My reply to Christians who support gay rights

A couple days ago, Hemant Mehta (aka The Friendly Atheist) had a guest post from a liberal Christian complaining about atheists allegedly making it harder for Christians to support gay rights. I left a comment in response, genuinely hoping for a response from the guest blogger, but didn’t get one (which is okay, I often ignore my own comment threads!) But I decided what I wrote is worth posting here. It begins with a quote from the guest post:

But this is not exclusively what I’m seeing. Instead, I regularly see atheists telling affirming Christians that they’re not really Christians.

I’m curious to know where you’ve read that. It’s not something I would ever say. But I definitely would say things that might be misunderstood as that. Here’s what I would say:

The Bible is a man-made book that’s full of contradictions. (And yes, the choice of “man” rather than “human” there was deliberate.) There’s no “right” way to interpret the Bible aside from recognizing that.

But if you do insist on treating the Bible as some super-human source of guidance, some interpretations are easier to come up with others. “The Bible says men having sex with men is an abomination to God” is easy to come up with because it’s right there in Leviticus. It takes more work to convince yourself that the Bible says nothing against loving gay relationships.

And furthermore, the Bible’s contradictions are largely a product of it having been written by many different authors. Once you start asking, “what did *this particular* author mean?” you shouldn’t be surprised if you find out their values were at odds with modern liberal values, because they all lived approx. 2000 years ago at minimum.

I object to liberal Christians who are so eager to reinterpret the Bible to be gay-friendly because when they do that, they’re still upholding the principle that the Bible should be treated as a special source of guidance. Sure, reinterpreting the Bible on gay issues may help in the short run on those particular issues, but until we see the Bible as just another human book (albeit an influential one, though one whose influence has so often been ill), we’ll never get out of fights over Biblical interpretation that we shouldn’t need to have for purposes of setting government policy in a modern liberal democracy.

Related: Arguments we shouldn’t be having

How selfish are voters?
Abolitionism vs. reformism
Catholics: why aren’t you Protestant?
When passing a law is the easy route
  • James Sweet

    Back in 2009, I wrote something that could be interpreted as pretty close to what the guest blogger complains about. But of course, I also said maybe we should keep quiet about that.

    The Bible is pretty explicit about homosexuality, even more so than it is on some other issues that liberal Christians find central to their dogma. I think it is very difficult to find coherency in a worldview which is recognizably “Christian” and is also pro-LGBT. OTOH, maybe this is an incoherency that we can tolerate…

    In any case, I understand the guest bloggers frustration, but I hope (s)he understands ours.

    • James

      The Bible is equally explicit on slavery. In fact, Exodus 21:20-21 even condones beating one’s slaves … they’re “your property”. The theme is carried into the New Testament where Paul told his slaves to obey their masters. Slavery was acknowledged throughout the early Christian church as an institution ordained by God (read the Didache).

      Despite all this, most Americans think that buying and selling human beings like cattle for profit is a wicked thing. The consensus is pretty clear: what the Bible has to say on the matter doesn’t amount to a hill of beans.

      • Aaron Ross

        And yet the Old Testament specifically says that escaped slaves shall not be returned to the masters, and that the slave shall be allowed to live where he chooses.

        Had that been followed, slavery would have been eliminated in a few years without war.

        • James

          Yes, I’m sure “escape” was plausible in the American south. How far do you think a “Negro” would have gotten before they were returned to their God-fearing owners? A successful escape was exceedingly rare.

          In any rate, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 does not condemn holding slaves as such. It just says suggests that if your slaves have the unlikely fortune and fortitude to be able to escape, you’re out of luck.

          You’ve proven nothing.

  • Bronze Dog

    There are a lot of Christians who have to interpret the bible’s endorsement of slavery away to function in society and still call themselves “Christian.” This is known.

    I see no reason to complain that we make it harder for them to support gay rights unless you also complain that we make it harder for them to oppose slavery.

  • Raging Bee

    I object to liberal Christians who are so eager to reinterpret the Bible to be gay-friendly because when they do that, they’re still upholding the principle that the Bible should be treated as a special source of guidance.

    Your objection here is ridiculous on so many levels I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover them all.

    First, don’t you think it’s a bit stupid to bitch about persons of faith who agree with us on important moral and policy issues? What about the liberal Christians who chose to act as plaintiffs in the Kitzmiller trial? Do you object to them too?

    Second, there’s a difference between thinking the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and THE ONLY “special source of guidance,” and thinking it’s _A_ “special source of guidance.” Many Christians — arguably including Jesus himself — are of the latter opinion, not the former: they take the Bible as a helpful guide (with some bits more central than others), not an absolute unbending unquestionable expression of God’s Word. Also, there are plenty of non-Christians who also use some bits of the Bible as _A_ “special source of guidance.” I’m pretty sure everyone who reads at all has at least one “special source of guidance,” some book that had a profound effect in forming their values and their basic ideas of right and wrong, and to which they refer for answers to troubling questions.

    Third, don’t we WANT Christians to at least think a little more critically about their “special source of guidance?” Don’t you think that every such step they take is a step toward the recognition you want, that it’s an imperfect human book that SHOULD be interpreted critically along with other useful sources of guidance?

    When you object to Christians who try to make their beliefs more sensible, it kinda reminds me of ideological Communists objecting to democracy because they’re afraid it will make their Revolution unnecessary. I’m pretty sure that liberal Christians, weaning themselves off the backward, simpleminded literalism of our worst enemies, will be a benefit, not a hindrance. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

    • Chris Hallquist

      I can’t believe I’m citing C. S. Lewis here, but he once made a comment about how people have a hard time understanding that you can think A is better than B while still thinking B is better than C. Your comment reminds me of that.

      So, taking a step towards recognizing the Bible is an imperfect human book is better than not taking that step… but I’d rather they get all the way there as soon as possible. I want to push them to get all the way there as soon as possible. And I know some of them will take a few steps and then stop, and I want that to happen as little as possible.

  • Randomfactor

    The Bible is pretty explicit about homosexuality,

    And shrimp.

    If Christians want to be “real” Christians, they have to toss out the WHOLE Old Testament, not the whole Old Testament except for Leviticus 18:22.

    • James Sweet

      Is shrimp mentioned in Romans as well? :p

      • James

        No, shrimp isn’t mentioned in the New Testament, but divorce is (Luke 16:18, Matthew 19:9, Matthew 5:32). It’s condemned by Christ Himself in just about every circumstance. The only “out” is if your spouse cheated on you. No exceptions for abuse of any kind. Despite that, not even conservative Christians take those passages at face value.

        There aren’t that many that heed Paul’s injunction to women to keep their heads covered when they pray, either.

        • acroyear

          Jesus dealt with shrimp, and pretty much all Kosher ‘laws’, with a single phrase: What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’” (Matt 15:11).

          • Reginald Selkirk

            Vomit makes a man unclean; I’ll grant him that one.

          • Chris Hallquist

            I’m going to resist the temptation to make a sexually explicit joke here.

  • Raging Bee

    Oops, the italics should have stopped after “…and policy issues?”

  • Raging Bee

    RandomFactor: that’s pretty much what Jesus did, not just in words, but in the examples of his actions: he was perfectly happy to kick OT rules to the curb when they contradicted his general message of compassion, tolerance, helping those in the most need, etc.; and to defend such actions when questioned on it.

  • Andy, uncultured Brit

    Instead, I regularly see atheists telling affirming Christians that they’re not really Christians.

    I have seen a number of comments from atheists to the effect that religious fundamentalists are more honest in their religion. However, I haven’t seen this from prominent atheists, but rather in blog comments on various sites. (Sadly, I can’t provide an explicit example right now.) Of course, I think that if you judge any group by that standard you’d be forced to condemn them.

    More generally, I agree with pretty much everything Raging Bee says above. If all religious people were gay friendly, this would be a good thing.

  • Raging Bee

    As for the complaint of “atheists allegedly making it harder for Christians to support gay rights,” the most charitable reply I can offer is “You’re kidding, right?” If you’re able to use your own moral sense to figure out that there’s no reason to single out gays for unequal treatment by society, how can atheists stop you from acting on such reasoning? The blinders and constraints you Christians are burdened with may not be your own fault, but they’re sure as Hell not the fault of atheists.

    • Steven Bollinger

      Religious believers often act like flat-out crybabies in response to criticism from atheists. I think many of them are not yet used to us.

  • G.Shelley

    It does seem that the bible is fairly explicit about homosexuality (even once we accept it wasn’t written in English and that some of the stronger condemnations in modern bibles are somewhat dishonest), but if they are able to ignore all the other laws, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they can’t ignore these.
    The usual response is that the law is divided into civil laws, ceremonial laws and moral laws and that the moral ones are the only ones that still hold, but I haven’t seen any good justification for placing the anti-homosexual laws in the “moral” rather than “ceremonial” category

    • Steven Bollinger

      Theology is one of the last places I would look for logical consequence.

  • acroyear

    This is, well, irrelevant to the political argument…or more importantly, it should be.

    If the *only* justification for hating gay rights (and gays) is that one verse in Leviticus, then it can not be used as the justification for a law in the United States of America. The law must have a secular, objective reasoning behind it and neither a particular religious interpretation nor ‘tradition’ (even tradition within the constraints of the inherited English Common Law) don’t count.

    Meanwhile, if you have not truly understood the parable that follows the question, “who is my neighbor”, you do not understand Jesus’s message (as the more liberal and mainstream churches today interpret it). It may be that homosexual activity is “an abomination”, but that does not mean it is *our* place to judge or to hate them for it, nor to restrict their freedoms and their rights.

    So yeah, those ‘Christians’ who use Leviticus (and perhaps a wide interpretation of Paul) to justify their hatred and their anti-gay politics are both wrong biblically (Jesus orders us to not be judges in that sense) and wrong politically (the 1st Amendment requires that religion alone can not justify a law’s passage).

    BTW, the very same biblically-cited arguments were used to justify anti-interracial marriage laws in the decades leading up to Loving v. Virginia. Are you going to go back and call those who defend mixed-race marriage non-Christian? Are you going to tell the Supreme Court of that time that their justification in the ruling was wrong?

  • Bronze Dog

    Another issue that comes to mind, though I admit it’s got a bit of tu quoque about it: The relative volume.

    While there are atheists who argue the point that liberal Christians are cherry picking, it seems like there are probably far more fundamentalist Christians complaining and with more vehemence. Your typical atheist probably doesn’t get much higher than being snarky or irritated, while fundamentalist Christians seem the type to do anything from shunning to screaming “traitor” or “heretic” at anyone who suggests equality.

    I’m not really hung up on labeling who’s a “True Christian” though in some arguments I feel it’s important to get someone to explain themselves, rather than let them assume I know what they mean by “Christian” in their context.

    Granted, I doubt many liberal Christians are going to go fundamentalist in response to this sort of thing, but I recognize the lack of resolution for the issue can make an alliance with atheists more difficult. Of course, there’s already a large area of disagreement on facts, if not on moral issues.

    Thinking about it, I can agree not to bring up the biblical passages about killing homosexuals in the context of speaking with liberal Christians for the political expediency, though I’m probably still likely to bring up slavery if I get involved in trying to understand how they look at the bible and reconcile it with their more modern morality.

  • James Sweet

    Your typical atheist probably doesn’t get much higher than being snarky or irritated,

    That I think is the key point for me. I confess I find it a little irritating and snark-inspiring when someone can see the plain truth about LGBT rights, and yet is still very firm in their Christianity. To steal an analogy from Libby Anne, I sort of wonder when they’re going to realize there’s no baby in that nasty, nasty bathwater.

    But I don’t go around loudly proclaiming that Christians have to hate teh geys. If it comes up, I might point out that there are some problems with that worldview, but it’s not a big issue for me, and when it comes down to it I’m glad they’ve realized at least some of Christian dogma is stupid.

  • James Sweet

    Oh, there is a side point here I forgot to bring up in my earlier comments: There is a very big difference between pro-LGBT Christians in general vs. pro-LGBT Mormons and Roman Catholics. In the latter case, they have pledged their allegiance to a monolithic organization with a single hierarchy of leadership which has official anti-gay policies. I have a difficult time understanding how they can square that with their pro-gay stance. Yes, yes, changing from the inside and all that, but I guess I see the central organizations in question as so rotten that “changing from the inside” seems futile, or at least less worthwhile than seeking to tear down the entire edifice instead.

    If you attend a Christian church which is pro-LGBT, then while I might be a little irritated at your sect’s selective blindness, I’m grateful at least that you see some of the light. In contrast, if you attend a sect which has a central anti-LGBT hierarchy, then I think you are doing a bad thing and should stop it.

  • skepticalmath

    Raging Bee:

    that’s pretty much what Jesus did, not just in words, but in the examples of his actions: he was perfectly happy to kick OT rules to the curb when they contradicted his general message of compassion, tolerance, helping those in the most need, etc.; and to defend such actions when questioned on it.

    What about Matthew 5:17-18?

  • Raging Bee

    In contrast, if you attend a sect which has a central anti-LGBT hierarchy, then I think you are doing a bad thing and should stop it.

    At the very least, you should never give any money to any organization engaging in activities that are contrary to what you understand to be right.

  • Raging Bee

    skepticalmath: as I’ve argued elsewhere, those passages in Matthew follow the “blessed are X for they shall receive Y” bits. In other words, Jesus wasn’t talking about any secular or religious law at the time, he was talking about the law of how God’s universe worked and what happens to people in that universe. Sort of like what people tend to call “karma” or “how the universe works;” but pretty clearly NOT a reference to any OT or other written rules. And he was also saying that this overarching law of how God’s creation worked was not changing, and his presence and actions were the fulfillment of that law, not a replacement of one universal law with another.

    • Zengaze

      You seemed pretty clued up on “what would Jesus do”. How do you know what Jesus meant?

      • acroyear

        How do we know what the founding fathers of America meant? or the speeches of a famous politician/leader (be it Hitler or FDR)? or Thoreau or Emerson? or Stravinsky?

        Same as any other: you interpret the words attributed to them to the best of your understanding. Does this mean that what they might have meant decades or centuries ago is not how we might interpret them now? Of course it does.

        In any case, you’re arguing something of a strawman. For that matters, so is this original post in the first place as many (including myself) have tried to show: the over-use of the laws and regulations in the old testament, without regards to the wording in the new (and not just the Epistles and Revelation) is just as much a case of guilty cherry-picking for intent as any other. It is also bad form to be cherry-picking in that manner given that only the fundamentalists, and not the ‘liberal Christians’ as he’s chosen to call them, are the ones that have decided that every word is ‘factually true’. Liberal Christians take a liberal, interpretive meaning to the Bible, they always have through every century, and their liberalism is usually countered with a swing movement the other way – but in every case the sects claim to be interpreting the whole work as Truth and yet cherry-picks away. It has always been this way.

        One could say the Bible itself is cherry-picking, given how many Jewish books were left out, as well as how many alternative Gospels and additional Epistles that could have been included but weren’t.

        But in the end, liberal Christianity has declared the entire Bible to be Truth, but that is not the same thing as saying the entire bible is ‘factually true’, or ‘must be obeyed to the letter’. Only the Fundamentalists of today are saying that, so the faults of their interpretation are theirs, and picking on those with alternative interpretations as being just as bad is, I think, pointless. Philosophically consistent, perhaps, but what for? Liberal Christians use the words to try to inspire people to be good to each other (per ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’). Fundamentalists today use the words to inspire hate.

        You can choose to criticize liberal Christians for cherry-picking, but doesn’t that just mean that you have no interest in the intent and merely in the methodology?

        If so, then perhaps that is why the rest of the world simply doesn’t give a damn about Philosophy in the first place. Philosophy done right may be consistent, but Ciceronian arguments get results, and that is what the rest of the world cares about.

  • mnb0

    Frankly I don’t care. It’s the problem of liberal christians, not mine. The Bible is so full of contradictions that even the fundies are cherry-picking. They don’t really think pi = 3, do they? Still they should if their favourite book is infallible.
    Liberal christians should try to convince their bigot fellows, not us atheists, that their interpretation is correct. Typically they hardly ever do.
    I only get irritated when those liberal christians try to convince me how enlightened the Bible is.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    I like to tell liberal “Christians” that if they can’t cast out devils, speak in tongues, safely handle serpents and drink poison, and heal the sick by laying on of hands, then they’re not really Christian. And if they disagree with that, their beef is not with me but with Jesus H. Christ.
    (Mark 16:18)

    • J. Quinton

      A good number of liberal Christians would probably know that Mk 16.18 wasn’t originally part of Mark.

      • Zengaze

        Then a good number of liberal Christians know that the book is bullshit and therefore they are minus one god.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Matt Dillahunty, 1:36 PM – 30 May 12

    Dear liberal, enlightened Christian: I’m not lumping you in with fundies – you are. Get a new name and new holy book to selectively cite.

    • mikespeir

      Of course, liberal Christians will turn that back on you, claiming it’s the Fundamentalists who should get a new name and book.

      • acroyear

        Actually, they don’t, which is why and how the fundamentalists and evangelicals have continued to dominate any definition of ‘Christian’ over the last 50 years. They get moderates (including many Catholics) to join them in elections by trying to paint the image that all Christianity is the same Christianity, and it often works. Many Catholics are actually unaware of just how much hatred for them the hard-core evangelicals sects in America actually have – the evangelical politicians are using the abortion (and gay rights, to a lesser extent) issue to politically unite them for their own purposes, and if given the ability to actually establish a state religion, they would ban Catholicism in an instant.

  • J. Quinton

    I think the point is that liberal Christians aren’t getting their morals from the Bible, even though they might claim to be. They get their morality from their society just like us non-believers. I usually only point out their hypocrisy when they claim that Jesus was the greatest moral teach EVAR but he never condemned slavery (it was Paul who actually condemns homosexuality; 1 Cor 6.9) while his contemporary pagan Stoics (like Seneca) saw problems with it.

    On the other hand, it would be pretty absurd to call someone “not a true Christian” because there were Christians around before there was a New Testament. And there were even Christians who thought that the “Old” Testament was the work of an ignorant and self-righteous god and/or didn’t apply to Christians.

    • jamessweet

      I think the point is that liberal Christians aren’t getting their morals from the Bible, even though they might claim to be. They get their morality from their society just like us non-believers.

      And that’s the crux of it, isn’t it? I guess in that sense the guest blogger on Friendly Atheist, and Raging Bee here, are right that the focus on the LGBT issue is misguided. It is one example of many where liberal believers are, from a moral perspective, operating as atheists. Many will admit this as well if you put it in the right terms…