Friday, May 17, 2013

"Unnatural Acts" and the Sins of Sodom: Some Bad Arguments against Homosexuality

In the last few days, I've run into people using two of the most common arguments against homosexuality: saying it's unnatural, and pointing to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Both arguments are still quite common, and a whole bunch of people think they give them a license to tell others who they can love and marry. It seems to me that an argument better be pretty good if you're going to use it to tell other people how they can live their life. And neither of these arguments come close.

First, the "unnatural" claim (I'm going to leave aside the obvious point that homosexuality might not be unnatural). Religious and non-religious people are always using the "Natural = Good/Unnatural = Bad" argument, sometimes called the Appeal to Nature argument, to divide the world between good things and bad things. Up to a point, this makes some sense. For example, we evolved to eat a certain kind of food, which is derived almost exclusively from other living things. That means it would be unnatural to try to eat, say, a handful of asbestos fibers. In this case, unnatural is bad, because our bodies aren't equipped to eat asbestos. So, what's natural/unnatural often correlates with what's good/bad. But the correlation is far from perfect. What's natural isn't necessarily good, and what's unnatural isn't necessarily bad. Arsenic, bubonic plague, tornadoes, and brain-eating amoebas are all perfectly natural. Come to think of it, so is asbestos. Some common, natural animal behaviors include infanticide, forced copulation, internal parasitism, and eating prey while it is still alive and kicking. Unnatural things include running water, electrical appliances, C-sections that save the lives of mothers and babies, and--older male readers take note--Viagra.

People are right to admire nature's beauty and harmony, because it has both of those things in spades. And since we evolved to live in a certain kind of natural world, we disregard what is natural for us at some peril. But nature also has an enormous amount of death, strife, and pain. So it's also perilous to assume that what is natural is good, and what is unnatural is bad. Whether something is natural or not should be one of many considerations in deciding what is good or bad, and not an absolute one. That's because it's not the main point, when it comes to most moral arguments. Our main concern is not whether something is natural or unnatural, but whether it is good or bad. And what that really means, I think, is: does it improve the welfare of conscious beings, or decrease it?

The real question when deciding whether something like homosexuality is immoral is: "Does it do harm?" I don't think it does. Sure, gay people often don't reproduce, but in a world that went from 6 to 7 billion people in 13 years, I don't think that's a bad thing. There's no shortage of people on this planet. Even if you could clearly show that homosexuality caused harm in some way, well, heterosexuality causes quite a few problems itself. Besides, it would have to be something pretty harmful to justify telling people that they have to abstain from sex and love--which most people consider among the most important things in life--or try to force themselves to be heterosexual. I don't know about you, but can't imagine changing my sexual orientation through sheer force of will. Maybe some of my fellow heterosexuals can (that would explain how so many of them can claim homosexuality is a choice, I guess). In any case, my point is that you can't say homosexuality is wrong simply by saying it's unnatural. What's unnatural isn't necessarily wrong, and what's natural isn't necessarily right.

Now, over to Sodom and Gomorrah. Obviously, the word "sodomy" comes from Sodom, one of the Biblical "Cities on the Plain" that may have existed along the Jordan River plain, north of the Dead Sea (archaeologists argue about whether it ever existed or not). In the book of Genesis, Abraham and his nephew Lot part ways amiably, because their herds have grown too large for the land to support both of them. Lot goes to Sodom, a city whose people were said to be "wicked, great sinners against the Lord". God soon tells Abraham that he intends to destroy Sodom for its sinfulness. Abraham begs him to spare it if he can find 50 righteous men in the city. God agrees, and then Abraham talks him down to ten. But apparently there aren't ten righteous men in Sodom, because God sends two "men" (usually interpreted as angels) to destroy it. The angels meet Lot, who invites them into his home.

That's when things turn nasty. The men of Sodom gather around outside Lot's house and demand that he hand over the angels so that they may "know" them (presumably in the Biblical sense). Lot refuses, and instead offers his two virgin daughters to the mob, to "do to them as you please". The mob refuses and tries to force their way in, and the angels strike them blind. Then they tell Lot to flee the city with his family, and not look back. But his wife does look back, and is turned into a pillar of salt (the area has naturally occurring pillars of salt, which is probably the basis for this part of the story). Then the Lord rains fire and brimstone down on Sodom, Gomorrah, and most of the other cities on the plain. Later, Lot's daughters get him drunk and have sex with him, and have his children.

For over two thousand years, up to this day, this story has been interpreted as a cautionary tale about the evils of homosexuality and the destruction that the Lord will visit on societies that allow it. But wait a just a minute here. Here we have a story where the main character, Lot, is held up as one of the only righteous men in the wicked city. A man who offers his daughters to an angry mob, to be raped, and later on bears children with those same daughters. Should we really look to this tale as a guide to morality? Nobody looks very moral in this story to me. Even God seems needlessly harsh (as he often does in the Old Testament). Did Lot's wife really deserve to be turned to salt? What kind of moral lesson is this tale, anyway?

Still, it's clear that the inhabitants of Sodom were being pretty awful. If there is such a thing as angels, I think we can all agree that gang-raping them is a bad thing. But it's strange that what people remember as being bad in the story is the homosexuality, not the coercion and attempted rape. Those things, unlike homosexuality, are clearly bad because they hurt people. Homosexuality is very different. Homosexual relationships between consenting adults don't seem to hurt people (or they wouldn't if others wouldn't freak out so much about them). What kind of skewed sense of morality causes people to read this story, and remember homosexuality as the worst behavior in it?

Now, there are going to be people reading this who think, "Well, maybe homosexuality isn't as bad as the other stuff in the story, but it's still bad, and that's one point of the story". Maybe that's one way the author of the story intended it.  I wouldn't be surprised, but then, he was a member of a violent, sexist, and superstitious society. Why should we put so much stock in his opinion? Haven't we learned anything about morality in the last 2500 years or so? Maybe this is one of those things in the Bible that nobody should take seriously as a guide to morality. You can't deny that there are such passages, and I don't care how religious you are. Unless, for example, you're prepared to agree that if someone rapes your daughter, the right thing to do is marry her to him, as Deuteronomy 22:25 commands. I'm pretty sure you aren't going to go for that, even if you claim to believe the Bible is literally true and inerrant. It's a bad rule. Similarly, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is simply a bad moral lesson.

But there are always people who love to denounce others, especially if they think they might be enjoying themselves. I don't understand this impulse. It seems to me that people make a terrible mistake when they think of morality in negative terms, as a list of  "THINGS YOU SHOULD NOT DO". Morality isn't about keeping people from enjoying life, or it shouldn't be. In fact, the whole point of morality, as far as I'm concerned, is to make life worth living for as many people as possible. Morality is about making life better, not worse. But, let me be clear. I'm not advocating the kind of simplistic utilitarianism that prescribes doing whatever causes the most total benefit, on average. I don't think, for example, that it's right to kill and harvest one person's organs to save the lives of 5 others.  Individual rights are important. But rights aren't important in and of themselves. They're important because respecting people's rights will make life better in the long run.

Some religious people might think morality is about doing what God wants us to do, regardless of our happiness. But wouldn't a good God want us to do what makes life good (if not in this life, at least in the next one?). I suppose you could say we are a part of God's big plan, and that plan may not include our individual happiness. To which I would respond: prove it. If you want to base your morality on arguable theological ideas, that's your prerogative, but I don't think it gives you the right to impose it on others. The only certain criteria for a morally bad act--certain enough that the act should be outlawed--is that it clearly hurts people.

I'm writing this because I have a lot of gay friends, and I hate seeing them hurt by discriminatory laws and attitudes based on shaky ideas of morality, like simple-minded appeals to nature or morally questionable Bible stories. If you want to impose your morals on other people, to the detriment of their happiness, you better be able to make an airtight argument that meddling in their lives is morally justified. When it comes to homosexuality, I've never seen an argument that comes close. My larger point, however, is about the whole reason for having morals. A moral code that doesn't actually make life better is a moral code that makes no sense (alas, it's also a moral code that's extremely common). What makes something bad is not that it's unnatural, or that it violates some arbitrary rule from God, but that it causes harm and makes life worse. If it doesn't do those things, then I just can't see how it's bad.

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