Theology, ethics, and church growth: or, how to prove anything with statistics

It is an important part of the role of the academic, particularly the academic who chooses to comment in non-specialist arenas, to be very clear about precisely what is, and what is not, shown by a given piece of evidence. I picked up on a minor Twitter storm yesterday concerning claims and counter-claims about the linkage of church decline with a progressive/accepting stance on issues of sexuality.

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Moral arguments for independence

The Sunday Herald yesterday ran an advertisement carrying the names of thirty-four Church of Scotland ministers committed to a claim that a yes vote in the independence referendum would improve social justice in Scotland. Three individuals were quoted, two of them offering (what could be constructed as) moral arguments in favour of independence. Are they right? My judgement is that one might be, but it relies on an undemonstrated premise if it is; the other is wrong; both judgements depend on some interesting moral reasoning which is worth exploring.

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Why it’s WEIRD to be straight

A woman (Christian) I know told me a few weeks ago that she objected to being asked to tick a box on equal opportunities forms that said ‘heterosexual’. Married for over twenty years, she felt that ticking that box implied that she had erotic desires for people other than her husband, people defined by a particular characteristic (being male); this was not her experience of her own sexuality, and she resented being forced to suggest that it was. In the culture I live in this self-narration is deeply counter-cultural; but the culture I live in is weird, or better WEIRD, and that is extraordinarily important. The ‘WEIRD’ acronym was coined by psychologists who realised, rather late in the day some of us might feel, that performing psychological experiments on sample groups who all shared a particular characteristic might distort the results quite badly. Many psychology sample groups are only students, or only people in contact with universities (I receive at least one invitation a week to take part in a psychology study via the university email list); more pointedly, a huge majority (95%+?) of psychological studies have been carried out by Western universities on Western people. Something like 12% of the current population of the planet lives in a classic Western society: Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic’ (‘WEIRD’); 88% are not WEIRD, and so are normal. Historically, of course, the situation is even more lopsided: until the nineteenth century, no-one was WEIRD. Now, psychological experiments show that we WEIRD people are, well, weird, in our reaction to all sorts of things. We are, of course, also weird in our construction of cultural norms. In the area of human sexuality, we have constructed a vision which is extremely unusual (this does not mean it is wrong, but it is extremely unusual). Since about 1900 – not much before – we have assumed that all people, or the vast majority of people, are erotically attracted to people of one sex only. Either they are heterosexual, and so attracted to members of the opposite sex, or they are homosexual (gay; lesbian) and attracted to members of the same sex. At some point in the last thirty years we allowed a notion of bisexuality; we pay lip-service, but little more, to transsexuality as well; fundamentally, however, we assume that people (male or female) lust after only males or only females. This is deeply WEIRD. The briefest acquaintance with the anthropology of sexuality (NB, already a WEIRD category…) shows us that most people, in most cultures, across the world and down through history, have not fitted this pattern. Same-sex sexual activity is very common around the world and down through history, and opposite-sex sexual activity is at least common enough to ensure the continuation – indeed explosion – of the human population globally thus far. It is extraordinarily unusual to see these as exclusive options, however; to assume people are straight or gay/lesbian, and therefore can only lust after people of one sex, is WEIRD, not normal. Now, as I said above, being WEIRD does not make something wrong. Democracy is WEIRD; human rights, including rights not to be discriminated against on the basis of sexuality or religion, are WEIRD; universal healthcare is WEIRD; I think all these things are great goods, in each case based on moral intuitions that I think are basically right. It may well be that all across the world, and all down through history, people have been either straight or gay/lesbian, and that cultural norms have imposed patterns of lust on them that were not natural to them; we cannot, and I do not, discount this possibility… …but accepting this possibility already invites us to accept that our patterns of lusting, the shapes and directions of our sexual desires, are culturally malleable. Not, certainly, that individuals have any choice in the matter, but that cultures can create expectactions about patterns of lusting that individuals often successfully internalise. If we accept this possibility, we have to accept also the possibility that our WEIRD sexualities could equally be culturally constructed; if it is WEIRD to be straight, then maybe no-one is born straight, but WEIRD culture somehow inscribes straightness upon them. It seems to me that most moral reasoning I hear – in every direction – assumes the rightness of WEIRD accounts of sexuality. Of course, this is because I live in a WEIRD culture, and so hear the WEIRD voices loudly; if moral reasoning in other cultures looks opaque to us, maybe it is because we have not adequately understood how WEIRD we are. I am not saying WEIRD accounts of sexuality are wrong, but I am saying...

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