On God and Gays
Earlier this week I took part in a debate hosted by the UCD Law Society. The topic: “This house believes God loves gay people too.” It will come as no surprise to those who know me that I was arguing against the motion. Below is my speech as prepared and more-or-less as delivered.
I should probably begin by saying that I don’t believe God exists, and therefore I don’t think he could have an opinion on gay people but I’m not going to argue that point here. Instead, I’m going to have a look at the character God and what we know about him.
We’re not talking about just any god here. It’s not Brahma, or Zeus, or Osiris. It’s God – with a capital G, and no article – the deity who began as a tribal god called Yahweh and, through various accidents of history, is now worshipped in some form or other by more than three billion people.
As he’s the product of many minds in several different cultures spanning centuries, there is no shortage of contradictions in the story of God. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to find two people who agree on what God thinks about any given topic. But based on the earliest and most widely accepted source material, the Torah, the Bible and the Koran, we can get a fairly coherent picture of what this guy is like, and what he thinks about gay people.
One thing in his favour is that he’s not as obsessed with gay sex as many of his followers seem to be. When he was listing the 600 or so rules that he required his chosen people to live by, almost none of them related to homosexuality.
Almost. For while Old Testament God may not have had too much to say about gay people, what he did say was pretty clear.
In Leviticus 18:22 he says: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” And just for good measure, a couple of chapters later in Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death, their blood is upon them.”
There’s not a lot of wiggle room there. I think you would have to work really hard to explain these away.
Interestingly, God doesn’t seem to have considered lesbians at all. As women in general were treated as property in the Mosaic law, it’s unlikely that this is because he particularly loved them; more likely that as consent wasn’t an issue, women didn’t really have any choice in following the divine mandate to reproduce.
The only other point on the LGBT spectrum that Yahweh saw fit to legislate against was cross-dressing. In Deuteronomy 22:5 he says: “A woman shall not wear anything that pertains to a man, nor shall a man put on a woman’s garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.”
But anyway, that’s the Old Testament god. For Christians, all that was superseded by the arrival of Jesus. His death abolished the law that was given to Moses and replaced it with a much more tolerant and forgiving system. The New Testament god loves everybody, right?
Jesus notably spends time with prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, even tax collectors. But no homosexuals. That doesn’t mean, of course, that he didn’t love them, but nobody saw fit to mention it.
So we don’t really know what Jesus thought of gay people. But we do know what St. Paul thought of them.
In Romans 1:26 he tells us: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an infamous misogynist, Paul does not neglect to include lesbians in his condemnation.
And he’s quite clear about the consequences of such “unnatural relations” in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 “neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God”
This may have been just Paul’s personal opinion but he was (according to the Bible) personally chosen by the risen Jesus as an apostle and he did get to write more of the Bible than anyone else.
The Koran too, a controversial but not insignificant addition to the story of God, is clear in its condemnation of sexual activity between men. And although like the Bible, it doesn’t give the topic more than a few brief mentions, those who revere the Koran as the word of God have been stoning, hanging and burning gay people ever since.
The god of the bible and of the Koran, the god of Judaism, Christianity and Islam does not love gay people. Whether he hates them more than he hates women or foreigners or infidels is open to interpretation.
He chose not to provide a single positive example of a gay relationship in any of his books. He chose not to correct his followers through the centuries as they were persecuting gay people. He chose not to say “It’s OK to be gay”.
Until the late 20th century it never seemed to occur to God’s biggest fans and representatives on earth to treat homosexuals with tolerance, let alone acceptance. Only when society changed, did religion reluctantly and incompletely begin to follow.
What of the argument that God loves gay people but requires that they refrain from sexual activity?
Back to the Bible. In Genesis 2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
God is quite right here. It is usually not good for man to be alone. Requiring someone to remain alone while making them desire companionship is horribly cruel. God cannot truly love gay people if he wants them to be alone. While people of all sexual orientations sometimes choose singleness, to have it forced upon them is monstrously cruel. It would be like saying God loves left-handed people as long as they never pick up a pen.
“Hate the sin but love the sinner” is a nonsense. Sexual orientation is an intrinsic part of someone’s personality. Loving a gay person requires accepting their sexuality and desiring their happiness. Requiring that they spend their entire adult lives struggling against some of their strongest and most basic urges is not an act of love.
I would urge my gay friends – and my straight friends and anyone in between or beyond – to go the extra step. Don’t try to reform or reinvent this petty god. Don’t try to make excuses for him or explain away his atrocities. God is a figment, a myth, a stern father figure invented by ancient tribes, one of humanity’s earliest attempts at morality. It doesn’t matter what he thinks. You have no need to seek his approval nor to fear his wrath. Simply abandon the pretence that he exists and he will disappear. Base your morals instead on reason, compassion for others and the pursuit of a better world for everybody.
This was my first ever formal debate and I was concerned that nerves would get the better of me, or that I’d be exposed as horribly uninformed and ill-prepared. But I don’t think that happened. Having met all the other speakers shortly before the debate began, I was quickly put at my ease. They were a friendly bunch, and despite our different beliefs we all seemed to be on the same side. The speeches were all interesting and entertaining, but not generally so polished or professional that I felt out of my depth.
Arguing for the motion were Professor Maeve Cooke of the UCD School of Philosophy, Gordon Linney, former Archdeacon of Dublin (Church of Ireland), Danny Murphy of Spirituality Ireland and Killian Breen of the UCD Law Society.
With me on the opposition were Nathan Wheeler of The Secular Society, Sean Cassidy, also of The Secular Society but there in his capacity as an advocate of LGBT rights and former chair of the DCU LGBT Society, and Dean McGarry of the UCD Science Society. (I was there representing Atheist Ireland.)
The big difficulty we in the opposition found was that we were talking about a very different god from the one the proposition were discussing. Our jabs aimed largely at Leviticus and the Catholic Church could not hit the more nebulous targets they offered. As far as I understood their arguments and beliefs: Maeve Cooke is a non-theist but was happy to define God as “perfection” and argue that such perfection required loving everyone; Danny Murphy is “irreligious” and the god he may or may not believe in loves everyone unconditionally; Gordon Linney’s god is a version of Yahweh far more liberal than the one portrayed in the Old Testament and Killian Breen’s god is a vague character who seems to exist in moments of great beauty and joy. They each presented very different and very personal views of God while we were attacking a more fundamentalist idea. I was glad that nobody on either side believed in such a god.
There was some intense but always friendly discussion from the floor and among the speakers following the debate. It could probably have gone on all night but eventually the arbiter called a halt and the house voted in favour of the motion by about two to one. This was no great surprise and not even much of a disappointment . While there were a whole range of religious beliefs represented, the room seemed to be unanimous on the issue of LGBT rights. And ultimately, if people must believe in a god, I’d much rather it was one who shared the views of the most progressive elements of our society.
- Thoughts on UCD Law Society Debate ‘That God Loves Gays Too’ (secular.ie)
- UCD Motion: “This House Believes That God Loves Gay People Too” (spiritualityireland.org)