In a recent edition of BBC’s Question Time, a devoutly religious interlocutor was the occasion of much quizzical amusement for panellist Will Self when he, shut up, it’s perfectly obvious which one I’m talking about, described the concept of gay marriage as ‘ontologically impossible’. It wasn’t a tactic that went well for him; he didn’t seem able to provide a great deal of clarification as to exactly in what way it was that the essential notion of same-sex conjugation is analytically negated by a theory of the fundamental nature of existence, much to everyone’s surprise. So, an own goal, then. The trouble is, considered from one point of view, such a statement is as utterly preposterous as it appears at first glance to be. Considered from another, and it’s a fairly widespread one, it actually makes perfect sense.
See, if you only accept for one moment that, as so very many people continue to believe, that this entire universe is the creation of a conscious and omnipotent entity, God, then it follows that any of the said entity’s pronouncements effectively have exactly the same ontological status as e.g. the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. If there’s a God, then its words are what calls the essential nature of reality into being. So, once you’re easy in your mind on the question of what He, She or It has actually said, it follows that the essential nature of reality as regards the point addressed will actually be unarguable and fundamental, in exactly the same way as a mathematical function.
And the thing about this is this: it’s okay. Well, it’s faintly unsettling, perhaps, but it’s okay. Have a think for a moment about a society which actually, legislatively and enforcably, prevented people from entertaining and choosing to live their live according to such conceits; shudder; move on. All of which makes it of all the more desperate importance that we define a wholly distinct arena of statements, and of societal propositions which follow from them, which are in some sense tenable and commonly establishable: an arena of statements which are of a public kind.
Because without this clarity of definition what you start to get is attempts to encroach upon and to blur the boundary between the arena of statements and propositions which are objectively tenable, and those which aren’t. Like the nurse today, who, having had her bid to be allowed to wear religious jewellery at work rejected by the ECHR, complained that there was a ‘balance between Health and Safety and moral imperatives that needed to be adjusted’. Erm, no there ain’t. There can be no balance of consideration between the tenable and the untenable.
Or like the Tory spokesman who was on Radio 4 not but an hour ago bemoaning the decisions to uphold the sacking of the registrar who refused to conduct gay marriages, and the counsellor who refused to counsel gay couples, and who repeatedly invoked something he was pleased to call ‘common sense’. Sorry, fella*, but what you’re calling ‘common sense’ is really just the bizarrely-waddling extra-terrestrial of your own preferred value system hiding under an innocuous-looking bedsheet with holes cut for eyes.
There’s absolutely no necessary societal value in forcing people to agree on the colour of shite. But that’s what makes it all the more indispensable that we engage in formal agreement to distinguish between the colour of shite and the value of pi.