Science, Faith, and Sexual Orientation: Round Two

My thanks to Chris Grace for his gracious and thoughtful remarks.

Since this is a conversation, I’ll respond in a personal voice, speaking colleague to colleague (and with respect for someone whom I’ve understood to be an exceptionally fine teacher of psychology).

Yes, I do owe you, Chris, for the great privilege of assisting your teaching. Having been your text author for three decades has been an honor, and a keenly felt responsibility. Thank you.

We Agree

Our agreements are several and substantial.

First and more importantly, we both respect, and seek to integrate, science and Scripture. You adopt “an integrative approach to Christianity and science that takes seriously psychological science and upholds the centrality of Scripture.” Your essay embodies that science- and faith-respecting perspective, by sifting science while affirming biblical wisdom. So does your Biola University, which has played a leadership role in hosting conversations about the interplay of rigorous science and biblical faith.

As behavioral scientists and Christians, we both begin, I sense, with the assumption that all humans have dignity but not deity. We are fallible creatures. Knowing that some of our beliefs err (we are not God), we hold our untested beliefs tentatively and, when appropriate, use observation and experimentation to sift truth from error. Believing that God has written the book of nature, our calling is to read it as clearly and honestly as we can.

Such faith-based humility and skepticism helped fuel the beginnings of modern science and supports today’s “Reformed and ever-reforming” faith tradition—a tradition that motivates free-spirited, scientific inquiry . . . which has changed my mind many times. Today’s evidence leads me to believe what I once did not: that, for example,

  • crude-seeming electroconvulsive therapy can be an effective treatment for intractable depression, 
  • the unconscious mind dwarfs the conscious mind, and is smarter than I once thought,
  • traumatic experiences rarely get repressed, 
  • parenting practices have a negligible effect on children’s later personalities and intelligence (though a greater effect on their attitudes and beliefs), and that 
  • sexual orientation is a natural, enduring disposition (not a moral choice).

Sometimes, I’m sure we further agree, science affirms ancient biblical and theological wisdom. Two quick examples:

  • Our faith tradition identifies pride as the fundamental sin—the deadliest of the seven deadly sins. Our science confirms that “self-serving bias” (perceiving ourselves as better than others) is a powerful and often perilous human tendency.
  • Our faith tradition emphasizes the interplay of faith and action. Our science confirms that our attitudes and behavior feed each other.

Second, we both understand that psychologists’ assumptions and values can penetrate their teaching, writing, researching, and practicing psychology (a point also made by psychology’s feminist critics). As you note, “any research, even scientific research, is subject to bias.” When first drafting my psychology textbooks, I posted on my office door C. S. Lewis’ reminder that “We do not need more Christian books; we need more books by Christians about everything with Christian values built in.”

Third, we agree that (your words) “While there is evidence that sexual orientation for men may neither be chosen nor changed, for women it is not as clear.” As Nathan DeWall and I explain in Psychology, 11th Edition, “Sexual orientation in some ways is like handedness: Most people are one way, some the other. A very few are truly ambidextrous. Regardless, the way one is endures. This conclusion is most strongly established for men. Women’s sexual orientation tends to be less strongly felt and potentially more fluid and changing.”

Social psychologist Roy Baumeister (2000) has documented that across time and place, women’s sexuality in other ways, too, is more fluid than men’s. Men’s sexual drive and interests are less flexible and varying. In their pupil dilation and their genital responses to erotic videos, and in their implicit attitudes, heterosexual men exhibit less bisexual responding than do women. Baumeister calls men’s less varying sexuality a gender difference in “erotic plasticity.” In plain English, men are sexually simpler. (And most people who report a strong same-sex orientation are men.)

Even so, most people—male or female—have a well-defined and persistent sexual orientation, and that is a reality that begs for explanation. It is, methinks, also a reality that the church had best face up to.

Fourth, we both, in your words, dispute that “sexual orientation is determined by any one cause or factor.” My understanding is that an interplay of genetic, prenatal hormonal, and brain differences conspire to influence our sexual orientation. You are less persuaded, but—reflecting your science-respecting humility—you are open to new evidence: “Should future findings converge (one way or the other) perhaps more definitive verdicts will arise.”

Ergo, you and I are living and working on the same planet, Chris—both of us rooted in a science-affirming faith tradition that seeks to be open to the Spirit’s continuing work, through new biblical and natural revelations. Moreover, our differences seem not fundamental to our faith. When together affirming the Apostle’s Creed we say nothing about sexual orientation.

We Differ

But this conversation also aims to identify and explore our differences. I write these words on a transatlantic flight after a month in Scotland, remembering the words of Scottish philosopher David Hume: “Truth springs from argument among friends.”

Indeed, argument among friends lies at the heart of our enterprise as Christian scholars. We each aim to give witness to the truth (as best as we can discern it). We welcome others from differing perspectives doing the same. And then we open ourselves to challenge and dialogue. Out of such free exchange, we presume, greater wisdom should ultimately emerge. That is the animating idea of, and of a college.

So, some differences:

1. Is biology the chicken or the egg? You wonder: “Does homosexuality[i] or the biology/biological influences come first? Overall I am of the opinion that it is still too early and premature to render a verdict.” 

We differ, because I am comfortable rendering a verdict: The accumulating evidence persuades me today more than ever that sexual orientation is a natural disposition. The observations of same-sex attraction in sheep, the new genetic evidence from “the gay brothers” study, the accumulating evidence of gay-straight brain and trait differences, the influence of prenatal physiology, and much more adds up to a compelling case that biology matters. (For an expert’s quick and recent synopsis of this evidence, see here.) And that explains why the American Psychological Association has asserted, as you noted, “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

 2. What shall we make of the gay parenting studies? You devote more than half your essay to noting that “77 scholarly studies converge” in indicating that children raised by gay or lesbian parents develop normally, and that “the only four that don’t are dismissed as full of errors.” Such near consensus raises red flags for you. You note some additional studies that call this conclusion into question, notably the much-criticized study by Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. And you wonder if the well-documented liberal bias of most social psychologists may be influencing what they accept as evidence.

I don’t see the gay parenting literature at the heart of the church’s culture war over sexual orientation—which rather centers on matters of biblical interpretation, the reality of sexual orientation, and the human longing for belonging and intimacy . . . and the related issues of same-sex marriage and the full citizenship of gay people in the culture and the church.

That said, I would, for two reasons, put my money on children’s tending to flourish when co-nurtured by two parents who are enduringly committed to them and to each other (regardless of parental sexual orientation).

First, there is considerable evidence to support this, and it’s not just the from the APA. The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) reports that what matters is competent, secure, nurturing parents, regardless of their gender and sexual orientation. The American Sociological Association (here), in a lengthy Supreme Court brief, concurs: Decades of research confirm that parental stability and resources matter. “Whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing.”

Second, this finding fits the larger conclusion, amply and suprisingly documented by behavior genetics research, that parental nurture—or, more generally, the “shared environment effect”—has surprisingly little influence on the development of children’s traits. Even adopted children tend to share personalities and aptitudes more akin to their biological than adoptive parents (while benefitting greatly from adoption in other ways). In “the largest twin study of same-sex sexual behavior” the contribution of shared environment (including parental influence) to men’s having same-sex sexual partners was zero—0.0, in fact (Lángström et al., 2010).

3. What does it mean for us, as you admonish, to “speak the truth in love?” Yes, let’s aspire to speak the truth in love. And we can further agree that “Love does not mean that all things are acceptable. Love does not preclude upholding a standard. The New Testament does not define love as acceptance of a behavior that transgresses God’s moral law.”

Your admonition, Chris, helpfully takes us to the heart of the issue. Might “the truth” include the reality of sexual orientation and the human need to belong?

And does “God’s moral law” prescribe a different sexual ethic for gay and straight people? Or does biblical wisdom, as unpacked by a new generation of evangelical biblical scholars (such as James Brownson for this website), imply—given that it is “not good for the man to be alone”—that a single, covenantal sexual ethic can apply to all God’s children?

Some Questions for Further Discussion 

Finally, for our further conversation—or for anyone else who would care to chime in—here are some questions stimulated by your essay.

1. Nature and nurture. If, as you seem inclined to believe, nurture (environment) rather than nature shapes sexual orientation, what specifically are the environmental influences? A distant father? An overbearing mother? (Those Freudian ideas, embraced by reparative therapists, seem pretty well discounted.)

2. Why do many Christians resist a biological explanation of sexual orientation? Given the reality of sexual orientation—its strength and persistence for most people—does the nature versus nurture explanation of sexual orientation fundamentally matter? If persistent sexual orientation were instead a matter of, say, imprinting, would that somehow be more congenial with Christian sexual ethics?

3. If bias influences psychological science (as you and I agree), might it also influence biblical and theological interpretation? Believing that a) there is a God, and b) it’s not us, isn’t our religious thinking also subject to test, challenge, and revision? Shouldn’t it, like science, be ever-reforming? As gay evangelical Ralph Blair notes in his new synopsis of the modern history of Christian thinking about sexual orientation (here), publications that today are vigorously objecting to same-sex marriage and touting sexual reorientation ministries were, in the past, using the Bible to justify racial segregation and opposing interracial marriage. (Thankfully, this is not the entire Christian history, as the church also helped lead the abolition of the slave trade and the Civil Rights movement.)

4. What, specifically, does affirming “dignity and respect”imply? Again, we agree that “All persons—whether straight or LGBTQ— are created in the image of God and deserve dignity and respect. Regardless of our disagreements, each of us should seek to love our neighbor with kindness and respect.” So, does affirming dignity and showing respect include supporting the fundamental right to marry (and the more than 1000 ancillary rights, from hospital visitation to inheritance, associated with marriage in the federal register)? Does it mean equal employment opportunity at our institutions? (Should they add “sexual orientation” to their nondiscrimination policy statements?) And is it possible to affirm a gay or lesbian person’s dignity while judging what is part of their identity to be a moral failure? As Martin Marty “wrote after the murder of Matthew Shepard, “by now we must know that the attempt to love sinners while stirring hate about the sin, which, after all, has to be done by those called sinners, contributes to the atmosphere in which crime occurs.”

5. Why not offer an inclusive Christian pro-monogamy norm? To repeat the questions at the end of my target essay: Rather than tie “onto people’s backs loads that are heavy and hard to carry,” as Jesus said of the Pharisees, why not offer a positive affirmation of monogamy? Why not stand up for healthy relationships that satisfy the human need to belong within covenant partnerships? Rather than advocating a sexual double standard for straight people (marry or be celibate) and gay people (sorry, you must be celibate), why not proclaim a single Christian sexual ethic? Why not yoke sex with faithfulness? Why not seal love with commitment? Why not foster a conservative, marriage-supporting positive argument: that the world would be a happier and healthier place if, for all people, sex, love, and marriage routinely went together?



American Academy of Pediatrics. (2013). Promoting the well-being of children whose parents are gay or lesbian.

American Sociological Association. (2013, February 28). Brief of Amicus Curiae American Sociological Association in support of respondent Kristin M. Perry and Respondent Edit Schlain Windsor. Supreme Court of the United States, Nos. 12–144, 12–307.

Baumeister, R. F. (2000). Gender differences in erotic plasticity: The female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 347–374.

Lángström, N. H., Rahman, Q., Carlström, E., & Lichtenstein, P. (2010). Genetic and environmental effects on same-sex sexual behavior: A population study of twins in Sweden. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39, 75–80.

[i] The science we’re debating seeks not to explain “homosexuality” but rather everyone’s “sexual orientation”—much as scientific studies of handedness, by comparing left- and right-handed people, are about everyone’s handedness.

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