Some facts for Cardinal Keith O’Brien

I nominated Cardinal Keith O’Brien for the New Humanist Bad Faith award back in 2008. He didn’t win but I think if I nominated him again he would be in with a much better chance.

On his intervention in the gay marriage debate, it’s not just that his opinion is inhumane and hateful, it is based on two claims which are totally unsupported by the facts. Maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise but I think it is worth pointing out.

1. He says his definition of marriage is the ‘universally understood’ one

By this he presumably means that there is a total consensus that marriage is between one man and one woman and plans to legislate for gay marriage contravene this. But this understanding is not ‘universal’:

a. Institutions of marriage that have joined two people of the same sex have existed in the ancient and modern world and in every continent.

b. In Europe, Belgium, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway. Portugal, Spain and Sweden all have same-sex marriage. So do Argentina, Canada, South Africa, and parts of Brazil, Mexico and the USA.

c. Opinion polls in the UK in 2004, 2008 and 2009 found that a majority of people – as high as 61% – supported gay marriage.

So his understanding is not ‘universal’ – in fact it’s a minority position in the UK at least and there are plenty of people globally who also disagree with him.

2. He says governments don’t have the ‘moral authority’ to define marriage

He then goes on to define marriage himself, implying that his church does have the moral authority but:

a. Human beings have been pairing up and committing to each other for millennia before his church was a twinkle in St Paul’s eye.

b. The institution of marriage pre-dates Christianity and the definition of marriage in law has mostly been established by civil, not religious authorities – i.e. governments

c. Since 1992, most marriages in England and Wales have not been religious. In 2009 67% of marriages in England and Wales were not religious.

d. In 2010, in the Cardinal’s own Scotland, the number of humanist marriages exceeded the number of Catholic marriages by about 20% and the number of non-religious marriages overall was more than twice the number of religious marriages.

So the church has no claim on the definition of marriage (apart from the definition of marriage they choose to use in their own rituals of course, which no one is proposing to interfere with).


The Cardinal would be more honest if he just said that he doesn’t like gay marriages because his religion tells him so, and he doesn’t think people should be allowed to have them because he doesn’t think people should be allowed to have things his religion doesn’t like.

But then I suppose even fewer people would listen to him.



  1. Mark Beard

    This is a clear, lucid, rational, comprehensive victory over such an absurd stance. Well done Andrew!

    One minor correction: 2d line 2, did you omit ‘non-‘ before ‘religious’? 😈

  2. SkepticMedic

    Andrew, Lets also not forget that there are at least 1% of UK residents and a greater % of world population (perhaps not much lower than the catholic population) who believe that marriage is between 1 man and many women as polygamy is permitted in several communities among muslims, mormons and some parts of India.

  3. Not to mention it was the church which defined marriage as between a man and woman by outlawing same-sex marriages by penalty of death. That is their ‘tradition’ they seem so proud of.

  4. Augur Pearce

    Speaking as a liberal Christian, I never fail to be impressed by the amount of solid common-sense you talk, Andrew!

  5. Saul Epstein

    Well, I oppose the creation of new forms of marriage for wholly secular reasons, and think that Cardinal O’Brien got a bit of a bad rap, even if he didn’t help himself with his rather incoherent effort on Radio 4. Princeton’s Prof. Robert George and two of his graduate students wrote a good paper laying out the secular “anti” case which can be downloaded here.

  6. Andrew Copson

    Siddhant, The stats on numbers of marriages are totally reliable as they are official government stats.

    The stats on public opinion are all from reputable pollsters – but of course the question you ask has a big effect on the answers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *