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Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church's Moral Debate

1 rating: 5.0
A book by Stanton L. Jones

[] How prevalent is homosexuality? [] What causes it? [] Is it a psychopathology? [] Can it be changed?Questions like these often accompany discussions of homosexual behavior. For answers we naturally look to scientific studies. But what does the scientific … see full wiki

Tags: Book
Author: Stanton L. Jones
Publisher: IVP Academic
1 review about Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research...

An Excellent Intro to How Science Interacts with Religion in Debates over Homosexuality

  • Sep 15, 2010
How prevalent is homosexuality? What causes it? Is it a psychopathology? And can it be changed?

Social scientists have researched these questions for decades. Increasingly, individual Christians and Christian denominations draw on the findings of that research as they debate whether homosexual behavior is permissible, whether same-sex marriage is desirable, and whether non-celibate homosexuals can be ordained to ministry. Unfortunately, many Christians and churches that draw on this research do so without conceding that its findings are complicated. Moreover, they all-too-often reach conclusions that do not follow logically from the premises.

In Homosexuality, Stanton L. Jones and Mark A. Yarhouse survey "the use of scientific research in the church's moral debate" about homosexuality, as the subtitle states the purpose of the book. Jones and Yarhouse are members of the American Psychological Association, professors of psychology, and published researchers. They are also evangelical Christians who defend the traditional Christian prohibition of homosexual behavior.

Chapter 1--"Research, Reason, and Religion"--sketches a portrait of the relationship between science and religion. Jones and Yarhouse reject (1) perspectivalism, "the view that science and religion are two complementary ways of knowing (epistemologies) that deal with alternative and distinct vantage points or perspectives on reality"; (2) imperialism, "the view that science and religion are competing descriptions of the same reality, with one trying to utterly dominate and replace the other"; and (3) postmodern relativism, in which "science's authority [and Scripture's, I might add] has been replaced by the authority of narrative...stories that can be true for one person and not for another." Instead, they advocate (4) critical realism; "we believe that there is a real world out there where it is possible to know and know truly (hence, `realism'), but we also believe that our theories and hypotheses about that world, and our religious presuppositions and beliefs about reality, color and shape our capacity to know the world (hence, `critical realism'" (pp. 14-15, passim).

With this perspective in mind, the authors survey research regarding the four questions asked at the outset of this review. Chapter 2 examines the prevalence of homosexuality, chapter 3 its etiology or cause, chapter 4 its status as a mental disorder, and chapter 5 the efficacy of change methods (p. 29). Each chapter begins with examples of how individual Christians and churches use--more typically, misuse--scientific research on a given topic; continues with a fair and appropriately nuanced survey of what the research actually shows, or doesn't show; then draws out the "formal relevance of research to the moral debate" (p. 45), focusing on the logical relationship between scientific premises and moral conclusions.

Regarding the prevalence of homosexuality, Jones and Yarhouse conclude that "homosexuality [understood as a `stable life orientation'] almost certainly characterizes less than 3% of the population, and the correct percentage combining men and women might be lower than even 2%" (p. 44). However, they go on to argue, "We can think of no compelling rationale for why the prevalence of a particular behavior should be directly related to whether that behavior is moral" (p. 45). The fact that some vices are common and some virtues rare does not make them less vicious or virtuous, after all.

Regarding the etiology of homosexual orientation, the authors survey "psychological/environmental theories" (pp. 54-60) and "biological theories" (pp. 60-83). They conclude that neither nurture nor nature fully explain homosexual orientation. Instead, they argue that the research supports a "weighted interactionist hypothesis." In other words, "an individual person's experience of same-sex attraction will be related to a host of interrelated factors," including "biological influences," "psychological (early childhood) influences," "other environmental influences," and "adult experiences." These influences are "weighted differently for each individual," "cumulative," and a "push" rather than a "cause" of sexual orientation (pp. 85-86). How is this interpretation of the evidence relevant to the church's moral debate? In two ways: (1) "there appear to be a variety of factors that provide a push in the direction of homosexuality for some persons, but there is no evidence that this `push' renders human choice utterly irrelevant" (p. 88). (2) "Science has not eliminated responsibility for sexual behavior" (p. 89). In other words, a person may not choose his or her orientation--although this can't be completely ruled out in some cases either--but he or she can choose how to act upon that orientation. The authors conclude, "The church's moral concern is not fundamentally with homosexual orientation, no matter how it develops," for "it may be understood as one among the many ways in which we humans, sinful and fallen as we are, are inclined to lean toward choices and patterns that do not bring honor to God." Instead, the "church's moral concern is with what an individual does with his or her experiences of same-sex attraction" (p. 90).

Regarding the status of homosexuality as a moral disorder, Jones and Yarhouse survey four criteria "commonly used to define behavior patterns as abnormal": "statistical infrequence"; "personal distress"; "maladaptiveness"--i.e., "behavior or characteristics that sabotage rather than abet a person's moving in a positive, healthy direction"; and "deviation from social norms" (pp. 98, 107). Based on these criteria, they conclude that the evidence offers a "mixed scorecard." Homosexuality is "infrequent." There is "a correlation of homosexuality with personal distress, though not all homosexuals are distressed." "[A]rguments regarding maladaptiveness are also inconclusive," mainly because "it may be hard to establish a clear definition of maladaptiveness that would be widely accepted in the secular community." And "it is clear that homosexuality violates societal norms, though consensus on these societal norms in America is decaying" (pp. 112-113). Jones and Yarhouse wrote that sentence in 2000. Given the ongoing debate regarding California's Prop 8, that sentence is still true a decade later. How do these conclusions relate to the church's moral debate? "Christians must recognize that neither societal consensus itself, nor societal judgment of a pattern as unhealthy, disturbed or abnormal bears any necessary relation to moral judgment in the Christian tradition." Why not? "Morality is not usually conceived as determined by democratic vote in the Christian tradition" (p. 113). Additionally, "ethical abnormality and psychological abnormality are not the same thing, nor are they related by necessity" (pp. 113-114). Sins are not necessarily pathologies, nor pathologies necessarily sins.

Regarding the efficacy of change methods, Jones and Yarhouse's conclusion offers support to neither those who think homosexual orientation is "immutable" nor those who think "reparative therapy" is a cure-all. Based on the research evidence, they conclude: "Change of homosexual orientation may well be impossible for some by any natural means. Yet the position that homosexuality is unchangeable seems questionable in light of reports of successful change" (p. 148). How is this conclusion--also a "mixed scorecard"--relevant to the church's moral debate? "The core issue is that the church's stance on homosexual behavior requires only that individuals be able to refrain from homosexual action and find a life of fulfillment in God's own provision in meeting their personal needs and not that they necessarily be able to become heterosexuals. Certainly behavior change is within the realm of that which can be changed, as evidenced by our understanding of autonomy and free will, as well as scientific findings that clearly support change of behavior methods" (p. 150).

Chapter 6, "Toward a Christian Sexual Ethic," concludes the book and restates "the core of the Christian sexual ethic" in four propositions: (1) "our sexuality...is a precious gift from God"; (2) "full sexual intimacy is properly experienced only between a man and a woman who are married"; (3) "those who are not married should refrain from full sexual intimacy with others"; and (4) "all persons, married and unmarried, should be characterized by certain virtues that will guide and mold their living out of their sexual natures before God and their fellow men and women" (p. 157).

Jones and Yarhouse's book will unsettle both revisionists and traditionalists, i.e., the two basic positions in the church's moral debate about homosexuality. On the one hand, Jones and Yarhouse demonstrate, persuasively in my opinion, that revisionists often mischaracterize the scientific research on homosexuality and draw illogical moral inferences from it, whether they have misinterpreted it or not. On the other hand, traditionalists may not like the complicated picture that scientific research on homosexuality draws. Indeed, some traditionalists may simply dispense with the scientific research altogether, in an act of what Jones and Yarhouse might characterize as "imperialism from the religious side, "i.e., a "push for the elimination of scientific research that impinges on any religious question, or [denial of] the validity of any scientific research that conflicts with their understanding of how reality should be" (p. 14).

Personally, I finished reading the book and pondered anew "the mystery of iniquity," to borrow a phrase from Paul, perhaps out of context (2 Thes. 2:7 [KJV]). It is easy to judge the sins of others, especially the ones I am not tempted to commit. But when I consider the orientation toward sin I find within myself, I say with Paul: "I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:23-25 [NIV]).

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September 15, 2010
Why bother even reading the book when your final paragraph makes it quite clear that you perceive homosexuality as a sin? Or perhaps you were merely interested in external support and re-affirmation of your prejudice?
September 15, 2010
If you subtract chapters 1 and 6 from the book, as well as the last few paragraphs from my review, you still have to deal with important questions raised in the authors' survey of scientific literature on homosexuality, namely, (1) what does the research show? and (2) what does it mean? Our national leaders are constantly calling us to have a conversation about this or that matter. Why not have a conversation about the relationship between scientific research and religion-based morality? If you have concluded that the conversation is pointless because you have thoroughly researched the topic, fine. But if you simply don't want to consider alternative points of view, including the reasons why people advance those alternative points of view, don't accuse me of prejudice.
September 15, 2010
My world is simpler. Whether homosexuality is genetic or not, whether it is learned or not, whether it is conditioned by environmental stimuli or not, whether it is a matter of choice or not and whether it might be possible to "unlearn" it is all quite irrelevant to me. In my world, sexual orientation is a private choice and I simply don't consider homosexuality a sin. I ignore it in the same fashion that I ignore the sexual orientation of a heterosexual! In other words, the scientific research may be of academic interest but the debate with religion based morality, IMHO, is meaningless for me because I feel there is no matter which is open for debate. If that means I'm prejudiced as well ... OK, so be it!
September 20, 2010
Fair enough. But when you write, "I feel there is no matter which is open for debate," that's your opinion. My opinion is contrary. In a democracy, neither of us can assume that our opinion should carry the day. In other words, neither of us can assume that any matter is not open for debate. Instead, we have to make a case for our opinion.
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