It's a Heterocentric World

So I'm reading Sam Harris' The End of Faith, and I seem to find something to quibble with on every page, but it isn't until I get to page 53 that I get actively aggravated. The section titled "The Necessity for Logical Coherence" begins thus:
The first thing to notice about beliefs is that they must suffer the company of their neighbors. Beliefs are both logically and semantically related. ... The belief that some men are husbands demands that the proposition some women are wives also be endorsed, because the very terms "husband" and "wife" mutually define one another.
Um. Okay.

So where is Sir Elton John's wife? Or Wanda Sykes' husband? They are, respectively, a husband and a wife, and, according to Harris, such terms are only defined by their opposite-gender counterpart.

Oh, come on. Harrumph. Sigh. Eyeroll. You know what he meant.

Of course I know what he meant. I'm not daft. But the book is, after all, a treatise about the deleterious effects of suspending reason in order to indulge irrational beliefs that are then used to marginalize, oppress, or commit atrocities against other populations who do not share those views. Someone who fancies himself a champion of opening minds should, perhaps, avoid such reductive claims as "a husband can't be a husband without a wife," particularly when such contradistinctive definition is itself rooted in the very religious traditions he purports to disdain.

That a husband is better defined as a married man, without specifying to whom he is married, is not merely a matter of hopefulness, of using inclusive language so that change may happen: Same-sex marriage is already a fact in parts of this country and in other countries (and was when the book was published in 2004, and when it was updated with a new afterward in 2005).

(And because same-sex couples are not allowed to legally marry everywhere, perhaps an even better definition is simply a partnered wo/man, as many gay couples denied the right of marriage refer to each other as husbands and wives. It is also not uncommon for straight unmarried couples in many parts of the world to do the same.)

To expect gay readers to ignore this marginalizing language, to pretend that it has no effect, is to do precisely the same thing the New Atheists argue (quite rightly) is done to them when non-believers are presumed to be faithful, when they are compelled to bow their heads for grace at a family supper or are excluded from mention in State of the Union addresses. The New Atheists know it matters to have their lives and experiences and existence disappeared. So they ought be careful not to do the same to others.

It is the little things in which the big oppressions take root; the little things are the way that big inequalities are built, as brick after brick are laid in a foundation of privilege.

Such casual erasure of gay relationships does not happen in a void. It happens in a world in which the intolerance of gay men and women is being used to underwrite their death sentences in Uganda, legislation sponsored by religious extremists from Sam Harris' own country.

That matters. I can't, and won't, pretend that it doesn't.

[Related Reading: Greta Christina's Race, Gender, and Atheism, Parts One and Two.]

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