Homosexuality and the Bible

Note on the title: If I was trying to be more accurate and inclusive, it should be read as Interpreting Non-Heterosexual Behavior within the Context of Bible, which is nowhere near as snappy.

I like to dissect and discuss the things I’m reading, but Facebook is problematic for that. I’m going to make an effort to turn this into a real blog and start doing the deep-dive analysis here. We’ll see how it goes. These take a lot longer to put together, so I don’t know how often I’ll do this, but I end up doing it on FB commentary sometimes, which is just not the right place for it.

This link to a Charisma magazine article, which is a well known Christian publication, came up in my feeds. It’s kind of a modern mainline protestant interpretation on homsexuality and the Bible, that fails to address really any of the questions the LGBTQ movement has raised. I’ll try to lay out this case.

First, a warning before going forward. It’s of course possible that Brown, the author, is truly ignorant of modern positions. Understand first that any criticism I lay here will be an attack on the ideas, and never an attack on the individual.

Brown’s position in the article is a pretty standard interpretation that annoys me, due to the fact that it doesn’t address any modern rebuttals to the positions it lays out. Much of this is addressed in great detail on ReligiousTolerance.org, specifically their page on homosexuality. There are five arguments raised, so I’ll lay them out in the context of the headings.

1. The testimony of Scripture remains unchanged: The Bible forbids homosexual practice.

This is just stating what many people believe, but it’s an assertion that is hardly that cut and dry. Some have interpreted this quite differently. The basic problem is that the passages in the Bible that reference homosexual behavior may be applied in a general fashion, or in a much more specific fashion. For instance, many of the laws listed in Leviticus deal with very specific behavior, such as eating shellfish. Which, just so happens, is declared an abomination. Much like another passage in Leviticus that is widely quoted, 20:13 (KJV):

If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death. Their blood shall be upon them.

It’s often missed in some interpretations that the passage is referring to a man lying in a woman’s bed with a man. It’s a quite specific act. Quoting J. Nelson on the Lev. 20:13 passage: “It is grounded in the old Jewish understanding that women are less worthy than men. For a man to have sex with another man ‘as with a woman’ insults the other man, because women are to be treated as property.”

Most seem to generalize these passages though into a blanket condemnation of non-heterosexual behavior. But be warned, you can condemn homosexual behavior in general, but in order to be coherent, you would also be accepting “women are chattel” as a proposition. You can tell how problematic this quickly becomes.

2.The Bible is a heterosexual book

I think we need to start with a few erroneous statements the author makes. Consider:

Throughout the Word, the only relationships that were acceptable in God’s sight or considered normal for society were heterosexual relationships, and so homosexual practice was either irrelevant (because it had nothing to do with the God-ordained relationships of marriage and family and society) or, if mentioned, explicitly condemned.

The only required refutation of this has been handled brilliantly by Awkward Moments Children’s Bible, specifically in the passage about Samuel 20:41. This story is, as pedantically and dryly as possible, about the relationship between two men, David and Johnathan, whose relationship is being oppressed by their parents and authority figures. It begins “and they kiss one another, and they weep one with another”. It’s certainly not a story presented in a negative light. Most apologists will argue their’s is an innocent relationship, but it’s hard to dismiss the Brokeback Mountain features of the story. Please note that the end of this passage is variously translated as:

  • “until David exceeded” (ambiguous bowdlerization, perhaps?)
  • “till David exerted himself” (probably the most literal)
  • “until David wept more” (wishful thinking, given the context)

There’s a couple of other passages like this that exist, demonstrating that the stories in the Bible are not quite what some would have you believe today. ReligiousTolerance.org again provides some useful context:

The Bible describes three emotionally close relationships between two people of the same gender. They appear to have progressed well beyond a casual friendship. There is, however, no unmistakable evidence that they were sexually active relationships.

The hard-line approach quoted from Brown’s article starts to show cracks once some of the baseless assertions the author makes are invalidated.

3. Gender complementarity is of foundational importance

Forgive me, this is going to get super pedantic for a sec. This assertion is based on an idea of biological determinism of sexual and gender identity. In a nutshell, that means that you “ought” to act a certain way depending on what genes you have, or what type of genitalia is between your legs. For a complete refutation of this line of thinking, I present the intersex. The existence of folks who don’t really cleanly fit the traditionally understood categories of male or female tends to throw a monkey wrench into the idea that who you are is determined by your body somehow. Many of these individuals, in order to fit into our binary society are forced to choose to live as male or female, often at much cost to them.

The argument Brown makes is that men and women are complementary, therefore it’s the only “right” way to be in a relationship. For a logical refutation, please turn your wikipedia to the Naturalistic Fallacy. Anytime someone makes an argument on the basis that it’s good because it’s natural, it’s probably wrong.

Let’s review Brown’s last word in this section:

And in the words of a man who lived as a homosexual all his life (he’s now past 70) but has recently found the Lord, “Even an atheist can understand the lack of anatomical complementarity and therefore biological purpose in male-to-male or female-to-female sexuality.”

As a reminder for new readers, I am an atheist, and as such, I can understand the idea they’re driving at, but it’s nonsensical. The biological purpose of a penis and a vagina is for waste disposal on a far more regular basis than it’s used for sex. As quoted in Forgetting Sarah Marshall: “Let me just say that if God was a city planner he would not put a playground next to a sewage system!” I think this puts a pretty good hole in the biological purpose argument.

This may seem like misdirection, because I’m avoiding the procreation argument that is implied, which Brown also doesn’t directly address. This would be a much longer argument, and I think David Corvino and Maggie Gallagher’s book Debating Same-Sex Marriage covers it much better than I can.

4. Jesus knew exactly what was inside people, including their “sexual orientation”

This is simply a misdirection by Brown. He tries to cut this off by saying:

We’re not talking about the writers of Scripture understanding modern science. We’re talking about them—including Jesus Himself—understanding human nature.

But that is exactly what we’re talking about! He is casting a straw man argument that Jesus or God could not have our modern understanding. If you accept that God exists and is omniscient, then clearly that argument would be wrong. But that is not the argument being made.

The nuanced argument is that the writers of the Bible couldn’t have our modern understanding of social construction theory, biology, philosophy, and so on. Accepting for the moment that the Bible is divinely inspired and true to His intent, it’s still entirely possible that the language and concepts did not exist for the authors of the Bible. They would have had to make do, recording His much more complex concepts in a language of their time, not suited to handle them. This is a subset of the translation argument, basically.

5. The gospel brings good news to homosexual men and women

the message of the gospel brings forgiveness, freedom, hope and deliverance, as countless thousands of ex-gays can attest…

This is the most problematic part for me because it implies support for conversion therapy. This would also be a whole other article by itself. I think it can be summed up like this: the APA condemns the practice on ethical grounds (re:hippocratic oath, “first, do no harm”), and it statistically shows less than optimistic rates of success.

As far as our modern understanding goes, sexual orientation and gender identity are mostly innate characteristics that are not likely to change much. There’s demonstrable fluidity in how people choose to identify or behave, but this does not change the fact that ethically speaking, encouraging people to adhere to traditional societal norms in this context, against their inclinations, seems to do more harm than good.

To close this out, the only interpretation I can come up with, frankly, is it’s a propaganda piece, meant to preach to the choir and bolster their existing beliefs. Brown seems to treat some arguments, such as #4, in a more blatantly specious fashion, utilizing rhetorical chicanery rather than any sound argumentation. It also seems to follow the confirmation bias, where Brown is casting his arguments according to his existing belief, rather than following the evidence where it might lead.

Stay skeptical, friends.

An Atheist’s Response to a Catholic

I’ve been having conversations with a friend of mine about belief and faith for a couple years now. We got talking about it again the other day and she implied that Catholicism has some of the best evidence in her opinion for why I ought to believe. She linked me this article, “Atheists Are Closer to God Than They Think“, in Catholic Answers magazine. The following is my response, I thought it worth sharing here.

I read this article, I appreciate the point of view. The article raises a lot of questions, though, that it leaves unanswered. I wonder if that is because the writer has an agenda? Or is it simply because she wasn’t aware she was leaving open questions? I prefer to assume ignorance rather than malice, it’s the kinder of the two.

I appreciate your point that I should give other opinions a try, and apparently I haven’t made myself clear on this point. I think I’ve done a decent job trying to give other points of view than mine a fair shake. I don’t think you understand the depth I’ve gone to in that attempt.

I have in my life read the bible 4 times from cover to cover. I’ve studied different explanations of it, from various churches of different denominations, schools and thinkers to try and understand it. I have read at least as much apologetics, hermeneutics, and theological philosophy that expounds on the bible, as I have skeptical works. I have *not* devoured the catechism, so I’ll pick through it as time permits, as it’s a large document. I continue to expand my research in many directions as I find time.

I’d like to raise to your attention how the author of the article misses a couple things. She talks about how secular morality fails to satisfy her. But I think she saw parts of the problem, but not the whole thing. There’s a conspicuous absence of certain points.
The author raises Hume’s is-ought problem. But she didn’t raise the corresponding Euthyphro dilemma, which is much older and well known, and which makes her position just as untenable. I think I’ve mentioned it, but it’s usually stated as “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?”

Here’s the problem with Absolute Morality and God in a nutshell: If it’s Good because God says so, he could say it’s Good to eat babies, and it would be so because he commanded it, regardless of how we think or *feel* about it. Also, other conceptions of gods command other things and they often disagree. If it’s good in itself, and God just lets us know that, then morality doesn’t originate from God. It’s a thorny problem and I don’t have an answer to it, but it does make me question how the author found answers to the is-ought problem by finding catholicism.

As far as I’m aware, no one has solved these problems of morality. The closest I’ve seen from theological scholars is with work in theodicy, which is attempts to answer the question (the problem of evil):why does God allow evil to exist, if he’s all-powerful, all-seeing, all-good?

I do believe there are moral absolutes, but they’re formulated, in language at least, in less than absolute terms. Trying to explain something in normal human language ends up being quite messy. Try reading Wittgenstein sometime, this is sorta his bag. And he’s quite difficult to understand, lol.

The author also describes her unease with certain styles of utilitarian morality. It sounds like she’s talking about Peter Singer, who to be honest tends to rub a lot of people the wrong way. This is the key passage:
“when I encountered views like my classmate’s or the professor’s or countless others, a part of me wanted to scream, “You don’t kill newborn infants or ignore people in need because that’s just wrong!” All this cool, detached analysis of how we should treat our fellow human beings based on what stood up to the scientific method fell nauseatingly short of capturing the intense feelings that boiled within me when I pondered such matters.”

Everyone, unless you’re a psychopath, gets pretty emotional when we’re talking about death or murder or simply harm caused upon children, in particular. There’s a lot to deal with here. First, when we study morality in academia, *detachment*, or the shackling of the passions, is considered necessary in pretty much any pursuit of knowledge. This is because our emotions will blind us, and we make logical mistakes because of them. Biases become more pronounced when you’re emotional.

On the other hand: “[Hume’s] thesis is that reason alone cannot move us to action; the impulse to act itself must come from passion. The doctrine that reason alone is merely the ‘slave of the passions,’ i.e., that reason pursues knowledge of abstract and causal relations solely in order to achieve passions’ goals and provides no impulse of its own…”

Reason is the slave of the passions. Reason and scientific enquiry mean *nothing* without a passionate, emotional drive behind them.

No scientist, or academic research, or moral philosopher throws out emotions either. In fact, in philosophy, we’re open to being guided by our intuitions. But our intuitions like to play tricks on us. Just look at all the optical illusions for a set of similar examples. Our mind will play tricks on us like that with logic too.

Morality is a very tricky thing. It tends to trip a lot of people up once they start digging into it. It’s useful to listen to your intuitions (killing is bad, mmmkay!) but you can’t let them blind you either. Some moral philosophers like Singer, spend a fair amount of time laying out logical cases that may suggest, out of context, that they are approving of killing the infirm, but that’s not the final conclusion. I’m working through his book right now, actually, that discusses this.

Singer spends 50 pages expounding on the difference between a *person* and a *human being*. There exist human beings like infants and the infirm that do not possess enough mental faculties to be self-aware or reason, so we don’t treat them like *persons* in the same way we treat most people. Singer is not suggesting that we murder them just because they’re not as smart as us. But he does make some arguments that do suggest there’s a relevant difference that’s worth considering in moral reasoning.

Here’s the point with all the morality talk: a group could perfectly represent *your* moral beliefs. But just because it agrees with you, doesn’t mean it’s right. If it disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either. The question should be, which is true? Do you care about the truth? Or does it matter more that it agrees with what you feel is right?

How do you establish the truth of morality? What ought we do to be good people? The Bible, Christianity, and Catholicism have a lot to say about this. I have a lot I can say about it too, but I don’t want to open further threads of criticism here that I don’t have time to complete right now, and I’ve already typed a lot here.

I hope you get what I’m trying to say. Time for me to go read some more.