February 1994

Bible Teachings Mask Bigotry Against Gays

Published in the Salt Lake Tribune, November 7, 1993, as the Common Carrier article

In the 1992 election, an Oregon initiative aiming to keep homosexuals from being employed as schoolteachers, police, or in other public capacities, received 44 percent of the vote. A Colorado initiative denying homosexuals protection against discrimination in employment and housing was enacted and is likely to provide a model for others elsewhere.

Meanwhile, skinheads and other thugs regularly mug homosexuals. These thugs and the supporters of anti-gay legislation would appear to be totally different. While the thugs are motivated by irrational hatred of those who differ from themselves, those behind the initiatives are mostly decent people who wouldn’t think of physically injuring gays. They do want to deprive gays of jobs, housing and self-respect. But they, like the members of the Eagle Forum in Utah, are acting out of moral conviction. Most are, indeed, religious people who believe that in opposing homosexuality, they are bearing religious witness to a moral fact, since the Bible asserts that homosexuality is a great and terrible sin.

So there is mindless hatred of difference on the one side and moral decency on the other. Biblical inspiration does lead the religious opponents of homosexuality to do things that would have a disastrous impact on many of their fellow citizens. But unlike the gay-bashers, these people can see themselves as thoroughly upright and decent individuals.

Yet, when I hear people condemning homosexuality on the basis of the Bible, I wonder whether they also accept the rest of the Bible’s many views about what is right or wrong in human behavior and, if not, why they make an exception for what it says of homosexuality. Do they agree, as Deuteronomy commands, that individuals who commit adultery should be put to death or that the clothes they wear must not be made of more than one sort of material or that dissolute sons should be stoned to death? Or with the Old Testament’s acceptance of polygamy? Or with Jesus’ emphatic prohibition of divorce found in Matthew?

Very few religious people would accept all of what is to be found in the Bible as morally binding. Most of us find the idea of cutting off the hands of a thief, as the Koran requires, to be barbaric. And most of the decent people supporting anti-gay initiatives would be equally appalled at stoning to death dissolute sons, punishing someone for wearing a shirt of polyester and cotton mix, and otherwise turning all of the Bible into law or morality.

But how, then, can they believe that they know that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says it is? Simple consistency requires them to either accept all of the Bible’s moral rules or to have some good reason for holding some of its commands to be authoritative when others are clearly not.

If they thought seriously about it, most of the religiously motivated opponents of homosexuality would have to conclude, I believe, that they simply see that the Bible is to be followed in this case and that is not to be followed in what it says of adulterers or dissolute sons. But if this is so, they are actually in the position of holding that they know the Bible to be correct about homosexuality because they are certain that homosexuality is wrong and unnatural and not that it’s wrong because of what the Bible says.

I believe that it is important for these people to understand that their view does not in fact rest on the Bible. It’s important because they are largely decent people who would not inflict great injury on others unless they had the best of reasons to do so. Since depriving gays of jobs, housing and self-respect is a great injury, these decent people should seriously consider whether their conviction that homosexually is wrong is simply a residue of bigotry and not much different from the hatred of the skinheads. Consensual gay behavior is not, after all, injurious to those who have a different sexual orientation. It is not pillage, theft, rape, murder, or manipulative deception, but merely people having sex in ways that they find rewarding.

Many of us would find these ways distasteful or even disgusting. But many of us also intensely dislike some forms of heterosexual sex, the ways that other people dress, the foods they eat and, in general, how they conduct their lives. We recognize, however, that such feelings are not an adequate reason for coercing people to change their behavior.

That we shouldn’t punish homosexuality seems to me to be especially clear when we consider that sexual identity and preferences are so deeply rooted and that for most people a satisfying sex life is essential for happiness. There are those who hold the Coke-Pepsi theory of sexuality. They seem to think that gays could just as easily be straight: “No Cokes? OK. I’ll have a Pepsi.” But anyone with even minimal sex drive who has thought seriously about his or her own sexual preference can see how misguided this view is.

In conclusion, I believe that those religious crusaders against homosexuality who are unwilling to reflect deeply about the issues touched on here can’t be taking their moral convictions seriously. They are running the risk that their opposition to gays is not that much different from the bigotry and hatred of skinheads, that it is bigotry clad in a tie and white shirt.

–Mendel Cohen

Everything Is Of Some Importance; Nothing Is Of Absolute Importance

As is typical of oldsters, my thoughts turn more and more to the past. I have been quite lucky: my parents brought me up “right” and my biological background is conducive to congenial survival. Possibly I have been a bit over-thrifty and more suspicious than necessary, but generally when I have trusted with inadequate justification I have suffered the consequences. In my early 20’s I read a book that had much influence on me: Walter Pitkin’s, “Life Begins at Forty.” Then I thought forty was a long way ahead. Now at twice that age plus ten, forty seems quite youthful. Where have these 65 years gone? Somewhere in his book Pitkin wrote, everything is of some importance: nothing is of absolute importance. I have lived with that aphorism. I enjoy watching ants in their endless search. I like to drop a shred of bread in front of them and observe them get it into their nest. How mightily they struggle. The project is of supreme importance to them. Who am I to say their effort is trivial? Neitzche, when pressed for an example of his ideal superman, finally came up with Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Goethe was a great poet and influenced the growth of Romanticism. But he was in some ways a first rate fool and lacked many desirable traits. Yes, he was a Mensch (an Authentic Personality) but he was also painfully menschlich. Human, all too human.

Much of life is a contradiction. We want to live forever, but realize what a bore it would be and what a god-awful mess we would be at 120. We want adventure but not at the expense of safety. We want to be with people, but find them annoying. So we learn to live with compromise. We hedge in varying degrees and find that there never is a perfect adjustment. We seek the pie in the sky, but we do not have the sense to recognize it for what it is–just a slice of theory. We want democracy to be perfect though we know the evolutionary process does not seek or produce perfection. It is sufficient if a process works. If for a brief period it works better than necessary it soon becomes lazy and does not adjust. General Motors, I.B.M., Sears, Apple are good current examples. Sometimes when they go down they learn to adjust and get a second wind. It would be pleasant to live long enough to find out what happens to these fallen giants. Why expect more from democracy? All it can do is a bit better than alternate systems. And when it isn’t, then another system takes its place. It has happened many times in the history of humanity. Evolution does not result in perfection. It operates on the principle–if it works, don’t fix it. If a species doesn’t work it disappears. Of all the species that have existed, over 99 per cent have disappeared. The odds are even greater against a complicated and neurotic species like humankind. Neitzsche, despite his great insights, was naive. The very nature of man prevents an Ubermensch from happening.

Yes, all in all moderation seems to be the best goal. But not too much moderation for that in itself is immoderate. An immoderate moderation or moderate immoderation seems the best stance to seek. But how to attain it–that is the elusive goal that none of us attains with more than moderate success. There is coherence to these seeming incoherent statements, say I, but there is no conclusion. Maybe that is a conclusion.

–Herbert A. Tonne

Mr. Tonne, of Northvale, NJ, will be 90 years old/young in January, 1994. To mark that occasion, he was asked to submit some reflections on his philosophy of life. Originally published in News and Views the journal of Humanists of North Jersey in January 1994.

The Folly Of Halfway Humanism

A hundred years ago many liberals, both political and religious, were persuaded that with the rational demolition of supernaturalism, superstition would vanish, human beings would increasingly spend their energies improving their common lot, and widespread education would have the moral effect of diverting all minds toward noble ends. It was a lovely delusion while it lasted. For the fact is that after two World Wars, conservatism and reaction have gradually eased themselves into the saddle and are riding humankind.

I could argue that the long-term effect of John Kennedy’s assassination was a gradual loss of faith on the part of Americans in their public, especially political, institutions…When one stops to consider the tendency of American politics to devolve into balkanized constituencies based on the differences instead of common ground among us, one begins legitimately to fret for democracy’s future. This is cause for the greatest concern. For democracy, in its essentials, is the most ethically significant political idea the world has ever known.

Authoritarian politics, like authoritarian religion, keeps people infantile. Basic to democracy, then is political adulthood, a citizenry sufficiently well-informed to want to make decisions about their government. If our humanist religion teaches us anything, it is that a developing sense of responsibility for our own ideas and actions constitutes life’s essential dignity, zest and freedom…To thinkers as different as Gandhi and Maslow, religion means self-knowledge and self-actualization. To seek and to mold the spiritual order unique to oneself is the very stuff of life’s drama, an odyssey that continually draws us forth to a search for meaning. In humanism fidelity to that search replaces obedience to some supposed revelation from on high. Fidelity to that search confirms and ennobles our self-worth, or dignity. I think one of the principal tasks of liberal religious humanism is to formulate an up-to-date theory of democracy and how it can be simply and equitably implemented.

How do we begin such a task? Since there is no spiritual renewal in a vacuum, we must seek out those aspects of history that seem most appropriate in the light of present needs and challenges. What historical resources in the vast and varied tradition of liberal religion can yield materials distinctively suited for illuminating and shaping a contemporary religious humanism and with it advance the potential for strengthening our democracy?

Among early American Unitarian thinkers Theodore Parker recognized that the democratic experiment derives its vitality, if also its turbulence, from conflict and difference openly faced, not secretly subverted. Liberal religion, he preached, must be impregnated with the American democratic ethos.

Following Parker in the last century there arose the Free Religious Association, a post-Civil War protest movement within establishment Unitarianism against the latter’s excessive Christian bias. The precursor of 20th century humanism, Free Religion, in the hands of its chief expone5ts like Frothingham and Potter, was an expression of its ethical kinship with the spiritual idealism of American democracy…Members of the Free Religious Association postulated that each person has worth, an innate sacredness, precisely because we are ends in ourselves and endowed with reason, rationality and its offshoot, ethics, being conceived as natural properties of being human. Religion, in this scheme of understanding, means loyalty to the Ethical ideal and its working out, however, imperfectly, in history and in personal life. In short, humanistic liberal religion as opposed to secular humanism rests on the premise that a unique spark of divinity resides in each of us by virtue of our genetic endowment. Humanism becomes a democratic religious faith at that point where it boldly proclaims the sacredness of all individuals.

Pioneers of the Free Religious Association with the Unitarian movement were passionately convinced that a non-theistic, non-Christian universal ethics would soon become the common ground on which people from all walks of life could unite religiously. But what sadly and subtly occurred in American cultural history is that the liberating momentum of the Enlightenment spent itself by the end of the presidency of John Quincy Adams, last of the founding fathers to occupy the White House.

In the 1830’s the separation between intellectual and religious life became rather obvious. That unfortunate split has been with us ever since, making it inherently difficult for intellectually discerning people to take religion seriously, while those that do–like many UUs and Ethical Culturists–are often uneasy even in their deepest convictions.

Revitalizing the Free Religious spirit will take energy and forthright actions. To date we have been anything but bold. Some of my professional colleagues have lately been bemused with the notion that people who gravitate to liberal religious groups do so because, having abandoned a crabbed, narrow, unconvincing orthodox faith, they are now disenchanted as well with the so-called secular world. Therefore, goes their familiar argument, we must present these anxious dropouts from secularism with a better spiritual alternative. So far I’d agree, except that what they suggest putting forth is, once you uncover it, the old religious stuff mystically refurbished and purged of its grosser aspects. Sometimes it’s presented as a “lover’s quarrel” with God–again, halfway liberalism still emotionally unable to cut its unbilical cord. I say we must stop waffling–there is no supernature, there is in reality neither one god nor many except as imaginative creations.

I believe we should de-Protestantize, de-Christianize the liberal religious tradition and find our primary inspiration and illumination in the highest strivings of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the literary, scientific and humanist moral traditions of the West. To succeed–if liberal religious humanism is to prosper–it will have to attract people who believe in it and are willing to work on its behalf.

If we are alive to our times, liberal religious humanism can help remake the world.

Is it worth the effort? I believe it is imperative. Humankind must escape finally and permanently from the anchor of the supernatural assumption. Secular humanism so called is fine so far as it goes and I count myself an advocate of it. But it has no wings–no developed doctrine of the tragic, or of death, or of the sacred without which prophetic criticism becomes impossible; above all, it has no doctrine of human community without which humanism cannot be effectively transmitted except individually via individual teachers and students in the university. In contrast, religious humanism includes all the imperatives and impulses of secular humanism but goes beyond it, compensating for its lacks.

Liberal religious humanism: it demands an erect posture–no bowing, bending of the knee, or closing of the eyes–it invites the spirit to soar–but in this world only! And with renewed intellectual and spiritual freedom, with the inspiration and courage born of our self-asserted sacredness, the democracy dreamed of by our predecessors can be realized.

The above was excerpted from the address, “No More Waffling: The Folly of Halfway Humanism,” delivered by Khoren Arisian in 1983 at the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis where Khoren Arisian is the current minister. The tract was published by the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis.