Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Beam In Your Own Eye

One of my e-mail correspondents asked me yesterday for my take on the gay Romney aide who was forced to resign even before his job started, by a homophobes' feeding frenzy.  I haven't answered yet, because I don't really have a take on it.  It's not exactly a surprise; what would have been surprising would have been if Romney had stood by his man, as George W. Bush stood by his gay appointees early in his administration.

My reader made a popular point, one that I've used sometimes myself in the past: why would people want to join an organization -- a political party or a religion, say -- "which basically considers him subhuman."  I'm less inclined than I used to be to say things like this, because I've come to doubt whether words like "basically" or "fundamentally" can be applied to such institutions.  Is the Democratic Party, for example, really "basically" on the side of gay people, especially given the President's opposition to same-sex marriage? The Democrats lost a lot of white racists to the Republican Party after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but did it really become The Anti-Racist Party as a result?  Right now, I agree, the Republican Party is on balance a lot more hostile to gay people than the Democratic Party, but that could change, and overlooking the variation within groups is never a good idea.

The same thing is true of religion, which is what I originally sat down to write about today.  The Daily Beast just published an attack on Dan Savage by Jay Michaelson, an avowed gay Christian and associate editor of Religion Dispatches at the Beast.
At a high-school journalism convention two weeks ago, Savage said to the audience, “We can learn to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about gay people … the same way we learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible about shellfish, about slavery,” and so on. When a few presumably religious kids walked out, Savage called them “pansy-assed.” He later apologized.
As well he should have, because Savage -- of all people! -- was using a homophobic slur to shame kids, when he didn't even know, any more than Michaelson does, why they were walking out.  But that's not what really bothered Michaelson.
Savage’s remarks ... were as damaging to LGBT people as the Christian right’s inevitable and hostile reactions to them. Worse, in fact, because they represented a notable gay leader affirming that one must choose between sexuality and religion, between God and gay.
This, not to put too fine a point on it, is a lie.  According to Michaelson's own quotation, Savage said the exact opposite.  I'm not sure who he meant by "we", but it is Christians and Jews who have "learned to ignore the bullshit in the Bible" about many matters.  (Why non-believers should be bothered even to ignore certain parts of the Bible escapes me.)  Maybe Savage meant that "one must choose between sexuality and religion" (he's not the most coherent thinker, as I've pointed out before) but it's not what he said, and it doesn't follow from what he said.

I've often been accused of the very same thoughtcrime by gay Christians over the years, so I recognize it as a typical red herring, easily disposed of.  Of course, as an atheist, I don't think that anybody should be a Christian, gay or straight, but that's not what my accusers mean.  I don't think there's any inherent conflict between being gay and being a Christian, any more than there's an inherent conflict between being gay and being a Republican, though either stance can lead to conflict and struggle.  Christianity has no inherent moral content or authority; Christians have been able to justify all kinds of practices forbidden by the Bible, whether by conveniently forgetting the prohibitions or by reinterpreting them.  Naturally, Christians don't want to hear this from me, even when I point out that atheism has no inherent moral content either.

Michaelson fits the pattern nicely.
But the truth is that there are many LGBT people who do not regard the Bible as bullshit. They lead open, affirming, sex-positive, and religious lives in every Christian and Jewish denomination in America. That includes gay evangelicals who are also Biblical literalists, gay Orthodox Jews who are committed to Jewish law, and queers of every religion who refuse the choice that Savage—like Rick Santorum, Focus on the Family, and other messengers of intolerance—insists that they make between God and gay. Our very lives refute Savage’s oversimplifications.
In short, religious affiliation has no detectable effect on one's sexual values or practices.  It's nice of Michaelson to agree with me, and with Dan Savage.  He just doesn't seem to realize that he's doing it.
We do not need to “ignore” what the Bible says about gay people, because the Bible says nothing about gay people at all. “Gay” is our construction of sexuality, not the Bible’s. What the Bible does discuss, in six verses out of 31,005 in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, is a set of specific sexual acts, in the context of drawing boundaries between the faithful and the Canaanites, "pagans," and so on. With no more textual acrobatics than we apply to basic moral norms like “Thou Shalt Not Kill”—which despite its seeming clarity is universally understood as not applying in cases of capital punishment, war, or self-defense—these extremely limited verses can be understood literally, narrowly, and with virtually no application to loving, same-sex relationships.
This is typical gay Christian apologetics, which I've often dealt with before.  It's interesting that Michaelson thinks that the verses to which he alludes are best understood "literally [!], narrowly, and with virtually no application to loving, same-sex relationships," though he doesn't follow his own advice.  None of the standard anti-homosexual verses "discuss ... a set of specific sexual acts"; it's a safe bet that Leviticus 18:22 has anal sex between males in mind, for example, but it doesn't specify it, though there's no reason to suppose that Yahweh would have approved of fellatio, as a literal, narrow reading might claim.  Romans 1 speaks only of males burning with lust for each other, and while it's true that Paul was drawing a line between "pagans" and Jesus cultists, that doesn't mean he would have permitted "loving, same-sex relationships" in his churches; "loving, same-sex relationships" were an institution in the "pagan" culture he was denouncing.  Considerably more "textual acrobatics" are needed to accommodate homosexuality than killing, since the Bible itself treats "capital punishment, war," and other kinds of killing as compatible with the Sixth Commandment.  There's no such basis for overriding the biblical prohibitions of male-to-male copulation.

"The Bible says nothing about gay people at all" is another standard evasion.  Michaelson could say as truthfully that the Bible says nothing about heterosexuals at all, or about Jews (in the Old Testament, anyway), or Christians,* or about sex or gender, since none of these words appear in the biblical text.  A narrow reading of Leviticus 18:22 doesn't really help unless you want to advocate lifelong chastity for gay men, or at least forswearing anal intercourse.  Neither is what I'd call a "sex positive" position, and I don't believe Michaelson would either.  As one gay Christian theologian wrote a few years ago, though, how many times does the Bible have to command your execution before it becomes a problem?

I don't really mean to single Michaelson out for bad biblical interpretation; Christians rarely do any better when they try to rationalize ignoring the parts of the Bible they want to ignore, whether it's Jesus' prohibition of divorce and remarriage, his exhortations to mutilate oneself rather than fall into sin, his command to separate from one's birth family and replace it with the Christian community, his condemnations of wealth, his teachings about Hell and damnation, or his apocalyptic teachings.  Which brings me to the core problem with Michaelson's apologetics.
Whereas the Bible has far more than six verses’ worth of non-bullshit about love, honesty, integrity, justice, compassion, diversity, and companionship. This is the positive case LGBT activists should be making: not ignoring the “bullshit,” but celebrating the positive values within Christian and Jewish traditions that mandate the affirmation and acceptance of gay people. Religious people should support equality because of religion, not despite it.
I've often encountered Christians who take this line.  They seem to believe, or at least imply, that if you find a way around the few anti-homosexual verses, there's no reason not to become a Christian. I answer them by arguing that there are a lot more than six verses in the Bible that are objectionable to humane people, and other reasons why Christianity (or any religion) is not a good choice for anyone.  There's a lot of inhumanity in Jesus' teaching, as I suggested above, and a lot that should be rejected for other reasons, such as his (false) teachings about the imminent final judgment.  While it's true that the Bible contains material about "love, honesty, integrity, compassion, diversity, and companionship," there's no need for anyone to rely on the Bible or any other religion to value those things, nor should Christians be allowed to claim them as particularly Christian, or even theist.  And I don't see how Michaelson advances love, honesty, integrity, etc., by writing a tissue of lies about his opponent.  I've often asked why, if Christians have the Truth, they find it necessary to tell so many lies.

I saw Michaelson's article because my Tabloid Friend linked to it on Facebook, which set off a flurry of comments.  The atheists and infidels were busy exposing their own failings, alas.  One answered my remark that atheism also lacks moral content thusly: "We do good because it is the right thing to do, we do not do things because Bronze Age goat herders heard voices in their heads."  Leaving aside the factual point that the books of the Bible are not Bronze Age documents, nor were they written by goat herders, this guy conveniently ignores the wide and deep disagreements among atheists over what "is the right thing to do."  I'm old enough to remember when most atheists took for granted that homosexuality was a mental illness that would fade away when religious repression of our natural sexual impulses was overcome.  Of course they were sure they weren't hateful about it: rather than burn us at the stake or throw us into prison, they compassionately offered us various kinds of "therapy," from talking cures to hormones to shock treatment.  Recent unfortunate events have shown that many modern male atheists have trouble grasping that women don't exist to provide emotional or sexual service to men -- they're people in their own right.  But they're not sexists! they protest.  They're modern liberated guys! ... If biblical sexism was the result of Bronze Age goat herders listening to the voices in their heads, what voices in their heads are today's atheists listening to?

No book, ancient or modern, should be taken as authority.  Everyone should approach claims to authority critically, by which I mean that they/we should be skeptical about them, as well as about our own reactions to them, but also try to think rationally about them.  Which isn't as easy to do as many people think.  That the Bible was written thousands of years ago in other cultures should be borne in mind, but it doesn't render all of its content invalid.  It was written by human beings who were concerned with "the right thing to do," even though I think they were wrong in many instances -- but then so were modern Euro-American rationalists, including me.  When I read most of the Bible some years ago to prepare for my own attack on it, I was still struck by how much of it spoke to me across the centuries.  (Though not many people would agree with me, I felt more of a recognizable human voice coming through the letters of the apostle Paul than through any of the gospels.  It doesn't mean I agreed with him, only that if I could travel back in time I'd rather hang out -- and argue -- with Paul than with Jesus.)

A corollary is that no one book or teacher is enough.  Not everyone reads as widely as I do, but reading and listening as widely as possible is vital to critical thinking.  It's when you attach yourself to one guru that you renounce your responsibility to judge.  The philosopher Walter Kaufmann, from whom I learned a lot, rejected Jesus' Judge not, lest you be judged in favor of Judge, that you may be judged.  It's a more honest position since I've never run into anyone who sided with Jesus's saying who didn't judge (and Jesus himself was extremely judgmental).  We have to judge, so we need to learn to do a better job of it.

*I was wrong about this -- the word "Christian" is used once in the Bible, at Acts 11:26: "The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch."  Which is even less often than the six times, according to Michaelson, that sex between men is mentioned, and would indicate that Christianity is that much less important than sex between men.