My argument is that we allow religions to have bizarre laws within secular states. If we relegate marriage as a whole to religions, we ought to tolerate whatever views the religious groups have on marriage. With regards to the State, we ought to just have a civil union, which is sex-blind. If religions then want to maintain their opposition to gay marriages, that is their business, not those of us focused on secular policies. It would be disgusting if they did continue to oppose gay marriages, but we tolerate disgusting views – as long as they don’t infringe on the wider laws – anyway.
The main reason to oppose homosexual discrimination usually has to due with inconsistent application of the laws or rules applied. That is, if sexual orientation truly does not effect whether someone is a better citizen, worker, friend, and so on, then he ought not to be discriminated against if he happens to be gay. This would constitute unfair discrimination, by definition, since you would be treating those who happened to be straight without worrying whether their sexual orientation would lead to a worse friendship or poorer work performance (or you take it for granted that straight people perform better or are more trustworthy, etc.) Unfair discrimination or prejudice is what we (ought to) oppose – but not discrimination by definition, since that would actually be absurd.
‘Discrimination’ is, like ‘killing’ and ‘punishment’, a neutral term. We must decide whether the discrimination in particular cases is moral or not, since there can be good and bad discrimination (just like their can be justified and unjustified killing , punishment, etc.). For example, we ‘discriminate’ where we allocate our time when it comes to friends, colleagues and lovers – we sometimes will choose to allocate our time to friends today, colleagues tomorrow, lovers in the evening. If you were casting a movie for Malcolm X or Ray Charles, discriminating against Johnny Depp or Arnold Schwarzenegger for the title role would be justified (though Robert Downey Jr. might do an amazing job). Notice here that we are discriminating based on skin-colour but it is not racist since it is justified according to the specific parameters: that is, it’s a movie about a black man and, therefore, it seems, it requires a black man in the role.
However, sexual orientation is not, like skin-colour, something immediately apparent in an individual. Sexual orientation is, in the most common instances, a private affair for individuals. In the best case scenario, I wouldn’t even be writing about it but because it is of some concern to people, usually those who are either conservative, homophobic or religious (usually all three), I want to try get to the heart of the problem when it comes to gay marriage. But I’m coming to that.
So how could one justifiably discriminate in general? To reiterate, if the rules of a particular group are consistent with their overall existence within whatever society the group is in, and the rules happen to discriminate based on a specific property people have (through no choosing of their own, like sex or sexual orientation), then the group can discriminate justifiably. I’ve given the example of the film industry: so, if we can agree that the film industry is such that it exists to create the illusion of life to tell stories, using people to who serve as stand-ins for characters, then we accept that there will be rules about who can play those characters. We know that we can’t caste eight year olds to play teenagers and so on; skin-colour happens to be another of these criterions. (I’m ignoring for the moment the abilities of costume and designs that can change people’s appearances and sexes entirely).
Now, when it comes to gay marriage, we have something similar. I apologise for the forthcoming sentence but I wish to spell it out as clearly as possible: It seems to me we also have groups – called religious groups – which exist in particular societies – secular democracies – whose rules the State allows to continue (to maintain particular religious groups’ continued identities and, therefore, existence). However state law doesn’t allow these religious groups to interfere in the rules that govern all of us (i.e. the law) who share that society.
In other words, religions within secular democracies are allowed to have their own (often bizarre) laws for their own people (no eating meat that wasn’t killed without arbitrary Arabic phrases; fasting for a month; no sex before marriage, etc.), as long as those laws don’t violate the rules which govern everyone (i.e. constitutional, federal, etc. laws).
We often call groups that claim weird metaphysics, knowledge of gods’ minds and maintenance of bizarre laws ‘religions’, yet ones that do all of those but break important laws of the land, like murder or manslaughter, we call ‘cults’. (An interesting experiment would be to truly categorise the difference between religions and cults. I have sneaking suspicion there is no significant difference.) But the point I’m highlighting is that we allow bizarre laws within religions to continue as long as they don’t obviously interfere with wider laws of the country.
Now when it comes to marriage, something very interesting arises. See, marriage is a grey area when it comes to the State and recognised religions. For example, in South Africa there is still uncertainty regarding the legal legitimacy of Muslim marriages. This means that, under Allah, a man and woman might be wedded but under the State they are not. Currently, there is a fight to change that since, if there is a divorce, the State struggles to legitimately help those left in the matrimonial dust with regard to pooled resources, children and so on, that arose during the years of marriage. Since this relationship was never recognised by the State, in that the resources (house, income, etc.) would be shared, how can the State therefore try defend those who require a powerful mediator? Sure, mullahs and imams could step in, but that’s not the point here since it would be relying on people no more qualified than a random person off the street.
You can see the problem then, since “marriage” is something understood within that religion’s law. Like halal and not eating pork, we accept that religions instigate marriages between particular people. Religious groups can say “These are the people who are allowed to be married according to our faith” and can list the properties they deem appropriate. The common property for all the major religions is that it must be between a man and a woman. If the members of that particular religious group are not a man and a woman, then we must agree to the following: according to that particular religious group, they can’t be married.
This is not about they “should” or “shouldn’t” be married. The laws of the religions dictate that marriage is allowed only for a man and a woman. If it is not a man and a woman, then, by definition, that religious group cannot recognise that marriage. It is no different to asking Muslims to eat pork: for Muslims, they cannot eat pork because that is what their particular religion’s law states. This isn’t about why Muslims continue this very stupid rule – pork and marriages – but simply accepting that they do. Remember: the nature of a secular state and free expression is not about liking or endorsing all views, opinions and practices (that would make it relativistic), but about tolerating them (again, as long as they don’t interfere with the wider society). This relationship is a two-way street: Just as various religions are allowed to exist within the same society and not interfere with each other, so the religions can’t interfere with the State (the fact that they try is not the point here). But: it also means we, the wider society, can’t interfere with their laws.
It’s about being consistent: if we’re saying that religions can’t interfere with us, then surely it means we can’t interfere with them. We break that rule when they do: that is, when religions attempt to ban or hinder activity which they have no business doing (I still can’t buy alcohol on a Sunday and no one can give me a good secular reason for this. We can go busting down church doors for this but we should not bust down doors if they tell it to their flocks). Being consistent means that if we want religions to stay out of our lives, we should stay out of theirs.
Tolerance means we should not interfere with their laws, which don’t infringe on ours. Thus, if in a religious denomination they cannot recognise gay marriage, I can accept that. It is no business of mine to go ahead and change some religion’s law (because I want to see all religions done away with, not individual religious laws. I’m not a theologian because I actually have real matters to attend to). So, just as we tolerate their stupid laws on halal foods and not allowing women priests, we ought to do the same for marriage.
It seems to me we ought to give the entire institution of marriage over to religions. This isn’t a new idea: it’s simply a call for civil unions however you wish to construe that term. Marriages, I think, should be relegated to the dominions of religions (and perhaps other places like the Navy or wherever) but have no legal binding. The couple then needs to acquire a civil union at the same time. There’s no reason they can’t do it on the same day, have a ceremony which includes the applications toward getting a civil union, etc. My point is, it need not interfere with the festivities of how marriages are celebrated anyway. Furthermore, it would overcome the idiocies of trying to recognise religious marriages as proper marriages – marriages as a whole should just stay within religious groups, then the couple should acquire a civil union. Upon the successful acquisition of the latter, the State recognises them however the particular States in different countries recognise married couples.
This also does away with gay marriages, since there are few religious groups which will accept it. It seems unfair that, say, Muslim gay people can’t be recognised as equals to everyone else within the Muslim community, but that’s just the nature of Islam because it’s a religion. If you don’t recognise that religions, by definition, have crooked necks from all the backward glancing to the past, then you must surely be myopic. If you wish to try and reform your church or denomination to recognise gay marriages, that should be your own personal challenge within your religious group. Perhaps you can try muster support from others and work toward that goal. However, again, that need not concern the rest of us. Though it sounds harsh, it really is not my business to defend, for example, homosexual Muslim men trying to get Islam to recognise them as equal people before God. What I will (and constantly am trying to) do is have all homosexual people recognised as equals before the law of the country. Again, its about unfair discrimination and, within the State, it would be unfair given how the laws are applied. I don’t know – nor really care – for the intricate, silly theology that says gays can’t be married within a particular denomination. It’s the same reason I won’t fight Islam to change its law about eating pork or halal meat: it’s not my business. If meat sellers don’t sell to Muslims because of their faith, then I will defend Muslims but again because its unfair discrimination.
Though I think many might misconstrue my attitude and find it harsh, it really isn’t. I will oppose all and any forms of unfair discrimination; however, I’m not convinced that within religious groups who don’t recognise gay marriages that it is, in fact, unfair. It is horrid and, I think, barbaric to think that because someone isn’t having sex the way you think he should, it makes him “less” of a person in the eyes of your god, church, and so on – but that disgust is separate to the theological “reasoning” (oxymoron?) behind not allowing gay marriages within that particular denomination. It is not my battle as an ex-Muslim who is opposed to religions and religious mindsets as a whole. As I say, what we should do is simply give marriages to religions and have a sex-blind civil union which offers the same legal benefits. There’s no reason the two are mutually exclusive.
These are simply my initial thoughts on these matters. I imagine there are a number of criticisms that can be made about my various arguments. Here are some that I hope people will either develop more robustly against me or show why my arguments may in fact overcome them:
- Unfairness should be recognised wholesale. There’s no reason to draw a line at religions and say “As long as its now unlawful, we should allow it”. Marriages (even gay ones) are lawful in many countries including South Africa, so it is, in fact unlawful not to recognise them within religious denominations. You should be fighting for it.
- The attitude of a hands-off approach means tolerating discrimination in, for example, the workplace. Would you be OK with a business that didn’t allow women to work in it? Or said women must be attractive and wear minimal clothing? (I would be. Now before you think I’m being naughty, I mean I would tolerate it since I would respect a woman’s right to choose for herself whether to work there or not provided she knows those sexist rules are in place. Also, I believe it is unlawful for businesses to have practices like that anyway since it would prevent women from wanting to work there, therefore implicitly depriving them of a job based on their sex, etc.)
- How can you say in the same breath it is unfair and horrid that religions do x, but then not do anything about it? Surely that’s hypocritical of you in your desire to see them done away with and/or defending all forms of unjustified discrimination (again, my response might be I don’t think it’s unjustified within that particular religious group).
- What about reforming religions? Religions are not static entities, they change as the people do. Surely you are simply maintaining stagnation by not aiding, for example, gay Muslim men who want to change Islam?