What Is Marriage?

There’s another major flaw in Cardinal O’Brien’s arguments against gay marriage. In his article he says “No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.” He seems to believe that there is some immutable definition of marriage that has always been true and that he is bravely defending. Let’s examine that theory. We’ll start by looking at the Bible.

And Gideon had threescore and ten sons of his body begotten: for he had many wives.

Judges 8:30

Here’s another

And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite

Genesis 26:34

And another

And Ashur the father of Tekoa had two wives, Helah and Naarah

1 Chronicles 4:5

I could go on, of course (try counting the number of wives that King David had), but I think my point is made. The Bible has many examples of polygamy. It’s clear that there isn’t a single universal view of marriage that has existed throughout history. Throughout most of recorded history various kinds of polygamy have been seen as the normal kind of marriage over most of the world.

It’s not even confined to history. Wikipedia lists around fifty countries where polygamous marriage is still legally recognised. Of course, the majority of them are patriarchal societies where woman are treated really badly, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Cardinal’s idea of a marriage which consists of one man and one woman is an anomaly in the history of the family and is still far from universal in the present day.

As I wrote yesterday, marriage is defined by society. As society’s views change, so does what constitutes a “normal” marriage. The problem with religion is that it finds change hard to sanction. Society’s rules from thousands of years ago are written in stone and can’t change without the tribal elders admitting that their gods are fallible.

Times change and society changes with it. The law must keep up with these changes. And it usually does. We can’t allow religious beliefs to hold us back on this occasion.


Marriage in the UDHR

In his article arguing against gay marriage, Cardinal Keith O’Brien twice referred to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, saying that article 16 clearly defined marriage as a relationship between a man and woman. In my response to his article I made the assumption that he, at least, knew what he was talking about here and explained that the UDHR shouldn’t be seen as set in stone and that it should be changed if it no longer reflected the way that society sees marriage.

I should have checked exactly what the UDHR says. The Cardinal is overstating his case a little. Article 16 says this:

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
  3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

No matter how closely you read it, there is nothing in there which implies that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. It doesn’t even imply that a marriage should be between two people.

I find it impossible to believe that the Cardinal is confused about the meaning of Article 16. He must know that it doesn’t say what he claims it says. He was lying to us in the hope that no-one would check and call him on his lies.

This just goes to show the importance of always checking primary sources.

Update: The Cardinal was interviewed on the Today programme this morning. I’ve just listened to the interview and I was disappointed to hear that he repeated this lie a number of times.


We Cannot Afford To Indulge This Madness

By “this madness”, of course, I mean religious leaders talking about what society wants without bothering to ask them. The latest example is this piece in the Telegraph by Cardinal Keith O’Brien. Let’s take a close look at what he says.

The Government is this month launching a consultation on same-sex marriage, asking the public whether it should be introduced in England and Wales.

That’s a good thing, surely? I mean going out and asking people what they think. Rather than just assuming that you know best.

I hope many respond and consider signing the petition in support of traditional marriage organised by a new organisation, the Coalition for Marriage.

And I hope that many more sign the petition from the Coalition for Equal Marriage.

On the surface, the question of same-sex marriage may seem to be an innocuous one.

That’ll be because it’s an innocuous question.

Civil partnerships have been in place for several years now, allowing same-sex couples to register their relationship and enjoy a variety of legal protections.

That’s not marriage though, is it? And, bizarrely, heterosexual couples can’t opt for a civil partnership.

When these arrangements were introduced, supporters were at pains to point out that they didn’t want marriage, accepting that marriage had only ever meant the legal union of a man and a woman.

Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved, warned that in time marriage would be demanded too. We were accused of scaremongering then, yet exactly such demands are upon us now.

That’s not how I remember it at all. It was clear to me that civil partnerships were a stepping stone on the way to full equal marriage. If that’s not what you heard, then perhaps people were being politically astute and trying not to scare you too much.

Since all the legal rights of marriage are already available to homosexual couples, it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.

Well, yes, clearly it’s an attempt to redefine marriage. But a “small minority of activists”? That doesn’t seem accurate to me. I see a huge wave of people in favour of equal marriage rights. Perhaps we’re both just talking to people like ourselves.

Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense.

Maybe. We’ll see. But change isn’t always bad. Perhaps the repercussions won’t be as large as, say, the abolition of slavery. Society seems to have dealt with that change.

But can we simply redefine terms at a whim? Can a word whose meaning has been clearly understood in every society throughout history suddenly be changed to mean something else?

Yes. Next question.

If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?

The teacher who wants to tell pupils that will clearly be wrong, as the definition of marriage will have changed. So that teacher should be dealt with in the same way as any teacher who tells lies to pupils.

Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed? Will both teacher and pupils simply become the next victims of the tyranny of tolerance, heretics, whose dissent from state-imposed orthodoxy must be crushed at all costs?

The teacher will be able to hold that view, of course. But that view will be wrong and therefore shouldn’t be taught to children (other than when setting historical context). Not seeing how the children are victims here. They should be being taught the truth – as defined by the law.

In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights should not be written in stone. If society changes and disagrees with its definitions then those definitions can (and should) be changed. People suggesting that aren’t derided because in the real world their suggestions make total sense.

[Update: It turns out that if you actually read the UDHR then you’ll see that it doesn’t say what the Cardinal claims it says at all]

Instead, their attempt to redefine reality is given a polite hearing, their madness is indulged. Their proposal represents a grotesque subversion of a universally accepted human right.

Reality has been redefined by society. Acknowledging this is not madness. We are not subverting a human right but, rather, extending it.

As an institution, marriage long predates the existence of any state or government. It was not created by governments and should not be changed by them. Instead, recognising the innumerable benefits which marriage brings to society, they should act to protect and uphold marriage, not attack or dismantle it.

No, marriage was not created by governments. It was created by society. And society, therefore, has the power to change the definition. Of course governments recognise the benefits of marriage. They are not attacking or dismantling it – they are expanding and enhancing it.

This is a point of view that would have been endorsed and accepted only a few years ago, yet today advancing a traditional understanding of marriage risks one being labelled an intolerant bigot.

Well I wouldn’t use the word “bigot”. But I’d certainly suggest that anyone putting forward your arguments was out of touch with modern society.

There is no doubt that, as a society, we have become blasé about the importance of marriage as a stabilising influence and less inclined to prize it as a worthwhile institution.

This may be true. But it’s not gay marriage that has undermined it. You only have to read the celebrity pages of any newspaper to see how many heterosexual couples are doing all they can to undermine marriage. This cannot be laid at the feet of the campaigners for equal marriage rights.

It has been damaged and undermined over the course of a generation, yet marriage has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that the children born of those unions will have a mother and a father.

Actually, I think the damage goes back more than a generation. Yes, marriage has existed for as long as society. No-one is suggesting that it should be removed.

This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.

See, I think you’re just making things up now. I don’t believe that there’s any evidence that backs this up at all.

Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.

We already live in a society where a large number of children are brought up by a single parent. Surely two parents (of any sex) has to be better than one?

Other dangers exist. If marriage can be redefined so that it no longer means a man and a woman but two men or two women, why stop there? Why not allow three men or a woman and two men to constitute a marriage, if they pledge their fidelity to one another? If marriage is simply about adults who love each other, on what basis can three adults who love each other be prevented from marrying?

Why not indeed? I don’t really see this as a danger. If you seen two parents of different sexes as a good thing, why wouldn’t multiple parents of mixed sexes be even better? Mind you, I don’t see anyone seriously campaigning for this.

In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.

I’m not sure what policies in Massachusetts have to do with the discussion in hand. What is appropriate in British schools will be decided by the British parliament and British courts.

And your use of scare-quotes around the word “normal” rather gives away your whole view on this matter. Homosexuality is normal. Deal with it.

Disingenuously, the Government has suggested that same-sex marriage wouldn’t be compulsory and churches could choose to opt out. This is staggeringly arrogant.

No, that’s not arrogance. It’s government trying to accommodate the outdated views of people like you.

No Government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.

Maybe not. But society does. And government is acting as the representative of society here.

Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.

Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?

Oh, you’re on very shaky ground here. Remember that the Christian church endorsed slavery for as long as it could get away with it. And besides, slavery clearly reduces human rights, equal marriage increases them.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights is crystal clear: marriage is a right which applies to men and women, “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State”.

This universal truth is so self-evident that it shouldn’t need to be repeated. If the Government attempts to demolish a universally recognised human right, they will have forfeited the trust which society has placed in them and their intolerance will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.

Didn’t we cover this a few paragraphs back? The Universal Declaration can and should be changed if it no longer reflects modern society.

The Cardinal has no reasonable argument here. He is simply saying that something shouldn’t change because it hasn’t changed before.

As he says in his opening paragraph, the government is opening a public consultation. If society believes what I think it believes then the final report will recommend that the definition of marriage should be changed. If society is still as blinkered as the Cardinal hopes then the report will recommend that things remain as they are.

That is surely the best approach to take. To ask people what they want. But scare-mongering and hand-waving of the kind in the Cardinal’s article has no place in the discussion. If he has facts and evidence to back up his claims, then let’s see them. But I don’t think he has.


It’s Only A Cracker

Obscure bits of religious  dogma are causing a bit of a ridiculous argument over in the USA. It seems that crackers need to be treated with the right level of respect if you don’t want the might of the Catholic League coming after you.

It’s not just any old cracker, of course. Oh no. It needs to be a cracker that has gone through the mystical transformation process that turns an ordinary cracker into the body of the messiah.

I don’t know if you realise this, but all over the world catholics believe that during the communion service, the crackers and wine literally turn into the body and blood of Jesus. Of course, it’s still really well disguised as crackers and wine, but that doesn’t matter to the catholics. What matters is what they believe. Which is that as part of of the communion they are literally consuming the body and blood of Jesus. I suppose that explains why the ten commandments contain no injunction against cannibalism.

Anyway, this story begins when a Florida student called Webster Cook decided that instead of eating the cracker he was given he would instead walk out of church with it. This decision didn’t go down well with local catholics. A representative of the local diocese described it as a hate crime. Fearing repercussions, Cook returned the cracker.

The story was picked up on Tuesday by PZ Myers, the Minnesota biology professor who wirtes the Pharyngula blog. Myers, quite rightly, had a little bit of a laugh at the expense of the catholic church before making a more serious point:

I find this all utterly unbelievable. It’s like Dark Age superstition
and malice, all thriving with the endorsement of secular institutions
here in 21st century America. It is a culture of deluded lunatics
calling the shots and making human beings dance to their mythical

He then takes it a step further:

Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers?
There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have
stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing
to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me,
I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare.

And that has done nothing at all to calm the situation down. In a follow-up post, Myers catalogues the hate mail he has received since posting his previous entry.

So far today, I have received 39 pieces of personal hate mail of varying degrees of literacy, all because I was rude to a cracker. Four of them have included death threats, a personal one day record. Thirty-four of them have demanded that I be fired.

He also has the Catholic League starting a witch-hunt against him.

The Catholic League are, of course, just showing themselves up as ridiculous fantasists. It’s the twenty-first century. No-one is going to believe in transubstantiation unless it has been drummed into them from an obscenely early age. It’s a nonsense. The communion wafer remains a communion wafer. The wine remains wine. You can believe whatever you like about what it represents. But it doesn’t actually change.

The more that religious organisations like the Cathloic League over-react to situations like this, the more they will alienate themselves from the general public. This has to be a win for rationalism. This story needs to be seen by as many people as possible, so that as many people as possible have the chance to look at it and say, “What are they talking about? It’s only a bloody cracker!”

film religion

Damned If You Do…

The story so far:

The people behind the films based on His Dark Materials decided to remove any direct references to god in order to avoid offending religious people.

However, the Catholic League decided that the cuts weren’t deep enough and called for a boycott of the film.

Now we get this:

Christian groups such as the Catholic League have criticised the movie and charged the intentional removal of anti-religious themes as a ploy to encourage kids to read Pullman’s pro-atheism books.

So you remove the church from the films (wrongly, in my opinion) only to be accused of doing it to encourage more children to read the books. There’s no way to win in this situation.

And anyway, since when was encouraging children to read such a bad idea? And if christianity is such convincing view of the universe why would you worry if children came into contact with alternative points of view? Sounds to me as though some people are worried that children exposed to alternative explanations of the universe might just see through the nonsense of religion and start thinking rationally.

Which would never do.

books film religion

Catholic Call to Boycott “Golden Compass”

In December 2004 I bemoaned the fact that god was to be cut from the film versions of His Dark Materials. The first film will be released in a couple of months’ time and I see (via MediaWatchWatch) that the cuts from The Golden Compass aren’t deep enough the satisfy the Catholic League who have called for a boycott of the film. Apparently children who see the film could be encouraged to read the books and would therefore be introduced to the full force of Philip Pullman’s dangerous atheism.

Perhaps we should have a campaign to donate copies of the books to local Catholic churches.

Update: More from the Observer and the National Secular Society (I didn’t mention that I’d joined the NSS, did I?). I’m particularly appalled by the quotation from Nicole Kidman:

I was raised Catholic, the Catholic Church is part of my essence … I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.