Rebutting the Rebutters

Rob Tisinai

January 28th, 2013

I’ve been quiet the last month or two, feeling burned out and needing a break. Lately, though, I’ve been looking for a good entry point to get started again, a way of warming up and stretching those unused muscles. Fortunately, NOM recently pointed its readers to an article called, Rebuttals to arguments for same-sex marriage: Examining the most common arguments for redefining marital unions …and understanding why they are flawed

Perfect! In this piece, author Brandon Vogt tries to disprove 10 common arguments for same-sex marriage, and in doing so manages to highlight the most common mistakes of his own camp. Rebutting him is a kind of back-to-the-basics exercise, certainly useful for me, and hopefully for some of you, too. I’ll hit each of his 10 points in a separate post, starting with this first entry in his list of “our” arguments:

1. Marriage has evolved throughout history, so it can change again.

Different cultures have treated marriage differently. Some promoted arranged marriages. Others tied marriage to dowries. Still others saw marriage as a political relationship through which they could forge family alliances. But all these variations still embraced the fundamental, unchanging essence of marriage. They still saw it, in general, as a public, lifelong partnership between one man and one woman for the sake of generating and raising children.

Hmm. “…the fundamental unchanging essence of marriage.” According to whom? Under the guise of proving that one-man-one-woman is an essential part of marriage, Vogt ends up merely assuming it to be so. In a reasoned debate, you can’ t just assume your conclusion is true as a means of proving your conclusion is true. It’s true because it’s true, and we know that it’s true because it’s true. That a nice little circular fail.

Here’s another failure: “They still saw it, in general, as a…” Emphasis added. In general is shorthand for, “People didn’t always see it this way in every instance, but I’m going to evade saying so because I don’t want to explain why my iron-clad rule isn’t actually iron-clad.”

Moving on:

This understanding predates any government or religion. It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution evident even in cultures that had no law or faith to promote it.

This is one of our opponents’ silliest contradictions. On the one hand, they say marriage a pre-political, pre-religious institution that exists fully and completely in the absence of laws. Yet our opponents deride opposite-sex couples who don’t marry under those laws as shacking up, or living in sin. They draw a firm line between civil marriage and mere cohabitation, and they give us data showing that civil marriage is better. Obviously, then, when they speak of marriage as pre-political and pre-religious, independent of laws, they don’t really believe it. Or perhaps they’re blind to the contradiction, happily holding conflicting views without ever realizing it, changing back and forth depending on whether gays are the topic of conversation. (You know, if only we had a word for an aversion to homosexuality so powerful that it interfered with one’s ability to reason.)

The other problem is that Vogt’s camp likes to say the government cannot define marriage; it can only recognize it. In that case, though,  it makes perfect sense to say gays and lesbians started marrying long before the laws or churches permitted it, that we’ve been marrying as long as we’ve been pairing up in committed relationships. By this reasoning, we have gay marriage in every state and country right now, so our opponents should really be agitating for the government to catch up and recognize it!

Vogt finishes up with an irrelevancy.

Yet, even supposing the essence of marriage could change, would that mean it should? We know from other areas of life such as medical research and nuclear physics that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought. After all, such action may not be ethical or serve the common good. Even if this argument had historical basis, it would not necessarily be a good reason to change the meaning of marriage.

That’s right, actually. But then, this argument isn’t mean to explain why we should allow same-sex marriage, and if he’s pretending otherwise he’s setting up a straw man. When we talk about the evolution of marriage, we’re simply pointing out how ridiculous our opponent are when they claim marriage cannot change because it never has. Which truly is ridiculous, not just on historical grounds but on logical grounds as well.

Tomorrow: Vogt takes on “Same-sex marriage is primarily about equality.”

Ben In Oakland

January 28th, 2013

Welcome back, Rob.

The biggest point in this particular argument is that whatever marriage may have been in the past, the argument from tradition is the weakest possible argument. It says that things should never, ever change, that we couldn’t possibly know more or be more humane than our remote ancestors. Absolute nonsense.

Even more to the point, marriage has come to include lots and lots of different functions, not just the functions defined by the right wingers. One of the most important is the creation of legal kinship.Another is a public declaration of same to the community, what the posting of banns used to be when people did that.

Can’t wait to see the rest of what you have to say.

Priya Lynn

January 28th, 2013

I can’t wait to see the rest of your series.

Timothy Kincaid

January 28th, 2013

“It’s a pre-political, pre-religious institution…”

I may be mistaken, but it is my understanding that there are no existing records of the social structures of any societies that were pre-religious. If such societies existed, they didn’t chisel their marriage rites into the cave walls.

Timothy Kincaid

January 28th, 2013

It says that things should never, ever change, that we couldn’t possibly know more or be more humane than our remote ancestors.

Good point. It’s, in a weird way, a form of ancestor worship (similar to the wacky “founding fathers” myths held by some conservatives who consider themselves to be patriotic). I think that Abrahamic religions would call that idolatry.

David in Houston

January 28th, 2013

I’m really looking forward to this. I faced off against that bigoted weasel about a month ago. You can read my rebuttal here:
https://www.facebook.com/notes/david-grossman/brandon-vogts-flawed-rebuttals-to-arguments-for-same-sex-marriage/596209503738701

Just like with Robert George, when you remove all of Brandon’s irrelevant talk about procreation and religion, all that’s left are sex organs.

Hunter

January 28th, 2013

re: “pre-law, pre-religion”

That on its face is nonsense. I’d wager that there has never existed a human society that didn’t have some form of law and religion, no matter how rudimentary. We know of 60,000 year-old grave offerings, and you can bet that any people thinking in those terms also had some form of law, if nothing more than custom. (Which, after all, is what the English Common Law was based on.)

I admire you for having the patience to wade through something that, from this sample, is badly conceived and poorly argued.

Hunter

January 28th, 2013

PS — chimpanzees and gorillas have politics. Does anyone think there was a time in human evolution when humans didn’t?

BrianQTD

January 28th, 2013

I’m sorry, the concept of something being pre-political and pre-religious is “pre-posterous.”

Rob Tisinai

January 28th, 2013

I have to admit, I myself have wondered at our opponents’ ability to tell us the historical record of what happened prehistorically.

Priya Lynn

January 28th, 2013

Hunter said “re: “pre-law, pre-religion”

That on its face is nonsense. I’d wager that there has never existed a human society that didn’t have some form of law and religion, no matter how rudimentary. We know of 60,000 year-old grave offerings, and you can bet that any people thinking in those terms also had some form of law, if nothing more than custom”.

I think your claim is on its face nonsense. Humans have existed more or less in our present form for about 200,000 years. For most of our history we lived in small groups of hunter gatherers and no doubt there was no such thing as a codified law for much of human existence and highly unlikely anything we would recognize as a religion existed for those early small groups of humans struggling to survive in the stone age.

Hunter

January 29th, 2013

Priya Lynn:

Whether you recognize it as “law” or “religion” is largely irrelevant. For most of our history, and in most cultures, “law” was simply custom — the way the ancestors did it. The idea of codified laws is fairly recent — maybe you get something like that in ancient Babylon or Egypt, but by the time of the Romans, it was an established concept — although certainly not universal: Anglo-Saxon law was custom, pure and simple.

As for religion, we’re talking about a time before the monotheisms, or any idea of “organized religion” at all. If you look at early cultures — pre-Colonial Africa, pre-Columbian America, pre-Christian Europe, ancient Japan, Siberia — you find the idea that everything is imbued with spirit, and you negotiate your way through the world on that basis. If that’s not religion, what is it? (It would be fascinating to be able to find out when the idea of actual “gods” — personifications of those forces people were trying to explain — gained currency.)

And it was Stone Age humans who left those 60,000 year old grave offerings. What’s the basis of that, if not religious?

Priya Lynn

January 29th, 2013

Hunter, the times you’re talking about in human history are relatively recent. There’s simply no way you can support the claim that everything in pre-(whatever) times was “imbued with with spirit, and you negotiate your way through the world on that basis.”. The early cultures you refer to are a quite recent phenomena compared to the hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of years humans have existed. We know virtually nothing about human culture prior to the dawn of agriculture when humans first settled down into larger communties and developed the ability to write, in fact, its a stretch to say there was a culture as we know it prior to that time.

Would you argue that our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos have culture, law and religion? Both are known to sometimes bury their dead, they have ways of group behavior that vary a bit from tribe to tribe and a tendency to reward nice members of the tribe and punish mean members. I think very few people would argue that they have religion and law in the sense of human understanding of the terms.

There is no solid line demarcating when the ancestors of chimps and humans became human. What I think we can agree on is that those proto-humans had no religion and no law as we understand it and those things developed gradually as humans evolved. Unless your definition of a human is a hominid that has religion and law there is no doubt that there were early humans with neither.

You’ve got to remember that for the vast majority of human history there were no settlements, no buildings, no form of government or law enforcement other than the ways of behavior that didn’t get you beaten by the alpha humans in the tribe of perhaps 20 to 50 hunter gatherers.

There is simply no way to know what the “offerings” in a 60,000 year old grave meant to the people at that time. Perhaps they did think there was some sort of afterlife but its a stretch to call that belief alone religion. Or it may be simply a way of demonstrating that the dead person was valued and would be missed. In any event while you may think 60,000 years ago is a long time, it is in fact a small fraction of the time humans have existed and certainly humans coupling happened far, far before humans had anything we today would recognize as culture, law, or religion.

Hunter

January 29th, 2013

As for the timeline, let me just note Altamira (14,000-18,000 BP), Lascaux (16,000 BP), the North African petroglyphs (ca. 8000 BP) — all show hunting scenes, and one of the Lascaux images is a very famous one of what we can only interpret as a shaman dressed as a deer (or wearing a deer pelt and antlers). The best guesses are that these were a form of sympathetic magic to insure success in the hunt. Also check out Mircea Eliade, “Shamanism,” and Joseph W. Campbell, “The Masks of God” — both discuss early forms of religious practice in non-agricultural societies. Also check out North American Indian creation myths, especially those of the Hopi and Navajo, which portray a world in which animals spoke and could take the form of humans. There’s an old custom among the Inuit of offering a prayer of thanks to the spirit of the slain animal when successful in the hunt — somehow, I doubt this is something they invented to keep anthropologists amused, and again, non-agricultural society. There’s also traditional Japanese religion, in which the world is filled with “kami,” which usually translates as “spirit” or “demon,” or possibly “god,” although that’s less usual. There are literally thousands of them. We’re pleased to call these forms of belief “animism” because I guess it makes us feel superior in some way, but the point is, they are still religious beliefs founded on fundamentally different bases than the monotheisms. You can find similar patterns in pre-Christian Europe as well, especially in the idea of sacred springs or sacred trees. And they are all much earlier in origin than any of the present dominant religions.

Those 60,000 year-old graves, by the way, were Neanderthal. Burial of the dead is generally considered a marker for religious belief of some sort. Some scholars have theorized that religious belief in some form may go back as far as 300,000 years, although I don’t know if I’m ready to credit that. 60-70,000 seems reasonable, though, since we have evidence that far back.

Don’t let yourself be trapped by the idea that religion must necessarily involve a priesthood or organized worship. That’s the late development, and does seem to have grown up among agricultural societies.

I have no way of knowing what chimps and bonobos are thinking, but my reservations about the possibility of their having developed some form of religion are centered more on questions about their ability to conceptualize in the abstract. They can be taught to use language, but their use tends to be fairly concrete, which leads me to wonder if their brains have the capacity to formulate concepts as abstract as “god” or “spirit.” (Most high-school freshmen have not developed enough abstract reasoning ability to handle algebra, which is actually a function of the development of their brains.)

There’s still a lot of debate as to when Australopithecus became Homo, and there are a few examples that are still in dispute, so I’m not going to go there, and I think trying to drag that into the discussion is a) a straw man, and b) pointless. My position is simply that by the advent of fully modern humans, ca. 100,000 years ago, we’re dealing with a group whose brains can handle abstract concepts such as “spirit,” whose ideas of law are most likely to be how the ancestors did it, perhaps coupled with some idea of fairness and/or compensation for injury, and who already have a long tradition of politics as the practice of social interaction.

And as for marriage’s place in all this, I’m happy with a definition of marriage that establishes it as community recognition of a new couple (or household, to bring it forward a few thousand years into a more agricultural context) and a new status for those two individuals as members of the community. It’s worth noting in this context that the blessings of a priest have, as often as not, been optional.

So, yeah, I stand by my original statement — the idea of a human society as “pre-religion” or “pre-law” is, to echo Brian, “pre-posterous.”

Priya Lynn

January 29th, 2013

Hunter fully modern humans are believed to have come into existence aproximately 200,000 years ago. All the examples of religion and magic that you quote are from a tiny fraction of that age and have no bearing whatsoever on this discussion and on what was going on 40,000, 100,000, 200,000 or 2 million years ago.

You say “There’s still a lot of debate as to when Australopithecus became Homo, and there are a few examples that are still in dispute, so I’m not going to go there, and I think trying to drag that into the discussion is a) a straw man…”.

No it is not a straw man, I point you to your original claim:

“I’d wager that there has never existed a human society that didn’t have some form of law and religion, no matter how rudimentary.”

Its debatable as to when early great apes became human and you haven’t made the case that upright walking Australopithecus are not human, and even if we say the advent of the human species was some time after that there is a HUGE gap between the advent of humans and the examples of religion/magic you give of up to 18000 years ago. You are simply in no position to make any claims about the nature of early human society, religion, and law because virtually nothing is known about those things.

You question the ability of chimps and bonobos to have abstract thought that accomodates religion and yet you assume that neanderthals 60,000 years ago had religion because there is some evidence that they buried their dead even though chimps and bonobos sometimes do the same thing. If chimps and bonobos burying their dead is not evidence of the abstract thought of religion then neither is neanderthal burials.

Speaking of 60,000 year old neanderthal burials, could you please give me a link to the specifics you are refering to. I don’t keep right on top of this topic but I don’t recall any concrete evidence of “offerings” in neanderthal burials so I’d appreciate it if you’d show me evidence to support your claim. Some scholars may theorize of religious belief as far back as 300,000 years ago but they are decidedly in the minority and the evidence to support such conclusions is extremely scanty and highly speculative, as is likely the case with your claims about “offerings” in 60,000 year old neanderthal burials.

“Don’t let yourself be trapped by the idea that religion must necessarily involve a priesthood or organized worship.”.

That never even crossed my mind, I’m not even remotely thinking of religion as being in those types of relatively advanced stages. I’m thinking of religion in terms of a belief in the supernatural and a god(s) that commands certain forms of behavior.

“My position is simply that by the advent of fully modern humans, ca. 100,000 years ago, we’re dealing with a group whose brains can handle abstract concepts such as “spirit,” whose ideas of law are most likely to be how the ancestors did it, perhaps coupled with some idea of fairness and/or compensation for injury, and who already have a long tradition of politics as the practice of social interaction.”.

You need to read Carl Sagan’s “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors”. Chimpanzee and bonobo societies show an understanding of fairness and/or compensation for injury and also have a tradition of politics as the practice of social interaction.

If that’s your basis for claiming human societies had law and religion then it necessarily follows that chimpanzee and bonobo societies have law and religion.

“So, yeah, I stand by my original statement — the idea of a human society as “pre-religion” or “pre-law” is, to echo Brian, “pre-posterous.”.”

Before you can make that claim you need to define what you mean by “human”, “law”, and “religion”. You haven’t even remotely established reasonable boundaries for any of those and as such your claim is totally without merit.

I’ll loosely define human as a great ape that normally walks upright. On that basis there is no doubt humans existed pre religion and pre law but still had what could be called societies. Some would say that a key feature of being human is language but once again there is no clear place to draw the line between language and non-language. Vast numbers of species communicate in simple terms, warning of danger, expressing anger, affection and even chimpanzees have been known to use specific sounds to refer to specific objects. Language is a continuum with no sharp dividing line between the language of a gopher and the language of modern humans.

There’s no doubt that chimpanzees and bonobos have societies and unless you want to acknowledge that they also have laws and religion then you necessarily have to acknowledge that there was a time in human history when human societies had neither as well – whether that was 60,000, 200,000 or 1 million years ago.

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