Tuesday, 11 October 2016


Richard Swinburne's recent speech to a regional meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and the response to it, highlights how religion can support retrograde beliefs long after the rest of us have jettisoned them. I was surprised to find, for example, that Opposition to Interracial Marriage Lingers Among Evangelicals more than it does among the unaffiliated. Here a Christian continues to argue against mixed race marriage using the Bible:
Throughout the Bible interracial marriage is discouraged.
In the book of Ezra, the Israelites repented of their abandonment of God. As part of this repentance they pledged to end their interracial marriages according to God's will:
“We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” (Ezra 10)
A similar experience is recorded in Nehemiah 13:
“Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah. I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair. I made them take an oath in God’s name and said: ‘You are not to give your daughters in marriage to their sons, nor are you to take their daughters in marriage for your sons or for yourselves.’”
Other prohibitions against interracial marriage can be found in Exodus 34:12-16, Joshua 23:12, and Deuteronomy 7:3: “Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons...”
...and the supposed problems arising from it:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
I'm sure, however, that most Christians would not give any credence to these views and arguments. The views expressed on homosexual sexual acts in Swinburne's talk were discriminatory in the same way, in the sense that Swinburne identifies a group of people by virtue of an attribute that has no intrinsic moral implications (sexual orientation), and treats the group differently because of that attribute (discourages them from acting on that attribute). Swinburne thinks that this discrimination in the treatment of homosexuals is fair, and, in fact, good; I do not. The notes for his speech are here (but note that this link seems to be working at some times but not others), and there is a video here.

How mistaken Christianity is

In the talk he starts by noting how wrong traditional Christian teaching on sexual morals is currently considered:
As we all know, traditional Christian teaching on many moral issues, but in particular on sex, family, and life is regarded by all non-religious and some religious believers as totally and evidently mistaken.
Pretty much every non-religious organisation that comments on such things would confirm that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality per se. The WHO Bluebook says 'Sexual orientation alone is not to be regarded as a disorder', and nowhere does it say that there is anything wrong with homosexual sexual acts per se. A recent WHO policy document, noting the ruling of a previous bluebook, says:
 Although ICD-6 classified homosexuality as a sexual deviation that was presumed to reflect an underlying personality disorder, subsequent research did not support this view. 
...and continued:
Over the last half century, several classification systems, including the ICD, have gradually removed diagnoses that once defined homosexuality per se as a mental disorder. These changes reflect both emerging human rights standards and the lack of empirical evidence supporting the pathologization and medicalization of variations in sexual orientation expression. 
So, to confirm Swinburne's impression: yes, authorities agree there is nothing wrong with same-sex attraction, or same sex sexual acts, contra Christian teaching. You would hope that these rulings should drive the ethics of Christians, particularly a theologian who prides himself on his natural theology.

Homosexual sexual acts are immoral?

To his credit, Swinburne dismisses Catholic 'natural law' arguments based on function:
The Catholic ‘natural law’ tradition has sought to show that [divorce, fornication, homosexual sexual acts, contraception] are 'disordered' or 'unnatural' actions, and for that reason wrong. The best contemporary statement of this tradition known to me is Alexander Pruss’s book One Body. Pruss argues that bodily organs have ‘functions’ and they ‘strive’ or ‘try’ to ‘fulfil’ their functions. For example, Pruss argues, the penis has the function in intercourse of omitting (sic) semen into a vagina which it strives to do; and to prevent it from doing this is unnatural and so wrong. It seems to me that to ‘strive’ or ‘try’ is an intentional action which only intentional agents can do; and that even if I am mistaken about this, it still doesn’t follow that it would be morally wrong to do what is unnatural.
Quite. But he still wants to defend the traditional view that these things are immoral, so he has to make an argument to this effect. For background, he doesn't think that homosexual sexual acts are intrinsically immoral (bad in themselves), but extrinsically immoral. He says:
God, like any other benefactor such as parents or the state, has reasons also to command humans to do actions which would not otherwise be obligatory. These reasons include (A) coordinating imperfectly obligatory actions so as to ensure the realization of a good overall goal. This may involve telling different humans to do different actions...God may tell all Christians to worship together each week on a Sunday rather than on a Thursday, in order to ensure that the Christian community worship together. 
The idea here is, I think, that there are practices that will encourage good outcomes, and, further, that this practice of doing certain things, or refraining from certain things, will encourage actions over and above our normal obligations ('supererogatory'), and that is virtuous.

Homosexual orientation as a disability?

He says:
Having homosexual orientation is a disability – for a homosexual cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment.
Without refinement, this looks like a definition of disability that is going to be too wide; that is, it is going to include people who would not normally be considered disabled, such as the infertile, older people, those with a low sex drive, unattractive people, and even Catholic priests and nuns (priests and nuns are people with a clerical leaning, and that leaning means they 'cannot beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment'. Should society therefore discourage the young from developing leanings to serve Christ?).

And, of course in actual fact homosexuals 'can beget children through a loving act with a person to whom they have a unique lifelong commitment', and have demonstrated that ability throughout history. And often this has been done in response to Christian teaching on homosexuality. In his response to Martin Pleitz's paper on his homophobia, Swinburne suggest that such people are not 'fully homosexual', and should therefore restrict themselves to heterosexual acts.

This is a naive view of human nature; apart from its binary view of sexual orientation which can be challenged, it reduces sexual orientation to a physical rather than an inner reality. Humans are sophisticated beings with a rich inner life, and are quite capable of divorcing their inner life from their physical reality; we are skilled fantasists, after all. Further, we have many loving relationships, such as with siblings, children and friends, which are not sexual, so 'love' does not entail lust. Therefore, just because a woman with a homosexual orientation, for example, might have loved and married a man, and indulged in a full sex life with him, that does not render her less than 'fully homosexual'. Her sexual orientation is for her to know. Imagine someone blindfolded in a dark room being masturbated, so they cannot see who is doing the act. I suspect that some people of any orientation could be stimulated under such circumstances, and to then declare their sexual orientation based on the gender of the unknown masturbator (the physical reality) is absurd.

Swinburne admits himself that even homosexual couples are able to have children, with the use of surrogates, so no absolute barrier to 'begetting' exists there either. As noted above, by specifying 'loving acts', Swinburne does not restrict the acts to purely sexual ones. A person's orientation clearly does not make them physically unable to have children. The premise he defends in the response to Pleitz is:
P1 Homosexuals are “unable to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is as
such procreative”.
He thinks the words 'as such' are doing a lot of work here, but I confess I don't see it. There is no doubt that homosexuals are quite capable of entering 'into a loving relationship in which the love is as such procreative', since a non-sexual procreative act can be inspired by love, and in any case sexual procreative acts can be performed lovingly without feeling lust for the partner.

The value of having children?

A part of Swinburne's argument is the great value he places on having children. It's not clear to me how this is supposed to cash out. We know that there are many people who don't want to have children; they do not place great value on having children. Pleitz also notes that there is a global problem with the idea that having children is an unalloyed good. This sort of thinking has resulted in large families in the Catholic and Muslim communities, causing endless cycles of poverty and deprivation. China introduced a one-child policy to mitigate the effects of over-population. These factors show that the great value, if that is what it is, of having children is not universal in time and place, so having children cannot be a universal injunction, to follow in all times and all places.

A counter might be that it is not a universal injunction, but having some children is of great value, and there is a golden mean number of children that is good, that benefits humankind; surely no-one would dispute that? Well, some may, but let us grant that for the sake of argument. Evolutionary science shows that having children is a mechanism for persisting genes, and genes drive speciation. So the result of natural selection will be the most successful strategy for the environment in which the species finds itself. We know that homosexuality has persisted in homo sapiens for thousands of years, and that homosexuality persists in other species that are primarily heterosexual. This 4 billion years-long experiment shows, then, that a percentage of homosexuality in the population must, in some way, help the fitness for survival of certain species, including homo sapiens. Consequently, a natural theologian like Swinburne should look at this overwhelming empirical evidence and argue for the goodness of some people being homosexual, since it must be of great value in having the perfect number of children, overall.

Disability = immoral?

Let us allow that having homosexual orientation is a disability, again for the sake of argument. Disability does not equate to immorality, but Swinburne states that '[d]isabilities should be prevented'. This might be true, but prima facie this 'should' is not a moral 'should', but a prudent one. For example, if one can prevent someone from losing an arm, one should, because it's prudent for someone to keep two good arms (one can carry more shopping with two arms); but, there is no moral stain attached to the person for losing the arm.

So what reason does Swinburne give for going further and deciding that homosexuality is immoral, rather than just something that affects one's chances of having children?

Well, he appeals to scripture:
I’m going to assume , despite the effects (sic) of many to show that the Bible and various theologians all meant something different by (what seems to many of us to be) apparent condemnations of such acts, that some such passages as I Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27 and the continuing weight of subsequent tradition does condemn such acts.
I see no more reason to think that these appeals to scripture have any more value than the appeals to scripture against interracial marriage.

He also appeals to theological authority:
Where, after all, do we ever find before the twentieth century any explicit approval of such acts by any theologian orthodox in other respects?
That, sadly, is more a condemnation of theologian orthodoxy than homosexuality; as a proponent of evidence-based thinking, Swinburne should really recognise that the opinion of the medical establishment outweighs the views of mere theologians. He chooses to demur on the evidence:
And, as I read the much disputed evidence available on line about whether children nurtured by homosexual parents flourish as well as other children, the balance of that evidence seems to me to indicate that children whose nurturing parents are also their male and female biological parents in a happy marriage flourish better than all other children.
Recall that the racist said above:
Research has repeatedly demonstrated that interracial marriages end in divorce more often than same-race marriages. For marriages involving a White female and Black male the divorce rate is 200% higher than if the White female had married a White male.
Even if these assertions were true (and that is very debatable), it would not be a reason to condemn same-sex marriage or mixed race marriages. This sort of evidence is very prone to confounding variables; most obviously with race and sexual orientation, the centuries of prejudice that forms the societal backdrop to mixed race and same sex marriages. But, more importantly, we have been given no more reason to think that we should analyse such statistics by orientation or race than we should analyse them by, say, religious belief. If the statistics showed that the children of protestant evangelicals flourish less than those of Catholics, would that be a reason to conclude that protestant evangelical sexual acts are a bad thing? No, of course not, and likewise for same-sex sexual acts.

Homosexuality is reversible?

Another part of Swinburne's case is that sexual orientation is reversible, since this drives his recommendation to discourage homosexual behaviour; or, at least, to endorse his view that God commands the discouragement of homosexual behaviour (what would be the point of discouragement if it had no effect?). He says:
The evidence seems to me to indicate clearly that genes and environment (nature and nurture) both play a role in determining sexual orientation; and also that this orientation is sometimes to a considerable extent reversible.
Sadly for Swinburne's case, this is unsupported by the evidence. If sexual orientation can be conditioned in some way, then presumably heterosexuality could be conditioned away too? In fact, that's entailed by Swinburne's view that homosexual practice causes homosexuality. Many of us experience orientation differently, however, as something intrinsic to our identity, not a 'here today, gone tomorrow' preference - I can't imagine my heterosexuality being conditioned away, and I suspect those of a homosexual tendency can't imagine their orientation being conditioned away either. Philosopher Rob Hughes points out on the Leiter Report:
Swinburne's assertion is at odds with the evidence that a person's future sexual orientation is determined before school age and possibly much earlier. He provides no evidence for his assertion that sexual experimentation influences orientation, either in his 2007 book Revelation, or in his 2008 reply to critics, or in the text of his recent talk.
He notes the problem with the scant evidence Swinburne cites for his view, and quotes the apology from Alan Chambers after the closure of the 'ex-gay' organisation Exodus International. Hughes says:
After the 2013 closure of the leading "ex-gay" organization, Exodus International, no informed person can seriously entertain the suggestion that "reparative therapy" works.
Hughes concludes:
In 2016, it is intellectually and morally irresponsible to assert without evidence that sexual  experimentation causes homosexuality or that people can change their sexual orientations through "reparative therapy".
The WHO policy document quoted before cites this document on the pointlessness, and bankruptcy, of homosexual 'cures':
Health professionals who offer “reparative therapies” align themselves with social prejudices and reflect a stark ignorance in matters of sexuality and sexual health. Contrary to what many people believe or assume, there is no reason – with the exception of the stigma resulting from those very prejudices – why homosexual persons should be unable to enjoy a full and satisfying life. The task of health professionals is to not cause harm and to offer support to patients to alleviate their complaints and problems, not to make these more severe. A therapist who classifies non-heterosexual patients as “deviant” not only offends them but also contributes to the aggravation of their problems. 
“Reparative” or “conversion therapies” have no medical indication and represent a severe threat to the health and human rights of the affected persons. They constitute unjustifiable practices that should be denounced and subject to adequate sanctions and penalties.
So given this overwhelming consensus among the relevant authorities, why doesn't Swinburne defer to them? In Swinburne's response to Pleitz, he only claims that his view is 'plausible', given the evidence, but it is clear that it is not. He is far too well informed to be ignorant of this literature.


Therefore, I think Pleitz's original conclusion stands:
Swinburne’s argument against homosexuality is a clear-cut case of homophobia (section 4). The criticism of the premises of Swinburne’s argument shows that some premises are wrong and badly argued for and that there is an equivocation which renders the argument invalid (section 2). If Swinburne’s conclusion gained wider acceptance in the contemporary Western societies, this probably would lead to grave consequences for homosexuals (section 3). Thus, there is an extreme imbalance between Swinburne’s brief argument and the great harm that the endorsement of its conclusion would probably lead to. I conclude that Swinburne in his argument against homosexuality has moved beyond the limits of scientific philosophy, and into the realm of homophobia.
Christian response

As with mixed race marriage, research shows there is a similar reluctance amongst Christians to accept homosexuality as something that is not wrong in some way, and the controversy after Swinburne's talk shows that Christians tend to take such arguments more seriously than the non-religious. Not all of them, though, and it is to the credit of Michael Rea (the president of the SCP) that he expressed regret  on Facebook for the hurt caused by it. He paints the SCP as committed to diversity and inclusion (two of the good Christian traits!), so, perhaps understandably, distanced the SCP from Swinburne's views.

But this apparently innocuous paragraph has been cast by some of the more splenetic members of the Christian community as an assault on free speech and academic freedom (see here and here). Even one of the more reasonable Christian thinkers, Randal Rauser (a champion of analytic philosophy and defender of atheists, whilst being a strong critic of atheism), has called out Rea for his Facebook comment:
If Christian philosophers face censure within the Society of Christian Philosophers for articulating a dispassionate philosophical critique of homosexuality, then where can they express those views?
...and many, often thoughtful, commentators agree with him. I think, rather, that if Christian philosophers should expect no censure when discussing their views amongst other Christian philosophers then that discipline would have stagnated, signalling an end to normal debate on such matters among thoughtful Christians. Rea's comment is not the severest censure, in any case, and pales against the censure delivered to homosexuals by Swinburne in his talk. Imagine being a practising gay Christian in the audience listening to the professor blithely describing her having a homosexual orientation as a 'disability', and that she should be 'cured'.

Such censuring talk is surely inevitable when norms are being challenged, and whilst I can imagine it being abused (such as unreasonable claims of Islamophobia in response to criticisms of Islam, unreasonable claims of Christian persecution in response to judgments of secular law, and perhaps even the framing of reasonable moral censure as an attack on academic freedom), there seems little chance that Rea's comment will threaten Swinburne's, or other Christians', academic freedom, given how overly deferential even countries in the enlightened West are to religion. Religious discrimination against homosexuals is a completely appropriate target for opprobrium, just as religious discrimination against non-whites is. It's just part of the cut and thrust that determines the Overton window of what is acceptable in society.

The modern world has figured out that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and Christians should accept that they are on the wrong side of history on this one, and that people, hopefully including other Christians, will call out bad arguments against homosexuality as homophobic, even if they are made behind the privileged screen of religion. Unfortunately at the moment anti-homosexual sentiment is normalised in the Christian community to an extent that would be challenged in non-religious public fora. Comments such as Michael Rea's are, therefore, to be welcomed.

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