The limitations of scientific research

There have been two articles in the Church of England Newspaper recently citing the case for and against the so called ‘gay gene’.

On one side of the argument, Stuart Walton wrote that “sexuality is mostly, perhaps even wholly genetic”.  On the other side Michael Davidson quotes research referring to “the weakness of genetic links”.

But are both merely blind alleys for Christians trying to understand how to respond to same-sex attraction and relationships?

The causes of homosexuality have been notoriously difficult to pin down.  Scientific studies into nature and nurture theories have each produced results which claim to point (albeit inconclusively) to one conclusion or another. 

In the same way, inclusive and conservative Christians have each pointed to Scripture with the same inconclusive results.  It would be great if we had a story in the Gospels of a man with a ‘demon of homosexuality’ being brought to Jesus, to see how he would have reacted – but we don’t – and no amount of Biblical extrapolation can prove conclusively how he would have responded.

Stuck in the middle are gay people, particularly gay Christians, constantly being debated over, talked about, preached at and prayed over – not to mention researched over.

The danger of this continued argument is that gay people (whatever their understanding of their sexuality or their moral framework) are dehumanised as a result.  They merely become subjects to be studied, debated or fought over.  Their voices become marginalised – their needs become secondary – their cries go unheeded.

It reminds me of the account in the Gospels where Jesus is asked why a man was born blind.  Was it his sin, or his parent’s sin, which caused his blindness?  Jesus, of course, cut through this blind alley of speculation, as he always did, to the person who was before him.  He simply made a paste for his eyes and the man was healed.  

And yet even this story has the potential to elicit a thorny question in relation to homosexuality.  Is it a disability which needs healing, or a created state which needs embracing?  The evidence on this is similarly inconclusive.  For every group that claims to be able to heal or re-orientate those with same-sex attractions, there are others who claim that they were damaged by such ‘reparative therapy’.

All of this should make us profoundly uncomfortable.  When we lose our focus on human beings created in God’s image in favour of treating them as mere subjects of debate and controversy, they simply become a problem to be solved.  There is nothing more dehumanising.

I know gay Christians who believe their sexuality is ‘God-given’ and to be enjoyed and celebrated as part of the fullness of life which Jesus promises. I also know gay Christians who feel that God calls them to celibacy as part of their discipleship of Christ.  Both have grappled with their sexuality and faith in a way which I can never fully appreciate or understand, as I have never had to walk in their shoes.   Both deserve to be listened to, not judged.  Both deserve to be embraced in the love of Christ without being ‘told’ that they are wrong and should change.   Both are part of God’s beloved creation who he loved so much that he gave his Son to die a slow and agonising death on a cross for their salvation.

We would do well to rediscover Jesus’s love and concern for the individual rather than getting carried away in inconclusive arguments which, at the end of the day, are as helpful as counting the number of angels on a pin-head, but much more damaging.

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9 Comments

  1. I just posted this on your facebook post but I think I’ll copy it here too:

    One of big problems I have with this debate is that it casts homosexuality in a negative light, like the blindness you mention, that has to be accepted because the poor people can’t help themselves. The implication being that if they could, they would of course never choose a same sex relationship!

    Bisexuals show us that it’s not like that. We can chose and many, like me, choose love even when that means a marriage to another woman.

    We must get away from the implication that homosexual relationships are somehow inferior, only to be accepted because the poor dears can’t help themselves.
    They are, in fact, as moral or immoral as any straight relationship and they are to be evaluated precisely on the same basis.

    And, as you rightly point out, that means first of all treating people as people, as absolute moral equals (!), as individuals to be talked to and not as issues to be talked about.

    • Thank you Erica.

      I don’t know if you have read the article in the Church Times this week on the need for greater recognition of Bisexuals in our understanding of sexuality.

      I thought there were some helpful things there, but also some things about ‘fluid’ sexuality which others might misuse.

      If you have read it, what do you think?

      • Benny
        I agree, the article was potentially misleading. The idea of a “fluid” sexuality is not new and it seems that some people bisexual throughout their lives, other seem to identify as straight for some part of their lives and as gay for another.

        What worries me is that this could be misunderstood by conservatives who might want to claim that people do, indeed, choose what they want to be and that they can change.
        As long as bisexuality is identified as a genuine orientation separate from being straight or gay so that it cannot be used as a stick to beat gay people with, I would be happy.

        Gay people are also a bit wary of us – because we appear to be able to choose and we therefore undermine one of their main arguments. And there is a certain level of resentment that we can opt for heterosexual relationship and therefore avoid all the conflict and second class status they cannot avoid. . It’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re on the same side in this debate.

        And then there is the popular conception of bisexuals that seems to be largely gleaned from the porn industry where it means threesomes in various constellations or at least conducting 2 sexual relationships with people from different sexes as the same time. I cannot count the number of conversations of bisexuality that start with complete moral disgust because people think I’m trying to defend this kind of relationship.

        So yes, much to learn here. All in all, I would say that it was only right that the debate focused on genuine gays and straights first. That we’re now moving on to trying to understand bisexuality in the same context is possibly a sign of progress and of maturity.
        I hope.

        • Hi Erika.

          You might be interested to read my personal blog post on bisexuality from earlier this year.
          http://benny2010.blogspot.com/2011/06/bisexual-or-just-greedy.html

          • Benny, that’s a lovely article, thank you for pointing me to it.
            I have to say, most people in society don’t have any problems with bisexuals and they appear to understand the concept quite easily.
            It’s usually church people who seem to have such an inner reluctance to engage with this topic that they remain forever stuck in a world of their own making, full of prejudice that is not supported by facts.
            For their own sake – almost more than for ours – they ought to be helped out of this mental and emotional prison.

  2. I think, though, Benny, science (including social science) has its place, for instance in countering the notion that, with a little effort, we could stop being attracted to the same sex!

    • Thanks Savi – of course I agree with you.

      What concerns me is when the science is used as a weapon, and scientific research is used as a kind of ‘arms race’.

    • Savi,
      to which my own answer is increasingly: even if we could, why should we want to?
      Why should we want to turn away from true love when there isn’t a single moral reason to do so?

      I agree that biological science has its place and will be decisive for some people. But it also leaves you with the ones who will tell you that paedophilia is a scientific fact.

      Ultimately, the only criterion can be: is it immoral or immoral. And that would have to be shown objectively, that’s where science truly comes into it. Does it do any actual, physical or mental harm to those involved in same sex relationships or to anyone else in society, or is it possibly mentally beneficial to gay people and completely neutral to anyone else. That’s really the only science I’m still willing to discuss with people.

  3. How would you distinguish between science being used (from a subjective point of view) as ‘a weapon’, and people simply wishing to be truthful and scientifically accurate? After all, the alternative is to be untruthful and inaccurate – or indeed (Erika’s stated preference) selective with the science. Obviously many people’s conscience would not allow that.

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