No, Dave Muscato: One Can Support LGBTQ Rights and Be a Christian (or why beliefs about what the Bible says are religious doctrines, too)

American Atheists recently posted a picture of a marriage equality protest with the hashtag #religionispoison. In defense of this hashtag, public relations director Dave Muscato tweeted, “If you’re a Christian and an LGBTQ supporter, you’re doing one of them wrong”.

This series of tweets has understandably caused a firestorm of online activity. Many responses, such as Dean Roth’s (January 16th on Chris Stedman’s blog), have argued that these statements are “appropriative”, “disrespectful and offensive to the queer people you claim to be supporting”, and unethetical/inappropriate behavior for an LGBTQ allies, wrongfully seeing gay people as “pawns in your game against religion”.

While others have argued that Dave’s tweet is an inappropriate thing for an LGBTQ ally to say, here I will put aside ethics and argue that the tweet is simply factually incorrect. There is no incompatibility between being a Christian and being a LGBTQ ally. In this post, I will assume that I am talking to an atheist audience. Christians will be unlikely to be convinced by the arguments I present because I assume several opinions commonly held amongst atheists but unlikely to be held by Christians. In this post, I will not engage with the internal theological debate amongst Christians as to whether or not Christians should support a theology inclusive of LGBTQ people. Instead, I will engage with whether or not Dave’s tweet, and subsequent post on Chris Stedman’s blog, can be maintained with assumptions common amongst atheists and I will show that it cannot.

The central question would seem to be about what Christianity is. If Christianity is simply identical with the Bible, then a straightforward reading of the Bible would show that Christianity is incompatible with being an LGBTQ ally. It contains numerous passages directed against two men having sexual relations with each other, sometimes stating explicitly that God has commanded us to kill those men who do have sex with each other.

However, Christianity is not identical with the Bible. Instead, the Bible is an object used in a variety of ritual and devotional contexts in a variety of communities members of which, when asked whether they are Christian, respond in the affirmative. The individuals in these communities have, throughout history, socially constructed various Bibles which are not present in the churches, libraries, hotel rooms, and so on where we find physical Bibles. Instead, these Bibles exist no where other than the human imagination.

It should not trouble atheists to learn that Christians believe in a non-existent book any more so than it troubles atheists to learn that Christians believe in a fictional God, virgin birth, and so on. We can add to that list of false Christian doctrines the statement that there exists a book which has a particular content, that this book has central importance in one’s religious practice, and that this book is the one seen in Churches, hotel rooms, and so on. We can say that there is a mystification and a mythologization of the physical Bible which produces various fictional Bibles.

As an example, consider the doctrine of creation ex nihilo: God created the cosmos out of nothing. Not only do most contemporary Christian denominations believe in creation ex nihilo, they believe that Genesis chapter 1 describes creation ex nihilo. Nonetheless, not only is creation ex nihilo absent, but Genesis 1 directly contradicts creation ex nihilo. In Genesis 1, God creates the cosmos from the pre-existing primordial waters. No where is it explained where these waters originate.

It cannot be said that this is a problem of interpretation. Even if Genesis 1 is not interpreted literally, no where does the Bible mention creation ex nihilo at all. In fact, although the Condemnation of 1270 banned its consideration, some previous Catholic theologians had argued for the view that the world was co-eternal with God (i.e. that the cosmos had existed forever).

That most Christians believe the Bible contains a description of God creating the cosmos out of nothing should not be any more disturbing or shocking to atheists than the discovery that Christians believe a variety of other things which are factually incorrect. That there exists a holy book, central to their religious practice, containing passages which say nothing against gay people is just another item of false doctrine to be dismissed with critical thinking.

With this in mind, if someone were to tell us that Christianity is based on the Bible we can rightfully ask them, “which Bible?” Attempting to answer that question, or saying that some forms of Christianity are more legitimate than others because of how they treat the Bible in their community, rapidly devolves into fighting Christian theological battles which, as atheists, should not concern us. We need some other way of thinking about the term ‘Christianity’ which does not involve legitimizing some Christian theological positions over others.

With this in mind, consider the following argument:

  1. Christians believe the Bible is the Word of God.
  2. The Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.
  3. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

If argument (1)-(3) succeeds, then obviously supporting LGBTQ people and identifying as Christian are incompatible. One could only do so on pain of hypocrisy. I take it that this is what Dave means when he sates, “People who claim to be Bible-believing Christians and also claim to support marriage equality are hypocrites” (Chris Stedman’s blog, January 13th, 2014).

Nonetheless, based on the preceding discussion concerning the social construction of Bibles, it is clear that we should draw into question premises (1) and (2). This is because the term ‘Bible’, for a community of self-identified Christians, does not refer to the actual Bible. Instead, it refers to the Bible of their collective cultural imagination. As a first step, we might imagine changing (1)-(3) to the following argument:

1′. Christians believe the (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God.
2′. The (existent) Bible contains commands to kill gay people and statements that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.
3′. Therefore, Christians (should) believe that we should kill gay people and that gay people are an abomination in the eyes of God.

In this reformulation, (3′) does not follow from (1′) and (2′). This is because the term ‘Bible’ does not refer to the same object in (1′) and (2′). And this ignores the fact that whether or not the (non-existent) Bible is the “Word of God”, and what precisely that means, is itself a function of the particular Christian community that one considers. The meaning and relevance of the phrase ‘Word of God’ is another doctrinal claim. Keeping again with the principle that, as atheists, we should avoid legitimizing or siding with any particular Christian theological stance, we should again reformulate (1′):

1″. Some Christians believe their particular (non-existent) Bible is the Word of God by which they mean z, where z is an interpretation of ‘Word of God’.

With this reformulation of (1′), it is extremely difficult to see how one might save the argument.

However, I can provide the following positive argument for the view that identifying as Christian and supporting LGBTQ rights are compatible:

  1. Christian group C believes that the (non-existent) Bible contains passages implying that they should support LGBTQ rights.
  2. C believes that the (non-existent) Bible has special significance which motivates members of C to action.
  3. If (4) and (5), then members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQ rights.
  4. Therefore, members of C will be motivated to support LGBTQ rights.

Indeed, multiple respondents to Dave’s tweets and blog post have stated that religious LGBTQ allies do believe themselves to be motivated by their religious commitments and that it is illegitimate for either Dave Muscato or American Atheists to claim that they know the motivations of those allies better than those allies do.

It should not matter that the Bible contained in (4)-(7) is non-existent. As atheists, we believe that most religious motivation has its source in non-existent things. Suppose that Fred states that he killed a gay person because he was commanded to do so by God. It would be odd for Dave to respond that Fred was not motivated by Fred’s religious beliefs because God does not exist. Instead, Dave would likely say that Fred was genuinely motivated by his religious convictions concerning a non-existent God. It would be consistent for Dave to say that others are genuinely motivated by their religious convictions concerning a non-existent book to LGBTQ allies.

Objections

Several objections may be provided to the view that I have endorsed here. Many of those objections have already been stated on various social media sites when I’ve discussed my view with others. I will begin by sharing those objections and my responses. Afterwards, I will provide several additional objections that I think people might have.

Objection 1. The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura: Isn’t it true that Protestants believe that faith should be based solely on Scripture?

Yes, it is true that Sola Scriptura is central to the official doctrines of several protestant denominations. Nonetheless, I named two principles:

a. The social construction of Bibles;

b. That atheists should not take sides in disputes between rival Christian theologies

which rule out taking Sola Scriptura as a good way for atheists to distinguish Christians from non-Christians.

Objection 2. I’m really talking about Christian beliefs and not the Bible: In a Facebook thread on Jan 18, Dave said to me:

There were Christians before the Bible though. Christians wrote it.

It’s not defined by the book; it’s defined by beliefs. However our best (really, only) source for what the first groups of Christians believed IS the Bible, do it comes back around to the book anyway.

Then the question is more, is it okay to teach different things than early Christian beliefs and still call it christianity as time goes by?

If so, how much before we really need to call it something else?

I posted this response:

But the people who wrote the Bible were not some uniform monolith in their beliefs. Some were polytheists, some monotheists, some accepted Jesus as god, others did not. None of those groups had beliefs that were all that close to contemporary Christians, who often owe much more to Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, etc, than they do to the Bible… As I understood it, your argument was that since the Bible is the basis of Christianity, and the Bible is against gay rights, then any Christian who is for gay rights is not properly Christian because they have abandoned the Bible.

If, as you now say, agree with me that Christianity should not be thought of as based on the Bible (because, for example, there were Christians before the Bible was written) then I don’t see how your argument would work any longer.

Objection 3. There seem to be a minimum number of beliefs that Christians must hold to, otherwise the term ‘Christian’ loses its meaning. Dave states, “I think all Christians would agree that there is a minimum set of beliefs you must hold to be Christian, e.g. Jesus is the Messiah, souls exist, Jesus has the ability to save your soul, etc. At some point it’s simply not recognizable as Christianity anymore.”

My response:

First of all, your post assumes the primacy of a certain set of positions that have been debated by Christians over the past 2000 years. Not all Christians have believed in the existence of souls or agreed about what souls are, for example. I would have hoped that an atheist could see why they should not take sides in inner theological debates between groups of Christians.

Second, your comment assumes that the only thing which could make something “recognizable as Christianity” is a set of beliefs. Aren’t there symbols, such as the Cross, which are recognizably Christian? Yet isn’t it also true that symbols — and sometimes even those who wear them — do not have beliefs? Aren’t there rituals and ritualized behaviours which we recognize as Christian? Yet, just as with symbols, isn’t it true that rituals and ritualized behaviours don’t carry beliefs? Do we say that Don Cuppitt is no longer a Christian because he does not believe in the existence of God, even though he was the founder of a major Anglican movement (theological non-realism)? Why should it be the case that someone could be a humanistic Jew and not believe in God while another person couldn’t be a humanistic Christian and not believe in God?

Third, your position seems to assume a very simplistic view of semantics on which words have meaning only if we can list out some set of characteristics in virtue of which the word would be said to properly apply. Yet most people who work on semantics think this view is wrong. For example, your position doesn’t seem to be tenable under Wittgenstein’s conception of meaning as consisting of family resemblance.

Objection 4. But words can’t just mean anything!!!!111!!one!!!

Sigh. Here’s what I said elsewhere about this.

“Pragmatically speaking, we might seek a more useful definition of ‘Christianity’ along with a superior semantic theory [than the view that the term 'Christianity' is simply defined by some list of characteristics, such that failing to have all of the characteristics on the list is what makes something non-Christian].

For the semantic theory, I suggested Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblances, which (loosely speaking!) states that a word is applied to a whole cloud of things each of which bears a “family resemblance” to the others in the cloud. This avoids the conception of words having their meaning in terms of a list of characteristics which any given thing might or might not have. For instance, we don’t say that a duck that is born without wings is somehow not fully a duck as we would have said if we had thought in terms of the “list” conception of meaning. Instead, we say that a duck that lacks wings has enough of a resemblance to other ducks that it can be categorized as a duck.

For the definition of Christianity, I’d suggest performing an empirical investigation of those things which we identify as “Christian” and determining from that investigation what might be useful. Importantly, I would say that we should put aside what Christian communities state, by virtue of doctrine, is either Christian or non-Christian and instead focus on what the empirical investigation tells us. I’d also say that we should keep in mind the fact that we have been encultured to think of religion in terms of discrete doctrinal statements and not in terms of practice, ritualized behaviors, or other elements of praxy, or indeed the broad array of sociological/anthropological/political/economic/etc factors that dictate much of what is recognizably Christian.

(Though, to be honest, I’d also put into question whether we should decide whether or not something is Christian based on whether or not we can recognize it as such. If you visit various remote parts of Africa, for example, you will see a wide variety of communities that self-identify as Christian but do not resemble any form of Christianity that you would be likely to be familiar with. Yet I don’t think that our failure to immediately recognize these culturally alien groups as ‘Christian’ should be seen as reason to think that these groups are non-Christian. On the contrary, this seems to be a case where we should broaden our conception of what might count as Christian.)”

Objection 5. But in so far as some Christians believe in supporting marriage equality, they could not have gotten that from the Bible! It could only have come from secular society and it’s only by the rejection of Biblical principles that they can support LGBTQ people!

It is true that it was the secular forces of modernity which brought about the acceptance of LGBTQ people. It is also a matter of historical fact that hatred towards LGBTQ people, and a variety of other troubling stances concerning sexuality, originated in Christian doctrines. I do not deny this, nor do I deny that atheists can be powerful allies with LGBTQ people.

Nonetheless, it is also true that Christianity, like all religions, was a human product often shaped by human concerns. While present forms of Christianity incorporate various bits from the proximate culture, it was never the case that Christian doctrines had their origins somewhere else. That some present forms of Christianity socially construct Bibles that reflect the progressive turn towards the acceptance of LGBTQ people is actually more in line with the history of religion than contrary to it.

9 Comments

  • Jaime Wise
    January 18, 2014 - 11:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for pointing this out. As a christian who also supports LGBQT rights, I appreciate the argument you make here. While non-existant bibles and social constructs on meaning are prevalent in the church, it’s necessary to point out that not all sects of Christianity take a literalist approach to the bible, instead viewing at the history of their religion, as opposed to direct commands. but that’s veering off into theological debates again.

  • January 19, 2014 - 2:34 am | Permalink

    Very persuasively argued, Dan. This is an excellent example of why I think the atheist movement can only improve the more you get involved with it.

    • Dan Linford
      January 19, 2014 - 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Ed! That means a lot to me coming from you!

  • Jeff Harris
    January 19, 2014 - 3:24 am | Permalink

    I agree with your conclusion: people can be consistently Christian and support LGBTQ rights. I think, however, you can simplify your argument. Instead of using the phrase “non-existent Bible” , you should state that differences arise due to interpretive differences (caused by culture, socio-economic position/education, gender, sexual orientation, ect). Then you can conflate 1′-3′ with 4-7, reduce ink and get to the point quicker.

    As for the objections, # 1 confuses solo scriptura with sola scriptura. The former is purported by the churches Dave is arguing against: your run-of-the-mill “Bible Church,” “non-denominational,” ect. People who purport to solo scriptura typically think they can approach the Bible tabula rasa, and thus, without the aid of anyone (and with assistance from the holy spirit) understand the true meaning of the bible (thus the solo). The important take away is that this hermetuntic usually results in a literal interpretations.

    Sola Scriptura takes tradition (historical interpretation/ theology) into account in biblical interpretation (the Bible was created over the course of some time and thus is a product of traditions) which in basically what you were getting at with your rebuttal of #2 (so I think you can combine objection 1 and 2). Objection 3, is again, confusing solo scriptura with sola scriptura: the former typically argues salvation comes by hearing the literal gospel, the latter is all over the board given the multitude of views throughout history. #4 forgets that this is a book with a historical context and many christians recognize that certain injunctions were contextual (eg men dont cut hair, women don’t speak, men don’t lay with other men). #5 is answered by sola scriptura, since the Bible is interpreted within the christian tradition which is not equal to the Bible then there is no issue with going “out-side” the Bible.

    So, in conclusion, id change any reference to “imaginary bible” or “non-existent bible” to something in the vein of “differing interpretation.” Just for simplicity’s sake. Also, for further simplicity, Id suggest making the distinction between solo scriptura and sola scriptura showing how that confusion pervades the objection you foresee.

    • Dan Linford
      January 19, 2014 - 1:41 pm | Permalink

      When I talk about a non-existent Bible, this is a point beyond the fact that there differing interpretations of the Bible. There are doctrinal beliefs — such as creation ex nihilo — about what the Bible contains which do not match what the Bible actually contains. So, there is the Bible which a devout believer might believe exists as a matter of faith and then there is the Bible which actually exists (which states that the cosmos originates from the primordial waters and not from creation ex nihilo).

      As for sola/solo scriptura, that sounds like another internal theological dispute. As such, my response still stands — atheists should be neutral on internal theological disputes since they don’t have a stake in the issue.

      • Jeff Harris
        January 19, 2014 - 4:21 pm | Permalink

        You are correct in asserting that gen 1 doesn’t describe ex nihilo. While there maybe people who do, it’s usually on account of ignorance. A believing biblical scholar will explain that ex nihilo is abstracted from the multiple voices within the bible referring to creation.

        Solo/sola is an internal argument in so far as people argue about the role of the bible in the Christian life. In your objection section you raise an objection someone would make who purports to solo scriptura but you confuse it with an objection made by someone who purports to sola scriptura. Recognizing the difference isn’t taking sides.

        • Dan Linford
          January 19, 2014 - 5:11 pm | Permalink

          About Genesis 1. You are correct that a biblical scholar will have a quite different view with regards to creation ex nihilo. I don’t particularly see why that should bother me; my claim was that different communities of Christians will have different conceptions of the Bible. You are pointing out that the community of biblical scholars has a different understanding of creation ex nihilo than lay practitioners. That reinforces my point instead of arguing against it.

          Concerning sola/solo scriptura. You might be right about this distinction with regards to Christian theology. Nonetheless, the objection I described was one that had been given to me when I wrote about this elsewhere and my response still applies (even if I recognize the distinction between solo and sola scriptura).

  • Michael Lavin
    January 22, 2014 - 1:59 am | Permalink

    If I read this correctly, you feel that the message sent on twitter should not have used the term “Christian”. I agree that he could have used any number of different terms, however, you go on to say that we should broaden the definition of the term christian to…what exactly? Any person who has ever believed in anything loosely resembling the christian deity? And now, because there is a myriad of people with differing beliefs who are all now under the umbrella of the term christian, no one should be able to make any offensive utterance against any of these people?

    I agree that we, as a culture, should not be using broad generizations to insult our fellow human beings. Not all Americans are fat slobs and not all Canadians suck at hockey. My advice to Dave would be to tweet something extermely offensive to every person in that protest because they are all [censored], not because they are all christian.

    The tweet he sent out should also be edited to say,”If you’re christian….you’re doing it wrong.”

    • Dan Linford
      January 22, 2014 - 1:20 pm | Permalink

      I think you’ve misunderstood a number of things here.

      (1) I didn’t offer an alternative definition of ‘Christian’ but — despite my statements to caution you against this — you still seem to think that Christianity consists of a discrete set of beliefs (as opposed to consisting of practices, institutions, and so on). My suggestion to you is that the way you have been thinking about possible definitions of ‘Christianity’ is far too narrow.

      (2) I never said that “no one should be able to make any offensive utterance against any of these people”. I think there are a variety of legitimate criticisms against orthodox Christianity (and, indeed, against a variety of religions) and have written about those on this site.

      (3) I’m not sure why you would want Dave to tweet something offensive to the people at that protest. They were protesting *for* marriage equality, a cause that I think is worth supporting (do you disagree?).

      (4) I’m not sure why you think it would be helpful for Dave to tweet the assertion that Christians are “doing it wrong”. That just sounds like empty rhetoric.

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