Human philosophers take on same-sex marriage

Yesterday we looked at the bizarrely-limited-but-not-otherwise-bad coverage of the religion angles in recent debates over whether to change marriage law. I suggested in the comments to that post that some reporters were neither curious nor terribly thoughtful in how they approached the topic.

What follows is an example that so thoroughly validates my point that you may be forgiven for suspecting an elaborate hoax on my part. But I promise that this really appeared on WIBV-TV in Buffalo, New York:

New York’s new law allowing same-sex marriage is drawing mixed reaction from the State’s religious community.

The Bible teaches that marriage is the union of a man and a woman. But human and civil rights philosophies teach us that all people are equal, and should enjoy equal freedoms.

Those diametrically-opposed ways of thinking have ignited debate about same-sex marriage within some congregations.

While it would probably be best to respond to this excerpt by dropping the mike and walking away, let’s go ahead and parse it.

What in the world does it mean to say “the Bible” teaches that marriage is as described? Certainly Jesus was quite clear about this, and he’s the “author and perfecter” of the Christian faith, but it’s also true that “the Bible” details unions of “a” man and more than “a woman.” I’m not sure it would be accurate to say they’re “taught” but certainly these Scriptures aren’t so easily described as we see above.

So the description of the “religious” position is bizarre. But how about that sentence that follows? I mean, I have no idea what reporter Rachel Kingston was trying to say. Human philosophies? As opposed to non-human philosophies? Do tell me more. And it’s even more offensive to suggest that “civil rights philosophies” uniform ideas on marriage policy than that religious adherents do. Within the libertarian community alone, there are people who argue that marriage is an institution that predates government and, as such, should not be redefined by the government. There are people who support opening marriage up to same-sex couples or other family units such as polyamorous or polygamous families. And there are people who argue that the state should not provide benefits or penalties to any family unit, no matter its composition.

I hope that no one out of college would characterize any of these arguments as the same argument, much less as “all people are equal and should enjoy equal freedoms.” It may be an effective talking point or something, but it’s an amateur description of any philosophical argument surrounding marriage law.

Certainly some religious adherents care so much about marriage because of how strongly Jesus Christ talked about the importance of marriage as a one-man, one-woman arrangement (shhh — don’t tell Lisa Miller!). And certainly some religious adherents are worried about how they might be treated should their religious views come in conflict with regulations.

But it’s also true that many religious adherents base their arguments against same-sex marriage at the governmental level not on the words of Jesus but, rather, on secular arguments. You will not be surprised that this brilliant report failed to get that nuance.

And, then again, it’s also true that those religious adherents who favor changing marriage law aren’t claiming to do so without guidance from their religious texts.

So calling these two horribly-characterized positions above “diametrically opposed” is also ridiculous.

Anyway, we learn about the views of an Episcopal Church leader in New York and the Catholic Conference of Bishops in New York. If you recall our “liberals discuss, conservatives rail” discussion, you may appreciate how these two views were presented:

Some, including the Episcopal Church, are embracing that debate, and looking for ways to evolve their faith. …

Others are choosing to adhere to more traditional views.

Anyway, there’s no question that this is a particularly bad example of the genre “mainstream media looks at same-sex marriage debate” but only in terms of degree. I’m glad that you don’t need credentials to be a journalist. I sure don’t have them.

But we would be served by having reporters who have a tad more knowledge about the arguments for and against changing marriage law, including the arguments made by human philosophers.

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  • Will

    I’m glad they aren’t mechanical philosophers!

    Perhaps she just does not know the proper word for “humanist”.

    As for “the Bible”…. the New Testament ordains that bishops must be monogamous, and I, for one, would find it strange if this was taken to allow polygamy for presbyters and laity.

  • Mike Hickerson

    I bet the reporter meant “human rights” philosophies, though I have no idea what the difference between “human rights” and “civil rights” would be. Though, for that matter, I don’t know what “human rights philosophies” are supposed to be, either. Somehow I doubt that the TV station is going to host a point-counterpoint debate pitting Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man against Aristotelian virtue ethics.

  • Dave

    human and civil rights philosophies

    I agree with Mike about what the reporter probably meant.

    Mike, I understand “civil rights” to refer specifically to vindication of African-American rights against Jim Crow, and “human rights” to be a more expansive term that specifically includes BGLT rights. Or so I read in the media.

  • Matt

    I know the posts on this blog are supposed to criticize media’s treatment of religion, but I think trying to pull out the “oversimplification” argument is a little harsh here. There will always be subtleties left out, and in this case I think they are basically warranted.

    If I had to make a guess, I’d say that at least 90% of people that say they are against same-sex marriage would list as their number one reason that the Bible forbids it. The “secular” arguments you list are mere afterthoughts in an attempt to actually have a case in law.

    You can’t just say that there are libertarian and other philosophical arguments as if that is a legitimate counterexample. What you need to do is find an atheist libertarian or philosopher that is making these arguments to know that it isn’t stemming from some other belief.

    I’ll point out a subtlety that you seem to overlook. Psychological effects of religion permeate people’s viewpoint, and if the only secular arguments you can find are coming from Christians, then I’m willing to bet that they are actually religiously motivated but trying to make it sound like they aren’t.

    I’m not saying you can’t find such an atheist. It’s just that I never have, and that is the person you should have listed in your post.

  • Robert King

    From a natural law perspective, the difference between “human rights” and “civil rights” is that “human rights” are those derived from human nature, whereas “civil rights” are those derived from legislation. The goal is for legislation to support and enforce human nature, both individually and in community.

    Beyond the natural law perspective, I most often see/hear the terms used synonymously.

    But thinking of Dave’s (#3) distinction, it occurs to me that journalists might think of “civil rights” as the historical movement surrounding race, and “human rights” as a new historical movement for LGBTQWERTY stuff.

    Being more a philosopher than a journalist, how are these terms most commonly understood in newsrooms?

  • Mollie

    I know the posts on this blog are supposed to criticize media’s treatment of religion, but I think trying to pull out the “oversimplification” argument is a little harsh here. There will always be subtleties left out, and in this case I think they are basically warranted.

    If I had to make a guess, I’d say that at least 90% of people that say they are against same-sex marriage would list as their number one reason that the Bible forbids it. The “secular” arguments you list are mere afterthoughts in an attempt to actually have a case in law.

    I thought the “journalism” was beyond defense, but I guess not.

    While I assume if you asked religious people for their religious ojections, they’d give religious objections. Although, we must note, that Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc. are unlikely to cite as their number one reason “the Bible.”

    But if you look at the actual arguments that religious adherents might give — and you are completely forgiven for not knowing this because of how horribly the media has covered this topic — you may be surprised at their explanation.

    Either way, it’s ridiculous to assert that “human philosophers” all believe in a gay rights talking point. And if that’s pulling out the “oversimplification” argument, well, then, I guess I did. Because I’m a libertarian and have been involved in these debates for a decade — (we were for polygamy before it was cool, after all) — I know that there are many competing visions for what marriage is and should be and what role the government has and how it should or should not be limited to particular groups of people. You can find this diversity of thought at CATO and Reason, for instance, which are not typically known as hotbeds of Bible thumping, obviously.

    Just because the media have done a horrific job of covering that story doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  • Mollie

    Also, I just want to mention that I agree with you Matt on how the effects of religion permeate people’s viewpoint. This is so beyond what the media is capable of covering at this point that I’m not even sure we should discuss it, but I agree with you.

    I’ll only point out that this cuts multiple ways. I imagine most religious systems envy how well scientific materialism has determined orthodox teaching and heretics in our midst.

    And the best part is that most people probably don’t even know they’re members in good standing of this church.

    But yes, it’s worth considering whether scientific materialists could even understand or adopt natural law philosophy at this point. And what that means. And, again, this is way beyond WVIB, and even some of the bigger media outlets.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, has there ever been a decent news story about how conservative Christian libertarians approach issues such as marriage? There seems to be a built-in contradiction so I’d be curious in reading such a story, if one exists.

  • Bill

    Mollie wrote in #7:

    I agree with you Matt on how the effects of religion permeate people’s viewpoint.

    And indifference or antipathy toward religion likewise permeates people’s viewpoints. A retired reporter told me that my arguments about abortion were not valid since I was a Catholic, and any objection I might have would bear a religious taint and thus constitute an imposition of religious beliefs, which, he strongly declared was a violation of that famous wall of separation.

    Obviously, the Bible (or Quran, or Book of Mormon) can be appealed to only with those who accept its authority. But when other arguments are offered by religiously oriented folks, the suspicion of underlying religiosity often makes them unpalatable to many reporters.

  • Matt

    Sorry Bill (#9), I know that what you wrote is exactly what it sounded like I was doing. I was not trying to dismiss the secular argument just because a few religious people are behind it.

    I’ll try to clarify the main point I was making (which is moot now because after some searching I have found some atheists which make those types of arguments). The point was that the true counterexample is an atheist making the secular argument. If the only people who find the secular argument convincing are religious people, then there is good reason to believe it really is just a veiled religious argument.

    Note the difference. Calling into question arguments raised by a religious person as secretly religious in nature is unjustified. Calling into question a “secular” argument that seems only to be supported by religious people has legitimate grounding. Based on the post, I didn’t see any actual examples of non-religious people making the argument (e.g. maybe on closer inspection only the religious libertarians are the ones who find the argument convincing).

  • mattk

    Mike Henderson, you wondered what is the differencebetween human rights and civil rights. It has been a long time, but when I was a young college student I was taught that rights are broken down as follows:
    A. Human rights are those usually thought of as those rights that inhere in being human, such as life, religion, thought, property, self defence. They are often thought of as being of divine or natural origen.
    B. Civil rights are those usually thought of as belonging to all members of the society, e.g. the right to buy and sell, privacy, speech. These can include legal rights but legal rights are sometimes counted as a different class of rights. These rights are not usually thought of as being of divine or natural origen, rather they are seen as being of long-standing custom or legally created.
    C. Political rights are the rights that allow a person to govern the state, such as the right to vote and the right to be represented.

    In the United Sates, especially in the last 100 years all of these categories of rights have been merging.

  • Bill

    Thanks, Matt. But even if a particular secular argument is made only by religious people, we can’t say that is because of a religious orientation. Correlation is not causation. Even if we could prove that the secular argument is bolstered or even inspired by religion, that does not, ipso facto, make it a religious argument. In any event, an argument should be judged on its own merits, not on the secular purity of the argument’s maker. To do otherwise introduces a religious litmus test.

  • Rachel K

    I seem to recall John C. Wright, a science fiction author and former atheist who converted to Catholicism, saying that he concluded same-sex marriage was wrong while still an atheist. However, I can’t find the exact post in his blog where he mentioned this, so take this with a grain of salt. Can anyone who reads Mr. Wright’s blog confirm or deny this?

  • tioedong

    the “same sex” marriage is only a subgroup of the modern philosophical argument that biology doesn’t matter, and that men and women are interchangable in everything.

    The next philosophical assumption is that sex is a morality free zone, that marriage is a “patriarchal” institution, and that any argument that suggests sexual restraint might be a good idea is a“divisive argument”.

    It’s not PC to state this, but mother nature still insists only women can have babies…

    and unlike today’s philosophical fads, many older philosophies, including the natural law philosophy argued by the Catholic bishops, and the Confucian philosophy so widespread here in Asia, do stress marriage as the basis of the family, and the family as the basis of society.

  • tioedong

    Will: Monogamy was the rule in the Roman Empire…but they did allow divorce.

    The Biblical “rule” is that a bishop should only have been married once, i.e. never divorced, or not remarried after his wife died.

  • Will

    Rachel: Ditto abortion. Wright’s tale and views are set forth at length and repeatedly in posts on his Livejournal/ See especially APOLOGIA PRO OPERE SUI.

    He has also often taken note of attacks by people who heard that he is now a Christian and proceeded to display the foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of little minds by attacking works written BEFORE his conversion on the ground that they were “Christian”.

    But this is getting nowhere, as Matt will find some way to say It Doesn’t Count.

    (That being cited….. As someone said about Lewis, I don’t believe he ever was an atheist, he was too good a pagan. In his case,as he often points out, a Stoic like so many of the real pagans, not one of the libertinist let’s-espouse-the-opposite-of-whatever-TheChristians-say lot.)

  • Will

    “From rather Heinlein style and Ayn Rand ish Free Love libertarianism, I found myself driven step by step into a posture of rigid traditionalism, so much so that I found myself disapproving of divorce except for reason of abandonment or abuse. I looked around and realized I was in the middle of the camp of my hated enemies, the Christians. ”

  • Rachel K

    Will–thanks! I was fairly certain he’d said it, as a regular reader of his livejournal, but since he doesn’t use tags I was having trouble finding it.

  • Julia

    Reminds me of criminal law class. The subject was a 1930s case of bigamy. Professor asks the class: why does the state care about bigamy? Historically, why criminalize bigamy?

    Nobody had an answer. As the only 40 something in the class, I raised my hand and said the state didn’t want to get stuck supporting abandoned women and children.

    Turns out I was right. Professor said the state doesn’t really care who is sleeping with who. But in the 1930s, there were a fair number of men who would run off from the wife and kids, and then get married again in another state, leaving the wife with debts and having no financial support. [It's only in the movies that the man supports two families who don't know about each other.] It’s also the reason that many states didn’t recognize Reno divorces – one party could get a quickie divorce without any property settlement or enforceable duty of child support – and the absconder could be arrested for bigamy.

    The rest of the class were in their 20s and none of this occurred to them. Partly because women today can be self-sufficient and the courts help locate missing fathers to get child support.

    A later class on family law examined the development of the traditional rules society came up with over the millenia concerning family formation. It all had to do with the protection of vulnerable women and children in a rough world; and assurance to the man that he was busting his butt for his own kids.

    No need to bring religion or the Bible into the civil and legal aspects of marriage. In the last 40 years, the reasons for regulating families in the first place has been forgotten as the inevitable appearance of children after marriage has become obsolete, and women are no longer considered more vulnerable than men. So, to manny people all that’s left is the religious argument.

  • Julia

    Forgot to mention that the state has never cared about who you love. It is only concerned about legal responsibilities.

    One of the reasons marriages and divorces are in public records is for the benefit of creditors; spouses can be held liable for each other’s debts for necessities. That’s pretty cold-blooded, too.

  • Bill

    Julia wrote,

    I raised my hand and said the state didn’t want to get stuck supporting abandoned women and children.

    IJulia, is it not curious that the current high rate of illegitimacy is shrugged off? And who is left to support many of these children? Mormons had to give up polygamy in order for Utah to be admitted to the union, but a Mormon man was required to support all his wives and children. Which is more corrosive?

    (BTW, I am not endorsing polygamy! A man cannot serve two masters.)