By Andrew Haslam
‘The Bible is homophobic, we all agree that’s wrong. So, when it comes to things like homophobia, are Christians just choosing which parts of the Bible to accept and which to reject? Are they cherry picking their morals?’
This question is a perfect example of one of the major blind spots in the secularist worldview. It was asked during the Q&A at our last Salt Live event this week on the topic, Does religion poison everything? In the heat of the moment it seemed a pretty formidable question, and I wasn’t sure how our speaker would handle it. But a couple of moments reflection reveal some gaping problems.
First, there’s a deep irony in someone adopting the secular stance and then accusing religious folk of cherry picking morality. Why? Because that is probably the most devastating critique that can be levelled against secularism itself. The truth is that without a religious foundation for morality there is no such thing as objective moral truth – all we have are personal preferences. And many atheist philosophers have long recognised this fact.
So, if we take the example in the question – homophobia – and read between the lines, this person was saying something like this: ‘These days we all agree that homophobia is wrong, that minorities should be protected, that individuals have free choice to express themselves in whichever way they wish, and that nobody has the right to judge another person based on these choices.’ The problem is that there are so many unsubstantiated moral judgments here that have no grounding in secularism. For example, what in nature tells us that minorities should be protected? What in nature teaches us that individuals have a perfectly free choice to express themselves? There are literally no moral statements (statements involving words like ‘should’, and ‘ought’, and ‘wrong’) that have an objective basis in the secular worldview.
The highly problematic implication is that all morality in secularism is cherry picking. The secularist must build a worldview based on what feels right, in which things like ‘equality’, ‘acceptance’ and ‘free self-expression’ are essential values for relatively arbitrary reasons, but they preach those values as though they are God’s Honest Truth.
Second, we need to acknowledge that everyone draws the line somewhere when it comes to sexual ethics, and it is somewhat arrogant to assume that only just now, in the 2010s, have we got it all figured out and everyone else (in history and across the world) is wrong. Yet, this is often the working assumption.
Perhaps the main reason for the liberalisation of sexual ethics in the West has been our growing commitment to freedom as our most deeply held doctrine. And freedom goes hand in hand with individualism – a very modern, very Western, way of looking at the world which largely disregards the community, or one’s ancestry. This commitment to individual freedom explains why we have come to accept certain sexual behaviours as being in keeping with free expression (like homosexuality, hookups, and polyamory), whilst rejecting anything that violates our deepest convictions about the freedom of the individual (hence the passion that was driving the #MeToo movement last year).
But there is a problem. It is interesting that it never seems to dawn on us that the rest of the world does not necessarily build their morality on the same foundation. Not all cultures regard individual freedom as the highest ethic, and many cultures believe in things like responsibility and community with equal or greater fervour.
Here’s my point. We too often arrogantly assume we have got it right. But what is this if it is not a form of cultural imperialism? Why should we accept the claim that the Modern Western Liberal view of these things is the only right one, and everyone has to come into alignment with it or suffer marginalisation as bigots? This kind of cultural imperialism is dangerous, not least because there are exceptionally good reasons to question how healthy our individualism is. Nobody seems to notice that our increasing levels of absolute personal freedom have not always made us happier in the West (and the fact that we can’t imagine an alternative moral framework only proves how thoroughly indoctrinated we have become).
Third, the assumption that all Christians agree on the rightness of homosexuality, and therefore cherry pick morality from the Bible, is wrong. This is where we have to make a very careful distinction. All of the Christians I know do not think homophobia is right, even for a second. They don’t want anyone to be judged and persecuted in society, and we in the church don’t think it’s our place to judge those outside the church.
That said, the fact remains that if someone wants to be a follower of Jesus they must not pick and choose their favourite bits from his teachings, accepting only the things they like while rejecting the things they don’t like. To do that is to make yourself an authority over Jesus, as though you know better than him, when in fact the very definition of believing in Jesus is making him the supreme authority over you. The danger in attempting to marry Christianity with progressive values is that we end up creating a god in our own image, who (surprise, surprise) seems to echo back all of the things we already believed about the world. At this point I would agree with the questioner, and affirm that it is hard to respect Christians who cherry pick from the Bible.
But as I said, that is not usually the case. For my friends who have grown up experiencing homosexual attraction, but have also come to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, they have been willing to trade their sexual fulfilment in order to pursue a deeper satisfaction in following Christ. And of course, this is not just an experience for those with homosexual desires. Literally every person who chooses to follow Jesus makes these painful and self-denying choices. And yet, for the average secular Londoner, the idea that someone would willingly say no to their sexual desires is utterly unthinkable. Why? Because we have entirely believed the message that free sexual expression is right up there with The Meaning of Life, and nothing – not even Jesus – can compete with that.
And yet he does compete with that, as so many of my friends will attest. To follow him is to kill yourself entirely, and to hand your whole life over to him. You don’t guard a part off and say, ‘This is my identity, and you can’t touch this.’ No, following Jesus has always been about something much more deep, much more radical, than that. To be a Christian is to agree with the Apostle Paul: ‘You are not your own, you were bought with a price.’ A Saviour who was willing to die for me in order to rescue me from my own miserable state of separation from God is not a Saviour I will deny, even if it means giving up my rights.