Friday, June 14, 2013

'Gays Made, Not Born' - On the Confused State of the Religious Mind

Call it an easy target, blame me for going after the intellectually weak, but what is it about the Catholic pre-occupation with other people's sex lives and identities. And why are they consistently so confused both about the meaning of facts when it comes to sexual orientation as well as about the normative issues?

Jamaican Catholic Deacon Peter Espeut is as good an example as any to show what I am concerned about. Jamaica being a militantly anti-gay country where anti-gay discrimination was recently even enshrined in the country's constitution, courtesy to a large extent of campaigners like Catholic-Deacon-sociologist-turned-sex-expert Peter Espeut. Espeut writes in today's edition of the Jamaica Gleaner that gays are made, and that we are not born that way. Do read his contribution to public debate on that island to make sense of what follows below.

He takes the current absence of conclusive evidence of a genetic causation of homosexuality as evidence of a non-genetic causation of homosexuality. To give you just one example to illustrate how absurd this view of the nature of scientific inquiry is: According to Espeut's logic, HIV could not have been the cause of AIDS when it hadn't been discovered. Now, I am not suggesting that there is a genetic cause of sexual orientation, but to claim, as Espeut does, that it cannot have one because there isn't conclusive evidence at a certain point in time (ie today), is remarkably stupid. Perhaps that level of critical thinking skills is what predestines one to become a columnist for one of Jamaica's daily papers. Let's just note that this view on the causation issue constitutes a basic logic error and move on.

He then makes another logic error, and compounds it with plenty of excited exclamation marks. The exclamation marks have to do with not-blameworthy human characteristics such as the colour of our skin. As Espeut notes, 'we are born that way.' Implied is that we didn't choose to be that way, and that we are what we are in an immutable sense. Well, the thing is, there's plenty of things we have not chosen, yet they are immutable. Think about our language. Did we consciously choose it? Can we consciously dump it? Not quite. So, immutability is quite unrelated to the 'born that way' proposition. I do apologise for not using exclamation marks here, but do feel free to add them for emphasis in your mind.

Not surprisingly, Espeut being a sociologist, he then moves on to the next mistake, namely seeing the cause of sexual orientation in some parental behaviour. After all, having unjustifiably excluded genetic factors (and presumably, even though he doesn't say it, any number of possible non-social environmental factors), Espeut moves right on to his favourite possible causes of sexual orientation. Being a good sociologist he offers a lot of possible - but entirely speculative! - stuff, just in case.

He writes, 'But what causes gender-conforming and gender-non-conforming behaviour? Hormone imbalances may be one explanation. Others suggest that domineering mothers and ineffectual fathers may interfere with socialisation; and still others suggest that homosexuality may be triggered by having sexual encounters with members of one's own sex at an early age that prove to be very satisfying.'

As I noted before, Catholic Church staff and lay people have a perverse fascination with other people's sex lives. For the fun of it, let me note that 'hormone imbalances' invariably would invariably have causative genetic components. But hey, sociologists... - It is also worth noting that the language that is deployed here isn't exactly descriptive sociology, rather it is Catholic theology dressed up in pseudo-academic language. 'Domineering mothers', 'ineffectual fathers', plus (we are in Jamaica after all, so this still flies in public discourse) the invariable bullshit about pedophile homosexual grooming. Who, among serious sociologists or psychologists suggests the latter? Nobody that I'm am aware of. What is remarkable about Espeut's pet causes of homosexuality is that there is no more evidence for any of them then there is for his much-hated genetic causes. But that's what he believes in, so with all the weight that a degree in sociology and deaconessing in the Catholic Church provides, much credence is given to these baseless claims about the causes of homosexuality.

Espeut concludes thus, 'Let us not fall into line with 'gay-rights' propaganda by speaking as if LGBT behaviour is normal and natural. Unless you want to say that improper socialisation and dysfunctionality are normal and acceptable.' I have alerted you already to the Deacon's favourite rhetorical tool of using pejorative language ('improper', 'dysfunctional' etc) where argument would be required. Let me address the issue of homosexuality being abnormal and unnatural issue by copying here content from a Hastings Center Report article I published back in 1997. It's still true and shows us how little progress has been made on this subject matter. The fundamentalist religious in the world will turn around and continue their little flat-earth tirades as if nothing had happened at all. And mass media still give them outlets to vent their rage instead of asking them to seek professional help.

'Why is there a dispute as to whether homosexuality is natural or normal? We suggest it is because many people seem to think that nature has a prescriptive normative force such that what is deemed natural or normal is necessarily good and therefore ought to be. Everything that falls outside these terms is constructed as unnatural and abnormal, and it has been argued that this constitutes sufficient reason to consider homosexuality worth avoiding.[16] Arguments that appeal to 'normality' to provide us with moral guidelines also risk committing the naturalistic fallacy. The naturalistic fallacy is committed when one mistakenly deduces from the way things are to the way they ought to be. For instance, Dean Hamer and colleagues commit this error in their Science article when they state that "it would be fundamentally unethical to use such information to try to assess or alter a person's current or future sexual orientation, either heterosexual or homosexual, or other normal attributes of human behavior."[17] Hamer and colleagues believe that there is a major genetic factor contributing to sexual orientation. From this they think it follows that homosexuality is normal, and thus worthy of preservation. Thus they believe that genetics can tell us what is normal, and that the content of what is normal tells us what ought to be. This is a typical example of a naturalistic fallacy. Normality can be defined in a number of ways, but none of them direct us in the making of moral judgments. First, normality can be reasonably defined in a descriptive sense as a statistical average. Appeals to what is usual, regular, and/or conforming to existing standards ultimately collapse into statistical statements. For an ethical evaluation of homosexuality, it is irrelevant whether homosexuality is normal or abnormal in this sense. All sorts of human traits and behaviors are abnormal in a statistical sense, but this is not a sufficient justification for a negative ethical judgment about them. Second, 'normality' might be defined in a functional sense, where what is normal is something that has served an adaptive function from an evolutionary perspective. This definition of normality can be found in sociobiology, which seeks biological explanations for social behavior. There are a number of serious problems with the sociobiological project.[18] For the purposes of this argument, however, suffice it to say that even if sociobiology could establish that certain behavioral traits were the direct result of biological evolution, no moral assessment of these traits would follow. To illustrate our point, suppose any trait that can be reasonably believed to have served an adaptive function at some evolutionary stage is normal. Some questions arise that exemplify the problems with deriving normative conclusions from descriptive science. Are traits that are perpetuated simply through linkage to selectively advantageous loci less 'normal' than those for which selection was direct? Given that social contexts now exert 'selective pressure' in a way that nature once did, how are we to decide which traits are to be intentionally fostered? Positions holding the view that homosexuality is unnatural, and therefore wrong also inevitably develop incoherencies. They often fail to explicate the basis upon which the line between natural and unnatural is drawn. More importantly, they fail to explain why we should consider all human-made or artificial things as immoral or wrong. These views are usually firmly based in a non-empirical, prescriptive interpretation of nature rather than a scientific descriptive approach. They define arbitrarily what is natural and have to import other normative assumptions and premises to build a basis for their conclusions. For instance, they often claim that an entity called "God" has declared homosexuality to be unnatural and sinful.[19] Unfortunately, these analyses have real-world consequences. In Singapore, unnatural acts are considered a criminal offence, and "natural intercourse" is arbitrarily defined as "the coitus of the male and female organs." A recent High Court decision there declared oral sex "unnatural," and therefore a criminal offence, unless it leads to subsequent reproductive intercourse.

In the United States, several scholars and lesbian and gay activists have argued that establishing a genetic basis for sexual orientation will help make the case for lesbian and gay rights. The idea is that scientific research will show that people do not choose their sexual orientations and therefore they should not be punished or discriminated against in virtue of them. This general argument is flawed in several ways.[23] First, we do not need to show that a trait is genetically determined to argue that it is not amenable to change at will. This is clearly shown by the failure rates of conversion therapies.[24] These failures establish that sexual orientation is resistant to change, but they do not say anything about its ontogeny or etiology. Sexual orientation can be unchangeable without being genetically determined. There is strong observational evidence to support the claim that sexual orientation is difficult to change, but this evidence is perfectly compatible with non-genetic accounts of the origins of sexual orientations. More importantly, we should not embrace arguments that seek to legitimate homosexuality by denying that there is any choice in sexual preference because the implicit premise of such arguments is that if there was a choice, then homosexuals would be blameworthy.

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