Talking about Transgenderism 4: Biology and Morality

Talking about Transgenderism

Earlier in this thread, I wrote that there are some things for Christians that don’t change, here.

Then I wrote about feelings of squeamishness and their role in moral thinking, here.

Then I wrote about some of the key biblical texts that come up in conversations about gender, here.

A Very Bad Argument

For my final (I think) post about transgenderism, I want to talk about science and morality. I’m going to start by pointing out a bad argument that conservatives and liberals use with equal frequency, and I’d like to disarm both of them. I’ll name it and then I’ll explain it.

It’s called the naturalistic fallacy.

Put simply, you can’t argue from the biological to the moral. What occurs naturally in the world is never essentially good by virtue of it being natural. The fact that someone is born in a certain way or with certain unchosen inclinations does not make that state or those inclinations good or even morally permissible.

We are born with all kinds of inclinations that are blatantly bad. We can be born with an inclination to addiction or to anger. We can be born with mental disorders and physical abnormalities. Anyone arguing that the state of a person at birth (usually with a dumb catchphrase like, “God don’t make junk”), doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Babies can be born with heart defects that kill them a few hours after they’re born. If that which is natural is intended by God, then God has a sick sense of humor.

We use surgery, medicine, and counseling to correct all kinds of natural things. Cleft palates, heart defects, crooked teeth, wisdom teeth, inflamed appendices, hermaphroditism, vision problems, inclinations to depression, and hundreds of other problems with which one can be born are things that we correct. Recommending that a pregnant woman eat healthy is itself an attempt to control the natural and the impacts of nature. The natural is not the moral. Our biology isn’t inherently good.

Morality is the control of natural inclinations. That which is most praiseworthy in moral thinking is that which requires self-discipline. When someone does something good because they get a personal thrill out of it, simply for the sake of their own happiness, we usually don’t admire them quite so much as someone who vigorously restrains destructive impulses and practices the good to make it a habit. The moral is the control of the natural.

So…

The liberal inclination to say that sexual inclinations that are natural, unchosen, and consensual must therefore be good or even permissible is nonsense. This applies to transgenderism, gay marriage, and every other gender or sexual expression. If a behavior is found to be permissible or good, it must be on grounds other than biology and nature.

The conservative inclination to say that the natural order shows that God means for certain things to be a certain way is also ignorant. If surgery can be used to correct cosmetic issues like crooked teeth, or to enact lifesaving procedures like heart surgery, or to alter biological issues related to gender like hermaphroditism, and if you want to be logically consistent, you can’t say that there is a special category of natural things that can’t be medically corrected. (Furthermore, the natural order itself doesn’t show that God created a simple gender binary – there are species in the animal kingdom that naturally change genders and can reproduce as male or female.)

Nature doesn’t determine morality. Not at all. Give this argument up. I’m tired of hearing it.

The Morality of Transgenderism: Three Options

One researcher has come up with three helpful options for talking about the science and morality of transgenderism, and it doesn’t require the naturalistic fallacy.

First, perhaps the inclination to change one’s gender is a sin. Though the biblical case isn’t clear here, some have tried to argue that physical gender as it appears (as when the doctor says, “It’s a boy!”) is tied irrevocably to identity, and our identity is connected to the image of God, and to reject our God-formed identity is to reject God’s will. The solution is to repent, bear one’s cross, and fight with the discontent and desires.

Second, perhaps gender dysphoria – the feelings of discontent with one’s own gender – is a mental illness. Some sort of confusion, be it genetic, brought about through hormone imbalances, or caused by painful life experiences, makes people dislike their gender. The solution is to seek counseling and wrestle with the feelings to find mental peace.

Third, perhaps transgenderism is part of a diversity of life, without moral implications. The approach here is to accept it.

The Non-Conclusion and the Conclusion

I’m not going to choose for you. I don’t think the Bible clearly answers this one. I don’t think there has been sufficient research into genetics, neurology, psychology, and endocrinology to explain exactly where transgenderism comes from. I don’t think there’s been sufficient research into gender transitioning to talk meaningfully about the help or damage that it does. Sectors of American society have been too eager to condemn change, and others have been too eager to endorse and enforce change.

The way Christian morality works, in broad brush strokes, has three steps:

  1. If God speaks to a subject, his will is definitive.
  2. If there is not clear direction from God, Christians seek to act from virtuous motives, doing what Jesus would do, with love governing the virtues. The implications of the Scriptures are applied as best they can be discerned.
  3. With all else equal, Christians seek to maximize kindness to others and limit harm, living to draw attention to Jesus.

On the issue of transgenderism, I personally am stuck in #2. If transgenderism is a case of biology not jibing with its design, it is analogous to hermaphroditism. If it is a case of psychological woundedness, it is analogous to depression.

What I am certain of, which is exactly where I started this series of posts, is that when religious people rise up to castigate and cast out people who don’t fit social norms and expectations, Jesus stands beside the rejected to defy the religious. The Church should have always been a place of such overwhelming love that outsiders would have known it to be a safe place. Instead, it has been a bastion of Pharisees eager to condemn. If a transgender person can’t walk down the center aisle of a church and worship in the front row, there’s something wrong with the church, not with the person standing outside its doors.

Brothers and sisters, love one another, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves knows God, and those who don’t love don’t know God.

Talking about Transgenderism 3: The Bible

Talking about Transgenderism

Earlier in this thread, I wrote that there are some things for Christians that don’t change, here.

Then I wrote about feelings of squeamishness and their role in moral thinking, here.

For Christians, the Bible is unquestionably the definitive source of information about the mind of Jesus. There is no other place to start in asking what he wills. Christians have disagreed about how the Bible is complemented by scientific investigation, common sense, and the inner voice of the Holy Spirit, but all Christians appeal to this book.

What does the Bible say about transgenderism?

The relevant texts

The uncomplicated answer is that the Bible doesn’t discuss transgenderism, because hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery didn’t exist 2000 years ago. Now let’s complicate things. The Bible addresses issues surrounding gender. A few are worth considering:

  1. The Creation narrative pairs Adam and Eve and holds this up as a model for human relationships. It offers itself as the universal origin story (Gen. 1-2).
  2. The complementary gender pairing then runs throughout Scripture as a model, a metaphor for other relationships, and a norm. The prophetic voices compare God’s relationship to humanity with a husband and wife. Song of Songs expresses erotic affection between a man and a woman. Jesus reiterates the gender pairing of Genesis – a man will leave his parents and be joined to his wife (Mt. 19:5).
  3. In addressing same-sex attraction (which, it should be noted, is not the same moral question that transgenderism poses and honestly shouldn’t be lumped with it) the Bible is negative on the subject the four or so times it mentions it (Rom. 1:26-27). In LGBTQ, the “T” is distinct from the rest because the rest concern attraction, and “T” concerns self-perception and identity independently of attraction. I only mention homosexuality here because it falls in the broader category of gender relations.
  4. In addressing transvestitism, which, again, is not the same as transgenderism, the Mosaic law condemns it (Deut. 22:5), and it otherwise doesn’t receive attention in the Scriptures. This subject is also different than transgenderism per se, because transgendered people say they are seeking their true identity, whereas cross-dressing is intentionally posing as the opposite gender.

More can be said, but those are generally the texts that are discussed surrounding the issue of gender.

Surprisingly, theologians do not follow a simple conservative-liberal split on their study of these texts. Some otherwise traditional exegetes have landed at the conclusion that the Bible doesn’t address transgenderism sufficiently to rule it sin. Others find the male-female gender pairing so overwhelmingly normative that an alternative that must be brought about through human medical intervention has to be wrong.

But what about…?

Here’s the analogy that matters.

Christians believe that the world is fallen. It is broken by sin. Sin is not simply a list of bad behaviors, it’s a state of brokenness into which everyone is born. We come off the assembly line not working right, so to speak. We are not born innocent, and then somewhere around the age of ten start to sin (I have kids – they start to sin way before the age of ten).

Biology itself is broken. We can be born with congenital heart defects, appendices that can kill us, cleft palates, hermaphroditism, genetic predispositions for destructive tendencies, and the like. Surgically, we fix some of those. We intentionally amend the biology to make it work closer to its intended design and for healthy life.

Transgenderism rests on the assumption that gender can be broken in exactly that way. We can, it is suggested, be born with a biological confusion between what we look like on our outsides and how we were wired on our insides. It simply asks for the same kind of surgical correction to pull closer to the intended design and to healthy life.

Transgenderism does not necessarily challenge the male-female complementary pairing. It doesn’t have to do with same-sex attraction. It isn’t spawned by a desire to wear the other gender’s clothes. It is fundamentally the belief that one’s biology isn’t quite right and that it can be corrected medically, as we do with so many other kinds of biological issues.

The question is really whether or not that is a correct description of what is happening with transgenderism. Is it possible to show that the biological wires are crossed (and can be corrected), or must this merely be a mental state of confusion causing a person to want to be something different than what they really are? This is at the heart of the true moral question, and it can’t be resolved with a quick Bible quote, a commonsense appeal to biology, or a gut-level reaction of discomfort. We actually have to lovingly and faithfully think this one through. In the next post, I’ll talk about the case for the biological wiring of transgenderism.

Talking about Transgenderism 2: “Ew”

Talking about Transgenderism

In the first of a series of posts on this topic, I address some things that don’t change, here.

Moral philosophers and psychologists discuss a profound influence on the act of making moral judgements, an influence which is pervasive, convincing, and irrational: the phenomenon the literature calls “disgust.” Everyone knows the experience of whiffing rotten milk or witnessing crude behavior. There are experiences that just make you say “Ew!” In some cases, we then attach moral weight to that feeling. The problem is that this powerful intuitive sense isn’t always right. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to explain why it triggers us the way it does.

Consider a series of examples:

  1. Eating bugs. Normalized in many cultures of the world and arguably good for the global environment, many of us get squeamish at the idea of ingesting creepy crawlies, even cooked.
  2. Eating synthetic meat. Scientists can, in a lab, grow a steak. Using cells of a living animal and a regenerative stimulant, scientists can recreate this dietary staple, and do so in a way that neutralizes much of the concern about cruelty to animals. But given the choice, many (even non-vegetarian) people are too turned off by the idea to give up the real thing.
  3. Eating synthetic human. Think this through. #2 can be replicated with a swab of the cells of a human cheek. No one dies, and there’s nothing fundamentally unhealthy about it, but scientists could plausibly create edible human matter. See? That’s the feeling of disgust you’re having right now. Such an idea is, and I’m carefully choosing the scientific term here, super-gross, and I’m never going to try it, but it’s hard to explain morally why it would have to be morally wrong.

So what is that phenomenon of disgust that we feel? Being overpoweringly revulsed by something feels a lot like a moral intuition, but if one tries to discern a moral principle that lies behind the feeling of disgust, or the moral facts that disgust identifies, it’s hard to pin them down. That’s because there aren’t any. Disgust alone is not a moral radar.

Disgusting Research

Jonathan Haidt, professor at New York University, has been studying disgust for decades. InĀ The Righteous Mind (2012), Haidt identifies six different loci of moral decision making, and one of them he calls “purity.” We make moral decisions about what we think is pure. From a sense for purity comes the reaction of disgust. He and other evolutionary psychologists trace a sense of disgust back to a survival-instinct’s self-protection against pathogens, but over time it has been transferred to a moral inclination to protect the social order. Haidt has developed the “Disgust Scale,” an instrument for measuring to what degree individuals experience disgust (spoiler alert: we don’t all experience it to the same degree or at the same things). He says, curiously, that feelings of disgust are stronger in people who vote conservatively rather than liberally.

Discussing Disgust

Disgust is a good indicator of one thing – it tells you how you relate to a subject. I dislike bugs…deeply. I feel it whenever I see one in the bathroom and call out for my wife or children to come and kill it. I am perfectly willing to endure the household ridicule as long as I don’t have to touch bugs. What disgust is not a good indicator of is the moral worth of the subject. God made bugs, and for all I know, loves them. I can’t see how, but maybe. They certainly aren’t evil, even the ones that look like they crawled out of hell (to take up lodging in my bathroom). Disgust doesn’t tell me anything about the value of the thing in itself, only the nature of my relationship to it.

It’s also entirely possible to be disgusted by something that is actually morally wrong. There really is a sense of propriety that we develop, and violations of it will set off our disgust alarm. Some of this comes from the psychologically healthy, genetically encoded inclination towards empathy which makes us dislike seeing someone else being unjustly hurt. We may be disgusted by injustice. But the moral wrongfulness of someone being unjustly hurt is something that can be explained rationally on moral principles; it doesn’t rest on negative feelings alone. If anything, the negative emotions are a healthy trigger that make us investigate the moral value of a state of affairs, but they can’t be left on their own to answer the question.

Think about ways that disgust goes wrong or is inconsistent:

  1. Watching an autopsy can make one feel totally disgusted, but scientific research on cadavers has made vast contributions to medicine.
  2. It’s not that long ago in American history that people responded with disgust to interracial marriages. In certain cultures today, romantic relationships across social castes are met with disgust.
  3. People with OCD, especially fixated on cleanliness, feel disgust at things and to degrees that a healthy person would not.
  4. A 1997 study (by Rozin) of vegetarians shows higher feelings of disgust towards meat among vegetarians motivated by ethics than among those motivated by health concerns.

In sum, disgust alone can’t lay a moral foundation.

Transgenderism, Disgust, and Morality

The relevance of the phenomenon of disgust to the discussion of transgenderism is that disgust (or choose a term that suggests a milder aversion – any feeling that it must be wrong without a rational grounding) is that this feeling doesn’t get to cast a deciding vote on the issue. If, for the Christian, transgenderism is a moral issue, it can’t be a moral issue based on feelings of squeamishness. Nor can a thinker with any integrity try to craft a rationale around the feeling to justify it; any moral argument must stand independent of feelings of unease.

This is not to suggest that everyone who deems elective gender transitioning immoral is motivated by feelings without rationale (I’m going to move on in other posts to look at those rationale). But some are. For some people, the whole idea of gender transition just feels weird and wrong. I’m trying to sweep this mistake out of the way before we get to the heart of the issue.

Issues of gender and sexuality are often linked to intense feelings, social mores, guilt, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and the like, and it’s hard to get through that river of emotion to do the hard work of moral reasoning. But the truth is, when we talk about people with gender dysphoria, we’re talking about people who are made by God and loved by God, and they deserve that difficult river-crossing. We owe this slim minority of people, a fraction of one percent, the compassion it takes not to condemn them to silence and alienation, abuse and suicide. For the Christian, whatever moral conclusions we draw on the issue, it’s not enough to feel disgusted and walk away. We have to get past those feelings to ask what is really right and wrong and how we know.

“When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, ‘If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.” – Luke 7:39

Talking about Transgenderism

Talking about Transgenderism

I had a first-in-a-lifetime experience this week. I got together with a circle of other pastors and we talked about transgenderism and the church’s approach to people who experience gender dysphoria, the experience of being uncomfortable with one’s own gender. I have things to share on the topic, but not in this post. In this post, I want to talk about talking about it.

I sat in a circle of other pastors who don’t necessarily agree on the issue, what it means, what the Bible says about it, and how churches should address it. We questioned each other, debated a bit, talked about what Jesus said and would say. We prayed together. We weren’t trying to come to a final agreement between ourselves; we were trying to understand each other. We agreed that the church historically has been horrible to minority groups, outsiders, people whose lives were held questionable by society at large – basically everyone Jesus associated with. We agreed that we don’t want to contribute to that horror. There was no risk that any of us were going to stop talking to each other when it was over. We weren’t going to rule anyone a heretic or begin an excommunication trial. I’m so deeply thankful for these committed leaders who were willing to think, pray, and be gracious together. I cherish them. I hope that the tone we set together grows increasingly normative for conversations of its kind.

One thing I noted when we were done, after more that 90 minutes of talk, was that if a small group of theologically-trained friends took a lot of work to simply begin a conversation on such a weighty topic, it’s hardly imaginable what that conversation is going to look like spread over a congregation, much less a society, much less a globe.

While Christians continue to stumble along trying to talk about ethics in the abstract, minority groups continue to live lives of isolation and silence, abuse and suicide. Before we even get to sorting out the hard subjects, should it not be quickly obvious that the only way for Christians to talk to each other, and anyone else, is from a deep reservoir of love for all of God’s children? Shouldn’t that come first? When you follow the one who taught that we should not only love our neighbors, but love our enemies, not only our own kin, but prostitutes, adulterers, traitors, diverse ethnicities, and people who hurt us, how can you approach people with anything but love? There should be no question from the public that the last place you would find someone eager to throw rocks at you would be church. And yet, that’s exactly what people have come to expect from churches. And aren’t they often right?

For all of the panicked declarations echoing out of the stained glass windows about what a flaming dumpster society has become, it might be time for Christians to realize that a significant contribution to the public’s disinterest in the church’s prescription for a better world is the demeaning tone in which it has been preached. The world would be better off with more of Jesus, and a primary obstacle to that is his followers’ callous misrepresentation of him.

I remember talking to a self-declared atheist who nonetheless attended church events. I asked her why. She replied, “They’re Christians. They like you anyway.” The day could come when everyone thinks the same.