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Four Non-Religious Arguments Against Homosexuality

March 14, 2014

The debate over gay marriage continues to rage across America. Opponents say that legalizing it strikes at the foundation of marriage traditionally understood. Supporters say that it is extending freedoms to everyone. If asked for my position on the issue, my answer is “I have no position.” There hasn’t been an argument or piece of evidence that has convinced me of one position, so I’m content to withhold judgment until I have a better grasp of the issue.

Nevertheless, the continuing debate has interested me in a different question–is it possible to argue for the moral wrong of homosexual behavior from a non-religious basis? Most Muslims, Christians and Jews would consider homosexual behavior immoral, but their basis comes from supernatural revelation. Could someone come to the conclusion through pure reason? In this article, I present and evaluate four arguments against homosexual behavior from a non-religious standpoint. I don’t necessarily endorse any of the arguments–I’m merely presenting them for consideration.

A few explanatory notes before I begin: These arguments aren’t taking a particular political stand on the issue, i.e. arguing that homosexual behavior should be illegal. I believe in toleration within a pluralist political framework, and that is the context in which these arguments should be taken. But, as Michael Novak points out, tolerance does not imply being “gung-ho” for someone’s beliefs or choices. Also, I will be using the term “homosexual” to refer primarily to homosexual behavior regardless of “sexual orientation.” I’m aware that the term is no longer politically correct; however, the purpose of the essay is to sidestep the issues of “sexual identity.” The terms “gay” and “straight” are relatively recent inventions, and although it’s impossible to totally escape one’s context, we can at least try to look at things from a more universal perspective. “LGBTQA” doesn’t accurately refer to what I’m describing, and it’s just harder to read.

Argument 1: The Argument from Religious Authority

  1. Most traditional religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism) condemn homosexual behavior as immoral.
  2.  Therefore, there’s a strong chance that it is, in fact, immoral.

Evaluation: Arguments from authority are the weakest arguments. The reason is that no authority is infallible. As Bertrand Russell said, “Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.” Even the greatest thinkers make goofs sometimes. Therefore, it won’t be enough to appeal to the force of religious authority or traditional culture to close this question. A person could simply retort that the religions were wrong on this point, or wrong altogether, or that religions have countenanced so many bad things that it is foolish to look to them for moral guidance. This not only destroys the force of the argument, but also shifts the discussion away from its original focus to the question of whether “religion” is good for the world. The argument, however, can be made stronger by reducing the scope of its claims, like so:

  1. Most traditional religions (Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism) condemn homosexual behavior as immoral.
  2. Therefore, since so many wise men and women considered this in the past, we should at least be open to considering their views, even if ultimately we reject them.

This formulation of the argument is much more powerful. Instead of claiming a definite answer that it can’t deliver, it acts as an invitation to conversation. If tradition is “the democracy of the dead,” as Chesterton claimed, then this argument attempts to give the dead a fair shake. But it can’t settle the argument; it can only open the door to further considerations.

Argument 2: The Argument from Evolution

  1. Evolution is true.
  2. Humans are natural creatures, i.e. creatures who evolved through natural selection.
  3. Natural selection has “designed” humans for heterosexual relationships, in that a mammal, if it is healthy, has a natural inclination to breed, which necessarily involves a heterosexual relationship.
  4. Therefore, there is something unnatural about homosexual behavior.

Evaluation: In this form, the argument is not a syllogism; rather, it is a loosely organized set of principles, the upshot of which is that evolutionary biology should make us skeptical of homosexual behavior. After all, if the “purpose” of an animal is to breed and make more animals, then there would seem to be something biologically wrong with an animal that isn’t following its instinct.

The argument seems strong initially, but trouble arises upon further reflection. First, it doesn’t give us any moral guidance whatsoever. It can’t make the claim that there is something “wrong” with homosexual behavior, merely that there is something “unnatural” about it. And there are many things that we may consider “unnatural” that we don’t consider wrong. A person born without a limb is “unnatural;” an inclination to collect ballpoint pens is “unnatural;” stuttering is “unnatural.” We don’t consider any of these things to be morally wrong, and rightly so. Second, the term “unnatural” is itself suspect. The idea of learning precepts from nature is a shaky one, because nature itself is so shaky and changeable. If we find other animals that engage in homosexual behavior (I’ve heard there are such ones), does that make it “natural?” If we find that homosexual inclinations have their roots only in genetic predispositions, does that make them “natural?” To which “nature” are we appealing as a standard? Finally, the best refutation to this argument may be to scream, Johnny Rotten-style, “I’m not an animal!” We don’t normally treat people as animals, even if we tenaciously cling to the most naturalistic of evolutionary theories. We definitely think it wrong to treat heterosexual romantic relationships as mere animal mating rituals (this refusal is the basis of all romantic comedies). Why should we suddenly adopt this view towards homosexual relationships?

Ultimately, I think this argument fails. It may work out as a defense of heteronormativity, but heteronormativity already has a strong defense, viz. the very small number of people who engage in any homosexual behavior and the even smaller number of people whose “sexual identity” is defined by such behavior or relationships. And even if one affirms heteronormativity, one of the key tenets of the Western idea of freedom is respecting people who fall outside the norm, provided they are not harming others.

Argument 3: The sort-of Aristotelian Argument

  1. The final cause of, um, reproductive organs is reproduction.
  2. Homosexual behavior uses these contrary to the final cause.
  3. Therefore, homosexual behavior is, in some measure, wrong.

Evaluation: This argument is similar to the argument from evolution, but with a more metaphysical cast. It relies on a vaguely Aristotelian realist picture of the universe, in which teleology plays a part in things. A flower’s teleology is to bloom (I’m sure scientists will say that’s not the whole story, but let’s keep it simple.) The teleology of procreation is, well, procreation. This is, I believe, very similar to the argument that Sherif Girgis presents against gay marriage.

This argument is more effective than the the argument from evolution, simply because this view of the universe is probably more widespread than evolutionary naturalism (and isn’t itself incompatible with evolution). It, however, has a host of problems as well. Setting aside the straight-up rejection of Aristotelian realism, the reliance on final causes is problematic. For starters, it may be that we have the final cause wrong, or that there are multiple goals that humans could strive for. Most people wouldn’t want to say that creating children is the only reason to engage in amorous dalliance, nor is it the most pressing. This argument also has the effect of condemning–how can I say this delicately–all sexual practices that don’t have the end of creating children in mind, or that won’t result in this end. And what about heterosexual couples who aren’t able to have children? Once could argue that they are the exception to the rule, but the entire issue is about exceptions to the rule, and whether those exceptions are bad or neutral. It may be that heterosexual couples who can’t have children are still fulfilling the final cause, but are being hindered by an outside force. But that just brings us back to square one.

Argument 4: The Argument from Metaphysics

  1. All of human life is a search for the Other.
  2. This search for the Other is an imperative
  3. This search is and should be expressed in romantic relationships.
  4. Man and Woman are, on some level, each other’s Other.
  5. Homosexual relationships are same-sex; the term of the relationship does not seek his or her “Other,” but only a mirror of him/herself.
  6. Therefore, there is something wrong with homosexual relationships as such.

Evaluation: This is probably the strongest argument of the bunch. Its strength is that, although it relies on a metaphysical principle, it doesn’t reference any specific religion, but rather a “universal” requirement. I discovered the argument from Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddhin in Leftism Revisited. It’s also the argument used in Michael Novak’s article “The Double Hell of the Homosexual” (read before judging). The idea is that there is some element of a homosexual relationship that “misses the mark” of what humans are supposed to do. And it goes beyond the sexual aspect to cast suspicion upon the entire relationship itself.

The initial objection to this would be to say “devil take the metaphysics.” This kind of metaphysical view is going to be unpopular in many circles, especially evolutionary naturalists. One could also propose a metaphysical system of a different kind. This metaphysical system itself seems to privilege marriage in a bad way. Could a person who is celibate not “search for the Other?” If you open the door to celibates, it may be a hop, skip, and a jump to gays, lesbians, and committed bisexuals. My biggest worry about this argument is that, if developed, it might just end up being a reiteration of a Christian position on the issue. That’s not a problem in itself–it may be a good explanation of why Christians consider homosexual behavior to be wrong, beyond “The Bible says so.” But then it is no longer a non-religious argument, and it relies on a supernatural authority which not everyone accepts.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I don’t think any one of these arguments gets close to giving us a settled answer, with the possible exception of #4. #1 is merely a conversation starter. #2 and #3 fall apart under closer investigation, while #4, which seems like the tightest argument of the bunch, can’t seem to get away from religious assumptions, or at least religious trappings. The last three arguments may present a good case for heteronormativity, but that’s about it. I can’t see myself using any of the arguments in a discussion, except perhaps a modified version of #4 (and what that modification would entail, I cannot say offhand). Still, I think it’s good to consider these arguments. It’s helpful for religious people (most of whom are the opponents of “gay” marriage, etc.) to think about whether their positions can be grounded in “natural reason.” And it’s helpful for supporters to see that their “enlightened” positions aren’t eternally self-evident truths, but are grounded in a specific time and place, and open to objections (and that holds even if their positions are true). I hope that this has added something for both sides of the discussion.

Please keep all comments civil, grace-filled, and respectful of the personhood of others. Abusive comments will not be tolerated.

 

 

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2014 7:02 pm

    I just want to say that I greatly appreciated the way this post was written. This is a topic too often steeped in belligerence. Thank you for addressing this issue with intelligence and class.

  2. June 18, 2014 6:07 am

    This is really great

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