Sceptical thinking is the only protection against theocracy, even if our religious allies may be offended by that discourse, writes Adrian Tippetts for PinkNews.co.uk. 

The Pride festival season always attracts the odd proselytising lunatic, preaching damnation for homosexuality and all sex outside of marriage, and handing out leaflets entitled “Where will you spend eternity?”. They really believe they are on a mission from God to save the entire planet from eternity in a real, raging fire, in “hell”.

Whether or not you engage with such deluded people, you owe it to yourself and to others to think about how you might challenge such nonsense. Inevitably, you will be confronted with such beliefs at some point. Faith groups in the UK exert such control over the education system, that cranks like Tony Miano, the Wimbledon preacher arrested last month, may as well be setting the sex education curriculum in many of our schools today.

Dealing with and demolishing the Roman Catholic perspective of sexuality in class or the beliefs of a placard-waving preacher is an exercise in critical thinking – demanding good reasons for assertions and knowing the questions to ask in order to separate the good ideas from the bad. “How do you know it’s true?” and “Where’s your evidence?”  You won’t convince your opponent and it might be hard get a word in edgeways. But if you keep your cool, you will at least show your listeners who is on the lunatic fringe.

Telling a preacher to “F. Off” is rude, but philosophically justifiable: that which is claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. If you don’t have a rational reason for your assertion, you are out of the debate. Even so, avoid vulgarity because there are more interesting points to be made.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

A street preacher makes three incredible claims. The first is that there is a mind at work in the universe. The preacher will point to the flowers and the sky as evidence. But no stage since the chaos of the Big Bang to complex life has required supernatural intervention.  Of course, we can’t say for sure a deity does not exist, any more than we can claim there is no celestial teapot orbiting Mars at this moment. It is more accurate to say that there is no satisfactory reason to believe a god exists.

The second claim is knowing – out of the tens of thousands of possible gods that have ever been believed in – which is the true one. In the case of most street preachers, it is a Protestant, evangelical god. But at least one billion Muslims consider that preacher to be as hell-bound as the “deviants” he is trying to save, for his refusal to accept Mohammed as the true prophet. Roman Catholics condemn him for refusing to acknowledge the Transubstantiation or their pope as the Vicar of Christ. Also, can the preacher prove there is more evidence for his god than for Poseidon? How does he know which is the true god?

The third claim, perhaps the most arrogant of all, is to be so intimate with the mind of that god, that he knows god’s opinion on whom we should sleep with and how. His justification is that “the Bible says so”. But how does he know those verses are true, or inspired by his god? It is a circular argument. There is no corroborating evidence of any divine inspiration in the verses, beyond assertions in the books themselves. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence: personal revelations with neither witnesses nor credible video footage are mere hearsay.

Do not let the person you are speaking to go beyond this point in the conversation. Never, for example, let them start an inquisition into whether you have ever lied, cheated, stolen and so on. Tell him to mind his business.  You aren’t accountable to him: who wants to know and on what authority?

What does ‘natural’ mean?

You are bound to be reminded that “homosexuality isn’t natural”, because genitalia are “for” procreation. It doesn’t matter whether homosexuality is natural, even though it is, because the imagination and desires of the human mind are themselves products of nature. It is a form of love and for that reason alone deserves respect. Almost all sex performed by and between human beings is for pleasure, not procreation, and we are fortunate to be born into one of the few species on the planet that has sex for fun. Is it natural to use legs to ride a bike, if legs were “designed for” walking?

Claims about what human body parts were “designed for” require evidence of design and a designer. Who designed the designer, and one so inept as to design the whale’s pelvis, the human appendix and flightless birds, and send at least 99 percent of species to ever have lived on this earthquake-riddled planet to extinction? Why did such an all-powerful god design a universe so inhospitable to life, apart from our own? If a creator of trillions of stars is remotely interested in who humans fall in love with, but stands by while 250,000 drown in the 2004 tsunami, that god is small-minded as well as cruel and impotent. God, if she exists, is not great.

Why you’ll never convince a fundamentalist

You won’t change the mind of a fanatic because that mind is impervious to reason. I think this is part selfishness, part terror. They will do and say anything to get to heaven. Their first question to you, “where will you spend eternity?” is the first question they ask themselves in determining what they believe to be the right or moral answer. Fear of retribution from an angry god, rather than the joy of doing good for its own sake, becomes the motivator for any action. The preacher is the tormented slave who will do and say anything to please the celestial tyrant.

The starting point of the religious fundamentalist’s viewpoint is that god is the source of ultimate morality and the Bible is inerrant. The unalterable truth has been revealed: no need for new evidence, no room to think for oneself nor to question whether the text is true or good. But if god is the source of all good, then what is good or evil is arbitrary. Murder, stealing and cheating are wrong because god says so rather than being intrinsically wrong because they cause harm.

The evil of biblical inerrancy

If you relinquish the responsibility for determining what is good rather than work out answers for yourself then you are liable to do or say commit acts and words of stupidity and wickedness. On dozens of occasions I have heard preachers excuse the condemnation of gay people with the boring cliché “these are not my words”. It is a bit like the excuse of a concentration camp guard who murders prisoners because “he was only following orders.” The Almighty considers homosexuality as grave a sin as murder. To accept that requires being incapable of seeing the difference between  intimate relationships and all the joy they bring, and the devastation of the murder of another human being. Fine; tell the mother of a gangland murder victim, her son’s murderer was no more immoral than a gay couple in love.

Fundamentalists will never accept the legitimacy of LGBT people, regardless of evidence. They desperately need a link between dysfunction and same-sex parenting to be true, so that the immorality of homosexuality can be true. If homosexuality were not immoral, then the claims of the Bible or the Koran are not worth the paper they are written on. This might explain why the same supporters of Intelligent Design creationism are also likely to lap up junk science papers promoting reparative therapy, or flawed studies, like the Mark Regnerus study, which tried and failed to portray gay couples as poor parents.

We have better information today

The authors of the Bible made the best attempt they could to build a moral code with the limited knowledge they had. In their time, the wheelbarrow would have been the cutting edge of innovation; it was thought the sun revolved around a flat earth and there were no explanations for extreme weather, natural disasters nor shooting stars. They have an excuse to believe Sodom was destroyed by an act of God. We, 200 years after Darwin, having analysed the Genome, with knowledge of plate tectonics, having sent probes out of the Solar System and built telescopes to see the beginning of time, have no such excuse. This did not stop the moronic Graham Dow, former bishop of Carlisle, who in 2007 declared that the flooding in South Yorkshire was God’s judgement on society after the passing of sexual orientation legislation. Top clergy in our supposedly benign State church share the same rabid sentiment of the Westboro Baptist Church.

It is a moral obligation, therefore, to highlight, condemn and ridicule the stupidity, arrogance, selfishness and lack of moral perspective of fundamentalism.

This conversation has to hurt feelings

All ideas are not equal. Religious views, by definition, are based on untestable premisses. Scepticism, demanding good reasons be given for beliefs and policies, is the only route to a fairer world. Those who cannot meet this basic expectation in discourse must be bypassed.

This is unpleasant thing to say to the well-meaning Christians, Jews Muslims and Hindus who take consolation from their faith, gain inspiration from it to do great works, and take great risks to advance human rights. Non-believers have ticked all these boxes too though, and you don’t need the supernatural to take inspiration from the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

It must be emphasised, this conversation is only for those whose beliefs become a nuisance to others, or are up for a challenge. It is bad manners – and, in the case of a terminally ill patient who takes consolation in faith, unspeakably wicked – to entertain this argument with the believer who does not seek to impose their view on others. Neither should you have this conversation if it puts your safety at risk.

But in the discussion about what’s best for society, the atheist proposition is the most effective way to keep the loonies at bay. Otherwise, it’s a 50:50 toss between Jeffrey John, who says god just wants us all to be monogamous, and the Westboro Baptist Church who says ‘God Hates Fags’. They are right too when they say it’s in the Bible. On what basis do you decide the Book of Matthew is more moral than than the genocide in Numbers and Leviticus? Those texts are treated with the same reverence.

If believers and non-believers are to find common cause, it is to ensure a secular public space, assuring both freedom of and from religion, because wherever organised religion mixes with political power, the risk of sectarianism, violence, suppression of expression and oppression of women, children and LGBT people raises. Regardless of our beliefs, our humanity unites us. Our capacity for joy and pain, our potential to think critically and our aspiration to be free, autonomous individuals are the same whether in Mecca, St. Peter’s Square or San Francisco’s Castro district. Therein lies the motivation to work towards a society in which reason is our guide for determining what is true, and the fact of being human determines how we treat each other, rather than ethnicity, sex, sexuality or religious affiliation.

A grander view of life

To Tony Miano and other zombies who haunted the streets surrounding the Houses of Parliament during the marriage debates last month, here’s an open, friendly invitation – part plagiarised from the opening chapter of Richard Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow, and shamelessly so – to put away childish things and start living:

You are unimaginably lucky. The other possible combinations of your ancestors’ DNA that could be in your place outnumber the grains of the Sahara. Out of the 137 million centuries since time began, your century is in spotlight now, briefly, before being extinguished forever. Out of the hundreds of millions of species that are or ever have been, you are born into the one that has a mind intelligent enough to reason and to enjoy humour, irony, love, art, science and the solidarity of others, and to express awe at the cosmos and our insignificant place in it. With that incredible luck comes a responsibility to use your critical abilities to the full, and enable others to pursue happiness and reach their full potential too. What more do you need? There is grandeur in this view of life.

This selected reading list will help sharpen your arguments and encourage further inquiry:

Letters to a Young Contrarian; The Portable Atheist – Christopher Hitchens

Demon Haunted World; Pale Blue Dot – Carl Sagan

What Is Good?; The Choice of Hercules – AC Grayling

The End of Faith; Letter to a Christian Nation – Sam Harris

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea; Breaking the Spell – Daniel Dennett

The God Delusion; Climbing Mount Improbable - Richard Dawkins

Why Darwin Matters – Michael Shermer

Why Sex Is Fun – Jared Diamond

Why I Am Not A Christian – Bertrand Russell

The Young Atheist’s Handbook – Alom Shaha

Age of Reason; Rights of Man – Thomas Paine

Creationism’s Trojan Horse – Barbara Forrest & Paul Gross

On Liberty – John Stuart Mill

Adrian Tippetts is a freelance journalist, human rights campaigner and PR consultant specialising in the graphics industry.