The Definition of Love

I’ve read yet another article recently about a set of prominent religious figures joining the rally against the legislation of gay marriage. First of all, let’s be clear about what this new bit of law actually is. Up until now same-sex couples have been able to enter into a civil partnership by either a secular or a religious institution. The new law would make it possible for secular institutions to marry same-sex couples, religious institutions would not be able to do this.

With that in mind, it’s very hard to understand why these spokespeople have taken such a hostile approach to the proposed legislation. Often religious figures say that such a change in law impinges on their religious freedom. In fact, the head of the Network of Sikh Organisations, Lord Singh, described the proposed legislation as “a sideways assault on religion”. Yet the law does not even give religious institutions the option to marry same-sex couples, let alone make it mandatory.

Institutions, individuals, groups, sects, the police, squatters, immigrants, animals, and perhaps- but probably not- bacteria should have certain rights and freedoms. I think that religious freedom is a very important freedom and should be protected. Some religious leaders think that their right to not perform gay marriages should be protected. Here I think that the religious group’s claim is as about as valid as an axe murderer’s claim to deny me of my right to have my head remained attached to my shoulders. But that’s just me, I may be wrong. I mean it is a pretty radical idea that same-sex couples should enjoy exactly the same rights as different-sex couples isn’t it? So let’s pretend that I am wrong. What I mean to say is, let’s respect an institution’s right to not perform same-sex marriages.

Well that’s exactly what the government is doing. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone went to great pains to make it “crystal clear” that the Government will “not force anyone on religious premises to marry same-sex couples”. So my point is this; those religious groups that consider same-sex marriages an assault on their religious freedom have nothing to complain about. They are still allowed to retain the right to not perform same-sex marriages. The legislation does not affect their religious freedom, all it does is provides new rights to same-sex couples to get married on secular premises. To complain that the law amounts to religious oppression is utter rubbish. The religious oppression that will actually occur will be endured by those religious groups who want to offer same-sex marriages but are not able to do so. So whilst Lord Singh describes the reforms as “an attempt by a vocal, secular minority to attack religion”, I describe his objection to the reforms as an attempt by a dogmatic, religious minority to attack pro-gay religion.

Why does Lord Singh even care when his institution will be able to carry out marriages according to it’s own homophobic ways, regardless of whether the law passes? One answer that has been given is that they are trying to protect the definition of ‘marriage’. Religious leaders argue that ‘marriage’ has historically and traditionally been ‘the union between a man and woman’. If we change that definition such that it includes ‘the union between two men or two women’ the definition of marriage would be so utterly different that marriage would not be the same thing any more. This is, in a way ingenious, but ultimately a fallacious argument.

Arguing from definitions is more often than not a misguided approach to life. As a philosophy graduate I’ve learnt a thing or two (but no more) about arguing from definitions. Contrary to popular belief (and etymology) ‘Philosophy’ is not ‘the love of wisdom’. Philosophy is actually a process whereby people argue about the definition of a concept for a few thousand years and get no where. Now it’s not exactly like religious groups have plucked the current definition of ‘marriage’ out of thin air. There is obviously a very real reason for their understanding the definition to only include different-sex couples, namely that in a limited sense, marriage has historically been a union between a man and woman. I say limited because there have been a variety of marital practices prevalent throughout the ages, many of which do not resemble the religious definition. Nether the less, we can accept that in this country in recent history marriage has been between one man and one woman. Thus, this historical ‘fact’ is a perfectly good explanation for why religious groups define marriage as they do, but it is a very bad reason for resisting any change to the definition what so ever. Just because something has always been a certain way does not mean that it should continue to be so. Historically women did not have the vote, but that did not merit their never having the vote.

Religious groups may point out that marriage is steeped in a rich tradition and that tradition is a virtuous thing. I do not deny that tradition can be virtuous; it can bring a sense of community and belonging. It can inspire, give one pride and even the confidence to affirm themselves. But tradition, if stubbornly stuck to, can stand in the way of progress because not all traditions are good. It is my personal view that systematically denying same-sex couples the same treatment as different-sex couples is a bad tradition. And if it really is such a fundamental part of the definition of ‘marriage’ maybe it won’t be such a bad thing to change this definition after all. In fact, I would prefer it if marriage was as far detached from the idea of oppressing same-sex couples as possible. Call me insane, but I thought that the defining feature of marriage was people’s expression of love for one another, not that two men or two women shouldn’t express their love for each other?

*The leader of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, made the slightly more nuanced point that allowing same-sex marriage could lead to institutionalised polygamy saying that, “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?”. I’m not going to enter into the debate over polygamy or polyamory here, but what I would say is this: If you do believe that the state should only endorse monogamous relationships, this should not have any bearing on your opinion about same-sex marriages. We should judge the permissibility of same-sex marriages based on the shape and nature of same-sex marriages, not any other kind of marriage. If marriage between two consenting adults of the same-sex is acceptable, then it would be absurd to make it illegal just because it raised the question of whether marriage between more than two consenting adults should also be legally enshrined. Incidentally, I do actually think this is a question we should ask, and the Cardinal is probably correct that once we have attended to the issue of same-sex marriage with careful, prejudice-free reasoning, the case against polygamy and polyamory loses its footing: The case for same-sex marriage directly challenges the notion that a well reasoned argument could ever be trumped by a stubborn reiteration of tradition which flies in the face of common sense. Once we do away with this way of thinking, who knows what else (certain) religious authorities might be challenged on? O’Keith’s comments represent more than an institutionalised homophobia then, but also a refusal to enter into a process of rational and open minded debate.

The protection of religious freedoms, traditions and definitions does not justify any group denying the legitimacy of the non-mandatory practice of same-sex marriages. Despite their claim that same-sex couples are welcome to celebrate their faith and enter into their community, some religious groups consider same-sex relationships as being obscure in such a fundamental way that they do not deserve the same treatment as different-sex couples. This constitutes tolerance not acceptance, which is simply not good enough.

N.B This entry has been reposted as I am migrating my old blog. I have modified my comments on Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s statement because I felt that an analogy I offered in the previous version misconstrued the point I was attempting to make. However, ever the critic of personal Historical revisionism and censorship, you are more than welcome to view the old version here.

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