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Paul Wright's blog
Bad arguments about religion: part 2: homosexuality and mixed fibres: the Bartlet gambit 
24th Jan 2010, 01:41 pm
To give the impression that I'm fair and balanced, this time round I'm looking at a bad argument which is usually used by atheists.

There's a scene The West Wing where President Bartlet tears a strip off an evangelical Christian talk radio host. In the scene (you can see it on YouTube, or read a transcript), the evangelical tells Bartlett that the Bible says homosexuality is an abomination. Bartlet then launches into a series of rhetorical questions, asking how he should carry out other Old Testament rules which we'd now find ridiculous, if not downright evil: "My chief of staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?"

Let's call this the Barlet gambit: the President's argument seems to be that it's inconsistent for evangelicals to say "homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so", because they're not also keeping these other rules which are also found in the Bible. The gambit is a favourite with people who argue with evangelicals about homosexuality: sometimes they even quote Bartlet.

Unfortunately, the Bartlet gambit fails as an argument.

What's wrong with it

Evangelical Christians have reasons why they're not keeping the Old Testament laws despite regarding the Old Testament as scripture. The question comes up in the New Testament itself, once we reach the Acts of the Apostles, where we read of the first non-Jews converting to Christianity (up to that point in the story, what will later become Christianity is still a movement within Judaism, although a few Gentiles are impressed with Jesus in the gospels). The Council of Jerusalem ruled that Gentile Christians are allowed to eat shrimp and wear mixed fibres and, luckily for penis owners, don't have to be circumcised.

So, according to Acts (which, like the rest of the Bible, is inerrant, remember), Christians sorted this stuff out in the first century AD. They aren't going to worry about atheists calling them hypocrites for wearing cotton/polyester blend while "hating the sin and loving the sinner".

Perhaps Barlet is specifically objecting to the evangelical's use of Leviticus, which does put homosexuality on a par with things which aren't kosher, rather than with things which are morally evil. Alas, even without Leviticus, there are other Bible passages which can be pressed into service against the gay, and you can rely on evangelicals to know most of them, because the issue has become a defining feature of evangelicalism. We could argue that these passages don't apply to modern committed homosexual partnerships, but evangelicals don't find these arguments impressive.

What to do instead

In the UK, many rank-and-file evangelicals are educated professionals. They didn't get into religion to give gays a hard time, and, unless they've completely disappeared up their own sub-culture, they tend to be a bit embarrassed by the anti-gay stuff. Still, because it's "what the Bible says", they feel they're obliged to go along with it anyway, even if the Guardian wouldn't approve (the evangelical jargon phrase for that sort of thing is that it's a "hard teaching" where you'll just have to "trust God").

If I were a gifted orator like Barlet, I think I'd appeal to their sense of justice. Is there perhaps something odd about the way churches accept straight couples who are openly in their second or later marriage (something about which Jesus had some strong words to say), but wouldn't be happy with an openly gay couple? Some hypocrisy there, maybe?

Or we might try empathy. There's the problem that, as Valerie Tarico says, evangelicalism "can re-direct our mother-bear instincts away from protecting vulnerable individuals and toward protecting the ideology itself. Believers may come to feel more protective of their religion than they are of actual human beings." Still, it might be worth a go: is it fair to say that gay people cannot form committed romantic relationships? Imagine yourself in their shoes. If you obey the evangelical rules, it seems rather a lonely place.

24th Jan 2010, 02:15 pm (UTC)
luckily for us guys, don't have to be circumcised.

It's not just you guys. A foreskin is double-sided. Makes about 3 inches of vagina. If you've not got one the surgeon needs to salvage scrotal tissue instead, which is hair baring, so you need to have electrolysis on the scrotal sac to have the hair removed first.

Good game, good game.
24th Jan 2010, 02:57 pm (UTC)
Amended to "penis owners" per the 5th Pronouncement of Saunt Yudkowsky.

Also... ouch.
24th Jan 2010, 03:05 pm (UTC)
Heh! I wasn't trying to call you out - I just enjoy recounting grim tales about gore ;-)
24th Jan 2010, 05:09 pm (UTC)
Fear not, I did not feel called out. Still, penis owners is funnier, although possibly ambiguous: scribb1e reckons she has a 50% share. This turns out to be Biblically sound, too.
24th Jan 2010, 11:41 pm (UTC)
Yay grim tales about gore :-)
24th Jan 2010, 03:12 pm (UTC)

Yup. Did I mention the conversation I had with my fine Australian team leader, a couple of years ago, when we shoulder-surfed our Director's lunchtime reading?

A bit of background: she was over from the New York office, and everything that you'd expect a lady banker from New Jersey to be: focused, workaholic, direct - no the word is abrasive, loud, and very, very smart indeed.

Every day, she set aside half an hour for Daily Bible Readings from the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Roight Nile...", Said The Ozzie: "That thing you're working on for the Correlation traders is not an 'Evolutionary algorithm', it's an 'Iterating optimiser'. And I'm from Coonaburra."

"Coonaburra", Said yours truly... "That's a suburb of Darw-"

"No. Coonaburra. Which is Coonaburra, full stop."

Lucky there were no openly gay members of the team. Although, in an investment bank, I don't think there's anyone who places their religious convictions ahead of the goal of making money. Actually, I remain unconvinced that there are any Evangelicals (and Southern Baptists in particular) who matter who would actually put principles ahead of profit. They are all happy enough to invest in armaments and warfare, and the touchstone issue for openly evangelical politicians isn't abortion evolution, or homosexuality (there's always something in their voting record you can catch them out on there): they always, without exception, vote against environmental legislation.

Poke an evangelised 'educated professional' on their environmental attitudes, see if you can get support for science and evidence-based policy out of them. It's a gateway to the sort of critical thinking about moral issues that will eventually undermine their attachment to religious dogma. At the very least, you have a way of discrediting their political leaders.

24th Jan 2010, 03:57 pm (UTC)
Are evangelical churches really happy about second marriages? It's only recently that the Church of England even allowed the possibility of remarriage in church while the first partner was still alive, isn't it, and as I understand (hedging here because I'm not an Anglican so this is hearsay) it's still at the discretion of the vicar, so would a strongly Evangelical parish not also refuse to remarry?

The question of whether it's fair that gay people cannot marry comes down, of course, to the definition of 'marriage', something I am sure you will be covering in future.

24th Jan 2010, 04:10 pm (UTC)
I'm not sure what the evangelical position on performing second marriages is. My point is that the church's attitude to people who are in second marriages (regardless of whether those marriages were performed by the church) is not consistent with the teaching those people are in an ongoing adulterous relationship. If a remarried couple and a gay couple turn up to an evangelical church, which will be more welcome?

Christians might argue that it matters whether the first marriage was performed in church or while the people taking part were Christian, but they will then run into further trouble: if civil ceremonies or ceremonies before conversion don't form marriages, some of their congregation are fornicating.

I'm not particularly interested in debating what "marriage" really is: I'd say it's a social convention which can be amended. Marriage was made for man, and not man for marriage, if you like.

Edited at 2010-01-24 04:14 pm (UTC)
24th Jan 2010, 04:26 pm (UTC)
I suspect in the sort of church where there's tutting, there'd be tutting at both couples.

You may not be interested in debating what 'marriage' really is, but you're not going to get very far with your argument if you are not interested in understanding how the other side uses the word, either.

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24th Jan 2010, 09:05 pm (UTC)
I think that this line of argument is what you end up with if you take moral relativism too seriously: since you can't argue that someone's morals are wrong, the only line of attack you have left is to show that they are inconsistent. You may not be able to say which of their morals is wrong, but you can show that at least one of them must be.
24th Jan 2010, 09:25 pm (UTC)
If it were phrased right, it could be seen an attempt to leave a line of retreat for evangelicals, by arguing that if you already don't do a bunch of things the Bible allegedly says you should, changing your mind on homosexuality won't cause the sky to fall in.

This may be more effective than surrounding them with arguments for atheism, or calling them bigots, or whatever: those sorts of things are likely to produce dissonance with the idea that Christianity is good and reactions which ease dissonance by the path of least resistance, which is probably to write the opposition off as blinded by Satan.

Unfortunately, if you do it Bartlet's way, it comes off as a charge of hypocrisy. There's a way to ease that which works because it's a very old one: Christians already know they don't need to keep the OT law.

Edited at 2010-01-24 09:26 pm (UTC)
25th Jan 2010, 12:58 pm (UTC)
Also: have you been reading Neal Stephenson? That's Finkel-McGraw's point from The Diamond Age.
25th Jan 2010, 09:35 pm (UTC)
I have read much of Stephenson, including The Diamond Age. Maybe I got the observation from there, but I like to think I noticed it independently.

The place I've noticed this tendency most strongly is Private Eye. This is an organ that you wouldn't think of as a bastion of relativism, but they are particularly keen on stories which contrast someone's shameful deeds with their own pious words. Perhaps it's fear of libel suits that means they avoid direct accusation; or maybe the writers believe it's makes for more effective satire to have the accused condemn themselves with their own words. But when the tactic is used week after week it starts to give the impression that the fault being criticized is purely the hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another, and if only the person had got their story straight they would have been fine. (An example.)
25th Jan 2010, 03:27 am (UTC) - Cafeteria Christianity
Bout all you have shown is that Christianity always was a cafeteria religion. Choose the easy ways out and go to heaven
25th Jan 2010, 01:03 pm (UTC) - Re: Cafeteria Christianity
If Christianity has always been a cafeteria religion, then people who want to get as close as possible to the original Christianity (as evangelicals usually do) won't be worried by accusations that the original Christians picked the bits of Judaism they liked, because as far as evangelicals are concerned, the original Christians had the authority to do so. So the Bartlet gambit is no help when arguing with them.

I don't think calling Christianity a cafeteria religion is that useful, because in the sense you're using it, all religions which started by modifying a previous religion are "cafeteria religions". The "cafeteria" term usually refers to people who say they're part of a well-established religion but don't follow some of the major doctrines, not to the establishment of new religions.
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