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Religion, science and same-sex attraction

Published February 25, 2011 7:38 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In his recent guest column ("Anti-science views of faith leaders cause concerns," Opinion, Feb. 8), R. Dennis Hansen correctly points out that religion and science need not be at odds, but in our view draws the wrong conclusion that they are at odds to begin with, or that religion is the problem.

We suggest that true religion and true science, when they are found, are never at odds. While such a hypothesis may seem implausible to some, we can find a glimmer of this universally hoped-for condition in, of all places, the debate over homosexuality. True religion teaches a love for all people, including those who identify themselves as gay. Some people who experience same-sex attraction, however, do not wish to practice homosexuality or adopt a gay identity. And fortunately for such people, hope can be found in both true science and true religion.

As to science, contrary to a source cited by Hansen that same-sex attractions are of purely biological origin, Dr. Francis S. Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and the current director of the National Institutes of Health, reached a very different conclusion. Collins, in addressing the etiology of homosexuality in his book, The Language of God, offers the conclusion that homosexuality is "genetically influenced but not hardwired by DNA and that whatever genes are involved represent predispositions, not predeterminations."

Interestingly, this scientific statement is remarkably similar to and supportive of Elder Boyd K. Packer's recent statement about homosexuality not being "preset." Elder Packer, president of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, also has a very long and well-documented history of teaching love for people with homosexual attractions. Contrary to media reports that sought to portray Elder Packer as intolerant and uninformed, he actually had the right religion and the right science, if people cared to look beyond the hype and headlines and consider his remarks in context.

Even the American Psychological Association, after a long period of supporting a purely biological view of the origin of homosexuality, recently adopted a position supported by Collins' observations that homosexuality, like other traits, emerges from some combination of nature and nurture. As scientists would say, all human behavioral traits are polygenic and multifactorial. Janet Cummings eloquently summarized the evolution perspective on homosexuality: "The belief that homosexuality is always inbred flies in the face of available evidence that genetics, childhood environment, and personal choice are all factors. Granted, some may be more salient than others, but from a genetic standpoint alone, the genes responsible would have disappeared throughout the millennia from lack of reproductive activity."

Collins offers the following additional insight on homosexuality: "There is an inescapable component of heritability to many human behavioral traits. For virtually none of them is heredity ever close to predictive. Environment, particularly childhood experiences, and the prominent role of individual free will choices have a profound effect on us. Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

Other reputable scientists, some of whom personally support gay rights, have concluded that homosexuality is not invariably fixed in all people, including Robert Spitzer, a psychiatrist who is credited by some for spearheading the effort to remove homosexuality from the psychiatric manual.

Spitzer offers the following: "Like most psychiatrists, I thought that homosexual behavior could only be resisted, and that no one could change their [sic] sexual orientation. I now believe that to be false. Some people can and do change."

It should also be observed that the type, degree, and potential for change vary with each individual, and many debates about change could be avoided by a more nuanced discussion about it.

Unfortunately, the dialogue about homosexuality has too often been reduced to a simplistic and divisive us-versus-them, religion-versus-science debate. When we bring true science and true religion together, however, they can and should unite us.

Dennis V. Dahle, John P. Livingstone and M. Gawain Wells are board members of the Foundation for Attraction Research. Dahle is a a Salt Lake City attorney and a FAR founder. Livingstone is an associate professor of Church History and Doctrine in Religious Education at Brigham Young University. Wells is a retired professor of psychology at BYU.