On Beliefs and Attitudes

There is a video from the Gay Christian Network that is getting some buzz for the kinds of answers straight Christians in particular said about sexual orientation. Here is the video:

Several people have asked me what I think of the video. I think it’s pretty interesting. Many of the presentations I give at Christian colleges and universities tries to address some of the points raised in the video, although when it comes to research, the wording of questions is important. For example, on the matter of causation, the video asks, “Is being gay a choice?” and 2/3 of the traditionally believing Christians said Yes.

Another question asked is: “Are some people born gay?” You see again a pretty big difference between the two groups. I would say this: That can be a difficult question to answer even if you had an open-ended interview. I can see how you might have dramatic differences between straight and gay Christians (or, in this context, what GCN refers to as Side B and Side A Christians). The point raised at the end of the video is important here: Are we talking past one another? Is “being gay” about attractions, orientation or identity in the minds of those completing the survey? If people are thinking attractions/orientation, then this is really important that we understand that people are not choosing to experience same-sex attractions. If “being gay” is about behavior or identity (in the minds of those completing the survey), then those things are volitional. So when we talk about the complicated area of etiology, it is a really difficult area to answer in a “Yes/No” format.

On the question of change, I think this is really important. According to the video, over 3/4 of the straight Christians said that gay people can become straight. (Interestingly, I may have missed it, but I did not see GCN report what gay Christians said to this question.) This is a huge topic that can quickly become a dividing line for people, and when it does, it almost always reflects the larger culture wars than anything that really reflects the complexity of the research in this area. My own views have tempered following the publication of a seven-year longitudinal study on attempted change, and perhaps I’ll write more about that at a later date.

It was concerning to me that over half of the straight respondents thought that it was sin to have same-sex attractions even when committing oneself to celibacy. This would add tremendous pressure to a gay person to become straight (or to present that way/claim it), as that is the only path–the only outcome–that would be morally permissible according to how this survey findings are being presented. That is in part why I have appreciated the writing of folks over at Spiritual Friendship, as they are exploring this whole area of celibacy and friendships in a deep and meaningful way.

When I first saw portions of the video I thought of a study we conducted on the attitudes of sexual minority Christian undergrads. So this was a sample of just sexual minorities–which we defined as students who experienced same-sex attraction regardless of behavior or identity label (much the same way other researchers have done from within the mainstream). What we reported was that the strength of attraction to the same-sex and to the opposite-sex was related to attitudes toward sexual behavior. For example, sexual minorities who reported less same-sex attraction had more traditionally conservative attitudes towards same-sex behavior. We reported similar findings for sexual minorities who had stronger attractions to the opposite sex. That alone is kind of interesting when you think of what it means to achieve congruence, so that you are able to live and form an identity in keeping with your beliefs and values. The strength of your attractions may figure into that in some important ways.

We asked the question about causation, too, but we worded it this way: “Persons can be born with a same-sex predisposition.” Participants with little same-sex attraction were less likely to agree with that statement than those with higher levels of same-sex attraction. Those with high or moderate levels of attraction to the opposite sex were also less likely to endorse that statement than those with with little attraction to the opposite sex.

In any case, the study I mentioned on sexual minority undergrads at Christian colleges and universities can be found at here. I hope that the folks at GCN will submit their study to a journal and have it peer-reviewed and published, as I think it could be an interesting addition to the larger discussion.

In closing, it is interesting in both of these studies that the reference points appear to have to do with beliefs about causation and change, as well as the strength of attractions (in our study). It has me wondering: What are the sources for a Christian’s beliefs about morality? Is the source research (whether we are talking about causation or change)?  Has it more to do with one’s own attractions and how strong they are? Is it one’s reading of Scripture? Maybe that is too simplistic. Even if it is one’s reading of Scripture, is that reading and interpretation influenced in significant ways by other variables, such as research on causation/research on change and one’s own attractions to the same- or opposite-sex? What is the relationship? What should it be?

11 thoughts on “On Beliefs and Attitudes

  1. Questions are really important in research and I worry about these questions.

    So, are people born gay? I knew when I was 5 that I was different. Does that mean I was born gay? I honestly can’t answer that question. Personally, I think that question is scientifically unanswerable at this point. Yet, there seems to be a solid answer assumed in this research.

    I worry about the question can someone change their sexuality again, partially, because there seems to be a simplistic answer implied. First off, I believe God can change me into anything we wants and that includes a straight man. I find the logic that God can move mountains but not change sexuality a bit confusing. I think the real question isn’t can I change rather it is what does God want? Does God want to change me? Is change necessary for me to serve him? Those are more interesting and more relevant questions, at least to me.

    I guess the problem I have with this is that I couldn’t answer the questions posed here in any way that would accurately encapsulate my beliefs. So, for research that seems to me to be a serious problem. Secondly, it seems in the presentation that there are very simplistic answers implied. That seems like bias to me. Ending the presentation with a plug for the organization and the book written by the leader of that organization doesn’t actually calm my fears about bias. He could have calmed my fears about bias if he had also mentioned a book with a different perspective than “Torn” …. but he didn’t. As well, the author suggests the cure is to have straight Christians listen to the stories of gay Christians. He never mentions the opposite. If we are going to have a decent conversation on this topic gay Christians have to listen as well. Otherwise, it is not a conversation, it is just a lecture.

    • David –

      If your sexual attractions are significantly toward other men; then, yes, you are gay or bisexual. That is the common understanding of those words. I also suspect you are either right or left-handed or ambidextrous. And, as Dr. Yarhouse’s research has concluded, wholesale orientation change is not possible for everyone or anyone (although Dr. Yarhouse contends that some shifting along the spectrum is possible).

      You may not want to be gay or bisexual, or you may think it’s immoral to express your sexuality with men, but pretending you’re not gay or bisexual does nothing but muddy the conversation. The frustration you express here is self-generated. Simply acknowledging your sexual orientation is morally neutral. If your sexual orientation is homosexual, you are, in fact, a Christian who is gay.

      I believe that the traditional sexual ethic is toxic and has caused a tremendous amount of harm. I advocate institutional change in theology so we stop harming the gay kid in the front pew. But I recognize that there is a difference between a system of belief and the individual believers. I’m more than willing to listen to people who hold a traditionalist viewpoint (as is the GCN – that is their reason for being). I engage in those mutually-transforming conversations fairly frequently both off and online. But the conversation probably won’t be productive if you can’t be honest about your sexual orientation. The semantic qualms you express are a barrier to understanding.

      My sincere best to you.

    • David,
      I agree with you that wording is important. There is sometimes an “everybody knows” quality that comes with the way some questions are asked or discussed when there is a great deal of complexity in these areas.

      It is fairly common among gay adults looking back on their childhood to say that they felt different at a young age. Sometimes it is reported as feeling different for “gender related reasons,” such as when a boy, for example, feels different than other boys (in terms of interests, activities). It is hard to know what that means for etiology, but it often fits well within a personal narrative of how a person sees themselves as an adult.

      The plug at the end: I think that reminds us all that it would be preferred for the people who conducted the study to go through the channels to have it reviewed and published. I hope that do that.

  2. Hey Ford.

    It strikes me as interesting that you think I haven’t been honest with myself about my sexual orientation. In fact I have been honest about it to myself and to my friends and to my family for a long time (and for many of those years to my lovers as well). So, I don’t think it is that issue which motivates my frustration.

    I think the point is for me, as I said above, that some of these questions don’t lead to helpful answers. I honestly believe that the science doesn’t provide an answer to questions like “are people born gay”. In the book “Torn” the author states “…we don’t know what causes people to be gay…” (p. 67). If the author of the book, who is also the author of the research, recognizes that we don’t know why people are gay, then how is the question “Do you believe people are born gay?” helpful? How can asking a question to which you know there is no answer further our knowledge? To contradict myself, I guess it does further our understanding of what people believe and that is useful, but it doesn’t further our knowledge as to whether what people believe is biased, because to determine whether or not an answer reveals bias, first off you have to know the answer to the question, and for this question that isn’t possible.

    So, I hope that reveals a bit more about me and my concerns.


    • David,
      Thanks for the response. My impression was that you were identifying as straight (as in…one of those to whom gay Christians need to listen) even though you implied you are gay. If I mistook your comment, my sincere apologies.

      Regarding “born gay”…I see that very much as being “born left handed”. Both have potential biological, genetic, and environmental factors while the specifics remain a mystery.

      Asking about being born gay is, for all intents and purposes, asking if gay people have the capacity to determine their sexual orientation. I think there’s pretty much universal agreement from experts that we do not.

      I’m curious, why is the idea of “gay from birth” so problatic for you? What would change for you if that was proven or disproven?

  3. Ford,

    No apologies necessary.

    The idea of being born gay is problematic for me for two reasons 1) I think science is important 2) I think that there are implications that aren’t well articulated around “being born gay”. So,

    1) If the science doesn’t support “born gay” then we shouldn’t be saying it. Flat out. We should have the integrity to follow the science. What we should be saying is “the science at this point can’t definitively answer this question”. My question would be ‘why do people find that statement so problematic?’

    2) I think videos like this imply something unspoken. The author doesn’t quite say it but it seems to imply that if you answer the question “can some people be born gay?” with a “no” or “i don’t know” that you are biased or prejudiced or ill-informed. I don’t think any of those options are necessarily true. It is possible to believe those things and not be necessarily prejudiced against gay or lesbian people, I believe. As well, his solution is to listen to the stories of gay people. I believe that listening to the stories of gay people doesn’t answer the question. Like I said, I knew I was different in regard to my attractions very early. That is important but isn’t evidence that I was born gay or that I wasn’t born gay. It just is….

    The point for me is the logic. He asks a question to which he knows there is no definitive answer and then, I believe, he implies a problem with one answer to that question, even though he admits he doesn’t really know the answer (so how can one answer be worse then the other?), and then he proposes a solution to that one answer which doesn’t provide the information necessary to answer the question.

    You mention that his question is really an attempt to determine whether people believe that someone has the capacity to determine their sexuality. I hadn’t thought of that. Still, that raises another question for me. If that is his intent then why does he ask later whether people believe gay people can become straight. Isn’t he then asking the same question twice?

    I know that in that explanation I miss the emotional weight that the question and the answer holds for many gay men and women but I also think that integrity requires us sometimes to rise above our personal emotions and try to hear the issue with more objective ears. I also realize that I can be too cognitive at times 🙂


    • Hi David,

      With respect, I think you’re over-thinking this. All of these questions are variations on two primary concerns:

      1) are gay people making a depraved choice (i.e., an alternative lifestyle or “the gay lifestyle”, or a deviant sexual choice)?

      2) Is orientation change possible?

      The science has answered those questions:

      1) no one chooses the object of their authentic sexual attractions so…no. [the sinfulness and/or morality of gay erotic acts is not a scientific question].

      2) Bisexuals might, MIGHT be able to focus their attractions in one direction or another but no meaningful change for gay and straight people so…no, not really.

      I think it’s fair and right for the video maker to use those assumptions.

      As for your second point: “are people born left handed?” is an entirely different question than “can left handed people become authentically right handed?”.

      I wish you peace.

      • Hey Ford

        With respect, I disagree. I don’t think science has answered either or those questions definitively. To be clear, I obviously don’t think that sexual or relational attraction is a choice, but behavior is always a choice.

        I think the point between science and moral questions is so often lost in this discussion. I believe that so many people make the jump from science to morality. In other words they believe that if science answers the question “are people born gay” then the moral question is also answered. I think that is implied in this video and I don’t think that is accurate. If science does answer the question are people are born gay, that doesn’t answer the behavioral moral question in my mind. People can be born with proclivities towards lots of things but we still ask them to make moral decisions about their behavior.

        I think I understand your statement about right handed and left handed. Again, for me, that collapses the options. There is space between being born left handed or being authentically right handed. That space is “I am born left handed, I can’t or don’t want to be right handed, so now how do I live as a left handed person?”.

        I guess, for me, the point is that biology doesn’t necessarily comment directly on morality. Those are two different realms, which merge at times and places, but don’t directly, in and of themselves, answer each other questions.


  4. David,

    No, I don’t think science has answered those questions “definitively” if by definitively you mean 100% beyond a shadow of a doubt. Certainly some people treat science as if it does this, but I think the more important question is “What does the science say thus far?” as there is voluminous literature on this. There are genetic loci that have been shown to be at least some part of the variance that correlates sexual orientation to genetic make-up. There are lots of studies about hormonal influences. And then there is some tiny bit of emerging data about sexual orientation changes that people have had after strokes, implicating loci in the brain that have to do with sexual orientation. So no, science has not “definitively” demonstrated a mechanism for sexual orientation (at least not yet), but the preponderance of the evidence points to lots of biological correlates and not very many nurture correlates. Moreover, science has not “definitively” answered whether people can change orientation by volition, but the preponderance of the evidence is that this is rare, and that MOST people who attempt to change are not successful (and there’s a decent amount of qualitative data suggesting the process is harmful).

    It seems that most conservative Christians are ignorant of what we know from science, and they are often operating under biases and assumptions that don’t hold up particularly well in the real world.

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