The odd collection of nouns in the title are related. I promise. Roll with the idea and examine a few related scenarios. If you’ll track with me, I hope you’ll see some inconsistent ways in which we use our reason when religion, especially our interpretation of Scripture, gets involved. In most cases, we apply our reasoning freely — unless we have prior commitments, which cause us to set aside otherwise-sound conclusions in favor of sticking to our guns.
Suppose it is 300 years ago, and there is a European expedition heading into Africa. It has been several centuries, if not longer, since Europeans have ventured beyond the African cities on the Mediterranean coastline. No one quite knows what all lives in the interior of the continent, so this group of explorers sets out to learn about this mysterious land. As part of their mission, they intend to chronicle all which they find in a journal which they will publish upon their return.
After venturing significantly inland, the group catches a distant glimpse of the wild rhinoceros; however, their supplies are running low, and thus they must start their return voyage without investigating further. In their journal, they note the existence of a large horse-like creature with a prominent horn on its head, and they give a rough sketch based partly off what they were able to see from the great distance and partly from what they imagine it to be like, filling in the gaps of their knowledge with familiar notions like that of a horse. The end result in their journal entry is the mythological beast: the unicorn. They do, however, manage see a mound of rhino droppings, and — extrapolating from the absence of other large creatures in the area — determine that this mound must have come from what they assume to be the unicorn.
When the expedition returns to Europe, they are hailed as heroes, and their journal receives widespread circulation. For a time, it becomes common knowledge that a unicorn-type creature lives in the heart of Africa. Every good school boy or girl grows up thinking unicorns are real, because it was written in the books which they read from when they were small.
After a while, another group decides to explore and expand on the claims made by the first expedition. As luck would have it, they, too, find the supposed “unicorn,” but they are able to see them much more closely. The truth of the matter astounds them, as they had all supposed that the animals would have been much more like horses, but they see the enormous mounds of droppings exactly as described and are able to piece together the fact that these rhinos are the real truth behind what people thought to be unicorns.
Eventually, this second group returns to Europe to give their report. Their findings surprise the public, and there is some resistance at first, but by and large, people accept that the first expedition had made a mistake in their reasoning. Given the new evidence in front of them, people realize that the horse-like unicorn does not exist, but rather there is a new creature which is shorter, fatter, and much more muscular than a horse.
Now, none of this ever happened (though there were, in fact, historical misrepresentations of the rhino), but had it occurred, we would have been comfortable with the conclusions. Despite what we might have thought, new information is welcome, and we can use our reasoning to incorporate this new information into sensible systems of knowledge explaining the facts.
Fast forward to right now. We have in our hands a book containing information very similar to that of those explorers’ journal: the Bible. A long time ago, anywhere from 2000-3000+ years ago, people looked at gay people and said, “Huh, that’s weird. That’s not what I like. It must be abnormal and unhealthy.” They looked at the animals around them and said, “These animals had to come from somewhere! Something or someone must have made them like this.”
Admittedly, these are fairly natural intuitions which build off of what we already know. As apologists are keen on pointing out, if we see a watch, we assume there was a watchmaker. Also, if someone exhibits a behavior that most people don’t share, we assume some kind of dysfunction, and this assumption is sometimes well-founded. These natural inclinations are much like seeing the rhino from far off and assuming it is a horned horse: the ideas here are comfortable and somewhat familiar to us, even if they’re wrong.
So in the 19th and 20th centuries, we started looking more closely at some things which we had always assumed to be the case because of our intuitions and the books like the Bible which had said so. We looked at the animals and saw patterns we couldn’t explain through Creationism. We realized that the earth was much older than we had anticipated. We dispelled the “unicorns” of our thinking and replaced them with more careful analysis.
When we began to look at human sexuality, that, too, turned out to be not at all what we were expecting. It took almost the entire 20th century to realize that not everyone is or even can be straight, and not everyone fits neatly into the primary two gender categories, but that’s okay. What is important is for each person to find a way to live a healthy and fulfilling life. These things rubbed against our intuitions and our texts, but they turned out to be true.
You may not agree with me here, but I hope you’ll do me a mental favor by asking yourself a question: why is it acceptable to apply one’s reasoning in the first case with the rhino vs. the unicorn, yet in the second, special creation vs. evolution and homosexuality vs. “traditional” sexuality, some might say to defer to the prior text? More specifically, what is wrong with our capacity to reason in the second case? I suggest to you that our capacities to reason are the same, and our conclusions are valid and sound, yet people tend to overrule those conclusions based on prior commitments to the Bible.
Of course, some wish to believe that their beliefs, which they formed because of their commitments to reading the Bible a particular way, are truths which we can demonstrate through reason. There are people like Ken Ham who try to prove special creation, and there are groups like Focus on the Family which (at least previously, if not still) try to demonstrate that people can change their sexuality to be in line with what they think God teaches. Yet time and time again, their arguments lose court cases because they lack solid evidence. The most natural conclusions we can draw from the evidence we have gathered are those which I have mentioned: that animals have evolved and that gay people deserve a way to live happy and fulfilling lives, just as anyone else does.
If you object to reasoned conclusions on religious grounds, you need to examine your epistemology — your methods for forming your beliefs — and see if you are consistent. What is the difference in our reasoning between cases where we think freely and those where we restrict ourselves via Scripture? The answer may cause some of us to change our views on the Bible.
Author’s note: please read my follow-up to this post, The Word of Zorb the All-Knowing.