Between Science and Ideology: The Homosexuality Debate

The surrounding debate on Homosexuality, Gay rights, Same-Sex marriages, etc. is much larger than the issues themselves. Such debates are very often compounded by a high degree of passion that unfortunately, sometimes, replaces compassion. This does not mean that the topic cannot be approached from a rational and objective point of view. But this requires more discipline and considerable emotional restraint from all sides.

The basic context for the debate is that around ideology and science. Ideology is a systemic ordering of ideas, opinions, doctrines and symbols. They form a coherent philosophical outlook or perspective concerning how individuals, groups, and society should act. Science is a systemic ordering of data and knowledge forming a coherent and reliable explanation of phenomena based on observations, experimentations and rationality. At its best, science is the polar opposite of ideology. At its worst, science and ideology are hopelessly intertwined.

One would think of identifying ideology with the religious movements or churches. However, ideology is also at the core of many political groupings and lobbying groups, including the LGBT movement. In the ensuing debates, both sides try to exploit science, and thereby violate its neutrality, by using scientific findings to reinforce their position. This is often the case with the issue of determinism.

Determinism is the view that individuals have no free will because their choices and actions are caused by forces beyond their control. Determinism is central in the ongoing debate about sexual orientation primarily as an underlying assumption. The homosexual rights movement of the 1970s embraced this position.

There are three views about determinism. The first is the so called “Hard determinism” which holds that responsibility for one’s actions is an illusion. The second is “Soft determinism”, where causation is not compulsive and to act freely is not to act unpredictably. And thirdly, “Indeterminism”, which holds that the self can influence causation. Today, the hard and soft determinists’ view dominates debates involving sexual orientation.

Advocates of both stances are seen to adopt a hard determinist position, whether it is biology or parenting/early life experiences. There are a relatively few hard determinists also in the scientific community who believe that sexual orientation is biologically determined. A case in point is the position of Blanchard and Zucker (1994), who hold that birth order is the single most reliable discriminating factor amongst homosexual males.

The soft determinists hold that the origins of behaviour, including sexual orientation, are multiply determined and involve some measure of “choice” or “decision”. Many contemporary psychotherapies adopt a soft determinist position. Their basic premise is that sexual orientation is a function of “nature or heredity, nurture” or environment, as well as “choice” or decision.

For many, the sexual orientation debate is basically a matter of genetics versus “choice”. This distinction is itself a manifestation of hard determinism. It is more correct to say that the inclination to homosexuality, bisexuality or heterosexuality is not a choice. However, the individual has a choice to make in what to do with the inclination. While from a scientific perspective, the origins of sexual orientation are still unclear, from an ideological perspective there seems to be little doubt. Well respected scientists tend to adopt a more cautious position. Bits of evidence seem to highlight the idea that the roots of sexual orientation are multiple and variable (McWirther, 1993). As long as there are questions to be asked the answers could be many. Current research suggests it is multiply determined.

Scientific research studies are often cited in debates on the morality of homosexual behaviour. Both liberals and conservatives have a limited understanding of the scientific research on homosexuality and often make inaccurate assertions, such as,  “Science confirms that homosexuality is a genetic condition”, or illogical conclusions such as,  “Since it is impossible to reverse sexual orientation, being gay is a normal lifestyle variant”.

What is more probably closer to the truth is that research is currently incomplete and inconclusive. Nevertheless there is some evidence for psychological, environmental, family, and genetic influences and brain differences in the causation of homosexuality. This is known as the “Interactionist hypothesis”, that is, that some combination of nature and nurture appears to be operative in explaining sexual orientation.

Can one change one’s sexual orientation? A profound change in sexual orientation occurs only infrequently. Initial change may occur for only a minority and relapses may be frequent. However, much discretion and professional expertise is required particularly when dealing with adolescents as their orientation might be still evolving. An even greater sensitivity is needed when dealing with victims of sexual abuse, whose sexual orientation might be affected by the injury. This is an area where ideology should be left out and more space be given to compassion. Personal integrity, I believe, is more important than sexual orientation.

Is it possible to untangle ideology from science? Only then is it legitimate and useful to consider how scientific findings can be brought to bear on the topic of homosexuality. What is certain is that we are in a culture in transition. In 1969 the phenomenon was brought from the closet of fear to open dialogue. Today there is a wider recognition of the dignity of homosexuals and the promotion of legal rights.  Similarly, there is more awareness that gay people are everywhere and do not fall under the traditional stereotypes particularly when discovering great people who were gay, such as Michelangelo, Leonardo, Tchaikovsky, etc.

The battle lines now are drawn on the issue of gay marriage.  This is drawing a lot of ideology from all sides. It is certainly paradoxical that while many heterosexuals do no longer believe in the marriage institution, homosexuals want to be part of it.  Even here there should be an exercise on whether to approach the issue from the point of view of objectivity and substance, or from ideology. While many would be ready to acknowledge that two homosexual persons can genuinely commit themselves to each another on a private level, this position falters when it comes to publicly and formally acknowledging this kind of relationship. Maybe we should let the social sciences enlighten us more about this.

6 thoughts on “Between Science and Ideology: The Homosexuality Debate

  • Reply chantelle mifsud 13th January 2013 at 12:54 pm

    Very informative article, .

    I’m not sure if the two go along ..

    Okay there might be different approaches whether homosexual behavior is natural or not .. genetically determined , culturally or both. But are we excluding animal behavior to help us understand more these questions?

    I think that here we need to consider also animal behavior especially amongst social animals, primates etc. A clear example would be a Bonobo. Where, they engage in sex with other female bonobos –obviously not for reproductive purposes that are impossible in same sex animals as long as they don’t have a laboratory somewhere hidden in the bush. This data is nowadays universally accepted amongst primatologists. Sex is also a social tool. In other words, sex amongst certain groups is a way of communicating as well. It is true that there is no clear cut answer and I hope there isn’t as that would make planet earth such a boring place.
    My question is – what makes monogamous marriages natural between heterosexual couples? Marriage is simply a cultural ideology a set of beliefs which a society expects. The way I perceive it –marriage is purely cultural, therefore a human invention. We are not biologically determined to marry, don’t we? In other words there is no need for a biological justification for one to be considered eligible to marry .. so i can’t see why this fuss about people claiming that gay marriage goes against nature – whilst marriage itself is purely unnatural.

    Chentelle M.

    • Reply Anton D'Amato 19th January 2013 at 4:17 pm

      Observing primates may lead to some understanding of our biological nature, but human beings are not simply a different evolution of primates; sexuality, marriage and any other human activity is fundamentally and essentially different in humans even though these may be similar to those of animals.

      The human being is a complex mix and in order to understand the human being fully and holistically we must take all these aspects together and not sub-divide them and understand them separately.

  • Reply Paul Galea 20th January 2013 at 6:51 pm

    Having a look at the sexual behavior of primates is interesting and important. Making the leap to human behavior is risky. Although we share 98% of the genes with chimpanzees we do believe we are different. When it comes to sexual behavior we are the sexiest species on this planet. No other animal can be potentially sexually active from puberty to old age, 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Moreover, we engage in sex outside and beyond the fertility and procreation phase. Is this perversity? It could be so if we did not have the possibility of regulating it. This is one big difference from animals. Moreover, no other species on this planet lives in a long lasting pair bonding relationship that goes beyond child bearing and rearing. Thirdly, we humans, as great creators of myths and symbols, ascribe a meaning to everything we do, sexuality included. Fourthly, we are the only species on this planet that falls in love. We don’t know if animals do. But we certainly show it and like to communicate it. This is another parting point from our close ancestors in the evolutionary chain. Is marriage then a cultural invention? Perhaps an important distinction can help. Despite the many differences in cultures and societies, the common feature is that most societies have found ways how to regulate and structure these biological givens. Call it marriage or other, is it not the most natural thing ? Besides, this is a very important prerequisite for civilized living.

  • Reply Chris Bezzina 21st January 2013 at 11:04 am

    This is a very balanced and interesting article. To quote you: “It is more correct to say that the inclination to homosexuality, bisexuality or heterosexuality is not a choice. However, the individual has a choice to make in what to do with the inclination.” I deeply suggest we should focus on this more as an inclusive Church. There are ample spiritual and theological experiences from Christian LGBT which we need to listen and read more. Who knows maybe we bring something new about spiritual and sexual integration.

  • Reply Ramon Casha 1st September 2013 at 2:23 pm

    While I favour the idea that it is innate (whether genetic, hormonal or otherwise) on account of research that has been done including twin studies, I see no reason why this should have any bearing on LGBT people and couples having equal rights. Even if it were conclusively proven that gay people took a conscious decision one fine day to become gay, they should still have the same rights as anyone else, including such things as the right to marry, adopt, access housing programs, have the same jobs, access to medical services, etc.

  • Reply ken 21st September 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Personally I am fed up with this entire “debate”. I have had gay feelings since I was 5 years old (perhaps earlier)… and it is now pretty much accepted that our basic personalities have been formed in the first 6 years of life. So the idea of “choice” just doesn’t enter into it at all. Children do not choose their sexuality, or the people they are attracted to; it just happens. The Church and its minions would like us to believe it is a choice so that they can continue to try and influence (read “control) our behaviour. But they are wrong – like they are about so much of what is natural (think masturbation, for example) – and which they constantly try to control for their own purposes.

    Time to move on, people! Who CARES why people are gay? They are. And in over 60 years I have not met a single gay person who CHOSE to be gay. Instead of asking “experts”, why not have the humility to ask the people themselves and accept what they tell you? Accept it and deal with it. Stop trying to change it or control it or legislate against it. That way lies fascism.

    As for the “However, the individual has a choice to make in what to do with the inclination.” argument – this is disingenuous to the extreme. First of all, it presupposes an “inclination” instead of a fact. Do you tell people with blue eyes that they have to choose what to do with that “inclination”? Of course not. It would be arrogant and ridiculous. The ONLY “choice” one has, whether one is homosexual, bisexual or straight – is to live honestly according to your own nature, instead of hiding it, refusing it or pretending it isn’t so. As the Greeks would have said “To thine own self be true”. I don’t CARE what the various churches or religions or fascist demagogues like Putin try to tell me; from the moment I found myself in another man’s arms for the first time, I KNEW that this was right for me. The only choice I have ever had was whether to be myself openly – or to hide it like so many people do here in Malta.

    Integrity versus hypocrisy. That is the real choice here. Why is it so hard for most people to admit it? Unfortunately, in so many places, people rarely have a choice… the entire culture is so wrapped up in hypocrisies (often religion-based) that it is almost impossible NOT to follow the herd. How many supposed “Christians” reading the articles in Zuntier have to forego their personal integrity on a daily basis, simply so that their neighbours don’t spend their time judging and judging and judging? How many gay people in Malta are married with children or have girlfriends, just so that everyone will think they are “normal”? How many husbands pretend to love their wives while having boyfriends or girlfriends on the side constantly? How many couples detest each other but stay together simply for the children’s sake, or because the Church and their neighbours would look down on them for divorcing? I would suggest that before concerning yourselves with whether or not gay people are choosing their “lifestyle” or not, that you might want to spend some time putting your own houses in order!

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