Richard Swinburne recently gave a talk at the Midwestern Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers in which he made controversial remarks about homosexuals. The talk stirred some debate on PhilPercs here and here. It prompted a public apology from Michael Rea, President of the Society. From what has been said about Swinburne’s talk, it sounds very much like his discussion of homosexuality in Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy (2nd Ed., OUP, 2007). I have not been able to find a transcript of Swinburne’s talk at the SCP; so let’s focus on his Revelation book.
In Revelation (pp. 303-6, and 361-3), Swinburne argues that: (1) Homosexuality is a disability. (2) While not all types of disability are disease, homosexuality is a disease. (3) Just as we ought to eliminate the conditions which enable diseases to flourish, so we ought to eliminate the conditions which enable homosexuality to flourish. Thus we ought to make it socially unacceptable to be homosexual. (4) Just as we ought to cure diseases, so we ought to cure homosexuality. Specifically, Swinburne endorses reparative therapy (also called conversion therapy) for homosexuals. Swinburne’s reasoning has been sharply criticized by M. Pleitz in his essay “Homophobia and the limits of scientific philosophy”, in Richard Swinburne: Christian Philosophy in a Modern World (eds. N. Mossner, S. Schmoranzer, Frankfurt: Ontos Verlag, 2008.)
It should be clear to all that there are many positions which Christians can take on issues associated with homosexuality. Christians are neither compelled by the Bible nor by tradition to take only one position. On the one hand, there are Christian individuals and denominations which accept homosexuality. Several liberal or mainline Protestant denominations welcome homosexual members, include homosexual clergy, and perform same-sex marriages. On the other hand, there are Christian individuals and denominations which oppose homosexuality. These include Catholicism and many conservative or evangelical Protestant denominations. So Swinburne was compelled neither by the Bible nor by tradition to oppose homosexuality. He was led to it by his own character. Along with many other Christians, he could have chosen to develop a Christian acceptance of homosexuality.
There’s a third option: if you’re a Christian philosopher, you can get up and walk out. You can leave Christianity. You can still be a philosopher of religion; you just won’t be a philosopher of Christianity. The migration out of Christianity is accelerating in the US. The Public Religion Research Institute just published a survey titled “Exodus: Why Americans are Leaving Religion – and Why They’re Unlikely to Come Back” (September, 2016). Of those surveyed, sixty percent left their religion because they “stopped believing in the religion’s teachings”; and twenty-nine percent left their religion because of “negative religious teachings about the treatment of gay and lesbian people”.
As one who believes deeply in the theology of love, I made my choice: I left Christianity. Perhaps ironically, it was the only way I could stay true to Christ. For those who choose to remain in Christianity, and who choose to work for love, I applaud your work. You are the light in the midst of great darkness. But I’m not going back. People like Swinburne are one of the main reasons why. If that’s his religion, he can have it. Should he be silenced? Let him keep talking. The more he talks, the more people leave his religion. Love will find a way forward. It will produce new religions which cultivate the goodness intrinsic to all human animals.