Sophisticated theologians circumvent Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality

December 2, 2011 • 6:54 am

Q: Why is Jason Rosenhouse like a hot dog?

A: Because he’s on a roll.

Forgive that, but Jason really is putting up some good posts about religion on EvolutionBlog. His latest, “The Bible and homosexuality,” shows how a couple of theologians and Biblical scholars, intent on showing that the Bible really is a good source of morality, manage to get around the palpably obvious statements in Leviticus mandating that homosexuality is a sin deserving of death.

Jason’s analysis rests on two PuffHo pieces, one by David Lose (whom we’ve encountered before), and the other by Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky.

I won’t summarize Jason’s piece because you need to read it—especially if you think that new “sophisticated” theology has any substantive content—but the upshot is that the authors manage to wave away what God says about morality by judicious circumlocation.  And this, of course, is motivated by non-goddy and purely secular changes in morality since the Bible was written.  Friedman and Dolansky even manage to argue that “The biblical prohibition is not one that is eternal and unchanging.”

But that’s bogus, because if anything must be true about Biblically-based morality, it must be unchanging. Theists have no truck with secular morality precisely because it evolves over time, while they perceive Biblically-based morality as the unalterable mandate of God.

I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.


54 thoughts on “Sophisticated theologians circumvent Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality

  1. It seems that this god mumbles a lot and we have to have what amounts to the oracles at Delphi to “intepret” what it “really for honest and for true” meant. Poor religion always trying to catch up to humanity.

  2. When you point out what a vile document the Bible actually is, the usual evasion is to throw the entire Old Testament under a bus. What are the particularly odious contents of the New Testament?

    1. The New Testament introduces the idea of ‘Hell’, with its eternal fires of torment for those who don’t, (or won’t) follow Jesus.
      The standard apologetic excuse is that ‘hell’ is meant metaphorically. In other words it doesn’t really mean burning in a lake of fire for all eternity, it is simply a poetic way of stating something that is horrifying and long lasting (like being stuck on a transatlantic flight seat between David Berlinski and R Joseph Hoffmann.)

      1. The whole analogy argument never washed for me. Okay, its not actual burning and actual physical pain. Its just that separation from God is as bad as that.

        Okay…how is the creating the same bad feeling in someone without the tongs more moral?

        1. Some modern attempts to excuse hell try to emphasize that the torture is really self-inflicted. It’s like when somebody decides to brood over an entire vacation because a waiter was rude to him — only on a cosmic scale. The people in Hell can’t just ever let go and love. Thus they make themselves miserable and make their own hell.

          This line of reasoning makes a sort of familiar, intuitive sense at first — until you start actually looking at the text. It also falls apart when you consider that these people in Hell sound like stock character villains and not like … you know, actual human beings.

          This second objection is I think easier to see when you’re the one who is supposed to be in Hell.

          1. That approach also doesn’t make sense if one presumes that residence in hell is eternal. Presumably after a while of self-imposed torment, some folks might get the idea that sucking up to the Christian god might be wise. But the traditional account doesn’t allow one to change one’s mind after death — however broody and ungrateful and separated from the divine you happen to be when you croak, that’s what your stuck with for an infinite amount of time.

            And if hell is just self-inflicted, why does that still get a god off the hook? This approach makes it sound like all the damned need is a good therapist, so that they can see how their own thoughts and actions are hurting them — why can’t the Christian god sit them on a couch for a few sessions until they feel better?

    2. The Book of Revelation envisions God in the future, with Jesus’ assistance, brutally torturing countless animals and human beings or all ages – including children and infants.

  3. I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology

    Really, you’re just now starting to realize that? It’s seemed pretty obvious for awhile that sophisticated theology’s only sophisticated in the sense that well constructed fantasy novels are.

    1. Of course there’s sophisticated theology – it’s the one which uses Bayes theorem to estimate how many angels can dance on a pinhead.

  4. I actually laughed out loud at that joke. That’ll teach me to read WEIT in the office! Well played Jerry, well played.

  5. Human rights are human rights in in any era. Are they saying that the infallable moralistic god was going to let his flock reck mayham on homosexuals because it’s in their nature? The man needs work on his leadership skills.

  6. there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.

    Yes! A precise and concise analysis!

  7. I’ve yet to find a religious person who could listen to Mike Earl’s audio program “Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You” and continue to believe that the Bible was a useful moral guide. (And I’ve turned hundreds of people onto Parts 1 and 2 (Old Testament and New Testament).

    I highly recommend these two free online audio programs…

    Bible Stories Your Parents Never Taught You

    The Ultimate Terrorist

    1. Thanks for posting that. I’m definitely going to put up those links the next time I’m in an online debate over the usefulness of the Buy-bull as a moral guide.

      I usually point out that the person making the claim isn’t following the whole Buy-bull as a moral guide but picking and choosing which parts to follow using outside criteria, which contradicts claims of its usefulness, but that never seems to register.

  8. Jason Rosenhouse is the gold standard for atheist blogging. His posts are always high quality, his arguments are always well thought out and presented, and his prose is always clear and concise (yes, they are long posts, but they need to be…the subject matter warrants the length).

    If we ever win this culture war, it will be because Jason was on our side.

  9. This appears to be, yet again, a case of cherry picking the bible. When will we get to see where it says which parts are allegorical and which parts are real?

  10. “I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology”

    There is only elaborate theology that may superficially appear to be sophisticated.

    Any sophistication is only in regard to the elaborate contortions one goes through in an attempt to make one’s theology appear sophisticated.

  11. Well done, Jason!

    This is pet peeve of mine as well: liberal Christians denying that the Bible plainly teaches that homosexual acts are a sin worthy of death and openly calling for homosexuals to be killed.

    It would be far better of them to say, “Well, the Bible is just wrong here,” instead of inventing convoluted non-explanations.

    Of course, the question then becomes, “Then how do you know what parts are good or accurate and which parts are wrong?”

    1. And while we’re at it, where’s the killing for those committing adultery with a married woman? That comes from the same passages in Leviticus.

  12. I particularly like how the authors use a moral code from another culture 1,000 years apart to argue that the point of that passage was that both partners in a homosexual act should be put to death equally, rather than the barbaric practice of only shunning the one who is penetrated. Apparently this means that this section of the bible is all about equality. Whether you pitch or you catch, you now have an equal opportunity to be killed! And somehow they seem to think this is progressive. The bit about how the bible rejects the concept of social classes and makes everybody equal under the law is especially ludicrous. If god is AOK with homosexuality, how about just not putting the partners to death at all? Framing this as a step forward in gay rights is offensive to gay people, but it’s even more offensive to people who know how to read.

  13. After reading Jason’s post about the “sophisticated” way to read the morality of the bible, I’m reminded that there is a word for all of this: Eisegesis, reading one’s own ideas into a text. That describes pretty much all reading of the bible’s morality by Christians, who invariable cherry pick which parts of the OT to believe. Ten Commandments? Yes. Stoning non-virgin brides to death on their fathers doorstep? No. Psychology shows us that moral judgments are snap judgments which we later back fill with reasoning. Someone thinks “Gays are icky” and goes and finds the parts of the bible that support that, or that “Gays are fine” and finds ways to say the bible doesn’t hate gays.

    I love how believers say the bible is a reliable source of morality and then proceed to say the way to get that reliable morality is to ignore the plain language of the bible and, instead, use a tortured reading to get answers that match their existing morality. The bible can’t be “reliable” if you have to selectively ignore the plain languange. And if you have to bend over backwards to get the answer you want, chances are you are an eisegete.

    For all their complaints to the contrary, the Christianity doesn’t stand for the absolute moral authority of god but for moral relativism. Christianity is *founded* in moral relativism, as it throws out the moral laws given to a specific time, place and people in the OT in favor of a new set of moral laws in the NT. But when you point this out to Christians they start bending over backwards to explain why that is not so… Sigh.

    “I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.”

    I think that is certainly true for theology–WLC demonstrates that well. Even Swinburne, who also justifies the horrors in this world as being compatible with an all loving god (the holocaust was needed as an opportunity for others to do good). But I think that sophisticated philosophy is also prone to fancy language and evasions, and perhaps that is why we see some atheist philosophers defending “sophisticated” theology.

    1. Christianity is *founded* in moral relativism, as it throws out the moral laws given to a specific time, place and people in the OT in favor of a new set of moral laws in the NT.

      except when it doesn’t

      This is the argument I can never understand — the whole business of “overturning” the OT. Jeebus didn’t overturn it; he raised the ante.

      1. Yes, Christians are very confused over how much of the OT is still operative. From nearly all to none, the latter being the fairly rare breed known as “New Testament Christians”.

        It Jesus is very clear that He is not come to over turn the OT but to fulfill, and is very careful not to contradict the OT. It is Paul who contradicts it, rescinding the dietary laws. If anyone is the anti-Christ, it is Paul, who worked to overturn much of what Jesus did.

        Meanwhile, Christians say the “fulfill” the law means “overturn it” without over turning it, much as Catholics claim that praying over wafers turns them in to the actual body of Jesus, even though it is plain to see that nothing happens.

        If anything, Christians seem expert in selectively claiming that plain language and plain evidence mean the opposite of what they plainly mean. Very inconsistent, very annoying.

        1. “New Testament Christians”

          I saw a church that had that in its name and I thought it was particularly stupid given how you can’t really have Christianity without the New Testament. I’d like to ask them if there are any Old Testament Christians out there just to see what insanity they churn out in response.

        2. I originally come from a sect of ‘New Testament Christians’. We didn’t accept that any of ‘the old law’ of Moses applied. (There was a great 19th-century sermon on this by Alexander Campbell — ‘The Sermon on the Law’.)

          Except of course for gays being an abomination, of course. What was an abomination under the OT could hardly be OK under the New, could it? (We ignored the dietary laws and such, since they were specifically overturned in the NT.)

          Practically speaking, we were just as guilty of cherry picking the bits of the Bible we liked and ignoring or explaining away the bits we didn’t as any other Christians, usually to fit our prejudices.

  14. How convenient! The Bible always happens to support the morality of the believer reading it. Is that a miracle or what?

    1. Yup; the bible is like an n-ray detector or ideometer.

      Sometimes it bothers me that nonbelievers spend so much time trying to argue that the bible is inaccurate. The subject is God, FFS, we have no way of judging its accuracy. Assessing accuracy requires an external reference value – we have none.

      Far better to point out that, as an instrument, it is extremely imprecise. Users have come up with approximately 38,000 different readings.

      Even if an instrument is theoretically accurate, when its that imprecise, do you know the rational thing to do with it is? Sell it for spare parts and use the money for a different instrument.

  15. To me it looks as if so-called sophisticated theology eventually comes down to finding ways to show that God is a humanist and wants everyone to be humanists — except for that part about believing in God.

    They’ve set themselves off on a collision course there.

  16. I would argue that there is nothing to be gained by making nice with ‘liberal Christians’. They are sniveling hypocrites of the highest order, even more so than their fundie brethren. Instead of rational positions, they just sail whatever way the wind is blowing. With the political rise of gay rights, they’re currently flowing this way, but they’ll flip in a heartbeat if the wind changes.

    1. Depends on what you mean by “making nice.”

      If it means giving liberal theology — or liberal believers — a free pass on the criticism, I heartily agree. After all, subjecting their views to the same rigorous standards we use on the “extremists” and conservatives is the only way they would throw out the liberal theology and replace it with something better. A search for consensus isn’t an attack. It’s really the opposite of an attack.

      I’ve found that “sophisticated” spirituality is in some ways more scornful of atheism than traditional versions — or, perhaps, more pernicious because it is more subtle. They’re more willing to grant the atheists the rational arguments because they agree that their views are ultimately based “on an act of faith.” A leap beyond what is “necessary.”

      When talking to atheists, they often make it sound like that choice is just like a personal preference for a certain kind of music over another. We atheists just “chose” not to believe. No big deal. When talking amongst themselves, however, they know that this choice is more similar to being able to appreciate music at all — vs. those people who are tone-deaf, aesthetically- empty, and incapable of being moved by beauty. Because God is supposed to be a very Big Deal indeed.

      As long as they keep trying to make God’s revelation somehow either comport with or at least not contradict reasonable modern ethics, God will remain a very Big Deal. I think they’re not so much trying to save the Bible from irrelevance as trying to save God.

      1. I remember encountering a blog article by a Pagan addressing other Pagans. He had no use for atheists, portraying them as sneering skeptics with no sense of spirituality. Apparently he was much more comfortable with Christians than atheists.

  17. Some time ago I had gone through the KJ Version and listed the places where homosexuality is stated or alluded to. All revisions have changed it to suit their needs, e.g.: In 1st Corinthians 6:9-11 the newer English Standard version has changed acts for which unrighteous will not inherit the kngdom of God from “nor effeminate” to “nor men who practice homosexuality” and the Catholic New American Bible to “nor practicing homosexuals.” Ratzi should take notice that the latter even lists “nor boy prostitutes.” So everything has been slanted to say homosexual, because one may be effemniate does not mean they practice it!It is ironic that the Fundamentalists who have picketed funerals and bashed service men, swear by the KJ Version and do not know or ignore the FACT that James I (VI Scot.) was bisexual, 8 children and an outgoing homosexual in his COURT, when he rationalized that Jesus was when he said, “Jesus had his John and I have my Geroge” (Villier). Both Denis Diderot and Jeremy Bentham voiced this interprtation of ‘The diciple that Jesus loved was John.’

  18. I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.


    “Theology is the art of making reasonable to man what is unreasonable in the Bible.” — Me

  19. “I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology.”

    Nonsense. As long as the theocrats retain the right to torture me for weeks on end or murder me in the most gruesome (though crowd pleasing) ways I will find their facts unassailable, their logic unconquerable and their conclusions undeniable.

    Without that ability? Not so much.

    However the condemnations of homosexuality referred to are, indeed, very cloudy. Most claims are based on wildly wrong translations. For a run down, search for “lyings of a woman”.

    For ‘abomination’, note that the offense is actually toevah and is ‘cured’ with a mikvah (which explains Ted Haggard’s rapid ‘cure’ of teh gay). The Jews also point out that they never killed anyone for doing it.

    For the Pauline epistles, it has been suggested that Paul of Tarsus was the Ted Haggard of his time, opposing his own ‘wrong’ impulses. And as for Jesus, search for the words (centurion pais). If Jesus was OK with it, who are we to condemn it?

  20. One of the strangest excuses I came across for the condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible was from a liberal Christian who pointed out that modern psychological studies have demonstrated that harsh or difficult rules make groups more cohesive — which is true. He then argued that it was very important at that time that the Israelites stay together as a people so that the circumstances would eventually be right for the gospel to be spread out to the world.

    Therefore, in context we could see that the laws in Leviticus were deliberately both petty and pointless for a reason which had nothing to do with establishing morality — but everything to do with the unfolding of a divine plan for humanity’s salvation. We should view them in the same context we look at boot camp directives to dig holes and fill them up or run up a hill and down again. God’s chosen people had to feel they were a special unit, and if following overly-strict guidelines on purity made them keep the tribe pure, then it was all good. The ends justifies the means.

    The fact that so many Christians today foolishly think that God was giving direct and specific commands because He thought that what He was commanding was important is just a sign that so many Christians today don’t understand how to read the Bible. They don’t get the big picture.

    Uh huh. God must be ever so exasperated with them.

  21. Sophisticated theology. Too bad George Carlin is gone. He could add it to his list of oxymorons along with jumbo shrimp, military intelligence and business ethics.

  22. The most obvious counter to those who claim that they cannot abandon their gay-bashing without betraying their faith, is to point out that there are about 650 rules in that section of the Bible. 649 of which are pretty inconvenient to live by so we are best off ignoring. The other one which involves persecuting a minority is non-negotiable.

    If they really claim that the NT abbrogated the OT, just insist that they give all of their possessions and money away.

  23. “I’m starting to realize that there is no sophisticated theology; there are merely evasions and fancy language to get around the problematic lack of evidence for God and the palpably immoral statements in scripture.”

    A thousand times yes (I should know as a graduate of an MDiv program).

  24. I read an interesting analysis a while back (wish I could find it) that argued that Leviticus was actually banning male prostitution, not consensual homosexual sex. This argument came from the main points that (1) the laborious language “if a man lays with a man as a man lays with a woman” is not repeated in the other sexual prohibitions, which are much more direct; (2) the verb used, literally “to lay”, is used in Hebrew to denote sex of a demeaning or forcible nature (including rape or getting someone trashed on alcohol then slipping into bed with them, (3) that all of Leviticus’s death penalties are repeated in Deuteronomy except this one, and in its place is a death penalty passage on temple prostitution, and (4) the obvious misogyny of an Old Testament that gave women few if any sexual rights; Deuteronomy only “punishes” raping of an unbetrothed girl by requiring her rapist to pay her father a cash fine and take the victim as one of his wives.

    By this argument, this passage is not about sex between men as equals; it bans men from *laying* (or raping, or paying for sex with, or otherwise demeaning) other men in the same manner in which you are allowed to do the same to women.

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