Seven Biblical arguments against homosexuality (and why they’re rubbish)

About a year ago, I found myself in a horribly frustrating debate with an evangelical Christian about equal marriage. Realising that he was never going to be convinced by the liberal view unless I could debate with him on the terms of his choice, I found myself frustrated by my hazy grasp of the scriptures that he held so dear. I was convinced that he could be challenged based upon the Bible, but I was not confident enough in my knowledge and understanding of it to do so. I vowed to remedy the situation, and to arm myself for the future.

Why bother? Well, I care more about supporting the human rights of LGBT people than I do about convincing others of my own emphatically non-religious worldview. The chances of me persuading an evangelical Christian to ‘dump’ God and move on are pretty slim – indeed, I do not consider it my place to attempt a one-to-one de-conversion; but I do consider it my place, my duty even, to defend the human rights of others. My acquaintance was an intelligent and sensitive man, with huge doses of what I would call humanity (but what he would call the love of God), and I have hope that he might have listened to an alternative reading of the scriptures.

People can’t choose the community that they’re born into, and too many LGBT people have been rejected by their own; too many have suffered appalling internal conflict, revolting prejudice and unacceptable treatment.[i] Too many members of these communities have endured or been forced to endure ‘conversion therapy’, including an extraordinary number of the pastors who peddle this kind of hatred. It’s an appalling approach that is campaigning hard to win the argument in some parts of America. It has to stop, and we have to engage.

In this article I examine the key passages from the Bible cited by conservative Christians as the standard ‘killer blows’ for liberals when it comes to equality. Rather appropriately for a collection of Bible passages, there are seven of them. Unless otherwise stated, translations are from the New English Bible, as it’s the one I grew up with and the one on my shelf. This, however, brings me to the most crucial thing to bear in mind when squaring up to a conservative Bible-believer – few of them give any thought to the fact that they are quoting from a translation. This renders their interpretations easily dismissible from the outset, for as we shall see, the translation (and biased mistranslation) of some words in the Bible is absolutely crucial to this discussion.[ii]

Adam and Steve

'Wait, so your name isn't Steve?' (Painting by Hendrick Goltzius)

‘Wait, so your name isn’t Steve?’ (Painting by Hendrick Goltzius)

As gay Christian Matthew Vines points in his emotionally-charged lecture on this topic, God says in Genesis 2.18, ‘it is not good for the man to be alone; I will provide a partner for him.’ But in Genesis 1-2, God creates Adam and Eve – not Adam and Steve, as conservative evangelicals seem to find it so pleasing to point out. If your potential adversary is a Bible literalist, then he or she will believe that Adam and Eve actually existed and were created by God in exactly the manner that the Bible describes. However, he or she will still have to accept that this twosome cannot constitute an exemplary paradigm for how modern couples should live – and I’m not just talking about naturism. For example, the only way that Adam and Eve could populate the world is by producing children who would procreate with each other (and/or with them), a necessary side effect of their unique situation. This is just one example of how Bible literalists have no choice but to admit that the prototype couple of Adam and Eve must be taken as symbolic, at least on some levels, and not applied wholesale to modern adult relationships. As soon as they are forced to admit this, almost everything is open to question.

Most Christians see Adam and Eve as a part of a creation myth; they accept that their existence was metaphorical and that they represent the origins of mankind as a species. Prior to the halcyon days of modern science, it is indeed a fact that the world would not have been peopled without the predominance of heterosexual relations. In communities fighting for survival, ‘wasted seed’ no doubt becomes an issue, hence perhaps God’s punishment of Onan in Genesis 38.8-10. Well, really. So what? With the population of the earth now at an estimated 7 billion and predicted to rise to around 11 billion by the end of the century, nobody can possibly argue that peopling the planet is a pressing concern for us now.

The Sin of Sodom

In Genesis 19 we find the widely misunderstood story of Sodom. Two of God’s angels visit the town of Sodom in disguise and are welcomed warmly by an allegedly righteous man named Lot (although I shall say more about his purported moral fibre later on). That night, all the other men from the town surround the house and demand that the visitors be brought out ‘so that we can have intercourse with them.’ When Lot tries to bargain with them, the crowd becomes violent and starts beating the door down. Whoa … hang on. Alarming, isn’t it? The fact that God later punishes Sodom and nearby Gomorrah with fire and brimstone is cited by conservative Christians as concrete evidence that Jehovah disapproves of homosexuality… so let’s explore this bizarre story in more detail.

First and foremost, the term ‘Sodomite’ simply means ‘inhabitant of Sodom,’ though it is the modern, homophobic use of this word that dominates people’s thinking today; any Bible translation (or excitable preacher) using the word ‘Sodomite’ to mean anything other than ‘inhabitant of Sodom’ is biased and frankly ignorant. Many reputable scholars (both Christian and non-Christian) argue that the story of Sodom was actually a traditional lesson in the importance of welcoming strangers,[iii] a motif that can be found throughout the ancient world. The ancient concept of what the Greeks called xenia, the friendship extended between host and guest, was sacred and central to ancient morality, and numerous stories that reflect its importance can be found in Classical mythology.[iv] In the Hebrew tradition, the harsh nomadic existence of the early Jewish people meant that the custom of welcoming travel-weary strangers was essential to their survival, and Genesis 19 is just one of numerous Biblical references to its import.[v]

No one's favourite Bible story: Lot and his daughters (Goltzius)

No one’s favourite Bible story: Lot and his daughters (Goltzius)

The fact that the townsmen of Sodom threaten to gang-rape their male visitors is interpreted by conservative Christians as an example of unbridled homosexual lust; but the threat of violent rape is not about sex and it’s certainly not about sexuality. Indeed, to suggest as much is both offensive and ill-informed. Sexual violence is a weapon of power and control, and male rape is sometimes used in violent homophobic attacks. Research indicates that male rape has actually been used more frequently in some conflicts  than the rape of women; it is used to humiliate and degrade the enemy. The violent threat to Lot’s guests in the story represents a declaration of hostility towards strangers – an interpretation supported by the fact that as the crowd’s threats become more aggressive they turn upon Lot himself, saying ‘this man has come and settled here as an alien, and does he now take it upon himself to judge us?’ The Hebrew here can also be rendered as ‘foreigner’, ‘stranger’ or ‘immigrant,’ and the behaviour of the crowd demonstrates a negative hostility to outsiders. So, exactly as the scholars argue, the primary ‘sin of Sodom’ should be understood to mean threatening and rejecting a visitor as your enemy, rather than welcoming him as your guest.[vi]

Finally, a word about Lot’s behaviour in this undeniably horrid little story. Despite the endless debates between conservative and liberal Christians over this section of the Bible, few of them seem particularly interested in talking about the mention of Lot’s daughters. So let’s complete the delightful tale: while the townsmen were surrounding Lot’s house and threatening his guests with rape, ‘Lot went out … and said, ‘Look: I have two daughters, both virgins; let me bring them out to you and you can do what you like with them; but do not touch these men, because they have come under the shelter of my roof’’. (Genesis 19.6-8). So the ‘righteous’ Lot offers up his daughters to be gang-raped in place of his two guests, and yet conservative Christians cite this passage as a lesson in sexual morality for the modern world.

An abomination?

Next we come to Leviticus, the third book of the Hebrew Bible, and the two passages perhaps most often quoted on this topic. Leviticus 18.22 states that ‘you shall not lie with a man as with a woman: that is an abomination.’ In Leviticus 20.13 it also says, ‘if a man has intercourse with a man as with a woman, they both commit an abomination. They shall be put to death; their blood shall be on their own heads.’

At first glance, this might seem unequivocal. However, the book of Leviticus is a list of traditional, ritual mores for the time, and the overwhelming majority of its instructions and exhortations are comfortably ignored by modern Christians. While it is true that Leviticus proscribes sex between men, it also forbids the eating of rabbit (11.6), pork (11.7) and shellfish (11.9-12), the wearing of mixed fibres (19.19) and cutting the sides of your hair (19.27). Got a tattoo? Then you’re in big trouble according to Leviticus 19.28, which is bad news for all those hick town dudes who’ve had Leviticus 18.22 tattooed on their butts.

Let us now examine the word ‘abomination’, which conservatives quote with such horrifying relish and which causes such understandable upset.[vii] ‘Abomination’ is a commonly used but rather loaded and potentially misleading translation of the Hebrew word tow’ebah, which had a culturally-specific meaning. It was used of anything that went against the long list of ritually acceptable practices and behaviours described, and was applied to many of the prohibitions mentioned above. According to Leviticus, it is just as much of an ‘abomination’ to eat a bacon sandwich or a shrimp salad as it is to ‘lie with a man as with a woman’, so unless conservative Christians want to start eating kosher, they’d better re-think their stance on this one. This inconvenient fact is ignored by right-wing preachers, who cite this passage over and over, emphasising the English word ‘abomination’. The reality is that the same Hebrew word is used throughout the Old Testament to condemn numerous practices that the majority of Christians, including their preachers, will carry out on a regular basis.

Some conservative readers of the Bible, such as Robert A. Gagnon, acknowledge the wider list of prohibitions but they maintain that sex between men is still presented as a worse kind of ‘abomination’ than some of the others listed above. They use two key arguments for this. Firstly, they point out that sex between men is listed alongside other sex acts that are plainly immoral, such as incest and bestiality. Secondly, they point out that Leviticus 20.13 threatens death as the appropriate punishment for sex between men – presumably suggesting that God felt pretty strongly about it. Well, most of us would probably agree that incest and bestiality are morally wrong. This is a conclusion that one can draw not from reading it in the Bible, but through sound, enlightened, and informed reasoning. For sexual intercourse to be morally acceptable it should be consensual (which bestiality cannot be) and it should not cause harm (which bestiality might and incest does, both in terms of its psychological impact and its potential biological consequences). On the other hand, having sex with your wife at certain times of the month, also prohibited in this section of Leviticus, is not considered to be immoral by most modern Christians; so why therefore should consensual sex between adult partners of the same gender be? Finally, the fact that death is listed as the punishment for intercourse between two men can be easily dismissed; the same punishment is threatened for blaspheming (Leviticus 24.16) and for working on the Sabbath (Exodus 31.14), so by my reckoning most of us are in serious trouble, including most Christians.

The New Testament: it’s all Greek to them

As liberal Christians often point out, you will not find any direct prohibitions against homosexuality in the Gospels, so conservative Christians rely on the Letters of Paul for their New Testament ammunition.

In 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10, Paul gives an inventory of ‘unrighteous’ people, who will not ‘inherit the kingdom of God.’ A colourful collection of wrongdoings are catalogued as possible barriers to the promised land, and the New Testament translation here excels itself by listing one of the sins as ‘homosexual perversion.’ Wow! To someone who reads the translation in ignorance of the original text, this kind of language is pretty unambiguous. They might, however, be surprised were they to look at the King James version, an English translation produced some 400 years earlier, which mentions the ‘effeminate’ and ‘abusers of themselves with mankind.’ On the other hand, the New International Version of the Bible, commonly used in America, says ‘men who have sex with men.’ So what on earth is going on? Let’s see.[viii]

The Greek word that the King James version translates as ‘effeminate’ at 1 Corinthians 6.9 is malakos, a term that is used in a wide range of surviving Greek texts. Its original sense was ‘soft’ or ‘pliable’ but when applied to people it was often used to mean something like ‘weak-willed’ or ‘lazy’, not schooled in the ways of righteous or philosophical thinking.[ix] The word was also used in a derogatory fashion to describe men who had been too much exposed to the finer, more decadent things in life, and in this sense it could imply a man who behaved in a less than ‘manly’ fashion according to the ancient ideal. Finally, it was also applied to younger males who cultivated feminine wiles and/or who allowed themselves to be penetrated during sexual activity.  This accusation could be applied in a heterosexual as well as in a homosexual context, and had far more do with the ancient suspicion of all things female than it did with a negative view of attraction between men.[x]

The next word that we need to tackle is the Greek word arsenokoites. Paul uses this word in both passages, and these are its only two appearances in the Bible; unfortunately they are also the first appearances of this word that we have preserved Greek literature, which means that its meaning is somewhat obscure to us. The very fact that Paul uses an unusual and possibly new term here is potentially interesting, as there were numerous Greek words that he could have used to refer to homosexual activity, had he so chosen. However, this may not be significant at all; the problem with ancient texts is that the meaning of any particular word may well have been clear to the author and to his immediate audience, and only seems obscure to us due to our lack of sources. The best thing that we can do therefore is to look more closely at the text itself.[xi]

Arsenokoites is a compound word, a combination of a Greek word for ‘man’ or ‘male’ (arsen) and ‘marital bed’ (koite). Just as in English, this word for ‘bed’ could be used euphemistically in Greek to mean ‘have sex with’ – so does it not simply mean ‘men who have sex with men’, exactly as the New International Version of the Bible translates? Well, quite possibly not. Cannon points out that in Paul’s list of sins in 1 Timothy 1.10, arsenokoites appears in between the words pornos and andrapodistes. The word pornos most commonly meant a male who prostitutes his body. Its female equivalent (porne) meant ‘harlot’ or ‘prostitute’ and the equivalent verb ‘to be or to become a prostitute’. Andrapodistes meant ‘slave-dealer’, ‘kidnapper’ or ‘man-stealer’ – it was used of one who kidnaps others and sells them into slavery, or of one who steals another man’s slaves. Cannon explores in detail the fact that Paul lists his ‘sins’ in groups of closely-related meaning, and he draws the conclusion that by ‘pornos, arsenokoites and andrapodistes’ he meant something like ‘male prostitutes, the males who lie [with them], and the slave dealers [who procure them].’

There are certainly many scholars who argue that Paul’s use of the word arsenokoites refers to people who exploit others in a sexual context.[xii] The exploitative use of younger males (often slaves) for sexual gratification was widespread in the ancient world, and it was quite likely to have been the only kind of sex between males that Paul had even heard of. I would argue that to extrapolate from Paul a prohibition on modern, adult, consensual relationships is to misunderstand the world in which he lived and to misinterpret his experience and probable mindset at the time.


A good old-fashioned orgy

In Romans 1.26-27 Paul discusses the Gentiles’ descent into idolatry and their rejection of God. He says here that, as a result of their behaviour, God abandoned them and let them live without Him. ‘In consequence, I say, God has given them up to shameful passions. Their women have exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and their men in turn, giving up natural relations with women, burn with lust for one another.’

This is perhaps the most problematic passage of them all. It is also the only time that sexual activity between women is mentioned in the Bible, and it doesn’t sound too positive, does it? Some scholars argue that Paul is talking very simply about what he saw as the heterosexual norm versus a clear disapproval of all homosexual relations. Others, including Matthew Vines, cling to the notion that the problem presented here is of heterosexual people performing homosexual acts, therefore somehow rejecting their ‘true’ nature; Paul does indeed use a Greek term which means something like ‘innate’ or ‘inborn’ to refer to their heterosexual leanings, and Vines argues from this that he is talking not about people who are gay but about people who ‘turn against their own nature’. Cannon even goes so far as to point out that according to this understanding (i.e. the belief that Paul is criticising people who turn against their innate sexual orientation), ‘it would be a sin for a homosexual to engage in heterosexual sex.’ But I’m afraid I don’t buy it. This interpretation is asking us to believe that when Paul talked about people turning ‘against nature’[xiii] he meant no malice towards those who experience same-sex attraction from birth. This is pretty tenuous, and I struggle to accept that this would have been his mindset at the time. Another danger with this approach is that we simply exchange one set of prejudices for another – is someone who has felt predominantly drawn to people of the opposite sex for most of their life then prohibited from experiencing and acting upon any form of same-sex attraction in later life? As liberals, this would put us on very dangerous ground.

So how should Christians reconcile what Paul says here with a modern, liberal stance? Well, a more convincing and less problematic argument is that, as so often where sexual morality is discussed in the Bible, Romans 1.26-27 is actually talking about lust or debauchery. The passage is believed by many to be a reference to orgiastic behaviour, and while the pagan practice of ‘sacred sexual orgies’ perhaps didn’t go on quite as much as some of the early Christian writers would have us believe, there is little doubt that this was certainly the view of pagan ritual as seen from the outside. It is therefore entirely plausible that Paul was writing in a disapproving tone about the general practices that he believed took place among ‘idolaters,’ which would include all forms of uninhibited sexual activity outside of a committed (and yes, in his experience, heterosexual) relationship. It is therefore reasonable for liberal Christians to argue that committed homosexual relationships are acceptable, since they do not actually go against the spirit of the prohibitions issued here by Paul.

Conclusions: love wins?

The passages in the Old Testament are easy to dismiss. The paradigm of Adam and Eve is symbolic, the story of Sodom represents an example of hostility to strangers in the form of threatened sexual assault, and the prohibition in Leviticus is just one of a series of culturally-based proscriptions that modern Christians are happy to ignore. In the New Testament, the only possible mentions of homosexual activity are made in reference to licentious and lustful behaviour and quite possibly to sexual exploitation. They therefore have nothing more to do with homosexual relationships than they do with heterosexual ones.

It is all too easy for those of us who are not emotionally attached to these ancient texts to dismiss them as irrelevant – to us, frankly, they are. But if we are to persuade more Christians to accept and welcome gay members of their community – a situation that is craved and deserved by so many – then we have to engage with the debate on their terms and to support the liberal Christians who are attempting to lead change.

Few Christians will have given this matter anything like as much thought as I have over the last few days of research, and I hope to be able to stand my ground when I next find myself in a corner with someone who uses the Bible to excuse and defend their own prejudices. I hope very much that you will too.



[i] Witness the case of Vicky Beeching, Christian rock star and darling of the conservative Bible belt – until she spoke out about equal marriage and came out in August 2014.

[ii] Here are just some examples of spectacularly ignorant homophobic preaching, based entirely on a so-called ‘analysis’ of the Bible’s words in an English translation: ‘what does the Bible say about homosexuality‘ ‘Homosexuality and the Bible‘ ‘a Christian view of sodomites.’ Please don’t watch them if you think they might upset you – some of the things said are truly horrible.

[iii] For example Peter J. Sorensen, ‘The Lost Commandments: the sacred rites of hospitality.’ This analysis by Suzanne Scholz of how Genesis 19 is dealt with on the internet is a  cautionary reminder of just how much nonsense there is on the web. She doesn’t draw any conclusions about the meaning of the passage, simply explores how many conflicting accounts there are about it on the internet from a scholarly perspective.

[iv] For example the story of Baucis and Philemon told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and as a running theme throughout Homer’s Odyssey.

[v] For example Genesis 18.1-8; Genesis 47.7-12; Leviticus 19.10; Leviticus 19.33-34.

[vi] The very fact that the ‘sins of Sodom’ do not equate to homosexuality but do equate to poor hospitality and lack of charity is confirmed within the Bible itself, both in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 16.49-50) and the New Testament (Luke 10.8-12).

[vii] See here Ian McKellen expressing his emotional outrage at this word. Sir Ian makes it his business to remove the offending passages of Leviticus from every Bible he finds!

[viii] Here are links to the two relevant passages in Greek: 1 Corinthians 6.9-11  and 1 Timothy 1.10.

[ix] For some outstandingly detailed references on this see footnotes 23-25 in this scholarly article by Dale B. Martin, Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University.

[x] See the article by Dale B Martin for an examination of this in depth.

[xi] Here Cannon’s article is hugely helpful because he gives the Greek words in their original form and then explores the various ways in which they have been translated in modern times. Even more detailed and enlightening is the article by Dale B Martin.

[xii] Dale B Martin explores a 2nd century Christian treatise by Theophilus of Antioch which seems to support this reading: here a list of sexual sins is followed by a list of economic misdemeanours (thieves, plunderers, robbers) and it is among the latter that arsenokoites appears, suggesting that by the second century at least the word had a very definite link to monetary exploitation rather than to a specific sex act.

[xiii] We need to be careful about terminology here again. Paul uses the Greek phrase para phusin, and the exact meaning of this phrase in late antiquity was one of the central questions of my spectacularly obscure PhD. One easy way to translate it in the context of what Paul is saying here is indeed ‘unnatural’ or ‘against nature’ but it also meant ‘uncustomary’ – as it no doubt does when he uses it to refer to the notion of men wearing their hair long in 1 Corinthians 11.14 (translated extremely poorly as ‘a disgrace’ in the New English Bible). Matthew Vines therefore argues that para phusin is a culturally specific term that relates to custom, not to innate biology. I’m afraid that I can’t agree with him on that, but he’s right that translating the phrase is not straightforward. It can also mean ‘paranormal’ or ‘supernatural’ and is used in a positive sense to describe how God has enabled Jews and Gentiles to cleave together in Romans 11.24.

Did Dolezal do wrong? Lies and social identities

Leila Gracie reflects on the high-profile case of Rachel Dolezal, an American civil rights advocate who lied about her life story in order to live as a black woman.

What makes an acceptable lie?

Rachel Dolezal in a recent TV appearance. Photo: Boston Herald.

Rachel Dolezal in a recent TV appearance. Photo: Boston Herald.

In the light of genuine racial discrimination and injustice, it’s obvious why some have felt offended by Rachael Dolezal. As a rule, we don’t choose our race and have to simply deal with its consequences. Yet we should examine the nature of her lie. For instance, compare it with someone who has an affair, or someone who commits crime; such people would lie because they seek self-gratification at the expense of other. This is, surely, immorality in its most basic form. Was Dolezal truly “getting off” on living life as a mixed-race person? Was she having fun at the expense of others; was there some selfish reward? The argument that she deliberately and strategically built a career on the lie also seems tenuous, especially as she ‘lived’ the black identity in many other aspects of her life.

Furthermore, the lie was just plain odd. Though immoral, other lies, such as infidelity or stealing, still have a place within the spectrum of ‘normality’. Imitating another race does not. It is distinctly abnormal. She had to deal with the fact that no one would ever truly understand the truth. It was surely a source of shame for Dolezal and something that had to remain strictly private.

It appears that Dolezal wished so deeply that she could be someone else that she sought to make it real. Perhaps she hated her white self. Perhaps the thought of being a black person seemed like the only way to truly find happiness. There may have been moments when she was confronted with the ‘whiteness’ of her body and felt frustrated by its inadequacy. So she constructed a story for herself; the unique circumstances that made her, essentially, a black person in a white person’s body.

It would be interesting to discover exactly what Dolezal thinks being white, or being black means. What is it that she wants to escape and what is it she wants to become? She may carry guilt as a member of a racial group that has perpetrated racism. Indeed, we should all appreciate what we have; we should look to help those less well-off; we should be on the lookout for all forms of injustice and immorality and we should heed history’s lessons. But this can all be achieved without also feeling guilty. The cause could also be something more generic; simply the sense of disparity that arises whenever differing cultures meet.

Biologically derived social identifiers

There are certain aspects of our biology, such as race/gender/age, which carry social currency; they inform our social identity. Of course, they tell us something tangible as well. They tell us about our bloodline and its history, and about our place in the process of human procreation. However, the human race seems to universally attach meaning to these biological features.

While I would not agree that these meanings are pure social construction, there is certainly malleability and historical context in the meanings attributed. As individuals, we get no choice about what social identity we are ‘handed’ and must navigate our way through; make the best of our little lot. This means managing external interpretations of social identifiers as well as arriving at our own understandings of them.

Can we change/choose our social identifiers?

Ostensibly, it is possible to change a (biologically derived) social identifier. An obvious example of this is that one can undergo hormonal and surgical procedures to change one’s sex to match one’s gender identity. Of course, those who have changed their biological sex in order to reflect their gender identity should be accepted into society and be free to live with dignity and respect from others. However, empirically and semantically speaking, society does not seem able to cut ties completely with what it originally thought of as a biological certainty. A person who has transitioned to a different gender nevertheless retains the identity of a ‘transgender‘ person even after their sex and gender have been harmonised.

This word does a special job, not just for the trans individual (who may or may not celebrate a distinctively trans identity) but for wider society. It tells a story; it accounts for a history of gender. The fact that this is even necessary could tell us something about society’s views. Do people stumble when it comes to ‘accepting’ that transgender individuals have truly changed gender? If so, why might this be? One might venture that some members of society find this very concept threatening. After all, most people experience their gender identity and biological sex as one and the same. Unpicking this concept, or challenging its certainty, is often not just uncomfortable, but unfathomable.

On this basis, if, one day, it is acceptable to change one’s race, I would suggest that language will adapt, in its usual but imperfect way, so as to articulate that the new identity is real but also tell that another preceded it. The only way round this is secrecy and hoping to ‘pass’ as Dolezal seemingly did.

Who we are to ourselves: the spirit of common humanity

For better or worse, our social identity will always impact our social intercourse but it is down to us how we incorporate it into our personal sense of identity. In fact, I would suggest that to ourselves we can never truly be any of our social identifiers. Without society, to ourselves (i.e. when we have our own space and our own thoughts), it is difficult to ever fully attain the feeling of being a particular race/gender/age. Perhaps it’s terrifying to admit, but surely, ultimately, to ourselves, we are just a complex mix of ‘me’ and trying to make a success of things is the primary focus. The effects of dementia or brain damage reveal the fragility of the processes through which we know who we are.

I am not suggesting we face some kind of existential oblivion. We need something to anchor us in society and need to feel that such things are, to some degree, real. However, I would suggest that we remember our spirit of common humanity and let that be the predominant guide to understanding ourselves. Had we entered this world in different circumstances, we would be managing an entirely different set of connotations of our identity.

Dolezal’s desire to change race reveals our common tendency to try to live and be our social identifiers – to ourselves. It is immaterial that Dolezal interpreted ‘whiteness’ negatively and ‘blackness’ positively. What matters is that she felt utterly defined by her race. I would suggest that if we can, we should concede to the person that we know exists beneath this skin.

Leila Gracie works in the field of behaviour change in London. She also enjoys writing as a means to ponder life’s mysteries, exploring themes such as gender relations, body image or mental health.

The state of cyberbullying in 2015

At HumanistLife, our guest authors explore contemporary issues from a humanist perspective. In this piece, writer Daniel Faris asks: what can be done about the epidemic of cyberbullying? 

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Cyberbullying is impacting more and more young people. Photo: Fixers via Flickr

Earlier this year, Monica Lewinsky – yes; that Monica Lewinsky – gave a TED talk in Vancouver in which she explored cyberbullying – that is, bullying that takes place on the Internet.

When the news of her affair with US President Bill Clinton broke in 1998 – right when the Internet was growing into what it has become today – Lewinsky became the first person, she says, to become a victim of cyberbullying. She went to bed one night completely unknown, and then there she was the next day, the subject of headlines and tabloid fodder all around the globe for the next few months.

As time passed, Lewinsky faded from the national spotlight. But she still had a life to live and now, at 41, she’s reclaiming her narrative by speaking about how cyberbullying is a serious problem in the developed world. During her TED talk, Lewinsky said she decided to get involved in the movement to end cyberbullying after hearing about the death of Tyler Climenti, a student at Rutgers University, who killed himself after being cyberbullied about his homosexuality.

‘Public humiliation as bloodsport has got to stop,’ Lewinsky said. ‘Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.’

Why cyberbullies do it

If we agree with Lewinsky, cyberbullying has been around for about 17 years. Bullying, however, has almost certainly been around as long as human beings. Still, there’s a difference between cyberbullying and the more ‘traditional’ methods.

When a kid says something mean to another kid’s face, the bully gets to see the victim’s reaction with his or her own eyes. Assuming the child isn’t sociopathic, he or she is bound to feel at least a morsel of regret about hurting someone’s feelings.

Now migrate that bullying over to the digital world, and aggressors no longer have to deal with witnessing the negative consequences of their behaviors. With nothing discouraging them from cyberbullying, many bullies’ digital tactics can be even more ferocious.

How prevalent is cyberbullying?

Some groups purport that more than 40 percent of teenagers in the United States have been victims of cyberbullying. But slice that cross-section even further and you’ll find a particularly grotesque statistic: Eight out of every 10 students in the LGBT community are victims of cyberbullying.

On the other hand, those who employ more traditional research methods have concluded that roughly 25 percent of US students have been the victim of cyberbullying, with 16 percent of them admitting that they have been the aggressors.

It doesn’t matter which numbers you choose to agree with; they’re both higher than we’d like them to be. And make no mistake: this issue is hardly exclusive to the United States; a poll of 10,000 youths, conducted by, indicated that 7 in 10 young people worldwide have experienced cyberbullying. They went on to discover that Facebook is home to more online bullying than any other social network; 54% of poll respondents indicated that they had experienced cyberbullying on the site.

Managing the problem

While it’s certainly awful to hear any story that involves a young kid taking his or her own life because of bullying, rather than going on the offensive and trying to eliminate what is a very innate characteristic in children, it’s important for parents to educate their kids and remind them that they’re loved and that words are just words. Yes, people say mean things online. But isn’t that just the nature of the world?

Instead of trying to prevent our children from experiencing life – the ups and the downs, the sadness and the happiness – there’s an emerging tendency to go overboard when it comes to ensuring their safety and well-being. While these parents are certainly well-intentioned, it’s more important to be able to deal with criticisms, failure, and meanness than to act as though such things simply do not exist in the world.

Since we will never completely stop bullying, no matter how hard we try, it doesn’t really make much sense to brand cyberbullying as an ‘epidemic’ simply because the Internet wasn’t ubiquitous 20 years ago. It’s a problem, yes; but the solutions aren’t as simple as we’d like to pretend.

Lessons learned

While many in the media might want everyone to believe that today’s kids can’t walk five feet without getting cyberbullied, kidnapped, or assaulted, the truth of the matter is that kids have learned to deal with the adverse realities of life for millennia. It’s unfortunate that some kids have to be made fun of and picked on, but so long as kids are kids, there are going to be some bad apples in the bunch who are going to push their luck.

But here’s an underreported factoid: young people are increasingly coming to their parents when they’re cyberbullied. Word has gotten out, and people are talking. Bullies have fewer and fewer opportunities to hide behind their devices as they poke fun at their peers, and some who are caught are even facing serious legal troubles.

Cyberbullying is a problem, but so is virtually everything else. Kids watch too much TV. They don’t eat the right foods. They stay up too late. They are too busy. They don’t have enough to do. They have too much homework. The curriculum is not challenging enough. And so it goes.

The remedies for cyberbullying reveal that this is a human issue – not a partisan, religious, or sectarian one. Religion, for example, while purporting to teach us to ‘treat others as we would be treated,’ continues to fail us in real-world issue pertaining to social justice. Humanism, in existing solely in the material world, and concerning itself with objective values, can better speak to the ‘value and agency‘ of human beings – that is, the founding tenets of the humanist movement. In other words: a Christian may tell us that cyberbullying is wrong because God would frown on it. A humanist, meanwhile, will maintain that cyberbullying is wrong because it’s wrong. Objective truths.

Only one of these worldviews is capable of instilling the value of personal responsibility. The other defers to the supernatural as a deterrent.

But here’s another truth: As long as kids are allowed to communicate amongst themselves, they are going to pick on each other. To make sure their children don’t become victims of cyberbullying, parents need to maintain an ongoing and open dialogue with their kids, consistently reminding them to not take things said on the Internet too seriously. Parents should also let them know the kinds of trouble they’ll find themselves in should they decide to harass one of their peers. The more active parents are in their kids’ lives, the less likely we are to hear stories about cyberbullying. It’s as simple as that.

Polls consistently show we’re not a religious country. So why don’t our politicians get it?

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a 'Christian country'? Photo: Chris Combe.

The numbers are in (and have been for a while). Can politicians really keep insisting this is a ‘Christian country’? Photo: Chris Combe.

Elected officials to this day continue to cite the Census to make the point that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ or a country made up principally of Christians. The Census statistic of 59% is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today, including the widespread handing over of public services and schools to religious control and the place of unelected bishops in our legislature, not to mention the recurrent exceptionalising of Christian contributions to our shared cultural life. But is that statistic true? Is it any good?

The likely answer is no, and any demographer can tell you why. By asking the leading question  ‘What is your religion?’ in the context of a series of questions about ethnicity and cultural background, the Census leads to higher numbers of people identifying themselves with their family or cultural religious background, and for the most part not with that they actually believe, feel they belong to, or practise.

The Census statistic is used to justify all sorts of privileges granted to the religious in Britain today. But is it any good?

Most other rigorous surveys will tell you a different story – the story of a very diverse Britain united for the most part by common values which straddle the ‘religious divide’. The most recent of these surveys was by YouGov this April, and it found that around two thirds of Britons, when asked, would say they are ‘not religious’.

The April poll, commissioned by the Sunday Times, asked the question ‘Would you describe yourself as being a practicing [sic] member of a religion?’ and found that 62% of the general public said ‘no’. Christianity polled as the second most popular option, accounting for 33% of the public. And it’s by no means a one-off. Most polls of the last decade have given very similar results.

This majority ‘not religious’ figure has been found repeatedly in recent years. A recent example of this trend is the Survation poll last November, which asked ‘Do you consider yourself religious or not religious?’ and found that 60.5% of Brits are the latter. These figures are in turn consistent with year-on-year polling from the British Social Attitudes Survey, which finds that around or slightly over half of the population is in fact non-religious (and that 42% Brits identify as Christian) when it asked ‘1. Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion? 2: If yes: which?’. A YouGov poll in April 2014 also found that 50% of Brits were non-religious, and that three quarters of the population were ‘not religious or not very religious’. Very similar results in 2011 and 2012, and numerous others, overwhelmingly reinforce the pattern.

We can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious

Equally, the one third figure for believing Christians has been found time and time again. A YouGov poll for the Times in February this year found that only 55% of British Christians ‘believed in God,’ bringing the total proportion down from 49% of Britons who say they are Christian to around 23% for ‘Christians who believe in God’.  A 2013 YouGov poll which asked how many people in Britain believed in the central tenet of Christianity – that Jesus of the Nazareth was the son of God – found a figure of 30%. It’s that same figure again – around a third

In most aspects of their jobs, politicians look closely at these sorts of surveys when making policy decisions, or when attempting to win over new voters with popular initiatives. They know, and statisticians can tell you why, that the margin of error on these things is usually around 1-3%. So I feel we can say with some confidence that half of Brits are non-religious (only 4% of ‘nones’, according to the Times/YouGov 2015 poll, ‘believe in a god’) and that beyond that, two thirds are ‘not religious’ – in the sense of not seeing religion as very important or not practising. It’s a widespread trend: only 30% of Brits are believing Christians, and only 6% or fewer Brits go to church on a given Sunday.

Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion

The Census result would suggest that three quarters or more of Brits, cutting across the religious divide, would cite some sort of Christian cultural background, but this is a broad group indeed – both Justin Welby and Professor Richard Dawkins would say they are culturally Christian! Much more importantly, three quarters of Brits say they are opposed to public policy decisions being influenced by religion – with 92% of Christians agreeing that the law should apply equally regardless of religion.

Politicians trotting out the old Census figure to justify handouts or, engaged in cynical vote-grabbing, should remember that most of us want to be treated equally and want a level playing field – including by opposing ingrained religious privilege, such as by opposing  ‘faith’ schools and bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, politicians are not won over by opinion polls alone, and most are wary of the power of religious institutions, whose views tends to be a bit more traditional than those of their flocks. But change is inevitable, and on the way – the fact that the next generation rising through the ranks is overwhelmingly non-religious could well promise to erode the power of churches over our elected representatives.

The Epicurean revival

Hiram Crespo writes for HumanistLife about the philosophy of Epicureanism, and argues that is has made a resurgence in modern works of positive psychology. 

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

Stumbling upon happiness in the garden of Epicurus? Flowers: Tim Daniels.

As the annals of history have it, in the sixth century Emperor Justinian had all the schools of philosophy that competed with Christianity finally closed. This was the last we heard of the Epicurean School, whose tradition had remained culturally vibrant for seven centuries. Epicurus had been among the first to propose the atom—2,300 years ago—the social contract as a foundation for the rule of law, and the possibility of an empirical process of pursuit of happiness: a science of happiness. These progressive schools were oases of tranquility, reason and pleasure known as Gardens, where the ideals of civilized friendship flourished and men, women and even slaves engaged in philosophical discourse as equals.

If any set of doctrines can be considered the foundation of the Epicurean philosophy, it would be the Tetrapharmakon: the Four Remedies. For didactic purposes, the teachings were imparted in the form of short, easy to memorize adages. There are, to be fair, many more than four remedies in Epicureanism. However, these are known to be the core of the teaching out of which the rest of the philosophy flows:

Do not fear the gods
Do not fear death
What is pleasant is easy to attain
What is painful is easy to endure

In his Principal Doctrines 11-12, Epicurus argued for the study of science as a way to emancipate ourselves from irrational fears. For naturalists who don’t believe in gods or spirits, the first two negative statements may be translated as ‘Do not fear chance or blind luck, for it is pointless to battle that which we have no control over. It generates unnecessary suffering’.

Roman Epicurean poet Lucretius, in his De Rerum Natura, dedicates long portions of the philosophical poem to explaining how natural phenomena such as lightning and the movements of heavenly bodies are not the work of the Gods and that fear of the Gods is inconsistent with civilized life. Since he was unable in those days to produce a fully scientific theory to explain all these phenomena, he provided several possible theories for many of them without officially endorsing one, and humbly acknowledged that future thinkers would prove the main points of his naturalist and scientific cosmology, which they eventually did. And so we can say that his basic attitude was a sound one, and also that he respected our intelligence enough to not exhibit arrogance and certainty where he did not have conclusive theories. He allowed time to prove him right … and sincere.

That the prohibition against fearing the Gods, and against fear-based religion in general, is the first and main taboo in Epicurean philosophy, remains refreshing to this day.

The second remedy is elaborated in a series of teachings and aphorisms which serve as a form of cognitive therapy to deal with the trauma of death. Among them, the most memorable is the purely hedonistic one. It is summed up thusly:

Death is nothing to us, since when we are, death has not come, and when death has come, we are not

There is also the symmetry argument, which compares the time after our death to the time before our birth of which we have no memory. Since there is nothing there, why fear it? It is as unintelligent to be needlessly tormented about the afterlife as it is to be tormented about the state prior to birth. I frequently argue that it wasn’t just the teachings, but the manner in which they were imparted –within the context of a loving community of philosopher friends– that served as a consolation and that it is impossible to replicate the peace and conviction that Epicurus gave humanity without this sense of community.

The latter two positive statements in the Tetrapharmakon lead to Epicurean teachings on how we should evaluate our desires and discern which ones are unnecessary versus which ones are necessary, which ones carry pain when satisfied or ignored versus which ones don’t. By this analytic process, one learns to be content with the simple pleasures in life, those easiest to attain and which carry little to no pain. It is here that the real fruits of Epicurean insight begin to be reaped. The best things in life are free.

One of the first psychological tasks of every Epicurean is to become mindful of his/her desires and whatever pain or anxiety they may be generating. Another task is to learn to relish and appreciate the simple things when they’re in front of us. The good friends, the good foods and the refreshing beverages, the family, the good music, our proximity to nature, even our view of the sky which (as Carl Sagan advised us) should always humble us.

The good news, according to Epicurus, is that happiness is easily attained if we cultivate philosophy. He cites the need for thankfulness and for robust friendships as fundamental ingredients for the good life, and not only categorizes desires but also discerns between kinetic (active) pleasures that happen when we satisfy a desire, and katastemic (inert) pleasures that happen when we have no desires to satisfy, which he labeled as superior.

Harvard psychologist and happiness researcher Dan Gilbert confirms Epicurus’ insights, including how meaningful relations significantly increase the amount of pleasure and of memorable experiences that we gather throughout our lifetime. He uses different verbiage: natural happiness is that attained when we satisfy a desire (kinetic pleasure, in Epicurean parlance) whereas synthetic happiness is that which we enjoy regardless of attaining desires (katastemic pleasure).

Because synthetic happiness requires no externals, it is therefore superior, it is a sign of a liberated being. He argues the case for synthetic happiness by citing the example of the lottery winner and the paraplegic who exhibit similar levels of happiness one year after winning the lottery and losing the lower limbs, respectively. These cases had been studied by happiness researchers Brickman et al.

This, in positive psychology, is being called the hedonic treadmill or hedonic adaptation: the habitual happy state that we always return to. Methods are being researched to increase the heights that are normal for each individual.

Gilbert’s theories, as far as I’m concerned, are Epicureanism by another name. One of the elements of Epicurean teaching that philosophers have struggled with the most throughout history is the idea of katastemic pleasure. It is often argued that lack of pain is not a definition of pleasure, but this is the art of happiness that Epicurus taught: that we must learn to be happy regardless of external factors and that it’s possible and desirable to cultivate katastemic pleasures via the philosophical disciplines. In fact, Epicurus argues that the very purpose of philosophy is to ensure an end to suffering and to create a beautiful, happy, pleasant life.

Gilbert’s research upholds katastemic pleasure as a necessary ingredient in human happiness and is beginning to reinvigorate the discourse on the philosophy of happiness that Epicurus had begun, and which was interrupted by Justinian 1,500 years ago. He also adds new concepts to our science of happiness and even proposes that we have a psychological immune system that fights unhappy moods.

Gilbert’s findings, along with research dealing with wellbeing in fields such as neuroscience and diet, point modern Epicureans in the direction of an interdisciplinary, practical reinvention of philosophy, which is just what we need if philosophy is to become once again the revolutionary, emancipatory cultural engine that it once was.

As to the Fourth Remedy, Epicurus reminded us of the temporal nature of bodily pain. We may get a fever, or a stomach ache, but within days our immune system fights it. In the case of more chronic pains, one gets used to them after some time. In nature, no condition lasts forever. The impermanence of all conditions is a consolation when we consider whatever pain they generate. A dismissive attitude towards pain takes discipline but it can be cultivated if we are mindful, disciplined, and develop a resolve to protect our minds.

Then there are mental pains and anxiety. These are systematically worked through via cognitive therapy. The resolution to follow Epicurus is a resolution to protect one’s mind. It’s impossible to be happy if we can’t control our anger and other strong emotions: we will go from one perturbed state to the next and never taste the stability of ataraxia, which translates as imperturbability and is the ultimate maturity that a philosopher can reach.

We live in a dysfunctional consumerist society filled with anxiety and neuroses, where few people analyse their life, most have a short attention span and are usually uninterested in disciplining their minds and curbing mindless desires. If philosophy is understood as the Epicureans understand it, then it becomes evident that people desperately need philosophy today.

Many more things could be said about the consolations of Epicurean philosophy. I leave my readers with an invitation to study Epicurus and engage themselves and others in philosophical discourse. I promise that your life will be enriched.

Hiram Crespo is the founder of and the author of Tending the Epicurean Garden (Humanist Press, 2014).

Defending morality undermines your values

Sean Spain responds to a recent article on HumanistLife with a novel solution to the ‘is-ought’ problem.

'We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.' Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

‘We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.’ Photo: Jesslee Culzon.

I recently read an article by George Keeling, mounting a defence for humanist morality. The crux of the argument is that morality is the natural expression of advantageous evolutionary activities – ‘[That] moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes’.  Social co-operation is the grounding of this morality, and can be seen to be advantageous to species across the animal kingdom. Man, it is argued, is a naturally social animal whose co-operative instinct has flourished into empathy which is unique to higher-functioning cognitive abilities. Thus the humanist morality stems from an inherent drive to treat others as they would be treated, and the humanist acknowledges this drive as his moral compass. Of course we can’t just rely on this drive to steer us all on the course to ethical action; instead we simply acknowledge the roots of our ‘disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness’ and in doing so affirm the grounds upon which our value judgements stand.

I admire this value-compass for human action. In the reality around here, the humanist finds truth. In the world around her, she finds wonder; in the society around her, she is optimistic; in her intuition, and the knowledge of its emergence, she finds an ethical grounding.

But Ethics demands more from us than this. Co-operation may be advantageous to my survival, but that doesn’t necessarily make it ethically good. I may feel compassion towards the members of my group, but that won’t suffice to justify my command for others to not harm them.  It can’t be good because it is: a statement which outlines what is can’t be used to logically deduce what ought to be. The two are different statements in kind and as such need a mediating principal as justification. Once this mediating principal is introduced (e.g. a utilitarian framework) then the ethical discourse becomes one of choosing X over why; and the mediating principal props up the ought – the is becomes redundant.

Hume realized this:

‘I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.’[1]

Translated, Hume observed that there is a jump in reason when one presents phenomena which is the case (i.e. co-operation, and empathy, are evolutionarily advantageous- and may even perhaps be argued to be the etymological roots of our notions of morality) and then deduces from it that what is the case ought to be. The justification of a moral proscription must be grounded in reasoning beyond just the description of events.

The burden of an ethical framework demands an external justification for the Ought. Plato grounded his idea of the ‘Good’ in a plane of the forms; religion finds good in ‘God’. Even philosophers like Kant, who have attempted to reposition the notion of what is good, systematically ground its value beyond themselves- in something absolute, and metaphysical.  What is often forgotten in these ethical systems is the appeal to a position of value as something which is beyond the world as it is. They do this because they have to. Ethics demands a firm ground for value which must be more than a description of events, or relative in a mechanistic world-view.

But there is an alternative approach.

Wittgenstein realised this problem of value, and the implications which the value problem had for ethics and more fundamentally aesthetics.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Wittgenstein notes:

6.4 ‘All Propositions are of equal value.’[2] ( clarification: Truth propositions)

6.41 ‘…In the world everything is as it is and happens as it does happen. In it there is no value – and if there were, it would be of no value.’[3]

6.42 ‘Hence there can be no ethical propositions.’[4]

A fact, what is, can’t have a value in itself. The values around us are valuable to us, not outside of us. The value of co-operation might be found in the benefits of an improved feeling of safety among each other; a personal satisfaction may be felt when an empathetic urge is fulfilled; we feel relief when our compassion for an individual in danger is rewarded with their safety. The value is a feeling. But ethics demands an external ground for this value to meet the requirements of absolutism. Thus throughout history we have tried to establish this value and in doing so have had to ground it in metaphysical postulations, or religious gods.

The problem is the ethical discourse itself.

The solution? Don’t try to defend morality. It’ll undermine your value system, and the values of your actions. Reject the discussion of ethics because it is misleading. We don’t need to rationally defend what is good. We feel it is good. It shows itself to be good. But the good we make use of isn’t some ethereal absolute – it is a dependent evaluation which is justified by our empathetic intuition and intellectual reasoning.

And the same purposes can be fulfilled. We will act compassionately towards one another. We will act fairly towards one another. We will be kind to one another.

And if you are asked to defend what someone else deems your morality, you can respond in the infamous words of Wittgenstein:

  1. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’.[5]

Sean Spain is an undergraduate student of Easter & Western Philosophy. He is primarily interested in the Philosophy of Language & Value- particularly in their application to ‘real-world’ events



[1] Hume, David ‘Treatise of Human Understanding’, end of section 3.1.1.

[2] Wittgenstein, Ludwig ‘Tractatus Logico-Philosohicus’, pp. 29-31.

[3] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[4] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

[5] Ibid Wittgenstein, Ludwig

In defence of humanist morality

Geoff Keeling contemplates the biological origins of morality and ethics in humans.

Something about Hobbes

Thinkers like Thomas Hobbes believed that, short of the social contract, human nature only afforded humans a life that is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. 

I recently watched a conversation between WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the American conservative David Horowitz. In the heat of the argument Horowitz made the following claim:

‘War is the natural condition of mankind. There’s always been wars – right? From the beginning – and many of them. Peace occurs when there’s a concert of powers or a single power that could intimidate would-be aggressors.’

I couldn’t help biting my tongue here. As a humanist I believe in the inherent goodness of human beings. That we can be good – and that we are good – for the sake of goodness itself. Religious people sometimes ask sceptical questions about my ‘humanistic morality’. The idea is foreign to them because their thinking is grounded in the idea that ‘War is the natural condition of mankind’. In this article I want to defend the humanistic idea of natural morality. I hope it will be useful for other humanists facing the same questions.

Horowtiz’s thinking is based on the work of the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes’ basic idea can be summarised as follows:

‘There must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant’[1].

Thinkers like Hobbes and Horowitz believe that humans existed in a state of nature before political society. It’s only through a social contract that we liberate ourselves from barbarism. In the Hobbesian state of nature life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. Modern human morality is a veneer: the Freudian superego that struggles to restrain our savagery. But as any social anthropologist will explain: there has been no period where humans lived outside of political society. This is also true of bonobos and chimps – our nearest evolutionary cousins – who have complex matriarchal and patriarchal societies respectively. The first step to refuting the idea of a ‘moral veneer’ is to show that humans never existed in the warlike state of nature.

The next step is to refute a common misunderstanding about evolution. The phrase survival of the fittest doesn’t lend itself to images of altruism and fairness. But in many cases organisms with genetic pre-dispositions towards co-operation have the upper hand when it comes to natural selection. A popular example is the ‘insurance policy’ that vampire bats have developed over food-allocation. It doesn’t take long for a bat to starve to death. But on any given night, it’s likely that a non-trivial percentage of the colony will come back on empty stomachs. In this instance the unsuccessful bats beg their peers to regurgitate some blood and feed them. And their peers usually do.

This may seem counter-intuitive. Surely, natural selection ought to preserve the best hunters? But think about it this way. Two randomly selected bats in the colony have a reasonable chance of sharing some DNA. Siblings share 1/2 of their genes and cousins 1/8. The bats need not know which of their fellow-bats is related to them. Do not let fellow bats die will increase the probability that their genes stored in other bats (including genes that code for co-operation) will be passed on to the next generation. This is because the set of related bats is a large subset of the colony, so there is no hard selection pressure for a more specific rule. There is also a second benefit. In the near future the regurgitator herself might be close to starvation. In sharing now she is more likely to receive blood when she needs it most[2].

Robert Trivers outlines the extent of natural co-operation in his paper The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism[3]. Co-operation ranges from the symbiotic relationships of cleaner fish and their hosts, to birds warning their flocks when predators are near. But morality is more complex than simple co-operation. The distinction is that the co-operative instinct in higher primates is grounded in empathy: the ability to stand in another’s shoes. And our empathy is not just towards each other. Frans de Waal recalls a bonobo who nursed an injured bird back to health[4]. Humans often put themselves at substantial risk to save animals and other humans.

The brilliant thing about evolution is its use of general rules. Be nice to those you meet is much easier to code for than Be nice to close relatives – the latter of which is largely unnecessary as primates tend to grow up in the company of relatives. It’s these general rules that enable us to develop elaborate social constructs that underpin human morality. Evolution has programmed us to see empathy as a reward in itself. Evolution is indifferent to whether the biochemical reward comes via a religious framework or secular principles. What remains universal is the human propensity towards goodness. The Scottish philosopher David Hume observed:

‘How great soever the variety of municipal laws, it must be confessed, that their chief out-lines pretty regularly concur; because the purposes, to which they tend, are everywhere exactly similar.’ [5]

Though social anthropologists have observed huge variation in cultural traditions, the human moral passions exist to ensure co-operation and ultimately the perpetuation of our genes. But it’s so important to appreciate that this series of mutations – which has led to genuine compassion for others, is a real force that exists in each and every one of us. The fact that evolution has preserved this disposition doesn’t mean that kindness is just an evolutionary mechanism. With the constant barrage of ISIS atrocities and stories of lavish-bonuses in the finance sector, it’s easy to forget that although humans are capable of great wrongdoing, our natural stat is not one of war but of understanding. At the core of human nature – whether religious, secular or spiritual, is a profound evolutionary disposition towards compassion, fairness and kindness.

Geoff Keeling studies in the Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method at the London School of Economics. He is a humanist interested in philosophy of biology and cognitive science. He can be reached at



[1] Thomas Hobbes (1651) Leviathan

[2] See O Curry (2005) Morality as Natural History or R Dawkins (1976) The Selfish Gene for a good explanation of this. For the original paper see GS Wilkinson (1988) Reciprocal Altruism in Bats and Other Mammals Ethology and Sociobiology pp85 – 100

[3] R Trivers (1972) The Evolution of Reciprocal Altruism Quarterly Review of Biology pp35-57

[4] F de Waal (2005) Our Inner Ape Granta Books p2

[5] David Hume (1989/ 1777) Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding and Concerning the Principles of Morals Oxford University Press p202

A victory for universality: UN Human Rights Council adopts resolution protecting LGBTI persons

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

Amelia Cooper reports again from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where she speaks on behalf of the British Humanist Association

‘There is no justification ever, for the degrading, the debasing or the exploitation of other human beings – on whatever basis: nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age or caste.’

This statement was made by the new High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, in his introductory remarks to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva: a powerful, timely reminder of the universality of human rights. Notable in this statement is the inclusion of ‘sexual orientation’, which has faced numerous attacks and denunciations as being outside the remit of the Council, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ emphasis that there will be no distinction ‘of any kind’ in the application of human rights. However, it is with great pleasure that I write to say that last night, following fierce debate, tense votes, and years of global advocacy, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution based on sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), only the second of its kind.

The past year has been a tumultuous one for the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex (LGBTI) people, with great successes regarding equal marriage taking place in the US and the UK, while elsewhere, such as in Russia, Nigeria, and Uganda, a spate of anti-homosexuality legislation has criminalized certain types of love, or made it impossible for LGBTI people to live openly. The global increase in homophobic aggression led one gay man to remark that ‘a hunting season is open, and we are the hunted’[1].

Without direct experience, however, it is easy to forget the rampant homophobia, both state-sanctioned and carried out by vigilantes, that permeates every aspect of daily life for LGBTI persons throughout the world – including in Europe.

Last week, I attended a side event hosted by ARC International, a leading advocacy group focused on achieving equality for LGBTI, and was shocked and heartbroken in equal measures to hear of the brutal violence that individuals suffer because of who they love.

Jabulani, from the South African Iranti Organisation, detailed innumerable cases of corrective rape and attacks carried out with impunity, ending by saying ‘The fact is that loving someone of your same sex is a direct threat to your bodily integrity’.

In Latin America, there are ‘curative clinics’ where LGBTI people are taken, abused and violated to ‘normalise’ their bodies. In the psyche of the perpetrator, this is not sexual abuse: it is a method by which people be ‘cured’ of their identity. The suicide rate among LGBTI youth in Latin America is 50% higher than their peers; in Central America, the life expectancy for transgender individuals is 24-28 years old. Transgender people do not have the benefit of ‘the closet’, due to their gender expression, and are therefore visible and oft targeted.

In Europe, Nori Spauwen of COC Netherlands said that the protection of LGBTI persons remains ‘a patchwork of national policy and Council of Europe recommendations’, and emphasized that having a legal, pro-equality framework is an indispensable precondition to elimination discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In the EU, more than half of all lesbian women have faced violence or verbal abuse in the past year, while crimes committed against LGBTI persons continue to be grossly underreported, due to the victims’ belief that nothing will change, or because they fear a homo/transphobic police reaction.

Any of these cases, on an individual basis, would suffice to show that discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity must stop; when together, they illustrate that this is a global scourge that must stop now.

Yesterday’s adoption of the resolution ‘combating violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity’ is a critically important achievement in upholding the universality of human rights and creating a global framework to combat discrimination against LGBTI persons.

Introduced by Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, and subsequently co-sponsored by an additional 42 states, the resolution expresses grave concern at acts of violence and discrimination suffered by LGBTI, calls for an updated study to be carried out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and ensures that the issue will remain on the Human Rights Council agenda.

The resolution faced a number of hostile amendments, including a proposal by Egypt (on behalf of ten states) to delete all references to sexual orientation and gender identity from the text. The Brazilian ambassador remarked that ‘Deleting all reference to sexual orientation and gender identity from this resolution would be the same as eliminating all references to women from the resolution on violence against women’. However, given that Egypt formed part of the core group who proposed the pernicious Protection of the Family resolution in June, their hostility to this resolution was hardly surprising.

A number of states spoke during the voting process, with impassioned statements from the resolution sponsors, including Chile’s statement that ‘this resolution does not seek to create new rights…there are some whose rights are more violated and need more protection’. Pakistan, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, framed LGBTI equality as a danger to the country, saying ‘The wider connotations of the term ‘sexual orientation’ can be extremely detrimental and inimical to our Muslim societies in particular, and to our youth as a whole’.

Thankfully, the resolution survived the persistent attempts to undermine it and was passed with by a vote of 25-14 (with seven abstentions, including from China and India) to huge smiles, happy tears and close embraces in a rare moment of emotional diplomacy.

While the resolution alone will not bring an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, it is a remarkable achievement in enshrining LGBTI equality as part of the international agenda, and provides a framework for further discussion of the issue. As the final regular session of the 2014 Human Rights Council has now closed, the resolution is an enormous step forward in terms of LGBTI equality, undermining the national legislation that criminalizes love and proving that human rights are truly universal.



For further information, see the joint NGO statement following the passage of the resolution.

[1] Dima, a Russian man who was left blind in one eye after an armed group stormed a gay community centre. Quoted by Channel 4, and featured in their documentary ‘Hunted’.


Moral, religious, psychopathic, or just human?

Glen Carrigan looks at the science of morality

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Science, increasingly, is answering questions which before only philosophers could attempt

Why doesn’t Microsoft Word recognise the word ‘Neuropsychology?’ Maybe because it’s a rather new field, although people have been musing on the workings of the physical brain for a very long time indeed – don’t worry though, we’re not trepanning people anymore!

My interest is the moral brain, how humans – and other animals to some degree – draw the distinction between right and wrong to organise society. Some argue that moral standards are axiomatic and that moral compasses come from god. There actually seems to be some truth to this, in that some absolutist standards like Thou Shalt Not Kill or the Golden Rule seem to be very intuitive – as is the notion that you’re somehow a social pariah if you play World of Warcraft. A paper by Baumard and Boyer called “Explaining Moral Religions” shows just how universal this is.

Is the Golden Rule any good though? Maybe, but you’re making your own narrow individual experience the basis for how you treat others. Wouldn’t it be better to ask them how they’d like to be treated? This should indeed be the case for issues such as assisted dying, where holding to Thou Shalt Not Kill diminishes the dignity and autonomy of a feeling, reflecting being. To hold dogmatic moral views also only works if you believe in god and that at least in some religions, you’re good to escape punishment in the hereafter, rather than for the sake of the here and now.

Far from being divine in origin, there seems to be a wealth of evidence showing us that being an individual yet social animal, with a big (relative to body size) and healthy brain, necessitates certain behaviours for us to flourish in a group. This then, gives rise to our need to discuss and reflect upon what it means to be a moral agent. You can see similar intuitive behavioural patterns to our own in other animals that operate in social groups. A wonderful example is the reciprocal behaviour of vampire bats, who seem to understand that a good deed (donating a regurgitated blood meal – stomach churning I know) deserves repayment. There is much converging evidence in evolutionary psychology that points to animals being the origin of their own ‘moral’ codes. But there are driving forces behind being a good egg other than reciprocity.

Throughout history philosophers have struggled with what constitutes the virtuous act. We notice that certain behaviours are predictable and wrong such as rape and rightly condemn people for it. We also need to accept that we make choices – if we have free will – and should be responsible for them. The fact that certain prohibitions are intuitive might suggest an in-built moral acquisition and refinement device (MARD) which is nurtured by social experience, emotion and reflection, rather than an omnipotent law giver. Perhaps we are actually responsible for the holy books that seek to have us toe the moral line – although we were managing to beforehand – in any event we seem to be the only species we know of that spends a great deal of time writing books telling ourselves to be good, that we’re special, and that we should be humble about it!

Neuropsychology can perhaps tell us a bit about this MARD and how we think, rather than what we should think here: We establish the social norms after all and what acts constitute deviance. The archetypal Psychopath seems to be deviant to many of us and this is why I study them. The fact is that we all have psychopathic traits along a spectrum; it’s just that some people have more pronounced, what the majority consider to be, morally deviant tendencies. Neuropsychology shows us that Psychopaths seem to have diminished empathic concern, as well as, fail to notice the importance of intention in a harmful act. Since it’s us that establish that intention to cause harm is worse than an accident (the difference between murder and manslaughter) we view psychopaths as morally deviant in society – perhaps their MARD is broken?

People often panic here and think that if we can predict someone will think and perhaps behave murderously then the notion of choice in society falls apart. It might, if you want Neuroscience to strip us of our humanity. In my view, although we could see why such people might be like this, that doesn’t mean they walk away scot free. What matters is that we discuss our options reflectively and organise society around us as moral beings that makes choices, with a sense of responsibility, and who can be punished for transgressions, rather than allowing my brain made me do it as an alibi in all cases where mental instability is an issue. It’s also worth pointing out that most psychopaths actually don’t run around murdering people like Heath Ledger in Batman!

Glen Carrigan is a neuropsychology researcher at the University of Central Lancashire, as well as ex-military, a qualified fitness instructor, communications specialist, youth mentor, humanist, science presenter and model who advocates social and political activism in equality and education.

The sanctity of life

Emma C Williams casts an eye over the Irish sea, and discusses the rights of women in Europe

Emma C Williams casts an eye over the Irish sea, and discusses the rights of women in Europe. Photo: Steve Rhodes.

Behind every scandal lies hypocrisy and deceit. Behind the walls of a septic tank in County Galway lie hundreds of tiny skeletons, each one of them a shameful relic of man’s inhumanity to man.

St. Mary’s at Tuam was run by the Sisters of Bon Secours in the mid-20th century. Over the years they took thousands of pregnant young women, oversaw the delivery of their babies and were supposedly charged with their care. It is debatable whether the rate of infant mortality was higher at St. Mary’s than it was anywhere else across Ireland at the time; but the ghastly mass grave of 796 babies, a significant number of which were found in a sewer, shows contempt for the dignity of human life.

It is hard not to be emotive in the light of such discoveries, especially when apologists such as Caroline Farrow are prepared to waste their time and their energy on defending the indefensible. The nuns at Tuam were all part of an institution which claims to value the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. Yet conservative Catholic doctrine denied baptism to the babies of unmarried mothers, something which perhaps gave licence to their assumption that these unfortunate children were inherently worthless and undeserving of respect.

The sanctity of life is a cornerstone of Catholic doctrine; despite this, the case in Country Galway is by no means the only example of the heinous offences against women and children committed by members of the church.

Let us not forget the estimated 10,000 young women imprisoned in workhouse laundries in Ireland between the 1920s and the 1990s, a scandal which the Catholic journalist Tim Stanley thinks is greatly exaggerated. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Originally a place for “fallen women,” the workhouses imprisoned girls who fell pregnant, daughters born out of wedlock and girls who were supposedly “promiscuous” or simply considered a burden to their family. They worked for no pay, were given little or no freedom, and those who died in service were buried in unmarked graves.

Let us not forget the theft and trafficking of thousands of babies by nuns, priests and doctors in Spain, a practice which started under Franco and continued right up until the 1990s. Some of the babies were born to unmarried girls, some of them to married women with families. The mothers were told that their babies had died, and some were even shown a substitute corpse. In truth, their babies were sent to new families, some of them abroad, and many of them were sold for huge sums of money.

Let us not forget Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old married professional, who was admitted to hospital in Galway in the early stages of a miscarriage in October 2012. Despite her condition, her request for an abortion on medical grounds was denied and she died of septicaemia one week later.

Sadly, Catholicism is not the only religious institution which continues to interfere with the reproductive rights of women. While the landmark decision leading to the legalisation of abortion in the test case of Rose vs. Wade still stands, the evangelical pro-life movement in the US continues to grow at an alarming rate. Several states including Wisconsin, Texas and Alabama have made subtle but significant moves towards reducing access for women in recent years, and many Americans are now forced to travel hundreds of miles for a termination, assuming they can afford the journey.

To deny women autonomy over their own bodies is an aberration most commonly driven by religious dogma, and I suspect it will be some time before religion stops blaming women for all the world’s ills. Until we can break free from the tenets of these archaic and patriarchal institutions, we will continue to be controlled by them.