What science cannot say about morality

Editor's note: Agendas Aside, a Think Christian series on homosexuality and the church, also includes pieces by Neil de Koning, Joshua Walters, Glenn Goodfellow, Josh Larsen and Nathan Albert. TC is a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. The denomination's position statement on homosexuality can be found here.

“Black people are worth less than white people,” my 11-year-old African-American mentee matter-of-factly informed me as we were working on his science-fair project. As we talked about this it became clear that he had somehow collapsed the value of human beings into a conflation of lifetime income and economic productivity such that he was certain the “worth” of an individual could be determined by imagining the cash ransom they would command if abducted. I was worth more than a black person, he assured me, but - somewhat incongruously - less than a basketball star.

Putting aside the conversation that followed - in which I labored to explain that the value of all human beings comes from their having been created in the image of God - if we were to instead accept my mentee's false definition of human value, we could easily determine that the economic and sociological data broadly confirm his hypothesis. However, in truth, those data do not and cannot reveal anything about the value of human beings.

It's particularly appropriate that my mentee and I had our conversation in the context of completing his science-fair project, because it is science that people most often turn to when attempting to make moral claims based on what is observed in the world. In no case is this truer than when trying to answer questions about the moral status of homosexuality.

It is commonly accepted that the outcome of the debate over the moral status of homosexuality hangs on the scientific question of whether homosexuality is a choice. As such, groups in favor of normalization of homosexuality in society and broader legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships champion findings that tie homosexuality to genetic factors or neurobiology. In contrast, groups that disapprove of homosexuality and wish to prevent public legal recognition of gay and lesbian relationships dispute such findings. But, as Professor Alice Dreger reviews in her recent article in the Atlantic, the current status of scientific knowledge on the matter outlines a much more complex landscape of questions and does little to deliver a smoking gun that would serve either set of partisan ends.

As a scientist, I'm encouraged to see public interest in scientific findings, but as a Christian with an avocational interest in ethics, I find appeals to science in search of answers to moral questions troubling. Looking for scientific evidence that individuals are (or are not) born with a particular sexual identity does not and cannot address questions about the moral status of a particular sexual identity.

As moral philosopher David Hume famously observed, what is does not determine what ought to be. And, more than that, Christians - who affirm that the world was created by God and that God has ordained the right ordering of things - know that, despite the ongoing effects of sin that ensure that what we observe is not what ought to be, the deepest truth of things remains not what we observe them to be, but what they are created to be. Though we may not see it now, we believe in hope that all things are being brought to perfection through Christ.

Christian ethics is teleological in this sense: it recognizes as good that which moves the created order closer toward the ends for which it was created. We misrepresent the moral vision of our faith when we reduce it to a question of whether people are free to choose to obey a particular rule - with both sides arguing whether people are “born this way” or not. It is a flawed line of reasoning (due primarily to Kant) that elevates individual choice while diminishing the power of God.

In real life, there is not such a clear distinction between what is determined and what is chosen, just as the findings described by Dreger, writing in the Atlantic, reflect. Choices are never fully free, nor fully constrained; neither purely a matter of our personality (disposition) nor our circumstances (situation). As I have previously written, “Jesus' parable of the talents advocates a richer view: we are accountable for our choices and actions (disposition), but in accordance with what we are given (situation).” What we are accountable for is becoming ever more fully what we are created to be, which is something we can never discern from our status at birth, but only our nature as children of God.

Christians must root their moral questions here, beginning with the understanding that all people are created in the image of God and seeking to understand how all of us are to work, together with Christ, towards the fulfillment and consummation of creation.

What Do You Think?

  • Will scientifically determining whether or not homosexuality is a choice also determine the moral aspect of the debate?
  • What does it mean to become what God created us to be?
  • In what ways has sin led you to fall short of God's original, creative intention?

Comments (17)

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Nice. And true. Not a scientific issue, but an ethical one. But your post sort of side-steps the issue that Christians, at least, must grapple with… what is the teleological “good” for a gay person in harmony with the fulfillment and consummation of God’s creation? The Bible, God’s Word, should function as our ethical plumb line, but even we as Christians can’t agree on its definitive moral guidance for those who find themselves “gay,” by choice or not.

Good thoughts, I have noticed very few of my peers (mid 20s to mid 30s) ever discuss whether homosexuality is a choice. And so I doubt whether scientific data about that will frame discussions of homosexuality for those for whom the debate is irrelevant.

I do believe that young Christians are grappling with the moral and theological reality of the many people they know who profess faith and identify as homosexual and what their place in the church is. Your reflections remind me of Wesley Hill’s in Washed and Waiting, though I don’t know if you share his conclusions.

The interesting thing is that what happens if science does show that they are “born that way”?

What follows?

Morality isn’t based on how someone is made but rather on how someone responds in each situation.
Even homosexuals will tell you that pedophilia is wrong and that the people, if born that way, need help in some way. Most homosexuals recognize that even though pedophiles could be “born that way” it doesn’t make what they do right.

So why is homosexuality any different? What makes it different for homosexuals is that they say they are not hurting anyone. And that is a perspectives issue. Something science can’t determine either is perspective on a moral issue.

I agree with Cathy Smith in that the Bible is our plumb line. But us as Christians shouldn’t be swinging it from side to side depending on our emotions.


Thank you for your comments.

My intent here was not to articulate a Biblical hermeneutic nor a public theology; I’m far from competent to do so.

My hope, rather, was to ask that we engage in conversations in exactly the manner you suggest: asking what the teleological good is.

Of course, determining how we do that is a rather complex question. Among other things, it depends on our hermeneutics and our epistemology. Thus, it is not simply a matter of looking to “definitive moral guidance” because we must understand first how to understand and learn from texts, tradition of the Church, and the world.



You make a fine point regarding which groups of people are subject to the fallacy of regarding scientific data as relevant to this issue in the manner I discussed. Oddly, though I am also your peer (being 35) I find rather the opposite. The moral debate I hear is dominated by a notion of volition and freedom of choice both among the left and the right; that is to say that it is preoccupied with the naturalistic fallacy and its variants. In other words, people argue that in-born qualities are natural and therefore good. Or they anchor their thinking in Kantian terms and argue that the moral status of something depends on the ability to choose for or against it.

The other dominant discussion I’ve heard among those a bit younger is simply one of autonomy and laissez-faire liberalism (which we might call the Isley Brothers’ argument—- cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Sv3sMYEzAA ), but that’s a public theology argument about the shape of public-legal recognition, not a moral argument—-if anything at all it is a moral argument about the invalidity of their imposing their views on anyone.

Perhaps then your experience more reflects that there is no longer much moral debate, but rather public political debate about how laws should reflect differing views, all of which are (explicitly or not) religiously motivated. That is itself a rather complicated question that I can’t give justice to here.

I was not familiar with Mr. Hill’s book, but a quick look at the reviews suggests I am familiar with his position, at least in broad outline. I know many folks in the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic tradition who are living out the same view. That said, I can’t say whether or not I share Mr. Hill’s conclusions, not being familiar with exactly what they are.



Regarding your first question, I frankly think it would not matter in shaping the moral question, though, practically speaking, findings will have a role in public-legal arguments.

As to what the basis of morality is; I’ve tried to articulate what I view it ought to be understood as by Christians. It should be an ethics of character and an ethics of sanctification—-the good is that which is in line with that process based on the direction embedded in our creation and redemption.

The two dominant ethical modes in today’s culture, utilitarianism and deontology, differ from this and feature in what you’ve written above. A utilitarian argument would indeed justify the moral good of something based on whether it harms anyone or whether the collective benefit outweighs the collective harm. A deontological argument would focus on rules that cannot be violated, largely in part because they go against human autonomy.

Neither of those way of thinking is compelling in my view.


“So why is homosexuality any different?”

Because we understand in our society that adults are capable of consenting to sexual acts, while children are incapable of doing so not only from a developmental standpoint but also a power-differential standpoint.

There is a world of difference between someone who wants to love another adult as a consenting and equal partner, and someone who wants to dominate a child who can never be their equal or their partner.

I’ve grown quite tired of the rather ridiculous attempts by anti-LGBT rhetors to compare same-sex sexual attraction to pedophilia—which are rather transparently argued in bad faith, representing not an honest desire for dialogue but rather an attempt to tar LGBT citizens by drawing false associations between sexual orientation and pedophilia.

While I hear the concern for ignorant, straw-man arguments made by religiously over-zealous bigots, I believe that the notion in question deserves a bit more time and consideration within the current context of this scientific debate. It is precisely because of the ‘is homosexuality a choice?’ question, or rather, justification, that the issue of child-lovers come into play.

The issue, I believe, is the argument that is posited by those who want to take the ‘scientific’ avenue in justifying the moral status of homosexual activity. The argument could be constructed as follows:

1.If who (or what) a person is ‘sexually attracted to’ is not within their direct control, but rather, is genetically encoded, then it is morally acceptable to cultivate and act on these attractions.
2.Sexual attraction is genetically encoded, and not within the direct control (choice) of any given person.

3.Therefore, Same-sex attraction is morally acceptable.

The issue of course, is that if you accept this argument, then it would naturally follow that cultivating and acting on sexual attraction to children would be morally acceptable.  This is just one more problem with the ‘scientific’ justification of this moral issue (Jason’s work above illustrates some others).

I find it especially interesting to reference societal norms when attempting to refute this comparison, especially when it is our end goal to… reconstruct a societal norm. Just as the LGBT community is attempting to reconstruct societal norms as they pertain to their courses of actions, why would not the child-lover not be allowed to do the same? Simply because we (generally) say that children do not have the developmental ability to make decisions about sexuality? The supporter of LGBT who denies the child-lover the opportunity to change what ‘society’ in general thinks, cuts off the leg upon which he himself stands.

To be sure, I think that a person should apply their arguments for same-sex attraction and child-sex attraction equally, and then evaluate the outcome. When doing so, I believe this poses a significant moral dilemma for those who accept the logic outlined above.

As an undergrad, probably due to social pressure (on FB and elsewhere) and faith-wrestling, I am confounded, even after reading through these series of articles, about where I’m supposed to stand on the civil issue of same-sex marriage, or better yet, what should a follower of Christ should say when posited “do you support same sex marriage.”  It feels frustrating when I’m not exactly sure about what I need to say when let’s say Obama has given his recent position change, or when friends on FB post up “legalize love” or something of that sort.

And as silent as I want to keep myself away from the issue simply because disagreeing with anyone would lavish thorns of “bigot” and reaction upon me, I’m feel like I’m being forced to silently agree and let the flood pass through and do it’s work.  It’s more compounded by the fact that my major/industry field is of the same mindset as the majority, so to save my future, I need to step in line and not get ‘run over.”

I’m going to be honest, and this is tearing my heart, when I do throw my chips in, it’ll be because of peer pressure and with no fullhearted support.

Does anyone have an answer for me?

For me, the first step was separating the question into multiple questions: (1) what is a Christian response to homosexuality in the larger culture and government? and (2) what is the church to recommend / encourage for those who experience same sex attraction who profess belief? The first question is a lot easier for me to answer than the second.

Regardless, I don’t feel the need to answer people who post FB status to incite debate. Just ignore them.

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