One thing you hear a lot about from religious conservatives in general is how “unnatural” homosexuality is. This argument is particularly common among conservotrad Catholics because of the church’s natural law tradition, which considers homosexuality to be a major breach of the natural law. While most conservative Protestants would prefer to say that homosexuality is “unbiblical” and stop at that, there appears to be a major “ick factor” about LGBT people in conservative Protestant discourse that suggests that they are referencing natural law theory in an indirect way. But what does this really mean for homosexuality to be “natural” or “unnatural”? How can we tell if something, be it homosexuality, artificial contraception, or eyeglasses, is “natural” or not?
From a strict dictionary definition, for something to be considered “natural” means that it “exists in or is caused by nature.” By this definition, homosexuality would be indeed be considered “natural” because it exists in nature, not just among humans but among other animals as well:
Consider this quote from the National Geographic article:
The bonobo, an African ape closely related to humans, has an even bigger sexual appetite. Studies suggest 75 percent of bonobo sex is nonreproductive and that nearly all bonobos are bisexual. Frans de Waal, author of Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape, calls the species a “make love, not war” primate. He believes bonobos use sex to resolve conflicts between individuals.
Other animals appear to go through a homosexual phase before they become fully mature. For instance, male dolphin calves often form temporary sexual partnerships, which scientists believe help to establish lifelong bonds. Such sexual behavior has been documented only relatively recently. Zoologists have been accused of skirting round the subject for fear of stepping into a political minefield.
When confronted with evidence that homosexuality exist in nature, religious conservatives claim that researchers are projecting their biases onto the natural world. Acting under the assumption that non-human animals are basically automatons that act only on instinct, the appearance of homosexuality in other species can be explained away as momentary programming glitches, something akin to a malfunctioning clock or a crashing computer. This view ignores the vast body of research on the social and emotional lives of animals, which is not surprising, considering that many religious conservatives don’t believe in evolution and insist on believing that humans have nothing in common with other animals. Yet, the fact that we can observe homosexuality in animals suggests that it is “natural,” at least in the sense of something that occurs in nature.
Religious conservatives would perhaps shoot back by saying that humans shouldn’t be using animals as a model for ethical or sexual behavior in the first place, which I would actually agree with to some extent (we can all agree that humans should not mimic the sexual cannibalism of the praying mantis, for example). However, using the words “natural” and “unnatural” in relation to homosexuality implies that such behavior does not exist in nature, when in fact it does. Just because a particular behavior is not common or universally practiced does not make it “unnatural,” much less morally wrong. For example, walking on one’s hands, rather than one’s feet, may not be typical, but it would be a stretch to call it “unnatural” or “wrong.” Indeed, for a person who was born without legs or has lost them in an accident, walking on one’s hands makes perfect sense, and may feel “natural” for them.
Another example of “natural” vs “unnatural” can be found in the Catholic church’s opposition to artificial birth control. Much like how homosexual sex is “unnatural” because it is non-procreative, heterosexual sex using contraception is considered “unnatural” because it frustrates the natural end of sex, which is to be open to new life. But how do we know that “being open to life” is the teleological end to heterosexual sex, as opposed to social bonding? This is pure Aristotelianism here, assuming that everything has an “end” that must be fulfilled. However, there is no empirical evidence that shows that such ends exist outside of the assumptions built into system of natural law philosophy, Aristotelianism, and its derived fields.
Hormonal birth control gets a particularly bad rap in conservotrad circles, because it is perceived to make healthy organs act in a way that is contrary how they were meant to work (I also suspect that “the Pill” is also seen as a symbol of sexual excess and rebellion, but that’s for another post). But why then is artificial insulin not considered “unnatural”? After all, if God had meant for those diabetics to have normal lives, he would have made their bodies able to produce their own insulin, right? What about organ transplants or skin grafts? That’s about as “unnatural” as it comes. Until recently, it was “natural” for women to die in childbirth, and it still is “natural” in many parts of the developing world. Contraception is viewed in a way by conservotrads that they wouldn’t for any other aspect of medicine, a body of knowledge and practice that is quite “unnatural,” as it is has historically been “natural” for humans to fall ill and succumb to bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens.
To sum up, I would say that the words “natural” and “unnatural” are essentially meaningless, especially when they are used to make moral judgements. What is “natural” tends to be what one already approves of, whereas the “unnatural” is what ones dislikes. The problem with natural law theory is that it makes a pretense of being an “eternal law” that everyone, regardless of religious orientation, must follow, but the conclusions only make sense in the context of a particular reading of Catholicism, especially since the church is supposedly the only body with the ability and authority to properly interpret the natural law. Natural law theory is as artificial as every other philosophy and religion conceived by humans, from Anglicanism to Zenoism. Aristotle himself believed in grounding his philosophy with empirical evidence, and it would help if natural law adherents did the same, rather than act under the assumption that their philosophy has any roots in the sciences or the natural world.