Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Science, Politics and Homosexuality: A Book Review

I reproduce here a book review I wrote a while ago for my church magazine. Enjoy...

Homosexuality: The Use of Scientific Research in the Church’s Moral Debate
Stanton L. Jones & Mark A. Yarhouse
IVP: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2000. 183pp, pb.
ISBN: 0830815678

As a trained scientist I was drawn to this book by the words “scientific” and “research” in the title. This area of concern is heavily politicized within the wider Christian community and it is sometimes difficult to find solid ground for the assertions made. The authors of this book write from a conservative evangelical standpoint and adopt the traditional attitude to homosexual practice. However their primary concern is with explaining the relevance of research data to the moral debate, not with explaining biblical texts. With this in mind it is refreshing to read authors who want to look at some hard data gathered in the field, some of it eye-opening and challenging.

The basic structure of the book is to look at what research has to say about four questions: How prevalent is homosexuality? What causes homosexuality? Is homosexuality a psychopathology? (i.e. is it some kind of mental disorder?) Can homosexuality be changed? Each of these is covered in a chapter each of which adopts the same form: A review of the use of research in church debate so far; a review of the scientific findings; a discussion of the relevance of the research to the moral debate.

In my view Jones and Yarhouse make two particularly useful contributions. The first is that they simply clear up the numbers. For example, it is now commonly asserted by pro-gay advocates that 10% of people are gay. The source of this is two-fold: firstly, a study made in the 40s and 50s with methods that are now discredited. Secondly, there has been a reckless enhancement of the figures for political ends. To counter this Jones and Yarhouse simply present a full list of research results carried out more recently with more rigorous methods. The clear conclusion is that the figure is more like 1-2%.

The second useful contribution is to show how important caricaturing of conservative Christian arguments is in progressing the pro-gay viewpoint. For example, “Homosexuality is not very prevalent therefore it is abnormal and must be rejected”, is one such caricature that pro-gays have seized upon. The argument has the ring of scientific authority about it. To counter it, it is in the interests of the pro-gay lobby to show that the prevalence of homosexuality is significant. Having done so, so the pro-gay argument goes, homosexuality is not abnormal and therefore should be accepted. It is a successful approach since Christians often unthinkingly adopt the caricature (as I found I had done!) with the result that they are then portrayed as being against science. Jones and Yarhouse spend some time analyzing the caricatures and showing them for what they are. This was very thought-provoking.

The book closes with a chapter on Christian sexual ethics. This is particularly useful as it connects dealing with the moral choices concerning homosexuality with the broader issue of making moral choices as a fallen Christian. Christian living means hard decisions sometimes with hard consequences, and not just for those who struggle with homosexuality.

Though a short read, it is a book for the committed reader who really wants to get to the bottom of the underlying research. But for those with an interest in the topic it is well worth the effort and money spent on it.

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