Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Divine attribution

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have recently discovered a direct link between oral sex and cancers of the mouth and throat. Apparently, if you've been on the receiving end of more than five oral- sex partners during your lifetime, you increase your risk of developing such cancers by 250%. Needless to say, this got me thinking -- no, not about that, but about the idea of natural law and whether or not such a thing really exists.

For the past month or two I've been engaged in correspondence with an intelligent Catholic friend who believes that there is a "natural law" ordained by God which rewards or (more usually) punishes us for our behaviour. The original basis for our discussion was homosexuality: she is against it, in accordance with her faith, while I have no problem with it, seeing it as merely a natural variation. In support of her position, she has pointed to higher rates of depression and suicide among gays and especially to their higher incidences of infectious disease, up to and including AIDS. I've countered that self-destructive activity is a natural response to exclusion and prejudice from one's friends and community, but more importantly still that while there are very many patterns of behaviour that are proven to be hazardous to your health, few Christians seem to believe that God frowns upon the ones that don't involve sex. Athletic activity of any kind, for example, is more hazardous than sitting on your duff at home. Runners drop dead during marathons; skiers slam headfirst into trees. But I can't imagine that the Almighty has a particular moral problem with those who are doing their best to keep in shape. Good, rich food can clog your arteries, even if you don't eat to excess: all you need is an unfortunate genetic disposition towards the production of cholesterol and boom, you're dead of a heart attack at 45 through absolutely no fault of your own. And so on. Casual observation suggests that life is unfair, and that the good die young while the unjust live full and pleasurable lives -- even the Bible concurs on that, and isn't it supposed to be the ultimate authority?

Any supposed moral law derived from the recounting of personal disasters is going to be tainted by a tendentious selection of the facts. My friend has informed me that certain parts of the body are not meant to be used in the manner entailed by most homosexual activity, and I don't disagree that they are ill-suited to it. But consider the female anatomy during the act of childbirth. The infant's head is larger than the birth canal and turns 180 degrees during its descent; the disproportion between its dimensions and the mother's body almost guarantee that its birth will be a painful and hazardous process. Historical records confirm, in fact, that until comparatively recently maternal mortality was high. And yet, according to the proponents of natural law, the propagation of children is the fulfillment of God's will; its very absence is what is said to blight homosexual relationships. If we were creating our morality anew, from nothing, and were observing all of this dispassionately, wouldn't we conclude that there was something intrinsically immoral in a woman subjecting herself to the risks of childbirth?

Like "creation science", "natural law" is only a way of putting a more plausible, empirical gloss on ideas which one has already arrived at through faith alone.

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