What might convince me that lesbian and gay relationships are immoral?

loveI don’t know. Nothing comes to mind that seems remotely plausible. So am I being dogmatic on this issue?

Of course by the same token, neither can I really imagine what might convince me that straight relationships are immoral. So am I a dogmatist every which way?

I was raised in a very conservative stream of Christianity, and my teenage take on the matter is pretty well summed up by the catchphrase, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” along with a dash of “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” sorts of natural law[1] objections. Case closed on lesbian and gay relationships.

Actually, my former take on the matter could probably be better summed up as simply an “ew!” And “God said it” was more of a rationalization. Because what if *God had said* that all sexually active straight relationships are immoral? Let’s imagine a little role reversal here. What would my reaction have been?

At first blush that sounds very strange. How could the human race even survive if intercourse is altogether forbidden? But of course, artificial insemination is nothing new (you’ve never heard of the Holy Turkey Baster of Antioch?). Intercourse isn’t required for human reproduction. So if God had “said it” about straight sex, would that have settled it?

But no doubt this still sounds strange. Obviously God didn’t say that all straight sex is immoral, right? Well, it’s not too hard to imagine an alternate universe in which a prominent LGBT+ dominated religious group claims its own sacred scriptures wherein all straight sex is forbidden by God. [To be perfectly clear, I certainly don’t know of any such group in this universe, nor do I have any reason whatsoever to anticipate the formation of any such group.]

So, what would my reaction have been? Would I have had the slightest reason to take the claims of this group seriously? Would I have listened carefully to their apologetic arguments about why their scriptures constitute inerrant revelation from God? Would I have had any reason at all to entertain the notion that my only appropriate options are either gay sex, or else total and lifelong celibacy?

Ah no, no I would not. I would have said, “sorry bub.” Sexual desire and intimacy is a profound and fundamental and life giving part of the human experience for me, as it is for the vast majority of humans. And whether due to nature, nurture, conscious choice on my own part, or some combination thereof (biology is probably the largest factor, but it doesn’t really matter), my orientation is heterosexual. It would be profoundly de-humanizing to me for someone else to claim that my only acceptable choices are either gay sex or else total celibacy.

Likewise, there’s simply no reason whatsoever to take seriously any claims that lesbian and gay relationships violate the will of God. What, Paul denounces them, and Jesus claims that the Bible is inerrant? Well, sorry bub. If indeed Paul or any of the biblical writers spoke directly to this issue (I’m not sure they actually did, but that’s beside the point), then obviously they got it wrong. And as an aside, there’s simply no good reason to suppose that Jesus would have signed off on, say, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Regarding any Jewish or Christian scriptural canon, let alone the centuries-later canons of the various Christian churches.

I came to realize that, even then (as a conservative Christian), I would simply have dismissed the prohibitions of Paul, et al, had those prohibitions targeted all sexual expression of any kind. Once again, perhaps this sounds like a strange counterfactual, but I think there is some value to this sort of thought experiment, and it’s really not as far fetched as it might initially appear.

Paul says some rather eyebrow raising things in 1 Corinthians chapter 7. Give it a read if you haven’t. He says that “it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (verse 1), that sexual relations between a husband and wife are permitted “as a concession, not as a command” (verse 6), and that “he who marries the virgin [he’s engaged to] does right, but he who does not marry her does better” (verse 38), among other similarly surprising things.

It’s not that big a stretch to imagine an earlier hypothetical version of 1 Corinthians 7 that might have flatly prohibited sexual expression altogether. And that the text was then revised by later Christians who thought, “really, Paul?” and amended it in order to soften the prohibitions.

To be clear, I don’t have evidence that this is indeed the case, but it’s not that far fetched a possibility. We know of various textual emendations made by later generations of Christians, a famous example of which is found in 1 John 5:7. The King James Version reads: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” A striking statement of Trinitarian theology. But the only problem is that this version of the verse is only found in very late manuscripts. The verse was purposely and very substantively altered from its original form, which actually reads (as most modern translations such as the NIV have it), “For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.”

So what would my reaction as a conservative Christian have been, if archaeologists were to discover a manuscript of 1 Corinthians which predates our current earliest manuscripts and which features a lost early version of chapter 7, flatly prohibiting all sexual expression? Would I have regarded it as a serious possibility that all sexual expression really is forbidden by God?

No, I suspect that’s about the last option that I would have given serious consideration. Surely–I would have said–the manuscript must be some sort of forgery or hoax, right? Or surely, marriage is spoken of approvingly elsewhere in the New Testament, right? [Perhaps, but sexual expression itself, beyond the basic social arrangement which could certainly be a celibate one?] Or surely, Jesus spoke of a husband and wife becoming “one flesh,” right? [But that wouldn’t be very hard to interpret in a manner consistent with celibacy, and it would be much harder to interpret hypothetical 1 Cor. 7 in a manner consistent with sexual expression.] Suddenly, the issue would have become extremely personal for me, and there’s precious little chance I would have concluded something so drastic as that I ought to “submit to biblical authority” by practicing total celibacy.

I came to realize, in other words, that if I were gay, I would simply have dismissed any perceived biblical prohibitions against lesbian and gay relationships. And that I would have been quite correct in doing so. And so I came to realize, therefore, that I surely ought to dismiss these apparent prohibitions even though I personally am not gay.

And by the way, it sure as hell helped to get to know and befriend real flesh and blood people who are openly lesbian, gay, and bisexual, and to realize that they’re not the scary caricatures I had imagined them to be. That’s actually the primary story here, but some of these more abstract intellectual explorations as I’ve just outlined were important for me as well.


[1] I haven’t read widely of the scholarly natural law literature, as I’ve never had any particular interest in doing so. As a conservative Christian, these sorts of extra-biblical arguments against lesbian and gay relationships (mostly gay, with lesbian relationships sometimes thrown in as an afterthought) seemed largely beside the point. And from my vantage point now, I think (though I could be mistaken about this) that all such arguments must boil down to either or both of the following objections:

  • These relationships violate the divine will
  • These relationships are inherently harmful

Obviously as an atheist, the former objection is a non-starter for me, but even if I were a general theist or even a moderate Christian, I would see little hope for such an objection. And I see little hope for the latter objection either, and this route in particular can turn very ugly, very fast. On the recommendation of someone fairly well informed of the scholarly natural law literature, I recently read John Finnis’ essay “Law, Morality, and ‘Sexual Orientation’” as an example of a “reasonable” extra-biblical case against lesbian and gay relationships. Of course this is but one essay, from but one scholar, and I don’t mean to paint with too broad a brush, but Finnis certainly has the reputation as a leading scholar of natural law theory.

In addition to prohibiting all contraception, oral sex, “masturbatory” vaginal sex (whatever that’s supposed to mean), coitus interruptus, the list goes on (I wonder, does Finnis himself even try to faithfully adhere to these restrictions? certainly most Christians don’t), he concludes the following of lesbian and gay relationships:

Reality is known in judgment, not in emotion, and in reality, whatever the generous hopes and dreams and thoughts of giving with which some same-sex partners may surround their sexual acts, those acts cannot express or do more than is expressed or done if two strangers engage in such activity to give each other pleasure, or a prostitute pleasures a client to give him pleasure in return for money, or (say) a man masturbates to give himself pleasure and a fantasy of more human relationships after a gruelling day on the assembly line.

Now that is simply repugnant nonsense. A stark example of motivated, work-backwards-from-your-conclusion reasoning, and a particularly noxious one at that. Utterly divorced from the actual lived experiences of countless lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, as well as from all actual and potential empirical data (eg, from anthropology, neuroscience, etc) which might speak further to the reality of these lived experiences. Ew!

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