Category Archives: marriage equality

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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 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.