Beyond Belief: Pt. 1

BELIEF OR FACT?

by Kevin Smith

We men believe many different, and conflicting, things about sexual orientation. Some men believe that to be oriented towards anything other than women represents dysfunction, unhealth, or sin. Others believe there are all kinds of healthy, natural and God-given orientations which include same-sex and bi-sexual orientations.

And while there are some facts on the matter, there are relatively few. We have many more beliefs than we have facts, regardless of which side of the argument you are on. Sexuality is extraordinarily complex and difficult to categorize factually, because science, and the experimental model we currently use, depends on repeatable results, and each person’s sexuality is unique. While we have a little bit of data, what we have is mostly belief, belief which comes from our own personal experience, the way we view the world, and the way we try to make sense of things.

Even on critical questions like whether people are born with a specific sexual orientation, acquire orientation, choose orientation, or a combination, we have more beliefs than facts. Under such conditions, we are subject to a phenomenon called confirmation bias. Humans don’t consider all available facts before forming an opinion; we actually do just the opposite. When we have a strong belief, then we simply keep looking for the particular facts which confirm our already-existing beliefs. We favor one type of “fact” and ignore all others.

You can see a great example of confirmation bias in the way people do Biblical interpretation. Each person can find verses that confirm something they want to prove as “God’s will,” and anyone who knows the Bible well at all knows there are equal numbers of other verses that we now disregard for a variety of reasons. Each of us would have a different list of which verses should be interpreted literally, and which have to be “understood in a different cultural context.” That’s confirmation bias.

Now, it’s fine for us to believe different things. You can believe anything you want, and nothing you believe will harm me, as long your belief stays inside your head. You can believe you’re the Easter Bunny, privately, without it affecting my life at all. However, when beliefs find their way into behaviors, then we have the potential to impact each other, sometimes in harmful ways.

If Adolf Hitler had kept his beliefs (that Jews were inferior and unworthy) to himself, without ever expressing those beliefs, it is unlikely that the millions would have died. Even if he had spoken those beliefs aloud with the intent of convincing others to believe the same thing, that, by itself, is still unlikely to have killed. At some point the belief, which was, after all, just a belief, a wild, unsubstantiated belief, manifested in behavior. No one would be able to pinpoint that exact moment; but at some place in time, at that point where belief inspired behavior, it began to kill people. And it killed millions.

I have recently come into conversations with men from a variety of organizations which aim to help men deal with what they call “unwanted same-sex attraction.” I have deeply conflicted feelings, and concern, about such groups. However, the individual men I have been in conversation with have shown themselves to be respectful, caring, articulate, and, as far as I can tell, quite sincere. I have experienced them as making an effort to be loving and gracious in conversation. While my feelings on some matters may differ from some of theirs, I carry my practice for all men, so I consider these men no less my brothers, and in fact I feel fondness and care for them. I approach them, and this conversation, with respect and reverence, and a prayer for grace. It is difficult for us to talk with each other about this. I don’t want to make it more so.

I hold some of these men physically in my practice. Some of the men I hold are trying to see if they can feel more comfortable as gay men, while others are trying to work themselves away from feeling sexual attraction towards men. Some of the men I hold are just plain confused and don’t know exactly, yet, what to think. All of these men are my brothers, and my commitment is the same to all of them. If my practice is a practice of acceptance and non-judgment, then how can I exclude those with different beliefs from mine? I can’t.

I acknowledge that each man is free to work out his sexuality in his own way, and thus there is a place for men who voluntarily want to move away from what they call “unwanted feelings” towards men. While I personally feel there are important things to consider as to why these feelings might be “unwanted” (such as internalized homophobia) I acknowledge the right of each man to proceed with these questions in a different way. But I have one limit.

I cannot support any group which expresses, implies or tolerates the view that there’s something wrong with men who are attracted to men, and I hold some of these groups partially responsible for the thousands of teenage suicides each year by young gay men who got the message that it was “not ok” for them to feel what they feel.

“Unwant” your own feelings, if you choose, but don’t interfere with others trying to get comfortable in the bodies (and the orientations) they find themselves in. By your deeds and your words (statements are behaviors, not beliefs) you can either help gay and lesbian kids find acceptance, nurture and support in this world, or you can encourage them to jump off of bridges. Believe what you want, but be careful about what leaves your lips and what you model, because gay and lesbian children are watching and listening; they may believe what you tell them, and it may be a matter of life or death for some of them. I cannot condone violence towards young people, and some of these groups I consider to be nothing more than hate speech in disguise.

However: a few of these groups are careful to include, in their mission statements, language that includes and affirms all men, that takes a “no homophobia” stance for the organization, and that makes clear a standard for behavior, including statements, so that gay and lesbian people are affirmed and respected along with all other people. I still feel mildly uncomfortable with such groups, because every reputable medical, psychological and social work association has asserted that sexual orientation cannot be changed, and that attempts to do so could be harmful to individuals. However, I respect the right of all men to work out their own complicated sexuality with integrity, care, and respect for others.

And now to the heart of the matter: I sometimes have to do Touch Practice workshops in groups of men where a happily gay man might be standing next to someone who believes being gay is a sin. And on the other side of him might be a person who is genuinely confused and doesn’t know what to believe.

How do we manage to all be in the same room and do the work together? How do men with opposing beliefs find a way to hold each other?…

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