Saturday, March 1, 2014

Confirmation Bias: The Bible on Gay Marriage

My favorite desert was the Sahara
When I was about 7 years old I loved deserts. I loved them so much that I wanted to make my own. I found a patch of dirt in the front yard, planted a cactus there, and called it my desert. I wanted to prove that it was a real desert. I knew deserts were hot, so I took a little key chain thermometer, put it in my desert, and left it there for a while in direct sunlight. The thermometer said 120 degrees (F), which would've been a new all-time record high for San Jose, California. I was so excited! I knew it felt more like 80 degrees, and I kinda knew that thermometers aren't supposed to be placed in direct sunlight, but it didn't matter. I had proof that my desert was a real desert!

As a child, I had already mastered confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to seek out and accept evidence that confirms what we already believe or want to believe, and reject evidence that contradicts those beliefs. It's so powerful that when participants in controlled experiments are given fabricated evidence (unknown to them that it's fake) specifically designed to disprove their beliefs, they interpret it as actually supporting their beliefs. Bible interpretation is rife with confirmation bias. One example is the debate over same-sex marriage.

Many opponents of gay marriage point to commandments like Leviticus 18:22 & 20:13, which say a man should not "lie" with a man as one would with a woman, as proof that homosexuality is wrong and thus gay marriage should be illegal. Some mention the fact that God created humans male and female and suggest that God defines marriage as between one man and one woman.

Bible-believing proponents of gay marriage have found convenient ways around biblical commandments, such as pointing out commandments against wearing clothes of different fabrics and planting fields with different seeds (both in Leviticus 19) or about eating certain foods like shellfish. Others find support for gay marriage in the words of Jesus. Some even suggest the close relationship between David and Jonathan was more than just friendship.

All of these are examples of overfitting and confirmation bias, which often reinforce each other. People have strong opinions about homosexuality and gay marriage for cultural reasons. That was true before the Bible was written. Currently, the best predictor of one's opinion about gay marriage is age. According to recent polls, 70% of Americans aged 18-29 support it, compared to only 41% who are 65 and older. Even the majority of Republicans aged 18-29 support gay marriage, a higher percentage than Democrats aged 65+. At least half of young evangelical Christians also support same-sex marriage, similar to older non-religious people.

As a strong supporter of gay marriage, I'll inevitably be accused of confirmation bias here, which I can't deny. Nevertheless, I'll try my best to avoid it while answering some common questions.

What does the Bible say about gay marriage?
Nothing. Gay marriage wasn't an issue when/where the Bible was written, so it wasn't directly addressed. 

What does the Bible say about homosexuality?
Specifically, nothing. The prohibitions in Leviticus are of a very specific act, one that should not be equated with homosexuality or even practicing homosexuality. Those prohibitions had a very practical purpose at the time (i.e., longevity in the new land), as stated in the same chapters. Whether they still apply is debatable, but it's a different debate. Other mentions of same-sex activity in the Bible involve rape or prostitution, which are similarly condemned for heterosexuals. Even if the Bible did teach that homosexuality is wrong, that has never been the standard for legislation. Idolatry and blasphemy, for example, are clearly wrong according to the Bible, but almost nobody sees the First Amendment as an attack on biblical morality. 

What about fabrics, seeds, and shellfish?
In my opinion, this is a bad and unnecessary argument for same-sex marriage. There's a major difference between these and the commandments given in Leviticus 18 & 20. Leviticus 18 was directed at both Israelites and foreigners (Lev. 18:26), but the next chapter (the one that prohibits different fabrics and seeds) was directed only at Israelites (Lev. 19:1), as were the dietary laws. This is an important distinction to Jews, who generally believe that non-Jews are only required to follow the 7 Laws of Noah, which include sexual immorality (Lev. 18) because it also applied to "foreigners", but not the ceremonial and dietary laws or those in Lev. 19. A similar belief was evident among early Christians (see Acts 15). 

Does the Bible define marriage exclusively as one man and one woman?
No. Biblical marriage often was between one man and multiple women. Among the many examples are Abraham, Jacob, David, and probably even Moses. Rather than condemning it, the Bible gives provisions for how to treat multiple wives (e.g., do not neglect your first wife after you get another one; Ex. 21:10). Ironically, some Bible-believers argue that gay marriage is a slippery slope that could lead to legalization of polygamy, perhaps forgetting that the Bible allowed it.

Gay marriage is a controversial political and cultural issue. As much as we'd like the Bible to settle all of our political and cultural debates, its authors had a different purpose. That doesn't mean the Bible is irrelevant or that everything is morally neutral unless there's a specific commandment against it. But we need to be very careful to allow the text to speak for itself rather than using it to confirm our own beliefs. The Bible doesn't give direct commandments about everything, but it does give one (also in Leviticus) that summarizes all of them: "love your neighbor has yourself." That one sometimes is forgotten by people on both sides of the gay marriage debate.


  1. Very interesting and thought provoking post Matt. It poses another potentially controversial topic. Does...or should...the Bible provide absolute morality or should societies have an option (secular or otherwise) to redefine morality as a function of changing times. How do you view the secular option...transforming what some might consider to be questions of morality into questions of civil rights?

    1. Thanks Josh! I don't think morality changes with time, but laws certainly can (and should) change to fit the circumstances. Keep in mind that this was a theocracy. Many of the laws that were instituted to maintain social order are not necessarily universal moral principles.

  2. Nobody fails to have "confirmation bias" in any of this--not me, not any others who argue these points. I'm glad, Matt, that you admitted yours. Thank you. There's a lot that can be covered here, but for starters...I'll ask two questions.
    1. When Jesus referred to marriage, to what sort was he referring?
    2. Where in the Bible (Old Testament or new) is marriage specifically homosexual?

    1. Thanks Roger! Interesting questions.

      1. I think he was referring to typical marriage between men and women, but his point was that we shouldn't separate what God joined together (i.e., divorce), not which forms of marriage the government should and shouldn't allow. I don't see any reason to infer anything about gay marriage from that, except maybe that it wasn't the typical form of marriage. It obviously wasn't the issue he was addressing. It would've been great if the Pharisees asked him about gay marriage, but it didn't seem to be a significant issue back then.

      2. Nowhere, as far as I know. But again, I don't see how that's relevant. There were forms of marriage back then that are illegal now (polygamy, underage wife, forced by law, etc.), and some that are legal now that weren't back then (e.g., with people from certain nations; Deut. 7:3). So I don't think the forms of marriage that existed (or were not allowed) back then should be the standard for what should be legal today. A lot of marriages back then were more like an arranged property transaction, and there were bride prices, different prices for virgins, requirements to marry a brother's widow, etc. I'm sure it typically (if not always) was between men and women, but it was very different from what marriage is today.

    2. Thanks, Matt. Yes, it was as a part of Jesus' discussion on divorce--which justifies divorce only after adultery. It's relevant, however, because whatever secular/governmental arguments one makes, any justification for homosexual "marriage" cannot be a Biblical one, since (w.r.t. the ordering above) (2) it is found nowhere in the Bible and (1) Jesus spoke *only* of marriage in the man-woman sense--and for Christians, His word trumps anything to the contrary in the Old Testament.

      And yes--that included "love your neighbor as yourself", which you rightly cited--one can and should love the sinner, despite the sins. That's the case whether the sin is homosexual behavior or any other. We can disapprove of what somebody does and still love them (as with my mom's smoking, my teenage friends' drug abuse, or with certain current friends' homosexual behavior). Just because I disapprove the *act* does not mean I hate the *person*--far from it. Violence against homosexuals is never justified, based on Jesus' love commandment (which again trumps everything to the contrary in the Old Testament).

      I do agree that Jesus wasn't discussing governmental recognition of any definition of "marriage". That's a separate issue than religious marriage (as it should be). However, I've argued elsewhere, from a strictly Constitutional perspective, that marriage of any kind is none of the federal government's business. There is a straightforward solution to legal recognition and Federal benefits that has nothing at all to do with marriage (what I call "primary beneficiary" designation).

    3. I agree with your first point, and wouldn't claim that the Bible provides justification for gay marriage -- just as I believe it doesn't provide justification for denying it.

      I don't see Jesus' word as trumping the OT because I don't believe he ever contradicted it. Pretty sure his "love commandment" was quoting Leviticus 19:18 (right after he quoted Deut. 6:5), unless you're referring to something else.

      Interesting points on your blog post. I like the idea of keeping the government out of social issues (among other things), and your solution seems reasonable.

  3. It seems to me this: (the so called gay community) you want "God" his word to conform to your thinking. And you not conforming to His truth we all have that at times. Please study it out for yourself DO NOT BELIEVE ANYONE BUT GOD. He does mention be homosexual and sexual perversion. Why don't you see it?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I'd love to respond but I don't understand the comment or the question.

  4. Though this article is almost 2 years old, I'd like to contribute. I have same sex attraction (once identified as bi, "gay", now celibate), and as a Christ-follower (for the last couple years), I can't support homosexual marriage. Shalom!

    1. Shalom! Though that isn't my view, I really appreciate your comment. I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who'd sacrifice something like that because of their moral beliefs. I can only imagine how difficult that must be for you, and how much faith it must require to remain celibate. Thanks very much for posting!