"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." -- Bertrand Russell

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Christians Can Change Their Minds on Homosexuality?

My mother recently sent me a Huff Post article on Facebook entitled Christians Can Change Their Minds on Homosexuality. Of course, this is a topic I've blogged on recently here and here. Nonetheless, I decided to write a response. What follows is an edited version of my response to that article:
Thanks for sharing this. Before saying anything else, I should first say that I really do like and appreciate that this mother was able to come to terms with her daughter's sexual preference and to enjoy her daughter's wedding. That must have been a special event for that family. Sex columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage has written on topics like this, and states that gay children should give their parents one year after coming out of the closet. Savage states that if, after that year, their parents are still not able to unequivocally accept them for who they are, then ties with those parents should be cut. During that year, Savage states that parents can have any kind of (non-violent) reaction whatsoever; people come to terms with things in a variety of different ways. I'm glad to see that this mother eventually came around and hopefully her journey to that new place was not too tumultuous.

However, I can't say that this article particularly surprises me and for two reasons.

First, is that very few (if any) atheists would claim that religious people are incapable of doing good things. That's not why we don't believe in God. Even if religious people really were, universally, the most morally profound people on Earth, that does not prove the existence of God. Even Christopher Hitchens, the subtitle of whose magnum opus was "Religion Poisons Everything", admitted that religions (or religious people, at any rate) have done some profoundly good things in the world (though he would highly qualify that and would say that all religious doctrines, at their core, are immoral.)

Second, there are a whole range of views on homosexuality inside of Christianity. One should first note that the modern notion of homosexuality simply did not exist in the ancient world as far as anyone can tell. Instead, during the Babylonian exile, all sorts of ritual purity codes were introduced (see, for example, here, here, and here) and some of these were laws against men having sexual interactions with other men. These were, therefore, probably not (historically) codes against people who had a particular sexual preference (what would have been an anachronistic notion), but most likely codes about ritually pure sex as declared by Jewish law. I suspect that this is probably part of what has led to the conflation -- by conservatives -- between sexual preference and sexual activity (kids wearing gay pride shirts are sometimes expelled from school because school officials feel that these items are "advertisements for sex". Despite this, a gay person could be a virgin for their entire life.)

In the modern world, there are all sorts of Christian interpretations of how to deal with gay people. There is the ultra-conservative view -- that male homosexuality is an abomination worthy of death as taught in Leviticus 20:13 (note the patriarchal nature of the text; the Bible never condemns lesbian sex. And, arguably, what appears to be a provision against gay sex in Romans is really a provision against male rape.) Then, there is the view that homosexual acts are sins, but that homosexuals themselves are not bad people ("hate the sin, not the sinner" or St Augustine's phrase "
Cum dilectone homine et odio vitiorum".)  There's another view which states that homosexual sex was a sin prior to the new covenant founded by Jesus and that, just as modern Christians wear mixed fabrics and eat shrimp, homosexuality is okay too. One should note that most of these conservative views involve the thought that homosexuality is a choice. Finally, there is the view that homosexual love is just another kind of love and is therefore yet another expression of the beautiful tapestry of love as laid down by God in various human connections. I take it that the woman who wrote the Huffington Post piece takes this latter position.

As a secular humanist and an atheist, it is not my place to judge these different positions for their veracity or to declare which one of them are "better" Christian doctrines (let alone bothering with deciphering what the phrase "true Christian" is supposed to mean...) Since I don't believe in God in the first place, arguing whether God likes gay people is -- from my perspective -- rather like arguing whether Batman likes bacon on his cheeseburgers. All of these views on what God does and does not like are statements about a god I don't believe in and are made without recourse to any kind of evidence (or argument) whatsoever. They seem to be made simply on the basis of what our cultural zeitgeist has told us are moral behaviours.

I can comment on whether or not these views line up with the various historical notions people have had or how well they seem to line up with the Biblical texts. To that extent, due to the differences between 1st millennium BCE Judea and our modern global culture, the alignment does not appear to be very firm. But this is not to comment on the associated theological debate, in which I simply do not have any kind of standing.

In his "Varieties of Religious Experience", William James encourages us to examine the end effects of religious practices and not their origins (particularly in lecture 1.) So that while Paul of Tarsus might have been an epileptic, and his conversion based simply on a hallucination on the way to Damascus, we should really be in the business of examining Pauline Christianity for the effects that it has had in the world today and not on its origins. There are a variety of reasons why I think this would be an incredibly immoral way in which to judge beliefs*, but -- to the extent that James' view is true -- we should look favourably on those denominations which see homosexual love as an expression of God's love. Those are the denominations which I could find myself working with in matters of social justice, something which is really important for our world to move forward.

Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, NJ, has expressed a similar view. He's a liberal Christian, and in his appearance on Bill Mahr's talk show, he made a comment to the effect that he's not really interested in what people believe, but in what they do with those beliefs. This echoes the Biblical statement that by their fruits, we shall know them. As I already stated, I think there are really big problems with this view, but I can appreciate the work that is done by those who I would otherwise disagree with.

Yet there is still a problem to be taken care of here, and it's the reason why I find these more liberal denominations to still be incredibly offensive. Yes, it is fantastic that they have found a way in which to accept gay people; by how or why did they do this? And are they going to be honest about how or why they did? Woman's suffragist Susan B Anthony once stated: "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." In this case, we have a group of people who already had social reasons to accept gay people and then manage to put that thought into their conception of God. Really, they have derived an answer to a moral question in much the same way that a non-religious person would.

Yet the vast majority of religious people claim that a truly secular morality is an impossibility. They take to their holy books as a buffet, accepting only those beliefs which already accord with moral intuitions that they have gathered from their secular liberalism. Nonetheless, they do not acknowledge this, and continue to declare that their view is somehow derived from God is, therefore, beyond reproach. They deny that it is only by rejecting traditional religious teachings that they have come to this understanding, as well as everything which is implied by that denial.

So yes -- religions can change, do so profoundly, and probably more often than most would like to admit. But they do so by responding to strong social pressures, the changing fabric of society, competition with other ideas, and so on, and not by responding to internal revelations about the nature of God.


I share a similar, though not identical, view to WK Clifford, who stated, "It is [morally] wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence".


  1. Hi Dan,

    By way of introduction, I found my way here from unequally yoked.

    I really like the way you've framed the problem of independent morality, particularly in the last three paragraphs- I copied them and expect to quote them in an argument at some point :)

    I was curious as to how you deal with the fact that some people legitimately do change their moral stances because of religion? I certainly agree that lots of religious people do the ex post facto justification of moral stances they already know to be true, but then it also seems to be the case that some people change their morality- including restricting their own freedoms- when they actually come to believe in something.

    I guess my question is, do you think all the moral stances of religious people are culturally conditioned, or do you think there's a mix of absolute values (coming from the theology) and relative values (coming from the cultural context)? And if you think it's a mix, is that even a problem for religion, or is that expected (or even just acceptable) in the hypothetical world where one religion actually is true?

  2. Jake --

    Welcome to Et Ratio!

    "I guess my question is, do you think all the moral stances of religious people are culturally conditioned, or do you think there's a mix of absolute values (coming from the theology) and relative values (coming from the cultural context)? And if you think it's a mix, is that even a problem for religion, or is that expected (or even just acceptable) in the hypothetical world where one religion actually is true?"

    First, the former question -- are there objective moral truths that come from theology or are all such claims simply cultural constructs?

    I have to first state that I'm not a moral relativist. I think there are objective moral facts that obtain in the world. These objective moral facts are facts about human beings and their interactions with each other and are contextually dependent, but are not relative (in the sense that they are not subjective. They are contextual in that there are conditions for their application.) I have a Humanist view similar to that of Sam Harris or Matt Dillahunty as far as morality is concerned, and would say that these facts have much to do with what it means to be humans in the first place. Things that are immoral are roughly those which bring about needless human suffering, while moral actions bring about the prospering and well being of humans. I don't think these objective moral facts have anything to do with theology or with culture.

    On the other hand, those moral claims made by religions can either become more or less close to the truth of the situation. Ditto for those proclaimed by culture. Just as science moves closer to discovering the real truth about the world but never quite reaches it, so too do I expect the situation to be with morality. We might inch closer and expand our understanding of morality, but I doubt that we will ever have a total and complete understanding of moral truth. I don't think we can have any real claims about moral *progress* unless something like this is true.

    As an atheist, I suppose I would have to be committed to the view that all moral claims made by religions are culturally constructed in the same way that religion is pretty much culturally constructed. But I would say that there is a sense in which religion is beyond mere cultural construction; I think religion is a feature of human beings produced by memetic evolution. As such, religious expression often transgresses cultural lines. And one might expect some additional memetic fitness to sometimes be given to those religious ideologies which capture our ever improving understanding of morality. If all of this is true, it might well be that religions sometimes (accidentally) capture real moral values. That's presumably the case here, where Christians declare that they do not hate gay people. In fact, that's presumably the case whenever religions make moral progress by the rejection of immoral doctrines.

  3. And now for the second question...

    "And if you think it's a mix, is that even a problem for religion, or is that expected (or even just acceptable) in the hypothetical world where one religion actually is true?"

    Well, I don't there are any true religions. Nonetheless, if you ask me to suppose what the world would be like if there was one true religion, and that religion was something like one of the Abrahamic religions, I'd have to say that they'd probably need to stick to traditional doctrines. If an unchanging deity reveals Him or Her self to you, how could you change what He or She dictates? However, you could change the doctrines if you decided or discovered that He or She didn't actually dictate those things.

    Presumably, the Christians I wrote about here think that God never dictated that homosexuality was wrong. Very well. But how would they know that? A reasonable argument (to me) from their part might look like this:

    1. God dictates those things which are moral;
    2. We discovered from secular sources that gay people are humans and are worthy of our respect, love, and equality;
    3. Therefore, God must *not* have dictated to kill gay people or that homosexuality was an abomination.

    My argument essentially amounts to saying that they omitted point (2).

  4. Incidentally, Jake, I've been reading your blog with interest. I've decided to add you to my side-bar!

  5. Cool, thanks for the response. I find "the hypothetical world where one religion is true" to be a useful model for me to derive what kind of data I would consider good evidence for (or against) a particular religion, but I realize lots of atheists don't find it to be useful. Thanks for indulging me.

    "Nonetheless, if you ask me to suppose what the world would be like if there was one true religion, and that religion was something like one of the Abrahamic religions, I'd have to say that they'd probably need to stick to traditional doctrines."

    I think I agree with you here. This is why the Bible presents so many difficulties to me- what I would find truly impressive is a several thousand year old religion who's God actually seemed consistent (and relevant today), instead of having the apparent moral character of whatever cultural context he was being believed in. If the old Testament depicted a God who advocated for the kind of morality that I buy into (anti slavery, pro womens rights, pro individual liberty, anti massacre of conquered nations, etc.), which would be totally counter-cultural for its day, Christianity would be a lot more convincing.

    "I've decided to add you to my side-bar!"

    Sweet! I've never been on a side-bar before... I feel so grown up :)

  6. Jake -- No problem! And it would be awesome if you "followed" my blog as well. I'll follow yours too. :)