Sunday, 24 November 2013

Being Born This Way

On Thursday last week, Anglican Mainstream, a conservative group within the Anglican communion (although perhaps it is more of a ‘compromise’ at the moment, what with issues like GAFCON and the controversy over women bishops) published an article on their website arguing against Stonewall’s role in Church of England schools in tackling homophobic bullying. As much as I love Stonewall (they are an incredibly powerful advocate for LGBTQ interests, and the community owes much to them), I think that AM have a point on (possibly only) one front: Stonewall has widely differing views from the orthodox Anglican position, and the issue is controversial both on both ecclesiological and ecumenical fronts. However, I would like to ignore this issue - I’m sure it will get its fair share of much more erudite and informed coverage elsewhere - and instead look at a different aspect of their complaint.

The aspect I would like to look at is that which comes under the heading of “unscientific stonewall”:

Of course we agree that in today’s society people should be free to identify themselves as gay if they so wish, without fear of harassment. Stonewall’s campaign is based on an assumption that being “gay” is something innate which people are born with, like a racial characteristic. However, repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation. Many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Institutionalizing Stonewall’s views will inhibit this process.

It gets interesting when you read the response produced by Changing Attitude, and Anglican LGBTQ advocacy group, which viciously contests the idea that homosexuality may not be innate. Here are some pertinent accusations of theirs:
  •  They believe that repeated research efforts have failed to demonstrate any biological or genetic cause of homosexual orientation – that’s homophobic.
  •  They accuse Stonewall of being unscientific because the leaders of Anglican Mainstream don’t believe that being gay is something innate which people are born with – that’s a homophobic attitude.
  • They believe that many youngsters who self-identified as gay in their teens shed the label and the identity later on. Describing lesbian and gay identity as a label is homophobic.

This shifts the debate onto an old and common battlefield: the genetics/socialisation dilemma. In denouncing as homophobic any claim that homosexuality isn’t innate, they imply that there is a link between innateness and the legitimacy of homosexuality. In claiming that if you believe homosexuality is anything other than innate, you are being homophobic, they imply that innateness is a necessary condition for moral legitimacy. Correspondingly, many anti-homosexual groups reject the idea that homosexuality can be innate, arguing instead that it is the result of socialisation or a (particularly bizarre and irrational in a society in which these groups exist) choice.

There are two problems with this type of reasoning. Firstly, as far as I am aware, the issue has yet to be conclusively settled either way, and in fact the settling of the issue is muddied by the fact that ideological groups have taken up as banners two alternative answers to the question, so that any scientist offering a response is now making a political statement. Furthermore, the fact that science is a human activity and so is as flawed and corrupt as anything else we do means that research in this area is inextricably linked in to ideologies as held both by the researchers and those who fund them. As such, it is far too easy for either side to call the other out as biased, and it is plausible for them to do so. To make any claims to either option is thus not only dishonest, but a purely ideological hi-jacking of what should be a strictly empirical question.  

To add to this, there is the issue of the dualism that both sides seem to assume, which underpins the either/or nature of the controversy. However, the idea that sexuality can either be a matter of genetics or socialisation seems odd. I am not a geneticist or a psychologist, but it seems plausible that the levels of each contributing to sexual orientation could vary between individuals. The fact that a social/genetic dualism has become emblematic of ideological concerns means that everybody seems to be searching for a dualistic answer, which probably doesn’t help in light of this. Perhaps the alleged inconclusive studies alternatively deployed or rejected by either side in order to invalidate their opponents or validate their own positions are all we will ever get, and yet they will never be acknowledge as people keep searching for someone to prove them right.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental problem with this line of reasoning, and that is that innateness has absolutely nothing to do with morality. The common assumption seems to be that if homosexuality is innate, it must be accepted as ‘natural’ and therefore morally acceptable. If it is, in fact, a matter of socialisation, then it is a choice, or at least reversible and therefore it is not unreasonable to hold it as wrong. It is worth pointing out here that if determinism (taken outside of potential reversibility) does, in fact, justify behaviour, then socialisation would justify homosexuality as much as genetic disposition would. Furthermore, if reversibility is the criterion for justification, then this could still be the case so long as the socialisation is not undoable – which, if we are to look at some of the studies around the success of supposed ‘ex-gay’ therapies, we might be lead to believe.

We still, however, have the consideration of innateness left. The thing is, Christianity has always acknowledged that things can be both innate and wrong: from the weak flesh of Matt. 26:41 to at least six out of the seven deadly sins (Sloth may arguably be a learned behaviour), the workings of grace have always been to allow Christians to overcome not their actions but the dispositions which lead to those actions. For Aristotle, the virtuous person is the person who acts virtuously as a natural expression of their character, not through concerted efforts of will. Christianity seems to have inherited a similar notion of virtue, which is why St. Augustine prays for “continence” (albeit not yet), and not merely “not to do sins”. Salvation is about redemption of character, not God just stopping bad acts. That’s why “all who hate a brother or sister are murderers” (1 John 3:15, NRSV) . To this end, the Church is more than capable of condemning homosexual behaviour even if it is, in fact, genetic. Equally, there are many innate things which people are that are arguably bad even from a non-Abrahamic perspective – for example, people are disposed to violence as a reaction to fear or anger. They cannot necessarily help this, and yet we argue that they should do their best to resist these dispositions, so it cannot be claimed even from a non-Abrahamic perspective that innateness functions as a moral get-out-of-jail-free card.

On the other side, there are many things that I do which are not direct expressions of genetic disposition – for example, playing the guitar, writing a blog, or making coffee - which are no worse for that fact. If I wish to justify such behaviour on theological grounds, I can attempt to do so. Homosexuality is, of course, a little harder to defend in this way than making coffee – but its being innate or not is by-the-by.

Having exploded the notion that innateness means justification, we must ask just how this entirely unnecessary situation has arisen. I think that the reason why the two positions have been adopted by their respective camps is that there is the belief on both sides of the argument that acknowledging homosexuality as both innate and wrong would throw up insurmountable theodical issues. Such an acknowledgement would entail incoherent a loving God creating (either directly or indirectly) people who are innately disposed towards sin. The most obvious reaction to this is to reject either the notion of a “loving” God (supposed by the anti-gay lobby), or the rejection of homosexuality’s sinfulness. However, we need not adopt either of these theses. Christianity has a whole host of theodical issues already, and yet seems to function fine none-the-less. The last time I checked, no-one had produced a universally-acknowledged-as-watertight response to the many problems of evil, and yet people find reason to keep the faith. As such, neither side has any reason to either embrace or anathematise such a conclusion. 

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