Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays and morality [re-edited]

[Writer’s note:  As of May 17, 2012, this piece has been re-edited. The main reason is that due to the great length of my comment on Think Christian, they politely asked me to condense it down to 250 words or less and graciously agreed to link to this longer-form article on their Facebook page to create a larger discussion. So I’ve modified the second half of this piece featuring the comment and moved some of the material as to distinguish my comment from my additional points that didn’t make it into that 250-word cut. But also, rereading this piece, I wasn’t proud of how I phrased a few things, so I also modified the earlier section. My main points, however, have not been changed. With that, I’d like to welcome any readers who have been referred here by Think Christian as well as thank Think Christian for facilitating this sharing of ideas]

My love of the podcast Filmspotting recently led me to discover that the new co-host on the podcast also contributes to a website called Think Christian, a site run by Christian moderates. Think Christian is a Christianity I can kinda get behind. They are quite different from the ultra-Right-Wing fundamentalists and evangelicals I typically encounter from those who wear their Christianity on their sleeves. In my opinion (though I haven’t followed the site for long and they might disagree), Think Christian seems to wisely ignore much of the actual content of the Bible and form their own progressive moral viewpoints.  Though, while I rather like these guys, my one main complaint is I feel they somewhat misguidedly try to attribute their progressive humanist values to Christianity.

Politically, I think we share many of the same values. Again, they’re infinitely better than evangelicals and they’re living in the right century. But while I find this mutation of Christianity useful to progressive causes in the short-term, I think it becomes problematic to reinforce a system that needs to first re-brand any particular civil or human right as a “Christian value” before defending it, and doing so only on the grounds that its considered god’s will to do so rather than as a good on its own, independent of the opinions of any alleged higher power.

A perfect recent example of this was Barack Obama’s announcement that he personally supports same-sex marriage. Obama didn’t defend marriage equality as a civil rights issue. Instead, he dressed it up in Christian language, declaring it merely his personal feelings on the matter based on his interpretation of Christianity that places fairness and The Golden Rule above the actual text of the Bible. Despite the Bible denouncing gay sex repeatedly, Obama actually defended gay marriage on Christian grounds. And when the Bible was used to defend slavery, many abolitionists pulled the same trick of ignoring the Bible’s unmistakably pro-slavery content and presenting it as being somehow Christian to oppose slavery, defying what their god allegedly actually said in favor of their own human sense of righteousness.  Martin Luther King invoked alleged Christian values when making his case for civil rights as well.

In my opinion, re-branding  secular humanist values as somehow Christian when they categorically oppose what is actually written in scripture is just not the right or honest way to go about positive social change in the world. Far better is just accepting that the Bible and Christianity are largely archaic mythologies held originally by mostly barbarians from a barbaric age with a few decent ideas sprinkled in, while fighting to end social wrongs simply on the grounds that they are social wrongs and cause unnecessary human suffering. Isn’t that enough of a reason? Why must we add “my god also said it’s wrong” to the list before it becomes a worthwhile cause?

Now since I constantly get asked by religious individuals to explain how one can even objectively and rationally ground morality without the presence of a divine third-party, I just completed a separate, lengthy article ambitiously titled, “The basis of all morality“. I very briefly touch on some of it below, but I get much more in depth on my central thesis in that article.

But anyway, here’s the very interesting piece from Think Christian on the issue of marriage equality and the following is my response:

Ideologues do exploit science, twisting it to rationalize their biases when science can only inform our decisions. But ethics belongs to philosophy, not religion. Religion too is easily manipulated when religions stress tradition, obedience, blind faith, and submission, while reducing morality to the proclamations of a dictator.

You’re right that whether homosexuality is a natural part of the human condition or simply preference is wholly irrelevant to any moral discussion. Homosexuality naturally exists across countless species. Being a particularly social species, our factors for pair bonding are more nuanced, though research finds human same-sex pair bonding largely biological. But it’s irrelevant to ethics because, as you said, one can’t form an ought from an is. If homosexuality (or heterosexuality) were 100% natural, that wouldn’t make it right or wrong and if it were 100% preference, it still wouldn’t.

There’s insufficient evidence of societal or individual harm from homosexuality while we observe benefits such as providing parent-less children an opportunity grow up in a loving bi-parent environment, creating less overall human suffering.

Morality boils down to what’s good or bad for us, society. It’s the trial and error process of figuring out and weighing what’s most advantageous to society with the least suffering to or infringement on the individual. Traffic laws make a perfect microcosm of all morality in that we just do our best as a cooperative society to determine how to keep society and the individuals within thriving and as free of suffering as possible.

Now what didn’t make it into my 250-word comment but I wanted to bring up anyway:

I further agree with you about choices never being fully free. But this “we’re all children of god” and “we’re in the image of god” stuff seems to me to be all just shallow, empty platitudes. I don’t give a fig if a creature were the exact opposite of the image of the Christian god. If rats worshiped a god, it’d look remarkably just like them too. This just seems like rhetorical gibberish to take credit away from philosophy for secular progressive values. While some notable moral philosophers have been religious, it wasn’t their religion that led to their contribution to ethics. And as long as religion roots its moral positions in the uncritical worship of creatures that may or may not even exist, it will never make any significant contribution to ethics. And as for gaining “perfection through Christ,” he can keep it. What an dreadful existence perfection would be!

But the part of your piece where I couldn’t disagree more on is when the authors seem to suggest humans are only valuable because we were “made in God’s image.” They appear to me to be suggesting humans have no value on our own as unique individuals who think and feel and create and discover? Are they suggesting our human value is that we’re just lucky to be monuments to the vanity of a supremely vain and egotistical deity? Humans are valuable in and of themselves regardless of whether or not there is a god or a creator or whatever. We don’t need a deity to give us value. Shakespeare, Tennyson–greater poets than those who wrote the Bible have demonstrated man’s self-worth far more eloquently than I ever could.

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11 Responses to Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays and morality [re-edited]

  1. […] Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays (skepacabra.wordpress.com) […]

  2. Jake Krauss says:

    Copying the comment I left on your Facebook link to this article, since I’m not sure whether your Facebook feed or this blog has a larger audience:

    Until recently, I would have agreed with the assertion that progressive Christianity is not authentic Christianity and involves significantly more picking and choosing from the Bible than fundamentalism does. But over the past year or so, I’ve been incredibly surprised to learn that they are thoroughly permeated with social justice themes. The problem is that they’re worded in ways that are not at all clear to modern-day readers without some background knowledge about the ancient and 1st century Jewish community’s cultural context and response to Babylonian and Roman imperialism. At first I was highly skeptical of this awfully convenient, politically relevant understanding of the texts, but based on my personal reading and the seminary classes I’ve been attending, I now find the arguments for this quite convincing.

    That’s not to say that the Bible doesn’t get some things horrifyingly wrong (e.g. slavery, sexuality, women). But I’d compare it to the Constitution. We can recognize that the American founders had truly radical values (most notably liberty), yet failed miserably when it came to applying these values to *all* members of their community (again e.g. slaves and women). When we extend liberty to all Americans in ways the founders never would have dreamt, are we abandoning their vision? Or by taking their own values even further than they could, do we in fact follow their vision *more* faithfully than their own cultural context would permit? I’d argue the latter, and I see the Judeo-Christian texts and traditions in the same way. We can embrace their themes of humanism and radical social justice, while recognizing that the communities where they originated did not apply them consistently. Some modern-day Christian communities use this as an excuse to also apply them inconsistently, but progressive ones take it as a warning of how easily we too can fail when we let the biases of our own social context limit our vision. As an atheist, I absolutely agree that Christianity is by *no* means the only basis for understanding and promoting the values on which to build a better world. But I’ve also come to see that in progressive Christian communities, it can function as *a* powerful source of encouragement and a framing social narrative toward this end.

    My view right now is that Christianity *could* have an overwhelmingly positive influence on society if more Christians came around to understanding it as a useful social narrative and rich exploration of the human condition, rather than as a source of literal physical and metaphysical facts. This is very much a minority view at present, but there are some efforts to help it spread which I dearly hope will be successful.

    • mjr256 says:

      Great point. I definitely see advantages to working with progressive Christian groups, but it just seems to me to be manipulative. I have no trouble separating the general theme of equality in the Constitution from the more rigid meaning the Founders may have intended because I don’t think we should blindly obey the Founders and because even they acknowledged the Constitution as a work in progress in the document itself.

      I don’t like exploiting nationalism to win an argument and I think exploiting religious rhetoric to do the same is, at best, just as bad. It just so happens that in this case I agree with them, but if I don’t criticize the exploitation of religious rhetoric when it’s used to further policies I agree with, I feel I lose credibility when I then turn around and criticize the exploitation of religious rhetoric when it’s used to further policies I oppose. I’d also prefer people defended positive values for good reasons instead of potentially arbitrary ones.

  3. Thanks for sharing this.

    A few comments in response to your comments:

    Though it may seem progressive in a contemporary context, I was essentially just articulating the way Christians have traditionally thought about moral questions from the time of Thomas Aquinas and before.

    Also, I should clarify what is meant by what I admit is Christian jargon: the idea that we are “made in God’s image”. It does not imply physical form in any sense. Ancient Hebrew, having no way to speak about the abstract directly, used metaphor to convey abstract ideas. Thus, when we use this phrase we mean, to quote Elshtain, “human beings qua human beings deserve equal moral regard” where “equal regard means one possesses an inalienable dignity” that is not given by any government, person, or other entity or a consequence of any particular action and “cannot be revoked arbitrarily” by any government or person. Indeed, to be made in God’s image acknowledges that we are, as you wrote “unique individuals who think and feel and create and discover”.

    The reason we evoke this aspect of our theology is, in part, as a rejection of utilitarian calculus in the mode of Singer. But more than that, it is to ground the value of human beings qua human beings in something more than our abilities or attributes so that all persons share an equal degree of value and worth that is not contingent. Our capabilities do not alter our value such that the greatest thinker, for example, shares an equal measure of value with the person least capable of thought.

    js

  4. […] Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays […]

  5. […] Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays (skepacabra.wordpress.com) […]

  6. maske says:

    maske…

    […]Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays and morality [re-edited] « Skepacabra[…]…

  7. […] Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays (skepacabra.wordpress.com) […]

  8. […] Responding to Christian moderates at Think Christian about the gays (skepacabra.wordpress.com) […]

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