[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #3

[Turing 2013] Christian Entry #3 July 17, 2013

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



First, polygamy should be legal. Civil marriage is a whole different beast from religious marriage (I specify “religious” rather than “sacramental” because not all denominations or religions believe that marriage is sacramental and I want to acknowledge that), and there is no legal reason to outlaw civil polygamy. The idea that it would lead to greater inequality for women is unfounded; it would be sexist to allow polygyny and still outlaw polyandry or polygynandry, of course, but that’s not what contemporary polygamy activists are fighting for. Inheritance, divorce, and taxation could be tricky, but legal complexity is not grounds for a practice’s criminalization. There isn’t sufficient evidence to show that polygamy is harmful by any secular definition of harm. (Speculation about what a polygamist marriage would look like does not count as evidence.)

Second, there’s no reason to say that polygamy is a sin. The Bible does not forbid it. Solomon’s problem was polytheism, not polygamy, and the two do not share sin with the prefix. (Also, I’m not sure how religious pluralism is such a bad thing.) Titus 1:6 applies only to elders/deacons. I could give similar answers for any Bible verse you offered. Further, most of the theological models that Christian churches have made of marriage and/or sexual intercourse–covenant, flesh-fusion, construction paper and glue, etc.–are not number-dependent. (Even if they were, I don’t think overly simplified metaphors are logically binding anyway.) So, lacking strong empirical evidence that polygamy is always harmful, there’s no reason for Christianity to outright forbid polygamy.

That being said, I think that polygamy is often imprudent. The Quran famously limits a Muslim man to four wives, and even then only if he can satisfy all of his wives’ material, emotional, and sexual needs, which is doubtful. I would argue that we adopt a similar approach, with the recognition that most people will not be able to satisfy multiple spouses’ needs (even excluding the financial one, because these days there’s no reason they couldn’t be a five-earner household). So in most cases I would advise against it…but because I’ve heard that it works well for some people, I would not advise against polygamy universally. In particular instances it might be advisable: for instance, while conjoined twins usually do not share husbands or wives, it is quite understandable when they do. And in populations with a drastic gender/sex imbalance, polygamy might be a practical necessity. Some kind of ethics of polygamous marriages would need to be developed, probably ad hoc, as need arises, for those who decide to engage in it. This ethics would pertain to the relationships between all members, including those who share a spouse but are not married to each other, and it would govern the usual things like emotional honesty and expression, sharing of responsibilities, decision making, and time management, but also other matters which we likely could not predict in advance.



“Is euthanasia acceptable?” is the wrong question. The correct question is, “How do we ethically respond to another person’s desire to commit suicide or assisted suicide?”

From what I can tell, the church has focused on the wrong question from early in its history: Clement drafted a condemnation of suicide in response to aspiring martyrs who thought suicide might be a moral good, since in a willing death one emulates Christ and draws nearer to him. Note that even Paul felt a similar temptation in Philippians 1:21-24; in those verses, it does not appear that Paul believed suicide would be an affront to God or a violation of the sanctity of his life. I had a professor who argued that Augustine’s equation of suicide and murder was prompted by pagan claims that Christians ought to encourage suicide. Early responses to suicide were thus based on a wholly different kind of suicide than euthanasia, yet this logic remains the basis for many Christian responses to a person’s desire to commit suicide.

A better and more ethical approach would recognize that the majority of suicide attempts are made in extremis. This makes suicide different from most acts, which are not characteristically performed in comparable situations (though of course any act might be committed in extremis as a coincidence). Sometimes those contemplating suicide are not in possession of their full rational faculties (ie. they have a mental illness), in which case we might be expected to intervene, but in other cases it is not so clear that being in extremis makes a person unreasonable. Their decision to pursue euthanasia might be a fully rational one, and for this reason we cannot claim the same grounds for stepping in and co-opting their agency. Further, regardless of how much rational agency the person has, our response must first and foremost be charitable. We must cast no stones and we must alleviate the suffering of our neighbours. Moreover, we must recognize the limits of our empathy, of our ability to understand another person’s suffering. This is the ethical imperative which constrains us, and it determines how we must address the question, “Is euthanasia acceptable?” We must not add to their suffering by making moral proclamations against them. We must do our best to support an ill person if and as long as they live. The question of euthanasia’s acceptability remains ultimately to those who are seriously considering euthanasia. In practise, this means that we must act as though it is morally permissible, though of course we can struggle with the question further if someone seriously asks for our advice, so long as we remain charitable.

Is this logic accessible to a non-Christian? I suspect that the previous paragraph’s logic would be; while my reasoning is rooted in my understanding of the Gospels, I tried to base it in anthropology rather than explicit citations of Scripture or theology.


Bonus Question

Despite the fact that I most often read fantasy, magic realism, science fantasy, and horror, and that those are the genres I prefer to write, I would have to say that the genre which would best fit my beliefs would be the mystery novel—but it would have to be the kind which isn’t neatly tied up at the end. (To be fair, I do read and watch a lot of mysteries, especially things like BBC’s Sherlock and supernatural procedurals like The X-Files.) I base this on the fact that most of my criticisms about other people’s claims and beliefs have something to do either with epistemology or anthropology, probably both. In mystery novels, characters try to close the gaps in their knowledge, but at the same time they must often act in spite of having woefully insufficient information. This characterizes my view of human endeavour. The only bit that would not fit is the great reveal, which I would need to destabilize. Further, I am intellectually concerned with community formation and maintenance (though I do not act enough on this concern) and I am incredibly preoccupied with morality. Mystery novels, based as they are on the rupture and repair of a social and moral order (ie. a community), would capture this preoccupation too. Perhaps if you can imagine a mystery novel that trades off between Card’s character and ideas factors, rather than the events factor which usually dominates mysteries, you’ll get a sense of my most ideologically efficient genre. It might be worth noting that I surprise myself with this conclusion; my hypothesis for this exercise would have been some kind of fantasy or magic realism in the vein of Jorge Luis Borges or The Fire Horse.


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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