July 15, 2003

The Unnatural

A thought just occurred to me upon reading this discourse upon the problem with the "it's unnatural" argument against homosexuality. Eugene Volokh says that people who use this argument are actually hiding their "religious, moral, and practical judgments" behind (I think) a pseudo-scientific position that heterosexuality is natural (because it leads to procreation, and so on) while homosexuality is not. But he doesn't say anything about the fact that in history, or Christian history anyway, the "natural" -- ie, the physical world, the "world of the flesh" -- was always what mankind was supposed to resist, pray for protection from, strive to escape from. Christianity, Islam, other non-Western religions (Buddhism, Hinduism) caution against attaching too much importance to the physical world, which is seen as imperfect, tainted, and corrupt. Despite the fact that in general technology has progressed enough that at least in the Western world we can afford to think of Mother Nature as our good buddy, the focus of most of the worlds' major religions is still the eventual leaving of life upon this imperfect earth to a "better life" in some sort of heavenly afterworld. I don't think that religious objectors to homosexuality are consciously using the argument from nature in a way that contradicts their own teachings; at some point "it's natural" became a good rather than a bad thing, and objections to physicality got broken down into specifics (certain sex acts are "unnatural," but the sex act itself -- as long as you follow the rules -- is not seen to be corrupted by its physicality; greed is bad, but it is a good thing to make a lot of money as long as you work hard and live an otherwise moral life, and so on).

Oops, posted too soon. What I meant to end with was: saying that homosexuality was natural is actually an argument against that state, or it would be if people were still consistent on how they regarded nature. But they aren't; the meanings of "natural" and "unnatural" are continuously shifting, and mostly seem to be synonyms for "I like it" and "ew!" Underneath the approved modern tendency to label good things as "natural," though, is still an instinctive resistance in many people to emulating "the beasts of the field." In this case the example of the bonobo monkeys would not only not be a selling position on the normalcy of homosexuality, it would be another argument against homosexuality.

(Via Rand Simberg.)

Posted by Andrea Harris at July 15, 2003 08:14 PM

I don't think they are using "natural" with that definition. It is the form which is a synonym for "normal."

1 : based on an inherent sense of right and wrong (natural justice)

It was viewed as a weakness of the flesh, the surrender to lust, as opposed to giving into our beastial urges, and something to resist to reach a higher plain. It was observed (by more than just Christianity) that the ability to control or overcome our instinct and urges is what made us human--better than beasts.

9 : possessing or exhibiting the higher qualities (as kindliness and affection) of human nature [a noble... brother... ever most kind and natural -- Shakespeare]

Some view the story of Genesis as the point in which a conscience entered primative man--the missing link explanation of human intellect. Many religions share a similiar story--which divided prehistoric man from the one who was capable of intellect and reason. To say something is "not natural" would be to deny what was special and God-given.

Posted by: Mrs. du Toit at July 15, 2003 at 08:55 PM

I'm not sure most people use it that way, though. I probably should just have not nattered on about the meaning of "natural" vs. "unnatural" and left in the part about the bonobo monkeys not exactly being a very good argument in favor of homosexuality, at least as directed to people who are repulsed by being compared to the "lower animals" -- and there are still plenty of those people around. (Just for the record, I'm not one -- I like monkeys! Well, not that much. But you know what I mean.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 15, 2003 at 09:05 PM

People who say homosexual sex is "unnatural" have obviously never tried it. Maybe I shouldn't say that, because so often when you dig a little deeper, the very people who argue against it most violently are the ones who have had, will have or are worried they will have homosexual sex.

I've done some field research on this.


Posted by: David Strain at July 15, 2003 at 10:01 PM

That wasn't really the point of my post, you know. And I don't think that the "try it, you'll like it" argument will work on homophobes. (That is, it won't make them re-consider their anti-homosexual stance. It will probably work on getting them more upset.)

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 15, 2003 at 10:11 PM

I am always confused by the use of "nature" to proscribe any activity. I am in favor of toilet paper and dentistry, neither of which would be available to me without complex systems of human culture and ingenuity. Contraception, ultrasound and anaesthetic are all artifical. Should they be illegal because they are not found in nature? Some people think so.

Your argument about theologies-against-nature is interesting. And I believe you are right to suggest people often argue for or against the nature of a phenomenon only to support * whatever * belief they happen to hold.

Posted by: Ghost of a flea at July 15, 2003 at 10:14 PM

I've actually always been bored by this argument, primarily because it fails on such a simple observation:

If it were truly "unnatural", it wouldn't be so damned hard to stamp it out.

Posted by: Ken Summers at July 15, 2003 at 11:25 PM


Oh, of course. Yeah, the last thing someone who is against it wants to hear is "Really, it's more fun than you think."

I was making a clumsy attempt at humor.


Posted by: David Strain at July 16, 2003 at 12:53 AM

I understood your argument of the bonobo chimps (apes, not monkeys)...and agree, but I defer on the basis that it does no good to compare humans to other animals, because 1) we are sentient and they are not. 2) to characterize an animal's actions as having human intent is to Anthropomorphize them...a corruption of explanation that anthropologists strive (or should strive, as I was taught) to avoid. Humans cannot know the intent of an animals actions except through observation of its context. The worst I could say about the natural vs. unnatural argument, is that humans have the luxury/intelligence/consciousness to debate the issue. All else is instinct.

Where instinct has a place in human nature is probably where our debates keep heading, but get sidetracked by politics. Is it part of the human instinct to be attracted to the same sex? Or is it developement? Or is it against instinct?

To try and add animals back into the euqation of those debates is to muddy the very ability of humans to be Thinking Man.

Posted by: Sharon Ferguson at July 16, 2003 at 12:39 PM

OK, so the "anti soddomite" contingent in this fair country might make their argument more effective if they argued that sodomy is natural, rather than unnatural. Of course, the fact that they can't get their story straight pretty much proves Volkoh's main point (that the REAL reasons for opposing "soddomites" have to do with personal and religious views, not on the basis of any objective criteria) in the first place.

Posted by: Sean at July 16, 2003 at 01:22 PM

Mrs. du Toit, one of the points that I made in my post is that "normal" doesn't carry any intrinsic value either.

Munching on bums you keep in your freezer isn't normal, but neither is being Isaac Newton or Tiger Woods.

Posted by: Rand Simberg at July 16, 2003 at 02:12 PM

Well no, you put them in the microwave first. (Though I guess you'd have to have a pretty big microwave... Or a chainsaw.)

[Ahem: you wrote "bums in the freezer," and I could not resist.]

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 16, 2003 at 05:11 PM

Just a few thoughts concerning Christianity and the natural world. First off, Christianity never "strove to escape from" the physical world, as you put it. That is a feature of Gnosticism, an early heresy which Christianity quickly and vehemently condemned. Second, the natural world was seen by Christians to be inherently good (since it is created by God), but full of dangers and pitfalls due to sinful creatures (angels and men), not because the world was itself evil.

Yes, heaven is seen as being better than earth, just as most of us would say that men are better than insects; it's a distinction between "good and better", not "good and bad". There are a few Christian sects which lean towards the Gnostic idea of material-evil, especially some Protestant denominations and fundamentalists.

(Nice site, btw... I just ran across it.)

Posted by: Jon M. at July 16, 2003 at 05:14 PM

I wasn't being dogmatic about it. The yucky brussel-sproutyness of earthly life as opposed to the delicious candy of life in heaven is a theme common to most major religions -- I did mention Hinduism and Buddhism as other examples. There are still elements of Gnosticism in a lot of contemporary Christian attitudes; there wasn't a clean break.

Posted by: Andrea Harris at July 16, 2003 at 05:20 PM

Catholicism, at least, has avoided the kind of dichotomy you've mentioned, though I guess it looks different from whatever perspective you're coming from. Materialists doubtless think that all Christians (and most religions) are too anti-material, but the view from up here is just dandy. :-)

Posted by: Jon M. at July 16, 2003 at 05:32 PM