The Biggest Debate

OK, gotta brace myself for this one; it’s the gay marriage debate.

Even now, over a decade into the 21st century, it still isn’t too hard (if you’re looking in the right place) to find somebody to tell you that homosexuality is wrong/sinful/weird/unnatural/ARE YOU A FAG?!?!?!?! (apologies for using that word). Normally this blog does not go into my Views on any subject, but on this occasion I think I might relax these opinions to say that there is absolutely no justification for any of these opinions that is not a load of dingo’s kidneys. Yes, homosexuality isn’t exactly evolutionarily selected for and doesn’t produce babies; but given that it’s been observed in a range of animals from bats to swans, nature apparently doesn’t have too much of a problem with the idea, so anything along those lines is out of the window. Yes, homosexuality is kind of a weird concept for your average straight person and you might find the idea a bit ‘icky’, but unless someone of your own gender starts hitting on you then there’s no reason why this should affect you. And if anyone starts quoting the Bible at me, I’m going to start pointing out how Jesus was a socialist and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.

Ahem. Sorry about that.

Anyway, the point I was getting at is that any debate concerning homosexuality is generally confined to this group of people shouting very loudly at the gay community and the rest of the civilised world. And, in recent history, said civilised world has been doing a lot of the winning; the gay community is a well-recognised part of our society and now the sight of two dudes making out, whilst uncommon, isn’t exactly something to write home about. History will probably record the recent gay marriage debate in countries across the world as just another stepping stone along the road to sexual equality, but from my point of view one interesting thing struck me about the debate, or more specifically the debaters. Those opposing the idea of gay marriage frequently were, or at least came across as, people who didn’t have a problem with gay relationships or civil partnerships but who were specifically opposed to gay marriage as a thing, which I found quite interesting. I’ve actually been putting off writing this post for a while because, well… controversy is not my strong suit, but I haven’t really been able to get the thought out of my head so I guess you’re stuck with it now.

To me, this aspect of the gay marriage debate really centred on what definition of marriage the person in question was using. To those who think that marriage is simply a strong, legally binding before-God-under-oath etc. expression of binding love between two people who want to spend their lives together, then sexual orientation doesn’t really come into the picture; love is universal regardless of orientation, so according to this definition so too should marriage be. However, those opposed to gay marriage had some other idea of what marriage was meant to be, something that, by its very nature, made it something that could, almost by definition, only be between a man and a woman, and that civil partnerships exist for gay couples separately for a reason (incidentally, I personally think that the main bone of contention with the idea of a civil partnership among the gay community concerns the lack of cultural identity it carries, making it seem like a label more than a true, fundamental expression of love). Not being in this camp myself (and not having much first-hand experience of marriage), I thought I might investigate exactly what this definition of marriage might be, in order to get to the heart of the disagreement.

Since the only difference between a same-sex and straight relationship is, fundamentally, the bits of genitalia involved, it seems natural to begin from a standpoint of biology. Maybe the definition of marriage we’re looking for concerns itself with a bond consummated through y’standard heterosexual mating procedure? My mind is instantly drawn to the image of marriage proposed in ‘Game of Thrones’ (books, I haven’t seen the TV series’), in which the bride is publically stripped and ‘bedded’ on her wedding night in an elaborate piece of tradition that is mostly (the final act excepted) performed in front of a large, drunken feast. In any case, this definition falls at the first hurdle; heterosexual sex is, if we’re talking about the pure emotional link of mutual enjoyment, satisfaction and emotional bonding, no different from homosexual sex (or else… well why would they do it?), so on its own this doesn’t seem enough.

The end result of heterosexual sex, however, may point us in a better direction. Unlike homosexual relationships, heterosexual ones are biologically capable of producing babies (I will ignore for now the idea of sperm banks and such, which are a whole different business) and expanding the population, so maybe the basis for our alternative definition of marriage is a union through which to produce children, or something along those lines? This has some grounding in theology too; Adam and Eve were, according to the Bible, the first married couple (I think, anyway; I’m not too hot on my Bible study), and since God wrote the laws of  biology it makes sense that he’d start off with a pair capable of continuing the lineage of the creatures made in his image. Or at least, after he made Eve, he sensed the potential the idea could have. It is presumably for this reason that the Bible incorporates specific instruction for Adam & Eve, and the book’s subsequent readers, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1:28), and why the Church has such strong views on the concept of sex outside marriage. But anyway; really, the validity of this argument, of the idea of marriage as a vehicle to producing children, is a personal rather than religious one, although you do have to wonder what such people think of people who have sex and children out of wedlock. Or maybe such people don’t exist. I dunno, I’m speculating here.

And whilst we’re on the subject, let’s talk about religion, a favourite point of reasoning from internet comments sections (yes, occasionally I make the cardinal sin of reading those things). There is an argument that runs roughly along the lines of ‘religion hates homosexuality, marriage is a religious ceremony, therefore the two are incompatible and a homosexual marriage is a ridiculous idea’. Proponents of this argument are less opposed to the introduction of a gay marriage bill than they are just thinking it’s kinda weird, and are the source of a hilarious turn of phrase that has cropped up all over the web ‘giving gay people the right to marry is like giving men the right to an abortion’. The second tenet of this argument is, however, rather a large assumption and the matter of considerable debate for, in modern society, marriage is technically a legal process. This is a concession made to respect those of other faiths (and quite right too), but is responsible for why a wedding can take place in a registry office just as easily as the church. It is also true that marriage was initially nothing to do with religion at all, but a matter of business; one family trading a woman to another in exchange for cash, and that religion rather inherited the concept as the idea of love in marriage became steadily more important over the centuries… but how you interpret this one is really down to personal debate. I happen to know for certain that this group exists, because I’ve seen plenty of arguments with them.

However, I personally think that the most likely reason a person would be against the idea of homosexual marriage but not homosexuality itself concerns the idea of ownership. The very idea of ownership is a quite strange and interesting one, but the thrust of the issue in this context is that human beings frequently feel a strange sense of belonging and ownership of a lot of things, be they objects, people or even ideas. A good example is patriotism/nationalism, where the idea of ‘belonging’ to a particular patch of land with a certain type of people can get so strong that they want to stop other people coming to their patch of land and ‘stealing’ their identity. And I think the same thing applies to marriage; married people have a sense of ownership over the idea, that it is fundamentally theirs and they don’t want to share it with other people. It sounds both a childish and bigoted point of view and, to an extent, it is; but hey, humans are irrational creatures in the end. I can only hope that holders of this view don’t feel quite so angry with it a few years down the line.

The Cross

Humankind has long been inventive when it comes to the sphere of killing one another; I could probably write a whole other blog solely on the subject of weaponry for the next 50 years before running low on material, and that doesn’t even approach the field of organised execution. Hanging and stoning are two old-as-the-hills methods still, unfortunately, in use in some parts of the world, and countless others have been developed with varying degrees of complexity, pain and success involved. However, one execution method has proved to carry more cultural weight than all others, and mostly thanks to one man; I speak, of course, of crucifixion.

We all think of crucifixion as a Roman punishment, but like so many Roman things it wasn’t their invention (seriously, even their religion was nicked from the Greeks). Crucifixion first started off in Persia in around the 6th century BC, in the area that would later become the Seleucid Empire after Alexander the Great went and conquered all of it. Like so many other things, the practice later spread across the remnants of Alexander’s Empire, including his native Greece, and here it began making its way towards the ‘civilised’ world of the time. The Greeks were, apparently, generally opposed to this horrible method of execution and used it very sparingly, but much of Alexander’s old Empire would later find its way into Roman hands, and so the idea eventually made its way to Rome. Given that this was a culture whose primary form of entertainment (garnering hundreds of thousands of spectators, something even modern sporting culture can’t match) involved various people and animals dressing up to kill one another in as ‘entertaining’ a fashion as possible, it is perhaps not surprising that the Romans thought crucifixion showed potential as an execution method, particularly for those they wanted to make an example of.

This is hardly surprising; of all humanity’s execution methods, few can rival crucifixion when it comes to being horrifying and showy. This is partly helped, slightly bizarrely, by its cheapness; to show them off to the general populace, something like hanging or beheading would require some sort of raised platform, which covers only a small area and takes a decent amount of time and energy to create. The Roman alternative (the arena) was even more expensive, requiring an investment in either animals or an elaborate set of costumes and procedure in order to provide an ‘entertaining’ execution, and given that games were generally free to go and watch (paid for by the emperor or local governor to curry goodwill with the populace) it wasn’t going to pay itself back. By contrast, the sum total of all monetary investment required for crucifixion is two long sticks, some rope or nails, and a bloke to affix the resulting structure to; the crosses were even moved to the required site by the prisoners themselves, and erecting them took a few soldiers almost no time at all. This cheapness made it easy to show off their victims on a vast scale; after the gladiator Spartacus’ slave revolt was crushed in 71BC, the 6,000 captured prisoners were all crucified along the Appian way, a trail of crosses stretching from Rome to Capua. That’s 200 kilometres (125 miles), along both sides of the road. A forceful example indeed.

The very nature of crucifixion itself also helps when it comes to being showy. The crosses used in crucifixion were big old things, three or four metres tall if they’re an inch, just to ensure the unfortunate victim could be seen from great distances away. The mechanics of the execution build on this; it is often assumed that death by crucifixion comes from exhaustion, hunger, pain and blood loss, but in fact crucifixion causes death by suffocation as much as anything. With one’s upper body held only by spread eagled arms, it becomes very tiring to keep it in position, and one’s head and torso tend to fall forwards after time. However, with the arms pinned in position this stretches out one’s joints extremely painfully, offering no respite from the agony, and pulls upwards on the ribcage. This in turn puts extreme stress on the diaphragm, meaning it has to pull one’s entire weight upward every time you attempt to take a breath, and crushes the lungs under one’s own weight, slowly squeezing the air and life out of the victim. If the executors were feeling kind, then the victim would be tied to the cross, resulting in a slower but slightly less agonisingly painful death. However, Jesus was famously attached to his cross by nails through his feet and wrists (some versions say the hands, but the flesh there isn’t strong enough to hold up the weight of a body properly), and whilst this could offer the possibility of blessedly quick unconsciousness and death due to blood loss and the extreme pain, the sheer agony of the experience doesn’t bear thinking about. No matter how devoted to their cause the victim was, their screams must have undoubtedly echoed for miles as they died, just adding to the showiness of their death. Crucifixion was the ultimate tool, for the Romans, for sending out a warning, a very obvious, demonstrative way of discouraging people from following the lead of the victim.

That this approach failed somewhat is like saying the Pope thinks God is a kinda alright guy; crucifixion has guaranteed martyrdom for countless early saints and, of course, Jesus. The concept of ‘he suffered and died on the cross for us’ is, more than anything, the fundamental message of Christianity, embodying the idea of undergoing extreme pain and hardship simply to try and do right by the world and emphasising the pure and unadulterated goodness of Jesus as a person. But this has had an unexpected effect in the long run; since the story is told so often to children, the gory details are often glossed over, or the story simply because so fundamental and oft-told that it becomes very easy to forget just how horrific his agony would have been. Even this post has treated the subject of crucifixion with a decidedly neutral tone, without considering properly just how horrible it is to inflict this level of pain onto a fellow human being. Crucifixion might have been abolished by the Roman Empire 1600 years ago (by Emperor Constatine, if you’re wondering), but it would not do to forget it. Very few things are ever worth forgetting, and torture and murder are most certainly not among them.

“If I die before I wake…”

…which I might well do when this post hits the internet, then I hope somebody will at least look down upon my soul & life’s work favourably. Today, I am going to be dealing with the internet’s least favourite topic, an idea whose adherence will get you first derided and later inundated with offers to go and be slaughtered in one’s bed, a subject that should be taboo for any blogger looking to not infuriate everybody; that of religion.

I am not a religious person; despite a nominally Anglican upbringing my formative years found most of my Sundays occupied on the rugby pitch, whilst a deep interest in science tended to form the foundations of my world beliefs- I think (sometimes) to some personal detriment. This is a pattern I see regularly among those people I find as company (which may or may not say something about my choice of friends)- predominantly atheists with little or no religious upbringing who tend to steer clear of religion and its various associated features wherever possible. However, where I find I differ from them tends to be when the subject is broached when in the present of a devoutly Christian friend of mine; whilst I tend to leave his beliefs to himself and try not to spark an argument, many others I know see a demonstration of his beliefs as a cue to start on a campaign of ‘ha ha isn’t your world philosophy stupid’, and so on.  I tend to find these attacks more baffling and a little saddening than anything else, so I thought that I might take this opportunity to take my usual approach and try to analyse the issue

First up is a fact that most people are aware of even if it hasn’t quite made the jump into an articulate thought yet; that every religion is in fact two separate parts. The first of these can be dubbed the ‘faith’ aspect; the stories, the gods, the code of morals & general life guidelines and such, all of the bits that form the core of a system of beliefs and are, to a theist, the ‘godly’ part of their religion. The second can be labelled the ‘church’ aspect; this is the more man-made, even artificial, aspect of the religious system, and covers the system of priesthood (or equivalent) for each religion, their holy buildings, the religious leaders and even people’s personal interpretation of the ‘faith’ aspect. Holy books, such as the Bible or Torah, fall somewhere in between (Muslims believe, for example, that the Qur’an is literally the word of Allah, translated through the prophet Muhammed) as do the various prayers and religious music. In Buddhism, these two aspects are known as the Dharma (teachings) and Sangha (community), and together with Buddha form the ‘three jewels’ of their religion. In some religions, such as Scientology (if that can technically be called a religion) the two aspects are so closely entwined so as to be hard to separate, but they are still distinct aspects that should be treated separately. The ‘faith’ aspect of religion is, in most respects, the really important one, for it is this that actually formulates the basis of a religion; without a belief system, a church is nothing more than a place where people go to shout their views at those who inexplicably turn up. A religion’s ‘church’ aspect is its organised divisions, and exists for no greater or lesser purpose than to spread, cherish, protect and correctly translate the word of God, or other parts of the ‘faith’ aspect generally. This distinction is vital when we consider how great a difference there can be between what somebody believes and what another does in the same name.

For example, consider the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban currently fighting their Jihad (the word does not, on an unrelated note, technically translate as ‘holy war’ and the two should not be thought of a synonymous) in Afghanistan against the USA and other western powers. Their personal interpretation of the Qur’an and the teachings of Islam (their ‘church’ aspect) has lead them to believe that women do not deserve equal rights to men, that the western powers are ‘infidels’ who should be purged from the world, and that they must use force and military intervention against them to defend Islam from said infidels- hence why they are currently fighting a massive war that is getting huge amounts of innocent civilians killed and destroying their faith’s credibility. By contrast, there are nearly 2 million Muslims currently living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not interpret their religion in the same way and are not currently blowing up many buildings- and yet they still identify as Islamic and believe in, broadly speaking, the same faith. To pick a perhaps more ‘real world’ example, I’m sure that the majority of Britain’s Catholic population steadfastly disagree with the paedophilia practiced by some of their Church’s priests, and that a certain proportion also disagree with the Pope’s views on the rights of homosexuals; and yet, they are still just as Christian as their priests, are devout believers in the teachings of God & Jesus and try to follow them as best as they can.

This I feel, is the nub of the matter; that one can be simultaneously a practising Christian, Muslim, Jew or whatever else and still be a normal human being. Just because your vicar holds one view, doesn’t mean you hold the same, and just because some people choose to base their entire life around their faith does not mean that a person must be defined by their belief system. And, returning to the subject of the ridicule many practising theists suffer, just because the ‘church’ aspect of a religion does something silly, doesn’t mean all practitioners of it deserve to be tarred with the same brush- or that their view on the world should even matter to you as you enjoy life in your own way (unless of course their belief actively impedes you in some way).

I feel like I haven’t really got my point across properly, so I’ll leave you with a few links that I think illustrate quite well what I’m trying to get at. I only hope that it will help others find a little more tolerance towards those who have found a religious path.

And sorry for this post being rather… weird

We Will Remember Them

Four days ago (this post was intended for Monday, when it would have been yesterday, but I was out then- sorry) was Remembrance Sunday; I’m sure you were all aware of that. Yesterday we acknowledged the dead, recognised the sacrifice they made in service of their country, and reflected upon the tragic horrors that war inflicted upon them and our nations. We gave our thanks that “for your tomorrow, we gave our today”.

However, as the greatest wars ever to rack our planet have disappeared towards the realm of being outside living memory, a few dissenting voices have risen about the place of the 11th of November as a day of national mourning and remembrance. They are not loud complaints, as anything that may be seen as an attempt to sully the memories of those who ‘laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of freedom’ (to quote Saving Private Ryan) is unsurprisingly lambasted and vilified by the majority, but it would be wrong not to recognise that there are some who question the very idea of Remembrance Sunday in its modern incarnation.

‘Remembrance Sunday,’ so goes the argument, ‘is very much centred around the memories of those who died: recognising their act of sacrifice and championing the idea that ‘they died for us’.” This may partly explain why the Church has such strong links with the ceremony; quite apart from religion being approximately 68% about death, the whole concept of sacrificing oneself for the good of others is a direct parallel to the story of Jesus Christ. ‘However,’ continues the argument, ‘the wars that we of the old Allied Powers chiefly celebrate and remember are ones in which we won, and if we had lost them then to argue that they had given their lives in defence of their realm would make it seem like their sacrifice was wasted- thus, this style of remembrance is not exactly fair. Furthermore, by putting the date of our symbolic day of remembrance on the anniversary of the end of the First World War, we invariably make that conflict (and WWII) our main focus of interest. But, it is widely acknowledged that WWI was a horrific, stupid war, in which millions died for next to no material gain and which is generally regarded as a terrible waste of life. We weren’t fighting for freedom against some oppressive power, but because all the European top brass were squaring up to one another in a giant political pissing contest, making the death of 20 million people the result of little more than a game of satisfying egos. This was not a war in which ‘they died for us’ is exactly an appropriate sentiment’.

Such an argument is a remarkably good one, and does call into question the very act of remembrance itself.  It’s perhaps more appropriate to make such an argument with more recent wars- the Second World War was a necessary conflict if ever there was one, and it cannot be said that those soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are not trying to make a deeply unstable and rather undemocratic part of the world a better place to live in (I said trying). However, this doesn’t change the plain and simple truth that war is a horrible, unpleasant activity that we ought to be trying to get rid of wherever humanly possible, and remembering soldiers from years gone by as if their going to die in a muddy trench was absolutely the most good and right thing to do does not seem like the best way of going about this- it reminds me of, in the words of Wilfred Owen: “that old lie:/Dulce Et Decorum Est/Pro Patria Mori”.

However, that is not to say that we should not remember the deaths and sacrifices of those dead soldiers, far from it. Not only would it be hideously insensitive to both their memories and families (my family was fortunate enough to not experience any war casualties in the 20th century), but it would also suggest to soldiers currently fighting that their fight is meaningless- something they are definitely not going to take well, which would be rather inadvisable since they have all the guns and explosives. War might be a terrible thing, but that is not to say that it doesn’t take guts and bravery to face the guns and fight for what you believe in (or, alternatively, what your country makes you believe in). As deaths go, it is at least honourable, if not exactly Dulce Et Decorum.

And then, of course, there is the whole point of remembrance, and indeed history itself, to remember. The old adage about ‘study history or else find yourself repeating it’ still holds true, and by learning lessons from the past we stand very little chance of improving on our previous mistakes. Without the great social levelling and anti-imperialist effects of the First World War, then women may never have got the vote, jingoistic ideas about empires,  and the glory of dying in battle may still abound, America may (for good or ill) have not made enough money out of the war to become the economic superpower it is today and wars may, for many years more, have continued to waste lives through persistent use of outdated tactics on a modern battlefield with modern weaponry, to name but the first examples to come into my head- so to ignore the act of remembrance is not just disrespectful, but downright rude.

Perhaps then, the message to learn is not to ignore the sacrifice that those soldiers have made over the years, but rather to remember what they died to teach us. We can argue for all of eternity as to whether the wars that lead to their deaths were ever justified, but we can all agree that the concept of war itself is a wrong one, and that the death and pain it causes are the best reasons to pursue peace wherever we can. This then, should perhaps be the true message of Remembrance Sunday; that over the years, millions upon millions of soldiers have dyed the earth red with their blood, so that we might one day learn the lessons that enable us to enjoy a world in which they no longer have to.