Thursday, September 29, 2016

Philosopher Swinburne Stimulates Same-Sex Strife

Richard Swinburne at MSU photo by Geoff W Sutton
Before becoming a psychologist, I took a number of courses in philosophy. As I recall, many of the professors seemed to enjoy saying edgy things to engage students in thinking clearly about one thing or another.

Swinburne and Sex

Strangely, Professor Swinburne caused quite a stir last week when he made comments about same-sex orientation (his term, homosexuality) and other matters of sexual ethics in a talk on the subject at the Midwestern conference of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP). I'm used to hearing Christians offer reasons why same-sex orientation is morally wrong, sinful, and so forth.

Here's the link to Swinburne's talk on YouTube

What would be surprising to me at such a venue is to hear a defense of same-sex orientation as a moral good or perhaps not an issue worthy of moral judgment. Nevertheless, Swinburne's comments stirred a pot that bubbled up to the head of the president of the SCP, Michael Rea who posted an apology on his Facebook page.

Rea's apology provoked further discussion, which went in many directions. I'll post a few quotes and encourage you to read more to get a sense of how professors of philosophy write about same-sex relationships and the freedom to express diverse views. In addition, there are hundreds of comments offering even more ingredients to the mix.

J. Edward Hackett's reaction
 to the Swinburne talk.

Yesterday, I gave Richard Swinburne, the famous Oxford Christian philosopher, a piece of my mind. As one of the keynotes of the Midwest Meeting of Society of Christian Philosophers, he referred to homosexuality as a “disability” and a “incurable condition.” While Swinburne did not think homosexuality was intrinsically wrong in the same way that adultery was wrong, he argued (if that’s the right verb under some principle of charity) that homosexuality was extrinsically wrong. Homosexuality was a disability in the lacking of the ability to have children, and God’s commands of abstaining from homosexuality might prevent others from fostering this incurable condition in others.
My response was mixture of abhorrence and overwhelming anger, and I tried as I might to encounter this idea calmly. 

I want to express my regret regarding the hurt caused by the recent Midwest meeting of the Society for Christian Philosophers. The views expressed in Professor Swinburne's keynote are not those of the SCP itself. Though our membership is broadly united by way of religious faith, the views of our members are otherwise diverse. As Preisdent of the SCP, I am committed to promoting the intellectual life of our philosophical community. Consequently (among other reasons), I am committed to the values of diversity and inclusion. As an organization, we have fallen short of those ideals before, and surely we will again. Nonetheless, I will strive for them going forward. If you have thoughts or feedback you would like to share with me, I would welcome hearing from you via email or private message.

Dreher refers to Swinburne's talk and the surrounding controversy. He includes additional quotes before referring to the "rot in academia." Dreher refers us to a book he recently read by Polish Catholic philosopher Ryszard Legutko. A particular quote caught my attention as worthy of consideration:
 "Legutko, who lived under Polish communism and under Poland’s transition to liberal democracy, writes about how contemporary liberal democracy has adopted the communist habit of denouncing dissenters from its dogmas. He says this is politically useful to the left."

In a lengthy post, Feser observes some "odd things about Rea's statement." I won't repeat all of them here. Suffice it to say, I found Hackett's response surprising given the context of the conference and the known views of Richard Swinburne. And I was surprised at Rea's "apology." At the time of this writing, Feser's blog has 72 comments-- I'll leave it to you to wade through his opinions and the many comments at your leisure.

My Thoughts

1. I support freedom of speech as long as it does not incite people to take harmful action. 

I believe this is Mill's view. I hardly think the mild mannered Swinburne is encouraging anyone to do harm to members of the LGBT community-- especially those who would attend a philosophy conference. 

2. I appreciate hearing views that differ from my own as they provide a basis to consider the merits of different arguments.

Frankly, I heard Swinburne speak on evil and suffering at Missouri State University on the 21st September. His arguments were not impressive but I'd like to see them in print to make sure I am clear why he failed to make a good case for his views. I'm applying what I've learned from neuropsychology— our memories are not perfect recording devices. I cannot apply my meager capacity for philosophical analysis without being able to carefully examine the arguments.

3. I didn't know I was on the progressive side of social thinking until I moved to the Midwestern United States. 

That's where I discovered I wasn't as conservative as many locals. Context matters. I learned to listen closely to intelligent Christians. Some denounced extreme right wing views of vocal clergy but most hid their views in obscure metaphors and theological obfuscations. That's too bad but I suspect that's how they avoid the pain of expressing liberal views in a conservative context.

4. Given my experience noted in number three, I remain surprised by the reaction to Swinburne's lecture.

 He articulates a conservative position quite clearly. It's the varied opinions among Christians that stimulated my own pursuit of differences on sexual morality, which I published in A House Divided earlier this year.

5. Some views were expressed with emotional-laden language.

I hardly think of philosophers as people with a passion. Stereotypes abound. It would have been more helpful if the philosophers disagreeing with Swinburne would articulate the bases for their disagreement.

Ironically, I gave a talk at the same conference on Saturday morning. My subject was moral psychology and philosophy and I used an example of same-sex marriage to illustrate moral foundation theory and the arguments conservative and progressive Christians employ. Here's the link to my paper.  Everyone was no polite. I actually wanted more engagement.

6. Another odd event happened that reveals the community context.

At the same time as the philosophy conference, another group of people attended a Faith and Science conference where the them was the Biology of Sin. I also gave a talk there titled, "What is Sin?" I presented some data on the views of Christian counselors about sin-- many, but not all, considered same-sex marriage as sinful. Considering other data, I commented that Christian counselors were often not in sync with most Americans. During the question and answer period, one participant asked a rhetorical question to the effect of, "Is that (being out of sync) bad?" (Link to my paper).

I suspect my questioner might be more concerned with the importance of holding fast to the traditional interpretations of Scripture on matters of sexual sin. Nevertheless, in view of the discussion at hand, I think it serves a greater good to hear conservative and progressive voices on this and other topics. 

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Monday, September 26, 2016

When evil follows - the moral licensing effect

The moral licensing effect is a well-documented phenomenon that deserves some consideration in cultures where we see evidence of ridicule, bigotry, and hate speech.

Recently, my friend, Martin Mittlestadt, recommended Gladwell's new podcast about revisionist history. I took his advice and found the first episode illustrated the phenomenon of the moral licensing effect.

It's about two women who were recognized as leaders--one in art and the other in politics. Once the women were recognized for their social status, the men around them acted as if they had done their moral duty and behaved horribly toward them. Gladwell reasonably wonderered what might happen to Hillary Clinton as the first serious candidate for president. I did too. More importantly, I wonder when the U S will be led by a woman.

You can read more about this effect in a helpful summary offered by Anna C. Merritt and her colleagues at Stanford University (2010). I've summarized a few points.

Moral Self-Licensing and Discrimination

At the individual level, people who establish themselves as morally good seem to feel they now have a license to behave badly. Experiments revealed evidence for this effect in decisions about hiring minorities.

Other studies reveal a tendency for people to seek out opportunities to act morally if they are expecting to take moral liberties.

The lesson: racism and sexism are trait-like phenomena. Statements and single acts do not establish a pattern. Such acts may be no more than building moral credentials as a precursor to granting a moral self-license to act immorally or even emphasize racism and sexism.

Morality of Generosity and Selfishness

Most of us are impressed when we hear stories of billionaires giving mega-donations to charity. Indeed, some gifts may be motivated by a sincere effort to do good.

Research studies have documented tendencies toward licensing less virtuous behavior following establishing credibility for such virtues as generosity, kindness, and compassion. Morally good actions appear to reduce inhibitions against future violations of virtue norms.

Interestingly, you don't even have to do good for the self-licensing effect to work. Just imagining doing good can inhibit virtuous behavior.

Morality and Consumption

Some people feel guilty when they indulge in an expensive purchase or a tasty high calorie treat. In both cases, engaging in morally good choices provides the moral self-license to permit oneself to indulge in "sinful" behavior.


I've been examining and conducting moral psychology research in recent years. My special focus has been morality in Christian cultures given the obvious concerns of leaders that Christians live morally and vote for candidates likely to promote a more moral society.

Of course, Christian cultures are often divided about what is moral. The loud voices of the Christian right often dominate news reports as they are often dramatically opposed to those who hold a moderate or leftist stance.

What's intriguing about moral licensing is that people seem to want to have their cake and eat it too. They feel as if a healthy dose of moral goodness offsets questionable behavior.

I suspect that moral license can be a particular temptation for those who have been moral leaders only to be tripped up by a moral failure that, in the eyes of followers, tends to undercut decades of overt "good conduct."

Think:  How much good does it take to overcome what type of moral failure?

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Monday, September 19, 2016

Porn and Christian Sex Education

“[I want] better education regarding sex for both boys and girls [and] information about pornography, and the way it influences harmful sexual practices.” (Liszewski, 2016).

The quote comes from a 15-year old girl who was part of an Australian study of women and girls published earlier this year. This week I saw several posts about the study on Facebook. Summaries of the study of 600 young Australians can be found at Collective Shout and

Most Christians I know are aware of the easy availability of porn. Stories about sexting occasionally make national news. Those of us who provided psychotherapy or are involved in the care of youth heard many stories of sexual abuse. The statistics are helpful to understand the scope of the problem in Australia. 

People in other countries can turn to their government bureaus for related statistics. But what’s helpful about this Australian study are the quotations from the girls, which provide insight into how boys and girls relate and how porn figures into the encounters.

You can't really begin to do anything until you understand the extent of the problem in your community. In the U.S. you can find some information as a part of the stopbullying campaign. This effort addresses cyberbullying and sexual harassment.

Christian Sex Education

The 15-year old girl’s request for sex education particularly caught my attention because of two recent publications dealing with the issues from a Christian perspective. In A House Divided I looked at various sexual issues, including sexual assault and sex education. 

In a separate book, Christian Morality, just out last month, April Montoya and Shonna Crawford wrote a chapter on Christian sex education (Chapter 10).

Ironically, April Montoya also led off their chapter with a quote from a 15-year old girl.

“I think I’m ready to start having sex with my boyfriend.”

At the time, April and her husband had been youth pastors. It was clear to April that the girl did not view sex in the same way she did. Most Christian that have lived more than a few decades know attitudes toward sex have become more permissive. But we may not know how things have changed among Christian youth. That’s why the Australian study is so helpful. And it’s also why an understanding of both sexuality and morality is important to those who want to make a change.

As Montoya and Crawford point out, the common Christian approaches to sex education are not working well. To be sure, there is a decline in the teen pregnancy rate but in the U.S., the rate is above that of most developed countries. In the U.S., most High School seniors have had sexual intercourse.

In my own chapter, I reported findings from a Southern Baptist sample indicating that 80% of those who married after age 25 had premarital sex­–obviously not following the conservative and traditional teaching of evangelicals. Of course, not all of this sex was a result of coercion. We may never know exactly how much of sex among youth is freely chosen versus coerced. But we do know most yough have sex.

From the Australian study and U S sites on cyberbullying we must now be sure to include information and guidance on sexual harassment in sex education programs.

What to do?

1. Learn more about sexual health and functioning.
 Get the facts straight before offering misinformation to youth or anyone else. It won’t do any good to communicate Christian moral values if they are communicated along with false information about sex.

2. All Christians need to confront the troublesome sexuality reported in the Bible.
Failing to deal honestly with Bible stories of rape, incest, adultery and so on can discredit any Christian’s attempt to communicate Christian sex education. The books I referenced include extensive bibliographies to help you understand what the Bible has to say about sex. and offer guidelines on Christian morality. A general approach to sex education can be found at the Mayo Clinic.

3. Encourage Christian schools to mandate sex education.
For those college students not taking courses on sexuality in Christian schools, work with local churches to routinely offer a course. If no expert lives in a small community, work with Christian colleges and universities to provide online coursework, onsite workshops, or better yet, teach someone in your community how to teach sex education from a Christian perspective.

4. Require coursework in sexuality of all Christian workers.
 Local Christian colleges and universities can offer classes on the topic. There are a variety of books teaching the details of sexuality and helping people to think morally about sexuality and other related issue of relationships. And by the way, all Christian organizations ought to provide employees with training in sexual harassment. In my experience, secular employment settings provided better and more regularly scheduled programs (e.g., annual) compared to those in Christian settings.

5. Learn more about the problems young people experience with sexual harassment.
You can start by reading the Australian study mentioned above. You can learn more by reading the chapters in the books I recommended. Other people in your church may have other recommendations. All sex education programs need to include a unit on sexual harassment relevant to the age group and applicable laws as well as support services.

5. Support Christian counseling services. When I provided psychotherapy (I’m retired now), I was pleased to see several churches helping families afford the cost of psychotherapy. On occasion I was invited to speak in churches on healthy relationships and even sex education. Often it was just a one-time talk–not much but better than nothing at all. 

Today, there are thousands of Christian counselors and psychotherapists who are knowledgeable about sexuality. You can find them through organizations like Christian Association for Psychological Studies, North American Association of Christians in Social Work, and the American Association of Christian Counselors.

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A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures

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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Censored Napalm Girl A Symbol of Hope and Forgiveness

Christian Morality

AP Photo by Nick Ut from the Kim Foundation

This week, Kim Phuc made headlines again as she did more than 40 years ago (June 8, 1972). Facebook censored the photo of the naked 9-year-old running from a napalm bomb (The Independent). The painful burns covered nearly two-thirds of her body.

The image that went round the world was credited as a factor toward ending America's involvement in the war (CNN).

But Kim battled pain, anger, and bitterness for years. At age 19, she converted to Christianity and began the transformation of becoming a new woman. She formed a foundation dedicated to healing the wounds of others. She now goes throughout the world to tell her story of love and forgiveness.

As a part of her journey, Kim visited the Vietnam War Memorial. She met Captain John Plummer, a pilot linked to the air strike on her village. Here, at the Memorial Wall, Kim expressed forgiveness to John which was a part of her reconciliation.

She has told her story at meetings, in a book, and on film. Her road to recovery illustrates many lessons that deserve to be retold.

The power of the original image added to her amazing story continues to provoke many discussions. Facebook's 2016 ban on the image adds to the lessons from Kim Phuc.

Morality and War

It is rather ironic that Kim's photo should be banned by Facebook because for many, the message of the photo captures the immorality of war, an act that destroys the lives of so many. Our history as humans suggests we will not soon stop killing other humans. We can hope that the long peace among major powers since World War II prevails. We need constant reminders of the damage done to people like Kim. Not everyone in a combat zone is the enemy. But we can make enemies when we hurt those who have no intention of hurting us.

But we must also be mindful of the terrible toll war takes from the soldiers who carry out the aggressive strategies of a nation's leaders. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is often a lifelong battle with the past that continually punctures the present. Not only do soldiers suffer pain and die by suicide but their families suffer as well. Warriors and their loved ones pay a steep price for the decisions of leaders about a nation's interests.

Morality and Nudity

Of course, the reason for the 2016 story is the banning of  Kim's photo from Facebook based on nudity. Facebook was slammed for their policy. But should we not care about what images are posted online? How does context work to change a photo of a nude child into an internationally recognized moral message? In her story, Kim relates that she was initially embarrassed by the photo. Who wouldn't be?

Few people are overly concerned about nudity in art. But conservative Christians and people in other religions are concerned about nudity. They preach modesty in dress and set limits on acceptable art in their schools and organizations. Normally a picture of a naked girl would be prohibited. We want to protect our young from exploitation. Our awareness of sex trafficking has been heightened by news reports. In the case of Kim's photo, the moral judgment has somehow shifted from what's in the picture to the story behind the picture.

Morality, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation

In my view, morality is about right relationships. For Christians, morality begins with a right relationship with God and extends toward others.

Harmful acts break relationships --sin in religious language. Forgiveness is the quintessential Christian way of repairing the damage from the pain of the past. As in Kim's life, forgiveness takes time. And as in Kim's case, forgiveness works to promote healing and concomitantly reduce anger.

Reconciliation is a different process. Kim was able to make that journey as well. Forgiveness frees us from the past and can serve as a catalyst for reconciliation but it's not always safe to reconcile with those intent on continuing abuse.

Kim was able to grant forgiveness and participate in reconciliation. But remember the soldiers with PTSD. Forgiveness and reconciliation interventions if often part of their healing as well. Forgiveness and reconciliation won't cure PTSD but it may help soldiers deal with anger and guilt.

In addition to the conflicts around the world, Christians and others are divided over social-moral issues, which has been part of my focus in the past few years in writing A House Divided and editing Christian Morality. Clearly, forgiveness and reconciliation are ways to bring divided people together and promote peace.

There are more lessons to learn from Kim's journey. I'm grateful that the news events of the week brought her story back.

Heads up: My post ends here and ads for my books follow.

A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures.

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