Monthly Archives: July 2011

My response to Reverend Neal

In a previous post I called out Reverend Gregory Neal, a Methodist minister, for his pernicious views about premarital sex. He responded in the comments, and I asked him a few clarifying questions about his position. His answers did not sit well with me. Here is my response.

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Dear Reverend Neal,

Thank you for responding to my follow-up questions regarding your views on premarital sex. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I found your position any more reasonable or commendable after reading your answers. Overall, I see you advocating a view that is false and demeaning towards a great number of people. Let me start at the beginning.

When the girl/woman named Jennifer asks you in your Q&A if premarital sex is wrong, you prepare her for the answer she doesn’t want to hear. “Since you have asked this question I must assume that you are willing to receive an honest answer, even if it differs somewhat from what your question indicates you wish to receive.” You avoid ever using the word “wrong” or “immoral” in your answer, but nonetheless you make your meaning quite clear. Premarital sex is harmful, you claim. To oppose it is the “correct and appropriate” stance. At the end of your answer you push marriage on Jennifer, as if you were a salesperson. Why not get married, if you and your boyfriend are truly married? Well? It is as if you cannot accept people having sex if they are not married.

In my blog entry discussing your Q&A, I point out that humans do not need a contract to be good to each other, to have sex that is wonderful and valid and not deserving of your disapproval. It is at this point that you attempt to modify your response. You stress your point about premarital sex being less than “ideal,” as if this somehow made your response more reasonable, when really what it says is, “premarital sex is okay; marital sex is just better.” You deny your attempt to sell Jennifer on marriage by explaining that you simply “couldn’t understand” why she would not seek marriage with her boyfriend. This explanation provides all the reassurance of statements such as, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with homosexual sex, I just don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have sex with a woman”, or “I think women should be free to join the workforce if they want to, I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t rather stay at home.” This is an insidious way to undermine someone’s position while claiming to support it.

You say that casual, uncommitted sex is bad because in it, a person is “used as a thing, a toy, an object, and not known, experienced, or appreciated as the whole person they are.” No, a person (let’s say she is female) who has a conversation with her partner about what type of sex to have and what it will mean, and engages in something that she and her partner find enjoyable is not “being used.” She is having sex because she wants to. To further insist that someone who is completely aware of what they are doing is “being used” is to show a lack of respect for their freedom and ability to make their own choices.

In a comment so incredible that I find it hard to know what to make of it, you state that sex outside of a marriage-like covenant is frequently rape. As an example of the possible harm of premarital sex, you cite “instances of date-rape that have occurred among youth I know.” Let me be very clear, Reverend Neal: Sex is consensual. Rape is not. Rape is a vile, disgusting attack in which you force yourself on someone – it has nothing to do with consensual sex. How dare you conflate the two in an attempt to villainize sex outside of marriage.

Lastly, in your argument that you and the UMC do not condemn premarital sex, you provide the exact evidence which shows that you do – you compare your stance on sex to the UMC’s stance on homosexuality. I agree that they are quite comparable, as the UMC’s position on homosexuality is bigoted and dehumanizing. The UMC denies marriage to homosexuals, prohibits the use of UMC funds to promote their acceptance[1], and defrocks homosexual ministers in their ranks. They proclaim that being gay is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” a statement that has only one meaning – being gay is wrong.

Similar, Reverend Neal, is your attitude toward premarital sex. You do condemn it. You admit that premarital sex is not intrinsically harmful, and yet at every step you act like it is. You constantly put people down who have sex outside of marriage by saying that what they are doing is less than “ideal.” You push marriage on people who have sex without it, saying that this is the “proper course” for them. You make ludicrous characterizations of premarital sex as rape. These are not the actions of a person who approves of premarital sex; they are the actions of a person who disapproves but refuses to admit it.

You’re wrong to find fault with sex without a contract, instead of finding fault with the specific mistakes, attitudes, and interactional styles that comprise the real danger to good relationships. One sentence you wrote to me comes close to a view that I would respect:

[In circumstances where two people are unable to enter into marriage,] I recognize that the marriage-like quality of their relationship is what is important… not a legal document or even a religious ceremony.

It is the quality of the relationship that is important in all circumstances. People’s freedom, health, and happiness are what matters. Adherence to an ancient code does not, and if that code restricts the extent to which people can be healthy, free, and happy, it should be thrown away without a second look.

Sincerely,
Tim Martin

1. “[The General Council on Finance and Administration] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends ” (¶ 161.F).” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – Administrative Order ¶806.9.

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Good, rational ideas about relationships

There’s an excellent article over at the New York Times discussing the idea of non-monogamous relationships, and how, for some couples, they may work better than traditional strict monogamy.

The piece focuses on the views of Dan Savage (the man behind the amazing It Gets Better Project), and exemplifies something we need more of – good, rational ideas about relationships. Unlike so many religious views, Savage worries about the things that really matter, i.e. whether the people involved in a relationship are honest, happy, and healthy. If a couple agrees that marriage with infidelity fulfills their needs, then that’s great for them.

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Filed under Marriage, Relationships, Sex

New book on bird evolution

Well, it’s new to me anyway.

Brazilian Tanager

Brazilian Tanager

I was at Labyrinth Books in Princeton today, browsing their section on birds. I used to be into birdwatching when I was younger, and I still get excited about seeing new birds whenever I travel someplace new.

I was thinking recently that I would love to know more about bird evolution. Normally a trip to the bookstore wouldn’t yield much on that subject, but that’s why I love Labyrinth – they carry lots of academic and esoteric books that you would normally have to send away for. Much to my delight, they had several books on bird evolution, and I chose The Origin and Evolution of Birds, by Alan Feduccia.

Boat-billed Flycatcher

Boat-billed Flycatcher

I am really excited to read this, so much so that I’ve included in this post some pictures of birds that I took on my recent trip to Rio. I’m also a little bit disappointed to have learned from an Amazon review of the book that Feduccia doesn’t subscribe to the now commonly-accepted view of birds as having descended from theropod dinosaurs… but oh well. I guess I’ll learn more about a competing theory to start.

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New Pew survey, and Denial of evolution is a result of religiosity

A new Pew survey has just been released, examining opinions of a worldwide sample of evangelical Christian leaders on a number of issues. The survey questions relate to social issues, religious beliefs, gender roles, what to do about non-Christians, and more. It’s interesting reading, and there is an excellent summary of some of the findings regarding evolution, atheism, and conflicting Christian values over at Why Evolution Is True.

Some of the results from this survey tie into a subject that I’ve been wanting to write about: why public acceptance of evolution in the majority of developed nations around the world is high, but with a few notable exceptions. Take a look at this chart from a 2006 article in Science that compared public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries (click to enlarge).
Public acceptance of evolution

The majority of respondents were accepting of evolution in most of the nations surveyed. A notable exception, with the second to lowest acceptance of evolution, was the United States.

Why is this?

Keep in mind that acceptance of evolution among scientists is overwhelmingly strong the world over. In contrast with the American public, 97% of American scientists agree that humans and other living things have evolved over time. So why the division among the laypeople, and why only in certain parts of the world?

As readers have probably noticed, denial of evolution or criticism of the evidence for evolution is often voiced specifically by creationists – people who think that a supernatural being created humans and other living things in their current form. This is because, in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, they believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and should be taken literally.

Is religious fundamentalism the cause for evolution denial, or is it something else? We already know that acceptance of evolution is divided along national lines, but is it also divided along religious lines?

The evidence says yes.

Keep in mind that it isn’t a person’s religion per se that determines whether or not they accept evolution. Many of the countries in the above chart are predominantly Christian, and yet they still show high acceptance of evolution. Rather, it is how religious a person is that influences their attitude toward evolution.

Religion distribution

Religiosity is commonly measured by looking at frequency of prayer, frequency of religious service attendance, belief in god and an afterlife, Bible literalism, and so on. It is on measures of religiosity that America really stands out among developed nations (see tables below).

Religiosity by country part 1Religiosity by country part 2

Religiosity by country (Source: The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions)

But that’s not all. There must of course be differences in religiosity from person to person within the same country. Not all Americans are religious, and not all religious Americans are weekly churchgoers who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. If acceptance of evolution is influenced by religiosity, we would expect the most religious Americans to be the most unaccepting of evolution.

The 2006 study I cited earlier showed this to be the case. They found that “…individuals who hold a strong belief in a personal God and who pray frequently were significantly less likely to view evolution as probably or definitely true than adults with less conservative religious views.”

Subsequent research has replicated this result. A 2009 Pew survey found that 49% of respondents who attended weekly religious services believed that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. However, only 26% of those who attended services monthly or yearly believed this, and only 17% of those who seldom or never attend. Meanwhile, those respondents who attended religious services less frequently were much more likely to believe that life evolved.

A 2010 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University similarly found that Bible literalism was negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution. Of respondents who answered that the Bible is the actual word of God, 69% believed that God directly created life. Of those who said that the Bible is the word of God, but not everything can be taken literally, 35% believed in creationism, 42% believed that God had guided the evolutionary process (theistic evolution), and 11% believed in unguided, natural evolution. Lastly, of those who said that the Bible was written by men, only 12% believed in creationism, 18% believed in theistic evolution, and 56% believed in unguided evolution.

Finally, the survey I began the post with extends these findings, showing that they apply to evangelical Christian leaders from around the world. Of those surveyed, almost half reject evolution, and 41% believe in God-guided, theistic evolution. Only 3% accept the scientific understanding of evolution as being the result of natural processes.

The evidence is undeniable: religiosity is negatively correlated with acceptance of evolution, and this can only be because people deny the facts of science that conflict with their religious beliefs.

In an effort to fight this conclusion, creationists often try to argue that the evidence for evolution is lacking. Not only is this claim false, but in making it, creationists expect us to believe that they are more fit to evaluate the evidence for evolution than the rest of the world, including the vast majority of scientists and relevant experts! This is simply a ludicrous argument. The fact is that evolution is true, and most of the world knows it. The United States is an anomaly among nations – even among Christian nations – because of a unique history of religious fundamentalism that promotes belief in no-longer tenable myths about human origins.

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Filed under Atheism, Creationism, Evolution, Religion