Recently, more than 120 religious leaders gathered at a Methodist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to form a group called Clergy United for all Families. This is a group that defends the equality of marriage for all people -- a goal that I emphatically defend as well. However, despite the large amounts of approval I have for this, I have some misgivings as well.
First, what do I agree with? Several of the people quoted in a press release appearing in "Minnesotans United for All Families", cite constitutional protections of the freedom of religion as their motivation. They reason that even if some religious people have misgivings about homosexuality, those misgivings should not influence the formation of laws. I'm very glad to see religious people taking a positive (and appropriate) stance with regards to constitutional protections; too often we see religious conservatives making bizarre comments about their own constitutionally protected rights and seldom do we hear about the views of religious liberals*. And, of course, I agree that all consenting adults should be allowed to express their love for each other through the legal proceedings of marriage**.
I also like that the religious leaders discussed how to best work with their congregations to fight a proposed constitutional amendment that would exclude same sex couples from being married.
However, in the same press release, Lutheran pastor Kelly Chatman states, "I will be voting no because of my faith, not in spite of my faith" (emphasis mine.) In fact, the press release itself is entitled "Religious Leaders: 'We're Voting No Because of Our Faith, Not in Spite of it".
But this is just a bare-faced misapprehension of the history of their own religion. One Rabbi states:
I’m proud to stand here as a lesbian rabbi, something that I grew up thinking couldn’t exist together. But luckily I learned that God loves all of us and when two people want to come together in love, we need to celebrate that, not exclude people from that.She used to think that there couldn't be such a thing as a lesbian rabbi. That's because in Jewish tradition, lesbian rabbis were not allowed. Precisely how did she come to learn that God "loves all of us" or any of her other statements? How did any of the 120 religious leaders come to have their views on this issue? Their revised views certainly didn't arise out of any orthodox Abrahamic religion.
For instance, women were not traditionally allowed to be rabbis at all and -- under traditional Jewish law -- male homosexuality was condemned as worthy of death. The Torah isn't even addressed to women and includes provisions on specifically male behaviour, but very few on female behaviour. Those restrictions that it includes on female behaviour are actually property law restrictions. To the upper class male scribes who wrote the biblical texts, women were thought of as mere objects. Such texts simply reflect bronze age cultural taboos as constructed by a deep patriarchy.
Previously, I wrote:
I want [liberal Christians] to admit that their holy text is full of immorality; that they are wilfully abandoning religious tradition to give in to liberalised, secular morality in order to say that there's nothing wrong with homosexuality. That, left only to their own religion and without external cultural influences, they would have believed the same sort of deranged stuff as the more conservative groups.This is precisely the problem that I have here. These religious leaders have each given up on a traditional and deeply immoral religious teaching -- which is fantastic news -- but they have claimed this as an accomplishment from within. Of course, the same phenomenon occurred for woman's suffrage or for the abolition of slavery. Very few seem to know that Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B Anthony, and Frederick Douglas all held anti-religious sentiments (two of them being non-theists), or the role that secularism played in those movements.
I fear that we are starting to see the same development here -- will future generations remember the role that non-theists played in the gay rights movement?
I need to make a small note on what I am not saying here. As atheists, I adamantly feel that -- for the most part*** -- we cannot and should not enter into theological debates between which doctrines are more right. Believing that God approves of homosexuality and believing that God disapproves of homosexuality are both on equal footing. From an atheist's perspective, such arguments are rather like contesting whether Batman prefers bacon on his cheeseburgers. Nonetheless, this is an instance of a group of people misappropriating the origins for their view on a particular subject and thereby enshrining religion in a light that it does not deserve. To move past what Dan Savage terms "the bullshit in the Bible", religious people need to look to non-biblical (and non-orthodox) sources. I just wish they would credit the non-biblical (and non-orthodox) sources that influenced their perspectives.
* Many of whom I find myself in agreement with. I suspect that dearth of public statements from religious liberals has led some atheists to suspecting that President Obama is secretly an atheist, when he's made statements that are very well aligned with large numbers of religious liberals.
** I would actually go further than this; since marriage, so far as the government is concerned, is a kind of legal contract, any number of consenting and mutually well-informed parties should be able to sign such an agreement.)
*** We can still enter into debates on which doctrines are self-contradictory, more or less consistent with holy texts, and so on. This is analogous to arguing about whether Batman is depicted to have fought against the Joker in a particular Batman film; that sort of question has a determinate answer regardless of whether Batman actually exists other than as a fictional character. As Sam Harris points out, we can also say that some religions are more false than others simply by noting the number of false claims they produce. For example, Mormonism is more false than mere Protestantism because an extra book gets added. Conversely, Catholics get more things right than the followers of Ken Ham because most orthodox Catholics accept biological evolution.