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?
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.
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.