in some, spawn a fearful and/or hostile reaction. And one can also safely state that, thus far, the argument that leads us to this conclusion is entirely a rational own.
But does that, then mean, that hostility towards homosexuality (and by extension a belief that it is a ‘social ill’) is itself rational?
Holland’s contention that any hostile reaction arising from a threat to a background conditions suggests that it is, but Russell Blackford (whose article I must acknowledge as having a considerable influence on this piece) thinks otherwise.
As Blackford, quite correctly notes, Holland’s suggestion that hostility arising from a perceived threat to accepted cultural background conditions is rational presupposes that the individual who experiences and expresses such feeling of hostility has arrived at them by way of a rational thought process. This, to say the least, seems very doubtful, not least, as Blackford also observes, as it highly unlikely that such an individual would articulate their feelings of hostility towards homosexuality in rational terms – they may express the view that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’ but would highly unlikely to be able to go on articulate precisely why it is unnatural without relying on either a reference to religious beliefs about homosexuality or a generalised expression of personal revulsion – the yuck factor again.
That alone seems to mitigate against the view that such hostility may be rational.
Such a view also presupposes that the background condition ‘threatened’ by homosexuality is, itself, a rational one, and this, I would contend, need not necessarily be the case. To extend Blackford’s argument, the very fact that an individual may respond with fear and/our hostility to perceived threat to a background condition but be unable to articulate the nature of the background condition itself suggest that these conditions may function, at least to some degree, unconciously. If this is indeed the case then the view espoused by Holland that such background conditions are culturally specific constructs based on natural facts need not necessarily be entirely true, a class of such conditions might equally derive from contructs founded widely held beliefs that may not, in examined closely, be supported by natural facts.
If this is the case then it seems possible that an individual may ‘possess’ a background condition that suggests simply that homosexuality is ‘wrong’ or even ‘unnatural’, if brought up in a culture in which such a belief is commonly held, even if the individual in question has never consciously been introduced to such a concept or been invited to internalise such a condition by way of rational consideration. As to how such a construct might be acquired, one possibility may be by way of memetic osmosis, particularly in childhood, i.e. a child might ‘absorb’ the construct that connects homosexuality with ‘wrong’ by being exposed to that construct in the attitudes of its parents, even if their parents never make that statement outright. Such a construct could, at least hypothetically, be transmitted merely if, for example, certain words are spoken by a parent or other trusted authority figure only in tones recognisable to the child as one that express displeasure or disapproval – ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ would perhaps the most likely ‘memetic carrier’ for children due to their brevity/simplicity. Such a mechanism, if it does exist, would allow for the possibility of a child being unconsciously ‘programmed’ with constructs that act indentically (or near indentically) to those background conditions that are derived from natural facts, even though they lack any corresponding factual basis.
That Holland’s assertion that people are behaving rationally when expressing hostility by way of claiming that something is ‘against nature’ seems doubtful does not rule out, entirely, the possibilty that a rational argument against homosexuality could be derived from his theory, and question that Blackford poses and, then, explores by way of this argument:
Premise 1: It is morally wrong to threaten any of the basic background conditions for people’s choices in our culture.
Premise 2: The connection between sexual acts and procreation is one of the background conditions.
Premise 3: To commit a homosexual act is to threaten the connection between sexual acts and procreation.
Conclusion 1: To commit a homosexual act is to threaten one of the background conditions. (This follows from Premise 2 and 3.)
Conclusion 2: To commit a homosexual act is morally wrong. (This follows from Premise 1 and Conclusion 1.)
Such an argument is, as Blackford points out, entirely valid in its logical construction and, as such, its conclusions are true so long as its premises are satisfied and the various expressions in the argument are used consistently throughout – and yet the argument remains unsatisfactory, largely because its premises are all rather controversial.
Can one, for example, reasonably assert that it is morally wrong to threaten and of the basic background conditions found in a particular culture. Clearly not, not unless one give oneself over entirely to moral and cultural relativism and take the view that there are no values that could be considered to be either absolute or that would hold true across cultures.
This first premise could function adequately only if one excludes from consideration all background conditions that cannot be grounded in matters of fact that are held sufficiently widely to be reasonably considered to be beyond rational dispute, but such a constraint would, in turn, make the premise itself a tautology, albeit one that operated within a very limited range of conditions, and therefore render the premise, itself, meaningless. e.g. It would be morally wrong to threaten the background condition that the world is not flat.
Premise 2, as Blackford points out, is only true in our own culture if applied very loosely. Yes such a connection (between sex and procreation) exists but the connection is a tenuous one that has been heavily modified over time by the widespread acceptance of the use of contraception and IVF treatment. Unless such a connection is reinforced by an external influence (such as religious belief), taking the premise outside the scope of pure rationality, it seems very unlikely that the mere fact that homosexual acts preclude procreation would be sufficient to actually ‘threaten’ this condition that connects sex and procreation, such that both premises cannot be true at the same time if the same terms are applied in the same way.
I feel that it is going to be very difficult to find any case where an argument with this structure is rationally compelling. Premise 1 needs to be qualified, even though this threatens to undermine the whole argument. Meanwhile, one of the other premises is always likely to be false, or else the premises cannot be stated truthfully and simultaneously, without equivocation. Those pesky premises just won’t sit still.
…seems perfectly sound. The construction of the argument and the reasons for it failure to provide a rationally compelling solution do look to rule out the possibility of using this, or a similarly structured argument, as a basis for a rational assertion that homsoexuality should be considered to be wrong and, therefore, a ‘social-ill’. Only if the condition that is ‘threatened’ by homosexuality is reinforced by or predicated upon a belief about homosexuality that is, itself, negative and that supports the contention that homosexuality is wrong or unnatural can both the second and third premises be simultaneously true without equivocation.
Where does all this lead?
Well, first to the conclusion that Lord Tebbit’s hypothetical ‘thoughful atheist’ who believes that homosexuality is a social ill does not exist, there being no exclusively rational pathway that might lead such a thoughtful atheist to that particular conclusion, at least not in our own culture. A rational background condition that would lead to such a conclusion could exist only in extreme conditions, either in a population with a very low degree of genetic diversity or an extreme scarcity of males or females such that a conscious choice not to reproduce would threaten the viability of that population.
As for the ‘thoughtful agnostic’, there is a pathway they could follow to such a conclusion – the could take the view that in the absence of a definite position on the existence of god, the safest long term option would be to accept precepts of religious morality as a hedge against the possibility that, on dying, they discover there is a god.
But such a pathway is not a rational one as not only does it entail the acceptance of an irrational belief on a very thin premise but it also presupposes that there is an equal chance of either outcome (there is a god or there isn’t a god) being true when, in reality, the evidence we have suggests that the probability of god existing is so small as to be almost neglible (as for why that is the case, you’ll have to read Dawkins’ ‘The God Delusion’) – so I guess our ‘thoughful agnostic’ is not quite so thoughtful as Lord Tebbit suggests.
In short, Tebbit’s argument is one of pure sophistry and rhetorical nonsense, one that attempts to assume the clothing of rational discourse even though that clothing in several sizes too large.
And what of Dave’s proposition that we should ‘hate the sin, not the sinner’ and, particularly, the distinction he seeks to draw between those whose relgious disapproval of homosexuality is ‘fueled by hate’ and those who disapprove of homosexuality for other reasons.
On the proposition that we should ‘hate the sin’ I would consider that to be axiomatic. The belief that homosexuality is ‘morally wrong’ or a ‘social ill’ is one that cannot reasonably be derived or arrived at by rational means.
But does that lets the ‘sinner’ off the hook or permit a clear distinction to be made based on the motives of the sinner?
No. I don’t believe it does.
While one cannot rationally arrive at the position that homosexuality is either morally wrong or a social ill, one can quite easily arrive at just such a position in regards to homophobia, which is self-evidently harmful and socially divisive. Homophobia, unlike homosexuality, is both objectively and morally wrong.
That a particular religious believer’s disapproval of homosexuality may be predicated on factors other than hatred is of no consequence to the wrongness of their position, it merely suggests that one might reasonably be expected to temper one’s own reaction to their position such that it is proportionate to the manner in which they express that disapproval – i.e. one might reasonably describe someone who rationalises their disapproval of homosexuality by reference to the false belief that is contrary to god’s intention that we should ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as being deeply misguided, where one would say, instead, that the believer is a homophobic cunt if the rationale supplied is that homosexuality is ‘evil’.
One should not, however, ever fall into the trap of thinking that such errant beliefs can be accepted or tolerated either because they are expressed ‘politely’ – i.e. “I’m not homophobic, but…” or confined, by a conscious choice in the part of believer, to the private domain. The sole valid distinction one can reasonably make is between the ‘believer’ who accepts the religious view that homosexuality is wrong and the believer who rejects that view as being one inconsistant with other aspects of their personal beliefs or as one that is recognisably irrational, harmful and/or morally wrong – distinctions based on an apprension of the motives of the believer in disapproving of homosexuality are essentially meaningless as even an individual who is circumspect in their expressions of disapproval or who chooses not to act upon their disapproving view of homosexuality may still make a contribution to the harm that arises as a consequence of homophobia by helping to perpetuate and propogate an irrational, unjustifiable and wholly prejudicial false belief.
Atheist that I am, I’ll happily give the Bible this: in the matter of ‘sinners’, the sentiment expressed in Matthew 7:20 is a damn good one.
By their fruits ye shall (indeed) know them.