The Scottish play: the danger of religious freedom

In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the verbally dynamic Henry Wotton has some words that seem to resonate particularly strongly today: “In the Church they don’t think. A bishop keeps on saying at the age of eighty what he was told to say when he was a boy of eighteen, and as a natural consequence he always looks absolutely delightful.”

Cardinal O’Brien, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, recently called on politicians to “sustain rather than subvert marriage” in a letter from The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland that was read out in all of Scotland’s 500 Catholic parishes. Some religious organisations – including the Catholic Church and the Church of England – are concerned that changes in legislation will threaten their right to religious freedom by “redefining the institution of marriage”, forcing members of the clergy to perform same-sex marriage services against their wishes, and risk facing legal action if they do not.

Government in both Holyrood and Westminster has made it quite clear that it has no plans to change religious marriage as any such plans may threaten the religious freedom of the organisations; indeed, it would be illegal for the clergy to perform same-sex marriages as the new legislation will only affect civil marriages. Religious organisations have the freedom to practise their faith in any way they want providing they do not harm others. However, is it possible that by not performing same-sex marriages – and therefore not wholly accepting homosexuality more generally – they are causing significant harm not only to others but also to some within their own faith?

This inability of society and some religious organisations to accept equal marriage and homosexuality more generally can potentially cause mental health problems in some individuals. The sociologist Dennis Altman eloquently describes how reluctant tolerance and a lack of acknowledgement can result in psychological mayhem: “Most [homosexuals] become aware of vaguely homosexual feelings before having any model to help understand them. And from society’s refusal to acknowledge homosexuality as a valid part of the human experience stems the most destructive aspect of oppression, the fact that it becomes internalized and affects the self-image of the oppressed.”

This internalization of oppression can cause considerable psychological pressures, for if someone feels guilty about an essential part of their identity then their self-hatred becomes inevitable. The consequences of this internalization are concerning; according to a recent report by Stonewall, gay and bisexual men are far more likely to have attempted to take their own lives then men in general. Similarly, rates of depression, anxiety and self-harm are also much higher among gay and bisexual men than men in general and half of lesbian and bisexual women under the age of 20 have self harmed, compared to 1 in 15 teenagers generally.

It is clear that the religious freedom that we grant to many religious organisations is potentially harmful to a number of individuals and particularly the young people growing up in church and faith-school environments. The most concerning part of Cardinal O’Brien’s letter is his commitment to focus the Catholic Church’s new Commission for Marriage and the Family on young people and children. We cannot allow this part of society to continue promoting a model for life that is totally heterosexual in orientation without putting a number of young people at considerable risk.

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