In a recent comment Steve Oberski said:
Eric, I hope you realize that Windows 8 is a harbinger of the apocalypse.
Well, it has been for me. I have spent the last two days trying to straighten out my computer, and now, in order to save what I had not yet backed up (except as a system recovery archive) on Windows 7, I have to buy a new hard drive, so that I can restore my backed up Windows 7, which got rubbished trying to install Windows 8 as part of a dual boot system. Not only that, but I have found out that Windows 8 is less capable of multi-tasking than Windows 7, which is really a lot better at running two or three programs at the same time. And the new interface is pure hell, and possibly even uglier than hell itself, so I have installed a utility that gives me back the start button, and the familiar Windows interface. I don’t know what got into Microsoft, but the people over in Redmond seem to have taken leave of their senses. There are some things I like about Windows 8, but not enough to make it an attractive alternative to Windows 7. I’d chuck it out, except that there are some things I like, and it makes sense to try to keep up to date.
However, that’s not what I set out to write. As I went through my list of newspapers this morning, trying to keep up with at least some of the news, I noticed that there were a number of articles about gay and lesbian relationships and rights. As usual, the Guardian takes the vanguard, announcing in uncompromising tones that “There is no place for homophobia in the church, anywhere in the world” — a short op-ed (an edited version of a speech delivered in the House of Lords) by Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester (pronounced like the name Lester, incidentally), which shows a picture of Desmond Tutu with the caption:
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said that persecuting LGBT people was the ultimate blasphemy.
That can be taken as a very forward-looking point of view, or it may be thought of as simply a restatement of the church’s view that homosexuality, though a defect, is not something on account of which people should be persecuted. Even the Roman Catholic Church, given to making pretty definitive pronouncements on moral matters, holds that, while a grave disorder, homosexuals “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2358) Well, that’s that then!
This view, however, is of fairly recent provenance in the church, which had grown accustomed to the condemnation and persecution of homosexuals, and certainly not to treating them with respect, compassion and sensitivity — which is a bit hard to credit after being told that, basing itself on scripture, the church has always held that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered,” which is, we are told, consistent with the scriptural view that they are acts of ”grave depravity.” (CCC 2357) Is this not already to show insensitivity, disrespect and lack of compassion? So it is odd to hear a churchman saying that persecuting LGBT people is the ultimate in blasphemy, when the church has done this year in and year out since the year dot. Indeed, the renewed vigour with which gay and lesbian persons are being persecuted — in Africa, for example, and especially, I understand, in Uganda — is due almost entirely to the degenerate Christian influence of American evangelicals, who have made a special mission of exporting hatred of homosexuality to that unhappy place. Not able to get its own homophobia written into American law as they would wish it to be, they have accepted, as a consolation prize, convincing people in places where fundamentalist Christianity is at the same time thriving and unburdened by secular traditions of individual rights. (This is due largely to the evangelical nature of the Church Missionary Society, but that is a story for another day. It abominated both slavery and homosexuality in equal measure. So, at most one cheer for Christian missions.)
As an example of the stupidity of Christians, take the proclamation of the American fundamentalist preacher John Mcternan, who heralded Hurricane Sandy as the scourge of God. On his blog, according to the Independent, he wrote that the hurricane was ”punishment for both candidates being ‘pro-homosexual and behind the homosexual agenda’.”
Mcternan’s blog quickly went viral, as readers picked up on his claims that far from being extreme weather, Sandy was “the Holy God of Israel systematically destroying America right before our eyes”.
God is the handiest tool in the religionist’s armoury. If something goes wrong, it is God’s wrath at _________ in execution (fill in the blank with your pet peeve). When people took exception to Mcternan’s claim, he then quickly qualified his judgement, saying:
I am not saying this super destructive hurricane was because of the homosexual act…what I am saying is the judgment is for the government promoting homosexual ‘marriage’ as an ordinance. [my italics]
Which is scarcely any better, but from my own experience in the church, convincing many Christians that there are alternative sexualities is almost useless. Many young people no longer see the point, but those used to the ancient condemnations are often immovable.
I was member and sometime chairperson of a Sexuality Task Group in the Diocese of Nova Scotia for several years, a process of discussion which ended up deadlocked. (And, as soon as I retired, another task group was formed to go over the same ground. As long as we were talking, it was assumed, we were not divided, though divided we certainly were.) So it is very hard to see how Desmond Tutu can reasonably speak of this in terms of blasphemy, however welcome it may be to hear church leaders speak out against this age-old prejudice. After all, the Bible has always been taken to have revealed that homosexuality is immoral, and that homosexuals are to be, if not killed — the favoured way of dealing with such an abomination — at least repudiated and shunned, for such, as St. Paul said, will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Besides, they are without excuse, for everyone can know that it is against the will of God, largely (it seems) because Paul considered homosexual acts unnatural and disgusting, though it has been argued that Paul himself may have been gay.
How do Christians decide what is and what is not an abomination, what is or is not morally acceptable? Why, by means of revelation, of course. Ophelia Benson has a marvellous, humourously mordant attack on the idea of revelation in her first article published in The Freethinker. She entitles it “In Custody,” and it is a devastating put-down of the whole idea of revelation. You can read it here, and it’s also linked on Butterflies and Wheels, where there is an ongoing discussion. It’s about doctrine and its unrevisable, revealed nature, and the church’s custody of these (supposedly) ”revealed” truths. According to Bishop Bruskewitz of Lincoln (Nebraska), the church is not a democracy, and church doctrines
are not open to votes. These are what God has revealed, and the custody of that revelation is of course in the possession of the Church. [my italics]
As Ophelia says, we are so used to this sort of thing that we scarcely notice how absurd it is. But, she says,
[t]hat’s unfortunate, because if the absurdity jumped out at everyone – a grown man, at the top of his profession, saying that “core doctrines” were “revealed” by a distant magical being and are in “the custody” of his organization and cannot be rejected or changed by mere humans – then fewer people would acquiesce.
So, she suggests, take the word ‘god’ out of it, and speak instead of Terry, and then rewrite the bishop’s nonsense thus:
The core doctrines, which include birth control, the rights and responsibilities of women and men, choice in dying, choice in marriage, to name a few, were all “revealed” three thousand years ago by Terry.
Now you can see how ridiculous it is, for we can see that there’s no more evidence that a god revealed these things than that Terry did. So our prejudices, with their supposedly dramatic underpinnings of gods and people who have been given custody of the gods’ revelations, are simply composed of hot air, unless they can be justified in other ways. And no one yet, to my knowledge, has come up with a good reason to treat homosexual persons as somehow of less worth or less than human than heterosexual persons.
But, to return to my theme, Desmond Tutu’s statement ridiculous in the same way. Just as there can be no known revelation from a god or gods, so there cannot be blasphemy of a god or gods either. Blasphemy is as made up out of thin air as are revelations. What is or is not blasphemous is just as tenuously grounded as religious moral prescriptions, and trying to claim prejudice against LGBT people as blasphemous is an attempt to give religious weight to a moral outlook which, as recently as thirty years ago, would have been condemned by practically all Christians. As Jeffrey John says in a Guardian piece (as recently as August this year):
As Jim Cotter wrote 20 years ago: “There are four stages in the church’s response to any challenge to its tradition. First, it pretends the challenge isn’t there. Secondly it opposes it vehemently. Thirdly, it starts to admit extenuations and exceptions. Finally it says: ‘That’s what we really thought all along’.”
This is what Desmond Tutu is doing, and it’s fundamentally dishonest, and it should not be praised just because it happens to support what is believed now to be right.
Even the Bishop of Leicester gets it wrong. He begins his article this way:
In 1967 it was the then archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, who spoke in the House of Lords to support the decriminalisation of homosexuality in this country, thus making a clear distinction in British law between a moral and a criminal issue.
Nice of Michael Ramsey, no doubt, but is it even a moral issue? At least Tim Stevens should have raised the question. For so long as it remains, as he puts it, a moral issue, and a disputed one at that, gay and lesbian people, bisexual and transsexual people will continue to be slighted and marginalised.
The Bishop of Leicester puts the question in terms of fundamental human rights, and the problem with this, as he recognises, but does not do enough to counter, is that it leaves the moral question open, and he leaves it open for a reason. He needs the moral question to be open. He tells us that interference in the consensual sexual relations of adults “is an affront to the fundamental Christian values of human dignity, tolerance and equality.” He then goes on to say that Anglicans are deeply divided on the moral question, and then, sadly, he equivocates fatally. He says that, despite their divisions on the moral question,
there cannot and must not be any basis for equivocating on the central issue of equality before the law of all human beings whether heterosexual or homosexual.
But equality before the law is not enough, and Steven’s attempt to suggest that it is alright to continue to treasure links with other dioceses throughout the Communion, even with those where moral issues are understood in disturbingly divergent ways, is simply temporising. No matter what, he says,
there is not and cannot be any place for homophobia in the church, and all are to be welcomed regardless of sexual orientation.
But this is prevarication, because some of the dioceses of which he speaks are out-and-out homophobic, and he knows it. Not only do they not welcome people regardless of sexual orientation, they treat them in despicable ways, and that is something that Stevens needs to recognise and condemn in honest terms, instead of hiding it behind clouds of words.
The problem here lies in the belief that the church must never be divided, that schism is a great sin. Rowan Williams, who was thought to be a liberal on the issue of the recognition of gay and lesbian persons in the church, has acted, as Archbishop of Canterbury, in extremely illiberal ways, actions which have led to accusations of hypocrisy and double-dealing, just to keep the world-wide Anglican Communion from shattering. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Albans, accused the archbishop (and the church) of taking a “morally contemptible” position. So acrimonious was the dispute over issues of sexuality at the Lambeth Conference in 1998, that Richard Holloway, then Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church, left the church in disgust, and now calls himself post-Christian.
The point, though, is that the claim that persecuting LGBT persons is the ultimate blasphemy simply will not stand up to scrutiny. It is a deliberate prevarication, meant to put the church in an acceptagble light. The suggestion is — and Steven’s makes it explicit — that the church stands for the ”values of human dignity, tolerance and equality.” He calls them Christian values, but this may be doubted. Stop at any point in the history of the church and ask whether these values were being honoured more greatly in their performance or in their breach, and I think the evidence would probably favour the latter. Christians have no more right to claim these values than any other group of human beings, and possibly less. No doubt there are helpful moral lessons to be derived from the gospels, and even from church teachings, but we must not forget that there are terrible lessons to be learned from the gospels too, and even more terrible ones defended by the church. Jesus’ condemnation of the villages of Chorazin and Bethsaida to a fate worse than that of Tyre and Sidon, because their inhabitants did not respond to him in faith, is not the act of a man who had much respect for the values of human dignity, tolerance or equality.
The obvious problem of basing one’s moral life on moral prescriptions or prohibitions thought to have been revealed by Terry thousands of years ago is that it is almost impossible to change them in order to accommodate desirable moral change, unless you are an Anglican and can do it by sleight of hand! It leads to a kind of moral sclerosis, and an inability to see other points of view of the world other than one’s own. Such things, whether people recognise it or not, are bound to be harbingers, if not of the Apocalypse, at least of destructive confrontation and continuing injustice defended in the name of God (or Terry — take your pick!). This blog is all about this moral sclerosis, with a focus on the inability of the churches to see that their prohibition of assisted dying is simply untenable. Christians don’t even have a scriptural warrant for a prohibition that stems largely from the theology of St. Augustine (354-430 CE). No wonder they fall back on supposedly clinching secular arguments, which are in fact no better than absent scriptural justification. But, of course, the issue of moral sclerosis and its harm spreads to many other things, and it is high time we recognised that the religions do not have any special insight into what is morally good or morally bad, and that the continuing claim that they have such insight, and have been given custody of revealed moral laws, does much more harm than good. We don’t need empty claims about Terry confusing the issues.