PETER SINGER. Rugby Australia’s “Own Goal” (Project Syndicate 11.6.2019)

If Rugby Australia had existed in the first century of the Christian era, and Paul had had enough talent to be a contracted player, the sport’s national governing body presumably would have ripped up his contract once his first letter to the Corinthians, with its injunction against homosexuality, became public. Just ask star fullback and born-again Christian Israel Folau. 

There is no such thing as an own goal in rugby, but Rugby Australia, the game’s governing body in Australia, has done its very best to score one by terminating the contract of Israel Folau. In doing so, it has lost the services of a star fullback who has played 73 tests for Australia.

Rugby Australia’s reason for ending Folau’s career is that he posted on his Instagram account a photo of a notice saying that “hell awaits… drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists, and idolaters.” To this, Folau added some words of his own: “Those that are living in Sin will end up in Hell unless you repent. Jesus Christ loves you and is giving you time to turn away from your sin and come to him.”

In a statement issued after the sacking, Rugby Australia Chief Executive Officer Raelene Castle said: “I’ve communicated directly with the players to make it clear that Rugby Australia fully supports their right to their own beliefs and nothing that has happened changes that. But when we are talking about inclusiveness in our game, we’re talking about respecting differences as well. When we say rugby is a game for all, we mean it.”

Folau is a born-again Christian, and his post was an expression of his religious beliefs. To prevent misunderstanding, I should say that I do not share those beliefs. As an unrepentant atheist, I am among those for whom, Folau believes, hell awaits. But that does not trouble me, because there is, in my view, no god, no afterlife, and no hell. Nor do I differentiate, ethically, between homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Folau’s post falls squarely within traditional Christian teachings that Christians accepted almost unanimously until the twentieth century, and that continue to be held widely – though against strong and growing opposition – among Christians today. The post clearly draws on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul is reported as saying: “Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men,nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Paul also tells his Christian readers that they must not associate with anyone who is sexually immoral: “Do not even eat with such people.” That would have included not only homosexuals and adulterers, but also sexually active singles.

If Rugby Australia had existed in the first century of the Christian era, and Paul had had enough talent to be a contracted player, Rugby Australia would presumably have ripped up his contract once his letter to the Corinthians became public. That makes it quite bizarre that Castle should have justified Folau’s dismissal by saying, “People need to feel safe and welcomed in our game regardless of their gender, race, background, religion, or sexuality.” Did she mean that you can feel welcomed in rugby, regardless of your religious beliefs, as long as you don’t express them in public? That looks a lot like telling homosexuals that they can do what they want in the privacy of their bedroom, but they must not show their affection in public because some people might find it offensive.

As this example shows – and as John Stuart Mill argued in his classic On Liberty – once we allow, as a ground for restricting someone’s freedom of speech or action, the claim that someone else has been offended by it, freedom is in grave danger of disappearing entirely. After all, it is very difficult to say anything significant to which no one could possibly take offense. Mill had in mind restrictions imposed by the state, but when employers dismiss employees who make controversial utterances, that is also a threat to freedom of expression – especially when the employer has a monopoly on the employment of workers with special skills, as Rugby Australia does.

Rugby Australia would have a stronger basis for its decision if Folau’s post had expressed hatred toward homosexuals and could have been interpreted as an incitement to violence against them. But the post no more expresses hatred toward homosexuals than cigarette warnings express hatred toward smokers.

If that analogy seems implausible, that’s because you do not take Folau’s beliefs seriously. Granted, for anyone outside that particular faith, it’s hard to take such beliefs seriously. But try putting yourself in the position of someone with Folau’s beliefs. You see people on a path toward a terrible fate – much worse than getting lung cancer, because death will not release them from their agony – and they are blind to what awaits them. Wouldn’t you want to warn them, and give them the chance to avoid that awful fate? I assume that is what Folau believes he is doing. He even tells homosexuals that Jesus loves them, and calls on them to repent so that they can avoid burning in hell for eternity. That doesn’t sound like hate speech.

What should Rugby Australia have done about Folau’s post? It might have just said that people are entitled to express their religious beliefs, and that would have been the end of the story. Only 14% of Australians say that religion is very important to them, and not all among them are adherents of religions that believe in hell. So most Australians would be more likely to laugh off Folau’s beliefs than to take them seriously. Perhaps that is the best way to react to them.

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Laureate Professor in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and founder of the non-profit organization The Life You Can Save.  In 2013, he was named the world’s third “most influential contemporary thinker” by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute.


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12 Responses to PETER SINGER. Rugby Australia’s “Own Goal” (Project Syndicate 11.6.2019)

  1. Avatar Jill Osthoff says:

    Thank you Peter Singer for arguing so logically why Israel Foley should not be sacked.
    Methinks Alan Joyces
    fingerprints are in there somewhere.
    Irish Catholicism was in the past such a dominant overbearing “you’ll go to hell” religion!!
    As John Mills said…it’s difficult to say anything of significance without offending someone!!Marlene Castle is one of those Barbarians at the gates!!

  2. Matthew, nobody is hindering Israel Folau’s free speech. He is making more noise than ever. It is unreasonable to expect the sport of rugby to finance his second career as a preacher.

  3. Avatar Matthew King says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Singer’s argument. And for the record, as per Singer, I don’t share Folau’s Christian beliefs, or have an ethical gripe regarding homosexuality.

    The point about free speech is the crux of this discussion. And this tale highlights the extent to which pandering to political correctness has gone. I think that is the story here, not some weighing up of the merits of religious beliefs in the 21st century.

    Someone above mentioned ‘free speech fundamentalist’ (to describe Singer) – how about political correctness fundamentalism to describe the times? Political correctness is the moral snake oil today. Having the sanctimonious left playing thought police – on behalf of us all – is ironically in its own way on par with the archaic times when the church lorded it over us all. I think Singer kind of makes that point with reference to the Ruby Australia statement by-the-way.

    So, hey, you don’t like a biblical quote tweeted by a rugby player? Then exercise your freedom of speech and tweet how you disagree if you are so triggered to do so. In its way, that is healthy public discourse. It affords the opportunity for people to weigh up their beliefs. This thought police mentality that says you have to be metaphorically crucified for supposedly offending the minority du jour is far more concerning in my view.

  4. Avatar Peter (PJ) Johnstone says:

    Peter Singer seems to mount the free speech and religious freedom argument in favour of Israel Folau. The real issue is the morality of condemning and thus vilifying a class of people, in this case people who have suffered unjust and ill-informed vilification for a long time. We have shown we are better than that in supporting marriage equality. It seems that many of those defending Folau are uncomfortable with societal acceptance of LGBTIQ sexual orientation due primarily to ill-informed religious doctrine. That raises a more basic question: does religious freedom require a just society to accept and tolerate the public propagation of all religious doctrines regardless of their morality, e.g. homophobic, sexist, or racist doctrines? I don’t doubt that Israel Folau is genuine in his beliefs but I would certainly expect Rugby Australia to prevent their players using their Rugby fame to propagate vilification of people of LGBTIQ sexual orientation.

  5. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Interestingly, just to-day I received a piece sent from a friend which would suggest, presumably, that Israel and our PM for Heaven’s sake – admit to a bit of picking and choosing from among different bits of the scriptures they so profess to follow which offer visions of said scriptures which may well once have accepted – but like the injunctions Peter SINGER refers to here – no longer have currency – even among most sincere Christians. I add it here:

    “I need some advice and guidance on the interpretation of the bible.

    When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind them that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination… End of debate.

    I do need some advice, however, regarding some other elements of God’s Laws and how to follow them.

    1. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may possess slaves, both male and female, provided they are purchased from neighboring nations. A friend of mine claims that this applies to Irish, but not Scottish. Can you clarify? Why can’t I own Scotsmen?

    2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?

    3. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of menstrual uncleanliness – Lev.15: 19-24. The problem is how do I tell? I have tried asking, but most women take offence.

    4. When I burn a bull on the altar as a sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odour for the Lord – Lev.1:9. The problem is, my neighbours. They claim the odour is not pleasing to them. Should I smite them?

    5. I have a neighbour who insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2. clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself, or should I ask the police to do it?

    6. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination – Lev. 11:10, it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this? Are there ‘degrees’ of abomination?

    7. Lev. 21:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I do wear glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?

    8. Most of my male friends get their hair trimmed, including the hair around their temples, even though this is expressly forbidden by Lev. 19:27. How should they die?

    9. I know from Lev. 11:6-8 that touching the skin of a dead pig makes me unclean, but may I still play football if I wear gloves?

    10. My uncle has a farm. He violates Lev. 19:19 by planting two different crops in the same field, as does his wife by wearing garments made of two different kinds of thread (cotton/polyester blend). He also tends to curse and blaspheme a lot. Is it really necessary that we go to all the trouble of getting the whole town together to stone them to death? Lev.24:10-16. Couldn’t we just burn them to death at a private family affair, like we do with people who sleep with their in-laws? (Lev. 20:14)

    I need advice from someone who has studied these things extensively and thus enjoys considerable expertise in such matters, so I am confident somebody can help. We are frequently reminded by religious persons that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.”

    • Avatar Peter Donnan says:

      Hullo Jim

      Your plaintive request to resolve OT moral quandaries in contemporary Australian life, arising from literal, cherry-picking interpretations of scripture, makes some very telling points.

      Peter Singer’s position – ‘there is, in my view, no god, no afterlife, and no hell’ – is formidable, logical and well argued.

      For Christians, though, it is no so clear but the question I ask is: what type of religious communities thrive on hell, condemning others, being so self-righteous and judgmental.

      A lot of religions – false ones in my view – are preoccupied with money or mammon. Notice the legal claim for damages. Folau is like a Margaret Court figure – a one-time champion but so, so morally justified and not down and out either. What about some Christian charity and compassion for those on the margins?

      In the Old Testament and in Judaic times there was little understanding that one might be born with this orientation. There are scientific fallacies in the Old Testament viz. in Genesis light is created before the sun which we know is the source of light. Some beliefs then are unsustainable nowadays and your posting, Jim, shows the absurdity of rigid, literal interpretation of scripture.

      There is also a sense of ‘judge not and you shall not be judged’. The idea of hell, too, is difficult to prove in scientific terms and one might in, a religious sense, expect more compassion and respect for gay people, adulterers etc. rather than condemnation.

      My view is that it is not Israel Folau but the religious congregation in which he worships that should be closely examined. I am not sure if some of these born again Christian communities are top-shelf, sophisticated biblical scholars.

      The New Testament identifies the acid test of being a christian: by the love you have for one another, shall everyone know you are my disciples. This is a much more sublime challenge than going to court seeking financial damages for an injured reputation, especially when one is on a million dollar plus contract.

  6. Avatar Tony Calladine says:

    Possibly the elephant in the room, relating to this matter is the sponsor/s. What may need to be addressed is the sponsor’s role as the catalyst for Rugby Australia to react the way in which it did in relation to one of its most capped players. Rugby Australia’s reaction seems to be out of balance for what was written by Folau. Therefore the question needs to be asked, “What role did the sponsor’s play in Australian Rugby’s decision to bring Folau to task over a relative minor and irrelevant matter?” furthermore “Did the sponsor/s threaten Australian Rugby over sponsorship deals if action was not taken over Folau?” Possibly only half of the story has been told.

  7. Avatar Michael Butler says:

    I think you’re missing the commercial imperative: RA was at risk of losing sponsors the last time Folau made such a statement and wanted to avoid financial loss. They’ve also not restricted his freedom to post his messages, and he’s been actively doing so.
    I also think you’re falling foul of biblical literalism. You mention the need to avoid unmarried folks who are sexually active but don’t ping Folau for it. There are plenty of other examples, like executing those who work on the sabbath (e.g. Saturday football).
    You can’t have it both ways.
    Besides which, many people have media and social media clauses in their contract that restrict what they can say publicly. Per your argument about Mill, if we start allowing personal beliefs – religious or otherwise – to trump the law of the land then the rule of law is pretty much done.

  8. Avatar J.Donegan says:

    Thank you Professor Singer for your clear exposition, it is most welcome.
    While I have long thought this matter to be something of a storm in a tea cup,
    others have a different view entirely and this may be one explanation for the push to have so-called “religious freedom” legislation introduced into the Cth Parliament.
    Indeed certain persons in the present Government appear already to have concluded there exists a “mandate” to do this.
    At the same time we ought not to forget that the push to amend Section 18C of the
    Racial Discrimination Act is simmering away quietly in the background and may well involve the same “certain persons”.

  9. Avatar Bob Aikenhead says:

    One of the arguments advanced for censoring Folau’s comments is the emotional anguish they might cause to immature minds of persons in the categories he names. Such minds not necessarily belonging to those of sub-adult age.
    The appropriate response is not censorship of statements that might possibly cause offence but frank discussion as to (a) the credence that should reasonably be given to the opinions of sportspersons and (b) the evidence for the framework of beliefs being promoted.
    Offence and anguish on reading Folau’s opinions comes not from his words per se but their interaction with ideas inculcated in some persons from an early age. There is no gene for establishing a belief in hell !
    It is ethically right to avoid causing emotional distress to others. Those, understandably, concerned about the possible emotional distress some might experience on seeing Folau’s tweet would do well to look at the fundamental cause. While a banal argument rages about ‘free speech’ many continue to think it ok for some parents, some schools, and other groups, to induce in children a belief in hell and similar concepts. Seems like child abuse.

  10. Avatar R. N. England says:

    St Paul makes it clear in Verses 9-12 that he is being strict only with those who profess Christianity, that it is none of his business what the others do, and that he is not asking Christians to shun those whom it is up to God to judge.

    Folau is going a step further than St Paul, telling large numbers of Australians, many of whom are young and not as self-confident as Singer, that they will burn in hell. Rugby Australia is exercising its right not to be a platform for fear-mongering amongst the vulnerable, and to be kind and welcoming to those Folau threatens with fire and brimstone.

    Singer, like so many in his adopted country, is a free-speech fundamentalist. That not only blinds him to damage religious crack-pots do, but also to the clear evidence that the rising level of verbal abuse and associated mutual loathing among rival power-seekers is destroying his country.

  11. You are missing the point, Peter. Israel Folau is being used by the religious Right who are extremely dangerous. If religious discrimination law goes ahead they and their lawyers will use it to rip apart the fabric of our easy-going society. It is safer to rely on Section 116.

    In Wednesday’s (12 June) Australian, Denis Dragovic discusses Attorney General Christian Porter’s proposed three-prong approach to religious protection legislation. The headline of the feature is “How to protect believers without a blasphemy law.” Fancy even using the blasphemy word in 21st Century Australia.

    Denis writes that the legislation “could open the proverbial can of worms with non-Christian religions, particularly Islam and Judaism, whose doctrines shape not only individual behaviour but a far broader set of social interactions.”

    Like Saint Paul, Israel Folau and his born-again mates are free to hold their opinions but there are times when they talk too much. Legally I doubt if the full-back has a leg to stand on.

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