Thursday, July 07, 2005

Love The Sinner

Don't take this the wrong way, but there are some interesting formal similarities between atheists and Christians, which make our mutual incomprehension all the more puzzling. For example, amidst the Kleiman kerfuffle, P.Z. Myers remarked:
One thing that really annoys me is the conflation of religion with religious people. It's a common and dishonest defense of religion to claim that any criticism of dogma and superstition is an attack on 90% of the people on the planet — it's like ducking and hiding behind 5.5 billion people and making the argument from authority and the argument from popularity all at once.

Now, I entirely agree with P.Z. on this point. But it's interesting to note the (formal) parallel with that Christian favourite: "love the sinner, hate the sin." For us militant atheists, it becomes something more like "love the religious, hate the religion." This parallel raises some interesting challenges for both sides.

Firstly, it makes one wonder why Christians are so prone to the conflation. If the sinner/sin distinction is so important and familiar to them, why do they have so much trouble recognizing it when they're on the receiving end? Very puzzling.

As for atheists, well, it really should give us pause. We can't stand that "love the sinner" nonsense -- we typically think it's an insincere excuse from homophobes who don't want to admit their bigotry. Or, even if sincere, how can you genuinely respect (let alone "love") a person when you reject a central aspect of their "personal identity" (in the pop-psychological, not philosophical, sense)?

The difficulty here is that for some people, their religion is as centrally important in their lives as their sexuality. So if we hold that disrespecting homosexuality means disrespecting gay people, then aren't we also committed to holding that disrespecting Christianity means disrespecting Christians? I can't see any relevant formal difference that would allow me to deny this implication. But note that this applies not just to Christianity, but any beliefs that an individual cares deeply about. Astrology and other "new age" rubbish springs to mind - as do political ideologies like communism, Nazism, etc.

This presents us with four options. (1) We could try to have more respect for all the idiotic and pernicious belief systems in the world. I'm not too tempted by this one, you can probably tell. (2) We could deny that anyone is being disrespected after all. This would force us to respond more favourably towards (sincere) usages of the "love the sinner" slogan. (3) We could judge that the "disrespect" involved, though real, is justified (in both cases) by its role in public dialogue about values. This has similar practical implications to #2 above. (4) We could deny the parallel on substantive (rather than formal) grounds. That is, looking at the actual content of the claims being made, it happens that our position is justified and theirs isn't.

So... which is the best option?


  1. Surely we all have numerous false beliefs, including important ones.

    If it is disrespectful to someone to claim that many of their beliefs are false, then we do not respect anyone, even ourselves.

    "Hate the sin, love the sinner" is a pretty good slogan or at least it becomes one if you substitute more moderate terms for 'love' and 'hate'.

  2. You hate religion?

    I don't think the religious/religion distinction parallels the sinner/sin distinction that well. A better parallel is "love the religious, hate what some religious people do." Love the person, hate the (bad, harmful, hurtful, etc.) action.

  3. I hate religion, personally, so even if Richard doesn't there's an example. I hate it because it's wrong, and because it's willfully and persistently so, and I hate it because it preys on the weakest and most vulnerable members of our society, and it exaggerates the worst traits in human beings. So yeah, I'd say I hate religion as a social phenomenon, and as an abstracta, if it is one.

    I also dislike what religious people do, but I don't know that I'd go so far as to say that I hate what they do - at least in the vast majority of cases. I hate it when they do awful things, of course, but that's true of the vast majority of people and not just me.

    And, for the record, I don't necessarily love the religious (I'm more often warily accepting, or pleasantly oblivious), but I see the problem here. I would say a few things - firstly that Nigel has a good point. Furthermore, though, in my experience the general (and accurate) response many people have to when religious people use "love the sinner, hate the sin" is that those religious people are lying. And so I'm not entirely certain the slogan is the problem if interpreted literally (though the belief that homosexuality is a sin at all is a problem), as much as the fact that it's generally understood and used by people who are rather obviously and flagrantly lying (to others, but often I suspect themselves as well).

  4. I often take part in a bible discussion group. It must be said that the bible is a fertile source of philosophical suggestions, and that an intellectual analysis of the issues is as enjoyable and exercise as any atheistic position.

    Indeed, I find the connection between intellect, moral principles, and everyday life to be much more closely linked than in the philosophical discussion groups that I interact with.

    There is something attractive about a group of people talking about how they really believe they should be living, rather than reducing moral dillemmas to a mere academic exercise.

    I love both sides, but I have to say the "church" feeling can be very nice. It seems sadly missing from philosophy.


  5. Macht - Well, 'hate' and 'love' are somewhat exaggerated -- I don't care that much about either religion or the people I don't know. But, like Dr. Pretorius, I do dislike religion itself, and not just the harmful actions it might give rise to (though I certainly dislike those too, and it's part of the reason why I dislike religion itself).

    Nigel - the issue goes beyond merely claiming that someone else's beliefs are false (which, as you quite rightly note, could not plausibly be objectionable). One can politely disagree, after all, e.g. "I personally disagree with that, so would not choose it for myself, but I have no problem with you choosing to live your life in such a way." But the sort of disagreements I have in mind are more forceful, i.e. an explicit denunciation of someone else's way of life. E.g. "homosexuality is repugnant and evil!", or whatever.

    Dr. Pretorius - would you be happy to go with option #2 then?

  6. I'm not sure what's meant by 'religion' and 'religious' here (or, for that matter, who are the Christians are supposed to be moer prone to the sinner/sin conflation than most people). And the fuzziness of the term is quite relevant here; you seem to be talking about belief, but that's not generally the context in which the "hate the sin, love the sinner" remark arises (as Macht noted). So I don't see any parallel, although that isn't to say there isn't any. I'm just not clear on what the 'love the religious, hate the religion' claim is really supposed to mean. To my ears it sounds very much like an irrational reification of a very vague notion, but since it was only put forward as an approximation of what was intended, I'm sure there's more to it than appears 'to my ears'.

    But even if there were, I'm not sure I understand the line of the latter part of your argument. One of the whole points of "hate the sin, love the sinner" is that it's supposed to indicate three things: (1) that compromise in one's stance against sin is unacceptable; (2) that one of the more important reasons it is unacceptable is that sin is bad for the sinner himself; and (3) that this reason requires one to act with good will toward the people involved. So the parallel would seem to be a view in which one refused to compromise one's explicit rejection of 'idiotic and pernicious belief systems' but in which it was always kept in mind that one of the reasons for remaining uncompromising is that the people who hold these belief systems are themselves made worse off by holding them, and need to be given all the benevolent help that can reasonably be given to them to assist them in getting out of this bad state. In other words, no compromise on the issues, but good will to the people who disagree.

    I do agree that most people who say it make use of it as an excuse and are lying.

  7. Your explication of the parallel sounds good to me, Brandon. I think many atheists do feel that many Christians are victims of ideology and miseducation. Thus you find the likes of Dawkins suggesting that inculcating children into religion constitutes a form of "child abuse". And more moderate atheists even worry about the transmission of ignorance that occurs within creationist households.

    That's not to say we always have genuine "good will" towards all theists, of course. Perhaps our side uses the distinction as an insincere "excuse" as often as they do. But I do think the parallel is there.

    But, in any case, I originally had in mind a slightly weaker interpretation of the slogan, which doesn't necessary require benevolence towards the individual in question. On this interpretation, the distinction being drawn is simply that between a person and some particular characteristic (or belief, or action) of the person. The idea here is that one might say "I hate that you're religious/gay, but that doesn't mean I hate you."

    On this interpretation the parallel is more obvious. But perhaps it misunderstands what the slogan is really about from a Christian perspective.

  8. Richard, isn't the real issue how we respect each other in our discourse? Now I'd be the first to agree that not all Christians do this - even to other Christian denominations. But ideally we can think each other wrong in even deep ways, but discuss it respectfully.

    I think what some Christians find problematic is the perception that among intellectuals Christians are the exception to the rule about respect. i.e. one can talk about Christians in ways one would never talk about any other group.

    You are of course correct that there is a lot of hypocrisy here at times. However at the same time one might suggest that things are more complex than it appears.

    I don't mind people thinking me deluded and so forth. I fully admit it bothers me when people assume I'm brainwashed or the like, when I'd like to think it perfectly clear that my views come as the result of careful thought. Careful thought is no guarantee of correctness of course. But it isn't disagreement over my ideas which bothers me so much as the assumption that I'm simply an idiot or worse for holding them.

  9. "isn't the real issue how we respect each other in our discourse?"

    I guess. Or, rather, what such respect requires. Must we always respect the ideas that are being contested? Or can we denounce an idea or way of life, whilst nevertheless retaining an appropriate degree of respect for the person advocating it?

    I very much agree with you that "ideally we can think each other wrong in even deep ways, but discuss it respectfully." But I don't think that requires respecting the ideas themselves. So I guess I'm edging towards option #2 myself.

    For the record, I don't see how anyone who's read your blog could possibly think you "an idiot". (Though I suppose that's a different matter from thinking that someone holds an idiotic belief. I'm not quite sure what the latter judgment amounts to. I've written up a brief post addressing the question here.)

  10. As a utilitarian you should absolutly reject hating the individual and thus fundimentally accept the "love the sinner" argument.

  11. Typically liberals don't argue that Christians ought to hate gays. Rather, the way we reject the "love the sinner" argument is by questioning whether that's really consistent with their hatred of homosexuality. That is, it's the "hate the sin" bit that we have trouble with (in this particular case, at least).

  12. I tend toward option 3. In intention, it is possible in to disrespect an idea but respect a person, but in practice ideas have real consequences on how a person lives, so any disrespect of an idea will inevitably be disrespect of some aspect of his/her life. Respectful discourse can blunt the blow, but not remove it entirely.

    I think I can see a distinction between homosexuality and beliefs, in that “rubbish” beliefs are ideas which people can freely assent to or reject, whereas being gay is determined by biological facts as some suggest. In this case the distinction between idea and person completely collapses, so disagreeing with being gay will be less justifiable.

  13. Well you dont haveto hate the sin at all but there is no major harm in lets say "hating crime" or "hating starvation"
    A good utilitarian would therefore be familiar with hating starvation but not ignoring the welfare of the person causing the starvation - ie hate the sin but not the sinner.
    Or to be less emotive - you might hate the legal system without hating the lawyers.
    the gay argument just rests on a different interpretation of the facts as opposed to different logic.
    Both interpretations of fact are probably based on faith rather than logic.

    That doesnt mean you are not right to oppose them but it is also hard to say they are not right to oppose you.


  14. Regarding homosexuality and Christians, generally Christians make a distinction between homosexuality (being attracted towards people of the same sex) and having sexual relations with somebody of the same sex.

    My church denomination is pretty conservative and it makes the distinction,

    "Persons of same-sex attraction should not be denied community acceptance solely because of their sexual orientation and should be wholeheartedly received by the church and given loving support and encouragement. Christian homosexuals, like all Christians, are called to discipleship, to holy obedience, and to the use of their gifts in the cause of the kingdom. Opportunities to serve within the offices and the life of the congregation should be afforded to them as they are to heterosexual Christians."

    So, I don't think its fair to say that Christians have a "hatred of homosexuality." My denomination's statement on homosexuality goes on to say that homosexual activity "must be condemned as incompatible with obedience to the will of God as revealed in Scripture. The church affirms that it must exercise the same compassion for homosexuals in their sins as it exercises for all other sinners. The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness."

    I suppose if you had to sum those two quotes up, it would be "love the sinner, hate the sin." I guess I don't see why you think something like that is inconsistent, though.

  15. Macht - I think the problem comes in, and the percieved (though perhaps not actual) inconsistency when people who don't believe there to be anything wrong read the very final phrase of that policy. Up till the end it manages to make a distinction between acts (sinful - though undefined as such: are homosexual acts limited to having sex with members of the same sex, or should we include other things too?) and actual sexual identity.

    But look at that last line - "The church should do everything in its power to help persons with homosexual orientation and give them support toward healing and wholeness."

    Now, if you believe that homosexual acts are sinful I'm guessing you may not have noticed it. This passage explicitly states that not only are the acts wrong, but in fact the, er, faggy bits themselves are wrong as well - you can't heal something that isn't defective or broken. And that looks to me like it's puttin the lie to the 'hate the sin, love the sinner' bit. (And also it seems to be claiming that homosexuality can be 'healed' which is, in fact, quite false.)

    As a method of comparison (as above) suppose that I as an atheist created an organization to help religious people shake off the pernicious beliefs with which they are saddled. And I included in my mission statement not just "help them to stop believing that stuff" but also "This organization should do everything in its power to help persons with a propensity to believing ridiculous stuff and give them support toward healing and wholeness."

    I think that would sort of put the lie to any claims I made about not disrespecting the religious, don't you?

  16. Dr. Pretorius, I noticed the last line but I don't think it is saying what you seem to be thinking it's saying. Yes, it is saying something is wrong. It's the same thing that it would say about atheists or people with Down Syndrome or alcoholics. That is, in a perfect world, nobody would be any of these things. In that sense there is something wrong.

    I really don't see anything wrong with an atheist organization that wants to provide support for people who are thinking about or have left their religion. I actually think it would be a pretty good service. Certainly better than people agonizing about their lost faith, not knowing what to do.

    In either case, I don't think it goes against the idea behind "love the sinner, hate the sin." In both cases they seem to be showing love for the person.

    And no, it is not claiming that "homosexuality can be 'healed'." (In the sense of "Look! Now I'm a heterosexual!") I don't think its claiming that it can't be healed (in that sense), either. I don't think it takes a position either way.


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