Christianity versus Homosexuality

Published by timdean on

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!


pinkagendist · 29th September 2012 at 5:59 am

religionists aren’t interested in debates that question their dogmas…

Mark Sloan · 29th September 2012 at 7:33 am

Yes, the example provides an answer for why thousands of years ago Jews might have begun demonizing homosexuality. But why has it persisted so strongly when other concurrent prohibitions against hair trimming and eating shrimp have not?

To understand this difference, we can look at the evolutionary origins of morality. These reveal ‘immoral’ and nasty reasons prohibitions against homosexuality, once established, have been so persistent and strong. These insights should be useful in convincing people to reconsider what kinds of arguments should qualify as moral arguments.

Demonizing homosexuality in order to demonize a threatening external enemy as you describe was a useful strategy for increasing group cohesion, except perhaps among homosexuals, to fight the enemy, the out-group. Homosexuals might even have been motivated to “go into the closet” and fight the enemy harder than most people just in compensation and to try to maintain their cover.

But the persistence of this demonization is best explained by the fact that only a small percentage of any population would have been necessarily among the demonized. Thus, after the external threat is over, in-group homosexuals offer an easily identifiable internal threat that can continue to be useful for increasing the benefits of cooperation in the group motivated by the need to guard against the “homosexual agenda”.

This gets particularly morally nasty because people are biologically inclined to view people who identify threats as leaders. This has made identifying real or imaginary threats, such as homosexuality, highly popular with people desiring to attain and maintain leadership positions. In the US, this shameful strategy appears to be a primary strategy of the highly self-righteous Republican (conservative) party.

Tuerqas · 24th October 2012 at 5:02 am

‘Biologically inclined’… Does that phrase include the recognition that testosterone makes men dominant so women should have a submissive role in society? Does it include that biologically a black person has natural biological advantages for physical activity and that the Chinese have the largest brain pans and the among the least physically capable? I don’t buy that argument, but it is moot.

While I am partially a product of my christian upbringing, (I believe wholeheartedly in God) my religious problem with homosexuality has no effect on my opinions that secular law is and should be dominant concerning in-group or out-group homosexuality. My belief in religious freedom puts my head firmly in front of my heart on this issue.

The only issue that concerns me both as a Christian and an American is the overlap between church and state. Coming from the position that virtually every existing religion always has and still does define the term marriage as that of a union between one man and one woman, the state is interfering with virtually all churches in trying to give marriage a different secular meaning. i.e., it has the perfect right to make a civil union fully equal to the state of marriage, not the right to change the church protected rights(rites?) of marriage.

The problems resulting from such a minor infraction were rampant in places that legalized same sex marriages. Once dragged in to the court of secular public law, churches were sued, successfully, to have same sex marriages performed in their churches. Backlash from that specific source was considered key for overturning the California law and rightfully so, IMO.

Tim Dean · 24th October 2012 at 6:25 pm

Hi Tuerqas. I’m sure Mark meant the phrase “biologically inclined” in a descriptive rather than a normative sense. Just because we’re biologically inclined to do something doesn’t make that thing morally right.

Also, the state redefining marriage doesn’t impinge on religions and the religious defining it however they choose. The state also can’t (or shouldn’t) impose on any minister to preside over a marriage that they don’t endorse.

Marriage is a social institution with legal implications, and I think that gives the state the power to get involved in its definition, at least in a legal context.

Besides, this post is not attacking or defending same-sex marriage, it is a theory to explain the origins of the animosity towards homosexuality that is a part of the modern Christian moral system.

Tuerqas · 25th October 2012 at 12:28 am

I certainly did not mean to attack anything, I apologize for that. The words ‘nasty’ and ‘threats’ in that sentence certainly gave me the opinion that Mark meant his comment exactly as I took it. I believe the proof is already in the public awareness that allowing the state to redefine marriage does lead to legal precedents that break the rules of separation of church and state.

I admit I do know a few Christians who have animosity towards homosexuals, but the majority of Christians I know believe it is wrong only from a church perspective. For instance, I and the vast majority of Christians I know would vote for full equal rights of a civil union with marriage. Giving a secular bond a secular name makes all of the difference in the world from both a moral standpoint and a potential legal one, in America. Why this is not an acceptable solution to Gay rights activists is the question I have never received an answer for.

I believe this is relevant to the discussion your commentors have put forth.
1) It puts the lie to comment one.
2) It was an attempt at a Christian’s answer to Mark Sloan’s contention that hatred of homosexuality is still strong today. I don’t believe it is. Keep the lawmaking within secular bounds on this issue and the fanatics will grumble, but the majority will pass it in many of even the most conservative states.

This is your blog and if you are looking for me to leave, I will never visit it again. I am not a troll. However, it seems to me that my comments were at least as relevant to the topic as the others, yet you took no one else to task. I don’t know how you want me to take that.

Mark Sloan · 25th October 2012 at 4:43 am

Teurqas, I want to first reaffirm Tim’s responses that 1)”‘Biologically inclined”… certainly does not imply moral or anything like that – for example, greed and an urge to dominate others through violence are biologically inclined but immoral, and 2) the discussion is about why animosity towards homosexuality has persisted in Christianity past Westermarck’s proposed initial utility in demonizing and defeating the Canaanites.

I suggested animosity toward homosexuality has persisted past that time because 1) it continued to be culturally useful to have an external and even internal ‘enemy’ in that people tend (it is in our biology) to cooperate together better when under threat, and 2) people are also biologically inclined to view people who identify threats as leaders. This has made identifying real or imaginary threats, such as homosexuality, highly popular with people desiring to attain and maintain leadership positions. Leaders rising to power or increasing their power by claiming imaginary threats ‘morality’ is an unfortunately common, nasty, and immoral strategy.

From your response though, it will require more work before “These insights should be useful in convincing people to reconsider what kinds of arguments should qualify as moral arguments”. I’ll clarify here that I meant “moral arguments” for interpreting scripture or other existing cultural norms and retaining or rejecting norms that “no longer apply” such as not eating shrimp and women being morally obligated to be submissive to men, and I would add homosexuality.

You claim that laws enabling gay marriage violate the separation of church and state (which we agree are important to keep separate) and “The problems resulting from such a minor infraction were rampant in places that legalized same sex marriages. Once dragged in to the court of secular public law, churches were sued, successfully, to have same sex marriages performed in their churches.”

While I don’t doubt your personal sincerity, this sounds like propaganda designed to engender outrage and, let me guess, encourage people to send money to join in the fight against this threat?

Tuerqas · 31st October 2012 at 4:20 am

I admit I am a bit confused how you inferred my response to your use of biologically inclined was that I qualified it as somehow moral or immoral. My response to your use of biologically inclined was meant as a disagreement to your off handed, conclusionary use of it. If the studies on the subject proved that blacks are just physically more capable, how is that a moral judgement either? Regardless, specifically and only, I disagreed that people view threat identifiers as leaders through biological inclination, hence the ‘moot point’ qualifier after I made my analogy. That was my whole real point on that topic.

I have no problem with number 1) in the last comment. I think you are correct, right up until the late eighteenth century for America in particular. I think the separation of church and state was a landmark that began the waning of church as the only approved source for mores, ethics and law. We still have our share of demagogues, someone who may fit your biologically inclinational view, but to make the assumption that the majority of American Christians are so biologically inclined is what I take umbrage at. i.e., I think your 2) above is as outdated as most everyone wishes the legal stigmas of homosexuality was.

Now, here I have to make the distinction that I have been a Libertarian since I was 13. I have believed homosexuality was sin since I accepted Christ as my saviour when I was 16, but I have never believed it should be secularly legislated against(and the majority of my friends do hold similar beliefs). My friends that are homosexuals playfully agree that if I bring up their ‘sins’ they get to kiss in front of me and vice-versa. It has not hampered our friendships nearly as much as geography.

One need only look to the internet to see the number of suits that were brought up in the times and places where same sex ‘marriage’ has been legalized. In the short time it was legal in CA. there were many more legal cases submitted than the East Coast by gay couples against churches, but they have happened with greater and lesser frequency in the six states that currently allow same sex marriages.

Based on your last paragraph, I fully doubt your belief in my personal sincerity. What I have said here has in no way engendered outrage towards homosexuality nor was it meant to do that or encourage people to send money anywhere. What it does prove to me personally is that you are like any liberal (whether you are yourself one or not) I have had this discussion with: Your response to my disagreement on the matter with you has elicited a a prompt and dismissive response that includes immediate condescension, notice of how stupid or naive I am(primarily through badly aimed responses), how homsoexuality is and must be a threat to me personally such that I will FIGHT against it, etc. The only thing missing was the snide remark about how perhaps I doth protest too much. Thank you for sparing me that, btw.

What I see is that my commentary is a threat to your whole thesis concept. If If there are more Christians like me that believe there should be no secular stigma to homosexuality than there are the good old redneck stereotypical variety, it would put a significant dent in your whole concept and likely your world view. We can’t have that now can we? A better thesis would be how America has been a leading agent of change in the Hebrew induced millenia old stigma of homsexuality. It is not fully socially acceptable yet, but to lump together the attitudes in the US to all pre-christian Hebrews/Christians since the Canaanites is stretching more than just a little bit, IMO.

wernerschwartz · 3rd April 2013 at 12:47 am

Reblogged this on wernerschwartz.

etseq97 · 30th November 2013 at 7:24 pm

Tuerqas is prime example of the moral panic that homosexuality elicits in many religious conservatives. He has convinced himself that gays are persecuting christians (talk about irony – when was the last time christians were beaten and killed by gays? fired from their jobs? committed suicide because they were bullied by gays?) based on internet rumors of lawsuits that force christian churches to marry gays. There are no such cases of course but he needs this to rationalize his belief that homosexuality is a threat to his in-group. He knows that in a secular society his appeal to authority will not work so he has to translate his objection into a harm based argument – hence the rather clever example of gay marriage actually violates the separation of church and state! I say clever because he knows that our society values constitutional rights highly so by claiming homosexuality violates a constitutional norm, he is reframing the issue in a way that he thinks will appeal to liberal moral foundations.
What this really shows is the limit of Haidt’s framework and its over reliance on intuition and rejection of reason. It has a certain descriptive appeal but it utterly fails when he shifts to making prescriptive arguments. Haidt has a tendency to ascribe universality to all 5 foundations but he cannot prove it based on his methodology. He offers no reason why the non-universal values should be binding – ultimately, he falls back on a crude moral/cultural relativism. The examples he cites in his book – the trip to India where he praised the Hindu caste system without any recognition of the harm that is done to women and others in such a patriarchal culture – as well as an interview he gave in Believer magazine a few years back where he basically admitted that under his theory he could not defend gay rights against religious claims of moral appropriation – convinced me that he was so enamored with the “binding” functions of morality that he was unable to appreciate liberals moral claims to the contrary.

Foreign Cults and Unnatural Vice | Breviosity · 2nd October 2012 at 6:09 am

[…] Beard ponders why Christianity is against homosexuality. He quotes a long passage from Edvard Westermarck (who […]

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