IntroductionWe all know that certain Christians, usually fundamentalist evangelicals and pentecostals, attack the legitimacy of being a gay person because of Scripture. They pull out Leviticus and Romans faster than you can say Westboro Baptist and speedily go in for the kill, telling us that our lives are a rejection of God, that we are living in sin, that we will not inherit the Kingdom of God, and my favourite, that we are an abomination. There’s not much love and grace here, just arrogance and judgementalism. Now, you will probably know that in my book Being Gay Being Christian, I deal with these issues and the six Bible passages that are used ferociously to deny our lives in quite some detail. I make an effort to attempt to set the Biblical record straight systematically on what it does and does not say about gay people and I do so based on modern scholarship.
But this is not the whole story of the repudiation of the gay person by the Christian church. This is actually only half of it. The other half is what I want to write about in this post - and that is about nature. There is a large and historic discourse set against the gay person based on the idea that being gay goes against nature. That everyday kind of language is not the exact language this discourse uses. Rather, it uses the more philosophical lexis of ‘natural law’, but my ‘everyday’ rendering of it gives you the idea of where we will be going as we examine these claims. Some of it I admit is a little complicated, even somewhat byzantine in parts, but it is worth examining because there is a long history here that affects all gay people and their loved ones, whether they are Christians or not. So, let’s take a look.
Who Is Saying This?We’ll begin our examination first by looking at who exactly is saying this stuff. Who are the main perpetrators of such thinking? Who says that being gay goes against nature? The answer to this one at least is an easy one. The Roman Catholic Church has historically used the ‘natural law’ argument against the beauty and legitimacy of a gay life rather than the Scriptural argument relied on by Protestant denominations of all persuasions.
While the Catholic Church does quote Scripture in its official teachings, it mostly relies on philosophical discourse in its approach to theological and ethical issues and uses Scripture to augment its argument or as a base from which to argue further. It is ‘high’ knowledge, educated and learn-ed thinking couched in often arcane, dense and difficult language. Believe it or not, official Catholic teaching actually comes out in Latin first and only then is it translated into the various vernaculars. While the evangelicals appeal to the authority of the Bible, the Catholics appeal to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church which itself teaches is a Christ-given authority. They call this teaching authority the Magisterium and Catholics are taught from a very young age to accept its teachings without question. It becomes the official doctrine of the Catholic Church.
Now when I use the term Catholic Church, I really should make a distinction in the language. You see, as I argue in my book, there are really two Catholic churches: one is the official Catholic Church based in the Vatican in Rome with its powerful Magisterium and its doctrinal declarations. The second is the grass-roots Catholic Church at the local parish level in the cities and suburbs around the world. While most Catholics at the local parish level listen to the official teachings of the Church, they don’t always believe or follow those teachings to the letter. Rather, they will often follow their own heart and conscience and many may choose which teachings feel appropriate for them personally.
The most obvious example of this is the Church’s pronouncement that the use of contraception is an immoral act. The figures suggest that in the world’s most populous Catholic country, the United States of America, 98% of fertile Catholic women ignore the teaching and use contraception yet still call themselves Catholic. While the official line is that you can’t just pick and choose what suits you, for many Catholics in the twenty-first century, that is the reality.
Now again, while some Protestant adversaries of gay sexuality do use natural law philosophy from time to time, they mostly look to Scripture, so it really is the official Catholic teaching that we’re talking about. And the Catholic Church is by far the largest Christian denomination on earth, so the ability to influence a lot of thinking is clearly apparent.
What Does It Claim?Well, in a nutshell, there are a couple of fundamental propositions that the natural law adherents stack up one on the other. There is a long history here but I enumerate them below for you in eight short propositions first:
- Nature is created by God;
- Therefore nature is good (because God only creates that which is good);
- Nature reproduces (this phenomenon has been woven into the fabric of nature by God);
- Therefore, according to the order of nature, all sexual acts must include the possibility of reproduction;
- This implies that all sexual acts which exclude the possibility of reproduction are against nature and therefore against God’s order;
- Homosexuality is a sexual act that does not include the possibility of reproduction and is therefore against God and His order;
- Anything that goes against the order of God cannot be of God and can be considered immoral;
- Therefore homosexuality is immoral.
One way of summarising the natural law position is the aphorism:
Sex = Procreation
Therefore, Homosexuality = Sin
I will deal with this systematically because a lot is riding on this claim. We’ll start with some philosophy and then move to some history.
Two Views of NatureOver the two millennia since Jesus walked the earth, there have been two distinct views about nature: the realistic view and the idealistic view. Occasionally they overlap, and occasionally as you shall see, people have ascribed to one but when it suited them, aligned themselves to aspects of the other and just conveniently forgot to mention that they were changing camps in doing so. We'll start with the first in this post and then move onto the second in Part 2.
The Realistic ViewThere are three ways that the realistic view of nature is typically seen.
1. Nature is seen as as the character or essence of something, eg. the nature of love, the nature of lions, human nature, the nature of baroque music.
‘Unnatural’ here would be seen as something uncharacteristic of the person or thing, some way that it differs from the usual.
2. Nature is seen as the composite of properties or principles of everything that exists in the universe, eg., “the laws of nature” and even in the sense of “death is part of nature.”
‘Unnatural’ here would therefore be seen as that which is not part of the scientifically observable world, eg., ghosts or miracles.
3. Nature (or natural) is seen as something that is outside of human interference or intervention, ie., that which is not man-made. It denotes what occurs without man’s intervention, eg., not damming a river (human intervention) but allowing it to take its ‘natural’ course.
‘Unnatural’ here is seen as either:
• characteristic only of humans as in ‘hunting for sport is unnatural (as opposed to hunting for food like the animals do);
• or simply artificial, as in unnatural fibres or foodstuffs, eg., polyester
The great historian of homosexuality, John Boswell (1) on whom I rely significantly in this post, reminds us that there is a cultural inconsistency here in the use of our language. He says that homosexuality, which we will see further on is wrongly argued as not occurring in nature, is deemed ‘unnatural,’ but polyester, a fibre that also does not occur in nature, is considered to be ‘non-natural;’ an altogether softer descriptor and possessing less intensity.
It is interesting isn’t it? Why the inconsistency? ‘Unnatural’ versus ‘non-natural’; yet both holding exactly the same deemed quality of not occurring naturally in the non-human world (in this third sense). It we were consistent, we would call them both unnatural or both non-natural, but consistency alas is something that is missing in abundance from the natural law argument against gay sexuality, or to borrow Shakespeare’s gorgeous phrase, “more honoured in the breach than in the observance”.
Animal ModelThis third sense of the use of ‘nature’ is in great measure a model of its own, such has been its influence in Western thinking and has been the most common control or standard to evaluate what is natural. It could loosely be described as the ‘nature minus humans model’ or ‘animal model’, but despite its significant influence on thinking, it is fraught with difficulty on various levels when examined closely.
It is really not possible in the twenty first century to view that which is uniquely human as less than natural or unnatural. In biological taxonomy, human beings, like sheep, cows, goats, apes, lizards and frogs, belong to the Kingdom Animalia and are as much a part of nature and what is natural as any other constituent of the animal kingdom. To consider any act or intervention of humanity as being outside the realm of the natural in fact does not make sense, ie., is illogical, and is demonstrated so. Humanity is understood by science and modernity as being part of nature (q.e.d.), not set apart from nature.
Boswell makes the following important point about how we deem something to be natural or unnatural. He says that in reality, what is often considered natural or unnatural is entirely subjective and conceptually ambiguous when there is the presence of more than one individual. For example, two people may agree that the dyed hair of a third person looks unnatural. One person means only that it does not suit the person (in their opinion), while the other one means that dyed hair is inherently unaesthetic or undesirable.
Gay Sexuality and The Realistic View
Regarding gay sexuality, the realistic view:
a) distorts the truth of what is really happening by
- ignoring the truths of science
- making declarations in authoritative language that are false, and
b) is enveloped in the inconsistencies to which I alluded above.
Homosexuality Is UnnaturalThere are two assumptions that underlie the belief that homosexuality is unnatural in the ‘realistic model’ as described above:
- The belief that any sexual behaviour that is non-reproductive is unnatural;
- The belief that homosexuality does not occur anywhere else in animals other than humans.
The belief that any sexual behaviour that is non-reproductive is unnatural
a. Many heterosexual married people engage in sexual activity that is non-reproductive. In today’s society, this is not only considered not unnatural, but is considered to be a good and sensible thing to do in terms of the planning and management of family size;
b. Many heterosexual unmarried people engage in sexual activity that is non-reproductive. In today’s society, this is considered acceptable. There are very few virgins walking down the aisle or waiting for them at the front of the church. Such sexual activity is even thought sensible by society before undertaking a commitment to marriage;
c. Both married and unmarried heterosexual people engage in sexual activity that is actually predominantly non-reproductive. People generally enjoy their sex lives as part of the richness of partnered life that brings intimacy, erotic pleasure and fun. There are lots and lots and lots of reasons why people have sex. Procreation is only one of them. For the most part, sexual activity for consenting adults is not about procreation.
d. Many animals have an oestrus cycle when the females come ‘on heat’ and are receptive to sexual activity. Human beings do not technically go on heat and we do engage in sexual activity in non-fertile periods. This is a fact of life and has nothing to do with procreation.
e. Where heterosexual couples do have sexual activity that is reproductive, there is typically an intentionality to the act, eg., “we are trying for a baby”. In this instance, a couple is consciously and intentionally attempting for a pregnancy. In all other instances, this sense of intentionality is absent.
f. The converse is also true. In most sexual activity within a partnership, it is not only that intentionality is absent but that couples typically and actively avoid pregnancy where they are not specifically wanting to have a baby;
g. There is a clear inconsistency here too, in that historically, Western societies have encouraged and idealised celibacy, which has a clear non-reproductive outcome, as being natural. In certain parts of Scripture, celibacy is touted as the highest form of human sexuality. St Paul states that if he had his way he wished that everyone were celibate, for that was the highest sexual calling, or so he thought. If consistency were the rule, celibacy would not be lionised; it would be deemed unnatural as being non-reproductive.
h. In modern times, the practice of masturbation, another sexual activity that is non-reproductive and therefore deemed unnatural by ‘the realistic view’ is perfectly accepted as being a normal and natural part of adolescent development. It is assumed that all adolescents will masturbate frequently as the opportunity arises (no pun intended) and will continue to masturbate into adult life, whether partnered or not. As a Psychologist, I regularly have to ask about people’s masturbation activity if it is pertinent to a relationship or sexual problem. Masturbation is routine, if not always overt, and it is frequently part of a partnered relationship to some degree.
i. Masturbation is also a time-honoured and clinically proven technique used in sex therapy. One of the areas I specialise in is sexual dysfunction and I regularly receive referrals from GPs and Urologists, mostly for men, who are struggling with some dysfunction. Very often, part of sex therapy is the teaching of a regimen of masturbation eg., for erectile dysfunction and rapid ejaculation, where physical stimuli and cognitive focus have to be re-trained. This is a highly effective treatment for most patients.
These points show clearly that what is deemed unnatural by the official teaching of the church is not accepted by the vast majority of society. It is essential to see that cultural mores change over time and what is considered unacceptable in one era is deemed perfectly acceptable in another. So too, with what has been deemed natural and unnatural. There is a definite cultural aspect to this which makes a mockery of a pure ‘animal model’ of nature.
The Catholic Church appeals to the realistic view when it suits but ignores it at other times. It forbids its people from using contraception as we discussed above based on natural law philosophy. Contraception by definition does not allow for reproductive sex so it is deemed unnatural and therefore against the order of God and therefore an immoral act. Yet by the same reasoning, its insistence that its priests remain celibate should also be deemed an unnatural act. Yet it does not do so despite it being an incredibly difficult and often soul-destroying undertaking for its men. On the contrary, it celebrates celibacy as the highest form of human sexuality despite it being non-reproductive. It conflates the body and desire with a lower form of sexuality and even historically with sin and profanity. Its priests do not have to sully themselves with base flesh and desire like the rest of humanity. Or at least that’s the official line! We know better.
The belief that homosexuality does not occur anywhere else in animals other than humans
Here is what I wrote in Being Gay Being Christian about this second false assumption.
“Why not, instead, allow that God made gay people too and that homosexuality is part of the natural order? After all, there is plenty of evidence of homosexuality in the animal kingdom. In 2006, the Natural History Museum of the University of Oslo staged an exhibition about this much ignored topic. The scientists reported the following:
Homosexuality has been observed in most vertebrate groups, and also among insects, spiders, crustaceans, octopi and parasitic worms. The phenomenon has been reported in more than 1500 animal species, and is well documented for 500 of them, but the real extent is probably much higher. The frequency of homosexuality varies from species to species. In some species, homosexuality has never been reported, while in others the entire species is bisexual.
In zoos around 1 in 5 pairs of king penguins are of the same sex. The record is held by orange fronted parakeets, where roughly half of all pairs in captivity are of the same sex. Some homosexual pairing in the animal kingdom may be brief; others mate for life. Do such animals annul the Creator’s design? Obviously not. If we believe in the vast creative act of God, then these animals are part of it. They are part of His world, part of His divine plan. Just because it’s not the predominant way that animals mate doesn’t mean that such behaviour does not exist and is morally wrong, objectionable or disordered. It just means that it is atypical, nothing more. Clearly, there is far more homosexuality in the animal kingdom than anyone ever believed and we are understanding this more and more as science continues to investigate this phenomenon. It is essential that anyone who argues against homosexuality based on false notions that it is against nature should be strongly challenged” (177-78).
And challenge I am doing.
It is demonstrably untrue that homosexuality does not occur in the natural world outside humans. It is manifestly present and it would appear, not as a rarity but in abundance. Because homosexuality is found throughout the animal kingdom, the ‘animal model’, ie., nature minus humans, which suggests that only such a view characterises what is natural, cannot be sustained if you argue that homosexuality is unnatural. You cannot have it both ways.
Boswell makes a rather refined point here. He adds that many animals actually engage in activity that is unique to their species, but no-one assumes that this is unnatural. On the contrary, it is regarded as being part of that species’ ‘nature’ and is useful to biologists and naturalists as a distinguishing feature. Thus if humans hypothetically were the only species to exhibit homosexual behaviour, this would not be grounds for considering it unnatural but grounds for distinguishing its taxonomy biologically, behaviourally and emotionally. In fact, most of the behaviour that is exhibited by humans is unique to humanity and is respected because it is unique, eg., literacy, numeracy and language acquisition.
Please go to It's Not Natural (Part 2) to continue.