A Comedy Tonight

Between making fun of Chuck Norris on C-Span (a task worth attempting!) and doing comedy, Ed Brayton writes.

He is a fun writer and his blog is generally worth reading if only for the responses to his blog. Here he complains about my post taking on “the inevitable triumph” of gay marriage.

For some in America the rise of gay marriage in parts the West is equivalent to the triumph of gay marriage, because the populations of India and China, far less enthusiastic for Western social experimentation, don’t count for many Americans. But let’s ignore that the future is far more likely to look like the booming Christian church in China than Internet atheists, since the discussion was about the US and the more immediate future here.

My basic point was that a sizable minority of traditionalist American young people exist and they should not be ignored as they are in the media.

I thought the post on the Brayton site, and the comments that followed, were a good window into the world of Internet atheism of a certain sort. I say a certain sort, because the vast majority of atheists in philosophy, for example, make good arguments (or try to do so). The odd triumphalism of Internet atheism is rare from these professionals, because they realize that it is not clear what is triumphing.

Because it is  typical of this really small community of Internet atheists, noisy and small, but oft feisty and fun, I thought it was worth linking to the post . . . and briefly responding to a couple of common complaints about Christianity.

With the polling data showing that young people are overwhelmingly in favor of marriage equality, the religious right knows it has a real problem.

Perhaps I was not plain enough in my original post, but the Christian church faces many problems in a fallen world and quite a few are more serious than gay marriage and sexual decadence. In fact, “gay marriage” is not the worst of our decadence! It is far less troubling than a failure of poor Americans to marry, the rise in STD, the objectification of women, and a culture of rape. Christians have a great deal to do, much soul searching to do, much to repent, and many failures to correct.

And we also are doing and must continue to do hard work that is often ignored.

We educate millions of people in schools ranging from preschools to university, but need to educate more. We feed and clothe millions, but need to feed more. Christians are at the forefront of dealing with human trafficking, but we need to do more.

Thousands of Christians are being killed by “atheistic” regimes in places like North Korea and “religious” groups in countries like Syria. We should bring justice. Millions of non-Christians, including our enemies, suffer and we are called to love them and bring them justice. We should do more.

These are big problems and compared to them the decadence of some parts of the West is not so bad. Problems we must have and on the whole the United States is still a better place to live, gay marriage and all, over most of the world. I was trying to put challenges in perspective.

Let me accept the label “religious right,” (though see this)  since I am a conservative (like a plurality of Americans) and religious (like most Americans) for the sake of argument. If I were to guess, my social views are not going to do well in national elections in the United States, probably for the rest of my life. That is too bad, but a republic is a messy place. I don’t have to think gay sex is moral to think it is also not the worst of vices. Sexual morals may do better in other democracies, but other virtues fair worse.

It is a messy world.

As Dante would point out, misplaced love is far less damnable, and makes for better neighbors, than traitors or those who would stir up a civil war!

As I said in my original post, if I had to pick a problem set, then I would rather have ours than those of Sudanese Christians or most Christians in the past. Internet atheists are loud, and can be puckish, but they are overwhelming committed to free thought, Socratic discourse, and a free society. That is a good thing.

American secularists seem fond of the governmental ideas of that old Christian apologist John Locke . . . and that is better than the secularists I would face in places like China or North Korea! I rather like my foes! Now if I can just emulate Jesus and learn to love them . . . That, for me, is a far greater challenge than “gay marriage.”

My response to Galen provokes Brayton:

 This is really a tortured response. Who, exactly, is saying that the minority of young voters who are opposed to same-sex marriage “don’t exist”?

In fact, Galen said: “Regardless of party affiliation, young voters view gay marriage as utterly uncontroversial.” My point was one-fifth to one-quarter of young voters disagree with gay marriage. Young voters are not young forever (as my mirror reminds me!) and views do change. Probably, some of the twenty-percent will change their minds, but so might some of the majority. There is some evidence that views seen as popular over-poll.

Brayton is not finished with me:

But slavery was, of course, defended with many of the same arguments now used against marriage equality: “But this is tradition and God has declared that it be so! If we alter this God-decreed institution, we are shaking our fist at God and we will suffer his wrath!” Lather, rinse, repeat with giving women the right to vote, ending official segregation, passing anti-discrimination laws, reproductive rights and now gay rights. They only have one script.

I agree with Brayton that an argument from “tradition” is not enough. The fact that we have done a thing in the past should make us cautious, but it should not prevent all change. I agree with Brayton that merely invoking divine wrath, even if divine wrath exists, is not a good argument by itself. Why? As Saint Augustine pointed out in City of God, the world is so complex that simple connections between one bad thing (like gay marriage) and the outcome for a culture are very hard to make. If America treats racial minorities with more justice, but becomes more sexually decadent, then how will than pan out?

I don’t know. My guess is: badly in so far as we are bad and wonderfully well where we are good. My bet is that things balance and we muddle through.

As founders like Washington show: even good men do bad things. Simplistic arguments that “God will judge America” don’t work as Christians have known (at our best!) since the start (see Habakkuk). 

God will judge sin, His justice is perfect, but no sinner is a perfectly sinful! All sinners, and that is all humanity, are also created in God’s image. Short-term outcomes for any of our lives become impossible to predict. A great sinner in one area may be a great saint in another.

Brayton and I have much in common!

Brayton forgets that the overwhelming majority of Americans have always been Christian. Any good movement had to get Christian support and any bad movement could only survive if it had it. Whatever his own religious views, Lincoln campaigned for votes in the “religious right (see Richard Carwardine)” or the Evangelical church goers. When my ancestor left his plow in the field to go fight for Mr. Lincoln, he did so as a Christian. When the troops sang that “He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free” . . . they were not singing as atheists!

William Jennings Bryan thundered for progressive causes, including women’s suffrage, using Biblical arguments. Some causes viewed as progress by most Christians (prohibition) were mistakes, some causes championed by Christians like Bryan we view (I think correctly) as good (suffrage), some are still debatable (the income tax).

Of course, I would not want to take credit for the “good” without pointing to the bad! Because we were so overwhelmingly numerically dominant and our ideas on morality so prevalent, most opposition to good ideas also came from us. It is worth noticing that secularists, however, including such luminaries as Jack London, justified colonialism and racism on “science” and “progress.” Secular defenses of misogyny existed chock full of the science of the time.

Bad secularism in US politics, just like “good” secularism was however so numerically tiny that until very recently it was ignored in all the great campaigns! (My Russian and Eastern European friends complain about this American luck. We have, on the whole, been fortunate in our secularists.)

Now it is the case that abortion and gay rights have not been movements with very large Christian support until very recently, though they can only reach majority support with Christian votes. Unlike interracial marriage, always legal in much of the United States, gay marriage really is “new.” Is it a moral improvement?

I doubt it. Science doesn’t after all decide morality . . . it cannot get “ought” from all the “is” it collects.

In fact, the desire to have sex that the church reasons is wrong is not new. We have been there, seen that, and decided based on reason, revelation, and experience it was a bad idea. Perhaps, it will work out this time. We will see, but it will take time for the vast social experiment to play out. In any case, just as “young people” were mostly with the Soviet experiment in Russia in 1918, there was no reason for the Church to stop opposing this secularist experiment based on a shift in the polls in one decade in one part of the globe!

It is true that new is sometimes good, but let’s not confuse technological or scientific progress with moral progress. No time is all bad, just as no time is all good. There are things the US does better (like care for the elderly) than at any time in history, but we also seem hell bent on poor stewardship of the Earth. Given their numbers, I don’t blame secularists for this . . . I blame us.

We need to get to work. Of course, working on those problems doesn’t prevent us from holding the line on sexual ethics.

But Brayton continues by quoting me and then responding:

“This intellectual fad, despite all dangers, will fade just as other fads labeled “science” or “progress” have done many times in the history of the Christian church. I am not likely to see it, but it will happen.”

This is the immemorial refuge of the Christian apologist: We will win in the end! God is on our side and we cannot lose! Sorry, but that’s wrong. You’ve lost over and over again throughout history. But rather than admitting that, you just reinterpret your holy texts and pretend that you were on the right side all along.

Before saying anything else, my placing of “science” and “progress” in quotations was supposed to signal that nobody should be opposed to the science or progress, but that the conclusions of science and what we should do about them are tentative and cannot be based merely on science! If, for example, the globe is warming and this warming is caused by humans (which I think most likely), then we still must decide if this is a good thing and what we wish to do about it.

Science can give us outcomes, but we will have to make judgments about what we desire.

Of course, since I think Christianity is true, based on best evidence, experience, and reason, I hope it will triumph sooner rather than later. If God does exist in the way Christians think he does, then Christianity will win. This is an odd sort of triumphalism though, because there is no reason to think it will happen in my time or that everything I believe is truly Christian.

We have not lost “over and over again” throughout history, unless my critic is limiting his history to the last one hundred years in Europe and North America. As a member of a Christian church that is based outside the West, I find that amusing. Things have not gone well in Western Europe lately .  . . but then I am not sure Western Europe is doing that well. Things are a mixed bag in the US, though I think the “secularist boom” is a misreading of data. (Pro-life positions are doing better with young voters than they did in the 1970’s. I expect the same will be true with sexual ethics in the 2050’s . . . though I will not live to see it.)

After all are American Internet atheists really that . . . diverse? Do they have a global perspective or are they actually a bit parochial: too male, too white, too Western? Meanwhile, the Christian church is mostly not male, not white, and non-Western . . . like the world. I think Christians are already living in the “future”!

Of course, one of our “bigger than gay marriage” problems in Christianity is how to better reflect that reality at all levels: sometimes we do well, sometimes poorly, but it is happening. One example is global Anglicanism: real leadership isn’t in Canterbury, but Africa and Asia! As a minority in my own Church (Western, white, male), I see the future every week.

This time perhaps Christianity will fail and a better form of secularism will triumph. Perhaps some new and persuasive moral argument will appear and convince reasonable people to leave the church.

Maybe. Maybe not. But I see no good reason yet to change my mind. Brayton thinks I am wrong, I think Brayton is wrong. Fortunately both of us are committed to free speech, republican government, and peaceful resolution of our disagreements. Our great-grandchildren can judge.

My bet is that most will know they continue to feast and fast within a divine comedy.


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