Sunday, 14 October 2012

In Bad Faith

Gordon Wilson, of Solas

Eric MacDonald has written an insightful piece on the religious motivations behind political stances. He notes there are a number of issues where politicians base their views on their religious beliefs rather than their expressed arguments. He cites Matthew Parris's article in yesterday's Times (“Religion does not belong in the small print“) recounting an exchange Parris had with Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, on the latter's opinion of homosexuality (Nazir-Ali hummed and ha-ed, but refused to say that his antipathy was based on his religious beliefs).

Now, to be fair to the faithful, they should not use religious doctrine in the public forum of a secular society, which does rather put them between a rock and a hard place. Secular government must not be based on religious ideals, but most theists feel they must argue for their religious beliefs. In the end, they are reduced to putting forward poorly-supported prudential arguments based on little evidence and no principle. They try to avoid overt moral arguments, aware that their morality is founded in the divine. This, in principle, should disallow these arguments from the secular debate, although in practice a certain amount of latitude is granted to the faithful. The weasel words 'a matter of personal conscience' are wheeled out to protect their dogmatic morality.

I think this amounts to arguing in bad faith, because the religious are not plainly stating the reasons for their stance, but instead are offering arguments in which they don't really believe. By this I mean that if the secular arguments they put forward could be shown to be false, by, you know, reason and evidence, they still would not change their stance on the issue, because their religious convictions override any prudential arguments they might offer. But, we must concede, they are simply operating as they must in a secular democracy, and that is surely why religion and democracy are incompatible, as Eric discussed in a previous piece. The rather illiberal conclusion might be that religion has to be eliminated before democracy can be fully implemented. I think we may be tending toward that state of affairs, but in the meantime I'm happy not to pursue elimination  of religious belief in the overriding interest of plurality. And even in the long term I think an argument from plurality could be produced to outweigh the incompatibility of certain views to democratic processes. But everyone should be made aware of the status quo, and participants' dogmatic beliefs, for the sake of transparency.

Another example of this problem has just appeared on the BBC website: Ex SNP leader Gordon Wilson attacks gay marriage. Wilson's religious beliefs are not mentioned in the piece, but without even looking one knows that he is almost certainly attacking same sex marriage because of them. And sure enough, he's the Chairman of Solas - Centre for Public Christianity. (Solas also appears to be the soap box for David Robertson, a minister of the Wee Frees - the Free Church of Scotland - who has often argued for the sinfulness of homosexuality on the old front page discussions.) Given his organisation's title, you would think Wilson would make it clear that his opposition to same-sex marriage is not based on anything other than his Christian beliefs.

Well, I say nothing other than his Christian beliefs, but, as if to prove my point above, Solas also parade some pretty dreadful secular arguments against same sex marriage, in their submission to the Scottish Government Consultation on Civil Partnership and Same-Sex Marriage. They are:
Stirring up Dissension: "By opening up this minefield on behalf of a tiny minority, as evidenced from the numbers from the Registrar General for Scotland mentioned above, the Government cannot be unaware that the same-sex issue affecting the clergy in our largest church is causing distress. Equally, we believe the gay rights lobby will not rest until all religious bodies, be they Christian, Muslim or other be compelled to conduct same-sex partnerships (or marriages) under equality law."
Causing distress to clergy is irrelevant if the action being considered is to implement equality delivering legislation. We would not consider the distress caused to racists of anti-racist legislation, because we recognise that equality takes priority. And slippery slope scare-mongering is also irrelevant to the argument for or against same-sex marriage. The document continues:

Despite the proclaimed desire of both the Scottish and Westminster governments to ‘consult’, we are concerned that there will be little consultation, because the presuppositions of the gay rights lobby have already been accepted by the cultural and political elites of our culture.  It is assumed (rather than rationally argued) that evidence of a tolerant ‘liberal’ society is that one is for gay marriage.  The conclusion has been predetermined before the consultation has even been had.  This is hardly the action of a mature, reflective and tolerant democracy. It is little wonder that there has been little civilised and tolerant discourse.

I don't see any 'presuppositions of the gay rights lobby' (the homophobia oozes from these phrases) other than one - equal rights. It's ironic that in a document devoid of rational argument the accusation is made that the pro-equal rights lobby assumes rather than rationally argues for their position, but in fact little argument is needed for same-sex marriage. It flows naturally from principles of equality, just as the Solas position flows naturally from their anti-homosexual Christian doctrine. I don't agree with their prejudicial doctrine, and they don't present any arguments why anyone should. They continue:
Same-sex Marriages Versus Opposite Sex ‘Marriages’: "Whilst politicians might like to talk about how tolerant and liberal they are, thinking that there is little of consequence for them in going along with this headlong rush to ‘redefine’ marriage, we would encourage them to stop and reflect that in fact this is a major step which has potentially extremely destructive consequences."
There's lots of this sort of evidence free alarmism - "The Government’s perceived wish to give same-sex couples the same status and rights ... is ill thought out and ultimately harmful."; "We again ask if there is minimal demand for same-sex partnerships, where then will come the numbers to warrant such a revolutionary change in society."; "2% is not a solid foundation for tinkering with something that has been the foundation of British and Scottish society for over 1500 years.  You do not mend ‘Broken Britain’ by breaking its very foundations." (my emphases). But no evidence is produced to show that letting two men marry, or two women, is going to lead to the undermining of Scottish society. How could it?
Nature of Marriage in Society: "The meaning of marriage is straightforward.  It is the union between one man and one woman, for the threefold purpose of mutual companionship, the procreation and upbringing of children in a secure environment, and the good of society."
But, once again, simply making an assertion does not an argument make. The meaning of marriage is not straightforward. There; I've gainsaid them. If they don't support their contentions I can dismiss them that easily.

Now, to be fair, throughout the submission, mentions of Christian morality and 'foundations' abound, and the defence of some supposed definition of Christian marriage (™)  is presented as a reason for their opposition to same-sex marriage. This reason would be bad enough, since it's simply dogma, but the actual conclusion we should draw is that these are not the reasons for their opposition; the true reason is that they believe that homosexuality is sinful. This belief is notably absent from the document. And the reason it is absent, I'm pretty sure, is because Christians know that the doctrine is homophobic. We should know this about them; they should declare that they believe in a homophobic doctrine.
Human Rights to Same-sex Marriage: "There is no human rights entitlement to same-sex marriages." 
They cite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention of Human Rights, and, because they don't mention same-sex marriage, conclude that the provisions don't support same-sex marriage rights. This does not follow, any more than their not mentioning marriage between people of different colour means the provisions do not support that.

However, they do go on and present something resembling an argument:

The generating and rearing of children is essential to the survival of the human race, and vital in Scotland which has an ageing population. Marriage is essential to the human condition; same-sex unions are a biological cul-de-sac.

But, setting aside the fact that same sex couples can raise families with assistance, this is irrelevant to the question of same-sex marriage. Allowing same-sex marriage is not going to decrease the rate of procreation in Scotland! Then, contrary to their assertion. the very existence of same-sex unions in the present day suggests that they are not 'biological cul-de-sacs', but even if they were, why should that count against them? We don't disallow heterosexuals from choosing to have no children.
Religious Celebration of Same-sex Marriages: "If unrest is anticipated over religious celebration of civil partnerships, then the comments made earlier on behalf of Solas apply with even greater force. By issuing this Consultation, the Scottish Government has effectively lit the blue touch paper. It should let well alone and leave the status quo in place, before causing needless stress to itself and its successors. It is the beginning of wisdom to recognise that you attack the essential building block of society at your peril." (my emphases)
The prophets of doom strike again. This overreaction to such a modest proposal is simply laughable. No evidence to support their assertions is presented. Much more spreading of despair and despondency follows, including the idea that extending marriage to same-sex couples somehow destroys marriage. Go figure.
Conclusion: "We do not however think that instigating gay marriage and thus undermining even further the Christian foundations of this society will lead to a better or fairer nation.   Indeed in our view, it will lead to further social disintegration, sexual confusion and greater intolerance, where any in public life or service, who dare to uphold the Christian view of marriage, will be ostracised and discriminated against."
But nowhere is there any evidence presented to support these assertions. In this respect, the document is a microcosm of religious thinking.

I have no doubt that if evidence was produced to show that same-sex marriage would have none of these consequences, Gordon Wilson would still oppose it, because of his Christian beliefs. That is why I call these 'arguments' from Christians in the public sphere (however much they are driven to it in secular democracies) bad faith arguments.

UPDATE: Take a look at John Danaher's discussion of the new natural law argument against same-sex relations, which suggests it's a religious argument masquerading as a secular one.


  • AllanW says:
    15 October 2012 at 09:58

    Excellent post, Mark. Bravo! Clear, simple, fair and irrefutable. Well done.

  • Mark Jones says:
    15 October 2012 at 17:03

    Hey, thanks Allan!

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