F.A.O. Archbishop John Sentamu: the rights of the religious in a secular society

If you are a keen storm watcher, and have been paying close attention to teacups, you will be aware that the Most Reverend Dr John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, has announced his wholly predictable opposition to marriage equality.

His reasons for doing so seem – how can I put this charitably? – a little confused.  At one point he argues that to allow same-sex marriage would be ‘trying to change the English language’.  One can only assume that he is unaware both that language routinely changes its meaning (c.f. the word nice, for example, which started out in English meaning foolish, then changed it’s meaning to precise, and now means pleasant), and that there is a very long tradition of using the word marriage to describe things other than a formalised sexual relationship between a man and a woman (c.f., for example, the millennia-long tradition of referring to the relationship between Christ and His church as a marriage).  Later he makes the rather strange assertion ‘I don’t think it is the role of the state to define what marriage is.’  This does rather beg the question: if it’s not the role of the state to decide upon the definition of marriage in law, then whose job is it?  And perhaps more to the point: if it is not the role of the state to define marriage, then wasn’t the time for Christians to object to this the year 1753, when marriage was first made subject to secular law?

Anyway, I don’t particularly want to hash this out at great length, partly because the Archbishop’s views are irrelevant (the number of people attending church is declining precipitately, and of that already small number even fewer adhere to Sentamu’s hardline interpretation of the Christian faith), and partly because this is old ground for this blog.  (Here I am, for example, almost three years ago, tackling the idea that there’s something underhand in the word marriage changing its meaning.)  But I thought it might be useful to repost something else I first published a while ago (two years ago, this time) – my bullet-point summary of the rights of religious people in a secular society.  I know it’s bad form to quote myself like this (apart from anything else it looks rather smug and self-congratulatory), but I don’t think I’ve ever managed to express myself so clearly, and there seems little point in trying to rewrite the same ideas in different words just for the sake of it.  So here it is:

  • You have an absolute right to believe whatever you want;
  • You have a right to live your life in accordance with your beliefs, provided you don’t harm anyone else;
  • You have an absolute right to talk and write publicly about your beliefs, and to try and persuade others to share them;
  • You have a right to criticise those who do not share your beliefs, or who live their life in a manner with which you disagree, provided you do not do so in a way calculated to incite hatred.

On the other hand, there are rights that you do not have:

  • You do not have the right to impose your beliefs on others;
  • You do not have the right to force others to live their lives as though they shared your beliefs;
  • You do not have the right to veto the granting of rights;
  • You do not have the right to insist that your ideas are worthy of enhanced respect or extra deference simply because they are religious in nature, or because they were once deferred to.

I think it’s pretty obvious how these general principles apply to Dr Sentamu’s views on marriage equality but, for the avoidance of doubt, Dr Sentamu and those who share his beliefs have:

  • An absolute right to believe that marriage has been ordained by God as a relationship between a man and a woman;
  • A right not to perform, facilitate or attend same-sex marriages, provided they do not prevent others from doing so;
  • An absolute right to write and speak publicly about their personal opposition to same-sex marriage, and the reasons for it;
  • A right to express the view that those who enter into, perform or facilitate same-sex marriages are acting contrary to the will of God, provided they do not do so in a way that is calculated to incite hatred.

But they do not have:

  • The right to demand that others share their belief that marriage has been ordained by God as a relationship between a man and a woman;
  • The right to prevent people who wish to enter into, perform or facilitate same-sex marriages from doing so;
  • The right to withhold the right of marriage from same-sex couples;
  • The right to demand that marriage is preserved as an exclusively heterosexual institution because of their belief that the bible states that it should be, or because it has traditionally been straight-only.

So why, in the light of these principles, do I object to Dr Sentamu’s comments?  Well, first, let me emphasise the distinction between disagreeing and objecting.  I disagree with his comments because I think they’re a load of homophobic bilge-water, and display a lack of intellectual coherence that ought to embarrass even an archbishop (who, let’s face it, have to get pretty used to intellectual incoherence; I’d be fascinated to hear Dr Sentamu preach on the matter of why Leviticus is wrong to condone slavery, but right to condemn homosexuality).  But I object to them because he has framed them in terms that suppose that he and his fellow-travellers have the right to veto the granting of rights; I object because he has implicitly arrogated the right to prevent same-sex couples from marrying to himself, or to Christians, or to ‘society’.

What’s really at issue here is the principle of secularism, which a great many people – atheists and believers of all kinds – adhere to.  The central concept of secularism is not, as alarmist fundamentalists sometimes claim, to render the state atheistic; the central concept of secularism is that the state should have a neutral approach to questions of faith, defending the rights of people of all faiths and none to live their lives without unnecessary interference.  I disagree, profoundly, with Dr Sentamu’s opinions, but as a secularist I am fully committed to allowing him to express them, and to live his life in accordance with them.  (In fact, I would defend much harsher language than the milk-and-water terms Dr Sentamu uses to expresses himself.)  But as a secularist I must also insist that he give up the attempt to force everyone else to live in accordance with beliefs that they do not share.

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2 Responses to F.A.O. Archbishop John Sentamu: the rights of the religious in a secular society

  1. ezgeez says:

    Love the article but, if you’re going to comment on language, you should make sure your grammar is correct. Par 2 line 5: “it’s meaning” > “its meaning”

  2. Pingback: Things Archbishop Welby believes in: straight-only marriage and feudalism | Aethelread the Unread

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