Being on the Wrong Side of History on Same-Sex Marriage? Worse than You Think.

Being on the Wrong Side of History on Same-Sex Marriage? Worse than You Think. April 2, 2015

same-sex marriage, fight the good fight

It’s easy to believe passionately in the rightness of our moral position. What’s often ignored is the importance of being in the right side of history.

Same-sex marriage is one example of a contentious moral issue being fought over in America today, and passions run strong on both sides. The National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 churches, recently cut ties with the Presbyterian Church USA after they liberalized their definition of marriage to “two people, traditionally a man and a woman.”

Growing acceptance of same-sex marriage has pushed many conservatives to fear the sky is falling. Rick Santorum, Republican presidential candidate in 2012, thinks he sees in American culture the gradual erosion of rights that Jews and Christians experienced in Nazi Germany. The title of Santorum’s new documentary film reveals how soon he imagines that his religious rights could be lost: “One Generation Away.”

Worries about the upcoming Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage had a conclave of Christian leaders clutching their pearls. One proclaimed,

Once you elevate same-sex marriage to the level of protected status, whether on the federal or the state level, you begin to change and transform the face of society. In my view it will result in the beginning of the end of Western Civilization.

These Christian leaders see themselves as fighting the good fight, but how will this fit with the judgment of history?

Here’s one answer. Jennifer Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute (“Helping the Victims of the Sexual Revolution”), was asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. She replied:

I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me. This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot.… What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”

You’ve got to admire that. She’s standing up for what she feels is right, unconcerned about whether it’s popular or how history will judge that position.

But let’s not pretend that the judgment of history is irrelevant. Remember George Wallace’s infamous 1963 declaration, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Was Wallace fighting the good fight with his stand for racial segregation? He would’ve said yes. History says no.

Those opposed to freedom for Southern slaves, women’s suffrage, and minorities’ civil rights were all fighting the good fight, like those opposed to same-sex marriage today. Just remember that history wins in the end.

Indeed, Jennifer Morse does think about the evaluation of history, it’s just that she thinks that she’ll be on the right side of it:

[Same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed. They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.

No one fighting the good fight thinks that they won’t eventually be judged on the right side of history. I’ll propose that as the definition of fighting the good fight: taking a minority position now that you think will eventually, if only decades in the future, be seen as the morally correct one.

And there’s the problem—reading the tea leaves to see where society is moving. There is no reliable route to objective moral truth (I argue that what we imagine as objective moral truth is actually just widely shared or strongly felt moral beliefs). There is no celestial library where the answers to all moral questions are in a big book. The judgment of history is the best we’ve got, and we fool ourselves when we think that moral rightness is determined by anything more lofty.

It might seem shallow to base one’s moral convictions on what society will conclude fifty years in the future rather than on one’s conscience today. But make no mistake: the strength or sincerity of your convictions—about same-sex marriage or any moral issue—are irrelevant. Your stand today will be judged by the conclusions of that future society, and being on the right side of history is all that ultimately matters. Lose that, and you’re just another George Wallace.

Common sense is the most widely shared commodity in the world,

for every man is convinced that he is well supplied with it.
― René Descartes

Image credit: Shutterstock

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  • drakvl

    Now, I love me some analytic geometry, but on that point (and the ontological argument), Descartes was wrong. I have known for a while I’m somewhat lacking in the common sense department.

  • Kodie

    The idea of “Western Civilization” is, from their perspective, things have changed, and, from their perspective, is being destroyed one change at a time. This “right side” of history or “wrong side” is not exactly something people change their values about. They have to live uncomfortably in a society that has changed, which they will continue to see is “worse” than it was. Less convenient, more chaotic. When the masters had to free their slaves, I’m sure that sort of sucked for them, and they went to their graves wishing emancipation never had happened. The “aw shit, what are we going to do now that we have to pay people and treat them like humans?” These people begrudgingly accept that society has progressed to popularize inclusive values that they don’t personally accept.

    Because slavery in the US ended before we were all born, it’s rather convenient for everyone to say it was shameful and it shouldn’t have happened. The “right side” of history has overcome slavery generationally, not because everyone who was against emancipation suddenly realized they had to change their tune. Same thing with women’s votes, women’s liberation, no-fault divorce, birth control, inter-racial marriage, gay marriage, etc. – there are distinct changes that make a lot of things better for people that still have a negative effect on the people opposing these changes. I’m not saying they are right, I’m just saying that they’re not switching to the “right side” of history just because it has gained popularity. Some people do think about things they’ve never thought about before, probably due to a gay relative or friend, while their children don’t really know that world. Some churches advance progressive thought so they don’t lose members who already were going to leave if they didn’t. They still lose members who are upset by the changes. What I mean is, it’s likely none of these bigots will change their mind and accept the “right side” of history before the day they die.

    http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/quotative_like.png

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TI2Gst05m68

    • You’re right–the bigots often don’t change. What they do change, however, is how freely they’ll speak about it. They’ll whine about how the country’s going down the toilet now that women can vote or black men can marry our women only with their buddies at the Buffalo Lodge.

      • Debby

        I’m OK with people feeling shamed about their bigoted beliefs. Actually, more than OK with it…downright gleeful about it 🙂

    • Link to original: http://xkcd.com/1483/

      Ironically, the mouse over is, “God was like, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

  • InDogITrust

    I’m always uncomfortable with the “wrong side of history” argument because history is written by the winner. And “history” can be dependent on perspective.
    E.g., Sir Francis Drake, hero, right? Not in Spanish history books, he’s not.

    • This is a good point, which I think deserves a response.

    • Debby

      When people say “wrong side of history” its usually in a social justice/movement context. A better example than Sir Francis Drake would be eugenics which was thought at one time to be some serious cutting edge ‘better-for-the-world’ stuff. But I’ve yet to see a movement to gain rights for a disenfranchised group be viewed poorly years later. In that sense, history moves forward and leaves conservatives behind. Rights for women, civil rights for black people (around the world), rights for working people, personhood of children..recognition of natives..these are all things that are viewed as good things and those who fought against them are viewed as wrong.

      • IDogITrust

        It doesn’t really matter what the context is.

        Francis Drake is the example i want, as in there is a set of facts [Drake’s career], and whether you think he was a good guy or a bad guy depends entirely on whether you look at his career through an English-tinted lens or through a Spanish-tinted lens.

        England won the battles, both literally Drake’s battles and the long term battle for cultural supremacy in North America, so history taught in the US is essentially through an English lens.

        these are all things that are viewed as good things and those who fought against them are viewed as wrong.

        That right there is history as written by the winner. You agree with the winning side, but that statement negates even the existence of the people who think civil rights etc are catastrophic and endangering civilization.

        One hopes that in time, those who disagree will have died out or come to their senses, but only the winner thinks an outcome is good, unless the loser changes their mind.

        Moreover, pointing to successful outcomes as the march of history is forgetting that failed attempts tend to be forgotten.

        Any projection regarding who will be on the “wrong side of history” is based on an assumption that a particular outcome is inevitable. And the fighting ain’t over until it’s over.
        In case it’s not clear, i think that the battle for SSM will be successful, that it should be successful, and that those who oppose SSM will be “on the wrong side of history,” but i also don’t like the idea that our success is inevitable.
        If it were inevitable, we wouldn’t be in this battle. And i want history to remember the battle and never let these bastards say gays were “given” the right to marry. Gays are fighting damn hard for those rights and are winning them.

        • History is mostly written by the winner. A counter-example might be how WW2 is taught. In Germany, it’s pretty much how we see it. But in Japan, there’s been some unfortunate revisionism about their colonial adventures in Korea, Manchuria, and China.

        • IDogITrust

          Germany after WW2 is who i was thinking of re a loser who realized and admitted it was wrong. But would they if they’d won?
          My point is just that i am uncomfortable assuming progress is inevitable.
          Personally, i think future generations will be more repulsed by the opponents of gay rights than we are by the opponents of civil rights, thanks to the internet, which never forgets.

    • Ann Kah

      I found a century-old British history text at a garage sale once. They dismissed the American revolution in two pages, and blamed it all on the colonials wanting to be free to practice piracy…..

  • johzek

    Was Santorum hoping that no one would notice when he included Christians along with the Jews as those whose rights were being gradually eroded in Nazi Germany. At that time Germany was ninety percent Christian and it was these Christians who eventually became the executioners of the Jews.

  • RichardSRussell

    Being on the wrong side of history re: same-sex marriage just makes you a footnote in a future textbook.

    Being on the wrong side of history re: climate change means there will be no future textbooks.

    • Well, yeah, but think of the economic benefit! Addressing climate change is such a hassle.

      • Greg G.

        Bob, when I try to reach a comment for this one article from the Recent Comments section, Patheos gives a 404 error but it recognizes that it is your blog. It’s happened on two different networks and about 6 hours apart.

        • Pofarmer

          Same here. Yet when I hit the link out of that 404 box for the article it comes right here.

        • Ann Kah

          I think that’s something to do with the displayed ads. It was doing that a lot at “Friendly Atheist”, but seems to have stopped now.

        • Dang. I changed the post title when it was in draft mode, and somehow Disqus got the old title. I don’t know how that happened.

          I’ve asked the IT geniuses to help.

        • Greg G.

          I suspected something like that.

  • katiehippie

    Do they really think western civilization is the be-all end-all of wonderfulness? I think there is room for improvement. Staying in one place is the surest way to stagnate.

  • trinielf

    Western Civilization was also founded on sexism, colonialism, racism, unfair class systems and exploiting the environment with no thought to the lasting impacts.

    So should we preserve those things too in order to prop up some illusion of an ideal in which so many have suffered for a few at the top to live in absolute luxury and power?

    Twenty years may be a bit premature of a gauge but we have beacons of Western civilization who have had LGBT rights for over 20 years now, including gay marriage and adoption. They are all countries ranking the highest in Global Indexes for health, happiness, prosperity, standards of living, education, public safety, low crime and low corruption.

    Historically speaking as well, the greatest empires of our human history were rather permissive of same-sex activity and they were in existence far longer than the British Empire and the United States 20th Century imperial world dominance which is already waning. And its certainly not waning because of LGBT rights but military over extension, deepening class inequality, political corruption, infighting and ineptitude, corporatism and not enough domestic investment in the welfare of the people to sustain its dominance in a wide number of fields.

    • TheNuszAbides

      hear, hear. i would only amend “founded on” to “founded in the midst of” – otherwise it can read as though the foundation was necessarily dependent on those ‘values’.

  • Ann Kah

    Thanks for bringing in George Wallace to the discussion, as his is the name that most readily comes to my mind when the über-Christians start foaming at the mouth and preaching end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it nonsense.

  • Trent Horn

    How does your view on morality work if the world ends up becoming more religious, as recent trends seem to indicate? (http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/02/living/pew-study-religion/). And whose future opinion do you care about? What if in 200 years the larger religious, global community thinks same-sex marriage was a mistake while smaller remnants in the U.S., Canada, and Europe do not? Would siding with the smaller group just be an example of eurocentric bias?

    • Greg G.

      I think the answer would be the same whether it is asked of same-sex marriage prohibition, witch burning, the Inquisition, Bible-based slavery, stoning sassy children, honor killing, circumcision without consent of males or females, and any other religion or superstition based harm or inconvenience.

      Freedom of Religion should be a personal choice and should not include the freedom to practice it on or against other people.

    • No, it wouldn’t change things. If 200 years around, everyone said to each other, “Wow, it sure is cool that we’re all religious now, isn’t it?” (or anti-gay or whatever), that’s the judgment of history. There is no objective standard we can point to to say that that’s right and we’re wrong (or vice versa). All I’m saying is that that’s the only standard we have, for better or worse.

    • Cognissive Disco Dance

      What if in 200 years

      By that time Western Civilization will have ended due to the sky falling on them!! Everyone will be ruled by North Pole civilization.

  • Kenneth Epps

    Frankly, I’m not worried about two centuries from now; I’m worried about making the world I’m living in a better place for me and my family. My definition of better will be at odds with some and congruous with others. So, if I’m mentioned in history at all, I just hope they treat me kindly.

  • If there’s no objective moral truth, who cares what future people think of you?

    You personally may care about that, but other people don’t. Just as some people prefer vanilla ice cream, and some people chocolate.

  • Edwin Woodruff Tait

    I suppose that if you don’t believe in transcendent truth, you are left with being on the “right side of history” as your primary moral criterion.

    That admission, for me, confirms that theists are absolutely right to say that the lack of a transcendent standard of truth is a fatal weakness in atheism. The spectacle of a rational human being saying that the thing most worth worrying about is a kind of time-delayed, hypothetical peer pressure is a very disturbing one.

    Of course members of “Abrahamic” monotheistic traditions believe in the Last Judgment, and in a sense anyone who believes in immortality does too. But we value that kind of “judgment of posterity” because we think that in that “future” the judgment will be according to truth. That is what matters. And if that isn’t what matters to you, you have a serious problem.

    • Kodie

      The lack of a transcendent standard of truth in theism, following the peer pressure of those who interpret your holy book just so, is not something to be so proud of. Your imaginary friend’s opinion of you counts more than another human being because belief in some transcendent standard of “truth” makes one oblivious to those around them, cold-hearted, with a warped sense of justice to glorify your imaginary friend only. Plus, hey, it’s imaginary. You won’t be judged on the merits of your adherence to an archaic, often barbaric set of rules, but you are superstitious that you will be. That’s what’s disturbing!

      • Edwin Woodruff Tait

        I am not primarily influenced by ideas of a “last judgment” in ethical matters, but by natural law as accessed both by reason and empathy, and as sharpened and clarified by the revelation found in the Christian tradition. As so often happens in these combox arguments, you’re addressing a caricature in your own head and not what I actually believe.

        Empathy for others is a very important means of accessing transcendent truth, though not the only one.

        • adam

          “Empathy for others is a very important means of accessing transcendent truth,”

          Please demonstrate that transcendent truth, is truth and not just as imaginary as gods.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Demonstrate by what rules? How would one demonstrate such a thing? We have moral intuitions. We can choose to believe that they point to something real or that they don’t. You choose to believe that they don’t. I point out that this leaves you prey to a glorified form of peer pressure called “the judgment of history.” If you’re fine with that, there’s not much I can say. I adhere to a tradition of moral inquiry in which there is transcendent truth. You adhere to a tradition in which there isn’t. Our respective traditions have different rules for how to determine what is true and good in the first place.

          And, yet again, I urge atheists who want to say “gods are not real” to define “gods.” Because it’s hard to know what you mean by it, exactly. (I was assured by one person that it didn’t cover angels and saints, so it apparently doesn’t mean “any superhuman being at all.”)

        • adam

          Please demonstrate that transcendent truth, is truth

          Full Definition of GOD

          1

          capitalized : the supreme or ultimate reality: as

          a : the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe

          b Christian Science : the incorporeal divine Principle ruling over all as eternal Spirit : infinite Mind

          2

          : a being or object believed to have more than natural attributes and powers and to require human worship; specifically : one controlling a particular aspect or part of reality

          Merriam Webster

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Demonstrate by what rules? Based on what common assumptions? At this level there’s no room for “demonstration,” because we don’t agree on what counts as evidence.

          If you’re happy with having no better standard than “the judgment of history,” there’s nothing I can do to persuade you otherwise.

          Note that the dictionary definition you provide (I’m never quite sure why people resort to dictionaries to define terms that we all use every day–perhaps you are a prescriptivist and believe that dictionary compilers have some authority to tell us how we should speak?) distinguishes, quite rightly, between two senses of the word, one capitalized and one not.

          Atheists, in these forums, have quite frequently refused to make that distinction. Since I’m not a prescriptivist, I’m not going to hit them over the head with the dictionary. I’m just going to point out that, in fact, many people do mean two different things according to whether we use the capital letter or not, and that if you insist that these two things are one thing, you need to define what that one thing is.

          I would also ask how “worship” is defined in sense 2. (No doubt you will have another dictionary definition for me.) I think it may be hard to find a definition of “worship,” not religiously particular (Christians, for instance, traditionally define it in terms of sacrifice, but I’m not sure that works outside Christian theological constructs), that would exclude saints and angels and include all the beings that have been called “gods.” So I tend to argue that the term “god” in the broad sense would apply to saints, angels, Bodhisattvas, etc.

          The term in English has mostly been used, by Christians, with the qualifier “false,” to mean a being whom Christians think is being falsely given the honor due only to God.

          Edwin

        • adam

          “(I’m never quite sure why people resort to dictionaries to define terms that we all use every day”

          For CLARITY so that we are talking the same terms.

          I dont make a distinction between ‘Gods’ and ‘gods’ = supernatural.

          “At this level there’s no room for “demonstration,” because we don’t agree on what counts as evidence.”

          A demonstration that it is not IMAGINARY, not a man created character.

          If you cant demonstrate this, then, at least here, you have NOTHING but useless bluster and word salad.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Again, you appear to be working on the assumption that the imagination is not a means by which we access truth. I don’t think that’s a workable premise, because we are in fact dependent on the imagination for any kind of truth we possess. The scientific method consists of a rigorous way of testing the products of the imagination to see if they conform to external reality. But the scientific method is valuable for certain narrow purposes. There is no reason to set it up as the method by which we access all truth.

          Of course the concept of God is a product of the human imagination. So, for that matter, is the concept of atoms.

          I find your resort to the dictionary odd, since you then brush aside the definition you cite. You say that you don’t distinguish between God and gods. (Actually you said “Gods,” which made no sense. The dictionary definition 1 clearly has to be singular, and definition 2 is lowercase. You have not provided any definition that would give you any reason to say “Gods.”) But the dictionary you chose to cite clearly makes such a distinction. Now I don’t think you have to follow the dictionary, but then why cite it? How does it bring clarity to the discussion to cite a definition which you then ignore?

        • adam

          “Again, you appear to be working on the assumption that the imagination is not a means by which we access truth.”

          I do. Just as you appear to.

          ” The scientific method consists of a rigorous way of testing the products of the imagination to see if they conform to external reality.”

          PRODUCTS of the imagination, not imagination itself.

          Gods are products of the imagination
          Science does not verify the imaginary supernatural.

          “There is no reason to set it up as the method by which we access all truth.”

          It is, let me paraphrase MNb, it is the lest unreliable method.

          What other method(s) produce verifiable truths?

          “Actually you said “Gods,” which made no sense.”
          Actually God and Gods make no sense, but in this sense some will argue that the Christian God is not the Jewish God, is not the Muslim God = Gods.

          Yes, of course they are all the same God of Abraham, but that is the problem.

          “Of course the concept of God is a product of the human imagination. So, for that matter, is the concept of atoms.”

          And of course we ask is that you demonstrate YOUR ‘god’ in a similar manner to atoms.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Science is the least unreliable method for figuring out how the physical world works. The constraints that make it helpful for that purpose make it completely useless for determining whether there is anything beyond the physical world.

          And that is why of course demonstrating God in the same way as atoms is impossible. The analogy is that, in fact, the imagination can conceive of things that are true. The method by which we ascertain their truth is not the same in all cases.

          Some Christians do argue that Muslims don’t worship the true God. Of course they do not really imagine that there are several beings who fit the definition of God, which is intrinsically impossible. They are arguing that the Islamic “God” is not really God but either a purely imaginary construct (i.e., a product of the imagination that does not correspond to truth) or in fact a demon. I strongly disagree with this position, precisely because it seems obvious to me that all monotheists, by definition, believe in the same God.

        • adam

          “The constraints that make it helpful for that purpose make it completely
          useless for determining whether there is anything beyond the physical
          world.”

          So AGAIN, you have nothing but imagination.

          “And that is why of course demonstrating God in the same way as atoms is impossible. ”

          Not if YOUR ‘god’ interacts with this physical world.
          The bible even has the Baal fire challenge to demonstrate the power of the bible ‘god’.

          “I strongly disagree with this position, precisely because it seems
          obvious to me that all monotheists, by definition, believe in the same
          God.”

          Why?

          Different imaginations, different cultures, different IMAGINARY gods.

          Surely an omnimax ‘God’ could insure that all its followers follow what that ‘god’ wants of them.

          But as imaginary gods, no problem

          As with all Revealed ReligionsTM, gods get revealed to each ‘believer’ uniquely and individually so everyone HAS to create their own god in their own mind.

        • MNb

          “How would one demonstrate such a thing?”
          Exactly! How would one demonstrate a thing like transcendental truth? Precisely because we recognize that that is impossible we maintain that ethics are subjective.
          Thanks.

          “I urge atheists who want to say “gods are not real” to define “gods.”
          That’s a nice double standard. Believers are not capable of agreeing on a definition of “god”, but we atheists are obliged to provide one. You pull this one off of course because you want us to accuse of a strawman.
          Define yours (provisionally is good enough – for instance “an immaterial entitiy who created the whole shenanigan”, which is a definition rejected by mormons) and we’ll tell you why your god isn’t real either.

          “You choose to believe that they don’t.”
          Strawman. Ethical systems are totally real. The many books written on the subject demonstrate it. The problem is, as the famous theologist turned atheist Domela Nieuwenhuis already recognized, is this: “deriving a divine world from our concrete one requires a salto mortale”. You’re no exception. Thus far?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Theists believe in God. God is the source of all being possessed of all perfections. That is a standard, classical understanding of God, to which different traditions might add something but which all the classical theistic traditions would subscribe to. (For instance, I omit creation ex nihilo because that’s not something that the Greek pagan or Hindu traditions would include.) Of course there are arguments about God’s nature and attributes, and still more about how God has revealed himself, but the definition I give above is a basic one that you can find across various religious traditions.

          And, of course, even if other theists disagreed with my definition of God, I am not guilty of a double standard. I’m quite happy to tell you what I mean by God. Now how about you return the favor and tell me what you mean by a “god.” It’s OK if other atheists disagree with you. You will establish your good faith simply by giving me your definition.

          But back to the point: there is no way to demonstrate transcendental truth by the rules you have set up for yourself. The fact that you can’t account adequately for some of your most basic intuitions by the rules you have may indicate that you have unsatisfactory rules.

          I never suggested that ethical systems are not real. But my point stands: you choose to believe that they are purely subjective. You don’t have to believe that. You could abandon your overly reductionistic understanding of what “counts” as evidence in moral inquiry. You could choose to give more weight to intuition, tradition, etc. Or you can remain a slave to “the judgment of history.” Your choice.

        • MNb

          “even if other theists disagreed with my definition of God, I am not guilty of a double standard.”
          That’s not what I wrote.
          But as you have provided a definition of sorts yourself you’re not guilty indeed. I’m happy to withdraw that accusation.

          “Now how about you return the favor and tell me what you mean by a “god.”

          My attitude is always “the same as you” and I already explained why: I don’t want you to accuse me of attacking a strawman, like McGrath’ “the god you don’t believe in is a god I don’t believe in either”, something Dawkins very much deserved imo. So I’ll accept your definition.

          “God is the source of all being possessed of all perfections.”
          Could you clarify?
          What kind of perfections? Could you give an example?
          What do you mean with source? Did he/she/it hand over something and if yes, what exactly? Is that source material or immaterial?

          “there is no way to demonstrate transcendental truth by the rules you have set up for yourself.”
          And which rules would that be according to you? Because this quote implies you know which rules I have set up, though I’m not aware of telling you. Don’t worry, I won’t pull off a McGrath.

          “The fact that you can’t account adequately for some of your most basic intuitions by the rules you have may indicate that you have unsatisfactory rules.”

          How is this a fact? In my dictionary “fact” means “something observed”. I’m not aware of providing you anything regarding this in my comments that could be construed as a fact.
          To me it seems that in this quote “fact” must be replaced by “According to my theist prejudice”. But before we arrive at that conclusion we should first make clear that we’re talking about the same stuff. Still I think it quite funny how you want me to avoid making premature statements about your views, but are a quick jumper regarding mine yourself. The only things I have told you is that I’m an atheist and think that ethics are subjective, ie depending on the subjects that hold them.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          I apologize–I’m talking to several people at once, and probably am confusing you with each other and with the author of the original article. He said that in fact the highest authority was the “judgment of history.” That was originally what I described as unsatisfactory. But if you say that morality is purely subjective, then I would stand by the statement: that is a hopelessly unsatisfactory position, because, as Bertrand Russell pointed out (himself, in his later years, a reluctant adherent of this position), it reduces the statement “murder is wrong” to the same kind of statement as “I don’t like coffee-flavored ice cream” (not necessarily Russell’s examples, though I think ice cream was involved). Obviously the former would be a more intense dislike (one would hope), but it would be the same kind of thing. Perhaps that does not seem unsatisfactory to you, but it certainly does to me.

        • MNb

          Empathy for others – plus especially the desire that others have empathy for us, something apologists for some reason rather neglect – is very important for constructing an ethical system, sure. It by no means shows that there is or that we need a transcendetal truth to build an ethical system. You’re running around in a circle.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          How am I running around in a circle? I think you mistake what I am saying. I did not argue that empathy proves that there is transcendent truth. Fundamental matters like this cannot simply be proven or disproven, because different starting points lead to different rules for what counts as evidence. I refuted the claim that belief in transcendent truth somehow rules out empathy by saying that empathy is an important way of accessing transcendent truth. Whether that is true or false, it certainly is not “cold and heartless” as the earlier poster claimed.

          I’m not sure what you mean by saying that apologists neglect the desire that others have empathy for us. Christians generally do talk quite a bit about the Golden Rule, which involves precisely this insight (and which, I recognize, is not uniquely Christian).

        • MNb

          “I did not argue that empathy proves that there is transcendent truth.”
          OK. I like clear statements like this one.
          But then I don’t see anymore why I should assume “transcendental truth” is a meaningful concept. It means nothing to me. I get by fine without it, even according to most christians in my community. That includes my empathy and my ethics.
          So what do I need any transcendental truth for? How does it contribute to my knowledge and understanding?

          “Fundamental matters like this ….”
          How do you decide that this is a fundamental matter? I think “transcendental truth” is nothing but baked air, as we Dutch like to say.

          “different starting points lead to different rules”
          Agreed. So what’s your starting point and what are your rules? You already presented some possibly premature assumptions about mine, so I’d rather avoid that mistake regarding you.

          “I’m not sure what you mean by …..”
          I meant precisely what I wrote. The apologists I have met on internet (sure, not exactly representative) and talk about the role of empathy in ethics usually only talk about how we have empathy for others, but not about how we need empathy from others. You might be an exception of course, but that isn’t clear to me yet.
          But I like how you corrected my understanding of your views.

        • Kodie

          I’m sort of addressing another of your fellow Christians, not a caricature, an actual poster who believes that. You’re a little more eloquent but you use the same arguments. You want to follow traditions of people, why are their traditions worth holding onto? How is how they’ve done it for a long, long time a way to access any “transcendent” truth? The reason we use history is because we’re capable of learning something from it and not repeating errors and leaning on traditions that don’t serve our modern community. The more we learn about other people, the more empathy we can have for others we might not have traditionally extended empathy towards. You’re not looking to learn something in your lifetime, you are looking to access some figment of your imagination that is “really really true.”

          You look down on changing the status quo as a weakness of loyalty to people who have been dead a long time and whom we know by now were wrong. The tradition of marriage is how a father unloaded his daughters, who weren’t otherwise marketable or traditionally allowed to support themselves. Second-class citizens sold to the highest bidder to keep his house and bear his children. Some modern Christians are still advocates of this system of impairing a woman’s independence and autonomy, and preparing her for the only role she can have – wife and mother, to submit to her husband in every sense. That’s what you mean by tradition?

          If you have more compassion than that, you developed that lately. You may be capable of being convinced, which means “peer pressure” of the modern era has affected you. I’ll wait to hear what you think about that.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          I am not arguing that all traditions should be held onto just because they have been around. But when ideas have commended themselves to people over time and space, they are indeed more likely to be true than ideas that just happen to express the mores of one particular time and place. Furthermore, of course, as a Christian I believe that God (the ultimate source of all being, truth, and goodness) revealed himself in a unique way in Jesus, and in the Hebrew culture that led up to Jesus–and so I give particular regard to the traditions that connect me with that event. But I find that a plausible way of thinking because of my general respect for tradition as a way of overcoming the parochial prejudices of my own time and place.

          I do not look down on “changing the status quo” at all. The status quo of any given place and time always needs to be challenged–in the light of transcendent, eternal truth. And one of the principal ways (not the only way by any means) that we know that truth is by appealing to things that have been held as true throughout space and time. Generally reform happens when people appeal to eternal moral truths over against particular accommodations that have been made due to particular cultural circumstances.

          To take your example: Christian tradition holds that consent of both parties is an indispensable condition of marriage. This was rooted in Roman law, but also in specifically Christian teaching about the nature of marriage. In the Roman context, consent tended to be limited by an insistence on social equality, and many Christians were affected by these ideas. But there was an element in Christian tradition that pushed back against this. So, for instance, in the 12th century when the Church first became really powerful in regulating marriage (and other things), one of the changes they made was to allow marriage between people of different social status–a clear break from Roman law, motivated by Christian tradition.

          Again, how these essential principles of the tradition get worked out has varied from one time and place to another, always affected (in both good and bad ways) by the surrounding culture. So tradition is never simply a matter of following whatever has been done in the past.

        • As you infer, marriage hasn’t been a church thing for all that long. It became a sacrament in 1215.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          That is untrue. IV Lateran formalized the list of seven sacraments. The term “sacramentum” and its Greek equivalent “mysterion” was used more broadly and freely early on. However, the term was certainly used of marriage in the NT and in the Church Fathers, and the Church consistently taught that marriage was a holy thing. What was new in the high Middle Ages was direct Church regulation of marriage, leading to an increasing insistence on priestly involvement in blessing the marriage. Only at the Council of Trent was the involvement of a priest considered essential to the validity of marriage. That does not mean that the Church wasn’t concerned with marriage or didn’t have a doctrine of marriage–it plainly did from NT times on.

        • the Church consistently taught that marriage was a holy thing.

          Tell that to Paul. To him, it was second best to celibacy.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          The two things are not incompatible. Ephesians certainly refers to marriage as holy. I recognize that many, perhaps most scholars think it’s not by Paul, but since we’re talking the views of the Christian tradition as a whole it’s significant that Ephesians was, in fact, canonized and regarded as Pauline.

        • You’re reaching. Marriage can’t be both a celebrated institution and second best at the same time. if there’s something wrong with marriage, as Paul makes clear, it can’t be celebrated as a noble institution.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Sorry, but the Christian tradition pretty clearly says both. In the traditional Catholic understanding, marriage is holy, but consecrated celibacy is even holier. There is nothing “wrong” with marriage. Simply as a description of the historic Christian view, that isn’t accurate. (There is something wrong with human sexuality as it exists after the Fall, but not with marriage itself.)

          I have no problem admitting that the Christian tradition has a conflicted attitude to marriage. But if you’re suggesting that early Christians didn’t think marriage was holy, you are just wrong.

        • the Christian tradition pretty clearly says both.

          Yes, I understand that. And therein lies the problem.

          There’s plenty wrong with marriage–just ask Paul. It’s very clearly second best.

          I have no problem admitting that the Christian tradition has a conflicted attitude to marriage.

          Incredibly, it sounds like we agree.

        • Kodie

          So Christians are allowed to make marriage more fair for people who are disenfranchised? Christians are allowed to look at how unfair something is and direct changes to that institution because it seems like the right thing to do? Is that what you’re trying to say?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Well, first of all your premise is a loaded one–you assume that marriage is essentially gender-neutral, which is the point at issue.

          I would say that the mere fact that Christians have not considered same-sex marriage possible in the past (and yes, we can talk about Boswell if you like!) does not in itself automatically mean that it can’t happen. I don’t see it happening, both because I myself don’t think it’s compatible with basic Christian commitments about the nature of marriage and because the Catholic Church, whose authority I respect, holds the line pretty strongly on this. But I could be wrong. The point is that the case needs to be made in terms of fundamental Christian principles, as has happened with other “changes” like the embrace of religious freedom, or a more open attitude to other religions. And I know folks who do that. I’m not convinced, but the conversation is not over.

        • Kodie

          Um, no, we don’t need Christians to do this for the rest of humanity.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          I am speaking about the conditions necessary for Christians to change their mind on something.

        • Kodie

          I was talking about how you were talking about how “progressive” Christians could be when reforming marriage laws, like they own it and we have to wait for them to change their mind. We don’t.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          No, I’m talking about the development of Christian teaching, not of secular law per se. Obviously the two are related. A faithful Christian will participate in public affairs (if he/she does at all) with a conscience formed by Christian teaching, and this will have an effect on what sorts of laws she supports. (I note that most secular people have no problem with this when it happens to produce results they like.)

        • Kodie

          (I note that most secular people have no problem with this when it happens to produce results they like.)

          1. Like what, and 2. why wouldn’t they?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          The civil rights movement, opposition to the death penalty, sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, antiwar movements, etc. Christians are heavily involved in all of these. For that matter, there’s a “Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.”

        • Kodie

          Not all Christians.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Of course not. Why is that relevant to the point? The last example I gave (pro-choice Christians) is not what I consider a good one. The point I’m making is that secular folks, who in our culture generally have “liberal” political biases (though not always), typically appreciate Christians who stand with them on what they consider issues of justice and peace, and do not object if the Christians are doing so for theological reasons.

        • Kodie

          Why would they? I think you are confused.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          It was a side remark, to head off a potential response to my statement about Christians bringing their faith into their public activity. If you have no objection to Christians doing this, then there was no point your responding to that remark. Such objections are pretty common, though, so I threw in that remark to deal with them pre-emptively.

        • Kodie

          Right. You still sound like you are confused and expecting a fight about that. Seems to me like Christians are all over the place, using their theology to back up their personal feelings on any particular issue and not relying on tradition like you think is inherently “best,” but aligning their morality with some other “spirit” of the document called “bible.” When we’re talking about policies, results matter. We’re not going to shove them out the door and say “your reasons for agreeing with me about this are too shallow, so it doesn’t count.” How ridiculous did you already think we are? When we’re talking about god with those people, they still don’t have a good reason to believe. We just had Curtis Martin trying to defend his beliefs on the basis of what a good guy he is and he got whatever work-over I guess you were expecting. So, seems like you are still confused, but I hope I clarified for you.

        • MNb

          That’s their problem, not mine. This

          “the case needs to be made in terms of fundamental Christian principles”

          didn’t play any role when The Netherlands legalized same gender marriage. It’s just that voters and politicians recognized this form of discrimination had to stop.
          It’s sad that in the country with the strictes church-state separation (bar France perhaps) there are the most christians who don’t get that excellent JFK quote above.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Well, I don’t find it to be excellent at all. I think it’s a craven surrender to the totalitarian claims of secularism.

        • Kodie

          Rather than the brute force of a popular superstition.

        • MNb

          Tell us more!
          What exactly are those totalitarian claims of secularism?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          That secular standards, particularly scientific ones, are the only ones that matter. This article by Jeffrey Tayler is a good example of what I’m talking about: http://www.salon.com/2015/04/19/marco_rubios_deranged_religion_ted_cruzs_bizarre_faith_our_would_be_presidents_are_god_fearing_clowns/

        • Ron

          From Article VI of the U.S. Constitution:

          This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

          I find no mention of the God, Jesus, Christianity or biblical standards.

        • MNb

          So when it comes to scientific issues – like the question if Global Warming is happening or not – which other standards matter? Wishful thinking?

          As for “the totalitarian claim of secularism that only secular standards matter”, which secularist claims that? I’m Dutch and no Dutch secularist wants to force secular (let alone scientific) standards on

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protestant_Church_in_the_Netherlands

          At the other hand most Dutch christians are secularists, so I’ll give you two for whom I voted myself.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ria_Beckers
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Rosenmöller

          Regarding that Salon article you linked to, what exactly has it do with totalitarianism? Does it force any christian to leave his/her faith or something? If yes, I don’t see it. Maybe you can provide a quote from that article and show how it’s totalitarian?
          I’m sorry, but I hardly have a clue what you’re talking about.

        • Ron

          Past experience indicates that Christians seldom change their minds via rational discourse. Social policy change comes about only when the disenfranchised finally stand up to say “enough is enough” and enforce their charter rights through the courts.

    • theists are absolutely right to say that the lack of a transcendent standard of truth is a fatal weakness in atheism.

      What’s the alternative? Are you saying that Christians do have a standard that is (1) objective and unchanging and (2) accessible to everyone? I await evidence of this marvelous claim. Pick a contentious moral issue (abortion, SSM, etc.) and show us the objective and universally accessible correct resolution.

      The spectacle of a rational human being saying that the thing most worth worrying about is a kind of time-delayed, hypothetical peer pressure is a very disturbing one.

      Which says nothing about why my conclusion is wrong. Go back and try again.

      • Edwin Woodruff Tait

        If by “universally accessible” you mean “one that any reasonable person will come to using their normal mental equipment,” then obviously I claimed no such silly thing. I didn’t even use the word “objective,” although certainly it is objective in the sense of being unchanging and independent of us. In McIntyre’s terms, I subscribe to the “tradition” not the “encyclopedia” tradition of moral reasoning.

        Furthermore, I was not talking primarily about specific resolutions to specific problems, but about the principles we use to come to such conclusions. So, for instance, tell me that the notion of equality on which supporters of gay marriage rely is a transcendent, eternal truth (even though people have only come to realize it with anything like full clarity in recent years, and may still have a long way to go) and I’ll listen. Tell me that I must subscribe to it in order to be on the “right side of history,” and I will just laugh.

        • Rudy R

          Most supporters of gay marriage rely, in America, on the US Constitution as their source for marriage equality. Where is your source for the universal acceptance of marriage? The Bible? Through revelation? Through inspiration from the Holy Spirit? Need I list all the barbarities that modern society denounces that are endorsed by the God of the OT? Do you subscribe that slavery is an abomination and that you are on the “right side of history”?

        • adam

          “If by “universally accessible” you mean “one that any reasonable person will come to using their normal mental equipment,” then obviously I claimed no such silly thing. ”

          Then we agree it is SILLY.

          “So, for instance, tell me that the notion of equality on which supporters of gay marriage rely is a transcendent, eternal truth ”

          Why be deceptive, when it is just a matter of civil law,
          Unless you can demonstrate that there is a ‘transcendent, eternal truth’ and it is universally accessible then it can’t be truth just more HUMAN IMAGINATION, conjouring up imaginary gods.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          We agree that this particular manifestation of the “encyclopedia” tradition is silly. I think it’s silly because the “encyclopedia” approach is silly in the first place.

          I do not follow the logic of your last sentence. You seem to think that it’s impossible that there might be things that can’t be demonstrated. And again, one has to ask, “by what rules”?

          For instance, one rule that seems self-evident to me is that intuitions should be given the benefit of the doubt. If I have an intuition that there is transcendent truth, then I don’t ask “can I demonstrate this?” I ask, “is there any reason to distrust this intuition?” And if my experiences repeatedly confirm my intuition, then I trust it.

          You appear to work by different rules.

        • adam

          “For instance, one rule that seems self-evident to me is that intuitions should be given the benefit of the doubt. ”

          Not self evident at all.

          I met 2 Jesi in one day on the psych ward where I worked.
          I met Napoleon on another day.

          They all had intuitions that they were who they claimed to be.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Why does that refute the claim that intuitions should be given the benefit of the doubt? The fact that you go to insane people for a counter-example actually strengthens my argument. It implies that one difference between a sane person and an insane person is that the sane person’s intuitions are generally reliable. I think you could have come up with much stronger counter-examples–intuitions that most “normal” people have that are not in fact true. I am certainly not disputing that there are such intuitions. I did not say “all intuitions are true” but “they should be given the benefit of the doubt.” That is, we should–and in practice usually do–start by trusting our intuitions, only distrusting them if strong reasons emerge to do so.

        • adam

          “It implies that one difference between a sane person and an insane person is that the sane person’s intuitions are generally reliable. ”

          So by what method do you determine delusion from intuition?

          Demonstrate that the sane’s person’s intuitions are generally reliable.

          “I think you could have come up with much stronger
          counter-examples–intuitions that most “normal” people have that are not in fact true.”

        • adam

          “We agree that this particular manifestation of the “encyclopedia” tradition is silly. I think it’s silly because the “encyclopedia” approach is silly in the first place.”

          You seem to be talking about definitions, or a weasling of definitions to make YOUR ‘god’ unfalsifiable.

          Of course I was talking about your claim:
          “”If by “universally accessible” you mean “one that any reasonable person will come to using their normal mental equipment,””

          I think it silly, actually more along the lines of childish superstitions on your transcendental ‘truths’.

          “I do not follow the logic of your last sentence. You seem to think that it’s impossible that there might be things that can’t be demonstrated. And again, one has to ask, “by what rules”?”

          No, what I am saying is that imaginary things cannot be demonstrated as real because they are imaginary.
          You can’t demonstrate yours as “one that any reasonable person will come to using their normal mental equipment,”, then yours certainly has the qualities of IMAGINATION.

          Without a demonstration that it is NOT IMAGINARY, what is the point of YOU bringing it up?

          And the subject was gay marriage, a civil contract that you are ‘looking’ for some “transcendent, eternal truth “, which you can neither define or demonstrate beyond the IMAGINATION of human beings.

          IT MAKES YOU LOOK DISHONEST.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          I can’t demonstrate that transcendent truth exists by scientific methods, which apparently are the only ones you acknowledge.

          I can try to point out to you that your paradigm for ascertaining moral truth is highly unsatisfactory, so that you will be open to the possibility that other methods are needed. But if you are, in fact, satisfied with your paradigm, there is not much I can do.

          I do not see what appears dishonest to you about any of this. But I suppose that if you are committed to an “encyclopedia” model, anything else will seem dishonest. In fact, to me the encyclopedia model appears dishonest.

        • adam

          “I can’t demonstrate that transcendent truth exists by scientific methods, which apparently are the only ones you acknowledge.”

          Well, you’ve certainly provided no better method.

          “I can try to point out to you that your paradigm for ascertaining moral
          truth is highly unsatisfactory, so that you will be open to the
          possibility that other methods are needed. But if you are, in fact,
          satisfied with your paradigm, there is not much I can do.”

          Well, you’ve certainly provided no better method.

          “I do not see what appears dishonest to you about any of this. But I
          suppose that if you are committed to an “encyclopedia” model, anything
          else will seem dishonest. ”

          Well, you’ve certainly provided no better method.

          And you appear to hide behind behind a LACK of definition, which is dishonest.

          So again, you got NOTHING, but some verbal masterbation.

        • So then where is your “fatal weakness in atheism” claim? You admit that there is no reliably accessible and absolutely correct moral truth. So how do you imagine that you’re not in the same boat?

          tell me that the notion of equality on which supporters of gay marriage rely is a transcendent, eternal truth

          That isn’t my position.

          Tell me that I must subscribe to it in order to be on the “right side of history,” and I will just laugh.

          I agree that being on the right side of history is a shallow goal. Still, I challenge you to tell me something better.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          We are all in the boat of being dependent on traditions/paradigms that shape what kinds of questions may be asked and how they are to be answered. I am suggesting that the atheist paradigm, as you are explicating it, is pretty unsatisfactory if the best moral authority it has is the judgment of future people. But you apparently disagree. And that’s the thing about having different paradigms–there is no way for me to prove you wrong if we don’t agree on what counts as evidence.

        • adam

          ” we don’t agree on what counts as evidence.”

          “If by “universally accessible” you mean “one that any reasonable person will come to using their normal mental equipment,” then obviously I claimed no such silly thing. ”

          It seems as though you DO agree, you just have NONE.

        • I am suggesting that the atheist paradigm, as you are explicating it, is pretty unsatisfactory if the best moral authority it has is the judgment of future people. But you apparently disagree.

          And, yet again, I’m demanding to know what you propose as something better. Is it a secret?

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          Of course it’s not a secret. But there are quite a few alternatives that I think are better than atheism. Any of the major religions in its best expression(s) is better than atheism. The Platonic/Aristotelian/Stoic traditions of Greco-Roman antiquity are better than atheism. Even Enlightenment deism is better than atheism. All of these traditions have resources for talking about ethics that modern naturalistic atheism doesn’t have.

          Obviously, as a Christian, I’d propose historic, orthodox Christianity as the primary alternative!

        • Which only sidesteps the issue.

          The way we decide moral issues is imperfect, but it’s the best we’ve got. And you want to vomit on the atheist position while you’re standing in the same position.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          It’s not the best we’ve got. You declare it to be the best we’ve got because you insist on using methods of inquiry that are not adequate to the task.

        • Then give me the good stuff.

        • Or maybe I misunderstood your position. Are you looking at all routes to moral truth, regardless of whether they’re invented or not? I’ll agree that we could ignore reality and make up a pleasing route to truth (cute pixies that whisper infallible moral truths into our ears, right when we need them), but then there’s no evidence behind that. That’s kind of a show stopper to me.

        • Edwin Woodruff Tait

          I am suggesting that if you have rules of evidence in moral inquiry that are essentially the same as those of scientific inquiry, then you are going to wind up with an inadequate basis for ethics, as your original post demonstrates (to me–obviously you don’t think so, and probably my posts have no effect on you, but I hope they may have an effect on some readers who are more bothered than you seem to be by the idea that our best standard for morality is our guess about what people in the future might think).

          No one is suggesting that we just make up “a pleasing route to truth” out of whole cloth. There are, again, venerable traditions of moral inquiry to which in fact we owe the very progress of which our culture boasts. No one today is making them up. No one person has made any of them up out of whole cloth. They have arisen, in a parallel though different manner to scientific traditions, from the trial and error of people throughout centuries of inquiry. Any one of them remains open to you should you ever feel the need of something other than “the judgment of history.”

        • I hope they may have an effect on some readers who are more bothered than you seem to be by the idea that our best standard for morality is our guess about what people in the future might think

          Not what I’m saying. I’m simply saying that the judgment of history is all that people will remember. There were lots of people fighting the good fight, but is that the final arbiter? George Wallace was fighting the good fight.

          Are you saying that you get your morals from other routes than atheists do?

          There are, again, venerable traditions of moral inquiry to which in fact we owe the very progress of which our culture boasts

          Like what? If it’s painful lessons from history (“Slavery really doesn’t seem to be that moral; let’s stop that”), sure. If it’s magic (“I got a vision from Loki that says we should worship sheep now”), that has a terrible track record.

          No one today is making them up. No one person has made any of them up out of whole cloth. They have arisen, in a parallel though different manner to scientific traditions, from the trial and error of people throughout centuries of inquiry.

          List these alternative routes to moral truth (with a focus on the ones I probably wouldn’t have thought of).

    • MNb

      What problem? I don’t believe “that in that “future” the judgment will be according to truth” any more than in any god. So shrug.