Homosexuality – The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate

Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse

Intervaristy Press

The subtext of this work could possibly be re-titled the “The Misuse of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate”.  I think the only real value in reading this book is to get an idea of how far removed some Christian commentators are from the realities of life and what it really means to be homosexual in the 21st century.

Early in the work, the authors state their position. Quoting from Chapter 1 page 11 ‘We believe in being clear about our assumptions and presuppositions, so we confess that we are defending the historic understanding of the church, grounded on the Bibles teaching, that homosexuality is immoral. Let us give away our punch line at the very start: We will show, persuasively we hope, that while science provides us with many interesting and useful perspectives on sexual orientation and behaviour, the best science of this day fails to persuade the thoughtful Christian to change his or her moral stance. Science has nothing to offer that would even remotely constitute persuasive evidence that would compel us to deviate from the historic Christian judgement that full homosexual intimacy, homosexual behaviour is immoral.’

This book is written for a conservative Christian audience who still have not worked out that a homosexual orientation, as such, does not automatically determine a person’s morality any more than heterosexuality does. Morality is a choice, but sexual orientation isn’t. To falsely judge a group within society because they are attracted to the same sex and not the opposite by calling that entire group immoral is not only irresponsible but also in conflict with the teachings of Jesus Christ himself.

Chapter 2 is titled How Prevalent is Homosexuality?’ This seems a strange place to start the argument but not unusual. It has probably been some time now since Queer sociologists and commentators have used Kinsey’s figure of approximately 10% of people being homosexual in their orientation but by introducing this question first, it serves a purpose for the authors.

It gives the impression that we have been deceiving people about our real numbers and secondly by reducing the numbers any requests for equality are not as important as we make out. After all, 2-4% of the population – are they all that important one could conclude. The table on pages 42-43 of 11 different studies in this area does not really prove their point but actually demonstrates how difficult it is to get a definitive number. My feeling is that we will never have an accurate figure until all stigma attached to homosexuality within our society is removed. In the meantime, people who experience fluidity in their sexual orientation and heterosexuals who have same sex experiences sometimes get thrown into the mix.

When referring to scientific research, the authors frequently quote from studies done in the 60s, 70s and mid 80s. Even research from the 1950s is citied. Whilst this research may have been valuable at the time, my impression is that it is now considered dated by most professionals without a bias. Possible causes of homosexuality according to the authors are strong mother/weak father, early sexual experiences with someone of the same sex, sexual abuse and new one for me I hadn’t heard of, that the ‘exotic becomes erotic’. This theory proposes that we eroticise over the gender we are not connected with. So ‘normal’ males will eventually eroticise over girls, but homosexual men eroticise over men because they feel distant and unconnected with other males. An interesting theory perhaps but lacks credibility in the light of those who have only known attraction to the same sex from very early childhood.

When dealing with the various biological theories, the authors point to flaws in the research methodology and the exceptions rather than being able to identify what the research is actually saying to us. That is, there are prenatal factors such as genetic and hormonal influences that increase the likelihood, but do not guarantee, a person will be same sex attracted.

I think Chapter 4 ‘Is Homosexuality a Psychopathology’ is the most offensive. To quote from page 94 of that chapter. ‘The short answer to the question ‘Is Homosexuality a Psychopathology’ is no, if a person were to mean that the answer can be found by a quick look through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental Disorders; Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) of the American Psychiatric Association. Homosexuality is not listed as a formal mental disorder in the DSM-IV, and hence is not a ‘mental illness’. But as we will see in this chapter, answering the question ‘Is Homosexuality a Psychopathology’ is much more complicated than simply checking a manual.’ The authors go on to expand on research done on the mental health of gay men and lesbians. This is where the writing becomes incredibly biased and using statements like ‘the hospitalisation rate for homosexuals is 450% higher that the general population’…. ‘suggesting over 300% increases in incidence of serious personal distress amongst lesbians’…and ‘the elevated rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide challenge the adaptiveness of homosexuality’  reflect the authors very negative impression of gays and lesbians. What is not introduced in this chapter are the possible causes of any mental health issues like rejection by family, societal norms of conformity, religious dissonance and even persecution.

There are large amounts of material from the book that demonstrates it has been written with a strong bias and not relevant to the more informed academic or mental health professional. For example, in the summary of the chapter ‘Can Homosexuality be Changed?’ it says, ‘the research of sexual orientation is intensely debated today. Most of the research was conducted and published between the 1950’s and the 1970’[s, with an average positive outcome of approximately 30%.’  As this work was written in 2000 Spitzer’s recent conclusion that changes to one’s sexual orientation “are probably quite rare, even for highly motivated homosexuals”. It has been estimated that reparative therapists have a cure rate of 0.02% which means a failure rate of 99.98%.

In the final chapter ‘Toward a Christian Sexual Ethic’ it says, ’To summarize, the essential claim in the discussions about the prevalence is that the high prevalence of homosexuality , claimed to be 10% or more of the general population, demands revision of our traditional ethic. The best studies, however suggest a prevalence of between 2 and 3%. More importantly, prevalence has no claim on ethic, since Christians commonly believe that some sinful life patterns are very common such as pride while some are rare like bestiality’. And on the following page we read, ‘Even if the homosexual condition of desiring intimacy and sexual union with a person of the same gender is caused in its entirety by causal factors outside the personal control of the person, that does not constitute moral affirmation of acting on those desires. If it did, the pedophile who desires sex with children, the alcoholic who desires the pursuit of drunkenness, and the person with Antisocial Personality Disorder who desires the thrill of victimization and pain infliction would all have a equal case for moral approval of their exploits’ (my emphasis.)  One wonders what the authors solution might be for the ‘homosexual condition’ if we are equated with paedophiles, alcoholics and anti-social behaviour and later put in the same basket with schizophrenia, panic attacks, witchcraft and greed.

As a gay man from a strong religious background, reading through this book, I often found myself asking the question, ‘Who are you talking about. I’m not sick, I know I certainly didn’t choose to be gay, I wasn’t sexually abused, my first sexual experiences were with guys because that is the only attraction I had and my homosexuality is not a problem to me’.

I have to conclude that the authors are like many people in conservative religious circles who because of their negative view of homosexuality, are locked away in a world that conveniently separates them from us and they actually don’t know any well adjusted gay or lesbian people personally. The only homosexual people they have contact with are those in their churches who are tormented by the dissonance created by an outdated religious worldview. The rest of us are living normal lives and making a valuable contribution to society.

Book Review by Anthony Venn-Brown

Author of “A Life of Unlearning”