Friday, 27 June 2008

Religion and Politics - Gay Rights and Abortion

Should religion and moral views be handled politically?

The question itself is a little ambiguous – obviously the state (“politics”) cannot make you hold a certain view and cannot make you believe in a particular religion – such personal matters simply cannot be handled politically.

One's personal religious and moral views are relevant to others only when they are translated into actions – a view that remains inside one's head is invisible to politics.

It is only the behaviours that result from religious and moral views that are relevant politically, and influencing (and restricting) behaviour for the good of the society and its people is politics' raison d'etre – the alternative is anarchy.

Unless you are an anarchist then you must accept that the behaviours that result from religious and moral views must be handled like all other behaviours; that is to say they must be regulated and restricted - to a greater or lesser extent - by the politics that is the basis of our society.

I think most of what I've said above will not be controversial – almost everyone accepts that there must be some restrictions on our freedom in order for that freedom to be meaningful, and almost everyone accepts that freedom (within limitations) is something positive and worth striving for.

It is the extent of those restrictions / limitations that divides opinion, and indeed for the entire length of recorded history, societies have been strengthening and softening the restrictions imposed upon their people. Over time, there has been a tendency for change, on average, to be more in the liberal direction (less state intervention and more personal freedom). This trend may have been reversed in much of the Western world in recent years with the instigation of the “War on Terror”.

While morality can be more “shades of grey” than just black and white, the state has to legislate one way or the other. People who feel the state should not be getting involved in matters like gay marriage seem to overlook the fact that the state has to either allow it, or prohibit it – there is no middle ground there. The state doesn't necessarily have to take a moral stance, but it does have to make a call one way or the other.

The real issue is how the state decides what is to be prohibited.

Such decisions are based on many elements – reason, religious beliefs, morality and pragmatism, to name but a few.

One of these, religion, is obviously not a sound basis for a society deciding what freedoms to restrict. Those who state that society has no business telling us what is right or wrong should realise that right and wrong are meaningfully determined only in relation to other people – aka society.

Also, as mentioned above, society prohibiting something doesn't necessarily constitute society making a moral judgement – it can simply be a pragmatic one (one recent example would be the banning of drinking alcohol on public transport in the UK – society is not saying there is something intrinsically wrong about drinking alcohol there, but in practical terms it is better for society to prevent it and thus prevent the violence, accidents and other problems that it was shown to play a major part in causing or aggravating).

It is religion that has no business telling us what is right and wrong – why trust the Bronze-age writings, warped beyond their original context and meaning by millennia of societal progress (not to mention numerous key mistranslations on the way to their current forms), of the Bible or Koran over reasoned thought, modern ethical philosophy and pragmatism?

It is a fact that secular nations (that is to say nations that are secular in practice, even if not constitutionally secular) are generally more pleasant and more prosperous than nations where the religious laws are the law of the land.

Societies that choose what freedoms to restrict based on informed judgement using reason, contemporary science and ethical philosophy rather than out-dated and often mistranslated ancient texts are going to be better places for reasonable people to thrive.

However, some of the current issues dominating this topic of debate are gay rights and abortion. I will focus on these two issues.

Firstly, gay rights (and specifically gay marriage) – this one is easy – of course gays should have the same rights as the rest of us. Denying gay people the same rights as everyone else is morally no different to denying rights to people based on their ethnicity, their having big ears or their having ginger hair.

The only objections to gays having the same rights as heterosexuals are based on:

a) mistranslated Bronze-Age scriptures and

b) the “yuck factor” - e.g. In contemporary Western society many heterosexual males find the thought of the act of two men having sex quite “yucky”. But they tend to exhibit a lot less “yuck factor” at the thought of cute girls getting off with one another. This may explain why lesbianism isn't mentioned as a sin in the Bible, written as it was by males.

A lot of homosexual males presumably find the idea of heterosexual sex just as “yucky”!

Of course, just because people find something “yucky” doesn't mean that that something should be made illegal. I personally find childbirth and cleaning up other people's bodily excreta particularly “yucky”, but I'm very glad that we have midwives and nurses!

In the case of gay couples adopting children, I think that, as in all adoption cases, the interests of the child should come first. If there was evidence that being raised by a homosexual couple was disadvantageous to the child then I'd oppose it. I've yet to see such evidence, and moreover have no reason to suspect such evidence would exist.

Abortion is a trickier issue, and a good example of the difficulties of imposing legislation, which is largely “black or white” - “legal or illegal” - on issues that are really more “shades of grey”.

The common complete anti-abortion argument is flawed – it essentially states that human life is sacred from the moment of conception, thus avoiding the difficulties of the “shades of grey” by making all abortion “wrong”.

However, this argument breaks down with a contemporary understanding of evolution (unless you extend it to all living species including plants and bacteria, which is absurd) – species aren't the rigid, separate things Creationists would have us believe. “Human” refers to a narrow part of the continuous spectrum of possible genetic combinations, which brings us right back to the “shades of grey” problem once again.

It is only by happen stance that there isn't a continuous spectrum of living intermediates between humans and chimps – if there was, legislators would have to draw the cut-off line between “human” and “non-human” somewhere, but exactly where would be an arbitrary decision, and no doubt a controversial one especially to families where some of the children were deemed “non-human”. Perhaps this sounds contrived, but the very same thing happened in South Africa with the line between “white” and “non-white”.

Abortion then, being a “shades of grey” situation (either species-wise or in terms of the age of the potential baby), is a complex issue to legislate on, but clear abortion legislation is vital due to its potentially drastic effects on both people and society.

Destroying a recently fertilised human egg isn't taking a human life in the normal sense of “human life”, it is taking only a potential human life – a zygote doesn't have any of the qualities which come to mind when we think about what “human” means to us – it can't feel emotion or pain, hope or despair, laughter or anger (and most spontaneously abort naturally and unmourned in any case) and doesn't have a “personality”.

But a new-born baby can do a lot more of these things – it can feel pain, and does have a personality – and I think every decent person agrees that killing a new-born baby is wrong. Between these two points is a grey area, but a society has to draw a line somewhere – and while all the best available evidence needs to be considered, the exact location of that line is going to be largely arbitrary.

The interests of both the mother and the potential child need to be considered. If the potential child is unwanted, and the parents unwilling and unable to raise it effectively, it may be that aborting the collection of cells before it develops to the point where it becomes capable of suffering is the right thing to do.

Also, in societies where abortion is illegal, abortions are still conducted, but often crudely (and later in the pregnancy), causing more suffering.

More generally, evidence suggests that increases in the numbers of children born to parents who didn't want them and were financially and emotionally incapable of raising them well are connected to increases in social disorder and crime.

Allowing people to abort unwanted children could thus potentially save lives and increase the quality of life for people, without causing suffering (as the zygotes / embryos are incapable of suffering as we understand it). If you can easily increase happiness without causing suffering, you need pretty good reasons not to do so. In the interests of society, and the protection of its people, abortion is at worst a necessary evil.

In an ideal world abortion would not be needed, but in the real world, it is.

Politics governs the real world, and has to legislate accordingly. Religions should only determine what their followers should and should not do – they should not seek to force others outside the faith to follow their rules.

It is the job of politics, not religion, to decide what people within society can and cannot do, for the benefit of all

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