16 July 2007

The Bible and Homosexuality...from the point of view of an atheist

I'm an atheist, but before that I was a Catholic, so I remain pretty familiar with the Bible etc. Just thought I'd drop a note. To those of you who think that the Bible invariably condemns homosexuality, I suggest that you read the story of David and Jonathan. I believe it is the most beautiful love story in the whole Bible - and it is between two teenage guys who meet and fall deeply, madly in love. Of course, conservative Christians would never dream of accepting the possibility that this love was anything other than platonic and brotherly love. Well.... read it for yourself and see. Of course the Bible story does not speak of sex between these two kids (in fact it never speaks about sex between anyone), but it does mention lots of intimacy and intense, burning... and very physical... love. If that's platonic love, then Hustler is published by the Franciscan nuns. That is not to say that the Bible does not condemn homosexual acts in other places - at least between men. It does... in the same chapters where it similarly condemns eating oysters, picking up sticks on Saturday, wearing clothes made of mixed fibres, or touching a woman who is menstruating. It is, as I remember it, precisely this complex code of laws (Jews make the total to be 613 laws), that Jesus streamlined into two simpler rules - love one another and love God as yourself - and neither of those two translates into a prohibition of homosexuality. There is only one place where the Bible condemns something linked to homosexuality - "man lying with man, as with a woman". Lesbians get a free pass. However many other chapters are - incorrectly - cited as condemnations of homosexuality. By far the best known is in Genesis - the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. However, in this story, God decides to destroy the two cities before the bit where the inhabitants want to have sex with the attractive newcomers. He sends the angels to destroy the cities, not to find out how evil they are (Gen 19:12). He doesn't destroy just those men who exhibited a homosexual orientation, he destroyed everyone and everything - men, women, children, even the animals and trees (Gen 19:25). Of course, even if the attempted sex act were related to the destruction, anyone will realise that this would not have been mere sex. This was rape - the inhabitants intended to rape the newcomers, so if a sex act is being condemned, it is rape - homosexual or otherwise. Even if an analysis of these two chapters did not suffice to prove that homosexuality was unrelated, we have the Bible itself which tells us so - via the prophet Ezekiel. In Ezek 16:49-50 he gives us a list of the reasons why Sodom was destroyed: "Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen." Hmmm... arrogant? unconcerned and refusing to help others? Now why does that remind me of homophobes more than homosexuals? Another chapter that is frequently quoted - mainly because it's found in the New Testament, is the letter to the Romans. In this, Paul witnesses a group of people worshipping idols. Paul writes that as a direct result of their idolatry, God gave them a sudden, irresistible sexual attraction towards the same sex. That doesn't sound anything like ordinary homosexuality to me. In fact Paul makes it sound like a punishment for their idolatry. Of course, for it to be a punishment they would have to be heterosexuals, who suddenly find themselves engaged in rather embarrassing activities which go against their sexual nature. If any of them were gay it would have counted as a reward - suddenly everyone's gay too! In truth, many old "pagan" faiths had a healthy element of sex in them, and they had no issues with same-sex acts. What Paul witnessed was probably one such religious orgy, which for some reason stuck in his head. In another two chapters of the New Testament (again, in Paul's letters not the gospels), we find a list of people who will not enter heaven. Apart from adulterers, thieves, and so on, we find two words: Arsenokoites and Malakos. Being part of a simple list of words there is nothing in the text which tells us what they mean. Invariably, they are translated as homosexuals, sodomites or similar terms. The truth is, however, nobody knows exactly. Arsenokoites appears to be a new word coined by Paul himself. Certainly we have no earlier occurrences of the word in any Greek text. It is made of two words - "man" and "bed". In later writings, it has been used to mean anything from homosexuals to male prostitutes (with male or female clients). Malakos, on the other hand, means soft. It is generally used to describe clothes or pillows, but when used for persons it can mean anything from an effeminate person, to someone who refuses to fight in a war or defend his principles. The early translators had to translate these words to something so they chose to use it to condemn homosexuals, and for centuries gay people have been beaten around the head with these chapters as a result.

Jesus went directly against many of the older rules and laws found in the Bible, while at other times he repeated and reinforced others. He taught about many things, including lots about adultery. Yet on homosexuality he didn't utter a word. Not a single syllable. Compare that to the many times he speaks about adultery, or divorce, or many other matters and it's clear that either he considered it a very minor matter, or it was one of those rules that he considered to be replaced by the two new principles. Paul is a different matter. His views on anything related to sex were, shall we say, rather extreme. He said that people should not marry any more unless they really couldn't help it (I Cor. 7), because he was expecting "the end" imminently. Had his followers followed that advice, Christianity would have died a very early death.
The Bible is a big book, written over a period of centuries by many different hands, after which it was hand-copied for generations before a Roman emperor set up a committee to vote on which bits to include and which to declare heretical. It is therefore not surprising that one can pick and choose verses from this book and use them to support just about any argument or position. It has been used both to support and oppose war, slavery, antisemitism, even the holocaust. It is for this reason that one must be wary of accepting an argument merely because it is "based on the Bible".

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