Last Monday (May 17) gay and lesbian organisations around the world observed International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
The theme chosen for this year’s commemoration was ‘religion and religious oppression of sexual minorities’ – a fact which places this topic entirely within the sphere of interests of any organisation aiming to represent secular humanist values.
Even were it not for the chosen theme, the issue of homophobia would still be of direct concern to Humanists: a category of free-thinking individuals who hold, among other things, that discrimination on any grounds is a fundamental violation of the dignity we all share as human beings.
As a Humanist myself, and as co-founder of the Malta Humanist Association, I would like to take the opportunity of May 17 (albeit two days late) to outline a basic humanist perspective on the issue at hand.
First off, two small observations. It must be pointed out that religion in general is not in itself the cause of homophobia – as a cursory glance at 20th century politics will readily confirm. But as both the Malta Gay Rights Movement and Drachma (a Catholic LGBT group) asserted last Monday, it remains one of the few factors still in use today to justify and legitimise homophobic arguments... and in some cases to prolong active persecution of sexual minorities. To this day, homosexuals continue to face the death penalty in many Islamic countries across the world. Even in Western countries with strong democratic traditions, there appears to be a resurgence of religious inflexibility that would hold us to the beliefs and value-systems of peoples who lived over 4,000 years ago.
The second point involves the legal status of gays and lesbians here in Malta, which has improved in leaps and bounds since the landmark decision to decriminalise homosexuality in 1974.
But while the government of Malta has taken various positive steps over the years, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that homophobia still exists, and that religion continues to play a dominant role in its propagation. Consider the following comment, posted on Monday on www.di-ve.com: “It is them [homosexuals] who have to adapt to the normal way of life and not vice versa. It is against God and against nature to accept otherwise. In the beginning God created them man and woman and that is the normal way of life, other styles are to dig deep down and remain there unless they want to live normal lives like the rest of us - J. Farrugia.”
To be fair, Mr Farrugia may not be entirely representative of the religion he claims to speak for – though that is ultimately a matter for the Maltese Catholic Church to decide, and so far no effort has been made to distance itself from such statements. None the less, Farrugia’s world vision is definitely shared by many people in the name of religion: and as the above quote itself clearly spells out, much of this prejudice takes root in a primordial misconception that the Earth, and all exists thereupon, was created with a specific goal in mind... from which premise it follows that all aspects of life on Earth are intended to serve an ultimate purpose according to a ‘Divine Plan’.
To put the matter succinctly: Humanism rejects this interpretation out of hand. For the purposes of this article I shall limit myself only to how it impinges on views of human sexuality – though of course there is plenty more to be said about the issue.
Humanists generally believe that, like all other aspects of a human being’s physical and psychological experience, sexuality is also a product of evolution: that complex, much-maligned and entirely natural process that has been going on now for over four billion years.
For fairly straightforward reasons, this process was itself alien to the understanding of those who shaped our subsequent perceptions through the religions and mythologies they devised over the millennia: including the religion prevalent in Maltese society today. So it is hardly surprising that religions tend to take such small account of the scientific realities that underpin our planet: choosing instead to rely on a superstitious belief (or ‘faith’, if you prefer) that sacred texts such as the Bible or the Koran, even if unscientific in the detail, are somehow manifestations of a deeper Truth whose veracity cannot be denied.
To be honest even a Humanist may sympathise with part of this argument. For while only the seriously deluded would turn to such books specifically in search of scientific principles, it does not follow that that they have nothing whatsoever to offer the modern reader. On the contrary, ancient texts do provide an invaluable insight into the early civilised mind, and are at their most richly rewarding when shedding light on mankind’s earliest conceptions of the universe, and above all his own place therein.
But the wisdom they contain is not scientific wisdom. The premises from which they depart are not logically unassailable – far from it – and while much of the modus vivendi that emanates from these works is one a Humanist might be comfortable to live alongside, some aspects of it are very emphatically not.
One such example involves precisely the so-called ‘sexual norms’ propagated by the Bible and the Koran, among other holy books. It is a strange thing to have to reiterate in the 21st century, but humankind is in a slightly better position today than it was in the Bronze or Dark Ages to reassess the precise circumstances of its own origins. And what has emerged from our observations of the Universe over the past 500 years – before which time, let’s face it, our ability to observe was severely limited – is that there is no evidence to suggest that the tentative steps we have so far taken as human beings on this planet, were choreographed from beforehand in accordance with some sort of pre-determined, cosmic 'roadmap'.
In fact, the available evidence suggests quite the reverse: i.e., that in the absence of a fixed musical score (and at the risk of anthropomorphising that which is not sentient) nature makes up its own words and music as it goes along. If the resulting symphony sounds in any way harmonious to our ears, it is only because each individual note, each chord and each arpeggio – simply by virtue of existing in the first place – can only be the way it is for having survived the process of natural selection, thereby becoming the best possible adaptation to its own environment in its own time.
This applies to all aspects of all living things: from butterflies to bottlenose dolphins, from echolocation to photosynthesis, and from prehensile tails to Presidents of the USA. Naturally, it also applies to sexual diversity among humans: which was produced by nature in exactly the same way as all other dimensions of the infinite variety of life on Earth: i.e., unprompted.
From this perspective, any attempt to argue homosexuality away as ‘unnatural’ can only betray a crude, almost brutish ignorance of how the natural world really operates. And far from being ‘despicable’ or ‘reprehensible’, the Humanist would argue that sexual diversity deserves to be respected and cherished in its own right, as it also forms part of the great natural wonder we call the Universe, which we are committed to defend.
On another level altogether, homophobia is objectionable not merely because it breeds hatred and violence – though that alone is a good enough reason to repudiate it – nor even because it results directly in great injustice and social exclusion.
Homophobia is objectionable also because it is severely (to put it mildly) irrational.
Paradoxically, this is best illustrated by reverting to the selfsame religious argument that Humanists generally reject. Once it is established that so much of the bias against homosexuality arises from a perception of what is and what is not ‘God’s will’, then the argument becomes rather meaningless to those among us who quite frankly do not believe in God to begin with.
But even if one were to accept the existence of God – and the subsequent premise that He created the entire Universe according to a ‘Divine Plan’ – it would be to say the least presumptuous to also assume the authority to speak and decide on God’s behalf.
Logically, anyone who believes in God and the doctrine of Creation has little choice but to also assume that homosexuality itself, by virtue of its undeniable existence in the Universe, would also have some part to play in the unfolding of God’s Plan... for which (let’s be honest) we do not really have a final, conclusive blueprint, other than perhaps the words of prophets and mystics who lived as long ago as 2,000 B.C.
In the final analysis, I personally find the Humanist recommendation (no commandments in this world vision) altogether more reassuring. If people were to value others for what they really are, instead of what they think ‘God might have intended them to be’, the world would almost certainly be a better and safer place to live in.
This article appears in MaltaToday, Wednesday 19 May 2010