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Why am I a Bigot?

November 26th, 2008 by Matt

I am a Theologian with a strong background in Philosophy; apart from Philosophical Theology, my particular area of interest is Ethics. Given this, I often post my thoughts and reflections on moral issues of various persuasions on this blog. I have discussed the morality of warfare, whether it is sometimes permissible to lie, the morality of torture, capital punishment, the nature of our obligations to the poor.

On occasions, I discuss issues related to abortion and homosexual conduct something which, I think, is unavoidable if one is a theologian writing from a relatively conservative evangelical perspective. I believe that homosexual conduct is contrary to divine law and I believe that feticide is homicide. The latter claim is not just a casual opinion; I spent some years writing a PhD thesis on the topic and over the last couple of years I have had articles published in this area.

Now a pervasive response to my position on these issues is that appeals to divine law to condemn practises like feticide or homosexual conduct are really an expression of bigotry. One would think that it would be fairly obvious to people that you don’t refute a position by calling the person who holds it a bigot and it is tempting to dismiss this response as simply a confused ad hominem; the problem is that people do not appear to find this obvious. In my experience, many people even educated people, recoil from considering any argument against feticide or homosexual conduct or listening to theological concerns on these matters because they perceive such positions to be bigoted.

It’s worth fisking this objection a bit. A good place to start is to ask what does this charge amount to? When someone claims that another is a bigot, what is meant by this? The Pocket Oxford English Dictionary defines a bigot as someone who is obstinate in his or her beliefs and is intolerant of others. Presumably, the objector claims that one who appeals to the law of God to condemn feticide or homosexual conduct (or some other practise celebrated by contemporary liberal secularists) displays or expresses these features – they are both obstinate and intolerant. The accusation clarified, an obvious question arises, why hold this claim?

Obstinance
Turning to the issue of obstinance, why must a person who holds these beliefs do so in an obstinate manner? Could they not have come to these beliefs as a result of careful reflection? Alternatively, could they hold to them because they are not convinced the counter arguments are sound? What is needed here is some argument to preclude such options and none is forthcoming.

I suspect that what lingers behind this accusation is the belief that theologically-based opposition to abortion is obviously mistaken and the case against it so compelling that no rational, informed person could think otherwise. If so, then this is not so much an argument against such appeals but an assumption that those who make them are mistaken on other grounds. The objector should come clean about what these other grounds are and put forward the compelling, unassailable arguments that everyone else should apparently already know about.

Let me add further that as a person who studies ethics and aspires to be a professional theological-ethicist, nothing is more frustrating than being told by a journalist or a tax lawyer that it’s an obvious fact that a certain theological ethical stance is mistaken. Further, if I think otherwise I must be misinformed and ignorant of the subject, a subject they often have done little or no study on. Perhaps this is one area where a little humility is needed.

Intolerance
Turning to the issue of intolerance, let me here just say that, the concern about intolerance implicit in this objection is mistaken. Even if the proponents of more conservative positions were intolerant, this would only constitute an objection to their behaviour if it were first assumed that people have a duty to refrain from intolerance and this assumption is problematic.

In many contexts intolerance is appropriate and contrary to popular slogans, a virtue. Imagine a society that tolerated rape, child molestation or infant sacrifice? Moreover if unqualified, the assertion that people have a duty to be tolerant entails that one should tolerate intolerance, is deeply paradoxical.

For this charge to have any substance, the objector needs to specify what sorts of action he or she thinks one should tolerate and which ones are such that intolerance is inappropriate. He or she needs to justify this distinction and then provide reasons for thinking that appeals to divine law in a subject like feticide fall into the latter category yet no argument of this sort has been forthcoming.

Here us the rub; if feticide is an action on a par with infanticide then intolerance towards it is justified. In asserting that it is not, the objector implicitly assumes that feticide is not homicide without offering argument. Similarly if homosexual conduct is a serious form of sexual immorality, such as incest, bestiality, polygamy or adultery, then intolerance against it is not necessarily wrong. Our society, for example, has laws against incest and bestiality and few contend for their repeal (though the chipping away has begun). Once again, the objector here, in making their charge, assumes that homosexual conduct is not seriously immoral.

Now it is possible that these assumptions are correct but it is also possible they are not.
Anyone who appeals to divine law to condemn practises like feticide or homosexual conduct is denying these assumptions. You don’t provide a cogent objection to a position by assuming it is false at the outset and then using this assumption to prove that it is. What is needed is an actual argument for the assumption in the first place. Until some actual argument is forthcoming that demonstrates the falsity of what has been defended, objections based on the notion of tolerance merely beg the question and have no impact on the thesis being advanced.

I think there is a kind of irony here; often when someone accuses Theologians of bigotry they themselves are simply obstinately assuming that their position is true and their assumption leads them to castigate and refuse to tolerate the opinions or person who expresses dissent to the secular liberal orthodoxy. Here, as elsewhere, the accusation of bigotry is a form of Orwellian double-speak.

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16 responses so far ↓

  • People attempting to dismiss moral concerns with emotive terms like “intolerant, bigot, fundamentalist” are cheating. They are unable to take moral arguments seriously because of their personal emotional commitment to postmodern “tolerance” and “open-mindedness”. In truth it is just sloppy thinking coloured by prejudice.

    The trick is to show them that they haven’t engaged the topic seriously and could they please stop the personal attacks. Perhaps an appeal to freedom of speech/thought/religion would help.

  • on a related side note, It’d be interesting to see houw your theological musings compare with the likes of Tony Jones. Especially in light of his recent (and controversial) series of posts on the same-sex christian issue

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2008/11/same-sex-marriage-blogalogue-h.html

    and

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2008/11/what-role-experience-same-sex.html

  • Do you think that some Christians accept the bigot label too easily?

    Is the problem one way or two ways?

  • That’s right – you’re not necessarily a bigot for declaring homosexual sex is immoral. You are necessarily insane for declaring it’s the law of God, but you’re not necessarily a bigot.

  • Bree asked:
    Is the problem one way or two ways?

    Cark:
    The problem is one way.

    “Two ways” is “bisexuality”. Homosexuals go one way (like heterosexuals).

  • Hi Carl

    Would you consider anyone who made the following comment insane?

    “One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

    Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

  • Hi Bree, yes it is a two way thing.

    I think many Christians are far too quick to accept the labels thrown at them and then go into a tailspin bending over backwards to try and apologise, be soft and nice etc to avoid the charges. Ultimately they fail because the people making the accusation continue to do so and they have weakened their message, watered it down and compromised it to an extent where it lacks any relevance.

    One of the hardest things I have found working in the Theological sector is precisely this. I worked for many years in secular Philosophy departments where the culture was to examine objections raised against your position and see if they were sound. I believe I managed to gain a fair bit of respect working in this context from the sceptics I dialogued with.

    Then I would confront Theologians who were held out as expert on these sorts of things who would talk about how this or that philosophical movement had raised “sincere concerns” about Christianity so we needed to be-post modern and adjust our message to dialogue with them. Whenever I suggested that the better approach was to actually stand up for yourself and critique the objection (as I try to do on this blog) I was usually ignored, seen as a bit of a radical and on one occasion called a Pharisee. It may sound arrogant but I suspect that I actually have had more experience and more success dialoguing with people sceptical and hostile to Christianity than many of these people do and I stand by my methods.

    The other problem is that not only do Christians take these charges too seriously but they also uncritically accept accusations of this sort against other Christians. Time and time again I have heard an accusation of this sort made against a Christian, often over something a person had said, and seen other Christians quickly disassociate themselves from the person, condemn it publically and try and demonstrate that they are not “extremists” like the person accused. What they do not do is actually bother to examine the original statement and check to see if the accusation is accurate, nor do they check the facts first and give the accused the benefit of the doubt before rushing to condemn.

    Sometimes when one checks the facts one finds the accusations have merit, but often, and in my experience more frequently, they do not. Years later these same Christians sometimes get shocked when they are unjustly accused and no one believes them and are surprised by the unusual hostility and unfair treatment they have received. They were oblivious to the fact that this had been there all along accept they had simply empowered it.

    When I was at Otago Uni, I attended a meeting where the speaker criticised homosexual conduct. Then the student rag Critic published a critical piece about the meeting attacking the organisers. What was interesting was that in the letters to the editor a prominent Christian leader who had not attended the meeting condemned the group on the grounds of what he had “heard” from members of UNIQ (a gay student group) as to what had happened. In the same issue several letters from sceptics and secularists who had attended stated that the coverage in Critic was inaccurate, cited out of context, etc and suggested that their own side, so to speak, were over reacting and not being quite honest in this context.

  • Matt asked me:
    Would you consider anyone who made the following comment insane?…

    Carl:
    Hi Matt,

    Yes – the comment was insane. The equation of ‘just’ law with God’s law is insanity.

  • Carl Marks

    The quote comes from Martin Luther Kings “letter from Birmingham Jail” Nice to know that you consider the civil rights activist Dr Martin Luther King to be insane.

  • I know where it comes from, having read it years ago. But the comment’s origin is logically irrelevant to its quality of sanity or insanity. That is your red herring.

    Martin Luther King’s comment was insane. And your own earlier comment was also insane.

  • Carl, throwing around pejorative terms does not make a reasoned argument, just a heated one. Your evident bigotry discredits anything else you may have said.

    In short, you’re a wombat!

    In future, please try to make a valid point. Also if you want to be insulting, try and be funny. Bye now

  • What sort of logical fallacy is that one called again Matt? "Appeal to authority"? I am sure there is some high-flooting latin name fur it too.

  • No its not an appeal to authority ( an appeals to authority aren't always fallacious anyway) it's actually a counter example, if a person says all people who believe X are insane, and I show a person who believes in X who is sane I have rebutted the claim.

    I take it that Martin Luther King was not insane.

    Recent blog post: Fisking Ian Hassall: The Arbitrary Ethical Reasoning on the Smacking Referendum

  • A lot of argument is internally consistent but convinces no one who doesn’t already embrace the conclusion. With abortion, especially.
    I have taken up “Einsteinian” thought experiments. Assume a burning building, many rooms, and trapped inside, an old lady, a boy, a girl, a cat, a dog, a retarded man, a baby . . . and a medical transport case containing five fertilized human eggs ready for implantation.
    You might be able to save all the lives if you go quickly, but in what order do you do break down doors? My own row would be baby, girl, boy, retarded man, old woman, dog, cat, and last of all the test tubes. There are five (admittedly very) young fetuses in the test tubes, but I don’t know the prospective parents, so I assume their insurance will help them with replacement doctored ova. The panicky mewing and barking of the animals moves me more than the contents of the test tubes, even though in some kind of connect-the-dots way those swiftly dividing cells are more human.
    This isn’t an argument for allowing all abortions for any reason at any time during pregnancy, but to me at least it casts into doubt Horton Hears a Who essentialism. We accept collateral damage in wars. I think sometimes abortion is an acceptable choice from all the less than ideal choices a woman or girl is forced to consider.

  • By your argument each being after the baby is successively less human/important.

    I can’t see how you can conclude that all but the last being(s) on the list are human/important and I certainly cannot see how you can draw from that that it is ok to intentionally kill only the last being(s) on the list.

    If it were me, I’d make the decision as to the order by triaging, e.g. how much time I had, how long it would take to get to each and how realistic my odds were of saving each, who could probably get out by themselves and so on, but at the very end of my list would be the cat and dog because they are not human.

    One other point is that embryos in test tubes are in a suspended state of living. Unlike embryos in utero, something artificial and extra-ordinary needs to be done to them that they cannot naturally do by themselves (by virtue of someone having put them in a test-tube) so I am not sure that your analogy is close enough to do the work you want it to do. For me to save the embryos I would not only have to pull them from the burning room but I would have to find uteruses for them to be implanted in (i.e. willing women) and I would have to find someone to do the implanting.

  • Hey Matt have you ever read any Michel Foucault on the subject of queer people?