As I write this the UK Parliament is considering Clause 1(1) of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. It reads ‘Marriage of same sex couples is lawful’. Aside from all considerations about how Christians should respond to same-sex attraction and see biblical teaching reflected in the law of the land, what intrigues me here is one of the background assumptions, namely, that same-sex marriage is possible. Now, in the UK same-sex marriage has not been a social norm, to put it mildly. And the assumption of the UK government actually boils down to an assumption that, for the geographical entity of the UK, marriage ‘belongs’ to the UK government. It ‘belongs’ to it in the sense that it has the right to define and shape it. It has the right to ‘name’ what is and is not marriage.
Now, you do not have to have the theological acumen of John Calvin to spot that this is in practical terms atheistic. What I want to propose here is that this kind of atheism has a striking quality to it. It is colonialist. It is colonial atheism. There are no doubt other dimensions to it, but the colonial quality is important. And while I think it is very British, I do not think we Brits have any monopoly on this kind of colonialism.
Why should we describe some aspects of contemporary atheism as colonialist? The terms obviously suggest that colonial history and contemporary atheism have something in common. But what? The common denominator hinges on the idea of what is now called terra nullius, land that belongs to no one. And what I aim to do here is develop a line of thought that came up recently in discussion with the Bishop of St Albans in the UK, Alan Smith (‘colonial atheism’ is his phrase). It is hugely illuminating.
The idea behind terra nullius is quite simple. You declare that some land belongs to no-one, so it then becomes available for occupation. Something like this crops up in ancient Roman law, where it gave an account of how, for example, a newly appeared island in the sea could be reduced into ownership (Justinian’s Institutes II.1.22). This is not unreasonable: it is new land and clearly no one has laid any claim to it, either explicitly or implicitly. But imagine how very different the application is when you come across land where other people are living out their lives and you then declare it belongs to no one, thereby leaving it open to you to occupy for yourself. Now, the provenance of the term terra nullius is certainly a point of contention in academic circles just now, but the idea is found in judgments British authorities make in nineteenth-century Australia which relate to the claims to lands lived on by Aboriginal Australians. Unmistakably, it works to the disadvantage of those Aboriginal Australians.
However, whatever the original intention, there is a ‘Heads-I-win-tails-you-lose’ sense to terra nullius here. This happens in the following way. In order to qualify for recognition as owner, you have to have cultural forms which map onto the culture and practice of the colonial power. If you do have cultural forms which map onto the culture and practice of the colonial power, they are treated as part of the culture and practice of the colonial power. They are not treated as having an independent validity. The risk then is that your own culture has simply been assimilated into the colonial power anyway. Alternatively, because you retain culture and practice which does not fit the colonial power, you are un-personed in one of the most significant ways a property-owning culture knows: you are a non-owner.