For a long time, one of my fellow core developers on the Django project has had an email signature which contains the following:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” — Evelyn Beatrice Hall (summarising Voltaire)
My perception of the reaction and noise around Brendan Eich’s appointment (and subsequent resignation) as CEO of Mozilla has been that many (though by no means all) in the tech community haven’t held true to this (though I think many would claim that they have).
I’m afraid I can’t be silent on this issue any more, and I have to speak out. You are more than welcome to disagree with me (as I’m sure many of you will!) but please at least hear me out.
I was pushed further by a comment on a blog post (both of which have since disappeared) in which the author said that he would be very scared to speak out if he opposed gay marriage, and that fear is not the tactic we should be using to discourage this view.
I agree completely with that sentiment. The current temperature in the programming community feels extremely hostile to anyone, like me, who opposes the concept of gay marriage.
I should mention that for many Christians like me this is far from the most important moral issue. Divorce and pornography within the church itself are, unfortunately, much more pressing concerns. Although our views on those matters are probably offensive to a much greater fraction of the population, it’s around this issue that most discussion is taking place at the moment.
The first thing I want to address in this post is the alarming tendency to demonise those who disagree with you. I’ve seen so many tweets in which Brendan Eich has been called a bigot or gay-hater. The reality is that you don’t know how he has come to his convictions, or how he is motivated. To accuse someone of being hateful without good reason is slander, and, however you were motivated to do that, you cause real pain when you do so, as well as increasing suspicion and animosity in the community.
The second thing I want to do is give a justification of my views. I think that one of biggest reason that people feel compelled to characterise their opponents as haters is that they cannot imagine any other motivation. The most prominent speakers from a ‘Christian’ perspective on this subject have been people like Fred Phelps — thankfully now forever silenced.
I haven’t seen anyone in the tech community presenting a view which represents something I’d believe to be a genuinely Christ-like perspective. Brendan Eich’s own post, while rejecting the label of ‘bigot’ and ‘hater’ as I do, declines to give a reason for his views, on the basis that “online communication doesn’t seem to work very well for potentially divisive issues”. I have a huge amount of sympathy for that position, and realise that I will be risking massive misinterpretation with every line that I write. But I cannot agree with the sentiment that religion is not something you should talk about in polite company.
In fact, this vacuum can give the impression that the only way that people can believe what I believe is from an irrational, indefensible, hate-filled religious bias. So I’m going to try to address that.
This blog post is long. I’m sorry, if I’d had more time it would be shorter! On the other hand, it brings up many topics that could be discussed at much greater length, so I guess this could have been much longer!
Acceptance and approval §1
The first important issue is the distinction between acceptance and approval. There is an idea in our society today that if you love and accept a person, you must also give total approval of their behaviour. Forgive my bluntness, but this idea is just plain wrong! You will see counter examples in any parent-child relationship. Most importantly for me, the life of Jesus illustrates my ideal.
Jesus scandalised the religious leaders of his day by his willingness to associate with the ‘sinners’ — tax collectors (national traitors and thieves) and prostitutes. (Matthew 9:9-13, for example). His response was “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick… For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Notice that while Jesus was happy to associate with these people, and they clearly were happy to be around him, he still calls them ‘sick’ and ‘sinners’ — broken people who needed fixing. In other places, we’re told that a summary of his message was “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near.” (Matthew 3:2). This is not a message of “Stay as you are, you’re just fine.” It’s exactly the opposite — you need a complete turnaround in your life if you want to be a part of God’s world. Jesus spoke extremely clearly about the deadliness of sin, and the reality of hell, and the need to deal with sin severely on that basis (e.g. Mark 7:20-23, Mark 9:42-50).
One of my favourite passages in the Bible is the story Jesus told of the prodigal son (Luke 15), where the context of accepting sinners is again the big issue. This amazing, powerful story emphasises the love, compassion and patience that God has towards those who reject him. While we don’t deserve God’s mercy or love, his arms are always outstretched in forgiveness towards us. But nowhere does that acceptance mean approval of lifestyle. The lost son comes to his senses and returns to his father — he repents. He admits that he has behaved terribly. And for us to receive the forgiveness and power to change that God loves to give, we have to be ready to say the same thing.
Please note that Jesus makes clear that this applies to everyone, myself included — we are all broken people, and rebels too, whether we are outwardly respectable or not. Jesus’ harshest words are for those who refused to admit this.
The behaviour of Christians needs to be modelled on the attitude of Jesus, and the waiting father in Luke 15. I’m ashamed that we Christians constantly fail to live up to the standard of Jesus in his love, compassion and patience and I apologise for that. Yet Jesus sets the pattern of loving and accepting people while not condoning their behaviour, and in fact calling them to change.
I understand that if you feel disapproval you can also feel rejection, or even hate. But my opposition to homosexual practice is not a rejection of you as a person. I also disapprove of all sex outside of marriage, and yet the many people who engage in that, who I brush shoulders with daily, do not feel rejected by me.
I confess that I don’t do it nearly as well as Jesus did. Luke 7:36-50 shows the kind of effect Jesus had on people — people whom he welcomed kindly, yet still called their sin ‘sin’, and called them to leave it. I aspire to that, and ask your forgiveness when I fail.
There may not be many people in the online community I interact with who can vouch for my behaviour, but it seems that those who know Brendan Eich can vouch for his. From the sounds of it, Brendan is a great example in this matter. People have seen the way he treats gay people and been impressed, and then been surprised, as Mitchell Baker was, to know his views on gay marriage. But their surprise is because they assume that a welcoming acceptance of a person means approval of their behaviour, and vice-versa, and that if you disapprove you will also demonstrate hate. But Jesus has shown us a better way.
A defence of being against gay marriage §2
My second main point — I want to defend my view.
As I start to do that, you might be surprised to know that I actually feel I don’t really need to give a long defence. I think my view is philosophically and morally far easier to defend than the alternative. But I’ll come on to that.
I have no idea what Brendan Eich’s reasons are for his views, but I will give an extremely short, inexhaustive defence of mine:
The Bible, including Jesus’ teaching about sexuality, makes it thoroughly clear that sex is for marriage only, and that homosexual practice (like other forms of sex outside of marriage) is a sin before God. (Re-interpreting the Bible to make it more palatable to today’s society might be tempting, but simply not possible to do honestly).
Jesus believed the Bible, and strongly taught its centrality as the basis for all our ethical decisions as well as our understanding about God. (See above link, which contains a section on this.)
Jesus was the sinless Son of God, as demonstrated by his astonishing life and death, and his miraculous resurrection, which is extremely convincing on an historical level. God has appointed him as the current ruler and saviour of the world, and future judge of all mankind. As such he is uniquely qualified to guide us on these matters. The way he has impacted my own life further convinces me of the reality of his claims about himself. So if he accepted and endorsed the Bible’s teaching, that’s good for enough for me — in fact it’s the only wise and safe thing to do.
So, supporting gay marriage would be supporting a relationship which is wrong, bad for the individual, and bad for society (since God knows best). This puts it into the same category as laws that promote easy divorce or sponsor sex outside of marriage, on all counts. I accept Jesus’ and the Bible’s wisdom on all these, because I think he is wiser than the tide of current opinion.
(I do feel the need to emphasise the thing about other forms of sexual immorality. The Bible also condemns adultery, sex outside of marriage, lust, pornography (Matthew 5:28), etc., with the result that virtually everyone, myself included, has sexual sins, at least in their past, that leave us guilty before God. Evangelical Christians haven’t changed their minds about those things, but for some reason, this doesn’t bother people that much, but our disapproval of homosexual acts, which affects far fewer, makes lots of people angry. In our own circles, it is these other forms of sexual immorality that are the overwhelming focus of our teaching.)
I could include other reasons, which I will touch on later in this post, but these are my fundamental ones.
Defending gay marriage §3
On the other hand, I’ve always struggled to find a persuasive defence of the concept of gay marriage. In the post linked above I gave my reasons why I think Christians who attempt to combine acceptance of homosexual marriage with their Christian faith are totally without sound basis. But non-Christians, especially athesists, are usually no better off. The rest of this post is primarily targeted at people who are arguing from an atheistic perspective.
It seems that most defence of homosexual practice and marriage today is made on the basis of moral relativism - “you can’t tell me what is right for me. You can keep your Bible/religion/moral absolutes.” Especially over the past 5 decades, much of Western society has thrown off the shackles of religion as a basis for deciding morality — the Christian religion in particular. So the response to everything I’ve said is simply “we reject the Bible’s teaching on sexual ethics, and anyone else’s for that matter”.
However, people still have fairly well defined sexual ethics (see below), it’s just really not at all obvious where they come from.
Further, moral absolutism is extremely evident in the response to Brendan Eich’s position. Everyone seems to think they have the right to tell him that he is wrong, and that he and Mozilla need to apologise, at the very least.
In fact, there is very little genuine moral relativism among atheists I know. Moral outrage about what other people have done pre-supposes moral absolutes.
In reality, what has happened is that our society has replaced one form of moral absolutism with another. However, the replacement has no basis at all. There are others in the programming community who have, refreshingly, noticed how lame moral relativism is, but haven’t come up with a basis for moral absolutes. So the basis ends up being either personal preference, or the tide of current opinion.
This is far more arrogant and dangerous than the position of conservative Christians, who see themselves as under an external law that they are not free to re-define or re-interpret. Many atheists end up with a horrible combination of moral relativism and absolutism. It combines the attitude of freedom from restraint, saying “you can’t tell me what to do” to the rest of the world, with an unchallengeable conviction of moral superiority that is quite happy to add “but I can certainly tell you what to do.” It also makes them totally vulnerable to whatever people happen to think right now. People in our society have changed their views on homosexual practice astonishingly quickly. This could be because they’ve become enlightened on an issue, or it could be because they have no moral anchor, and so are tossed around on every wave of fashion. And they’ve got no way of knowing the difference.
Before you criticise my view, I’d ask you to challenge yourself on whether you have a solid, consistent, thought out basis for your moral view point? I’ve yet to meet an atheist with anything approaching this. Patches welcome!
If you believe that homosexual relationships are on the same footing as heterosexual marriage, why?
Here are some arguments that simply will not work:
“It’s obvious”. It seems most people assume this — their position is so obvious it does not need to be argued. But this is no more convincing than people simply saying that the opposite position is equally “obvious”, basing things only on what is “natural”.
“It’s logical”. You cannot argue ethics purely from logic. “Do not steal” cannot be derived from Modus ponens and friends. Logic certainly has a place in applying moral principles to specific situations, but can’t produce those principles in the first place.
“Science”. People often want to argue things from science, because it works, or something. They might make arguments from biology etc. But science cannot tell you what ought to be. It can only ever help us to describe what is. There is no experiment you can do that will tell you if murder is wrong. Science might help confirm that some people are born with a certain sexual orientation, which can help me have compassion on those people, but it doesn’t decide morality.
I’m a science geek myself — I did physics and material science at university, and loved it. But when it comes to ethics, science can help inform us, but it is always interpreted in a pre-existing moral and philosophical framework, which is the thing that atheists are still searching for.
“History”. Unless you are a theist, there is basically nothing you can deduce about ethics from the flow of history. There is no reason to think that history has a purpose or ethical direction. There is no “wrong side of history” — you will find plenty of examples in history when the generally accepted morality has gone in the ‘wrong’ direction (whatever your definition of right and wrong).
At this point you might be tempted to combine history and science, and look to evolution to encourage you to think things will progress. But you can’t equate physical progress with moral progress. If you want to make this your basis, then you are left with only the survival ethic, as C.S. Lewis puts it eloquently in his Evolutionary Hymn. With this ethic, any change has to be defined as good, especially things like the growth of black slavery in the 17th century, which helped another ‘race’ to succeed.
“It’s about doing people good.” Cicero put it this way:
“The people’s good is the highest law.”
Many would try to build an ethical system based on whatever will produce good outcomes — things that are good for people. This is called teleological ethics. The fundamental problem with these systems of ethics is that they must pre-suppose a value system. So, for the atheist, this simply shifts the problem to an equally difficult problem of defining what is good.
For example, I recently read an article promoting basic income — a concept that was new to me. In it, the author essentially assumed that “enabling most of our race to live a life of leisure should be something we strive for”. However, my definition of “good” is very different. As a Christian, I think that humans being were meant to work — to do something useful for other people in this world.
Before you can decide whether something is good for individuals or society, you need to know what humans beings are for. It seems that if you are an atheist, it’s not possible to have any definite answer to this, because human beings, along with the rest of nature, have no pre-defined purpose at all.
(As a Christian, I do know what I’m for, what my purpose is. As a famous catechism has put it, summarising the Bible’s teaching:
“Man’s primary purpose is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” (Westminster Shorter Catechism in Modern English)
In case you are wondering — yes, this is incredibly fulfilling and wonderful!)
“It’s about equal rights.”
There are two issues here. The first is about access to certain legal rights, such as next-of-kin hospital rights. This is something that can be addressed by other legal means such as civil partnerships and civil unions, which I think are a good thing, especially when they are defined broadly enough to cater for non-sexual relationships.
The gay rights movement has gone beyond this, however, in insisting that equal rights means there must be no distinctions made between things that are different, which is a flawed definition of equality.
The comparison between gay marriage and interracial marriage is often drawn. The argument goes that laws against interracial marriage are racist, so laws against homosexual marriage are homophobic. But the comparison is flawed.
Let’s consider the case of a black man and a white man who both want to marry a white woman. If we say that the black man cannot marry her because he is black, this is racial discrimination.
Suppose, secondly, there is a man of 25 and a boy of 8, and both want to marry a woman. If we say that the boy cannot marry her because he is only a boy, this is age discrimination.
Now let’s come to the point: suppose a man and a woman both want to marry a woman. If we say that the woman is not allowed to marry the woman because she is a woman, what kind of discrimination is this?
While some immediately see homophobic discrimination here, or discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, that isn’t the issue. The woman was not allowed to marry the woman because she was a woman. This is gender discrimination.
When it comes to marriage, there has never been any discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, in the US or the UK. Homosexual people have identical rights to heterosexual — the same marriage relationships are open to both, and always have been. The traditional view of marriage is not based on the idea that homosexual people are inferior in any way, because homosexuals are not denied access to marriage for any reason relating to their orientation. The traditional view of marriage is based on discrimination between the sexes. It is based on the idea that men and women are fundamentally different in some important ways — which I’ll leave to a biology text book if you are not aware of them :-)
We are happy to discriminate in this area on the basis of age, because there are fundamental differences between children and adults. The line is pretty blurred, of course, but the distinction is real, so most societies draw a (somewhat arbitrary) line of a specific age, and make that the law. This isn’t the only way you might do it, but it’s probably as good as any.
When it comes to gender, there might occasionally be grey areas, such as hermaphrodites. However, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it is very clear cut — much more so than for the case of childhood/adulthood.
There are clearly grounds on which we think it is OK to discriminate when it comes to marriage, such as age. What is the uniting factor?
I would argue that the whole reason that marriage deserves state recognition and protection is because heterosexual marriage has a unique place in society when it comes to producing and raising children. This provides more than reasonable justification to discriminate on the basis of both age and gender.
You might object that although this form of marriage discrimination is technically on the basis of gender, in practice it discriminates against gay people because it is only gay people who are stopped from marrying the people they want to marry.
However, that ignores various other reasons we have for stopping people from marrying:
The people involved must not be married to other people. But why not? Who are we to define marriage in such an exclusionary way?
The people must not be siblings, or parent/child. But why not? In an age of effective contraceptives and abortion, arguments from genetics no longer work, and even without them, who are you to say that the genetic problems caused are worse than the deprivations inflicted when forbidding marriages like this?
And, in the age of gay marriage, what about two brothers or two sisters, where there is no chance of them producing a child? Or a mother/daughter, or father/son?
The fact remains that when it comes to defining marriage, you have to come up with a bunch of restrictions and constraints which will always exclude someone. If your definition of marriage doesn’t exclude some relationships, then you have no definition at all, in which case the word becomes meaningless, and it becomes impossible to even talk about.
If your definition of “equality” is “we must make no distinctions between anything”, then you cannot justify the restrictions that we place on marriage and many other distinctions that we make in society. The definition of equality that makes this a matter of equal rights is totally flawed.
“You are encouraging atrocities against gay people.”
I don’t think that the teachings of Jesus will ever encourage people to commit atrocities — as outlined in the first main section above.
Of course it is true that if people read the Bible selectively, they can find motivation for all kinds of terrible things, but that is true of every religion or philopsophy. (Take, for example, the massacres of Aboriginal peoples, along with eugenics and other terrible things, often justified on the basis of Social Darwinism).
I don’t want to downplay for one second the terrible things that have been done against gay people, some in the name of so-called Christianity. These things, however, highlight the terrible truth about humans: there is an evil nature inside each one of us that is capable of using any reason, or none at all, for inflicting cruelty on other people. An honest response to this reality is at the heart of the message of the Bible and Jesus. (Mark 7:20-23, Jeremiah 17:9).
“I feel moral outrage about this!”
I think this is probably the biggest reason that people are convinced they are right on this issue. When you feel outraged over a particular issue, it seems inconceivable to your sense of justice and conscience that any informed person could disagree or believe differently. This is particularly strong for issues such as gay rights, where there are many examples of homosexual people being treated abominably — which we would both deplore.
In this frame of mind, it’s incredibly hard to believe that there is even a tiny possibility of being wrong or outrage being misdirected.
But consciences can be trained and educated, for better or worse. We all know that simply doing something changes our attitude towards it. We can even find certain acts amusing or pleasing when we are not on the receiving end, but outrageous when we are.
Consciences are slippery, and can be manipulated both internally and externally, and are often influenced by media and public opinion, as demonstrated by the rapidly shfting tide of public opinion regarding gay marriage. If we were having this conversation in 1988, only 11% of American readers would be supporting same-sex marriage (source), and many of the rest would feel plenty of moral outrage at the thought of it being introduced. I’d ask you to think — how has your moral framework led you to this position and is it consistent with other moral issues you do or don’t feel strongly about?
Unfortunately, moral relativism has pervaded our culture, making it almost impossible to think critically about this subject. Without any real standard for ethical beliefs, moral relativists are imprisoned into the belief that they are right, and progressing towards some as yet unknown moral ideal. This is why those in the liberal movement call themselves “progressive”, assuming that change is indeed progressive and cannot in fact be “regressive”. Genuine self criticism is impossible because it is philosophically unthinkable.
To sum up, from my perspective, a solid moral framework is needed for making any ethical decisions, which atheism struggles to provide.
But as a Christian I do have a solid foundation — the person of Jesus Christ himself. It is his understanding and example that I attempt to follow. And it is his example that provides a way for us to demonstrate genuine acceptance and love towards those whose behaviour we strongly disapprove of, without insulting or attacking. I think we still have a lot to learn from him — myself included.
It is Christians (or those claiming to be) who need to learn from him first of all. There are those who claim to be Christians yet completely fail to follow Jesus’ model and are driven by malice in their disapproval of others, and they have no excuse. Another tendency amongst my own camp is to focus on homosexual behaviour as a (usually subconscious) cover for sins that are in reality just as serious before God, but are uncomfortably close to home, like a lax attitude towards divorce, lying, gossiping, greed, pride… the list goes on. We need to repent of that.
If I haven’t convinced you on any of these points, please be assured that I will continue to treat you with respect and kindness, whether you are gay, straight, Christian, atheist or anything else. If I have any understanding of the Christian message, this is the only thing I can sensibly do.
Note 1: it probably goes without saying that these are my personal views. I don’t know what Brendan Eich would think about these things, and I’m not representing the views of other organisations that I’m involved in like Django, etc.
Note 2: I have disabled comments on this post due to the low signal-to-noise ratio that I expect in response to this post, sorry. If you would like to engage me in genuine, respectful discussion, I’d love to hear from you, but please do so by email.