I’ve often wondered why there’s such an obsessive focus on – and moral revulsion towards – homosexuality in Christianity. And I think I may have discovered an answer in a book by famed anthropologist Edward Westermarck.
The thing is, many other cultures and religions – and many moral systems – don’t have the same negative attitude towards homosexuality as you find in Christianity. In many cultures throughout history, including many that were around when Christianity emerged, homosexuality was far from immoral.
In fact, it was often praised or elevated above heterosexual sex: Plato’s Symposium celebrates homosexual love as being transcendent to heterosexual love, for example.
It’s also, arguably, a pretty odd crime – mutual love between two people, and consensual physical acts that occur in private, none of which appears to harm or negatively impact others.
Now, certainly, sexual morality is a big deal for many religions, but many of the social and sexual taboos and strictures have relaxed over the years – such as divorce, sex before marriage, and acceptable clothing on Sundays. So why is it that homosexuality, and other assorted issues like gay marriage, are still such a hot button issue for many Christians?
I’ve heard story of Sodom and Gomorrah, and while that might be a useful tale for Christians to warn against the ‘sin’ of homosexuality, as an explanation it suffers from the Euthyphro problem: it indicates that homosexuality was already wrong, and God punished the Sodomites for the practice, or threat thereof, rather than explaining why it was wrong. (That said, it’s a dodgy story at best, with possible equivocation over “know” and possible interpretation of punishing threat of rape rather than punishing homosexual sex. And let’s not forget the moral status of an all-loving all-forgiving God destroying an entire city and its inhabitants.)
I’ve also heard all the arguments that homosexuality is unnatural, unhealthy, or that it erodes morality by promoting promiscuity, or that it jeopardises the future of humanity by reducing birth rates etc etc. All these smack of desperate post-hoc rationalisations that are utterly lacking in any rational or evidential merit.
Anyhoo. On to Westermarck’s historical/anthropological explanation from his 1932 book Ethical Relativity.
After remarking that many cultures endorsed or were ambivalent towards homosexuality, or even praised it in some situations – “in the period of Japanese chivalry it was considered more heroic if a man loved a person of his own sex than if he loved a women… Mohammed forbade sodomy, and the general theory of his followers is that it should be punished like fornication; but in the Mohammedean world it is practically regarded, at most, as a mere peccadillo” – he talks about the different approach in Judaism and Christianity:
In a very different light was it looked upon by the Hebrews. Unnatural sins are not allowed to defile the land of the Lord: whosoever shall commit such abominations shall be put to death. The enormous abhorrence of them expressed in this law had a very specific reason, namely, the Hebrews’ hatred of a foreign cult.
Unnatural vice was the sin of a people who was not the Lord’s people, the Canaanites, who thereby polluted their land, so that he visited their guilt and the land spued out its inhabitants. We know that sodomy entered as an element into their religion: besides female prostitutes there were make prostitutes, or qedēshīm, attached to their temples.
The sodomitic acts committed with the latter seem, like the connections with the female temple prostitutes, to have had in view to transfer blessings to the worshippers; in Morocco supernatural benefits are to this day expected not only from heterosexual, but also from homosexual intercourse with a holy person.
The qedēshīm are frequently alluded to in the Old Testament, especially in the period of the monarchy, when rites of a foreign origin made their way into both Israel and Judah. And it is natural that the Yahveh worshippers should regard their practice with the utmost horror as forming part of an idolatrous cult.
The Hebrew conception of homosexuality passed into Christianity. The notion that sodomy is a form of sacrilege was here strengthened by the habits of the gentiles, among whom St. Paul found the abominations of Sodom rampant.
During the Middle Ages heretics were accused of unnatural vice as a matter of course. Indeed, so closely was sodomy associated with heresy that the same name was applied to both. Thus the French bougre (from the Latin Bulgarus, Bulgarian), as also its English synonym, was originally a name given to the sect of heretics who came from Bulgaria in the eleventh century and was afterwards applied to other heretics, but at the same time it became the regular expression for a person guilty of unnatural intercourse.
In mediaeval laws sodomy was also repeatedly mentioned together with heresy, and the punishment was the same for both. It thus remained a religious offence of the first order. And in this fact and its connection with Hebrew ideas we find the answer to the problem we set out to solve.
Like suicide, the kind of sexual perversion of which I have now spoken has been stigmatized as a crime of the greatest magnitude on account of its relation to specific religious beliefs. It is interesting to notice that in one other religion, besides Hebrewism and Christianity, it has been looked upon with the same abhorrence, namely Zoroastrianism, and there also as a practice of infidels, of Turanian shamanists. (pp. 195-196)
So there’s an answer that makes sense to me. Why haven’t I heard it before. Why isn’t this story told more often?
It’s not citing the divine command from an entity I don’t believe exists. It doesn’t put it down to being an ‘unnatural’ act without adequate explanation of what ‘natural’ means or why ‘unnatural’ things are immoral. It explains it in terms of one cultural/moral system competing with another.
It is not that homosexuality itself was a bad thing, but it served as a signal to identify individuals who belonged to a cultural/religious out-group. If the budding new culture/religion was going to to survive and grow, it had to compete with the others around it. That meant branding their prescriptions immoral.
Interestingly, I suspect this technique works best on functionally neutral (or near neutral) practices – i.e. those that don’t have a significant impact on social cohesion or cooperation. If you make sharing immoral or mandate lying, you’re not going to compete terribly well while your own system collapses around your ears.
Homosexuality, on the other hand, probably had a smaller effect on basic social cohesion and cooperation than did the signalling effect of indicating whether you were an insider or an outsider. Thus you could prohibit homosexuality, and gain the benefit of competing with the out-group, while suffering a smaller hit to cohesion internally. The benefits outweighed the cost.
Then the stickiness of moral norms keeps the prohibition around, especially when it becomes tied to other norms that signal in-group loyalty and conformity. It’s not the act of homosexuality itself that is wrong, but the act serves as a signal or a proxy (or an excuse) to vilify others.
Yet it lingers today, and thus we see all the spurious arguments offered to demonstrate why homosexuality itself is a bad thing. It’s poor form, really.
Whether this story is accurate or not, I cannot say. But it certainly seems to be what a correct answer might look like.
Now, all we have to do is convince people that the historical answer is sufficient to encourage reflection on what it is that Christians find so wrong with homosexuality, and encourage a solid debate and reflection on what kinds of arguments qualify as moral arguments in this day and age. Easy!