THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 179
It's natural (Part One)
I was delighted to read in the Times today that recent research has thrown considerable more light on the same sex behaviour of animals. Apparently the variety and ubiquity of same-sex behaviour in animals is extensive - it has been shown to take place in many species, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, molluscs and nematodes, according to Nathan Bailey and Marlene Zuk of the University of California.
This is impressive news because I can remember that, not many decades ago, fundamentalists and evangelicals declared to the world that the behaviour of homosexual men was sinking beneath the level of animals. I think the expression ‘worse than dogs’ was used! Now, apparently, we know that there are many thousands of instances of same sex courtship and bonding. For example, about half of the male sexual encounters of the bottlenose dolphins is with other males!
So there we have it. Obviously more research will take place, but same sex activity and bonding are thought to be natural activities. That is - it happens normally in nature. It is not deviant, perverse, queer or occasional. It is normal, natural and, obviously, animals were made that way.
Over the last decades, however, there are many people who would have had us think that such behaviour happens very rarely - or not at all - across the animal kingdom. From that it was inferred that humans who engaged in same sex activity were perverse, corrupt and deserving of contempt.
The really interesting conclusion to come out of this research is that homosexual activity could act as a selective pressure. Nathan Bailey says ‘Same sex behaviour can have evolutionary consequences that are beginning to be considered.’ And the headline in the Daily Telegraph (though headlines are never to be trusted!) was ‘Homosexuality is nature’s way of protecting species.’ Well - that’s as may be, as they say! But it is sufficient to show that over the last decades the popular (though not universal) assumption has not only been wrong - the argument has been used as a weapon against homosexuals wrongly. That we have now corrected this error is very satisfactory.
How applicable is all of this to human beings? Most, if not all of us would agree that human beings are a higher order of animal. That human beings have a moral and a spiritual sense. As Christians we believe that human beings were created by God and called to live a higher than purely instinctual life.
It is important to be very clear - I am not suggesting that because other animals obviously find same-sex coupling normal, therefore human beings can and should do the same. What I am saying is that the condemnation poured on homosexual people in past decades because it was thought that animals did not ever have same-sex couplings - was completely wrong. And that it appears that homosexuality may have a part to play in evolution.
So now we start with a clean slate. Animals do it - does this have any bearing on what human beings do?
It is obvious that the majority of human beings will be involved in man/woman relationships and the result will be children in the vast majority of cases. That is how nature ‘works’ - and we believe that that is what God intended from the beginning. However, that does not preclude that, in addition to the majority practice of marriage and children, it may well be in God’s plan and purpose that there should be same sex relationships that mature into life long commitments. I do not see them as ‘marriage’ (though some gay people do) - I see them as partnerships. I think that they are purposed by God, for they can be expressive of a love between two people that can last a lifetime. I believe that such partnerships are blessed by God and should be blessed by the church. Why not, for heaven’s sake?
If I am right (and I accept that I may be wrong - only time will tell) then we have to ask a very simple question which has a very complicated answer! The question is: why is it that so many religious folk are so against homosexual relationships? To even start to answer that will take the rest of this article!
We have to recognise at this point that it is not only Christianity that objects to homosexuality. The Muslims are against it, as are many (though not all) other religions. Why this worldwide united objection, which must be deeper than the unique reasons provided by any of the world wide faiths individually? If it were just Christianity against it, then one might delve into the dim and distant origins of the Israelites and try to trace why it is they took such a dislike to it. But it isn’t just Christianity - it is many religions. That leads me inevitably to the conclusion that there are social reasons (rather than religious reasons) that are behind the widespread objection - which is apparent right across the world, irrespective of religion. In other words it is beginning to look as if the reasons behind the forbidding of homosexuality lie in early social reasons, not dictates from the God of any particular religion.
I must add a rider here. There have been - and are - religions that do not condemn homosexuality. Some tolerate it, others seem to accept it. And there have been societies that have accepted homosexuality - the Spartans for example encouraged homosexuality among its elite - soldiers fought better when they were side by side with their beloved! And the Greek world was even more tolerant, perhaps, than some societies today.
However, it appears to be true that the majority of societies from the earliest recorded times did not approve of homosexuality. In the ‘recent’ past - the last two thousand years, as the Christian Church developed - what was previously socially (and religiously) unacceptable came to be seen as a sin and then a heinous sin. Eventually, on our society, it was the ‘sin without a name’ - it was never publicly discussed or even referred to by anybody, which was certainly the case when I was growing up. Disapproval from the time even before recorded history is one possible reason why there has grown up a generality of condemnation across the world - and especially in Christian countries and places where they controlled or influenced.
So why could it be that homosexuality - though apparent throughout nature - became unacceptable to early mankind? Maybe the explanation is that in the time before recorded history, when human beings lived in small groups, it obviously must have been vitally important for the numbers and the strength of the tribe to increase. The more male babies that were produced meant that there were more men to help do the daily work of the tribe and - above all - to fight with other tribes. Female babies grew up to cook and have more babies. Obviously it became paramount for the numbers and strength of the tribe to increase. In those circumstances I can well imagine that homosexuals came to be seen as a burden and unproductive members of the tribe. This would be irrespective of any part they played in the evolution of society. Their unacceptability lay, not in their contribution to the tribe, but in their unwillingness to produce offspring. That seems to me a powerful reason for homosexuality being shunned from the early days of human history. One can imagine them becoming less and less tolerated as the pressure on resources grew, with the resultant tribal warfare.
This explanation - along, no doubt, with other causes - leads me to think that over a period of time there was a general rejection of homosexuals. They were perhaps seen as passengers. And of course all the time there was the powerful example in front of everyone’s eyes of men and women pairing up and producing children, which are a great delight in any day and age. Their welfare showed the success of the tribe.
Looking at the Israelites, who developed into the Jewish nation in due course, it is clear that homosexual couplings were forbidden from early on. I gather that one of the key beliefs of the time was that a man’s ‘seed’ was precious and should never be wasted. Thus we have the comment about Onan in Genesis chapter 38. Certainly they were exhorted at every turn to ‘prosper and multiply.’ The early Israelites valued highly the ability to produce children.
But then is not now. What applied those thousands of years ago does not necessarily apply now. If you think for a moment of how humans beings have changed their ideas and practices on so many things as the centuries have passed. So much so that today’s world would hardly be credible to a stone age human. So we should be very careful about taking ideas that worked in the Stone Age and trying to apply them in all their simplicity today. We almost live on another planet! Some of the early concepts, values and principles survive - others do not!
If a prejudice against homosexuality took root in the early days of our species as I am suggesting, then one can immediately see why, over the millennia, it has steadily increased. Despite there being homosexuals in every age and place, human society became more anti-homosexual as time went by. The Christian religion adopted the Jewish laws and rules and perpetuated the anti-homosexual bias. Plus, over the years they hardened the objection to homosexuality, though I believe the Christian religion only made strict laws against homosexuality some centuries after the beginning.
So why is it that religious folk have been so against homosexuality for centuries? It is because there were good social reasons very early on in human history for shunning homosexual members of the tribe. Why has the church been so virulently against homosexuality? Because religion often mirrors the concerns of its members and so what was unacceptable to the tribe became sinful and - after centuries - was viewed as such a terrible sin that it was not even talked about. These are just my ideas and may be quite wrong - but I suggest that it gives a reasonable answer to the observation that many religious people - from may religions across the world - have persisted in a prejudice against homosexuals.
Homosexuality is natural and normal in the animal kingdom. It has been in human society from time immemorial. Yet it appears to have been rejected in many cultures and religions. That may originate from social attitudes rather than the religious edicts that surely followed. Over the centuries some religions - and especially Christianity - have developed their opposition to homosexuality and, sometimes, rested their reasoning on the idea that it was an unnatural act. Now, however scientists are beginning to suggest that not only is same sex activity prevalent in nature (is natural), but that it has played a decisive part in evolution of the human species. This is now going to be explored more deeply by scientists.
Meanwhile prejudice against homosexuality, which may have social rather than religious roots, is still being perpetuated by some of the religions of the world. But the advance of understanding has led us to the point where we can begin to see that, as in other areas (for example the way men have treated women) we need a drastic rethink. Thank God that reassessment is now well under way across the world, although some predominantly religious countries are still reluctant to consider the idea.
What we now have to examine is whether homosexuality is a base animal phenonomen - fit only for the lower animals but not for man - or whether it shows any of the marks of being a truly human activity. That must be the subject of Part Two of this subject.