The Manhattan Counters

Citizens in liberal democracies, when they have lived up to the highest ideals of their common humanity, have defended the weak and vulnerable and worked tirelessly to protect and strengthen vital institutions of civil society, beginning with the dignity and humanity of the individual.

We are Catholic, Anglican and evangelical Christians, Atheists, Humanists, social scientists, philosophers, intellectuals, journalists, medical professionals and secular civil servants who have united to reaffirm the fundamental values upon which liberal democracies have been built, and call upon our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them.  These truths are (1) the sanctity of human life, (2) the dignity of the human person, and (3) the rights of conscience and religious liberty.  Because they are increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our society, we are compelled to speak out forcefully in their defense, and to commit to them fully in the face of pressures brought upon us and our civil institutions to abandon or compromise them. These truths are foundational to the vitality and health of civil society and are the outcome of a long tradition of inter-disciplinary public debate and rational argument.  As such, they represent the current consensus, and will always be open to development and revision as the human community makes new discoveries and responds to new situations. We commit to these truths not as partisans of any political group or organization, but as citizens of the human community.

Human Life
The lives of the unborn and the disabled are always vulnerable. The elderly need protection and support, even if they are not worse off than in previous times. We pledge to work unceasingly for the equal protection of every human being, recognising that all human beings are worthy of life and dignity. We have not, and will continue not to, allow ourselves and our institutions to participate in the taking of human life, and we will support in every possible way those who take the same stand.

Many aspects of human experience have weakened the institution of marriage. Many persons who now enjoy freedom of religion and freedom of conscience no longer accept the traditional importance given to marriage, and many see marriage as a cause of human misery and/or the oppression of women, including the most vulnerable in society – young girls. Where the institution of marriage constrains all human sexual expression to the confines of a “marriage culture”, social pathologies and inequities arise.  Indeed, this explains the impulse to re-define or relax the traditional culture of marriage, and explains why the need arose to make marital union voluntary rather than compulsory (or a compulsory prerequisite for sexual expression). A religious culture that has ignored the need to re-define marriage in ways that better conform to the experiences of human persons and to significant aspects of human nature has lead to a gradual weakening of the institution. Modern people today recognize that the institution of marriage is a social convention, the absolute importance of which is no longer convincing in light of human experience and human nature. The members of the Ramsay Colloquium, many of whose members are also authors and signatories of the Manhattan Declaration, themselves claimed that, “Throughout history societies have taken particular care to socialize sexuality toward marriage and the family.” Indeed the very word ‘institution’ means instituted by human beings, for their purposes. Consenting adults are today finding healthy sexual, psychological and emotional fulfillment in both marital and non-marital arrangements, including fulfilling and healthy non-marital sexual expression or serial monogamy.

Religious Liberty
The United States Constitution adequately protects freedom of religion and the rights of conscience. Religious institutions, charities and service providers cannot expect both to receive state funding and to decide for themselves whether they will or will not dispense legal services to prospective patients on the grounds of religious objections.  If these organizations wish to practice medicine according to Christian belief, then they may do so, but not with the aid of federal funding and not with taxpayers’ support.    The Manhattan Declaration’s authors use words like ‘liberty’ equivocally, exploiting the ambiguity between negative liberty (freedom from external coercion) and positive liberty (liberty to do something). The United States Constitution and its civil magistrates provide an indispensable buffer for individuals against the overweening power of the Christian majority, who apparently sometimes think religious “liberty” constitutes a form of entitlement to enforce their “worldview” on others, using charities and religious organizations as the vehicle.

Unjust Laws
Laws in a liberal democracy must be neutral between diverse religious viewpoints, and as such should allow maximum freedom for individuals within the limits of the harm principle, where ‘harm’ is not trivialized to include mere ‘offense’ to the sensibilities or beliefs of others, but causes clear danger to the permanent interest of man as a progressive being. In liberal democracies, intrusions on the individual’s basic rights — to life, liberty, property and the ability to pursue goals which are genuinely his or her own — have been interpreted as ‘harm’.

Therefore, let it be known that we will not comply with any edict that compels us or the institutions we lead to participate in religious coercion, capital punishment, sexual discrimination, ageism or any other act that violates the principle of the equal dignity of every member of the human family.

Furthermore, let it be known that we will not bend to any coercive measures to give state-sanctioned privileges to Christians, heterosexuals or a heterosexist ideology through the public institution of marriage.  We will not condone discrimination against homosexuals in the guise of ‘protecting’ the falsehood that heterosexual union is uniquely and/or intrinsically morally good.  We reject this misrepresentation because it re-defines morality altogether, eliminating the centrality of human agency from the moral evaluation of actions.  We refuse to conspire in the myth that heterosexual actions are inherently morally good, simply because of biological aspects of their structure.  We insist that agency and intent are more significant than procreative potential/biological “complementarity” in the moral evaluation of sexual actions. Moreover, the selective fetishization of biological aspects of sexual acts is indicative of the views of some religious initiates, and does not furnish an objective view of human nature that might be relevant to the citizens of liberal democracies.

Vast human experience has shown that the length of time a tradition has lasted has nothing to do with its validity, nor its justice. Slavery, sexism, religious intolerance and bigotry, inter alia, have been enshrined in long traditions, but this does not make them good for the human community. When Christian leaders claim to acknowledge the shortcomings of Christian institutions while simultaneously producing documents from which the most vulnerable and oppressed members of society dissent, one has to wonder about the sincerity of their stated aim to “reach out to the oppressed and suffering”. Any Christian document that wishes to protect the oppressed and suffering must take into account the views of the oppressed and suffering who claim to be hurt by Christian traditions and practices.

Only a selective reading of history could possibly furnish the conclusion that Christians have generally opposed slavery and sexism or defended innocent life, democracy or compassionate care for AIDS sufferers in Africa.

Pope Gregory (590-604) recognized the importance of the invading barbarians for the future of Christianity in the West and colluded with the Lombards to consolidate the Papal States in Italy and to compel secular authorities to submit to ecclesiastical power. Gregory found a valuable ally in Phocas, an imperial army centurion, who overthrew Emperor Maurice and had him and his family executed.  This coup was the first violent regime change in Constantinople since its foundation by Constantine. Phocas is reported to have responded to opposition with extreme cruelty, killing thousands in an effort to keep control of the government.  Gregory was not opposed to using a degree of belligerence in his approach to evangelization of the barbarian tribes. Gregory’s opportunistic use of militant force to convert the heathen would retrospectively be interpreted as a kind of “holy war.”

Slavery in various forms existed within Christianity for over eighteen centuries. While slavery in the Roman Empire was a normal feature of the economy and society, most Christian authority figures, such as Augustine of Hippo, supported its continuation. The legitimacy of slavery was incorporated in the official Corpus Juris Canonici, based on the Decretum Gratiani, which became the official law of the Church since Pope Gregory IX in 1226. As late as June 20, 1866, The Congregation for Doctrine in Rome declared: “Slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural law or God’s law. There can be several just titles of slavery . . .It is not contrary to the natural and divine law for a slave to be sold, bought, exchanged or given”.

In Europe, some Christians challenged the divine right of kings, only to replace them with the divine claims of the papacy.

While some of the women and men who stood at the vanguard of the suffrage movement were Christians, many others were not.  The Catholic Church has been equivocal on the equal status of women and its own laws deny ecclesiastical equality for women.  The Code of Church Law, 1983 upholds the exclusion of women from ordained ministry as stated in Canon 1024.  Women are also excluded from the offices, functions and ministries that are restricted to clerics. Accordingly, only ordained males are “capable of exercising the power of governance in the Church, and offices that entail the exercise of that power are restricted to clerics.”

Pope Pius XII’s concordat with Germany of 1933 may accurately be described as “selective appeasement” of Hitler and at the very least gave Hitler international credibility, criminalized Catholic political activity and demoralized Catholic opposition to Nazi rule.  While Pius raised abstract objections to Nazi measures, his concern did not extend to a substantial objection to their extermination of Jews. Israeli Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog in 2008 opposed the beatification of Pius XII because the Vatican knew full well about the arrest and deportation of European Jews, and, “to date, there has been no proof brought to light that the Pope took any action whatsoever as would behoove the status of the Holy See”.  To reach other conclusions requires selecting defenders of Pius XII for praise and attacking competent historians who disagree with the Church’s rendering of history. The continuing secrecy surrounding the historical documentation (the Vatican is stalling on HYPERLINK “”making accessible the wartime documents on Pius XII HYPERLINK “”until 2014 at the earliest) is enough to raise doubts about the objectivity with which the Church pursues historical truths.

In Africa an AIDS pandemic has taken 22 million lives in less than 20 years. The Catholic Church and its bishops have everywhere extolled abstinence and fidelity and denounced the use of condoms, with the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique even proclaiming his belief that some European-made condoms are infected with HIV deliberately. The international community continues to be distressed at the effects of the Catholic Church’s policy on condoms, because the reality is that married women living in Southern Africa are at higher risk of becoming infected with HIV than unmarried women.  Extolling abstinence and marital fidelity do not protect her, because in all likelihood she is already monogamous and faithful. It is her husband who is likely to have contracted HIV out of wedlock. Yet refusing a husband’s sexual overtures risks HYPERLINK “”ostracism and destitution in African cultures. Biologically women are twice as likely to become infected with HIV through unprotected heterosexual intercourse than men. In many countries women are seldom able to negotiate condom use and are more likely to be subjected to non-consensual sex. Suggesting that abstinence is a “solution” to AIDS in these circumstances is anything but “compassionate” towards women and effectively condemns them to death and makes orphans of countless children – hardly a way to end gender discrimination or to promote healthy marriage and family life. The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) specifically noted the need for countries to expand access to condoms within five years, a move that would certainly be opposed by the authors of the Manhattan Declaration.

Pope John Paul II’s letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente stated:
“… the Church should become more fully conscious of the sinfulness of her children, recalling all those times in history when they departed from the spirit of Christ and his Gospel and, instead of offering to the world the witness of a life inspired by the  values of faith, indulged in ways of thinking and acting which were truly forms of counter-witness and scandal”.  [emphasis ours]

The Manhattan Declaration’s claim that “Christians have sought justice in their societies, resisted tyranny and reached out with compassion to the poor, oppressed and suffering” is apparently compatible with any state of affairs and there are no states of affairs that could count against it. To ordinary people, who tend to proportion their belief to evidence, such claims as no quantity of counter-evidence could invalidate are simply meaningless.

The undersigned citizens have joined together to make the following declaration, which we sign as individuals, not on behalf of our organizations, but speaking to and from our communities.  We reject theocratic claims or doctrines that suggest that human beings, through interdisciplinary research, discussion and debate, are incapable of reaching conclusions on moral issues independent of divine commands. We recognize that claims to act on a divine “calling” have historically been used to abdicate personal responsibility and to give a shroud of mystical authority to proclamations that in reality come from fallible human minds.  We do not identify our own position with God’s, as so doing would be obscenely hubristic. Some contemporary believers may assume a divine anointing of people, organizations and events, or a special revelation. The grounds for this are typically never expressed. The notion suggests that their judgments are necessarily true and immune from evaluation. They assume a unique discernment that is immune from objective evaluation by ordinary methods of proof, and cannot be communicated to others outside of their own “worldview”. We therefore set forth this declaration in light of the truth that is grounded in natural human reason, vast human experience and in the very nature of the human person.  We call upon all people of goodwill, believers and non-believers alike, to consider carefully and reflect critically on the issues we here address.

Most pro-choice advocates, including women who want access to legal abortion, understand that abortion is undesirable, but disagree that a zygote, though worthy of certain respect, is a form of life worthy of the same full rights (or more rights) than an adult female. They find this conclusion misogynistic, although consistent with attitudes about female inferiority and “submissiveness” found in some Christian teaching.  They do not view abortion as a form of birth control. They neither desire nor wish to promote the very unpleasant circumstances in which abortions are deemed necessary. Teenage girls are among the most marginalized, voiceless, and vulnerable among us, and are virtually never consulted by Christian authorities for their views on an issue that impacts them much more than it will ever impact the adult males who dominate the discussion.

A culture of death cheapens life by promoting the belief that lives that are imperfect, immature or inconvenient are disposable. For this reason we have and continue to oppose unjust war, torture, capital punishment, eugenics, and hand guns, which maim and kill not potential human beings but actual human beings. For all of their rhetoric about the sanctity of life, conservative Christians in the U.S. spill proportionately very little ink opposing any of these atrocities, and have often defended them, albeit sometimes in euphemistic ways.

Eugenic notions such as lebensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”) were first advanced in the 1920’s by intellectuals in America and Europe. Many church ministries appear to have been involved in the movement . The notion of “life unworthy of life” makes a fairly good fit with the conservative Christian position on capital punishment, which is supported and defended by many of the Manhattan Declaration signatories.

One development that concerns citizens of Western liberal democracies is the emergence from within Christian communities of support for the full legalization of “liberal” eugenics policies that would permit genetic interventions to manipulate sexual orientation. Christian eugenic arguments are dressed up in the language of “restoration” and “redemption” of “fallen creation” and “natural imperfections”.  One signatory to the Manhattan Declaration claimed “the human genetic structure … shows the pernicious effects of the Fall and of God’s judgment”.   These narratives ominously lay the groundwork for a eugenics that may  one day be deployed to cloak parental selection of children’s sexual orientation in the language of “parental liberty”, “autonomy” and “choice”. The human gene provides the most basic ‘code’ or ‘blueprint’ for human life prior to, and therefore independent of, human activity. In this sense, the human genome is entirely ‘natural’.  Where a natural variant of human sexuality does not of itself produce any harm for the individual or anyone else, it is difficult to see why it should be theoretically pathologized as a ‘disease’ or socially stigmatized as a ‘sin’.  Further public debate is needed before the gates to a pre-natal ‘sanitizing’ of homosexual orientation from the human gene pool are thrown open.

The authors of the Manhattan Declaration claim to “work to bring assistance, comfort and care to pregnant women in need and to those who have been victimized by abortion.”  First, abortion is not forced on women, so while this language implies that women can be “victims” of their own choices, most women who have abortions do not see themselves as “victims” of abortion. Many Christians assume that young women can be coerced into abortion but not into unprotected sex. Yet vast human experience suggests that young and older men more frequently attempt to coerce women into unprotected sex than into abortions. Yet many Christian conservatives, despite their opposition to abortion, still oppose the idea of giving young girls information and access to the best means of preventing the need for one – contraceptives!

Christian concern for female “victims” apparently does not extend to situations like rape where females do not have a choice in carrying an unwanted child. Here the conservative Christian response to womens’ suffering is to force the victim to carry the unwanted child to term and to single-handedly raise it to adulthood, often before she has acquired the maturity, skills or education necessary to support herself. Nor does the alleged “assistance and compassion” extend to young women who are vulnerable to sexual pressure from male peers and the risk of pregnancy that is an intrinsic part of adolescent sexual awakening. In these circumstances, some Christians adopt the “abstinence only” approach to sexuality.  This constructs a social taboo around sex while fetishizing it at the same time – creating an aura of mystery and perversely prurient intrigue around what is a perfectly natural stage in human development.  The proscription of sexual experimentation amongst consenting teens is completely unwarranted where contraception can prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. The Christian alternative is to assert that the expressions of human sexuality that inevitably occur must be postponed and confined to religious rites and rituals. This punishes innocent teenage girls (not boys) for the fact that teenage sex will not disappear. It also denies them the most realistic means of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease – contraception and good sex education. The “abstinence only” approach creates a sexist double standard where teenage boys face no consequences for their promiscuity while teenage girls are left vulnerable to circumstances that drastically increase the likelihood that they will need abortions, become single mothers or contract sexually transmitted diseases.

When the authors of the Manhattan Declaration express “concern” over the failure to take steps to halt the spread of preventable diseases like AIDS it is hard to take them seriously. For reasons already stated in the Preamble (above), this “concern” reeks of hypocrisy so audacious in its bald-faced disingenuousness that it inspires nothing less than awe.

It is exceedingly difficult to make sense of unverifiable hubristic statements such as “men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself”.  Such statements reveal more about the psychology of the men who make them than they do about “God” or any metaphysical entity. Today, most thinking people do not believe that God created man and woman in his image as it says in the Bible and instead accept that humans have evolved over millions of years through the gradual process of evolution.  Many today think man created God in his own image, but with omniscience and omnipotence added to complete the infantile fantasy.  Marriage is an institution created by human societies. Historically, matrimony has been a public institution impacted by tradition, culture, religion, and conventional laws. Throughout the centuries, the institution of marriage has continually changed.

Vast human experience confirms that marriage has not always sustained the health, education and welfare of all persons in society.  Even in cultures where women are permitted to voluntarily marry a partner of their choice, there is vast evidence, most of it ignored by Christian promoters of the “marriage culture,” that few people are capable of the demands entailed by the marriage vows. When the Associated Press compiled divorce statistics from data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Health, the data showed that the highest divorce rates were found in the Bible Belt. “Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and Oklahoma round out the Top Five in frequency of divorce…the divorce rates in these conservative states are roughly 50 percent above the national average” of 4.2/1000 people.  The Barna Group conducted a similar survey with similar results, while atheists and agnostics had the lowest divorce rates.   One of the reasons for the high divorce rates in the Bible Belt is that conservative Christians teach that people should not have sex before marriage, a doctrine that encourages many young people to marry too young… in order to have sex. We affirm that wanting to have sex, or wanting to have sex with a particular person, are poor reasons to enter into a marriage.

The fact that today over 40% of births take place out of wedlock (as opposed to 5% fifty years ago) is empirical confirmation that many do not believe marriage has the significance that it was once thought to have had. Widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation and the high rate of divorce (especially amongst Christians) are telling signs that marriage often does not work, even when churchmen try to lend an aura of ‘sanctity’ to social institutions that are not suited to the nature of all human beings.  Moreover, the out of wedlock birth rate so lamented by the authors of the Manhattan Declaration is exacerbated by the very approach to sexuality they recommend, namely teaching teenagers that abstinence is a realistic form of birth control. Not only is this completely incongruous with vast human experience, but it denies vulnerable teens access to reliable methods of birth control and sound information about human sexuality, STD’s and family planning.  Many Christians themselves have scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage they extol and often have lived by double standards. When persons set themselves up as models for the sexual practices they expect the rest of society to adopt, they nevertheless assume that the privacy laws that still exist in Western liberal democracies will protect them from public scrutiny of their own private lives, making their sincerity impossible to test.

Many people do not find that marriage is profoundly beautiful or faithful.  Whether marriage is worth the sacrifices that are made for it depends upon the entire personal situation, not on abstract notions about the categorical  “holiness” of marriage. The very reason the signatories to the Manhattan Declaration need to “restore” the sense of how “beautiful” marriage is, reform “ill-advised” policies that allow divorce, and “instill” in young people a belief that marriage is irreversible, is that very many persons do not find that marriage is self-evidently good for them and for their human well-being.  It is very difficult to make value judgments about an event, ritual or social institution appear as though they are intrinsic features in the object itself when the weight of human experience goes contrary to it.  Values and value judgments are not within particular practices themselves, but are actively ascribed to them by interest groups who have particular reasons for valuing them.  The Manhattan Declaration’s authors lament the fact that fewer and fewer people find its definitions (eg. of marriage and social pathology) meaningful.  The express purpose of the Declaration is to exhort its readers to accept and reaffirm its value judgments and definitions and to accept them as objective truths.  If they were objective truths manifest in human experience or supported by good evidence then most persons would accordingly find them meaningful.  They do not.  Most people find that marriage, like other human institutions, is as good or as bad as its human participants make it.

It makes no sense to claim, as the authors of the Manhattan Declaration do, that marriage is established or completed through the act of spousal heterosexual intercourse, because one must already be a spouse in order to have spousal intercourse, so their argument is anachronistic and circular. They claim that heterosexual intercourse between spouses makes marriage real, but also claim that marriage is what makes heterosexual intercourse real.  It cannot be both ways.  Moreover, the claim that marriage is literally (not metaphorically) actualized by spouses fulfilling the behavioural conditions of procreation but that, at the same time, is not made less real by their infertility, begs the question why marriage is not rendered unreal by infertility in the case of heterosexuals but is somehow rendered unreal by the infertility of homosexuals.

Insofar as they do refer to empirical evidence about human nature as the basis for natural law, the Catholic Church and its allies do make assertions that can reasonably be considered ‘objective’.  However, from the vast array of relevant, observable facts they select for disproportionate emphasis those related to human procreation, virtually fetishizing the functions of genitalia by treating them as more essential to the meaning of marriage than other aspects of human nature, including consciousness. This approach to natural law selects physical aspects of human nature and renders them more essential as a basis for norms about sexual ethics than moral agency and the volitional aspects of ‘personhood’.

The Manhattan Declaration states that homosexuality is a disposition to conduct comparable to dispositions to “other forms of immoral conduct”. This language implies that homosexual acts per se are immoral.  Modern conservative Christians are exhorted to “love the sinner” because they are rightly uncomfortable with the notion that individuals can be “sinners” prior to making any free choices.

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