Retreat into the Argument from Religion

Sooner or later, opponents of equal rights for gays and lesbians almost always bring personal religious belief into discussions about relevant legislation and judicial decisions. These beliefs may be a front line defense or a fall-back position, but those who cite them must hope that enough common ground can be found in religion to secure a firm footing in the discussion.

We also sometimes hear overt expressions of personal disgust toward homosexuality, but these rarely occur in serious public discussions. This “ick” factor, when it is not completely denied, is usually backgrounded, because it is clearly the weakest of all the possible “arguments” that can be made and reflects badly on those who use it. Those who rely on it have already abandoned civil discourse for the language of bullies and brawlers.

Religious belief may, in some instances, act as a front for personal disgust, and there is an on-going debate about how much of this disgust originates in religion. However, even if the disgust is native (and why not?—homosexuals may be equally repelled by the thought of sex between men and women), there is little doubt that it is reinforced and propagated by organized religion.

Law and science no longer provide any basis for discrimination against sexual minorities, so religion is simply the last court of appeal. However, the problem is that this court is a sectarian court, whose verdict may not carry much weight among non-believers or adherents of other, more progressive faiths. Catholics can’t cite the catechism to Congregationalists.

What further undermines the argument from religion is that even “officially” conservative religious establishments like the Catholic Church are experiencing more and more dissension in the ranks. Witness recent Catholic response to President Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame University. Catholics can no longer even cite catechism to other Catholics.

Established religion, unlike folk religion, is plagued by reflectivity and the constant nagging doubt. It cannot consolidate its positions in a world where authority is constantly questioned.

Justifications for religious arguments are needed and called for. Daniel C. Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, finds a common feature of both folk psychology and folk religion to be their relative lack of reflectivity. Once exploratory reflections begin, these repositories of popular wisdom are challenged. Dennett describes three responses to such challenges (p. 163):

Everyday folk physics and folk biology and folk psychology work very well, as a rule, and so does folk religion, but occasional doubts surface. The exploratory reflections of human beings have a way of snowballing into waves of doubt, and if these threaten our equanimity, we can be expected to seize upon any responses that happen to shore up the consensus or damp the challenge. When curiosity stubs its toe on an unexpected event, something has to give: “what everybody knows” has a counterexample, and either the doubt blossoms into a discovery, which leads to the abandonment or extinction of a dubious bit of local lore, or the dubious item secures itself with an ad hoc repair of one sort or another, or it allies itself with other items that have in one way or another put themselves out of the reach of gnawing skepticism.

Is the argument from religious belief just a way of putting oneself outside the reach of gnawing skepticism? If so, how effective can it be in persuading those who do not share one’s particular sectarian beliefs? Not very. This is why we’re seeing a growing trend among fundamentalists to abandon the political arena, at least until they can secure their positions with ad hoc repairs.


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