Comment: When religious rights and LGBT rights conflict over equal marriage

Gary Powell July 30, 2013
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Writing for, Gary Powell says the campaign for equal marriage has brought out some of the worst examples of religious homophobia.

The campaign for equal marriage has called on the LGBT community to do a lot of deep and analytical thinking, as our right to social and legal equality has been challenged by a very large and well resourced pool of religious adherents. Among them are some very clever people, capable of finding numerous specious reasons to back up preposterous arguments. And when I call these people “clever”, I mean the kind of “cleverness” involved in the smoke and mirrors, the subterfuge, the red herrings and the straw men of an accomplished and articulate lawyer who tries to get a guilty client off the hook.

For people who are supposed to be devout religionists, there has been a great deal of dishonesty in the brittle arguments they have advanced to deny us equality. Some of it, I believe, has been deliberate dishonesty. Some of it has been largely unconscious dishonesty, caused by years of religious indoctrination, but where some deep part of their psyche has still known that what they were saying was untrue. Some of it has been a mixture of both.

Quite often, the arguments they offered seemed to carry some weight at first glance, and only yielded the full spectacle of their hollowness when the scalpel of close examination was applied. One such argument, in my view, was the claim that religious adherents are a minority group too, and that their right to treat our relationships as inferior was at least as valid as our claim to equality. This conflict of claims came up again and again during the equal marriage campaign, with dogmatic Christians in particular claiming that equal marriage was yet another layer of discrimination against them by the state.

If there is any moral consensus in the emerging post-fundamentalist world, it seems to be that the good life consists in the promotion of happiness and the alleviation of suffering. But determining what resolution of conflicting rights claims is most conducive to the good life is a complex domain, where we have to use every intuitive, rational and evidential tool at our disposal. To mention just one of the dilemmas, sometimes a right granted to one group of people will increase their happiness, whilst at the same time diminishing the happiness of another group of people. This is the territory we are in when it comes to the legalisation of equal marriage. (And yes: the unhappiness that our equality is causing is mainly the unhappiness of those frustrated at seeing us flourish.)

As a rule of thumb, good moral judgements must promote the alleviation or avoidance of suffering, and promote opportunities for happiness. Even then, religious dogmatists might interject that this ethical philosophy should lead us to accept the rules of their God, so that we maximise our chances of a happy afterlife. Our response to this is simple: if we do not believe in the god they worship, it is not acceptable for his followers to impose their beliefs on us.

Many religious fundamentalists believe not only that God commands hatred of homosexuality, but also that they – and indeed everyone in society – will suffer personal harm as a result of it, including the respect accorded to it by same-sex marriage. Some hard-line evangelicals believe that God is punishing countries with liberal attitudes towards homosexuality in the good old Sodom and Gomorrah tradition, and that this punishment will increase in severity as new LGBT rights are granted. Other, less fanatical (but still seriously deluded) religionists have written about how equal marriage will bring about the destruction of the family and of western civilisation. It is not that far from Emperor Constantine’s claim that homosexuality caused earthquakes.

Dogmatic religionists are on shaky ground when they argue that their religious rights trump the rights of LGBT people, given that their religious beliefs are not only demonstrably absurd, but have also been the cause of a great deal of appalling human misery throughout history. Indeed, these beliefs continue to be so. Those whose lives have been blighted by the imposition of dogmatic religion include the many children who are forced by their parents to attend places where fundamentalists worship, who are made to feel guilty and ashamed about their developing sexual feelings, and who are programmed to believe they will be tortured for eternity unless they obey instructions from a holy book. All of these amount to child abuse.

As we all know, there are plenty of hypocrites and opportunists who don’t really believe what they preach, and who are merely in it for the social power or the money. Yet there are many who sincerely believe the tenets of their faith and have become trapped in a very menacing set of delusional convictions. For instance, fundamentalist religionists believe that making serious moral mistakes could result in their eternal damnation, which means the horror of torture by being burned alive for eternity. Understandably, this is not a risk they are willing to take lightly.

Well-balanced, intelligent people in the modern world realise that eternal hell fire is a false belief: but for people who do not, it is a terrifying one. In Tudor times, when people were challenged with menaces to abjure their faith, they often faced a harrowing choice between being burnt at the stake, and expecting to be burnt in hell for eternity. Many religious fundamentalists today similarly perceive that giving any quarter to same-sex marriage would mean succumbing to Satan’s deception, and putting at risk their own eternal salvation. This is why no religious institution, and no individual cleric, should ever be expected by the law to conduct same-sex marriages against their conscience. Fundamentalists whose beliefs are as sincere and genuine as they can be given the absurdity of those beliefs, are themselves victims of a cruel belief system that threatens eternal torment for disobedience. Whatever caused them to get caught up in that deranged and evil belief system, and whatever personal responsibility they hold for the process, I would hope we can perhaps find some compassion for their dilemma. Anxiety and dread, even if based on false beliefs, are nonetheless still anxiety and dread.

The moral authority for asserting LGBT rights as usually superior to religious rights derives from the far greater harm to LGBT people caused by the presence of those claimed religious rights than the harm caused to religious adherents by the absence of those claimed rights. There is no comparable harm caused to dogmatic religionists by the absence of most of the religious “rights” that are claimed to conflict with LGBT rights. Very great suffering has been caused to LGBT people by the absence of equality, and by the presence of discrimination and persecution: suffering that can be particularly intense for the isolated, confused, anxious and shame-ridden child who has realised she or he is lesbian or gay, and who must often cope with this great burden alone, and in a homophobic school environment, without adequate information or opportunities for social development. The frequency of depression, anxiety, substance and behavioural addictions, suicidal ideation and difficulties forming relationships among LGBT people, are hardly surprising, given the widespread homophobic discrimination that still exists, and the harm caused to LGBT people when we were vulnerable children. Equal marriage is a very strong gesture of normality, legitimacy and visibility. It will lead to same-sex couples appearing in school text books, and it is high time this happened.

Religious dogmatists have the right to practise their faith, so long as they do not try to force it on their children, or on non-believers. They also have a right not to ordain LGBT people or marry LGBT people, if their religion is bigoted enough to demand this. But they have no right to damage the psychological health of LGBT children and adults by imposing harmful religious doctrines on other people’s children, on their own children, or on society as a whole. The right to practise their faith but without causing harm to others, must be the criterion that resolves all dilemmas where religious rights and LGBT rights seem to come into conflict.

They can have their grotesque fundamentalist religions that demonise our love. But they must keep them off our bodies, out of our psyches, and out of our relationships. Because far too many of us know the damage they cause, and the scars they leave behind forever.

Related topics: anti-gay christians, anti-gay views, Christianity, England, equal marriage, gay marriage, gay wedding, gay weddings, God, Homophobia, homophobic views, marriage equality, Religion, religious discrimination, religious rights, same sex weddings, Same-sex wedding, the bible, UK Marriage Bill

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