Saturday, October 20, 2007

Have you heard of Matt Slick? He runs CARM, The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. He also has a radio show which is podcast on FeedBurner.

The man annoys me. He's obviously well read and intelligent. He's also fairly polite to his callers, who may come from many walks of life and who may express opinions he radically disagrees with. He's an American conservative Protestant minister; I'm an Irish nominal-JW with atheist tendencies gay chap. We have a lot to disagree on. Yet I still enjoy listening to him. His take on different faith groups is interesting, and his engagement with atheists is respectful and productive. And then he starts on gay marriage. The change in him is extraordinary. He just stops making sense.

I subscribe to his podcast, so my computer downloads all his shows. But I don't listen to them in order. I've so far listened to two where homosexual issues are mentioned in the title of the show: Matt Slick & Brian Fischer - Homosexual Agenda - Pre-recorded, broadcast on 15th March 2007, and, just now, Matt Slick and Atheist Bob Discussing Homosexuality, broadcast on 11th May 2007. The episode with Brian Fischer I listened to a while ago and I remember few of the details. I do recall that Brian agreed with Matt about the evils of homosexuality and that, bizarrely, they opened the show by complimenting each other on their dress sense.

Bob the atheist (I'm sure his surname was mentioned in one of the earlier shows) put up a fairly strong defense of gay marriage on the basis that it does no harm. He was hampered by Matt's debating style which careens from one topic to another with no central cohesion and with a lot of unsupported remarks.


Let's run through the broadcast debate, pointing out various gaps and errors contained therein.

We start with Bob asking Matt's opinion of homosexuality in general and of gay marriage in particular. (I personally prefer the term same-sex marriage, but I'll stick here with the phrase used on the radio debate.) Matt replies, unsurprisingly, that homosexuality is a sin. (We'll skip over any distinctions between sexual identity and sexual activity. The waters are muddy enough already, believe me.) Marriage, he says, is defined in the Bible as occurring between one man and one woman.

At this point, my reply would have been "So what?" I really want to know why so many religious people feel the need to use the law to impose the restrictions of their religion on others. Maybe it just makes them feel better. But Matt seems to think that to allow homosexuals to marry is to confer upon them 'special rights', so perhaps he doesn't see that he's imposing restrictions on other people's lives with no good reason.

Bob uses a different tack. The Bible, he says, allows for polygamy. So marriage is not defined as occurring only between one man and one woman. Clever. And true. And it's worth noting that many of the most celebrated faithful men in the Bible had multiple wives and concubines: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Solomon.

Matt is quick to reply. This was an allowance, he says, not the original divine plan. His ground is slightly shaky here. In Matthew 19:3-9, Jesus says that divorce is wrong, but was allowed by the Mosaic law as a temporary measure. Matt is saying that the same applies to polygamy, but he has little scriptural support. The only thing he can offer is that the New Testament says that church officials should have "one wife" (1 Timothy 3:2, 12; Titus 1:6) and that polygamous marriage is nowhere else referred to in this part of the Bible, as it was not the norm in the society of the time. He also points to the union of Adam & Eve as setting a pattern. Circumstantial, not conclusive.

Also, of course, if an exception was allowed then, why should one not be allowed now? And a gay marriage is arguably closer in kind to the union of Adam & Eve than is a polygamous marriage. (Bob didn't raise these points, but he was thinking on his feet, unlike me, who have been mulling over this for most of the day now.)

Round one to Bob.


Matt contends that while different forms of marriage may have been permitted (polygamy, concubinage) to the patriarchs, these were (a) like divorce, permitted but not fully approved of and (b) still between man and woman. On a tangent, Bob replies that if it's threats to marriage you're interested in, surely you should be agitating to ban divorce. This is a tangent, but it's an interesting one, as it reveals that yet again the motives of the religious right are not pure. Most strict Protestant branches allow divorce on very few grounds. They're quite strict about it. And yet they're happy for society at large to be less strict, to allow divorce on many grounds. We see again that the objection to homosexuality is not primarily religious in nature. Religion is merely providing a screen to mask bigotry. The Christian position is, as Bob points out, inconsistent.

Round two is inconclusive, as neither really responded to the other's points. Actually, this is more of a tail-off to round one, and I have dealt with both of Matt's points above. Polygamous marriage is a further deviation from Matt's 'ideal' than gay marriage is.


Bob launches the next assault. He's happily married in a heterosexual relationship. Politicians tell him that his marriage is 'under attack' by advocates for same-sex marriage. He fails to see this himself. He doesn't see how the legalisation of gay marriage affects him. As such, he feels that it is little of his business. If that's what the homosexual community wants, he says, let them have it. It's not a problem.

Matt comes at this one sideways, by analogy. (I'm not accusing him of slyness. To come at a debating point sideways is perfectly respectable.) He asks should siblings be allowed to marry. It's an interesting question, alright. Bob replied simply that he hadn't thought of that one before, which is a respectable answer. It's an answer which increased my respect for Bob: he acknowledges that he sometimes needs to stop and think about things.

I have had time to think about it, but I'm still not sure what I think. Allow me to do a stream-of-consciousness style thing here while I try to work out my opinion. First, the question needs to be rephrased: In a discussion of human rights, we should withhold a right only with good reason. So the question is, Why shouldn't siblings be allowed to marry? If we can't answer that, we allow them to marry by default. Are you with me so far?

The next point is that any revulsion we may feel at incest is irrelevant. We cannot (should not, anyway) legislate by our personal tastes. (If I ruled the world, mayonnaise would be banned.) I find the notion of close relatives having sex quite quite disgusting, but if I'm to be reasonable, I must ignore that.

So why should adult siblings be prevented from marrying? One reason only remains: such a heterosexual pairing would likely result in unhealthy offspring. What of that? Is preventing marriage the best solution to this? Surely the dissemination of information (about (a) contraception and (b) the likelihood of congenital defects) is the best way to prevent these illnesses? And what of homosexual sibling pairings? What reasonable objection is there to these marrying?

I cannot answer the question I posed myself, Why shouldn't siblings be allowed to marry? By default, then, I must allow them to marry. This is how human rights work. However, I don't rule the world.

Matt also mentions paedophiliacs here, but the subject is skipped over. I'll skip over it too, for now, because they come back to it later in the discussion.

Let's move on. Round three undecided.


Should a person be allowed to marry an animal?, asks Matt. I'm not sure what the word marriage would mean in this context. Would the animal then have hospital visitation rights? Could your cat make decisions for you when you're on life support? Would your dog have power of attorney? Maybe humans should be allowed to enter into some form of legal relationship with certain animals, but to call this a marriage is to stretch the definition of the word beyond breaking point.

Matt's point is that love is not, in itself, the deciding factor for whether a marriage is valid. Fair enough. No one said it was.

At this point, with issues and counter issues being raised on top of each other, it's difficult to work out the exact logical structure of the debate. My division of it into rounds is of course largely arbitrary. Let's say that Matt wins round four: love is not in itself enough for a marriage to be valid. We pass, in the middle of a sentence, into the next section.


Can you marry someone else's wife if you love each other? (Legally, at time of writing, yes, but she must divorce her current husband first.) This is Matt continuing his last point. Bob takes him up on it thus: an act is wrong if it does harm. At this point, Bob also picks up on Matt's earlier throwaway comment on paedophilia: does it do harm? Then it's wrong.

Then they break off into a diversion about the source of ethics in an atheistic universe.

Of course, without guidance from a higher intelligence, humans even with the best of intentions will make mistakes. You can develop your ethics to the highest degree and still harm others. (It must be said, though, that some of the greatest damage to humanity has been done by those who claimed they were acting in perfect harmony with the will of God.) But what Matt dismisses as 'situational ethics' is real. And we can derive an excellent ethical system independent of God: A moral act is one which decreases the sum total of human suffering; an immoral act is one which increases the sum total of human suffering. If we add to this simple code a prohibition on lying, we have a perfectly adequate framework for assessing our actions in most situations.

Matt beats Bob down on the diversion (largely because Bob was anxious to get back on topic, I think) but Bob has won round five: an act is wrong only if it does harm. Homosexual marriage does not do harm.


"Tell me," asks Matt, "Why should homosexuals be allowed to get married?" As I've noted above, this is the wrong question. In a discussion on rights, always ask why the right should be withheld, not why it should be granted. Matt, not Bob, has the work to do in this debate.

However, Bob decides that he will answer Matt's question. There is a large mass of people asking for it, he says, and granting their wish will do no harm.

Matt derides the first part of this as argumentum ad populum: let's do this because a lot of people want us to. Argumentum ad populum is of course largely invalid in a discussion of ethics or morality, but when you're trying to apply ethics or morality to a democratic system, it does have a certain amount of weight. Essentially, Matt's right. If gay marriage is a good thing, it's still a good thing if only one couple in the world want it; if gay marriage is a bad thing, it's still a bad thing if half the population want it. But legal systems have inertia, and it requires a certain mass of people with a strength of opinion to overcome that inertia. (A court decision can sometimes do the trick too. One of the functions of the courts is to protect minority opinions and groups from the tyranny of the majority.) Bob is merely remarking that critical mass has been reached on this issue, so it has become an important cause.

So we move onto doing no harm. Matt asks how Bob knows it doesn't hurt anyone. Fair enough, Bob has declared that it doesn't hurt anyone, and Matt's asking him to back up his statement. The real burden of proof in the debate as a whole, though, is on Matt to show that it does hurt people. Remember, we grant human rights (such as the right to marriage) by default, unless there's a good reason not to do so. Matt does not here suggest any harm that gay marriage might cause, he merely asks how Bob knows it does no harm. Bob's response is merely that the research he's done suggests that it doesn't hurt anyone. I don't know what research Bob may have done, but an excellent place to start would be Abigail Garner's book Families Like Mine.

In round six, a lot of questions went unanswered on both sides. I think Bob acquitted himself better than Matt, but we'll call it a tie.


To what extent does the recognition of gay marriage put a burden on society? This is Matt's next question. The changing laws will put some expense on the taxpayer, perhaps, but Matt does not focus on that.

He talks about some writing that he's been doing on his website. He's worried that he might be sued for saying that homosexuality is a sin, and has to spend time and expense consulting with lawyers and legal groups who might protect him. (Might I suggest the American Civil Liberties Union, who are strongly in favour of free speech and who have a good record of protecting all sorts of disgusting opinions they actually disagree with very strongly.) Free speech is of course protected in the United States of America. All sorts of silly lawsuits might be brought, but (a) this has nothing to do with the recognition of marriage, per se, and (b) it's the fault, as Bob says, of a silly legal system which allows frivolous lawsuits to be brought. Watching the news from the sane side of the Atlantic, it sometimes seems that most Americans spend most of their time suing everyone for everything.

Anyway, I, for one, am not in favour of any form of censorship. If I don't see Matt's arguments, how can I refute them?

Who wins round seven? I'm not educated enough in US law to be certain, but I think that Matt's talking nonsense. Free speech is well protected in the US. And Bob's right in saying that, while this issue is related to that of gay marriage, it is somewhat off topic. I'm declaring this one a win for Bob.


Keeping to the same theme of how recognition of gay marriage puts a burden on society, Matt states that this is asking people to change their morality. It's not: it's asking them to change their unfair restrictive laws. To what extent does law inform morality? To what extent does morality inform law? In any case, they are not the same thing.

Bob's response is cutting enough. People have had their morals overridden by law in the past, and we now largely regard these decisions as good. He mentions slavery. We could add women's suffrage. It's worth noting that (a) conservative religions disapproved of both these changes and (b) in the case of the slave trade, at least, the changing law actually did 'harm' slave owners, by removing their 'property', in a way that gay marriage will not harm anyone.

Matt ignores this (or, rather, sidesteps it), so Bob wins round eight. (Rounds eight and nine are really the same one, but I'm doing quite a lot of commentary on nine, so I split off the introduction into this short round eight. As I said, the divisions are arbitrary.)


The sidestep brings us to another interesting point. Matt declares that the example of the slaves is irrelevant, because black skin is inherent, whereas homosexuality is a behaviour. He's missing the point, of course. For a start, the relationship between slavery and black skin, and the idea that black people were constituted to be slaves, is a recent anomaly in human history. It has ever been the vanquished who have been slaves. The English word derives from Slav, and the Slavs are certainly not black. In any case, in focusing on the differences between slaves and homosexuals, Matt is deliberately (?) missing the point of Bob's analogy. It sometimes is right to ride roughshod over religious people's misconceived 'moral' objections. If this was true in the case of slavery, Matt cannot say that asking people to change their morals is necessarily to put an unfair burden on them.

Also, the argument over whether homosexuality is a behaviour or an orientation, a choice or inborn, is totally besides the point. I actually agree on this with that awful charlatan Dr James Dobson. In his book Bringing Up Boys, he says that the question of whether homosexuality is inborn or a choice makes no difference to its morality. He's right. Homosexuality does no harm, and is therefore morally neutral. Oppressing homosexuals is therefore morally wrong.

(For the record, though, homosexuality is inborn.)

Does this even count as a round? It's Matt Slick on an incoherent rant. I won't score it, but I'll call it round nine, for ease of reference.


Bob asks at this point where the problem with homosexuality or gay marriage actually is. It's a question which was barely touched on at the beginning of the debate, where Matt said that it was unbiblical. He repeats that now, and adds that the majority of society don't want it.

He doesn't stop there. He insists on giving a little summary of his previous rant, trying to say that the slavery analogy is irrelevant, that to compare the two is to make a category mistake. He's wrong. If it was right to override the morality of the majority population then, it may be right to do so now. This is the beginning and the end of the argument from comparison with slavery.

They move back to the argument from the Bible. There's a digression about whether the Bible condemns lesbianism.

We move into theology now. How do we decide which bits of the Bible to obey and which are out of date? Matt's happy to eat shellfish and to wear clothing made from mixed fibres. This point is not pursued. They decide to take it up another day.

Again, this isn't really a debating point, but we'll call it round ten for reference.


We really are winding up the debate at this point. Matt talks about Theonomists, who I think are the same as Christianists, that is, people who want the law of the land to reflect their Christian beliefs. Matt says that he has a problem with that. Why he makes an exception for gay marriage he hasn't properly explained.

It seems to boil down to, he doesn't like it.

Actually, to be fair, he does have a bit more than that to say. He argues that the recognition of gay marriage would make it appear normal, and that therefore he will have to work harder to 'protect' his children from this attitude. True enough, I suppose, but to call this 'harm' is, to my mind, stretching a point a little.

At this point, there is a pause for an ad break.


What are the deleterious effects of the 'promotion of homosexuality' and promotion of gay marriage?

Matt talks about changes in the law which would erode free speech. If that actually is changing, and I doubt it, I agree with him. He reads out a law about hate crimes. A hate crime is one based on 'the actual or perceived race, colour, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, ....' He misinterprets what this is saying. It's not talking about the perception of the gay person that you're homophobic. It's talking about the homophobe's perception that the person he's beating up is homosexual. There's a reason for hate crime laws.

You have a right to raise your child as you see fit, says Matt. Um, up to a point, I suppose. Do you have the right to cripple your children's brains by filling them with nonsense?

There's a bit of confusion between the two speakers as to what Matt's actually talking about here. Is he saying that he wants to protect his children from homosexual 'recruitment', or from the dangerous idea that homosexuality is acceptable? Both, he says. Bob agrees with him on the 'recruitment' angle. We all know that's nonsense anyway. People who have tried and failed to change their sexuality (and in this society, most homosexuals have tried to 'fit in' and turn themselves straight) know that 'recruitment' efforts don't work. And even if they did, why bother? What on earth would be the point?

Matt claims to be privy to some secret information about the 'homosexual agenda'. He's clearly talking absolute nonsense. It is at roughly this point that I lose all respect for the man. He cannot understand the difference between 'recruitment' and the campaign for equal rights. Why have it in schools? Hey, we grew up. We were children once. We went to school. We remember what it was like. We'd like it to be easier for today's children. Some homosexuals wish they'd had a less persecuted childhood. I wish I'd had a less confused childhood. The children of gay parents too have reason to welcome this education of their classmates. Information is good.

I don't know what information Matt has, but it's likely he's misinterpreting it. I seriously doubt that any form of 'evangelism' or 'recruitment' is happening anywhere. It's ridiculous to claim it's happening in schools.


Finally we get onto the natural/unnatural argument. Homosexuality, Matt says, is unnatural. What the word natural means in this context is anyone's guess. Certainly, he's not talking about the behaviour of animals.

Male and female genitalia fit together, he says. Okay. Have fun with them, if that's what you like doing. So what?

Homosexuality does not contribute to the continuation of the species. That's a good thing. Have you seen the news recently?

Evolution cannot explain homosexuality. Well, there are some interesting theories, though none have yet achieved scientific consensus. Is this a problem? How well can evolution explain an appreciation of the work of Salvador Dali? Well, let's put all his pictures into cold storage until we've developed an explanation of why we like them! (Personally, I prefer M.C. Escher, anyway.)


Now's the time for the slippery slope arguments. Slippery slope arguments are void anyway, so I won't spend much time on them. I'll just say that, as icky as necrophilia or bestiality are, it's hard to determine who exactly is hurt by them. They are complex issues, which I really don't intend to get into here. And that paedophilia does have victims, even when the children say they're happy with it, because children are not capable of giving informed consent. Even if, as has happened at least once, an adult says that he was 'abused' as a child but enjoyed it at the time and feels it did him no harm (this man was interviewed by The Oldie), it's still wrong. You don't know, as you're having sex with a child, that the child will grow up to feel it did him no harm. On the same basis that speeding is wrong even if you hit no one, paedophilia is wrong even if your 'victims' are happy. There are potential victims. In each case you are putting others at risk for your pleasure.


Now we move onto 'special rights'. Matt says that homosexuals already have the right to marry opposite-sex partners. This is true, of course. (Why would they want to? Why would the opposite-sex partners want to?) He then goes on to say that they want a 'special' right to marry same-sex partners. Well, that wouldn't be a special right at all. It would be your right too. We just wouldn't expect you to avail of it. (Still, no harm in keeping your options open, eh?)

Matt says that special rights should not be granted to people on the basis of behaviour. I really don't know what he's talking about here. We shouldn't have special rights for skateboarders, he says. Don't we? What do you call skateboard ranks? What if a load of religious nutters were campaigning that skateboarding was immoral? "The Lord Jesus walked the Earth! He didn't roll. And your grunge clothes are an abomination!" (Hey, I could pull a good skit out of this. I must try it some time.) What if a looney wanted a skateboard rank shut down because he wanted to tell his children that skating is immoral? Does that give you a right to restrict other's freedoms? You can complain all you want about your taxes funding the building of skateboard ranks in the town park, but unless you can come up with a better argument than My imaginary friend doesn't like it, we're not going to listen to you.


Oh, and if Matt is serious when he says that he looks only to the Bible, and nowhere else, for moral guidance, he presumably has no moral problems with keeping a slave (Ephesians 6:9; Colossians 4:1; 1 Timothy 6:2), or, for that matter, with being a slave (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; 1 Timothy 6:1, 2; Titus 2:9).


I've been rather less than polite here, in places, but I'm certain Matt can take it. As I said, I rather like the guy until he gets onto this topic. And I make no apologies for my strength of feeling on this issue.

Edit 2007-11-09: Added proper paragraph divisions instead of linebreaks. Centred dividing astrikses. Corrected one spelling mistake: thr changed to the. Unencoded ampersands encoded (if you're an XML or HTML geek you'll know what that means; if not, don't worry about it).

Note Added 2008-10-03: The word I heard as theonomists must actually have been dominionists. The radio show is now old enough to have been deleted from the CARM servers, so I can safely blame Matt's poor pronunciation.

1 comment:

TRiG said...

Any comments should be directed to my new blog.