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Weblog :: Religion
Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 07.V.2009 14:15
'I'm glad I learned about Islam before I learned about Muslims.' These were the words of a European convert on his first journey to his new religion's homelands, and they expose a question that we often ignore, especially when dealing with the unfamiliar: what defines a religion, its precepts or the people who practise it? Out of what amounts to intellectual laziness, we gloss over the differences as if they don't matter or don't exist; people who claim that Islam is an 'inherently violent' religion point to the suras glorifying the slaughter of infidels and preaching jihad, and defenders of its record on, say, women's rights, point to those that protect women's property rights, and that state (quite categorically) that men and women are equal, and treating the latter with respect is a fundamental duty. The Bible, of course, contains such verses as well. The problem is this: reading these tells us nothing about the status of violence or women's rights among communities of that religion.

One of the most illuminating moments of my recent trip came at my hotel in Cairo. A few of us and one of the hotel employees were discussing the status of women in Egypt, and the Egyptian declared that he would never, under any circumstances, allow his wife to work. He'd rather work three jobs, because for him to fail to be the provider for his household would be an ultimate shame. If she wanted to find a job, he'd stop her from doing so by any means necessary. Why? Because it's so written in the Qur'an - it is a man's, and only a man's, duty to provide: he would be a bad Muslim if he allowed her to work. However, there was a Pakistani woman staying there as well, on her way home from time spent working in Palestine, and she quickly contradicted him - 'it doesn't say that anywhere in the Qur'an.' It is in the Hadith then - the collection of direct accounts of the prophet's life that are the second important source of Muslim law. It was not there either, she insisted. This was the first time - but very much not the last - I heard a Muslim insist that the lives of most Muslims were incompatible with the teachings of Islam.

And the woman was right: famously, Muhammad's wife Khadijah owned her own business. Unlike most, if not all, religions of the time, the Muslim laws support a woman's right to hold property separate from that of her husband. The way one man explained it to me was this - women are actually better off in Islam, because a man has a duty to bring money and use it to support his family, but a woman taking a job can keep the money for herself. The upshot of this is still incompatible with women's rights, but it's not what we're used to hearing. The problem is, most Muslims aren't like Muhammad - they're like the Egyptian, and women living in their society consequently suffer greatly. Nor, as we would be inclined to expect, is the status of women proportional to the conventional symbols of 'female oppression', such as headscarves and veils - women in Iran, so famous for its religious laws, were more independent, more assertive, and better educated than in any Arab country, while Egypt, whose women are nominally free, is one of the most misogynistic places I've been to. This disconnect arises over a whole range of issues. Muhammad famously sheltered a Jew in his home, whereas the Arab world is beset by a very real anti-Semitism that sympathetic commentators often ignore. Similarly, many Westerners react in understandable horror at the treatment of animals especially dogs, in these countries - even though it is written that Muhammad said a woman who had let her cat starve would not go to paradise.

My personal favourite example, however, of disconnect between a religion and its foundational text comes from Christiani\ty. In Matthew 19:24, Jesus says that 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,' a statement well in keeping with Jesus' broader philosophy, that it is incumbent for a man of wealth to distribute it to the poor. Of course, now that Christianity is no longer poor and repressed but the faith of the richest countries in the world, there are many people like Rush Limbaugh who may be Christians but have no intention of giving away much of their vast wealth, and in fact actively oppose it reaching poor people by railing against Obama's supposed tax hikes. Christianity has solved this problem by one of the most ridicuolous sleights-of-hand in religious history - by claiming that the 'eye of the needle' was a nickname for a gate entering Jerusalem, through which a camel could just barely fit. Now, there is absolutely no evidence for this, and its patently ludicrous on its face - ludicrous, that is, to anyone without a vested interest in finding a loophole out of the requirements of his own religion. Of course most Christians, like most Muslims, don't actually know the precepts of their religion - they take them to be the norms of the religious culture they grew up in. That's why the Egyptian man could claim so confidently that no good Muslim would allow his wife to hold a job, and why conservatives claim that liberals aren't real Christians for ignoring a variety of sex-related propositions - and liberals claim the converse for ignoring Jesus' fundamental message of tolerance.

Such cognitive dissonance is par for the course in religious life. Leviticus commands us to stone those wearing materials of mixed cloth (I'm wearing 40% cotton - bring it on, Christians!), as well as a whole host of other rules that AJ Jacobs found out in his Year of Living Biblically; the title of this post comes from Psalm 137. The recently popular idea of Islamic Banking is almost as ridiculous as the 'eye of the needle' trick - Islam prohibits charging interest, but loans would never be made with out it, so a few bits of legalese and the sin of usury is neatly avoided. No religion could be more specifically against violence than Buddhism, yet Sri Lanka's Buddhism even now are wreaking havoc on the majority-Hindu Tamils on its little island. Native American religions, as white liberal guilt has made famous, preached harmony with the natural environment - but many of these societies overexploited their environments, going extinct when there wasn't any other place to exploit. Hinduism may be the only religion to escape this charge - precisely because it is so amorphous and heterogenous that one would be hard pressed to figure out what its stated precepts are.

We ignore these problems, though, because, as the Onion reminds us, stereotypes are a real timesaver - we want nice, clear statements that we can generalise and then argue about, and Holy Books, because of their definitiveness, are the best places to provide this. 'Islam is an inherently violent religion' is one of the more popular Qur'an-defended assertions, and the only truth to it is one that applies equally to Christianity - these are proselytising religions, and among missionary arguments, 'convert or I'll kill you' is among the most powerful. Broadly, however, if you read only the Qur'an or the Bible, and then tried to predict what a society of its believers would look like, you wouldn't be close. Even if you got it right for the modern age, you'd be wrong for the situation a thousand years ago, when Islam was the centre of worldwide science and education, and Christianity had plunged Europe into what are justifiably known as the 'Dark Ages.' In our images of Islam as hostile to external thought, it is easy to forget that the only reason we retain knowledge of the Greek philosophers is because Christians captured their texts, in Arabic translation, during the reconquista of Spain - Christians had destoryed such pagan texts in Europe long ago. Now the situation is reversed - the Arab world has a far less educated populace, and the global centres of learning are uniformly in the Christian West, though some bits of Christianity are slipping into a shocking anti-intellectualism. The point is that none of these developments are based on an inherent 'pro-science' or 'anti-science' aspect in any of these religions.

Ultimately, I think, religion is more an expression of identity than an expression of truth - we may root our behavious in the Bible or the Qur'an, but we go on behaving in the same ways that everyone else in the world behaves. We pursue our desires and we protect our families; we love and we hate. More often than not, religion doesn't drive these behavious, but is rather a tool for rationalising them - that's why, as culture changed, parts of the Bible suddenly became 'metaphorical,' like the seven day account of creation, which was a perfectly reasonable thing to believe until the advent of modern science. So, except for a few fundamentalists, instead of making our beliefs fit our religion, we made our religion fit our beliefs - because these new 'beliefs' were actually knowledge rather than revealed truth. Of course, modern Western society has diverged so much from its roots that the only recourse among liberals has been to a sort of preceptless non-religion for which I have no respect; basically, anything in the Bible you don't like is 'metaphor' or 'irrelevant,' but you're still, somehow, a Christian. But that's okay - because the actions of these liberals, especially in areas such as tolerance of homosexuals or the support of the rights of women, are far more praiseworthy than the contrary stances in their holy books. Similarly, although the Qur'an has, by and large, an even more peaceful and tolerant message than the Bible does, the Arab world utterly fails to reflect such precepts, and is justly criticised for its lack of human rights and, ultimately, backwardness in social policy. When we talk about Islam, or Christianity, we often quote the Qur'an and the Bible - but then we fall into the same trap as so many sociologists, talking about who people say they are rather than who they actually are, which, ultimately, impedes any progress towards understanding these cultures.

Sana'a, Yemen Ye

Holy places, holy words 28.XI.2008 02:37
Yesterday, I attended the Sigd, the most important festival of the Ethiopian Jewish community in Israel. The Ehiopian Jews, commonly known as Beta Israel, are a group of people who maintained the Jewish tradition through the ages in Christian Ethiopia. In exile, they knew nothing of other Jews in the world or the land of Israel, and for them it was a paradise, a holy place to which they dreamt of one day returning, and the Sigd festival expresses their desire to return to Jerusalem. Now that they are in Jerusalem - and have found it not quite a land of milk and honey - the festival has been rededicated to the desire for the building of the third temple, but nevertheless each person approaches the kessim - the high priests - to receive a handful of Jerusalem soil. The place, despite no longer being a legend but a usual city racked with transit problems, remains holy. The kessim, in their multicoloured robes chant liturgies in Ge'ez, the classical Ethiopian language which few members of the community speak; they speak, rather, Amharic, the current official language of Ethiopia. Especially in Israel, one can't help but be reminded of these familiar aspects of religion - holy words and holy places - that serve to separate the sacred from the profane. Religion needs these, ultimately, because they are an extension of ancient beliefs in various kinds of magic that would be familiar to any reader of The Golden Bough.

Israel is a land of magical places. Last week, I biked around the Sea of Galilee visiting, among others, Tabgha and Capernaum. The former is the place where Jesus used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a multitude; the latter is where he preached his gospel at the synagogue. Christian holy sites are everywhere in Israel, and one can't help but notice that, even though the vast majority of buildings from two millennia ago are lost, each house and rock in the New Testament seems to have remained - how lucky is that? My grandmother has made several pilgrimages to Međugorje, where the Virgin Mary appeared, despite being averse to all other forms of travel. My uncle, suffering from a heart problem, decided to take a trip to the holy city of Częstochowa rather than the hospital in the hopes of being cured, and promptly died of a heart attack on the unairconditioned bus. These stories appear over and over, Lourdes and Fatima and Guadaloupe, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Israel - the 'Holy Land' - home of the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Haram ash-Sharif. I think holy places are important because they're seen as permanent - the Romans may destroy the Second Temple, but not Mt. Zion itself. That's the lesson of Sigd; even though the Beta Israel lost Jerusalem, it never lost its mythical status as the holy home of the religion.

More interesting, though, is the phenomenon of holy words and holy languages. At the Jewish tombs of the patriarchs, there were several scrolls decorated with the tetragrammaton, יהוה, which must never be spoken. The Arabic Allah is the only word in the languages that retains a particular consonant, the dark-l, and the name of the Prophet must never be spoken without 'peace be upon him.' All Christian prayers end with the incantation 'amen,' and the second commandment specifically forbids using the Lord's name in vain. Liturgical languages are everywhere - Latin, Classical Greek, Old Church Slavonic, Classical Arabic, Sanskrit. Charismatic Christians speak in tongues. Everywhere, we see words of power that are separated from the words that are used in every day discourse; the sacred words have power, and their mere utterance an effect in the world: they must be treated with respect.

You can see this in the names of the churches around the Holy Land. The Church of the Dormition. The Basilica of the Annunciation. There's the Ascension (of Jesus) and the Assumption (of Mary). There is, of course, the Resurrection. These aren't words we use every day; they're magic words, sacred words, words which apply only to holy events, whose presence brings you closer to God. Mary wasn't taken to heaven, she was Assumed into it. I think that the separation satisfies the basic human need for a reality beyond the imperfect and impure quotidian one - the belief, broadly speaking, that there has to be 'something more.' Moreover, they separate the initiates from the ignorant, the elect from the multitudes. This is one of the main way cults attract followers - they make their members feel like they're the only ones who know the real truth; that's why Tom Cruise can claim that only a Scientologist can really help when he passes by a car accident, not the paramedics; he's a Keeper of the Secrets.

One of the most interesting things is the way new religious movements, recognising this need, create holy places and holy words of their own. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, claimed his scriptures were translated from 'Reformed Egyptian' (note: does not exist), and founded a new promised land on the shores of Great Salt Lake. Scientology itself is a wonderful example - they're talk of Thetans instead of Souls, Dianetics and Clear Levels, are a perfect modern construction of the magical incantations of the traditional religions. I think this is actually one of the secrets of its success; few other religions provide so stark a contrast between the holy knowledge of the initiates and the ignorance of the ignorant. I can't help but wonder if the Catholic church's difficulty in attracting new members isn't partly tied to its abandonment of Latin as a liturgical language - it thought it was imitating the extremely popular Protestant movements, but let's not forget that these have a huge movement for the exclusive use of the King James Bible, its English being the pure tongue of God, the only words worthy of literal interpretation.

In addition to the many holy places of the Abrahamic religions, I went to the Baha'i Gardens in Haifa, which are genuinely beautiful. They were created as a refuge for the followers of Baha'ullah, who were - and are - badly persecuted in their native Persia. The Ottomans allowed them to create these beautifully serene refugees, but the politics of the British Mandate have placed them in Israel - the one country they cannot visit from their native Iran. As the Ethiopians did for centuries, there is now a new group pining for an unattainable place in the Holy Land. It too has the goal of a holy language - a universal one for mankind, Esperanto. Every religion seems to need the magic words and magic centres to give its adherents an anchor, a separation from their everyday life, which in many cases is quite brutal. Nevertheless, its persistence in new religious movements - and in the old ones who feed the religious tourism Israel - ties this basic human need to the old beliefs in powerful sacred words that show how small the gulf that separates current religions from their more 'primitive' antecedents really is.

Jerusalem, Israel Il

The Philosopher's Kingdom, or: why religion doesn't matter 03.X.2007 21:15
To Westerners, Tibet has an undeniable mystique. Not only does its location in the most inaccessible parts of the Himalayas make it seem like a forbidden land, but it is the home of one of today's most fashionable religions: Tibetan Buddhism. This is the land where people not only understand Zen koans, but live their lives by them. People here know that desire is suffering and, like the well-respected Dalai Lama, wish only goodwill to 'all sentient beings.' Moreover, the Tibetan flavour of Buddhism, with its complex rituals and endless incantations, is by far the most esoteric, and therefore most exotic. This inaccessibility makes us think that the Tibetans have glimpsed some great mystic truth, and live lives that are diametrically opposed to our materialistic, Western ones. I can't count the number of times I heard comments to the effect that other travellers 'had never experienced a culture so different from their own.'

Unfortunately, it isn't true. All the differences are superficial. We see the ritual kora - the circumambulation of holy places that is central to religious life - and, seeing no parallel in our own culture, endow it with a depth and mystique that it simply does not possess. The commonplaces of Tibetan life, however, tell a different story; desire may be suffering, but most locals have a very strong desire for any money you might have in your pocket. There's nothing wrong with this - they are poor people with few economic opportunities doing their best to survive. The point, though, is that they are just like those you'd meet in any other poor region. They make the most of what opportunities they do get - in this case, gullible tourists, both Western and Chinese - and they have what material possessions they can afford, and they remain, by and large, quite joyful (I can't stand when people comment they can't believe how happy people in these poor areas are - why shouldn't they be?). The fact is, the average Tibetan merchant has more in common with a fruit-seller in Nairobi or Bangkok than to our celebrity Buddhists Richard Gere or Leonard Cohen. They don't live their lives pondering paradoxical statements, but trying to provide the best lives they can for themselves and those they love.

None of this is to say that Tibetans and Westerners don't have significant cultural differences, but they're just that - cultural. They don't stem from religion or mysticism, but from the natural differences in the development of human societies. They are far more open to guests, for example - but because they have not developed the fear of strangers that pervades the West, and because the incredibly rugged land made reliance on others a necessity, not because of Dalai Lama-esque comments about goodwill towards all. One aspect of the culture - the sheer proportion of monks and nuns (initiates, as it were) within society - is striking, but even this isn't indicative of some sort of deeper spirituality; simply, monasteries offer the best prospects for education (without surrendering to the perceived hegemony of the PRC), and provide economically for their members. Of course, they do receive religious education, and some monks truly are incredibly serene, but then so are many Catholic priests, Muslim imams and even atheists, who find peace in the tenets of secular humanism. On the other hand there is no shortage of monks with iPods, fine suits and gold watches - the desire for which was suffering, no doubt, only until they went out and bought the things. In fact, despite Tibet's immense amount of beggars (it has a long tradition of alms-giving), only the monks will ever be pushy, grabbing your arm and demanding donations - although one can't help but wonder if some aren't just regular people who have bought monk's robes.

In fact, Vajrayana - the usual name for the Tibetan vehicle of Buddhism - has the most in common not with with the highly abstract philosophy associated with our stereotypes of Buddhism (look, if anywhere, to Theravada for that), but with Roman Catholicism. Both are heavily reliant on ritual and incantation - Tibetans recite 'aum mani padme hum', and Catholics 'hail Mary, full of grace,' and both view the priestly class as the gateway to paradise - and one can't help but see the parallel between the wheel of rebirth en route to eventual nirvana with the Catholic concept of purgatory, even if one is Earthly and the other not. Moreover, both are essentially polytheistic religions in monotheistic garb - Tibetans pray to a variety of Buddhas, Boddhisattvas, Gurus and other entities, each with a specific domain such as longevity or prosperity, and Catholics similarly have a pantheon of Saints to whom to pray to address their specific needs. Tibetans make pilgrimages to Potala, Trashilhünpo and Mt. Kailash, and Catholics make them to Lourdes, Fatima and Međugorje, and though Tibetans circumambulate and prostrate while Catholics kneel and cross themselves, the differences are strictly superficial. Vajrayana is esoteric Buddhism and Catholicism is esoteric Christianity, but the differences in the particular ritual incantations to which they devote substantial parts of their lives don't make substantial differences in the kinds of people they are.

People tend to self-identify very strongly with their religions and, in many cases, religion is intertwined with notions of family and ancestry - to reject one is to betray the others; Judaism struggles with this especially. Moreover, no matter one's material circumstances, the rituals of a religion can generally be honoured, and it's thus a portion of the identity that circumstance or oppression cannot take away. Nevertheless, those rituals are superficialities - a Muslim in Canada may identify strongly with a Muslim in Indonesia, but almost certainly has much more in common with a Canadian Christian (or Buddhist or Zoroastrian). In fact, the superficial nature of religious differences is readily apparent in China - you can identify Hui Muslims by their skullcaps, Tibetan Buddhists by their prayer wheels, etc., etc. But the Muslim quarter of Lhasa differs from the Tibetan one mostly in the food it serves and the architecture of its shrines - not the lifestyle of its people; nothing would serve to identify the Hui merchant from the Tibetan one were it not for his clothing. Moreover, it is difficult to fight the (reprehensible) feeling that the younger generation aren't 'real' Tibetans - that the fact that they don't wear folk costume means that they've lost touch with their heritage and, by extension, their religion. Why? Because we associate the notion of a different culture - which is to us, of course, a tourist attraction - with superficialities such as clothing. Even if the yung Tibetans walk the same koras and say the same mantras as their parents, it's tough not to feel as though they've lost that mystic connection we associate with Tibetan Buddhism. For us, it must contain a total rejection of our modern, material world, as though a North Face jacket were an impediment on the path to nirvana - maybe seeing people with iPods deprives us of that superior feeling of 'experiencing other cultures' and 'broadening our horizons.'

Perhaps we cling to the notion that different religious habits translate to spiritual depth because we are so insecure about the shallowness of our own culture. Yet human society, in all its forms, always shows remarkable depth, and this is no less true of Wall Street than the Barkhor circuit. We approach Tibetan Buddhism the same way as the blind men describing the elephant: we see a small part, say a paradoxical mantra, or prayer flags being carried on the wind to the abode of the Gods, and project it onto the whole of society; we take the mystic statements of the Dalai lama and assume they're also echoed by the lowliest peasant. The fact, though, is that peope everywhere share the same basic experiences, both good and bad - of love and of loss, of concern and of greed, of peace and of anger and of fear - and this is what gives richness to all human societies. To presume that this is eclipsed by superstitions, rituals and incantations - that the form of the Tibetan kora makes a difference greater than our similarities - is to devalue both our culture and theirs. Anyone who finds a philosopher's kingdom in Tibe has simply clung to one of his own preconceptions.
Probability and certainty, science and religion 20.IV.2006 01:06
In my discussion courses this year, especially Religion and Film, I was often told by more relativistically-minded classmates that it's closed-minded to think that 'right' and 'wrong' beliefs exist at all, that faith and taste are both private matters, not subject to judgement. I think this is ridiculous. One of the big problems in the modern way of thinking is our preoccupations with certainty and equality – which lead us to the conclusion that, when things aren't certain, all possibilities are equal. Now, I don't believe that certainty exists at all, at least not for the human mind – rather what we have are sets of probabilities. We apply this kind of thinking every day – in, say, risk management – but when it comes to more contentious issues (especially the news) suddenly every possibility is an equal one. I think there are wrong things to believe (intelligent design) and that people should be called out for believing them. Unfortunately, our society seems to be more and more tolerant of stupid theories when they are mere possibilities.

Let us start with a simple example: I'm holding a ball in my hand, and I'm going to let go of it. What should I think this ball is going to do? In my opinion, the correct thing to believe is that it will fall – even though there's a chance it won't, because of any number of possible factors that of which I might be unaware, from anomalous wind patterns to God. However, I think a person would be a fool to say that since both it rising and it falling are technically possible, a person would be just as 'right' to say that it will fall up as that it will fall down. Of course, I think it would be ridiculous in the extreme to say that the two possibilities should be given equal credence. It's right to believe that the book will fall, and wrong to believe otherwise.

In fact, I think everyone agrees with this fact, even those philosophers who have made careers out of denying it – simply because this belief is vital to any kind of functioning in the real world. Think what would happen if you kept all your options equally open: you'd wake up in the morning, decide you wanted to get up and eat breakfast, but then you'd be completely lost. The kitchen would be the best place to get breakfast – but what if your roommates rearranged the house in the night. There's no reason to believe the kitchen's still there – if it's possible that it's not, it's just as likely, right? – so there'd be no reason to head in the direction you remember the kitchen being, rather than say, going to another bedroom – maybe the kitchen's there now. The reason we go to the kitchen and don't think about these other possibilities is because they're so unlikely that they don't merit being prepared for – we'd consider a person who constantly behaved in this way as stark raving mad. Clearly, in the matter of getting breakfast, the right way of thinking is to go to the kitchen.

Now, most of the breakfast-eating population of the world would concede this fact quite readily – but many contend that, even so, spiritual matters are beyond the scope of such reasoning. I have never been able to see why this should be so. My grade eleven English teacher once tried to tell me that science was like any other religion, reliant on faith for its legitimacy. This is true, but only a to a very limited degree, and certainly not in the way he meant. Science has one article of faith – that a multiplicity of consistent examples constitutes a pattern. Some (notably David Hume) have argued that this renders our knowledge meaningless, but I disagree for a number of reasons outside the scope of this entry. What I want to emphasise is that that article of scientific faith is the exact same one the enables us to go and get some breakfast – that past evidence tells us what is probable in the future, and that the rational person acts on this knowledge.

Science is (or at least, should be) the art of stripping away everything but that one assumption about induction and seeing what remains. There is an element of faith in trusting broad scientific opinion, of course – I don't test every theory I hear before I believe it – but even this is only a manifestation of the belief in the plausibility of induction, because the times I have tested scientific theories, they have not failed me. Of course, this isn't to say that all our current theories are correct: what it means is that given the knowledge available to mankind, it is rational to believe in evolution, and irrational not to. People in favour of teaching intelligent design on par with evolution are proponents of precisely the kind of irrational thinking described above – that possibility is enough to give one theory equal value to another.

In my opinion, knowledge is in essence the recognition of patterns, and it is because of this that I cannot believe in God, or spirituality in general: there has been nothing in my life, no pattern or other evidence, that suggests his existence. Now, I don't deny that the existence of an omnipotent God is possible – it is perfectly consistent with everything I've observed about the world, and, in fact, with every possible set of observations in every possible world. Moreover, I agree that absence of proof is not proof of absence. But Occam's Razor teaches us not to multiply entities beyond necessity – meaning that given that both the absence and the presence of a thing explain something equally well, we should favour the absence. We could believe that planes fly because great imperceptible birds carry them in their talons, but are beyond human observation – but it can be explained using air currents, and any proponent of the 'ornithological imperceptibility' theory of flight would hardly be listened to. There is no reason not to apply the same logic to the existence of God, beyond the purely sociological fact of billions' belief in him – but 'five billion people can't be wrong' does not qualify as hard science.

This is what distinguishes science from religion – it has its basis in probability, not desire. But we don't merely need to explain things like human evolution; we need to explain why it rained yesterday, or why our cars won't start, or why bad things happen to good people. Most importantly, we need these theories to help us in our planning for future events. However, if we put separate out parts of our lives and keep them from reason – the 'spiritual', and most dangerously, the moral – we cease to act on our thoughts and start to act more on our desires. Open-mindedness is important when it comes to culture, and when it comes to genuine mysteries, and questioning accepted wisdom is a vital part of science; but if we start to pretend that every option with even a modicum of possibility is equal, as favoured by the creationist movement, the very foundations of rational thinking will have been abandoned.
Homosexuality, nature and decisions 19.XII.2005 14:06
One of the things that annoys me most in the homosexuality debate is the focus on whether it is natural, and whether it is a choice. This is an argument engaged in eagerly by both factions, and sometimes it seems to me many believe that the issue of the morality of homosexuality hinges on its outcome. This annoys me, because the issue is completely immaterial; and yet studies keep cropping up as evidence of homosexual behaviour in animals, or equating homophobia to racism because homosexuality isn't a choice. Neither could be less relevant to an actual debate of morality.

In my opinion, the fact that this argument exists at all is a victory for the opponents of homosexuality, because it allows the debate to happen on their terms, mostly, those involving God. Ethics, however, definitely has nothing to do with 'naturalness', and in my opinion has little to do with inborn tendencies. To debate whether something's natural only makes sense if we deify nature, somehow making it perfect and something to which we humans should strive; I guess this makes sense in the context of God, but it really doesn't in a modern secular morality. And yet, the debate persists.

For me, the clearest parallel to homosexuality (in terms of the two aspects at hand) is aggression. Aggression, of course, is extremely natural: it practically defines the animal world, and the plant world, in its own way, is no peaceful walk in the park either. And yet, violence is wrong; to kill another person, or to hurt another person, is wrong. The question then, if it is natural, is what makes it wrong. Clearly, God created violence, and thus violence must be part of His Ineffable and Divine Plan. The thing that makes it wrong is empathy, to me the centre of all ethics; humans' empathy for one another makes (most of) us recoil at the thought of others being hurt, and those who lack that empathy must be prevented from inflicting harm, however natural violence is. So why does homosexuality need penguins to validate it? Flight is unnatural for humans, but I don't see the Christian right protesting at every airport.

The more interesting issue is that of choice, but while I have no idea if homosexuality is 'natural' or not, I can categorically say that it is a choice. Now, I don't mean that being attracted to the same sex is a choice; but acting on it definitely is. It's the same with paedophilia; some people are sexually attracted to children, but that doesn't make acting on those impulses somehow moral. Moreover, we can return to the parallel of violence: some people are born more aggressive than others, but committing violence is still wrong (though our legal system is moving more and more to using any kind of compulsion as an excuse for anything). Ethically, as human beings, paedophiles and aggressive people have a responsibility not to act on their compulsions; their immorality has nothing to do with inborn tendency or not. If homosexuality were wrong, it would be equally people's responsibility not to act on their desires, irrespective of whether they could help them or not

All this, of course, doesn't matter, because homosexuality isn't wrong, but it has nothing to do with the fact that it's natural or isn't a choice. Homosexuality isn't wrong because it doesn't hurt anyone; it does not infringe on the human rights of any other person, and rights are subtractive rather than additive: something needs to be proven wrong to be denied as a right, not validated to be enshrined as one. If we allow the debate to continue on issues like 'naturalness', or choice, we're opening ourselves up to moral attacks that are, quite simply, irrelevant. Paedophilia and violence can be just as natural, and just as inborn, as homosexuality, but they are wrong for reasons that are not mirrored in homosexuality. Debating homosexuality in these aspects is completely missing the point, and is effectively an attempt to fit it into Victorian sexual morality rather than reject that oppressive morality outright and that, I think, is a mistake.