The Chasm of Understanding

I understand it. I really do.

If you ask a religious person about their beliefs, you might get back an unequivocal answer. Something that is directly from their religious text is essentially unquestioned if not unquestionable.

This post is going to use Christianity and homosexuality as its religion and topic, but the ideas translate, albeit often with less immediate social fervor, to many other religion/topic pairings. (Islam/hijab, Buddhism/vegetarianism, etc.) This particular topic is one I feel strongly about.

Because, you see, when atheists talk to strong Christians about homosexuality, it sometimes feels like this:

Agnes: Wait, so what’s wrong with homosexuality, exactly?

Theo: The book says it’s bad.

Agnes: Why?

Theo: Book says so.

Agnes: Okay, even apart from the ambiguous language regarding homosexuality in the Bible1, how do you know that the book is right?

Theo: It was written by an omniscient being who is thus able to judge absolute morality.

Agnes: And ignoring all the human influence in the last millennia, how do you know the creator is omniscient?

Theo: Book says so.

Agnes: (bangs head against wall)

To a non-believer, that’s a pretty circular argument, and it doesn’t convince anybody. Now, there have been plenty of actual arguments about why gay couples are bad for society (with arguable validity), but it still feels like the decision was made a priori. You’ve decided homosexuality is bad, and now you’re going to come up with reasons why. That isn’t a rational way to make decisions.

But the flip side looks like this:

Agnes: I’m going to go play in the abandoned construction site!

Theo: But the teacher said not to!

Agnes: I haven’t personally seen the teacher. What they say can’t actually be true.

Theo: …really? You’re going to just disregard this stuff because the teacher hasn’t talked to you in person?

Agnes: Oh, come on, it’s not just me. Lots of people do it all the time. It can’t actually be bad.

Theo: (rolls eyes) So if everyone jumped off a bridge, you would too?

Agnes: Hey, I haven’t actually seen anything that shows jumping off a bridge is actually bad!

Theo: (bangs head against wall)

If you believe in an omniscient being, and you believe that their words are more-or-less faithfully recorded in some kind of book, you’d have to be an absolute idiot not to follow the rules. By the definition of omniscience they have a better ability than you to judge right and wrong. More than that, though, the entire point of most of these religions is faith in a holy being and in the tenants they put down: there are always things in life which you may be tempted to do, but there are good reasons why your religion says you shouldn’t, even if you can’t see them.

Or to put it in simple terms, if someone who you believe is wiser than you tells you not to reply to e-mails offering millions of dollars wired directly to your bank account, you don’t have to actually do it to find out they’re right. And variants of Pascal’s Wager say that even if you’re not completely sure, you should listen to them anyway.

And thus these two sides are incomprehensible to one another. For things that become moral issues, both sides are going to base their decision on their personal morals,2 then come up with arguments to support their side. And of course those arguments don’t convince anyone on the other side who really thinks it’s a moral issue.

Were you hoping for a good conclusion? Some people do change their minds. In the long term, many things that were once considered “immoral” in some part of the world but “moral” elsewhere have globally shifted to the “moral” side (cannibalism and slavery being exceptions, since we started to see the victims as human beings as well). So I’m fairly confident that we’re seeing the start of the same slow but steady progression towards equality for homosexual couples that non-whites and women have been on in America for a little over a century. Those journeys are far from over.

But finally, I want to emphasize this was not intended to bash religion. Some religions have no opinion on homosexuality. There are many churches now that do welcome people regardless of sexuality. And even in the religions that are against homosexuality, most of the followers are people doing what is right. If you believe in eternal damnation, how could doing what you can to save others from it be anything but a good deed?

The point is, there’s a difference between “beliefs that came from your religion” and “personal moral beliefs”…but the similiarity is that neither one can really be changed by the other, because neither one is rational at the core.

  1. I could be totally wrong about this, but is it possible that “thou shalt not lie with a man as thou liest with a woman” was actually originally “thou shalt not lie with a woman as thou liest with a man”? Because it might upset her fertility, or whatever? And then somewhere along the way it was accidentally or intentionally mistranslated or miscopied. ↩︎

  2. This could just as easily be two conflicting religions (Protestantism and Catholicism?) as one religion against atheism. Social issue lines don’t necessarily fall directly between religious categories. ↩︎