Go back 200 years and we in the West were hanging gay men; a hundred years ago, more or less, we locked up Oscar Wilde for being gay and fifty years ago one of the greatest geniuses, ever, to have been born in the United Kingdom, Alan Turing, was forced to undergo chemical castration and driven to suicide, just for being gay.
Yet today, we celebrate gayness. When a State solemnises a marriage, it gives validation to that marriage, and the couple undertaking it, in the name of every citizen of that State. It is saying, ‘We the people approve of and celebrate your love, and we wish you both the greatest of happiness.’ It places all the authority and approval of the State on that marriage, in our names.
So we have, in fifty years or less, gone from persecuting and imprisoning or mutilating gays, to absolutely supporting them.
What does this tell us?
The principal agent in the suppression of non-heteronormative sexual orientation or gender identity was and remains, the organised Abrahamic religions. We see, in parts of the world where these still hold real power, that they ruthlessly suppress gays and transgenders wherever they can, calling for, and all too frequently enacting, even judicial murder, just for the ‘crime’ of not loving in accordance with their texts.
Let’s make no mistake, they would still be doing exactly the same thing in our more enlightened jurisdictions if they could. Even Pope Francis had to pretend to soften towards gays and transgenders, in order to make the public face of the Catholic Church more appealing — even though that was quickly shown to be no more than PR spin, and the Church is as transphobic, homophobic and for that matter misogynistic as it ever was.
So by definition, the increasing acceptance of the rights of gay and transgender people is an inverse measure of the level of authority over society that these religions maintain.
This is useful because, particularly in the case of the United States, we are used to thinking that religion wields much greater power. I have written elsewhere that ‘45% of Americans are retards’ and in the context of that article, this is true. To deny evolution is to be wilfully, egregiously stupid. It is to actively prefer ignorance to knowledge.
Until the early 1980s America was following a trajectory of secularisation that broadly paralleled that of Europe and the developed world generally. There was declining faith and an increasingly open society. However, in that decade, Jerry Falwell, a religious snake-oil salesman exploiting the tax loophole that allows so many like him to get rich, led, from the foetid and dark recesses of conservative America, a phenomenon called the ‘Moral Majority’.
Well, it was neither a majority nor moral; but what are a few lies in the name of Christianity? Doesn’t Justin Martyr, the first Christian apologist, recommend it?
Despite not being a majority, this bubble of pure reaction managed to set the United States back by decades. From being, without question, the world’s absolute leader in the sciences, America is now one of the also-rans. The large Hadron Collider at Cern is where it is due to the success of Falwell and his supporters. The list of scientific programmes that have been deferred, underfunded or scrapped because of the influence of these throwbacks is tragically long. And from being the world leader in pollution control and environmental protection, the United States became a pariah, actively doing all it can to prevent such progress.
It beggars belief, today, that it was the Republican Party that ended slavery in the US, not the Democratic. Then, Republicans were the voice of progress. We cannot say that Falwell did not harm us all. So knowing the extent to which religiosity remains an important issue in American society is important for all of us.
When you live in a secular state, religion is something you think about very little. Most people are practical atheists. They don’t go to church and they don’t pray. If asked if they believe in God, they might shrug, or they might be ambivalent. The fact is they don’t think about it enough to have an opinion, which is pretty much the definition of an atheist.
Yet if asked what religion they are, most will answer that it is the religion they were brought up in — even if they haven’t been to church in decades. There are practical atheists who will still categorise themselves as belonging to a religion simply because they don’t think about it enough to have another opinion. This falsely skews the numbers and that makes it difficult to use the results of surveys to determine how secular a society is.
Charlatans and cheats like Falwell and his followers exploited this problem to make it look as if the majority of Americans were religiously deluded. In a society so rigidly conformist, nobody wants to rock the boat, especially over something they haven’t thought about in years.
The famous ‘45%’ probably falls under the same category. American education is in a dreadful state, with publicly-funded schools regularly being caught teaching ‘creationism’, as has been seen this week in Louisiana. At the same time, most private schools in America are religious in nature. All of these routinely decry evolution and science. If you’re brought up in a system like that, it’s easy to say you don’t believe in evolution.
Even if that were true, however, and 45% of Americans really don’t believe in something that can be conclusively demonstrated even to an idiot, 45% is not a majority. 45% of Scots voted for Independence last year, yet Scotland remains a colonial outpost of the British State. Why? Because 45% is NOT a majority. And this figure, for America, has remained roughly the same for over thirty years. So, because there is a powerful correlation between religiosity and science-denial, all the time Falwell was claiming his ‘majority’ he was lying.
Because of these problems, the extent of religiosity in the United States (and elsewhere) has always been overstated. That is why marriage equality is such a useful indicator.
To a religious person, marriage equality is anathema. If you are of the Abrahamic religions you must be against it. Yet we see now that sizeable majorities in the US and elsewhere are in favour of marriage equality.
This means that far more people must non-religious than are saying so. The increasing number of ‘nones’ — much heralded by well-known atheists like Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins — must still be an underestimate.
In his book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M Pirsig talked about splitting factors. These, when used properly, like a surgeon’s scalpel, could divide a problem in two and thus resolve it. Marriage equality is a case in point. Although there are others, for example abortion rights, that might also serve, these involve other ethical questions; after all, while more is made of it than should be, an organism’s life must be ended.
There is absolutely no such ethical consideration about marriage equality. It is an expression of love. No organism is harmed. Nothing dies and nobody gets hurt. The only thing that is transgressed is ‘scriptural morality’. One may agree with it because one believes that people have the right to live and love as they will, so long as no harm is caused to others; but to disagree with it requires that one decides that marriage is not about love but is instead a contract between a man and a woman expressly and solely for the purpose of procreation, which must always conform to the rules of patriarchal religions.
The question therefore obliges the responder to decide which is more important: the demands and proclamations of religion, or the rights of the individual. One either agrees that religion should control how people live and love, or that people have the freedom to love as they will, and more than that, with official sanction in our names.
Every person who comes down in favour of marriage equality is saying that whether or not they do personally consider themselves to be of religion, or believe in a god, they consider the rights of the individual to be more important.
That is the definition of secularism and with any luck, in the near future the US Supreme Court will make it clear, by endorsing marriage equality and striking down objections to it on Constitutional grounds, that the United States is indeed a secular democracy, and that the lies and deception of the Falwell era are finally rejected.
We look forward to welcoming this nation back into the modern world, a world that needs it. It will be a moment to be profoundly savoured.