Category Archives: LGBTQ

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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.

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Why Saying That Religion-Doesn’t-Cause-Harm Isn’t Nuanced

Many people who want to defend religion against “strident” atheists like Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and other New Atheists make the claim that these sort of thinkers have an overly simplistic view of religion. To the contrary, I think many such defenders-of-religion have overly simplistic views of religious violence.

People often conceptualize violence and conflict in ways that serve the overly simplistic narratives that they tell themselves about the world and their place in it. As a non-religious example, sexual violence is often treated as a monolithic category; we’re told that it is a reflection of the exertion of one group’s (the patriarchy’s) power over another and that it has nothing to do with sex. While the former statement — that it reflects an exertion of power — is true more often than not, it’s not true that rape never involves an element of sexuality. Many rapists (though certainly not all) perform their act of violence in an effort to forcefully take what they want or, in some cases, because the violence and the dehumanization of their victim sexually excites them. The latter is certainly true in the case of some serial killers. That the rest of us find these acts of violence deplorable and entirely divorced from our ordinary notions of sexuality does not change the fact that it is an expression of the perpetrator’s sexuality. Some number of people really are sexual predators, for whom violent predation is sexually stimulating. Similarly, that violence is very far away from the religious sensibilities of many people does not change the fact that, for some people, violence is tied to their religious expression in one way or another. That many of us find these actions perverse does not alone mean that these actions were not tied to religion.

Two days ago (on April 26), in Santiago, Chile, a Christian group burned an infant to death because they thought that it was the anti-Christ. Reading through news reports on the incident, one finds numerous statements designed to dehumanize the members of the group and to put their actions into a framework that makes them understandable. Instead of dealing with complexity and nuance, it is claimed that this group could not have been Christian or that they were simply insane. They’re labeled “crazy”, “nuts”, and “schizophrenic”. It is said that what this group believed was not actually a religion, that their members were merely being misled by their leader, and it is said that their beliefs could not possibly be genuine. All of this ignores the grim reality of the situation.

I’ve noticed something remarkably odd about the overly simplistic way that people think about religious violence. People often claim that religion does not lead to violence or does not inspire violence. Nonetheless, religion is not some monolithic, all-encompassing entity (nor is violence for that matter). Religions are extraordinarily varied and diverse. When someone claims that religion does not bring about violence, our next question should be, “Which religion and in what context?” Often, what non-religious people mean when they say that religion does not lead to violence is that that their friendly religious neighbor is perfectly harmless. When religious people make that claim, they mean that their own religious beliefs are harmless (or even lead them to do good things in their communities). But that doesn’t mean that a different religious view wouldn’t play a different role in conflict.

I’ve heard Christians claim that Christianity does not lead to violence and I’ve heard Muslims claim that Islam does not lead to violence; what they mean is that their preferred version of Islam or Christianity does not lend itself to inspiring violence. That does not mean that a different form of Islam or Christianity couldn’t bring about violence. There are profound and very real theological differences within each of these groups, and each of them comprise remarkably different communities. Sometimes what people mean when they say that Islam or Christianity do not lead to violence is that either the Bible or the Koran do not lend themselves to provoking violence. I don’t actually think that’s true, but, whether or not it’s true, it is definitely false that there only exists a single interpretation of these texts. As a theologian recently pointed out on Hemant Mehta’s blog, “to read the Bible is to interpret it”. (This is likely to be true of whenever any one reads any text.) Interpretation of scriptures or doctrines is certainly not monolithic, and while we can strain ourselves to see religious texts as inspiring the work of humanitarians and gloss over the parts that recommend genocide, rape, or slavery (or understand those sections as human corruptions of a divine message) that doesn’t mean that those who view those same scriptures or doctrines through a non-strained lens are somehow less religious. Those who interpret their scriptures as calling for violence and then act in accordance are at least as religious as those who interpret their scriptures as not calling for violence. Therefore, the disavowal of these people as religious, upon their committing violent actions, is illegitimate.

The fact that there are political and sociological aspects of religious conflict does not deflate the role that religion plays in those conflicts either. Most sociologists and anthropologists understand religion to be a human product, a socially constructed system for answering certain kinds of existential questions and for placing arbitrary human customs into a cosmic context. As such, to say that religion plays a key role in these conflicts is just to re-iterate that human social conventions, politics, institutions, claims to authority, and so on play a key role in these conflicts. There shouldn’t be anything sui generis which excuses religion from playing a motivational role in the actions of humans, whether those actions are good or bad.

One of the key factors which, I think, underlies the way in which people fail to understand the role of religion in conflicts is a certain misunderstanding about the relationship between belief and action. There seem to be many people who are under the false impression that other people can separate their beliefs from their actions, and somehow act in a way that does not reflect their deep seated beliefs about the nature of the universe and their relationship to it.

Nonetheless, this is demonstrably false. There is a tremendous amount of sociological and anthropological data indicating that people seek conformity between all of their beliefs. In fact, it’s a basic tenet of political science that people act in this way, and that those actions determine their political actions (including the way in which they vote). In political and moral philosophy, this principle is given the name “reflective equilibrium” and people are said to try to reach reflective equilibrium between their beliefs. If a conservative Christian really, truly believes that homosexuality presents our society with a destructive malignancy capable of overthrowing the stability of Western civilisation, then we cannot reasonably expect them to respect homosexuals.

For a specific example as to how religion drives action, see the paper “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” by Lynn White, which details the way in which our poor treatment of the environment (including global warming) were caused by Christianity.

Or consider the view which Peter Berger presents in his “The Sacred Canopy”; i.e. religion is a social institution invented in order to make our arbitrary social norms into statements with cosmic significance. In other words, all of the privileges that come with the pre-existing social order are turned into statements which come from God and therefore cannot be changed. This also explains why people organize their lives around religion — it provides a narrative by which their lives are given meaning and situated in the world. But notice that the way in which their lives are situated is at the expense of either others or themselves. We can very easily see this with the treatment of women and gay people by most religious communities. Not only are harmful cultural norms being enforced but they are being legitimated by the idea that they reflect the cosmic order.

To make matters worse, most religions in the Western context come with the idea of “faith” — that certain beliefs should be accepted as true even if there is no evidence for them and even if there is evidence to the contrary. Faith is harmful because it puts a protective shield around potentially harmful beliefs. It might be that some religious beliefs are not harmful, but unless we critically examine them, we are unable to determine which ones actually are harmful. The social and political situation changes and, as it does, which beliefs are harmful (or have the propensity to cause harm) will inevitably change. Without continually re-examining which beliefs should be discarded and which should not, we run an even greater risk of having beliefs which either harm others or ourselves.

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Why I do debate theists

I deeply respect my fellow contributor Jaime Wise (who blogs as the Token Christian). It was certainly brave for a Christian to come blog with us here at Skeptic Freethought; I don’t actually know of any other Freethought website with a theistic contributor. I like the sense of openness and dialogue that this offers, and I like the unique voice that we can carve out in the community.

However, I take a very different approach than she does to this topic. Jaime dislikes debate, whereas I like debate and think debate can be morally obligatory.

She describes three reasons for her attitude with regards to debate:

1. She doesn’t particularly like debating; she’d rather connect with people in a “respectful” way, with “discussion and inquiry”.

2. As someone whose training is in creative writing, Jaime does not feel that she has the requisite skills to be a religious apologist.

3. Jaime wrote that, “I not only haven’t won any formal theological debates, I refuse to participate in them. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in the issue, far from it. It’s not that I got my butt kicked in a debate, I haven’t. What’s changed is that while I’m happy to discus my religious views, I now believe it is ethically wrong for me to formally defend of them.” Why? The failure of the Christian church to apologise for past misdeeds. She writes that the “church can’t defend itself until it stops defending itself.”

I should first note that I do not necessarily disagree with any of these three, though I might disagree very strongly with the details.

As for the first two, people who do not feel themselves up to the challenge of debating an issue as complex as religion can (should?) abstain from doing so. I sincerely wish that more people would take that message to heart in other complex issues — politics, for example. I do disagree with her about whether debating has to be done in a disrespectful way, but more on that in a moment.

There is much that I can relate to in Jaime’s (3) as well. As a cis-gendered, white male who cares about LGBTQ and Feminist issues, I do sometimes find myself in situations where being mindful of my privilege is extremely important.

There are times when I do not think it is right for me to engage in argument, even if my intuitions lean in other directions. I try to be mindful of the fact that my privilege produces certain epistemic barriers; I cannot really know what it is like to be female (for example). As a Christian dialoguing with the atheist community, Jaime is wise to be mindful of her own privilege.

Unlike in the LGBTQ or Feminist communities, I do not think there is any kind of widespread consensus about what an atheist-ally would be like; but those who wish to be allies should probably take their cues from the role of such a person in other communities. As such, I can understand the idea of abstaining from debate.

However, there are important reasons that I take a different approach to these issues than Jaime does.

I mentioned before that I do not think that debate is necessarily disrespectful. I think that’s just wrong; I strongly believe that debate can be done in a way which is respectful.

In fact, in the various academic disciplines I’ve been involved in, debate is part and parcel of taking an idea seriously. If an idea is not taken seriously, it is ignored (and not debated). Sometimes an idea is debated, but is still seen as absurd or silly. In those situations, there are other reasons (possibly pragmatic reasons) for taking the idea at least seriously enough to pay attention to it. For example, scientists will sometimes debate Creationists. Not because scientists take Creationism seriously as an academic view (they do not) but because there are pragmatic and political reasons for engaging with the general public (which does take Creationism seriously) for momentarily regarding Creationism with enough dignity to argue against it.

When a colleague presents a new paper at a conference, symposium, or colloquium, it is part of our professional responsibility to point out flaws and offer constructive criticism (or, if appropriate, to shred the author’s ideas).

This past year, I offered commentary on a paper at a philosophy of science conference at Virginia Tech. Commentaries are offered after an author presents their paper. My commentary was designed to point out a number of technical issues in the paper, including a couple which I viewed as crippling objections.

Of course, not every one is interested in doing this sort of thing professionally. Jaime indicates that she has no wish to be a professional theologian or religious apologist. I’d take it to be the case that she would not want to be a philosopher either.

There is another reason that debate is important. Jaime brings up her wish to do inquiry. I believe that inquiry is sometimes only possible through debate. In fact, that is why we use debate in the professional, academic context; we want to get to the truth of the matter, and sometimes the only way to do so is by argumentation.

There is also an ethical reason for doing debate.

I think that most people would agree that, for a rational person, beliefs determine what actions we take. In so far as we would like to be rational beings, we should want our beliefs to appropriately line up with the external world. Of course, our chances of having completely accurate beliefs are very slim. Nonetheless, our beliefs can approximate the world. We can construct mental models of our environments and how to best interact with those environments. In turn, those mental models can be freely modified as we acquire additional data (up to and including expunging with our current mental models and starting anew). We have the best chance of successfully interacting with the world if we use the most reliable methods for constructing and subsequently updating those models. In part, that means we have the best chance of avoiding immoral activity, harming others, and so on, provided that we reason appropriately.

Most Conservative Christians believe that gay marriage would destroy the institution of marriage and that the institution of marriage should be protected. Of course, I disagree with them about the former (I don’t see any reason legalizing gay marriage would do anything other than letting gay people get married), but if they were right, then it would be vitally important for gay marriage to be illegal. If gay marriage would really wreak the amount of destruction which some conservatives think it would do, then we would all be obliged not to see it put into effect.

But I think there are good reasons to believe that Conservatives are wrong. Therefore, I think there are good reasons to fight them on that issue.

When someone else is noticeably reasoning inappropriately, that represents a potential harm both to themselves and to others. Of course, it is often extremely difficult to determine when someone is believing or reasoning inappropriately.

This is the importance of subjecting one’s beliefs to the marketplace of ideas; through both dialogue and debate we are most likely to construct accurate models of the external world.