Recently, I was discussing Christianity with an atheist online, and homosexuality was raised (not by me). The traditional Christian view that homosexual activity is wrong was called a “horrible and oppressive teaching”, and I was labelled a bigot for holding this view.
No-one likes being called a bigot, including me (which is why some people use it as a debating tool), and I spent some time discussing their reasons in detail. In the process, I gradually began to build a picture of what they meant by the term.
Bigotry: the Internet definition
The first point made was that bigotry was when we didn’t treat people with respect. Apparently, “saying that someone’s sexual orientation is sinful or wrong is not treating people with dignity or respect”. I hadn’t actually said this, as I don’t believe an orientation is sinful, but rather certain behaviour. But it is fair to say that the traditional Christian view is that a homosexual orientation is not what God intended, and obviously behaviour is closely related to orientation.
Can you treat someone with dignity and respect without agreeing with or condoning their behaviour or sexual orientation? It seems obvious that this is possible. We can treat political opponents with respect despite strong disagreement. We can even treat criminals with dignity and respect despite their behaviour or their propensity to commit crimes. So we can criticise behaviour we disagree with without violating a person’s dignity.
The next claim was that “you’re only a bigot if your discrimination is based on certain categories, namely, categories about WHAT a person is”. This sounds reasonable, until the different possible categories a person can be classified as are explored. Then it gets problematic. Do we condemn the behaviour of those sexually involved with their siblings or parents? It quickly becomes apparent that what a person is does not seem to excuse certain behaviours such as incest.
When I pointed this out, they shifted their ground somewhat to claim that opposing incest was not bigotry because “the REASON for discriminating is the mitigation of harm”. So apparently the reasons for calling behaviour wrong are important, and if the behaviour leads to harm then calling it wrong is acceptable. Harm continued to be a key part of the argument, as they went on to say that “I have the right to force you to not harm gay people by not allowing them to marry. You do not have the right to harm gay people who want to marry, since that action has no tangible negative consequences”.
Basing an argument on harm is risky, of course. Since SSM is a relatively new phenomenon, we don’t know what harm might result to individuals or society in the future. Perhaps little or none. Perhaps harm might even be somewhat subjective when it comes to societal harm. But to assume that SSM has no “tangible negative consequences” is premature.
As Christians, we also must be wary of basing our arguments on harm. If we hold to the traditional Christian position of marriage as designed by God and between a man and a woman, we believe that ultimately this definition of marriage is good for the world. Conversely, we believe redefining marriage will prove harmful. But believing this does not mean it can be empirically demonstrated. Eventual harm may be many years in the future, or even unquantifiable. It might be that in the short-term, some research might indicate there are benefits to SSM. So it is unwise to base our argument on evidence of harm.
Bigotry: the dictionary definition
Rather than rely on the dubious musings of an Internet atheist determined to prove a point, I decided to examine the dictionary definition of bigotry.
The Oxford dictionary defines bigotry as “intolerance towards those who hold different opinions from oneself”. Ironically, that describes my opponent rather well, but it is premature to call them a bigot.
The Cambridge dictionary’s definition is “a person who has strong, unreasonable beliefs and who does not like other people who have different beliefs or a different way of life”. Merriam-Webster defines a bigot as “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc. : a bigoted person; especially: a person who hates or refuses to accept the members of a particular group (such as a racial or religious group)”.
These latter two definitions seem to capture an important point – bigotry is about dislike or hatred for those who hold different beliefs or different ways of life. Bigots hate, and hatred is wrong.
But is disagreement or disapproval about behaviour, opinions or lifestyle bigotry? No, not if no hatred accompanies these views. Of course, sometimes hatred does come with these views, and that is bigotry. But disapproval of behaviour doesn’t require hatred – ask any parent.
Philosopher Ed Feser makes this point stating that “disapproval of homosexual acts simply does not entail hatred of homosexuals themselves, any more than a vegetarian’s or vegan’s disapproval of eating meat entails hatred of meat-eaters”.
Nonetheless, it is common to attempt to redefine bigotry as disapproval or disagreement on issues such as SSM that are supposedly “settled”.
This is a strategy whose aim is to shut down opponents and win debates, and it is an effective one. For example, Mark Joseph Stern states that a bigot is “anybody who opposes equal rights for gay people“, which implies anyone opposing SSM. Opposing views are automatically labelled as bigotry, and no further discussion is possible. What is there to discuss with a bigot?
The philosophical community has also moved in this direction, with many philosophers considering that the SSM debate is over, and discussion is no longer required or even legitimate. Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne felt the wrath of this view recently when he was invited to present a lecture on sexual morality at the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) meeting. His view that homosexual acts are immoral and that homosexuality is a disability that should be cured are widely known, and he was predictably criticised. However the President of the SCP felt compelled to apologise for “the hurt caused” by his lecture, despite Swinburne’s position being a commonly held view amongst Christian philosophers (and others) throughout history.
Feser’s discussion of this incident is instructive, particularly on the issue of hurtfulness. He points out that philosophers discuss all sorts of ideas that can cause offense, but that is no reason to end the discussion. Abortion is a prime example, where arguing that abortion is murder is likely to offend women who have had abortions – and yet it is very much a live topic in ethics. Citing hurt feelings should not be used as a tactic to shut down debate.
The question then is at what point is an argument “settled”? At what point should debate largely cease, and it be acknowledged that further argument is unproductive? There seems to be no easy way to determine this, but there is still widespread disagreement about SSM. We don’t seem to be at the point where we can declare it settled – except in the minds of those who want to declare victory for their view.
It is all very well to conclude that disapproving of certain behaviours is not bigotry, but the commonly cited adage of “hate the sin, love the sinner” seems trite given the apparent hate for gay people that some Christians have demonstrated. Often we have been and are bigoted, and the church has serious work to do in repairing relationships with the gay community.
We have also been hypocritical in condemning gay sex but tacitly or even blatantly condoning other damaging behaviour in our churches. As John Stonestreet and Sean McDowell note “it’s not lost on the gay community that the church held no (or at least very few) marches or rallies against no-fault divorce, adultery, or other things that have done even greater harm to marriage and families. There is a reason that the gay community feels singled out. Though we are often unfairly accused of bigotry and hate, we have been inconsistent”. I would add that at times we have been fairly accused of bigotry and hate.
Charles Taylor, in his opus A Secular Age, describes our current age as one of “expressive individualism”, and the prime value is personal choice, irrespective of the choices made. Consequently, the only virtue is tolerance of people’s choices, and “the.sin which is not tolerated is intolerance”. The result is the abuse of those who make the judgement that some behavioural choices are morally wrong.
Real bigotry, however, involves hatred for others, not disagreement on controversial issues. Redefining bigotry to denigrate those who hold that certain behaviours are wrong is an attempt to shame and bully opponents into silence or reluctant agreement.
Christians are not bigoted in regarding homosexual behaviour as immoral, provided they are not disliking or hating those whose behaviour they are criticising.
A caution though: we need to carefully examine our hearts to discern whether we are truly loving those who we disagree with, and whether we are disproportionately highlighting one sin and treating it as somehow worse than others.