Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The irrelevance of biology in judging Christian morality

This is an issue I have been mulling over since my my blogalogue with Dan Myers on One Punk, Under God...

In theological discussions of being gay, a common issue is whether being gay is biological in origin. If yes, the thinking goes, then being gay is a) from God, the Creator and b) should be accepted as an unchangeable part of the person.

My goal here is not to address whether being gay has biological origins, I will leave that to biologists, or even if being gay is moral, that is for theologians, and brave ones at that. Instead, I make the case that any biological aspect of being gay (or just about any other human characteristic) probably does not matter for discussions of morality.

To start with, it's my observation that many gay people experience their uality as occurring very early in their lives. "I've always been this way" or something like this is a commonly heard refrain. Okay, I accept that as real. Other gay people frame it as a lifestyle choice. I accept that too. Around 2-3% of the population is gay, which translates into 4-5 million people. It makes sense, then, that there are multiple experiences, and probably origins, of being gay.

Furthermore, being gay, if it has biological causes, is not solely biologically determined. There are examples of identical twins having different ualities. Likewise, if it was solely biological, or at least a simple biological mechanism, principles of natural selection suggest that being gay should fade out of the population rather soon, as gay people have relatively low birth rates.

Nonetheless, it's not unreasonable to assume that for some individuals being gay has some aspect of biological influence. Even this is not clear-cut, for plenty of studies have found that early social experiences can alter individuals' biological and even genetic make-up.

What, then, are the theological implications of this assumption? I would argue none. Various behaviors deemed moral in Christianity have a biological aspect, e.g., a parent's love for a child or helping a stranger in need. However, so do various behaviors deemed immoral. Behavioral geneticists have linked biology to just about every human vice, including criminal behavior, alcohol abuse, racism, and sexual assault. Perhaps the best example is promiscuity--what could be more biological advantageous than having more children with as many mates as possible? Yet, Christian scripture defines it as immoral.

Another way to approach this issue is to consider animals. Periodically researchers will come out, so to speak, with studies of animals enacting same-sexual behavior. For example, sometimes male buffalo mount each other, male penguins couple-up, and rams prefer with other rams. This is used as evidence for the biological origins, and hence normality, of being gay.

If animals are acting out biological impulses, does this matter for theology? Are we going to endorse all animal behaviors as biological, and therefore ultimately moral? Let's see, male bottlenose dolphins hold females in captivity and corner them for . Likewise, mallard ducks will use violent assault as part of . (Once I saw this happening near the Terrace at the U. of Wisconsin, and several students became very upset watching this assault and chased off the male ducks to protect the female). Spiders will eat their mates. Cats and lions will kill the offspring of other males. In fact, watch the Animal Channel for more than five minutes, and you'll quickly see that maybe we should not uncritically accept animals as moral guides.

So, where does this leave us? If we accept that humans are inherently flawed, prone to doing wrong, as per the doctrine of original sin, then whether or not a specific behavior has biological origins simply does not matter for discussions of its morality.


sarah said...

I had a very similar mallard experience at the U of Iowa one spring - several male mallards assaulting a female in the middle of Clinton St. A female student walking near me started screaming at them, "Stop it! STOP IT!" and chased them off. Given the intensity of her reaction, I halfway wondered if she needed a referral (I was seeing a decent therapist at the time...)

Brad Wright said...

Take Back the Pond?

Knumb said...

Take Back the Pond?

I chuckled pretty hard when I read that.

Joshua said...

Glad you got the reference... a bit obscure I suppose

Michael Kruse said...

From I slightly different slant, I have to siblings born with a rare form of MD. It is a genetic problem. Are they all that God intended them to be? No. Then why do we argue that if someone is born gay that means that is God's best for them?

This doesn't answer the morality of the issue but it does show that justification from biology is very flawed.

Brad Wright said...

That's another way of thinking about it. While I can understand people using biology as a means of moral justification, you give another example of its flaws.

Knumb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jay Livingston said...

The reaction-to-mallards incidents are very interesting. (And yes, I got the take-back reference.) Some cultural historian ought to look at nature documentaries across cultures and across time, for they are often strongly shaped by moral prejudices. For example, I can't imagine those Disney nature films from the 50s and 60s showing the mallards.

Maybe the problem is that we equate Nature with God, and God with Good. So what are we to think when we look at Nature and see rape and killing, which we think of as Bad?

Brad Wright said...

Very interesting Jay... that would make an interesting study: How we portray nature as a reflection of human's views of God and society. I think this has been done with paintings and even literature, but for recent years nature documentaries would be the way to go.