Archive for December, 2008

Imaginary Crimes

It’s exam season, which means that I don’t have as much time for blogging as I’d like, but this post on Daylight Atheism prompted me to write about a subject that’s been on my mind for quite a while.

Perhaps one of the most baffling aspects of organised religion is its insistence on creating a prohibitive list of thoughts, emotions and actions that are outlawed despite the fact that they do no harm to anybody at all. Homosexuality is of course an excellent example of this, as is almost any rule you care to name that prohibits the various other sexual ‘perversions’. The sheer amount of activities that have been outlawed by one religion or another over the course of history are truly mind-boggling: drinking alcohol, being naked, masturbation, wearing certain kinds of clothes, not wearing certain kinds of clothes, forgetting to pray in certain places or at certain times of the day, working on Sundays, displaying images of certain religious figures – the list goes on. These religious rules fall under what I like to think of as ‘folk morality’, or as the Religious Right calls it, ‘traditional family values’.

How much of the wisdom you received from the previous generation do you actually question? Think back on all of the things your parents, grandparents, pastors and teachers told you about right and wrong, and then try to count how many you’ve really, truly thought about. Keep in mind that I’m not suggesting a wholesale abandonement of morality, only that our moral codes should be as rigorously tested as possible. By definition, the imaginary crimes of organised religion are immune to questioning. “Who is harmed by homosexuality?” is a question that is often asked, and the replies are almost inevitably unsatisfying. “You are, because you go against God’s design”; “The world is”; “Society is”.

But what does it actually mean to act against God’s design? What does it mean that all sin offends God equally? To a Christian or Muslim it no doubt means quite a lot, but to those who don’t believe in God or in the divine nature of the Bible or Qur’an, it means nothing at all. I’ve already examined several arguments against same-sex marriage, and they all eventually com down to vague warnings about damaging ideas of the family or parenthood. I’m not denying that ideas have effects beyond the theoretical, but it says something that I find the religious objections against same-sex marriage to be less ridiculous than the secular ones.

This is the inherent flaw in religious morality – it is completely nonsensical to those who are not religious. Even between two different religions can be at odds with each other on basic matters of right and wrong. A moral argument has no ability to convince non-believers so long as it rests entirely on the authority of a holy text, which is why the likes of Gregory Koukl must scramble to erect semi-defensible comdemnations of homosexuality that don’t rely so obviously upon the Bible.

One of the many ways in which atheism liberates a person is that they no longer need to worry about condemning actions or thoughts that their own reason tells them couldn’t possibly be wrong. For an atheist, there is no omnipresent diety to offend, nor are there any senseless codes of conduct to be adhered to. An atheist does not have to feel guilty for committing ‘sins’ that do no harm to anybody.

Socrates is crediting with saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and plucked from its original context, that holds particularly true for morality. Too many people frame problems of morality in terms of people thinking wrongly, but my greatest worry is that the world refuses to think about morality at all. This is a state of affairs that organised religion thrives in.


Bisexuality – Here’s What It Isn’t

Warren and Obama should be pretty worried about the tide of hostility that’s been rushing their way lately, mainly because they’ve got people like Mona Charen trying to defend them. I’ve said some fairly disparaging things about the Religious Right in the past, but her latest Townhill article contains some mind-bogglingly stupid arguments that go far beyond the usual ‘traditional values’ nonsense. Spreading misinformation is always dangerous, particularly when your subject is one as volatile as same-sex marriage, yet Charen seems content to do it with reckless abandon.

She begins by giving the usual spiel about same-sex marriage eventually opening the doors for polygamy and paedophilic marriage (and more on that in a minute), but backs it up with what appears to be a profound misunderstanding of what bisexuality is; apparently, the B in ‘GLBT’ sunders all attempts at justifying gay marriage.

But consider the name that many gay activists have adopted. You no longer see gay and lesbian alone. Instead, the new terminology is LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Lesbians and gays say that without gay marriage, they cannot fully express themselves as they really are. But what about bisexuals? I ask this not to poke fun or to hurt anyone’s feelings, but in all seriousness. How does gay marriage help a bisexual? I assume that if you are bisexual, you believe that you need to have sexual relationships with both men and women. If you are a bisexual man married to a woman, don’t you need to break the marriage bond to express your bisexuality? If you choose to express just the homosexual side of your bisexuality, then aren’t you gay? Likewise, if you choose to express only the heterosexual side, how are you a bisexual? Why is bisexuality not a recipe for infidelity?

I shouldn’t have to point out that the most erroneous part of this near-incoherent paragraph is ‘I assume that if you are bisexual, you believe that you need to have sexual relationships with both men and women’, a sentence to which I would reply ‘You assume wrong’. Bisexuals are people who either have sex with males and females or are attracted to both males and females. A bisexual man married to a woman is probably not going to wake up one morning with a pressing need to immediately have sex with another man lest he spontaneously become heterosexual – if he’s attracted to people of both sexes, he’s bisexual.

Why is it that bisexuality is so frequently misunderstood? And this goes double for homosexuals, who really should know better than to judge someone prematurely based on a scant knowledge (at best) of what their sexual orientation is.

Regardless, bisexuality is only an issue for same-sex marriage proponents in whatever fantasy land Mona Charen resides in, but she does raise some other, potentially more troubling issues. It’s the usual ‘slipper slope’ argument, but it’s something that I haven’t addressed in much detail here.

Where do you draw a line? Once traditional marriage — supported by centuries of civilization and the major Western religions — is undermined in the name of love, there is no logical or principled reason to forbid polygamy, polyandry, or even incest. Gay activists recoil from incest. But on what grounds exactly? Suppose, after we formalize gay marriage, two 25-year-old sterile (to remove the health of offspring argument) twins wish to marry? Let’s suppose they are loving and committed. What is the objection? That it offends custom and tradition? That it offends God? Isn’t that just bigotry?

I have absolutely no problem with polygamous marriages, provided that all involved consent to the union and that there is total equality in how the marriage is arranged – in other words, provided that any number of men and women can be married, as opposed to a single man being allowed to marry multiple women but not the other way around. I’ve seen it pointed out that there are some potential difficulties in extending the legal benefits of two-person marriage to multiple partners, but I don’t see anything insurmountable about that.

I also have no problem with incestuous relationships or marriages in which there is no possibility of childbirth (for example, where one or both partners are sterile or where the couple is homosexual). Things become slightly more complicated when there is a possibility of childbirth, of course, but consider the following: people with a very high chance of passing on genetic disorders are generally not prevented from marrying or having children. (As far as I’m aware, people who are knowingly infected with HIV are also allowed to marry.) On top of that, an incestuous couple that was determined to have children could simply do so without being married; as I’ve pointed out time and time again, there is a complete disconnect between the ability to procreate and the willingness of the state to grant a marriage license. With that in mind ask, yourself this: do we prevent incestuous couples from marrying because of the risk of inbreeding, or do we prevent them from marrying (and shun their relationships) due to knee-jerk disgust? And does that disgust have any sort of rational basis?

Charen does not bring up paedophillic relationships again, but I’ll state the obvious and point out that they’re generally viewed as abhorrent in most societies for good reason. (Note that I’m talking about relationships with prepubescent children or young teenagers; there are of course places where marriage between adults and fifteen or sixteen year olds is acceptable, but I’ll leave that topic for another day.) Young children are simply not mature enough to be in romantic, committed, sexual relationships with anyone, let alone with adults who may be several times older than they are. Curiously, I have yet to see anyone on the Religious Right argue that such marriages should be illegal based on a child’s inability to become pregnant (or to impregnate someone). Given that marriage exists for the purpose of facilitating procreation, shouldn’t this be their number one argument against paedophillic marriage?

Raging Libido

From Townhall, more oddities, this time courtesy of Dennis Prager: When a Woman Isn’t in the Mood, Part 1.

I’ve written before about the dangers of buying into ‘Saturday morning cartoon’-style ideas of gender,  a trap that the Religious Right seems to fall into with every step; traditional family values go hand-in-hand with overly simplistic notions of what the words ‘man’ and ‘woman’ mean. In this article, the first of a threatened series, Prager explains that women should avoid saying no to their lustful husband’s sexual advances, even if they really aren’t in the mood for sex. Keep in mind that this was written in 2008, as opposed to, say, 1905.

The central point of his argument is that ‘A husband knows that his wife loves him first and foremost by her willingness to give her body to him’, and from this it naturally follows that a woman who refuses sex is giving her husband the impression that she doesn’t love him. His near-omniscient knowledge of the male and female minds allows him to deliver this knowledge in godlike fashion, presenting it to us mere mortals with much fanfare and condescension. Curiously, he simultaneously assumes that these truths he speaks of are self-evident – at least, I’m assuming that’s the assumption that went behind his decision to not cite any evidence whatsoever.

In fact, he takes a decidedly unscientific approach to the subject when he asserts that ‘Compared to most women’s sexual nature, men’s sexual nature is far closer to that of animals. So what? That is the way he is made. Blame God and nature.’ Actually, I would say that both men and women posses ‘sexual natures’ which are absolutely identical to that of the rare and elusive animal  species Homo sapiens.

But enough snarking; nobody expects anything so esoteric as evidence when dealing with Right-wing crackpots. I don’t have much insight into the workings of an ordinary heterosexual relationship, so I’ll leave Prager’s treatment of male-female dynamics to someone more qualified, but I would like to say a bit about his portrayal of men.

According to Prager, men are essentially penises with legs. How do we measure the success of a relationship? With sex. How do we know if our significant others love us? With sex. What is the greatest threat to our forming long-term relationships? Lack of sex. I’m not going to deny that most men quite enjoy sex, but the world does not begin and end with it. And if Prager’s assessment of heterosexual relationships is true, I’m pretty damn glad that I’m gay.

My partner isn’t particularly interested in having sex at the moment, for reasons that I won’t go into here. He could do it if he wanted to, he just doesn’t feel like it right now. Rather than feeling unloved because of this, I respect the fact that he’s just not in the mood, and likely won’t be for some weeks or even months to come. Do you know why? Because demanding that he validate our relationship by having sex when he doesn’t want to would make me a complete asshole.

This is, to my mind, how it should be. For the married straight men out there: how happy would you be if you knew that your wife was only giving in to your advances because she feels that she needs to? That it’s a duty rather than something she actually wants to do? That would certainly kill my relationship faster than any suspicion of infidelity, because it would mean that I’d be married to someone who doesn’t see herself as my equal. Prager’s recipe for a happy marriage is for a wife to make herself subservient to ‘her man’, who just can’t control his raging sex drive; to me, that comes across more as a ringing endorsement for polygamy.

I can’t speak for all men, obviously, but the thought of being in a relationship like that disgusts me. I am not some sort of uncontrollable beast that requires sex on demand in order to be kept happy. Is this what people mean when they talk about traditional conceptions of the family – patriarchy and lust? No thanks.

Oh, and if you’re lucky, the Ann Coulter advertisement will still be lurking halfway down Prager’s article by the time you read this. Man, there’s an idea for a future post…

Next time on what I’m already beginning to think of as ‘the Townhall files’, I’ll say a few words on this cataclysmically stupid attempt at justifying the Rick Warren affair.

Christmas Wishes

Christmas can sometimes be a bit anti-climatic when it finally arrives, but right now I’m stuffed with turkey and feeling pretty good about the whole seaon. There’s something worthwhile about having one day every year that almost everyone celebrates in some form or another, even if they don’t all do so entirely willingly. It’s especialliy worthwhile if it can make people’s thoughts in a positive way towards the many problems that our species faces, and in that spirit I’d like to quote a post I read on Daylight Atheism entitled ‘What I Want For Christmas’. I’d agree with everything on that list, but the following in particular are events that I sincerely hope I’ll live long enough to witness.

I would have the Pope admit that he was wrong to oppose family planning and abortion, wrong to exclude gays and women from the priesthood, and wrong to teach that he knows anything more about God’s will or God’s existence than anyone else. I would have him urge his flock to liberate their women, learn about and use contraception, and sell off his fabulous wealth and use the proceeds for the good of the poor throughout the world.

I would have the absolute rulers of the Islamic world close down their state-sponsored madrassahs, imprison their morality police, and then resign their thrones and teach their people about human rights and democracy. I would like to see a new flowering of science, art and culture among the Islamic people, a rebirth of the wonderful culture of tolerance and exuberant creativity they once enjoyed.

I would like to see the world’s billionaires unite and form a massive nonprofit to fight poverty and disease everywhere. I would like to see the world’s corporations agree that they will funnel their profits into this trust, rather than paying out further bonuses and dividends to the already wealthy.

I would like to see the nations of the world come together to safeguard the planet’s remaining wilderness, agree on a comprehensive plan to stop global warming, and pour their wealth into developing new sources of clean energy.

What would you like for Christmas?

Campbell Soup: The New Face of Evil

I was going to say something about Rick Warren’s reply to his many, many, many internet ‘haters‘, but everyone on Earth is apparently covering it at once. (Seriously, type ‘Rick Warren’ into Technorati.) So instead I’m going to report on the latest insanity from the American Famila Association!

In case you’re fortunate enough to be unaware of what the AFA is, they’re one of those organisations that will eventually turn the phrase ‘family values’ into an epithet. Most of their work consists of educating the public about society’s assortd ills: abortion, homosexuality, secular government, pornography and anything else they perceive as ‘anti-family’. I have to say, the sheer amount of attention they place on homosexuality is staggering; their efforts at combating the tide of sodomy don’t just stop at leaflets and internet articles, but include such multimedia delights as It’s Not Gay and the hilariously paranoid They’re Coming To Your Town. (Yes, your town in particular!) They also mantain a list of companies that don’t explicitly mention Christmas in their advertising.

For obvious reasons, it is difficult to take the AFA seriously. Their latest volley in the culture war is to sharply criticise the Campbell soup company for daring to ‘support the homosexual agenda’:

In the December, 2008 and January, 2009 issues, Campbell Soup Company bought two, two-page advertisements in the latest issues of the nation’s largest homosexual magazine, “The Advocate.” The ads promote their Swanson line of broth.

In one of the December ads, the Campbell Soup Company highlighted the lives of two lesbians with their son. The others feature New York City chefs. See the ads here.

Campbell Soup Company has openly begun helping homosexual activists push their agenda. Not only did the ads cost Campbell’s a chunk of money, but they also sent a message that homosexual parents constitute a family and are worthy of support. They also gave their approval to the entire homosexual agenda.

(Emphasis in the original)

You are then invited to ‘take action’ by sending whiny e-mails to the company’s president. AFA provides a stock message for your benefit, but I decided to send Douglas Conant an e-mail with the subject line ‘Don’t Cave To Idiots’ instead. I encourage you to do the same.

The offending advertisement (follow the link in the quotebox) is not exactly the kind of thing that wars are started over. Two women are shown enjoying a Campbell product with a young boy, who the associated text identifies as their son. That’s it. How anyone could be offended by this is beyond me, especially given that it’s a simple fact that same-sex families exist. Campbell is not concocting some sort of utopian future in a bid to mobilise militant gays, they’re simply depicting something that a large portion of the ad’s intended audience will alreay be able to identify with. A large portion, you say? Well, yes, since the ad ran in The Advocate, a publication tailored exclusively to GLBTs. This is not a case of Campbell shoving The Gay Agenda down the throats of America’s innocent youth; unless your kids read The Advocate, they’re never going to see these ads.

The simple truth is that companies like Campbell exist to make money, and one effective strategy for doing that is to target specific demographics. I don’t know or care whether the company as a whole has any particular position on same-sex families. I appreciate that this is a smart PR move on their part, but only someone with a serious axe to grind would take this as some sort of show of solidarity towards the gay rights movement. But apparently, the AFA finds offensive the idea that anyone, anywhere might possibly do something that seems to support homosexuality, which says a lot more about them than it does about the Campbell Soup company.

The Plague Spreads

I’ve recently come across a rather unwelcome piece of news: one-third of science teachers in the UK want Creationism taught in some form in schools.

Three in 10 science teachers believe creationism should be taught in science lessons, according to a new survey.

And more than a third (37%) of primary and secondary teachers in general believe that the subject should be taught alongside evolution and the Big Bang theory.

The Ipsos Mori poll of more than 900 primary and secondary teachers in England and Wales found that while nearly half (47%) believe it should not be taught in science lessons, two thirds (65%) agree that creationism should be discussed in schools.

This rises to three quarters of teachers (73%) with science as their subject specialism. Two in three science specialists (65%) do not think that creationism should be taught in science lessons. But few teachers think creationism as an idea should be dismissed outright.

Just one in four (26%) agree with a view expressed by Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University that “creationism is completely unsupportable as a theory, and the only reason to mention creationism in schools is to enable teachers to demonstrate why the idea is scientific nonsense and has no basis in evidence or rational thought.”

Higgins has the right idea. I agree that Creationism absolutely should be brought up in science classes, but only as part of a comprehensive lesson on how to not do science. Teachers could work through it point-by-point, exposing and explaining each fallacy and piece of minsinformation as they go. The students could even join in! (And I’m not just being snarky here. I actually think this would teach a lot of valuable lessons that kids too often don’t learn in school. It might also equip them with properly working ‘bullshit detectors’.)

In the USA, Creationism is part of an attempt by the Religious Right to defeat what they see as a materialistic, ‘Darwinist’ bias in society. In the UK, I fear it will come under the far more agreeable guise of multiculturalism.

Fiona Johnson, head of education research at Ipsos Mori and director of the Ipsos Mori Teachers Omnibus, said: “Our findings suggest that many teachers are trying to adopt a measured approach to this contentious issue, an approach which attempts not only to explain the essential differences between scientific and other types of ‘theory’, but also to acknowledge that – regardless of, or even despite, “the science” – pupils may have a variety of strongly held, and arguably equal value, faith-based beliefs.”

It does not matter if someone’s belief is strongly held. You can claim that 1+1=3 until you’re blue in the face, but that doesn’t make it right. Nor should science teachers refrain from teaching evolution just because it might offend students with more delicate constitutions. A school has an obligation to teach the best and most certain ideas in a given field, and in biology the theory of evolution absolutely fulfills those criteria. In no sense could a ‘faith-based’ creation story be of ‘equal value’ in a science class to a rigorously tested theory like evolution. What standard is Johnson using to define ‘value’ here? Whether something makes people feel all warm and fuzzy inside?

Inequality? What Inequality?

It’s always interesting to watch an argument grow from infancy to adulthood, at first gestating in the odd blog or book before bursting forth onto the global stage. You can generally be assured that an argument has reached its maturity when it is frequently used by people who don’t understand it, the entirety of Creationism being a prime example. The topic of this post will probably never reach such lofty heights, but I have seen it used by people who haven’t really thought it through fully. I’m referring to the ‘No Inequality’ (NI) argument, which featured in the Koukl article I covered yesterday:

First, homosexuals don’t have the same legal liberties heterosexuals have. Second, homosexual couples don’t have the same legal benefits as married couples. The first charge is simply false. Any homosexual can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of the same sex. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally. I realize that for homosexuals this is a profoundly unsatisfying response, but it is a legitimate one, nonetheless.

Technically, of course, this is true. There is nothing stopping a homosexual person from marrying someone of the opposite sex – in that regard, all are treated equally under the law. However, I have three major objections to the NI argument, which I’ll give in order of severity.

1) It’s an empty appeal to tradition. Arguments seeking to ‘defend’ traditional marriage must provide a reason for not altering it, which the NI argument does not even begin to do. It simply states how things are, without providing any supporting argument that how things are now is how they should always be. I’ll illustrate what I mean with the following hypotheticals

“People of different races should be allowed to marry.”

“Any person of any race can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of a different race. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally.”

“People of different social class should be allowed to marry.”

“Anyone can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of a different social class. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally.”

“People of opposite sex should be allowed to marry.”

“Any heterosexual can marry in any state of the Union and receive every one of the privileges and benefits of state-sanctioned matrimony. He just cannot marry someone of the opposite sex. These are rights and restrictions all citizens share equally.”

Imagine for a moment that you live in a society where one of the above applies. The NI argument on its own would be equally ‘valid’ in each and every one of those situations. Why? Because it’s simply an appeal to tradition – ‘This is how things are now, this is how they’ve always been, therefore we shouldn’t change them’. The NI argument is worthless without something else to back it up.

2) That ‘something’ is frequently an appeal to the function or purpose of marriage. An appeal to tradition alone cannot justify treating a social institution as immutable, which more or less forces those who are against same-sex marriage to come up with a better reason for disallowing it. Very frequently, the reason given is that heterosexual couples are uniquely capable of producing children. I replied to this argument yesterday, but it bears repeating.

Does marriage exist for the purpose of facilitating procreation? Surely not, as it is not a requirement of marriage that a couple be interested in or capable of having children, nor is it a requirement of having children that a couple be married. Few would claim that a sterile couple’s marriage is pointless or without merit, despite the fact that the supposed heart of the institution can never be present for them.

What are the requirements of marriage, if not the ability to produce children? Generally, two people must be adults (or have their parent’s permission if they are not), must be of sound mind, must desire to be married (cannot be married against their will), and must be of opposite sexes. Why this last requirement? ‘Children!’ comes the cry from the Religious Right. Then why do childless, sterile couples get married? Could it be that they love each other and wish to reaffirm their relationship in the eyes of society and the law?

3) The NI argument assumes from the outset that homosexual relationships are inferior to heterosexual ones. As an appeal to tradition, the NI argument assumes that the way things have been is the way they always should be. Unfortunately, ‘the way things have been’ is incredibly exclusory towards same-sex couples, denying them the respectability that any heterosexual couple – childless or otherwise –  is by default entitled to. In this way, even the supposedly secular arguments against homosexual marriage rest on assumptions of the validity of, for lack of a better term, ‘Biblical morality’.

Why should we hold same-sex relationships in such disdain? Because the Bible tells us to? Not good enough. Because society has traditionally always done so? Not good enough. Because you simply dislike homosexuals? Not good enough.

In the end, then, the NI argument comes down to a single question: should we treat same-sex relationships as unworthy of affirmation by society and the law? All it does is ask the very question that it supposedly answers in the first place.