Saturday, June 29, 2013

Science, Religion and Homosexuality

I recently attended a workshop on homosexuality, which is something I have been curious about for a long time. I have always been taught that it is wrong. But I also have homosexual friends, relatives, and an increasing number of pro-LGBT straight friends. So I decided it's high time I gave the issues some serious consideration. I thought the workshop did a great job laying out all the issues, so I am going to reproduce some of them here to the best of my ability.

The Science of Being Born Homosexual

Safety in Numbers

The taboo of homosexuality was first challenged by the publication of the first Kinsey Report in 1948, which shocked the public with its findings that 37% of males had experienced homosexual orgasm post-puberty; 10% were predominantly homosexual and 4% exclusively so. This made homosexuality much more commonplace than previously thought, and hence deemed more acceptable or even natural. However, the research methodology was roundly criticised:
"Two main problems cited were that significant portions of the samples come from prison populations and male prostitutes, and that people who volunteer to be interviewed about taboo subject are likely to suffer from the problem of self-selection... Criticism principally revolved around the over-representation of some groups in the sample: 25% were, or had been, prison inmates, and 5% were male prostitutes." - Wikipedia
Other estimates placed the number of predominant homosexuals at that time at 1%, not 10%.

The Gay Gene

In 1991 an article in the magazine Science by Simon LeVay, reported he had discovered a cluster of cells in the brain of homosexual men that was twice as large as those in heterosexual men. Two years later Science published a study which claimed that evidence had been found of a genetic variation on the X chromosome that was associated with homosexuality. LeVay's study suffered from two basic flaws:
  1. His subjects were dead therefore their sexual behaviour could not be determined with any reliability (LeVay told Science magazine that he had “assumed“ the sexual orientation of some of his subjects)  
  2. It was not possible to prove a causal link between the brain structure and homosexual behaviour. For example, the smaller size (similar to size in women) could have been a consequence of late stage AIDS reducing the level of testosterone. Or it could be associated with some trait or characteristics that are common among homosexual men without being causative of the homosexuality. 
In LeVay's own words, "It’s important to stress what I didn’t find. I did not prove that homosexuality is genetic, or find a genetic cause for being gay. I didn’t show that gay men are born that way, the most common mistake people make in interpreting my work." (Source: Inqueery: "What Does Science Say About Homosexuality?") In our local context, it is interesting to note that proven or not, this is one of the core arguments bring made for repealing Section 377A on gay sex:
Paragraphs 52 to 69 make the case that homosexual orientation is not a chosen facet of one’s being. “It is therefore absurd, arbitrary and unreasonable for the government to continue criminalising what is, for all extents and purposes, a practically immutable characteristic. It brings the force of the criminal law to bear against individuals for something they cannot change. This can only be absurd.” (Paragraphs 70 and 71). Even members of the government have accepted that it is an immutable characteristic, the submission points out. (via yawningbread)

How Do People Become Homosexual?

The predominant theory is that homosexuals are shaped by their environment. The most compelling explanation the speaker had found is by Elizabeth R Moberly, a research psychologist at Oxford University, who concluded that "homosexual orientation does not depend on a genetic pre-disposition, hormonal imbalance, or abnormal learning process, but on difficulties in the parent-child relationships, especially in the earlier years of life... the underlying principle is that the homosexual whether man or woman has suffered from some deficit in the relationship with the parent of the same sex; and that there is a corresponding drive to make good this deficit through the medium of same-sex or 'homosexual' relations." (Elizabeth R Moberly, Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic, 1983, James Clarke)

At the workshop, the speaker shared that this explanation was corroborated by many cases he had read, in which the homosexual indeed had a deficit of relationship with the same sex parent. This deficit could be the absenteeism of the parent due to work. I suppose it could also include abuse at  the other extreme. This theory accepts that some people may never have experienced heterosexual attraction, but does not mean they were born gay if they were influenced by their environment at an early age. I also did find that such an theory better explained some of the questions that this Salon article pitched at Simon LeVay, such as "Given that gay people don’t reproduce in nearly the same numbers as straight people, how do gay genes survive?" It also provides an alternative explanation for "the curious finding that the number of older brothers a male has may biologically increase his chances of being gay". If the father's attention is divided, I suppose that would lead to relationship deficit.

As a father, this was an important reminder to me of the importance of spending time with my son.

Can Homosexuals Change Their Orientation?

A survey by the National Association for Research and Therapy on Homosexuality also
Confirms Homosexuality Can Be Overcome. Conducted with 860 participants in 1997, some of its key findings are that:
  • Before treatment, 68 percent of respondents perceived themselves as exclusively or almost entirely homosexual, with another 22 percent stating they were more homosexual than heterosexual. After treatment, only 13 percent perceived themselves as exclusively or almost entirely homosexual, while 33 percent described themselves as either exclusively or almost entirely heterosexual.
  • Although 83 percent of respondents indicated that they entered therapy primarily because of homosexuality, 99 percent of those who participated in the survey said they now believe treatment to change homosexuality can be effective and valuable.
  • As a group, those surveyed reported statistically significant decreases following treatment in the frequency and intensity of their homosexual thoughts, in the frequency of masturbation to gay pornography, and in the frequency of their homosexual behavior with a partner. Respondents also indicated that, as a result of treatment and sexual orientation changes, they were also improving psychologically and interpersonally.
  • Of the psychotherapists surveyed, 82 percent said they believe therapy can help change unwanted homosexuality. They further indicated that on average, one-third to one-half of their patients had adopted a primarily heterosexual orientation.
  • And more than 95 percent of the psychotherapists said they either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed with the statement that homosexual patients may be capable of changing to a heterosexual orientation.
One of the pre-eminent scientists who helped homosexuals gain acceptance was convinced that they can.
"More than a generation ago psychiatrist Robert Spitzer helped millions of Americans get instantly well. In 1973 Spitzer, a professor at Columbia University, led the charge to have homosexuality removed from diagnostic manuals as a mental disorder. In a stroke, a segment of the population once considered sexually deviant was declared mentally sound. Last week Dr Spitzer appeared to take a troubling step away from that clean bill of health. In a study presented at the convention of the American Psychiatric Association, he argued that some 'highly motivated' homosexuals may be able to turn themselves into heterosexuals. . . He interviewed 143 men and 57 women who had sought help – in some cases through religious groups that openly oppose homosexuality – to change their sexual orientation. His surveys convinced him that 66% of the men and 44% of the women had indeed achieved 'good heterosexual functioning.'" ("Can Gays Switch Sides"Time, May 21, 2001)
After enduring a decade of criticism in 2012, Dr Spitzer retracted his findings on the grounds that it is impossible to conclusively judge the credibility of subject reports of change in sexual orientation. It seems to me that the need for people to self-report their sexual orientation, which could be influenced by personal/political agendas, will always be a weak link in any study of the field no matter which side you are on, just as LeVay assumed the sexual orientation of dead subjects.

This is a recommended book sharing the experiences of Christians who had overcome their homosexual orientation.

What Does the Bible Say About Homosexuality?

The Bible Is Clearly Against Homosexuality

This was actually a large part of the workshop, but I have kept it brief here because it's a bit dry. The main point was to refute alternative views either that

  • The Bible's disapproval of homosexuality is culturally conditioned and does not apply today
  • The Bible is not against loving, monogamous, permanent homosexual relationships
The workshop also made clear that the Bible is against homosexual practise rather than homosexual orientation. So while it is possible that some people have developed the orientation through their childhood environment and never before experienced heterosexual attraction, that in itself is not a sin, and over time they can still be healed.

Some of the verses on this topic are: Genesis 1:26-28, Genesis 2:24, Genesis 19:1-25 (Sodom), Judges 19:1-30 (Gibeah), Leviticus 18:22 and 20.13, Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Should Christians Impose Their Views And Standards On Others?

This is one of the key issues I have been struggling with personally, given that it is so fashionable these days to demonstrate your open-mindedness by showing support for the LGBT movement. In particular, because having considered all the information above, this is the point when you ask yourself if you should actually do anything about it. And as I said before, I do have LG friends and relatives, and I have never let that affect the relationship in the past. In fact, I used to study with my lesbian JC classmate and we would check out girls together, and she would tell me my standard in girls is very low. Then again, she also introduced me to Fiona Xie way back then ... so I guess her standards were definitely higher than mine.

If we accept that Christianity is against, homosexuality, the question is on what grounds we would have to impose this view on others who are not Christians. Is there an absolute standard of moral right and wrong, or are all these standards just conditioned by religion and culture? Or should right and wrong simply evolve with the cultural norms of the times, which is why more and more countries are legalising gay sex and marriage?

From a layman's perspective, it does not seem right to impose a religious belief on someone outside the religion, although it is certainly helpful to clarify the religion's stand for those within it, which was the purpose of the workshop. However, from the Biblical perspective we are all created by our Maker - whether they believe it or not - and just as we are called to spread the good news of salvation, so we should also spread the Maker's instructions pertaining to how we should live. Obviously this normative view will not likely be shared by the person you are trying to explain it to. And that is what makes it so difficult. But the ultimate validation will only come when Christ returns and until then, we have to put our faith in this.

The strongest argument I can see to live and let live is that homosexuality doesn't hurt anyone else. Of course this is probably an unnatural act, since humans were not designed for this kind of intercourse. But while most of us would not do this, who are we to impose our ideas of morality on those who do?And that is why my mind drifted off to perhaps my only original thought in this ... if you follow this line of argument, is there going to be any right and wrong? You could make the same argument for bestiality or necrophilia or any of the crimes against nature. So if we don't subscribe to some standard defined for us, where do you draw the line?

I am transcribing the proceedings of the workshop and some of my own supplemental research/thoughts here, because quite a few people asked me about it. I hope you have found it useful :) Apologies for the long delay, I've spent most of the past week taking care of the family's haze-related ailments