Groundhog Day

Despite their fervent denials of evolution, the religious right constantly shows by their own behavior that humanity is more closely related to the rest of the animal kingdom than they would like to admit. Just consider, as an example, how uncannily similar their behavior is to the common groundhog. Just as the groundhog’s annual emergence foretells whether there will be a continuation of winter, so too on every even-numbered year in America, the religious right crawls out of its hole. If it sees an upcoming election, then the rest of us know we’re in for six more months of anti-gay pandering and bigotry.

As usual, with congressional elections approaching, the Republican party has suddenly rediscovered the urgency of preventing gays from getting married. Accordingly, they proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution banning gay marriage in a transparently cynical attempt to appeal to the most bigoted and regressive segments of their base and distract from the disastrous failure of their governing policies. As expected, this amendment went down in flames in the Senate; its backers could not even garner a majority of votes, much less the two-thirds vote needed to pass it, which must have been a particularly embarrassing defeat.

What is new this year is the ludicrously shrill heights of rhetoric deployed by the religious right to support the gay-bashing amendment, perhaps out of recognition that public opinion is trending against them. Republican Senator David Vitter, for example, said, “I don’t believe there’s any issue that’s more important than this one” – this from the representative of a state whose largest city was devastated last year by a hurricane and is still struggling to rebuild.

Not to be outdone in the absurdly-overheated-rhetoric game, the Roman Catholic church recently released a document titled “Family and Human Procreation” in which it called gay marriage “the eclipse of God“. This same document says that “never before in history” has the family been so threatened as it is today, and lists among these dire threats not just gay marriage, but the adoption of children by gay couples and lesbians conceiving children through articial insemination, both of which it strongly condemns.

Yes, readers, this is what the Vatican is most concerned about – not millions of people dying of preventable diseases and hunger, not terrorism by armed extremists, not the many brutal dictatorships that do not respect human rights, but gay people who want to get married and raise families. Apparently, although God’s omnipotent powers permit him to spin worlds out of the void, part mighty seas and destroy whole cities with fire from heaven, he is helpless to thwart monogamous homosexuals and the judges who rule in their favor. (Gay people, it seems, are God’s Kryptonite.)

But the prize for hysteria must surely go to Republican strategist Jack Burkman, said that the gay marriage issue is “five times as important as the war on terror and the war in Iraq combined“. Can we take this to mean that, if given a choice between preventing both 9/11 and the Iraq war and banning gay marriage, the Republicans would choose the latter without hesitation? Do they really believe that their vendetta against homosexuals is more important than over 5500 American lives? I have often said that one of the primary evils of religion is that it convinces people to value dogma over human life, but even I am stunned by the brazenness with which the religious right proclaims its allegiance to that same principle.

To anyone not acquainted with how religious right politics work, this fever pitch of obsession makes no sense. One would think that religious conservatives, even if they were opposed to gay marriage, could state that opposition without believing that it is the single most important thing in the world or couching the struggle in literally apocalyptic language. Any rational observer would conclude that when committed, monogamous gays living together are seen as a greater threat than Osama bin Laden and the terrorists who destroyed the World Trade Center, that is the time for conservatives to seriously reappraise just how obsessed they have become and consider stepping back from the brink of insanity.

But, as I said, that presupposes a rational observer, and religious right politics have nothing to do with reason. On the contrary, their entire strategy consists of whipping their followers into a blind frenzy of emotion so that they will support their leaders without questioning or thinking. The higher a fever pitch they can stir their followers to, the better. It matters not at all how comically out of proportion their rhetoric is when compared to the actual seriousness of the issue. Eugene Volokh speaks of the “ACLU Derangement Syndrome“, in which the mere invocation of the name of that civil liberties group renders right-wing partisans incapable of rational thought, and this is insightful as far as it goes, but I think he has missed the larger point: the religious right’s entire political platform is nothing but a string of derangement syndromes. Their concerns extend no farther than the latest boogeyman that can be dragged out and waved around to incite their farthest-right-wing supporters to stampede to the polls, following which they are promptly shoved back into the closet and ignored until the next election. But on anything other than symbolic issues, the religious right is utterly incompetent and utterly incapable of governing.

The hopeful corollary to this point is that when people think for themselves, liberals win elections. When people consider the issues rationally and do not allow themselves to be led by the nose by politicians who appeal to prejudice and fear, liberals win elections. All it will take for the forces of liberty to win this civil rights struggle, as we have won so many struggles in the past, is to embed one simple question into the public consciousness: How would allowing gay marriage harm traditional heterosexual marriage, exactly? Despite all their bile, the religious right has never answered and can never answer this question without showing clearly just how irrational and ridiculous their beliefs are. If I choose to marry in the future, it will be because I have decided that I have found a woman whom I love and with whom I want to spend the rest of my life. Other considerations affecting that decision may include desire to raise a family, a need for companionship, and the effect it will have on our taxes and other civil and legal benefits. Whether gays can get married too, I assure my readers, will play absolutely no part in this decision. Why should what other people want to do with their lives be of any concern to me in deciding what I want to do with my life?

The only reason I can imagine why gay marriage would negatively affect my own marriage would be if I got married as a taunt, to rub homosexuals’ faces in the fact that our society approves of my sexual orientation and not theirs. Perhaps this is indeed why many prominent religious right figures are married; but if so, it speaks poorly of them that their entire lives are premised upon excluding, discriminating against, and hating others. The humanist way of finding happiness through the happiness of others is far superior.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Philip Thomas

    Well said! The Catholic Church, my church, is taking a reprehensible and backward glancing stand on this issue, as on many others down the ages. The historical record suggests it will adjust eventually…but how many gay people must suffer waiting for the inevitable?

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    We’re in an interesting position. The new ‘Civil Partnerships’ give gay couples almost* identical rights to marriage, which I see as a useful political compromise which will make it easier simply to just call it ‘marriage’ at some point. The problem is that some straight couples would prefer to have a ‘partnership’ and some gay couples outraged (and currently bringing legal action) demanding that they can get ‘married’.

    So in the traditional British way, I have a sneaking suspicion we will end up with two identical institutions with different names :D

    *(You can’t get officially partnered in a religious institution, although informal blessings are of course fine, and if you’re a Lord or Lady your partner does not inherit the title. Oh, and non-consummation is not grounds for a dissolution. That’s about it!)

  • Philip Thomas

    Since it is possible to get married by a purely civil ceremony (as my parents were married back in the 1970s). I don’t see there is any reason for heterosexual couples to complain.

    Homosexual couples might think the name of marriage would help to make their union more acceptable, though.

  • andrea

    what I find amusing is that homosexuals have been getting married for ages, even in Christian churches, and the sky hasn’t fallen. It’s just that the government hasn’t recognized it. If it were so “offensive” to God, then why hasn’t He done anything about it? No people being struck dead by mysterious forces, no 10 plagues, nothing different than any other day in the whole of history.

  • http://dominicself.co.uk Dominic Self

    Oh I agree whole-heartedly, Phillip, it would certainly be a good thing symbolically so that gay couples weren’t a ‘separate’ group.

    Heterosexual couples have weaker grounds to complain, but I think some see marriage as (in their mind) ultimately tied to a history of religion that they don’t want for themselves. Personally I have no problem with the word ‘marriage’ but again, if there is a group of people who sincerely feel that way, I wouldn’t like to stand in their way.

    Of course, the government are also investigating what default rights should be extended to co-habiting couples who haven’t chosen to enter into any sort of legal partnership.

  • Philip Thomas

    Co-habitng couples is another matter: some of the rights in question are rights over one another (particularly property division in the event of split), and to say those rights devolve automatically to someone without any ceremony to mark it is dubious. If a couple refuses to get married, or enter a civil partnership, then they haven’t made that sort of contractual bargain with each other (they can make other contracts of course).

  • Andreas

    Just wanted to say that I’m a long-time lurker enjoying all your blog entries, and this one is certainly not an exception! Well-spoken atheists like you is something the world is badly in need of. Keep up the good work!

    Andreas from Sweden

  • Archi Medez

    “I have often said that one of the primary evils of religion is that it convinces people to value dogma over human life,

    Certainly true of at least 3 of the major religions–at least, according to their doctrines. (Not all believers actually take the whole package to heart, and of course some value some parts of the doctrine more than other parts). I wonder, though, whether there are some less well-known religions that value human life over dogma, or contain dogma that itself values human life over dogma (e.g. isn’t this the case with Jainism?). Also, aren’t there some non-religious or quasi-religious ideologies that value the dogma over human life (e.g., the non-religious ideologies of Stalin and Mao seem almost completely secular; these leaders showed little evidence of valuing human life other than their own. The ideology of Hitler appears to be a complex mix of both non-religious–nationalism, tribalism, and racism–and religious or quasi-religous ideas).

  • Archi Medez

    “I have often said that one of the primary evils of religion is that it convinces people to value dogma over human life,” quoted from Adam’s article.

    …so the general question my previous post raises is this: ‘What is it about strongly-held beliefs that leads people to value the belief more than human life?’

    An important follow-up to this would be ‘Are there differences between religious and non-religious ideologies in this respect?’

    Yet another follow-up question: ‘Are there differences between beliefs that are ideologically-based vs. non-ideologically-based that leads people to take the belief as more important than human life?’ (e.g., suicidal or homicidal beliefs that are not attributable to an ideology per se).

    Last question: Can the target concern identified by Adan be ultimately reduced down to beliefs that are unsupported factually and morally?

  • Archi Medez

    “identified by Adan

    Should say “Adam“. Sorry.

    -Arch

  • Archi Medez

    Deism is religious belief that does not, to my knowledge, value dogma over human life.
    One could, of course, debate whether deism qualifies as a religion.

    The kernal of the problem seems to be belief that is unquestioned, unsupported by facts, and morally unsound.

  • Philip Thomas

    Belief that values dogma over human life is morally unsound by definition!

  • Azkyroth

    …assuming one defines morality as being something other than adherence to a belief, which, sadly, most mainstream religions officially don’t, and many don’t even in practice.

  • Philip Thomas

    The nature of morality has an objective reality independent of one’s definition of it. Moral relativism is both flawed and dangerous.

  • Azkyroth

    If that’s the case, that appealing to one’s definition of morality as implied in “by definition” is fallacious or superfluous.

    I still haven’t heard back from my test wingnut on this article. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, she comes away with from it.

  • Archi Medez

    Philip,

    “The nature of morality has an objective reality independent of one’s definition of it. Moral relativism is both flawed and dangerous.”

    Agreed, on all counts, except I may have a different understanding of what is meant by “objective.” I might replace your term “objective reality” with “independent standard,” or “universal standard.”

    Clearly, morality itself is not something that can be objectively observed, nor measured with scientific instrumentation. Scientists can measure the kinds of brain activity that take place when people engage in moral thinking as opposed to other kinds of thinking, and people can observe behavior and judge it morally.

    What makes morality universal among humans is the nervous system that is healthy and which has certain subsystems, which are specialized to deal with emotional capabilities such as sympathy, empathy, etc. We have specialized neurons called “mirror neurons” that are important for registering (or being “in tune with”) the emotions of another person (these systems happen to be also important for imitation, social skills, etc.). These neural systems give us the ability to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to construct a synthetic or “virtual” experience of what the other person is experiencing. These mirror neurons are also found in other primates, and I suspect they are found in dolphins, whales, and other social mammals with complex brains. In humans, some people, such as psychopaths, have diminished capacity for empathy, and probably as a consequence they have impaired moral judgement. They have reduced autonomic nervous system response to stimuli depicting other people in pain (i.e., it is reduced relative to the response of ‘normal’ people). Young children also do not have a fully developed moral capacity, even though they have the basic capacity for empathy, imitation, sympathy, insight into what other people are feeling, etc. Young children have not sufficiently developed the knowledge, experience, and complex reasoning skills from which to make complex moral judgements (but they can make simpler moral judgements).

    I believe a parallel can be made between moral thinking and scientific thinking in some respects, even though they differ in many other respects. Our moral thinking ability is provisional, and cumulative. On the one hand, a scientist learns more and can come up with increasingly more accurate and comprehensive theories to explain X. Likewise, scientists can discuss and debate, and pass on their knowledge to be used and further developed by future generations of scientists. Similarly with ethics: through gaining experience and knowledge, the individual person learns more and can come up with increasingly fair, comprehensive theories with which to judge X situation. People discuss and debate, and pass on their knowledge to be used and further developed by future generations of people. Both science and ethics depend on reasoning and evidence.

    They key difference is that, in ethics, judgements are made on the basis of empathetic emotional responses to perceptions (plus knowledge, theory, etc.), whereas in science, judgements are made on the basis of the perceptions (plus knowledge, theory, etc.).

    What gives morality a universal standard is the fact that most (healthy) humans are wired in approximately the same way and have the same basic emotional and empathic capabilities. Basic moral capacity is perhaps comparable, in some respects, to mathematical ability. Every healthy human can do basic arithmetic if taught, yet some people have deficits in that area, and there are natural individual differences throughout the population in the ability. These differences between individuals do not make mathematics “relative”; they simply make it easier for some people to do math and grasp complex mathematic concepts. Likewise some cultures may have recorded more fully developed knowledge of mathematics, but this does not make mathematics culturally relative. These same biological and cultural factors apply to ethics, but they do not make ethics itself relative. (I realize there are limits to extending the analogy between ethical and mathematic abilities in other respects).

    Also important in making ethical decisions is being able to form intentions and being able to empathetically judge other people’s intentions. If, for no reason, Bob intentionally kicks Pete in the shin, causing him to fall over in pain, we judge Bob to have done something wrong. But if Bob had done that by accident, and wished he hadn’t done that, though the hit would cause pain in Pete’s shin, we (onlookers) would not judge Bob to have done wrong, or perhaps a lesser degree of wrong (e.g., Bob should’ve been more careful). In the first case, Bob has done something evil (if only a small evil) by intentionally harming someone for no reason, but in the second case Bob had only done something negligent–he did not intentionally harm Pete.

    Well, I better stop myself here before I write an essay. But my point is that moral ability arises from certain neural systems in the healthy human. All healthy human adults have this ability to a sufficient degree that we can say that morality is universal (like mathematical ability, language ability, etc.), even though there may be differences from person to person and culture to culture in sophistication, logical consistency, etc.

  • http://endless-rambling.blogspot.com BlackWizardMagus

    Meh, alot of stuff to read, but I’ll just throw in my two cents; this has nothing to do with gay marriage. The republicans do care, but they brought this up to merely distract people. Since both parties are getting kicked in the teeth over immigration, the reps decided to simply bring up something else “vitally important”. Sure, alot of people get mad about it; but it’s closer to an even split than the immigration issue, where something like 80% of americans don’t agree with them.

  • Philip Thomas

    My poor phrasing: “By definition”, I meant “with refererence to the essential qualities of”

  • Kirk

    So this Jack Burkman guy thinks gay marriage is five times more of a threat than the war on terror? Does that mean that if the infamous August 2001 memo Condo Rice was given said “Osoma determined to give blowjobs in the US” Bush and Co. would have acted upon it instead of sitting on their asses?

  • Azkyroth

    Interesting. Do you know if there’s any correlation between mirror neuron counts (and associated wiring) and autism?

  • Archi Medez

    Azkyroth,

    Good question. I’m not sure that anyone has done that study (I doubt it, because this requires either finding (or genetically-engineering) autistic monkeys—not sure that can be done…or else obtaining the brains of deceased autistic persons, taking samples, and making a guess at whether they have less mirror neurons (or smaller cell sizes, less dendritic branching, etc.) vs. brains of deceased controls—not sure that mirror neurons are distinct based on their structure alone).

    The role of mirror neurons in autism has at least been theorized upon; by now there may be even some neuroimaging studies examining this question. One could make an approximate estimate of cell counts based on the size of the critical regions of activation, providing that the methods used could accurately distinguish the mirror neurons from the regular neurons. The researchers could then examine the correlation between the degree of autism (or specific factors of it) and the estimated number of mirror neurons.

  • Gathercole

    I think there’s a very clear way that banning gay marriage actually HURTS heterosexual marriage. Right-wing politicians want to ban gay marriage, but they still say that gays can have loving monogamous relationships (without being married). What else can this be implying, but that one can easily have a loving, monogamous relationship without being married? I think one thing young people are taking way from this fiasco is that politicians appear to think that marriage is not REALLY necessary. If marriage were REALLY as important as conservatives say it is, they would consider it an absolute necessity for gays to live as civilized human beings.

  • Quath

    I find it funny to hear religious people talk of the sanctimony of marriage and then say the Bible supports one man and one woman. However, that is not true. The Bible defines marriage as the union of one man and one or more women. I had a few Christians debate me on this and they misunderstand the Bible.

    The usually first talk of Adam and Eve and say they became one flesh. But the Bible also says a person becomes one flesh with a prostitute. So this is not about marriage. Then they usually talk about how God said that kings should not multiply wives. his has two problems. The first is it is about kings, not regular people. The second is that “do not multiply” means not to have too many such as horses. It does not mean “just one.”

    So the next time a Christian wants it the Biblical way. Agree and congratulate them for supporting polygamy.

  • SpeirM

    I have to agree with Quath. In fact, he (?) used most of my arguments. In Deuteronomy 17, the future king is told, “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself….” In the previous verse he was already warned, “But he shall not multiply horses to himself….” (It’s a command, not a prediction.) I don’t think God was trying to tell the king he couldn’t have more than one horse. It was just that in those days a king secured himself with his military and offspring. Horses were the premier battle engines of the day. The more of them he had, the more powerful his armies. Then, offspring secured his dynasty. Obviously, the more wives (plus concubines and whatnot–no real distinction between those and wives sometimes) he had, the more children he could sire. Remember this? Interestingly, Solomon is supposed to have written it.

    Psa 127:3 Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward.
    Psa 127:4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
    Psa 127:5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.

    All God was (supposedly) trying to say was, “Rely on me, not what you can do yourself.”

    Nowhere in the Bible is polygamy even condemned. Solomon was admonished because of his wives, but not because he had so many. It was just that they led him astray religiously.

    Even in the New Testament the strongest language we hear is in a couple of places in I Timothy and one in Titus where church rulers were to be “the husband of one wife.” No one else is ever mentioned as being forbidden polygamy.

    And the I Corinthians 6 verse Quath pointed out is always hard to get around:

    1Co 6:16 What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

    If somebody has slept with a prostitute, does that make them married? I doubt many Christians would say so. Yet here we see the kind of language supposedly reserved for marriage.

    This is all very curious in light of the fact that the Bible is said to have issued from God’s Holy Spirit.

  • Philip Thomas

    The line about being one flesh is saying that sexual intercourse creates a bond between human beings: C.S. Lewis reflects on this in The Screwtape Letters

  • Philip Thomas

    The point of 1 Corinthians 6:16 is tha sexual intercourse creates a bond between human beings: see C.S Lewis The Screwtape Letters for more on this.

  • SpeirM

    That’s true, Philip. However, that wording is used in only one other context in the Bible (Gen. 2:24). This is the verse and terminology employed by Christians to defend marriage, especially monogamous marriage.

    And while we’re at it, just what does it take to inaugurate a marriage?

    Gen 24:67 Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and he took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her; thus Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

    Read it in context. No license. No ceremony. No governmental conferring of rights. (Okay, the omission of the wedding cake is sad.) Why, if Isaac and Rebecca are our example to follow, every cohabiting couple is “married.”

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