Because life is a series of edits

The Heart of the Matter

In Health, Humanity, Marriage, Thought on May 21, 2008 at 6:49 am

As the comments keep multiplying on my previous post on gay marriage, I thought it best to condense some of the discussion to get at what seems to be the heart of the matter. I’ve enjoyed hearing from each of you (many of you are apparently new readers – welcome), and I’ve entered into a conversation or two on your own blogs as well (click here for a good discussion Paperdreamer and I have been having on ethics and morals).

I’ve gone through all the previous comments (at least the first twenty) and pulled some quotes (hopefully within context) to which to respond. As I think most of you will concur, the issue of gay marriage is ultimately not one of legality or even of morality; the issue is ultimately one of who has the final say in the area of our sexuality (and everything else). For instance:

Vitaminbook: “I’m taking it as a given that nonconsensual romantic or sexual relationships should be illegal…children would be in a position to be exploited by this kind of thing even if it was legal….what marriage is defined as has nothing to do with why most people would agree that adult/child relationships are harmful.”

The questions here are where is the “given” coming from, and why would “most people” agree? The statement implies some kind of outside source (I would say the Christian God) who has already determined right and wrong; we, then, are simply deciding if we agree or disagree with his determination. The fact that we want to break the law – any law – is not a hetero- or homosexual issue; it’s a human one. We all have the two-year-old syndrome: that is, we want what we want, regardless of sexual orientation.

Vitaminbook: “Those who are against gay marriage seem to think that it will open the floodgates for legalized adult/child relationships, but I don’t think that’s being realistic – it’s like saying that legalizing voluntary euthanasia would open the floodgates to legalized, free-for-all murder.”

Given what humankind’s history shows us, we’d be hard-pressed to say it wouldn’t. I’m not trying to blow this point out of proportion, but am simply trying to make the connection that, just as our view of human life/death affects our tendency to respect/take it, so, too, does our view of the purpose for human sexuality affect our perspective in partaking in it.

If our sexuality is removed from God’s intended context of the monogamous man/woman marriage, intimacy has no God-prescribed commitment to cement (which, biblically speaking, is a main purpose of our sexuality). With this as a reality, we will then experiment and walk down some seriously repulsive roads in our search for “satisfaction.”

Vitaminbook: “For the record, I actually do think that people should be allowed to be racist or anti-homosexual if they want.”

On the basis of our shared humanity and the imago dei (image of God) within each of us, I would disagree with this statement completely. I don’t need or want to be “anti-” anyone in order to walk with God and love others.

Escapethedrain: “You and others are commenting on how much marriage is sacred and should be protected (from homosexuals). How sacred is this marriage you speak of when we have the highest divorce rate in the world? (talking the U.S. in general)?”

The question is what makes marriage (or anything) “sacred”? I do not come from the perspective that, because my wife and I have been married for almost twelve years, we are the ones who have made and kept our marriage sacred. The Scriptures teach that God makes marriage between a man and a woman sacred; we have just entered into the sanctity of what God has done. Marriage was God’s idea from the beginning (Genesis 2), and a government document merely recognizes and protects that sanctity; it does not create or power it.

Paperdreamer: “Homosexual marriage is a valid desire, legally and socially…[still] I will say that it is against nature to be homosexual.”

These two statements can only exist in the same sentence if one believes man is an animal who cannot control himself; in other words, homosexuality must be an evolutionary mistake (after all, gay men or lesbian women cannot reproduce, so this cannot be any kind of helpful natural selection), but since we’re nothing more than animals anyway, so be it (the caveat here is usually “as long as they don’t harm anyone else” – then there needs to be limits).

If any of us were asked if there is anyone in the world right now doing things we believe they should stop doing no matter what they personally believe about the correctness of their behavior, we would all say, “Yes, of course.” Doesn’t this mean that we do believe there is some kind of moral reality that is “there” that is not defined by us, that must be abided by regardless of what a person feels or thinks? If we’re honest, I think we would say we do.

Lwayswright: “It is an often confusing topic because there are so many things in life nowadays that people are ‘born with a predisposition to.’ Where do you draw the line between predisposition and responsibility or lifestyle choice?”

I believe that the cause of homosexuality is as much nature as nurture. By this, I mean that all of us in our nature are fallen and broken sexually, regardless of whether we think of ourselves as being of hetero- or homosexual orientation. Regardless how the lines of brokenness fall, they have fallen on all of us; just as someone who may deal with homosexual tendencies and temptations, I as a heterosexual man deal with my own tendencies and temptations as well.

Thankfully, God woos us out of the sexual brokenness of our fallen humanity. We can embrace the exchange of Christ’s life of perfection for our life of sin, and respond in obedience to his love out of a heart of gratitude for what he has done. Indeed, the Christian God is a god of performance; the good news is Christ performed in our place.

All that to say (and as with all of life), how you and I view gay marriage has everything to do with how we view freedom, which has everything to do with how we view morals, which has everything to do with how we view ethics, which has everything to do with how we view the source of our ethics, which has everything to do with whether we think of the final authority as ourselves (in the form of government, philosophy, or good old-fashioned preference) or God.


  1. Craig–
    Legally speaking, this is a difficult issue for me. You’ve presented a compelling argument that, from a Christian perspective, homosexuality does not align with God’s original intent for sexuality. I agree. My problem, which you also voiced in your original post, is with legislating morality.

    The church is responsible for teaching us to pray and tithe, for example, and it would be inappropriate for the government to assume that role. Likewise, the church is responsible for teaching us about right marital practice, and for refusing to sanction homosexual marriages. Does a secular government have that same right or responsibility? Of course, we do legislate morality to a certain degree by banning murder, theft, etc. It’s a question, I think, of knowing where to draw the line.

  2. The idea that morality is dictated by God is one that I don’t agree with (I don’t believe that God even exists), so there’s not much further we can go with this point without agreeing to disagree, unfortunately. However, let me make a point about one part of your post:

    The questions here are where is the “given” coming from, and why would “most people” agree? The statement implies some kind of outside source (I would say the Christian God) who has already determined right and wrong; we, then, are simply deciding if we agree or disagree with his determination.

    From an atheistic point of view, this isn’t the case at all. I take it as a given that nonconsensual sex (ie rape) is undesirable based on simple empathy: the majority of people who are raped find it extremely unpleasant and traumatic, which makes it harmful. If you believe in the so-called ‘Golden Rule’ or ‘ethic of reciprocity’, then it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that rape should be illegal. Anyone who can put themselves into someone else’s shoes and think ‘I would not like to be treated this way’ is capable of understanding why they shouldn’t rape someone else. Somebody who isn’t capable of doing this, like a serial rapist, is locked away from the rest of society for good reason.

    You don’t need an external source of objective morality to differentiate between ‘wrong’ and ‘right’, so long as you’re willing to admit that your idea of ‘wrong’ could be another man’s idea of ‘right’, something that will always be true and always be a source of conflict even among religious believers; that you believe your morality is objectively correct will do nothing to sway a fundamentalist Muslim who wants to murder his rape-victim daughter, any more than my atheistic philosophy would.

    The problem in relation to homosexuality is that Christians (and many other religious people) do believe that a consensual relationship between two men or two woman is harmful, if only because it’s against what they perceive as God’s will or plan for humanity. From an atheistic point of view this belief makes no sense. A reconcilliation on this point would probably require one or the other group to be ‘converted’ – I’m not likely to agree that a homosexual relationship is harmful unless you can convince me that your God is real. Since bickering endlessly over it isn’t likely to bear much productive fruit, what’s your solution to the problem? Homosexuals are here and they want to be able to marry – what should we, as a society, do?

    This is getting a bit off-topic, but I don’t buy the ‘slippery slope’ argument in relation to euthenasis. Legalising euthenasia would ultimately be acknowledging that a person’s life is theirs to do with as they wish, and while that runs contrary to Christian teaching, it’s not the same thing as saying that human life is worthles and that people should be allowed to end other people’s lives for no reason. Since there’s a growing number of people in favour of legalising suicide, what’s your solution to this problem? Simply quashing these people’s demands doesn’t seem as if it would be desirable or feasible, and hoping for mass conversion (to Christianity) also doesn’t strike me as a sensible solution.

  3. Sarah, if a government like ours is truly “of the people, by the people, for the people,” I can’t disagree with you; if we the people consider ourselves the ultimate final authority, then what the majority of the people want or deem necessary (for whatever reason) will win out.

    What I’m trying to explain is that, if we the people decide marriage can be redefined or expanded beyond the traditonal bounds of one man and one woman, we will simply reap what we sow. Our society (particulary its younger generations) is already incredibly confused about its sexuality, and it will only become increasingly so as the gender and marriage lines are blurred. This becomes not just a religious problem; it becomes a societal problem as well.

    If we continue our sexually unbridled pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – regardless of consideration of any and all traditional restraints – I do not see how gay marriage will NOT become legal in our country in the near future. This does not mean, however, that we as the Church stand aside without questioning the trajectory of such a path, nor (in love for our fellow sexually-broken human beings) walk along working to stave it off a bit longer.

    Vitaminbook, as to your thought, you and I agree it’s an issue of worldview. With regard to your atheism, I would just ask you to consider where your empathy for others comes from, and why it manfests itself in justifying any kind of legislation against “unpleasant/traumatic” behavior? I know the argument is that this is what propagation of the species calls for in the natural selection process, but that seems as much of a stretch to believe as anything I’ve presented.

  4. I wouldn’t say it has anything to do with natural selection per se, although we may be ‘wired’ by evolution to think in certain ways. (There are new and exciting discoveries being made in that area, but I’m by no means an expert in the field).

    Instead it’s a simple matter of our intelligence and, as I’ve already said, empathy. If you see somebody getting, say, punched in the face you can both imagine how much it must hurt (if you’ve been hit in the face yourself) and sympathise with the person (unless you have a bit of a sick sense of humour). It’s not a huge leap from there to thinking ‘I shouldn’t punch people in the face because they really don’t like it’. Of course, you could just be the kind of person who doesn’t care about other people and punches them for your own cheap amusement, but in that case the whole issue becomes moot.

  5. Great post. There is really nothing I can add!

  6. vitaminbook,

    i agree with you and craig that this is a worldview issue and it won’t be resolved on a blog in little snippets of electronic dialogue. however, i did want to take just a moment to comment on your last comment.

    basically what i want to say is that i think your conclusions are inconsistent with what you say are your foundations. i mean no disrespect in this but it seems to me that you want to adhere to traditional judeo-christian values where they fit with the type of world you want and where they don’t you ignore them.

    evolution ultimately says that human existence is completely random. therefore how can you say that we are “wired” for anything? and even if we are wired a certain way by evolution why trust it if it’s based on an event that was completely random? and even if it’s a simply matter of intelligence to infer that it’s not empathetic to do to others what you wouldn’t want done to yourself, so what? my empathy is ultimately the source of some completely random event. if we are merely high functioning animals then it is still a matter of survival of the fittest and it’s a kill or be kill world. speaking in purely materialistic evolutionary terms a homosexual couple offers nothing to the propagation of the species so why should i have compassion? you might answer because of the evolved emotions that we have as high functioning animals but if so why do i have any basis for trusting these purely arbitrary emotions? maybe they worked for the generations that came before me but it could be possible that now they are simply a faulty holdover from an earlier stage of evolution. and the argument goes on and on.

    this is the point that i think craig was trying to make (feel free to correct me if i’m wrong). within a completely closed materialistic system you have no solid basis for lasting empathy. you are claiming the fruits of a non-materialistic tradition while trying to deny its foundations. if you want to be consistent then you need to come up with a completely empirical reason for why i should be compassionate and empathetic. otherwise at the end of the day your position on this matter at least is completely subjective and can be disregarded by anyone who says, “that doesn’t work for me.”

  7. travis,

    Hang on, hang on, hang on! You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself in a number of ways.

    First of all, the values that I’m decribing are not unique to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Christianity is one of the oldest and best known advocates to these kind of principles in the West, but ‘treat others the way you’d like to be treated’ isn’t something that’s unique to the Bible.

    Secondly, I think you need to read up on evolution a bit more. Evolution says nothing at all about whether human existence is random or not, it simply describes how we got here. What our ‘purpose’ is has nothing to do with natural selection or genetic fluctuation within populations, although you could make a strong case that evolutionary theory should inform any philosophy about what existence ‘means’.

    I think what you mean to say is that human evolution is the result of random events, which also isn’t quite true. To cite a frequently used analogy, imagine a slot machine with 10,000 slots. Trying to get all 10,000 to show up ‘human’ is going to be next to impossible if they all roll every time you pull the lever, but not if every slot that comes up ‘human’ stays that way. Evolution is not a wild hurricane of random creation, but a system with its own rules and processes.

    So it isn’t entirely correct to say that your empathy is a result of a ‘random event’ – it’s the result of millions of years of evolution.

    I’m not sure why so many people take offence to being called ‘higher functioning animals’. Of course we’re animals – what else would we be? ‘Survival of the fittest’, however, is an unfortunate simplification of natural selection that really needs to be consigned to history. A better phrase might be ‘survival of the fit enough’. It’s a fact that nearly every species that has ever existed has gone extinct, even those who were extremely strong and ‘fit’ in the sense that they were generally on the ‘kill’ side of the ‘kill or be killed’ equation. That doesn’t guarantee them continued existence, though, because they simply weren’t able to adapt to changes in their enviroment. Natural selection does not say that the biggest, toughest, lone wolf who only looks out for himself is going to survive – in fact, it says just the opposite. Our ability to form communities and our social aspect could well be what let us thrive in the first place.

    I’m not sure what would make anyone think that our ability to empathise could be an evolutionary artifact with no more use today. If we all stopped caring about other humans tomorrow our civilizations would collapse and our species, so used to the comfort and safety that civilization provides, would be in dire straits fairly quickly. Even the simplest family unit demonstrates this – if parents stopped caring about their children and cast them out to fend for themselves, the next generation would be a lot smaller than the one that went before it.

    I’m going to assume that all provides a good enough reason to mantain your empathy, although really don’t have a choice – the conscience isn’t something that can be switched on and off at will. (For most people, anyway). And of course someone can say ‘that doesn’t work for me’. That happens every day, any time somebody decides to kick an old lady down in the street and rob her handbag. I should remind you that your position on this matter is equally subjective – how does believing in God-given empathy help you when a murderer decides to say ‘Your ideas of right and wrong don’t work for me’? In what sense is your belief superior to mine in such a situation?

  8. vitaminbook,
    I have been following along for a while now and reading through all the posts. This discussion has been fascinating, and thanks for being so open. You ask great questions, and express legitimate concerns about how people draw the conclusions they do about live, the world, and morality.

    I spent a fair amount of time last year contemplating the empathetic-morality approach to society. This is where it broke down for me, and I am wondering if you can provide me an answer, if you are still reading. And anyone else who can help us out as well, please feel free.

    As I understand it, the problem I ran into with empathy is that it assumes a certain “goodness” about humanity and idealizes us; but the world is a very different place from the ideal. When someone punches someone in the face, or hurts them in any way, it is because they want to. And you alluded to this in your last post. So in view of this, how do you propose to maintain order? And we see this all the time in tragedies and in movies that portray these tragedies; when the system breaks down, and people are left to fend for themselves, things get really, really ugly.

    I think this is the appeal of a law, a standard, that is greater than ourselves. If there is a rule that no man can break because it comes from an authority higher higher than him, it protects against the breakdown of the empathy. It tells us that the desire to hurt people is wrong, and provides the opportunity for us to consider changing our actions.

    As for subjectivity, there is nothing which is not both objective and subjective. You believe, if I am understanding you correctly, that evolution is both objectively true (meaning it is true for all of us) and subjectively true (you live according to that belief). In that way it is no different than any other person. Every person tries to persuade people to their belief system and thus to live according to that belief system. The problem is not as much the fact that we all try to persuade, but more so in how we go about it in disrespectful and unloving manners. Would you agree?

    Again, I just want to thank everyone for posting…I have really enjoyed seeing the discussion. I doubt very much that I can contribute anything, only observe and offer an occasional thought.

  9. Dan-O,

    I’m afraid that I don’t really understand what you’re getting at in this paragraph:

    As for subjectivity, there is nothing which is not both objective and subjective. You believe, if I am understanding you correctly, that evolution is both objectively true (meaning it is true for all of us) and subjectively true (you live according to that belief). In that way it is no different than any other person. Every person tries to persuade people to their belief system and thus to live according to that belief system. The problem is not as much the fact that we all try to persuade, but more so in how we go about it in disrespectful and unloving manners. Would you agree?

    Could you maybe rephrase it? I think I know what you mean, but I don’t want to accidentally put words in your mouth by misunderstanding it.

    Yes, it’s true that all of the laws which hold our society together could be swept aside by some sort of large-scale disaster. This happens frequently in real life – witness the looting during the New Orleans floods, for example. I’m not assuming that all of humanity is perfect and good to one another. In fact, the opposite can often be true; while most of us are quite capable of empathy, we also have a tendency to ‘look out for number one’. Whether you call this a survival instinct or evidence that humans as a species are ‘fallen’, it’s true that we all have a selfish streak.

    However, I don’t think that religious belief is any great barrier against this. In Ireland, where I live, there’s been a huge problem in the Catholic church with child-abuse cases being brought against priests. Worse (if only because it was more widespread) Catholicism in this country fostered an atmosphere where an unmarried woman who was pregnant or a young girl who was sexually abused were turned into pariahs and more or less exiled from society. I know of one particular case where a woman found her original family, haveing been given up for adoption, after sixty years. Her biological mother rejected her completely and most of the family refuse to have anything to do with her.

    I’m not saying that this kind of thing is unique to religious dogma, or that religion is particularly likely to cause it, I’m just pointing out that religion is no guarantee that people will treat each other well. For a moment, try to look at it from my point of view: you have an atheistic philosophy drawn from various sources and a Christian philosophy drawn primarily from the Bible and the teachings of religious leaders. Let’s ignore the question of which one is ‘true’ or not and focus on the fact that both of them advocate treating other people well and working towards the common goal of a brighter future for the next generation.

    Most people will not have seriously thought about either of these philosophies. Certainly the majority of people (let’s say this is taking place in Ireland) will have a vague idea of the Christian one and will have heard of its basic principles from their parents, but in their day-to-day lives will not have given much thought to it either way. I think it’s these people in the ‘middle’, who have no real use for a serious moral philosophy either way, are the ones most likely to look out for themselves and, metaphorically speaking, punch someone else in the fact. I think we can agree that somebody who is ‘born again’ into the church is likely to rethink their ideas of right and wrong and to change their behaviour accordingly, as is someone who discovers, say, a humanistic philosophy and decides to live their life according to it.

    In neither case is it necessary for the person to become a zealot for their cause and curse the unbelievers. What sets them apart is that they’ve actually thought long and hard about what ‘right’ is and what ‘wrong’ is and resolved to live according to a set of rules that are right for them. I would rather that everyone on Earth did this and decided to go with the Christian philosophy than live in a world where nobody seriously thought about how they should treat others.

    I should also say that even people who don’t subscribe to a defined moral philosophy are going to be ‘good people’ most of the time. The vast majority of people would not kill a random person on the street or gouge out someone’s eye for disagreeing with them, and would probably be horrified if it happened in front of them. Most people will look out for their family members and go to great lengths to make them happy, even if they don’t get along with them all the time. Our basic empathy and conscience, which we seem to be born with and which other animals also demonstrate, won’t allow most of us to turn our backs on someone in dire need, even if we do act selfish in countless other ways. I think this would be true of most people in most situations, even if the rule of law was to break down; looting from an abandoned store is very different to shooting a random strange in the head.

  10. vitaminbook,

    You are absolutely correct that the values you describe are not unique to Judeo-Christianity. I assumed from some of your comments as well as others on Craig’s previous post that this was the belief system that was on trial. Forgive me if I made it sound like I think only Christianity believes anything true.

    However, what I think is still true is that the values you describe ARE unique to theistic belief systems. There have been attempts within philosophy to defend love, empathy, compassion, humility, service, generosity, etc; but within an atheistic framework these values really come back to the individual. What is the benefit to the person demonstrating these values? How does it make them feel? This is why I said that you were claiming the fruit of another tradition while trying to deny its foundation.

    In regards to the “randomness” factor I think I have done my reading. Pure evolutionary theory denies and guiding force behind the process of evolution. Saying that evolution has wired us to do certain things is much different than saying evolution itself is wired to do certain things (like keep the slot at human). If the latter is true the obvious question is who or what wired evolution to stop where it did? How did it get programmed to function in such a way? You may have a good answer for this but I’ve simply never heard one.

    In regards to subjectivity I think the issue is that within your worldview that’s really al there is to appeal to. The individual will, desires, and drive for survival is the ultimate arbiter for each person. Yes, subjectivity will always be an issue and a murderer may take my life because he doesn’t personally choose my belief that murder is wrong. However, I have an appeal to something higher than myself which allows me to say that murder is wrong. Because God is, his position as the ultimate reality gives me the foundation to say that things like genocide are actually evil and not just unfortunate.

    Working consistently within your framework there is no ability to make a true determination between actual good and actual evil. You may label them that way but in the end it’s really a matter of what’s preferable and what’s not. For the ones doing the “unfortunate” thing their action is always more preferable to them. What right do you have as a completely equal higher functioning animal to make a binding decision on them due to your own view?

    I may have gotten a little of track here. If so I apologize (I haven’t had my coffee yet today!). As I said above, please don’t take my words as an attack. I’m simply trying to reason this out with you which is very difficult in this impersonalized manner. I would much rather sit down over a pint and hash these things out.

  11. Well, I don’t drink at all, so I’m afraid we’d have to be sitting down over something non-alcoholic ;)

    I’ll get back to this later, since I’m short on time right now. It might be a day or so before I reply, but I will try to get something out here in response. Unfortunately (and I don’t mean this as a slight on religion) arguing in favour of non-theistic morality tends to get very complex very quickly, since there’s always more to it than a single, ultimate answer (like ‘God’).

    However, I will say that I avoid using the terms ‘good’ and ‘evil’ because I don’t believe that they exist; at least, not in the sense that you probably do. I don’t believe that ‘evil’ is something written on a list somewhere, or that ‘good’ exists independently of the definition we give to certain actions and behaviours. More on that later!

  12. vitaminbook,

    Sounds good. If we’re ever in the same country and city we’ll make it a conversation over coffee. I totally feel you and the “complex quickly” problem and would point out that it gets just as complex within the theistic world as well. We have to wrestle with different questions obviously but many of them are just as complex.

    Just so you know I will definitely read your comment whenever you make it but I’m probably done commenting myself for now. It seems we reached the point awhile back where all we can say is “Let’s agree to disagree.” I don’t really have time to be commenting on blogs right now and have been doing so as a means of procrastination. Just know I’ve appreciated your thoughts. Take care.

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