Gay Rights, Religion, and Cultural Relativism

Posted on June 24, 2011

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Trevor Phillips

Trevor Phillips, Chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has given a revealing interview to The Sunday Telegraph on the place of religious belief in Britain today.

Despite being billed as ‘a wide-ranging intervention into the growing debate on the place of religion in modern society’, and in spite of starting by making positive observations, denouncing ‘fashionable’ atheism, and admitting the need for the EHRC to do more to defend religious believers, much of the interview appears to have been given over to a diatribe against Christian attitudes to homosexuality. Phillips argues that revival within Anglicanism and Roman Catholicism is being driven by those who ‘believe in an old time religion’ which he views as ‘incompatible with a modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural society’:

I think for a lot of Christian activists, they want to have a fight and they choose sexual orientation as the ground to fight it on. I think that whole argument isn’t about the rights of Christians. It’s about politics. It’s about a group of people who really want to have weight and influence and they’ve chosen that particular ground.

Whilst I am not a Freudian, this looks like a textbook example of Freud’s concept of ‘projection’. Readers may recall that the EHRC funded court action against the elderly Christian owners of a Bed and Breakfast in Cornwall who committed the ‘crime’ of politely declining to offer double-bedded accommodation to a homosexual couple. Surely there is something sinister about the head of a government-funded organisation which bankrolls litigation against Christians suggesting that it is they who are picking ‘a fight’ with the establishment, or seeking political influence, simply by defending themselves.

The Sunday Telegraph notes:

Mr Phillips said he believed Anglican and Catholic churches were seeing growing congregations from African and Carribean backgrounds with ‘old time’ views which put them at odds with mainstream Britain… [Whilst, on the other hand, Phillips went on to say that] ‘Muslim communities in this country are doing their damnedest to try to come to terms with their neighbours to try to integrate and they’re doing their best to try to develop an idea of Islam that is compatible with living in a modern liberal democracy… Integration is also about compromise.’

But billing ‘integration’, and the alleged need to conform to ‘mainstream’ opinion, as moral imperatives, sounds like ‘old time’ cultural relativism which is now largely rejected even by liberal academics.

Cultural relativism invalidly attempts to transfer the logic of democratic political systems into the sphere of moral reasoning and asserts that something is ‘good’ if it is socially approved. It once appealed to Western liberals because it gave them the opportunity to rubber-stamp progressive sexual mores without resorting to reasoned argument, so that they could claim that the sea change in attitudes to sex was its own justification.

How would a consistent cultural relativist view civil rights movements which clash with majority opinion?

Yet relativism has fallen out of fashion because, in order to be consistent, those who ‘celebrate’ advances in legal rights for gays and claim that the social approval of homosexuality in the West reveals its moral goodness, must also celebrate the fact that homosexuals were publicly burnt alive in fourth-century Rome, or executed in modern day Iran or Nigeria. After all, they are only doing what is considered good ‘in their culture’. The consistent cultural relativist, anxious not to commit either of the capital sins of ‘judging’ or ‘imposing one’s views on other cultures’, would also have to celebrate the bloody persecution of Jews in medieval Europe (even though it was condemned at the time by Church authorities), and might well have to side with those who scolded black civil rights leaders in America for polarising the community and causing social discord by aggravating majority white opinion.

Cultural relativism does not teach man how to listen to the voice of conscience, or how to use his mind to reason about morality, but simply pushes him to follow the herd.  It is not indisputably a good thing to be a ‘freethinker’ who continually questions received moral norms. Careful consideration may often lead to the conclusion that the ‘mainstream’ view is correct. Yet history shows that the mainstream can, and does, go awry, and a society in which one cannot question the mind of the majority is sliding toward moral anarchy and tyranny.

Cultural relativism falls apart when confronted with the simple truth that each individual human being is a member of multiple societies and cultures. I, for example, am a member of a particular family, belonging to a particular religion, a particular ethnic group, a particular political party, and a particular nation. Even if we accepted that the relativistic idea of truth and goodness were correct (which it is not), we would have no way of deciding which culture, which ‘mainstream’ view, we should follow in case of a conflict.  The choice of ‘national culture’ is arbitrary, owing its potency only to the power of the State to impose its view by force, which highlights again the link between relativism and tyranny.

None of the foregoing proves that homosexual behaviour is either wrong or right, nor is it intended to do so. That is another argument, which we have addressed more than once on this blog. If we seek truth rather than simply seek to impose our will on others, it is important that arguments be based on reason and not on appeals to emotional whims or vague, half-considered beliefs, whether they be those of a minority or of the majority. It is a sign of the weakness of their intellectual case that the promoters and ‘celebrators’ of liberal attitudes to sexual morality are often incapable of engaging in such rational discussion, and resort sooner or later to shouting down opponents and accusing them of suffering from various ‘phobias’, whilst simultaneously accusing them of being unreasonable and reactionary. Surely this is a case of ‘projection’ almost worthy of Freud’s couch.

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(photo of Trevor Phillips: © Heinrich Böll Stiftung; no endorsement implied)