Matt Gemmell

Morality and Persecution

12 min read

I recently read the Pope’s latest homophobic statements with disgust, though not with surprise.

Pride of place [among proper settings for the education of children] goes to the family, based on the marriage of a man and a woman.

This is not a simple social convention, but rather the fundamental cell of every society. Consequently, policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.

The observant reader will note that this not only marks homosexual couples as unsuitable families and poor ‘settings’ for children’s education, but technically also discriminates against the non-married, and against single parents. Religion is extremely fond of its discriminatory diatribes, but even the jaded listener has to admire His Holiness’ audacity in this case.

We must also remember that it’s not just this particular sect that perpetuates appalling slanders and injustices against arbitrary subsections of its own species; such primitivism is endemic to religion as a whole.

The warm, comforting topic of family is a favourite of religion, and of divisive politics (to add the same qualifier to religion itself would be a tautology). It’s almost always followed by the word “values”, and is found in close proximity to words like “right”, “wrong”, “appropriate”, “inappropriate”, and (as above) “dignity”. The main word thrown around, though, is of course morality, something which religion bizarrely lays exclusive claim to.

Putting aside the self-evident ludicrousness and monumentally insulting (and self-hating) quality of the common assertion that human beings without religion cannot be moral creatures, I’m forced to wonder how His Holiness (or any of his adherents) can possibly reconcile dignity with the persecution of homosexuals, women, and people of differing (or no) ‘faith’.

Privilege

I’m very conscious that I’m an almost absurdly privileged individual. Indeed, in terms of the inherent biases, prejudices, allowances and social mores of my particular society, I could scarcely be moreso.

I live in the United Kingdom (that’s my context, not a claim to privilege in itself), and within that context I’m a white, male, British-born, English-speaking (in a country with English as a first language), university-educated heterosexual, who is free of physical or mental illness, free of debt (mortgage notwithstanding), free of any criminal record, gainfully employed (self-employed, for that matter) and of voting age within something akin to a democracy. Pinnacle of all glories, I even have a tidy beard.

My society positively falls over itself to award me entitlements, make excuses for me, and to listen earnestly to my views on any old thing – often to the detriment of other demographics, quite inexcusably.

I’m also, as of two months ago, married – which surely takes me to about 99% of my possible maximum social privilege (the remaining percentage point in the UK, making me the very model of a society’s cultural self-image, would be gained by being Christian).

Our marriage was not a religious ceremony, and did not (indeed, thus legally could not) take place in a religious establishment or have any religious content, yet I’m married nonetheless. There’s no alternate terminology for me, or for my wife. Our wedding was a wedding, its institution was marriage, and we are husband and wife. Cue yet another thunderous round of applause from Society At Large, presumably including every would-be moral arbiter from Canterbury Cathedral to The Dome of the Rock.

Even as a rank amateur, I can attest that married life is wonderful. There’s something that definitely changes upon making a formal commitment; a certain evolution of feeling, of patience, of outlook, and of attitude. Not a sudden night-and-day change, but a noticeable one nonetheless, that persists even after both hoopla and honeymoon. I’m delighted to be married, and by all accounts everyone else is delighted about it too. At no point has my pleasure at this happy new status had to be modulated by a qualifier, such as a fumbled-for and ambiguous word like “partnership”.

Because my wife and I are automatically paragons of ‘morality’, just like everyone else who doesn’t happen to be gay.

It makes me shake with rage, and weep with frustration, that in the year 2012 we still allow the madness of denouncing homosexuality. My wife and I aren’t religious – indeed, as thinking, rational people who can so easily see its human-fabricated nature and the many evils it has visited on the world, we’re contemptuous of and embarrassed by it – yet we’re permitted by the state to be married.

We opted-out from the insidious influence of religion, with its exhortations to switch off our brains and mindlessly ‘believe’, yet our rights haven’t changed. Why then should homosexuals be impeded by religion’s febrile influence, if even I wasn’t? Where’s the morality in that?

Morality

To discuss morality is to discuss what’s right and what’s wrong, from a certain social perspective. Morality is inherently subjective, and that’s an uncomfortable realisation. Your definition of right and wrong may differ from mine, and we’re both entitled to refer to those positions as our own sense of morality.

From the moral perspective of His Holiness (and most of the wildly differing, contradictory, and all equally human-originated and fabricated religions), homosexuality as a whole is “wrong”, and is at least partially sinful (I say “partially” because the current version of Catholic dogma fatuously distinguishes homosexual ‘tendencies’ as not being a sin, but homosexual intercourse being very much so – as if the two could or should be separated).

My own system of morality, however, regards the following as immoral acts:

  • Perpetuating institutionalised discrimination.
  • Indulging in the sophistry of equating morality with sexuality.
  • Perpetuating the deeply unhealthy doctrine of priestly celibacy, thus creating highly damaged, disturbed and repressed human beings.
  • Perpetuating sexist and homophobic attitudes under the guise of fabricated divine will.
  • Perpetuating the monstrous and intellectually criminal assertion that morality is conferred by faith, and absent without it.
  • Aiming the slander of ‘immorality’ against a harmless and normal state of being.

The idea that a consensual relationship, between adults of sound mind, could be somehow immoral is itself repugnant. If the charge of immorality arises from nothing but the sexual orientation of those people, we must upgrade that judgement to literally criminal.

To even make the association, much less to openly invite others to adopt it, is bigotry – and to create or perpetuate a system where such people’s actual rights are negatively affected, is another thing that religion has long and rightly been accused of: persecution.

I find it quite impossible to understand how an ethical, enlightened person can read His Holiness’ appalling, scurrilous and slanderous statement without repugnance. I also strongly doubt the character, moral fibre, and critical faculties of any person who would defend it.

But then, the vast majority of those – the devoutly (mindlessly, unthinkingly, blindly, tortuously) religious – who may support such a filthy, primitive and anti-intellectual remark are themselves victims of a far more insidious wrong.

Abuse

Given the topic of this essay, you’ll be expecting me to draw attention to the many reported instances (with still more being tragically uncovered weekly) of the sexual assault and abuse of children by religious authority figures (very commonly Catholic ones). And I suppose I just have, quite rightly. But that’s not the sort of abuse I want to discuss.

In the United Kingdom, when you provide personal information to a company, the law requires that you be allowed to opt-in to further communication from that company. For this reason, if there’s a “send me your newsletter” checkbox on a UK company’s online form, the checkbox will be unchecked by default.

This is a sensible and reasonable state of affairs, because unsolicited commercial communications are usually undesirable, and a fair and reasonable society presumes that in most cases, citizens wish to avoid undesirable experiences by default. If adults of sound mind then wish to explicitly agree to those experiences, then they may of course do so at their leisure.

Religion, however, doesn’t work that way. One of the oft-trumpeted virtues of western democracy is that we’re blessed with “freedom of religion”. The reality in the United States is of course that the country is essentially a Christian political theocracy, despite all efforts of that country’s Constitution to avoid just such a deplorable state of affairs.

In the UK, the overt influence of the church is somewhat less visible. Indeed, religion amongst the British adult population is often treated as a faintly humorous thing. Nonetheless, we still proudly lay claim to our cherished “freedom of religion”.

Which is somewhat puzzling, given that in a practical sense, freedom of religion just doesn’t exist. The problem, of course, is the checkbox on the form: for the religious exposure of the child, that checkbox unfortunately takes the more American position of being opt-out.

Freedom means not only the right, but also the means, capability and environment to exercise personal choice. A man who is entitled to vote, but who will be beaten if he tries to, is not free to exercise that right and thus is not free at all. A woman who is free to choose her religion, but who was told that one particular religion was true whilst she was but a girl, has a crippled, demeaned, reduced and abused version of the freedom to which she is entitled.

Indoctrination of children into religious belief systems is one of the great unpunished intellectual and social crimes of human history, and it continues almost unabated to this day. The word “indoctrination”, of course, means teaching someone to accept a set of beliefs uncritically – which is exactly what happens. To argue that a four-year-old, taken to Sunday School or such for the first time, is even capable of applying a critical analysis to the dogma is laughable. These children are victims, and the crime is one of morality.

Why does it continue? For the very simple reason that, if we took an enlightened stance and allowed children’s personal development to remain unfettered by religion until they reach adulthood, after which they could then evaluate and decide for themselves, religion would all but die out almost overnight. It cannot survive the calm light of reasonable, rational, evolved inspection, by those who have not been infected by its fairy stories whilst too young to defend themselves.

We’re faced with the ludicrous and Orwellian situation of innocent, credulous children being inculcated with divisive fantasy by adults who have themselves remained innocent credulous children in turn. A cycle of gawping, uncritical acceptance, creating a lineage of people who were never told that Santa Claus isn’t real – and who will defend that otherwise laughable fantasy with all the dangerous weapons of adulthood and civilisation.

There can be no freedom of religion until no child is opted-in, and should we ever reach that wonderful day, the point will become moot for all but the simple-minded, the desperate, and the damaged. In other words, the ill and the impaired.

Until then, and throughout our long history liberally soaked with the blood of faith-based and faith-motivated carnage, we find that religious “freedom” is a decidedly unbalanced proposition. Britain’s own Prime Minister somehow sees no outrage or laughable absurdity in claiming that the UK is “a Christian country”.

Countries, Prime Minister, have no religion. Some people do – and they also have a sense of morality regardless. The religious ones, unfortunately, also have a carefully-nurtured sense of supreme entitlement and certitude which they claim is literally divinely granted. A terrifying delusion as vestigial as the appendix, and just as dangerous when it unpredictably sours.

The language of religion itself is instructive in its attitude to outsiders. Religion demands “respect”, but grudgingly preaches “tolerance”. Respect is the very opposite of what I feel towards a socially cancerous, persecuting fantasy that stubbornly clings to the dark ages, and scurries to twist or refute every advance of science that would cast well-deserved doubt on its fables. It is rationality that demands respect, and religion which must for now be grudgingly and awkwardly tolerated.

Pity

My father is no more of a religious man than I am, and my mother (they’ve been divorced for many years, I should add) is religious to the extent that a great and increasing number of people are in today’s western world: statistically, but not practically.

If she were to be admitted to hospital, she’d dutifully inform the staff that her denomination is Church of Scotland (one of the Presbyterian flavours of Christian fiction-worship), but you wouldn’t find her having entered an actual church in a couple of decades (save for weddings and funerals, of course).

If any Bible exists in her house, I’ve yet to notice it, presumably because it lies dust-covered at the back of a cupboard, or rotting in the attic. The “I believe, but I don’t practise” brand of religion that sounds so very like “I’m vegetarian, but I eat fish”.

Accordingly, whilst I wasn’t subject to litanies at home, I was brought up to believe that religion (specifically Christianity) was a normal thing. I was taken to church (I wouldn’t quite say “I went”, because of course children don’t go; they are taken), and I “joined” (was signed up for) the Boys’ Brigade, a Christian association not unlike the Boy Scouts. I was a member from the Anchor Boys, through the Junior Section, and even approached the heady heights of the Company Section as I drifted towards high school age. To my mother’s presumably lasting pride, owing to its continued existence in her home, I even won a national medal for Bible knowledge.

Of course, as one approaches high school age, one has a troubling tendency to develop the capacity for rational, critical analysis – at which point my “religion” (which I viewed as no different from any other assigned attribute, and of no more importance) collapsed under its own weight. The patent ludicrousness of it all was manifest to even my untrained boy-man’s mind, and in a moment of sudden realisation I felt shriekingly embarrassed at how many people I’d nonchalantly admitted my “faith” to in the past.

Of course, I had no faith, and never had – at least not in the religious sense. If I have any faith today, it’s in rationality, science, and social justice. That, unlike the lie of my childhood, is a faith I can admit to as a grown man without feeling the heat of shame rise in my cheeks.

Religion was an inconsequential thing for me, and then rapidly became a joke. Only in adulthood did its dangers and persistent evils become uncomfortably clear. There are many people for whom religion can never be inconsequential, or a joke, because it robs them of their dignity or their very rights, without even first asking or caring whether they subscribe to its beliefs. If, as the paranoid and/or controlling religious authorities would have us childishly believe, an evil stalks mankind, then it must surely be religion itself. A throwback to the imagined terrors dancing just out of sight around the comforting campfire, feared by creatures who did not yet stand fully upright.

The legacy of religion is not peace, or morality, or comfort. It is war, and terror, and persecution. The legacy of religion is the Crusades, and tent-revivalist preachers stealing from the poor, and Afghan women who can be imprisoned for being a victim of rape, and can then be murdered by their own families if they will not then marry their rapists.

Such a legacy is clearly subhuman, and part of humanity’s fading childhood. It is to be discarded, after it has been fought to extinction. As a thinking, enlightened, rational person, I’m compelled to be its enemy.

Thankfully, our society is changing, and (equally thankfully) religion refuses to do the same. The patent idiocy and sheer manufactured quality of religion’s divisiveness, segregation, sectarianism and bigotry seems increasingly alien and deplorable to every new child who learns of it.

Religion’s time may not yet be short, but its peak has passed – barring, reason forbid, a calamity which even now any number of barbaric, theocratic nations strive to bring about.

The tide is turning. Agnostics, atheists and the antireligious can now speak aloud about their feelings without fear of the brazen bull, crucifixion, or breaking on the wheel. They cannot yet do so without fanatical backlash and the sophistry of religious “argument”, of course, but in much of the western world, at least, they can do so publicly.

The biggest change, of course, is coming from within – from the mental torture experienced by so many good and decent people, who do happen to be religious, and who must twist and contort their own capacity for reason just to accommodate words like those from His Holiness. So many dear friends of mine, who when faced with homophobic and misogynistic and xenophobic dogma, positively squirm and blanch, unable to reconcile their handed-down faith with what they know is wrong.

I have one friend who’s a scientist, with a Ph.D no less, in the field of physics. This person is a devoted Catholic, and is homosexual. His own faith all but disowns him. His depth and breadth of scientific understanding assails the teachings of his holy book. His inner conflict and personal strife is unimaginable to me, but I’ve nonetheless shed tears about what it must be like for him.

I feel such a swell of genuine pity for such people, because their attempted task is impossible. You simply cannot reconcile a mandate to love one’s neighbour, whilst then adding a list of openly bigoted exceptions. The only possible result is a crumbling, or an implosion. Sadly, it’s often of the person, rather than the faith which is to blame. But the tide is turning.

To His Holiness: your words are deplorable, and all the more so for being spoken in this age. To my dear, conflicted friend, and to everyone exposed to the religious virus: evidence and reason are indeed, as you suspect and know, the king of justifications for a belief – and the very minimum you have a right to demand.

And to religion, I offer the language of my own ‘faith’, that of science: evolve, or die.