On the Findings of Science
by Tim Fisher
In my study of homosexuality and the church, I’ve seen a peculiar dynamic develop when science is brought into the debate. I am often struck by the difficulties engendered by writers such as Dr. Merton Strommen (The Church and Homosexuality: Searching for a Middle Ground) and Prof. Robert Gagnon (The Bible and Homosexual Practice) when they use the social sciences to prop up theological assertions about sexuality. The theologian says, “See! Look how the Bible says homosexuality is immoral!” Then he turns to the sciences, the social sciences especially, to demonstrate the supposedly inevitable bad consequences of the immoral behavior, all the while overlooking the strong notes of limitation and tentativeness heard across the breadth of the scientific research itself. Invariably, the scientific research itself remains much more cautious about the implications of its findings. Speaking of the Bible and science generally, Peter Gomes makes a similar observation:
“[M]y colleagues in the humanities and the social
sciences are much more the victims of hubris than the scientists I know. It is
often the humanists and the social scientists who wrap up their scholarly
insecurities in what they believe to be the impregnable armor of science, and
impose the sovereignty of facts upon their all too elusive disciplines. In
professional life these are equaled in immodesty only by doctors”
(p. 321, The Good Book).
Regardless of how thoroughly, how faithfully, the theologian may support his theological assertions, when the “findings of science” are dropped into the story, they are too often presented without sufficient breadth, depth, or care. Indeed, when dealing with the extremely complicated and largely mysterious topic of “the science of human sexuality,” a great amount of breadth, depth, and care is necessary. Without it, the charts and statistics tend to assert themselves rather (ahem) promiscuously. Understandably, the theologian’s expertise is with theology (or in Dr. Strommen’s case, with youth and family ministry), not the sexual sciences, and he has only so much time and space in which to cover the ground he wishes to cover. So he is forced to cut corners, consoling himself with the thought that he provides a helpful and honest summary. Yet the task requires a forum of sizeable capacity, a forum he has not allowed himself. In such circumstances, it is all too easy for the presentation of “scientific fact” to tend towards the inflammatory and ideological.
I witnessed such a dynamic at my home congregation. Our Adult Forum series invited Dr. Strommen to speak to us on the topic of the church and homosexuality. Dr. Strommen thus presented his book, assaying the roiling waters of the scientific literature dealing with sexual orientation, reparative (conversion) therapy, promiscuity statistics, etc…. While his scriptural arguments, in his book and at the forums, were by anyone’s standards and his own admission rather thin, the effect of his talks had little to do with the thoroughness (or lack thereof) of his theological approach. Instead, his presentation of (for instance) statistics purporting to support the notion that a “homosexual lifestyle” is uniquely promiscuous instilled a good deal of fear in the audience. Such fear can only make a crucial task of the church in this debate—that of discerning whether or not homosexuality is a sin—all the more difficult.
Indeed, when we are presented with statistics as alarming as Dr. Strommen’s, even if they be used in a scientifically and rhetorically appropriate way (which in many cases they aren’t—see below), there arises a dangerous temptation to view the theological questions as almost beside the point. In such an environment, the nicest of church ladies view the gay or lesbian as an abomination not because of Leviticus—although obviously Leviticus provides the language—but rather because gays are killing themselves and other gays, gays are promiscuous and are therefore destroying the social fabric, gays and their supporters are creating more gays by their advocacy, etc… Each of these statements is true and each is false. (True because gays are no less sinful than straights; false because they are no more. Note that the term “straights” can be substituted for “gays” in each of the statements.) The parishioners respond with fear. In such an environment, a peculiar sort of unreasonable science supplants Scripture as the rule and norm of the church as it pertains to our discernment of homosexuality. I have seen it happen. As Peter Gomes writes,
[B]elievers of a certain stripe delight in finding a compatibility between scripture and science; in both they seek normative and absolute descriptions, upon which they can rely, of things that are fixed and immutable and, unlike fickle humans and mores and fashions, do not change but in fact define reality for all time. Scientific religion, not to be confused with Christian Science, is an effort to provide a science of belief and morality, a system so divinely rational that it operates according to a moral architecture, like the stars in their courses, and is readily accessible to human intelligence. The appeal of science, even in matters of faith and morals, is that it provides the illusion of order out of chaos, and permits thereby the creation of orderly structures with clear rules, fines, punishments, and rewards, easily and fairly administered (p. 319).
So what to do? We must be careful not to fall into a defeatism that calls us to leave difficult topics solely up to the specialists. Because of the experience in my congregation, I—a person with neither special scientific nor theological training—have entered the same turbulent waters. I confess I take part in the discussion with a great deal of worry about, and frustration with, my own limitations. Although we must be circumspect about what the social sciences might be asked to teach the church about sexual and scriptural morality—science can tell us what is, but not ultimately what ought—I nevertheless admit that science informs a great many opinions about homosexual behavior and homosexual persons. For many, beliefs (often mistaken) about what science “proves” support unwarranted fears that serve only to confuse and hurt. In the church’s debate about how it should view gays and lesbians, their relationships, and their place in the church, it is vitally important that we proclaim truthful information about the lives of homosexual people. We must, to the best of our abilities, correct what is erroneous, and confess to what is inconclusive.
No doubt Dr. Strommen and Prof. Gagnon feel they are involved in the same struggle for similar reasons; the use of the scientific research by “pro-homosexual” theological writers is, often enough, similarly inadequate. All of us in this part of the church debate are at sea.
On the Limitation of Statistics: Observations of Individual vs. Group
Here is an example from Dr. Strommen’s book of what I believe can happen when what is unproven or inconclusive in the scientific literature is used to shore up theological assumptions. (This example could just as easily have come from Robert Gagnon’s book.)
From a discussion of the high rate of promiscuity among a certain, un-numerated segment of the homosexual community, Dr. Strommen elides into a discussion of homosexuality in general. As Dr. Strommen writes, “[I]t is important to say clearly that there is a strong tendency within the homosexual community toward promiscuity and very high-risk behavior. . . . Such risks cause us to question whether homosexuality should be endorsed without question” (pp. 56, second edition). This statement, this elision, is then combined with his theological belief that “homosexual practices are wrong in God’s eyes” (p. 83, second edition). One thing leads to another, and soon these two very different reasons for censuring homosexual behavior take leave of their families and become one flesh. Even though Strommen is unprepared to adequately support the notion of a complementary link (that is, a causative relation, or even a statistically significant, reliable, and generalizable correlation) between homosexual orientation per se and promiscuous behavior, the conflation of the two are allowed to stand in the reader’s mind. Even where there is no promiscuous behavior in fact, a homosexual orientation in the heart is feared as dangerous. Theological indignation—actually, a fearful defensiveness—then steps in to overtake logical precision. What we fear fuels our campaign to proscribe.
What results is a confounding of the church’s fundamental responsibility in this debate, which is to discern whether or not homosexual behavior is sinful in the first place. The scientific figures, as sketchily presented as they are, quickly become God’s reasons. By conflating the categories of “homosexual” (a descriptive category) and “promiscuous” (a moral category) without sufficient evidence, it becomes far too easy to fall into a plainly illogical argument: that an individual’s sexual orientation (however he might come by it) is to be judged on the basis of a group’s statistics. Given the sort of scientific information that Dr. Strommen and Prof. Gagnon provide, one might wonder why heterosexuals shouldn’t console themselves with the thought that chastity is an inherent (or even closely associated) characteristic of the “heterosexual lifestyle.” The presumed corollary to “homosexuality leads to promiscuity” would seem to be “heterosexuality leadsto chastity.” Yet a quick Internet search on the word “adult” should disabuse anyone of such a notion.
In truth, all that group statistics can tell us is how prevalent a particular activity is within the group. The fact that some (even if it’s “many”; even if it’s “most,” which is not supported by the scientific literature) homosexual men are promiscuous by the church’s standards does not in any way support the idea that homosexuality inherently leads to promiscuity or that promiscuity uniquely characterizes the “homosexual lifestyle.” Correlation does not imply causation. To allow the reader to conclude otherwise is misleading.
Professor Gagnon, for one, has objected to the argument I make above. To do so, he invokes a disease analogy, a type of analogy which is often attempted by those in the church who do not want to see changes in the church’s policies regarding homosexuality. In an email message posted on the Ecunet website, he writes:
Did you know that actually only a small percentage of people who smoke actually develop lung cancer? Does that mean we should stop advising young people (and adults) against smoking? There are very few behaviors that create a one-to-one correlation with disease and other scientifically measurable harms. In nearly all cases disproportionately high risk is enough to warrant not promoting certain behaviors. . . . . Does that mean that high rates of ancillary problems, i.e., risk factors in entering a certain behavior, are irrelevant in ascertaining whether said behavior should be given cultural incentives? Obviously, yes.
But homosexuality (either orientation or behavior) is not analogous to disease or harm. First of all, in the case of smoking, the correlation between smoking and cancer is far better established than that between homosexual relationships and promiscuity. Second, the analogy presumes the efficacy of “cultural incentives” regarding homosexual behavior, a presumption the vast majority of the scientific community would not support without hefty qualification (which I won’t go into here).
Third—and this is most important—the big difference between “smoking leads to cancer” and “homosexual sex leads to promiscuity” is that with smoking, you can't choose to avoid the cancer. While it’s true that there is only a statistical correlation between smoking and cancer—which is to say that if you are a smoker, you may get cancer or you may not—it is nevertheless a fact that many will get cancer; the individual smoker has no choice in the matter except to quit smoking. A man involved in a loving, committed, and monogamous same-sex sexual relationship indeed has the choice not to be promiscuous. Many have made this choice. Although some, including Gagnon, would argue that his choice of monogamy is made more difficult by the fact that he loves a man and not a woman, it nevertheless seems that any extra burden that he may have to shoulder is exactly what the Christian community should help him with.
It is perhaps ironic to note that those on the “traditional” side of the homosexuality debate in the church have often argued that whether or not a person might somehow embody a higher propensity for a particular sin does not matter; what matters is whether or not that person does the sin. Indeed, the ELCA’s current ordination policies reflect such an approach. Being homosexual “in one’s self-understanding” (see Vision and Expectations) does not preclude a candidate from ordination; what precludes is taking part in same-sex sexual relationships. In our desires we are all in bondage to sin and yet we all fall under God’s grace—that is, each is simultaneously sinner and saint. Each is called to repent, resist sin, and renew our minds. Such a dynamic is part of our human condition.
Again, correlation does not imply causation—and neither does it imply sin. We measure sin not by noting the actions of a certain percentage within a group—not, that is, by correlation—but rather by the actions of the individual—that is, by commission. No moral discernment is made by noting what an individual is statistically “apt” to do. No one sins in the tendency, only in the fact. It doesn't matter how many other Samaritans are “unclean” or “idolatrous.” What matters—to Scripture, at any rate—is opening our eyes and hearts enough to see and appreciate the good Samaritan. When looking for a helpful word about sin, the church needs to remember its proper source: the source of its knowledge of sin and the source of its rescue from it.
Grace and peace,