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What is ‘natural’ is an area open to science  

16 September 2016

Modern developments in the study of sexual orientation can’t be shut out of the moral debate, argues Chris Cook

“WE CONCLUDE that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine, by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.”

Thus, in 1615, Galileo defended his view of the solar system against critics who argued that it was contrary to scripture to suggest that the earth revolved around the sun. When Christians in the 21st century address matters of human sexuality, they, too, are faced with questions about the interpretation of scientific evidence.

There is now an impressive consensus among most professional organisations about many issues connected with homosexuality. The major manuals, such as the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases, no longer include homosexuality as a disease.

It is now widely thought to be unethical and potentially harmful to offer treatments to change sexual orientation. Higher rates of mental disorder found in gay and lesbian people are generally attributed to adverse social attitudes, stigma, bullying, and prejudice, not sexual orientation.

A 2015 Memorandum of Understanding on Conversion Therapy in the UK was agreed by 16 professional organisations, including NHS England and NHS Scotland. It might be going too far to refer to the “certainties” of the medical or human sciences concerning sexuality, but, equally, we can go too far in asserting the uncertainties.

This raises acute questions for those who take the Bible to imply a particular understanding of the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality. For example, if one imagines that Romans 1 (in asserting that homoerotic behaviour is a giving up of what is “natural” for what is “unnatural”) is providing a scientifically verifiable account of what is natural, a number of scientific findings will seem problematic. The Bible and science will appear to be directly in conflict.

And yet, just as those who understood the statement in Psalm 93.1 that the earth “shall never be moved” learned to reinterpret scripture in the light of scientific findings, so we need to be open to the possibility of reading scripture differently in relation to sexuality.


UNFORTUNATELY, we do not have telescopes for sexuality, and cannot assert psychological, social, or even biological certainties about sexuality in the way in which Galileo could assert physical certainties about the sun and the planets. This behoves us all the more to suspend theological judgement while we consider carefully, critically, and dispassionately the complex scientific evidence before us.

If (as seems likely) sexual orientation is largely determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, as are personality, intelligence, and many other human characteristics, all of which show a wide spectrum of diversity, then our understanding of what is “natural” should reflect this.

If evidence shows that the harms associated with homosexuality are more likely to be a result of prejudice, stigma, and social exclusion than of sexual orientation, we should adjust our view of what is harmful.

Similarly, if sexual-orientation change therapies are now understood as largely ineffective, and sometimes harmful, notwithstanding exceptional cases where there has been change or benefit, we should be wary of asserting that people should seek such therapy. Science provides us with an important — albeit not infallible — insight into what is natural, harmful, and realistic.

Science, however, has only the first word, and not the last. We refer to what is “natural” in a variety of different senses. Much of what is natural we work actively against, as in the case of infectious diseases, genetic disorders, or human violence. Propensities to violence or greed, or sexual promiscuity (whether homosexual or heterosexual), may in one sense be “natural”, but they are “unnatural” in the order of God’s Kingdom.

Things in this world — especially human behaviours — are not always how God intended them to be, and we easily deceive ourselves concerning what God actually intends.

We therefore need much wisdom to know how sexuality should now be understood in the light of scientific and theological evidence. Arguably, Romans 1 today looks a little bit like Psalm 93 in the wake of scientific progress. What St Paul was describing in his world as natural may not be what we consider to be natural, even assuming that we are talking about the same thing.


WE DO not have to accept the judgements of St Paul’s world in preference to those of modern science. Even if we do (which might well seem incomprehensible to an unbelieving world), we have to evaluate other passages of scripture alongside the “proof texts” that have been so popular in this debate.

Jesus had much to say about those who were marginalised and excluded from society. Science now seems to affirm that stigma, marginalisation, and exclusion are indeed harmful to human well-being, and may especially have been so for gay and lesbian people.

It is not clear why we should not be able to agree to differ on these issues. If we wish, however, to interpret scripture aright, and discern what is natural in God’s order, we need to be able to debate the scientific findings critically, respectfully, and without prejudice to what we thought scripture was saying. If we are able to do so, our understanding of scripture may well be enhanced.


The Revd Dr Christopher C. H. Cook is Professor of Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Durham University, and an Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at Tees, Esk & Wear Valleys NHS Foundation Trust. He is a co-editor of Spirituality and Narrative in Psychiatric Practice (RCPsych Publications, 2016).

A conference, Science and Theology in Human Sexuality, is being held next Monday and Tuesday at St John’s College, Durham (www.dur.ac.uk/conference.booking/details/?id=641).

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