Science, Politics and Homosexuality: A Book Review

I reproduce here a book review I wrote a while ago for my church magazine. Enjoy…

Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate
Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse
IVP: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2000. 183pp, pb.
ISBN: 0830815678

As a trained scientist I was drawn to this book by the words “scientific” and “research” in the title. This area of concern is heavily politicized within the wider Christian community and it is sometimes difficult to find solid ground for the assertions made. The authors of this book write from a conservative evangelical standpoint and adopt the traditional attitude to homosexual practice. However their primary concern is with explaining the relevance of research data to the moral debate, not with explaining biblical texts. With this in mind it is refreshing to read authors who want to look at some hard data gathered in the field, some of it eye-opening and challenging.

The basic structure of the book is to look at what research has to say about four questions: How prevalent is homosexuality? What causes homosexuality? Is homosexuality a psychopathology? (i.e. is it some kind of mental disorder?) Can homosexuality be changed? Each of these is covered in a chapter each of which adopts the same form: A review of the use of research in church debate so far; a review of the scientific findings; a discussion of the relevance of the research to the moral debate.

In my view Jones and Yarhouse make two particularly useful contributions. The first is that they simply clear up the numbers. For example, it is now commonly asserted by pro-gay advocates that 10% of people are gay. The source of this is two-fold: firstly, a study made in the 40s and 50s with methods that are now discredited. Secondly, there has been a reckless enhancement of the figures for political ends. To counter this Jones and Yarhouse simply present a full list of research results carried out more recently with more rigorous methods. The clear conclusion is that the figure is more like 1-2%.

The second useful contribution is to show how important caricaturing of conservative Christian arguments is in progressing the pro-gay viewpoint. For example, “Homosexuality is not very prevalent therefore it is abnormal and must be rejected”, is one such caricature that pro-gays have seized upon. The argument has the ring of scientific authority about it. To counter it, it is in the interests of the pro-gay lobby to show that the prevalence of homosexuality is significant. Having done so, so the pro-gay argument goes, homosexuality is not abnormal and therefore should be accepted. It is a successful approach since Christians often unthinkingly adopt the caricature (as I found I had done!) with the result that they are then portrayed as being against science. Jones and Yarhouse spend some time analyzing the caricatures and showing them for what they are. This was very thought-provoking.

The book closes with a chapter on Christian sexual ethics. This is particularly useful as it connects dealing with the moral choices concerning homosexuality with the broader issue of making moral choices as a fallen Christian. Christian living means hard decisions sometimes with hard consequences, and not just for those who struggle with homosexuality.

Though a short read, it is a book for the committed reader who really wants to get to the bottom of the underlying research. But for those with an interest in the topic it is well worth the effort and money spent on it.

Science, Politics and Homosexuality: A Book Review

13 thoughts on “Science, Politics and Homosexuality: A Book Review

  1. David says:

    I think that Christians need to challenge statements like “X% of people ‘are’ gay”.

    Scripture never approaches the issue from this angle. It never suggests that a person can “be” gay. The issue as Scripture presents it is simply of the fact that sexual activity outside of marriage is immoral _behaviour_. It is not about “being” this or that, but doing. Sodomy, like incest and adultery is a wrong practice. A man standing to be MP in my constituency claimed that he was gay and that this should be viewed the same way as a matter of colour or disability. This to my mind was incredibly insulting to people of colour or disability – he as equating his own perverse enjoyment of sodomy with non-behavioural categories. If someone is disabled through no fault of their own, or someone is in an ethnic minority, then to discriminate against them on that grounds is immoral; but discrimination against the promotion of sodomy is quite a different kettle of fish.

    How about if a new movement arose in our society to promote paedophilia. Let’s say that they took over use of the word “merry”. And then they began asserting that certain people just ‘are’ “merry”. Would we not think that we ought to expose this as bogus?

    As I understand it, the statement “X% of people ‘are’ gay” when filtered through Scripture becomes “X% of people feel tempted towards homosexual forms of immorality as opposed to feeling tempted towards heterosexual forms of immorality”. The issue then becomes one not of bogus science in the fields of psychology and sociology, but an issue of temptation and sin, issues which we _all_ face. Rather than imprisoning people into the helplessness from allowing themselves to believe the myth “I ‘am’ gay”, we set them free to the possibility of change through the liberating grace of Jesus Christ.


  2. nathanielmacrae says:

    Very interesting. I’d like to get my hands on that book.

    Thanks Stephen.

  3. John says:

    It’s always good to see people looking to actual facts to refute specious arguments – whichever side of a debate those arguments are coming from!

    I think that looking to the facts can only be helpful. For example, as you mention, certain pro-gay groups like to inflate grossly the proportion of people who are gay, and to over-emphasise the “natural” aspect of it, as though that (by itself) was evidence of moral status.

    But, by contrast, of course, we have certain anti-gay groups who suggest that homosexuality is never found in nature (which it certainly is) and that this is evidence of its “un-naturalness” and hence of its moral status!

    Of course, something being “natural” doesn’t of itself tell us about its moral status (we live in a fallen world, after all) but it does tell us that it’s not a “lifestyle choice” on a par with the Atkins diet.

    pax et bonum

  4. John says:

    (Stephen – I’m aware that this comment isn’t really on topic, but I wanted to reply to some of what David said. Do please say if you don’t want this to continue here!)

    It’s interesting that you focus your understanding of homosexuality on a particular sexual practice – and one that is neither unique to gay men (it’s apparently rather popular with many straight couples) nor universal among them (again, the evidence shows that not even all sexually active gay men practice “sodomy”). It’s possibly also worth saying once again that the sexual act being referred to here has nothing to do with the biblical Sodom – that’s a red herring.

    Your point about paedophiles is appropriate, though. Just because a group wants recognition and can claim many members doesn’t mean that we should support their claim. But nor is it fair to set paedophiles and gay men together in a group, as though they were equivalent.

    Finally, for your argument to Scripture. It’s quite correct that the Bible never suggests that a person can “be” gay. But nor does it ever suggest that they cannot. The issue is simply not one that is addressed in the Bible. We can discuss whether homosex contravenes various laws and guidelines in the Bible, but we’ll never find a statement that “All men ought to be attracted to women; anything else is evil”. And your point about gayness translating as temptation to homosexual immorality rather than heterosexual forms is exactly on the mark – for it then demands the response, “How does the Church help such people to deal with that situation?” And we must ask why the answer given to heterosexuals (marry or be celibate) is different to that given to homosexuals (be celibate).

    pax et bonum

  5. Stephen says:

    Of course I agree with you. When it comes down to it, it is the doing that is sin. The Bible knows no category of human being called a gay person.

    From what I remember (I read the book some time ago and I don’t have it to hand) the authors were concerned with the numbers of people claiming themselves to be gay. For them to speak of ‘X% are gay’ is not to accept that there is a category of human being called ‘gay’. Rather it is a recognition of a claim, along the lines of ‘Y% are cyclists’.

    Nevertheless I realise that there is a growing number who want to claim that this is a an issue of nature and therefore a separated categorisation is desirable. But we should have none of it.

    You need to explain what you mean by “homosexuality is never found in nature”. I don’t think anyone would say that the phenomenon of homosexual practice is not found in nature, unless they are willfully ignorant, in which case you would never hear about them because they would be silent on the matter! And BTW, when you say ‘nature’ do you mean animals as well as human beings?

    I’m not sure I want to tackle anything else you said to me until you clarify this. Ta.

    (I’ll let David tack your comments to him!)

    Thanks fo your encouragement!

  6. John says:

    By saying that some claim that “homosexuality is never found in nature“, I mean just that. I have heard anti-gay statements to the effect that we never see animals engaging in homosexual activity in the wild – and that this “proves” that human homosexual behaviour is “un-natural” and thus “perverted” and thus wrong. Of course, as you said, homosexual behaviour is actually quite common in the wild, and actually plays a role in the normal behaviour of various animals.

    It would be nice if the “wilfully ignorant” were silent, as you suggested. Sadly this isn’t the case. This fallacious “argument from nature” has been rather common in the anti-gay literature.

    However, my point isn’t to try and argue one side over the other. Rather I was just commending the basic approach in your original post – that of looking to see what is really the case when trying to make judgements. It’s far more difficult than just making stuff up but it’s also far more honest and far more useful.

    Again, though, I want to stress that the question of whether homosexuality is “natural” or not actually has little direct bearing on our judgement of its morality. Where it must have an effect is when we think about how we relate to homosexual people. For example, given the overwhelming evidence that many people really are gay, it’s insulting, unhelpful and decidedly unChristian to talk about it as though it was a lifestyle choice like using the Atkins diet (as some do).

    pax et bonum

  7. Stephen says:

    Ah, I see. So you mean, ‘in nature excluding human beings’. I know that some scientists have discovered events amongst they have called ‘homosexual’. I don’t really know much more than that. Besides I’m not sure what you could make of it anyway, one way or the other! I have not read any such ‘anti-gay’ literature that you describe. (Frankly, sometimes I wonder if I am on a different planet considering the way evangelicals are described by others such as you!)

    Usually, as I have heard the argument ‘from nature’ it is with reference to pre-fall creation, where homosexual practice is not in the picture and clearly not the intention of the Creator. Looking at post-fall evidence from nature in the way that you have experienced seems to be fraught with difficulty. In its fallen state, you will find abnormalities in creation, even amongst animals.

    I agree that it comes down to a judgement of morality (that is the point David was making, I think). I would accept that in this fallen world there are those who have a urges towards homosexual sex, but I would place this phenomenon amongst those who have other propensities, such as those who have uncontrolled urges to heterosexual sex. However, what matters for the Christian is whether, in the power of the Spirit, these urges are brought into submission to Christ. What governs Christian behaviour is not what my urges are, but God’s law. The urges simply determine the environment within which it operates.

    This view is not intended to be insulting or unhelpful. It is my view which I believe to be biblical. If others are insulted, I can’t help that. Nevertheless, I would still like to be as helpful as I can be.

  8. John says:

    The most recent instances I can think of in which such comments (about “natural” homosexuality) is from the Nigerian Anglican church, whose Archbishop (Peter Akinola) is making something of a name for himself by insisting that disagreeing with him on this issue is sufficient grounds to create schism. This spurious argument (that not even in fallen nature do we find homosexual activity) is sadly alive and well – which why I commented originally to agree with the fact-based emphasis of the book you mentioned 🙂

    I certainly don’t mean “nature excluding human beings” – indeed, I’m a little puzzled that you could read me that way. I mean that, in humans and in other species, we find homosexual sexual activity. In some species (bonobos, dolphins, various monkeys), it is so common that it’s regarded by scientists as entirely normal for the species concerned. It usually seems to serve the purpose of group bonding (e.g. male-male activity in dolphins, female-female activity in certain social monkeys).

    WRT your comment about pre-Fall Creation – I think that any argument about the existence (or not) of homosexuality at that point is pointless and academic. We simply have no evidence (not least, in the Biblical story, we have only one male and one female character, which kind of rules it out!).

    Finally, as I’m sure we’ve covered here before, I actually agree with you that the Christian message to the gay person should be the same as to the straight – no sex outside marriage. However, I do differ from you in what that stricture might mean in detail. For example, I believe that we must entertain the possibility of gay marriages being blessed by God (although I know you disagree strongly). Even more, though, I think that we 20th/21st Century Westerners have a severely distorted idea of what marriage actually is. For example, we have the strange idea that the historical pattern was for two people to get engaged, then to get married, then to set up home together and have a child. Whereas, in reality (certainly in Britain), the pattern was far more to get engaged, set up home together and wait for the woman to fall pregnant – at which point they got married, because her fertility was now assured!

    pax et bonum

  9. John says:

    I knew I’d find it again! Here is a reference to one of these lovely pronouncements about how homosexuality is not seen in nature, from no less a person than Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria – the same man who is threatening the Anglican Communion with schism unless everyone agrees with him on this issue:
    This is an attack on the Church of God – a Satanic attack on God’s church…I cannot think of how a man in his senses would be having a sexual relationship with another man. Even in the world of animals, dogs, cows, lions, we don’t hear of such things.”

    “When we sit down globally as a communion, I am going to sit in a meeting with a man who is marrying a fellow man? I mean it’s just not possible. I cannot see myself doing it.”

    (I know that you probably won’t see eye to eye with Fr Jake on a lot of stuff, but this was the first place I came across this reference again.)

    pax et bonum

  10. Stephen says:

    Obviously I couldn’t defend the statement by Akinola. I can only assume he was ignorant of scientific research. Understandable given the part of the world he comes from. It would be nice, however, to see an original source. I traced the link you gave back to the Grauniad, but not to an original source. I’ll be honest, I don’t trust the Guardian on anything Christian.

    With regard to your earlier comment, I think the following statement quite revealing:

    WRT your comment about pre-Fall Creation – I think that any argument about the existence (or not) of homosexuality at that point is pointless and academic.

    Your attitude to pre-fall creation affects your attitude to sin and to salvation. I am inferring from your comments that since it is “pointless and academic” that all that matters is what happens post-fall. Hence if there is homosexual activity in nature then in some sense it is ‘OK’. The same would go for other common activities which would otherwise be deemed sinful. After all, by your argument, there is no record of other women in the biblical pre-fall account therefore how can we say anything about extra-marital relations etc?

    This is not unconnected to your view of salvation, which looks deficient to me. The fall of the first Adam necessitated the advent of the second Adam to restore mankind to pristine condition. To claim that homosexual practice and indeed homosexual marriage is consistent with this restoration must be proved. Given that homosexual practice is condemned elsewhere in Scripture, it will take some proving!

  11. John says:

    I think I wasn’t clear enough. When I said that the pre-Fall condition was academic, I didn’t mean at all that it was unimportant! The problem is that we know almost nothing about it directly – almost everything we believe about it is deduced from other places. Most particularly, we tend to project back onto the pre-Fall world the conditions we expect in the New Creation, which isn’t necessarily so.

    Anyhow, for homosexual activity, if it is “natural” for some people to be gay, we must ask serious questions about how we should deal with such people. Certainly the crude demand that people be “cured” or “repent of their lifestyle choice” must be rejected, and these are still too common. This also deals serious blows to some of the (very few) central texts used to condemn homosexuality – Paul, for instance, tends to object to things being “against nature” but, if this *is* their nature, what then?

    I totally agree that the burden of proof in this instance lies on those who would include gay people in the life of the Church. But many of the arguments used in that debate are clear – certainly, it’s (I think) generally accepted that the Bible speaks very little about homosexual orientation. The old arguments about “complementation” are also seriously flawed (unless we’re also limiting all marriage to those willing and able to conceive children – which almost no Christians do).

    Basically, I would prefer the Church to be more agnostic about homosexuality. We’re still too caught up in the old answers, which have been tried and found wanting by the genuinely new circumstances that have arisen. Precisely what we’ll learn from this debate is still open – but the Church will certainly learn something more about how God deals with Creation.

    (You seem, at the end, to be saying that sexual orientation will be important in the New Creation – but the biblical witness is that there will be marriage, either hetero or homo, in heaven. So that point’s moot, I think.)

    pax et bonum

  12. John says:

    erm, that last sentence should of course have been “will be no marriage in heaven…”!

    pax et bonum

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