[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #11

This is the eleventh entry in the Christian round of the 2013 Ideological Turing Test.  This year, atheists and Christians responded to questions about sex, death, and literature.  



I had a philosophy professor once who liked to say, “Always start by making distinctions,” and that’s where I’m going to begin on this issue. Polyamory is an intentionally general term, encompassing both what I’ll call polygamy and what I’ll call group marriage.

Polygamy is found fairly commonly in human history, and it consists of one man being married to multiple women concurrently, or more rarely one woman being married to multiple men. However, a polygamous marriage is really a set of marriages. Tom is married to Sally and Tom is also married to Jane. However, Sally and Jane are not married to each other.

Group marriage has far, far fewer historical precedents. Here the idea is that some number of people larger than two are all part of a single relationship together. Thus, in a group marriage, we would be talking about, say, Tom, Harry, Sally and Jane all being married to each other — Tom just as married to Harry as he is to Sally, etc.

Now, the question is whether sacramental or civil marriage should be limited to the union of two persons. Sacramental marriage is a relatively easy question for us Catholics. The Church has always taught that marriage is the union of two people. As Martin Luther pointed out, the New Testament does not specifically forbid polygamy, however as Catholics we don’t have to restrict ourselves to scripture, we also use sacred tradition, and according to Catholic tradition marriage is monogamous. Obviously, this relies on revelation, but then the existence of sacraments relies on revelation too, so I’m not sure I need to make a case for how one would know this outside of revelation.

Civil marriage is a different issue. I’d like to start that topic by discussing natural law for a moment. Interestingly, in Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of marriage, he holds that natural law does not necessarily forbid polygamy. He lays out a lot of reasons why it would not be a good idea in most circumstances: People are naturally jealous and it would be hard for a person to treat all their spouses equally. In the case of polyandry (a woman with more than one man) it might deprive children of the right to know their real parents (because it might be unclear which husband was the father.)

I’m willing to concede this, but I’d argue that natural law does prohibit group marriage. Marriage is, in great part, supposed to recognize a family unit which consists of two people who have children together and raise them together, and as a matter of human biology a person can only have two parents: one mother and one father. Thus, the unique relationship between parents and children can only be had by two people at a time. In the case of polygamy, Tom might have this relationship with Sally and also have this relationship with Jane, but there is no way that all three could have that relationship together because no child is the product of the union of all three.

Civil marriage brings in a pragmatic question of whether it makes sense for society to recognize a relationship as forming a legal family unit, along with all the legal issues (shared custody of children, community property, etc.) which that entails. I would argue that in a culture where polygamy is common, the state should recognize polygamous marriages and have appropriate laws to govern them. However, it seems like recognizing and having laws to govern group marriages is just too complicated to deal with. Community property in a group marriage would be far too complicated to litigate, and child custody should arguably be done on the basis of actual parentage, which is necessarily always something only two people have.



I don’t believe that suicide or mercy killing is every moral.

From a Catholic point of view, the argument is relatively simple. We can never will the killing of another person as an end. At times (self defense, war, capital punishment, etc.) it be necessary to take some action which, as a necessary but foreseen side effect, takes a life. But at the most basic level our lives are not our own to end. God gave us life and it is not for us to take away what he has given.

I’m divided on whether I’d say this is discernible without recourse to revelation. On the one hand, our desire to live is one of the strongest desires we have, and so it seems like there could be an argument that if we desire death instead of life, it’s because of some sort of illness or outside pressure upon us. Death is never a natural good.

However, there have been so many cultures which have considered suicide acceptable or even necessary under certain circumstances that it seems to me that if opposition to suicide is discernible through natural law, it certainly seems not to be very readily discernible. Moreover, since the primary reason that I think suicide is immoral is that it rejects God’s gift of life, it seems natural that someone who doesn’t consider life to be God’s gift might disagree and consider life to be something we can dispense with whenever we see fit.

There is, however, a distinction to be made between active euthanasia and not taking heroic methods to drag life on longer. Often people seem to react to this issue as if rejecting euthanasia means that everyone needs to hold on to life by any means necessary, dying in an ICU with shouting doctors all around. While it’s clearly wrong to withhold basic care (food, water, anti-biotics, pain medicine, etc.) I don’t think we’re required to accept medical care which is unlikely to extend life much and will cause a lot of suffering in the meantime. And in a hospice situation, it’s sometimes appropriate to allow amounts of pain killer that increase the likelihood of death, though it would never be right to pick a dosage specifically to guarantee death.



This may seem a bit tangential, but it’s what occurred to me after reading the two posts: I think it’s really interesting to compare the classic pagan epics (the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid) with the greatest Christian epic, Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The Iliad and Aeneid close very explicitly with death. In the Iliad, Achilles (whose own immanent death if known to the audience) finally has pity on the mourning father of Hector and turns over the body of Hector for burial. In the Aeneid, the very last action is Aeneus plunging his sword into an enemy whose “soul rushed out through the wound”. The Odyssey is somewhat less bleak in that Athena shows up to stop a bloody vendetta between Odysseus and the suitors that he slaughtered, thus ending a cycle of violence. Even so, the closing atmosphere of all of these is dark, and death is the ending.

The Divine Comedy, on the other hand, deals in a certain sense all through with death: Dante is guided through the afterlife. But the real topic is rejecting sin and learning virtue. As he tours hell, Dante learns the true nature of sin. As he climbs mount purgatory he is schooled in virtue. And the Paradiso ends with Dante contemplating God himself, an experience he says his poetic powers are completely insufficient to express.

The pagan epics relate adventures (the wrath of Achilles, the wanderings of Odysseus, the founding of Rome) but end in death or at best truce. Dante’s Christian epic deals with suffering and conversion and ends in the contemplation of God. As such, they deal with fundamentally different types of journey and types of struggle, and I think thus underline the essential difference of the Christian worldview from what came before.


You can vote on whether you think these answers were written by a Christian or an Atheist here.  Comments are open to discuss the substance of the post and for speculation about the true beliefs of the author, so please vote before looking at the comments.

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  • Martha O’Keeffe

    Very likely Christian and a strong argument. However, the biology is outdated – already in England, there is legislation pending for “three person IVF”, i.e. using the genetic material of three parents (the father, the mother and another female donor) to create embryos.

    I agree that the legal situation would be tangled, because with the best will in the world, once a relationship goes sour people head for the law courts and although Tom and Jane and Sally and Harry may have gone into this with “We’re all responsible adults, we know what we’re doing”, when Sally starts suing for her share of property and Harry says “Leave me out of this, she fell out with you, Tom” – then it gets nasty. And “hard cases make bad law”.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      I’m not so sure that’s biology so much as mad science.

      • Martha O’Keeffe

        Yeah. We have no idea what the long-term effects will be, and more to the point, what the legal ramifications will be. Is “egg donor person” really a parent or more in the nature of an organ donor? If I get a kidney from Jane Smith, that doesn’t make her my mother. If I was conceived using a stripped-out ovum from Jane Smith but the rest of my heredity (as much of it as is perceiveable, e.g. eye colour) comes from Mr and Mrs Jones, why should Ms Smith be considered a parent?

        Donors are one thing, but suppose we make it a rule of law that “donor ova don’t make you a parent, nuclear material does”. How about Ms and Ms Brown-Robinson (now that the Tories have brought in same-sex marriage) who wanted a child, Ms Brown donated nuclear material implanted in Ms Robinson’s enucleated ovum (which was then fertilised by sperm from a friend of the couple, Mr Green, but that’s another kettle of fish).

        Is Ms Robinson then not a parent? Why oh why can she not be considered the legal biological (as well as adoptive) mother of the resulting child? Cue more heart-rending sob stories in the papers to whip up public support for a campaign to let her name be on the birth certificate* and give her legal rights as a natural parent.

        Oh, this is going to be fun (not). The Judgement of Solomon won’t be in it.

        *I’m thinking of one case where a lesbian couple went to court with the whole “She is just as much a mother to this child as I am, she is fully involved in our child’s life, why can’t she be on the birth certificate?” They got their way, the law was changed – and then, when they later split up, the woman who bore the child went to court to have her ex-partner’s name taken off the birth cert. Apparently, you’re only “every bit as much a mother” when it suits one partner and not in the aftermath of a messy break-up. This is why I hate the jerking around of civil law at the whims of emotional PR campaigns.

    • The three-person IVF thing is really quite exciting. I’d never heard of it before. I know that people have made rats with four parents using chimaerism. It’s theoretically possible with humans, but it’s never been done (to my knowledge at any rate).

  • Very likely Christian… but oh my science, has this person never heard of adoption? And claiming that life is a gift from God in every case really just reinforces the problem of evil. Dying slowly and painfully in a hospital over many months, or completely losing your mind at the end of your life, is a pretty shitty gift.

    • Brian Sullivan

      The gift is not dying slowly and painfully or losing your mind. From a Catholic perspective, the gift is the grace to understand that as you share in the suffering of Christ, you are more and more united to him.

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Okay, Chris, that’s the old question “Is it better to be alive or never to have lived?” since, as you say, death, sickness, feebleness, disease, accident, the malice of others and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” await us all.

      Yeats put it as such, in “A Man Young And Old: XI. From Oedipus At Colonus”:

      Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
      Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
      The second best’s a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

      So – you should kill yourself humanely now? Even if you don’t particularly want to die for any specific reason, there’s nothing (literally) to live for since you will only inevitably decline into age, sickness and (who knows?) dementia or a painful illness such as cancer. Die now, and you avoid all that.

      If not, why not? If life is a shitty gift, why shouldn’t I eat veal, or hunt the last dodo to extinction, or care a rap about climate change and posterity (what has posterity ever done for me?)

      • It’s not life in general that’s a shitty gift, just the dying slowly and horribly part that many people go through. Once that’s the main thing you’ve got left to do, saying “no” to that part of the “gift” is a perfectly reasonable thing t do.

        • Martha O’Keeffe

          Sorry, those are the built-in features. If you’re going to buy a car which has the feature “At 100,000 miles the engine block blows up”, then you probably don’t buy the car.

          If the good stuff now overrides the bad stuff inevitably coming down the road, then you’re call it a curate’s egg (Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones” Curate: “Oh no, My Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”), but how will the memory (if you are still capable of recalling memories) of past enjoyment assuage present suffering?

          You can’t ignore the bad stuff because it is going to happen. Why not bow out now, because it will never get any better than this – every day you are aging towards a physical and mental decline, you cannot anticipate that you will be any happier or better off, end it now while you have extracted the maximum enjoyment from it and are capable of acting upon a rational choice to seek a painless end.

          Or don’t, but give reasons why you don’t and why a shitty gift should be put up with.

          • Leah, your commenters seem to be working very hard to convince me that serious Catholics are all terrible people. Please show up to tell me they’re not all like this.

          • Martha O’Keeffe

            No, I’m legitimately a terrible, awful, horrible person. All I can offer by way of amelioration is what Evelyn Waugh is supposed to have said, to the effect of “If this is what I’m like with religion, imagine what I’d be like without it”.

            And to make amends for hounding you as to why, once you reserve the right to make your bow and leave the stage at a time of your choosing in the face of the inevitable fate we all must acknowledge will befall us as mortals, you do not under your philosophy do so now (I know under the terms of my philosophy why I do not), I offer the following poem by Chesterton:

            A Ballade of Suicide

            The gallows in my garden, people say,
            Is new and neat and adequately tall.
            I tie the noose on in a knowing way
            As one that knots his necktie for a ball;
            But just as all the neighbours — on the wall —
            Are drawing a long breath to shout ‘Hurray!’
            The strangest whim has seized me . . . After all
            I think I will not hang myself today.

            Tomorrow is the time I get my pay —
            My uncle’s sword is hanging in the hall —
            I see a little cloud all pink and grey —
            Perhaps the Rector’s mother will not call —
            I fancy that I heard from Mr Gall
            That mushrooms could be cooked another way —
            I never read the works of Juvenal —
            I think I will not hang myself today.

            The world will have another washing day;
            The decadents decay; the pedants pall;
            And H.G. Wells has found that children play,
            And Bernard Shaw discovered that they squall;
            Rationalists are growing rational —
            And through thick woods one finds a stream astray,
            So secret that the very sky seems small —
            I think I will not hang myself today.

            Prince, I can hear the trumpet of Germinal,
            The tumbrils toiling up the terrible way;
            Even today your royal head may fall —
            I think I will not hang myself today.

          • g

            Martha, if someone offers to sell me a car that’s excellent and nicely priced except that it will blow up after 100k miles, I can buy the car and then scrap it just before that mileage is reached.

            There’s no reason why the only options should be “buy the car and then let it blow up on you” or “don’t buy the car”.

            As for the charming hey-why-don’t-you-kill-yourself questions: the answer seems so obvious that it’s hard to see how anyone could think the question makes a useful point. Namely: for most of us, for most of our lives, the good outweighs the bad (or at least seems to, which is necessarily what drives the decision), so of course we don’t kill ourselves or ask others to do it for us. But suppose a time comes when (1) the present suffering outweighs (in our estimation) the present goods of life, and (2) this state of affairs seems almost certain to continue, and worsen, until we actually die. That’s a very different situation; why should countenancing suicide or euthanasia then mean wanting to kill ourselves now?

            There’s no reason why the only options should be “continue living until we die naturally” and “kill ourselves now”.

  • Jakeithus

    I don’t know why my first thought went to likely atheist, as I agree with the other responses that it is a very Christian and well argued entry. Maybe it just felt too polished or something. I will have to think on it a little longer.

    • Jakeithus

      After reading it again, I think the “name dropping” stood out for me (As Martin Luther says, As Thomas Aquinas says, As a Catholic….). My gut says atheist, with there being very little to really back that up.

  • Brian Sullivan

    This is either a Christian or an atheist who understands the Christian view bette than most. Would be interesting to hear more from either way.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      Exactly what I thought. I’m voting likely Christian- but there’s a sneaking suspicion that this is an atheist ex-Catholic Priest, or at least somebody who has had a year or two of Seminary.

  • Anonymous

    No love for the Denobulans?

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      Definitely not for the crappy way they were portrayed. I found the Doctor eminently slappable, but my whole ‘”Star Trek: Enterprise” – what the bloody hell did you do to this concept which could have been awesome???’ rant is something for another thread 🙂

  • Mariana Baca

    This sounds like a non-strawman, convincingly Catholic entry of someone who has same ideas/same assumptions as me for the subjects. But, at the same time, there is nothing I’d pin as ding,ding,ding, obviously obscure catholic tibdit or style. It could have been written by a well read atheist who read the catechism or sections of the Summa and exhibits basic reading comprehension — but, they do exhibit good grasp of the other person’s side.


    Hm … it seems that I’m in the minority on this, but I voted Likely Atheist.

    Why? Eh, well, the author does _proclaim_ his love of distinctions, and does some valiant work trying to make them, but they don’t quite ring true. For example, what Aquinas actually says is about polygamy is a bit more complex than “natural law does not necessarily forbid” it; Aquinas actually says that “plurality of wives is in a way against the law of nature, and in a way not against it” (see here for exactly WHAT ways Aquinas is talking about: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/5065.htm#article1). In fact, it sounds like the poster here has heard someone talking about Aquinas, but not actually read the passage in question–which admittedly could mean that he’s a Christian who hasn’t done his homework, but … well, I wouldn’t like to think that.

    Moreover, I feel like the reference to the Divine Comedy is–overdone? underdone? I’m not quite sure. Put it this way: the folks I know who actually love the book, and would talk about it in a context like this, would be a bit more enthusiastic. I sense a lack of enthusiasm. Although again, that could just be because the author here is a more staid personality …

    • Martha O’Keeffe

      “the folks I know who actually love the book, and would talk about it in a context like this, would be a bit more enthusiastic.”

      *shifty eyes*

      I’m sure I have no idea what you mean 🙂

      No, I gave him/her the benefit of the doubt for this very reply, though I agree: not enough raving about Dante and missed a perfect opportunity to dance all over Dan Brown’s latest effusion with hob-nailed boots!

  • UWIR

    “I’m willing to concede this, but I’d argue that natural law does prohibit group marriage. Marriage is, in great part, supposed to recognize a family unit which consists of two people”

    The second sentence, while presented as if it were a supporting argument for the first sentence, is merely a restatement. The casual way the author engages in a circular argument suggests that it comes from a Catholic (I would expect an atheist mocking Catholics’ fallacious reasoning to make the circularity more blatant). However, an observant atheist could well have copied this argument from a Catholic.

    The argument against euthanasia is even more bizarre, as it seems to be arguing from the assertion that euthanasia consists of having death as an end, but does not ever actually present this premise (and this assertion is clearly wrong; euthanasia is clearly a means to the end of stopping pain, not an end in itself). Using “will” as a non-auxiliary verb is also a nice touch.

  • Niemand

    While it’s clearly wrong to withhold basic care (food, water,
    anti-biotics, pain medicine, etc.) I don’t think we’re required to
    accept medical care which is unlikely to extend life much and will cause
    a lot of suffering in the meantime.

    I’m interested in this distinction. Why are antibiotics “basic care”? Why is oxygen and interventions to help the person breath not on this list? Is food still “basic care” when it is being delivered via a vein and is causing discomfort to the person being fed? Where is the patient in this discussion? Can s/he say, “I don’t like this feeding tube-get it out of me” or is that suicide? What if his/her life expectancy is measured in hours or days and is unlikely to be altered by feeding, antibiotics, or pretty much anything else?