Twenty years ago Australia had a Year of Tolerance, courtesy of a quasi-governmental educational body. Among the materials sent to schools were glossy leaflets promoting a homosexual lifestyle. As a principal at the time I returned them with a note explaining that the parents in my school would not accept promotion of homosexuality to their children and so I would not be using them.
Crime reporter Harry Potter heard of this and rang me: “The public have a right to know that this material is being peddled.” The next night Channel 10 news featured a young mum reporter covering the story of my rejection of the gay literature very sympathetically. There was overwhelmingly positive feedback to our school community’s stance.
Times have changed. The Victorian government has now mandated that every child in every government school in Victoria will be taught that homosexual behaviour is as normal as heterosexual behaviour. To state otherwise is to be branded as homophobic; the front page banner in the Australian recently denounced an Islamic cleric as “anti-gay” for preaching that homosexual behaviour can spread AIDS. Agitation for same-sex marriage is fierce.
Given this current climate Shimon Cowen’s new book, Homosexuality, Marriage and Society, is both timely and courageous. I think it is not possible to read this book closely, consider the evidence it presents and not feel great indignation at politicians, whose job is to make decisions for the common good but who have sold out to an aggressive and highly organised lobby.
A rabbi and son of a former Governor General of Australia, Cowen is the founder and director of the Institute for Judaism and Civilization. His interest is in the core universal values at the root of the great faiths and traditions, which he has explored in two previous books.
In his current work, and using language of the Abrahamic faith tradition, he contrasts a “universal ethics” with the “hedonist ethic” that elevates impulse over conscience, and self over the other. He invites us to choose between these worldviews. “Without conscience,” he writes, “the mind is the trustee of mere desire.”
A rational psychology
A rational psychology underpins his anthropology. Cowen defends the capacity of human beings to distinguish right from wrong, to live for others, and to persist in the pursuit of difficult goals contrary to their impulses and fears. His view is very similar to that of Pope Benedict XVI, who argued that our sexual behaviours can make or break us: “What we do in our bodies must affect us profoundly as persons.”
Tapping into the best of contemporary psychology, Cowen exposes the half-truths, misrepresentations and lies of the same sex campaign. He notes how same-sex attraction was de-pathologised when, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association issued, without acknowledging the diverse causes of homosexuality, the ideological value judgment that homosexuality is a normal variant of human sexuality. This view persists; the same-sex lobby argues that if homosexuality has no endogenous (internally caused) features of illness and if it is “normal” (genetic) in origin, then any mental illness associated with homosexuality must be exogenously (externally) caused by stigma and victimisation.
In contrast, Cowen cites three distinct strands of homosexuality: somatic, psychologically induced, and cultural/existential. Many experts would agree that, even if in some cases there might be a physiological predisposition towards homosexuality (a “gay gene”), that predisposition is not predetermining.
Of course, homosexuality can be induced: I think of the Fa’afafine of Samoa who, by virtue of being youngest sons, are encouraged to adopt effeminate behaviour; many go on to become active homosexuals. I think too of young persons I have known who told me how their habit of viewing homosexual pornography took them past the tipping point to a new identity. The Nurture Assumption, The Lucifer Effect, aphorisms such as “we become like the company we keep” and “a teacher cannot rise above his staffroom” — all point to the power of peer culture, the field of battle for so many parents today.
The evidence from neuro-moral psychology, the field of my current studies, is that in normal people, impulsive behaviours can be conditioned for better or for worse. The neuronal plasticity underpinning our affective and emotional responses, and the capacities we all have to build up regulatory cognitive responses, indicate that sexual reorientation therapies can work. Cowen’s presentation of clinical and statistical data shows that to a significant extent they do work. The “nothing you can do about it” view is deceptive. After he had normalised his life, Oscar Wilde, once the most celebrated of homosexuals, wrote of his former life: “I was no longer the captain of my soul and I did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me.”
Politicians and clinicians who assert that homosexuals cannot change are incorrect and scientifically uninformed; by allowing prejudice to obscure their judgment they tragically betray those who would change if given hope and opportunity. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest,” wrote Paul Simon and Demosthenes in very different times. Confirmation bias is alive and well in every age.
And yet, “Life can be pulled by goals just as surely as it can be pushed by drives,” wrote the great psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl. Similarly, Cowen exposes the Freudian lie that human beings are no more than their impulses. He offers instead a psychology whereby our choices and conscience can guide us out of the selfishness and even despair of merely impulsive behaviour. Behaviours change and new habits develop only when we set goals for ourselves and new, repeated behaviours consolidate into preferred response patterns. Change takes effort; a life lived on impulse is a cop out.
Robbing marriage and family of transcendence
Cowen dissects the great differences between traditional marriage and homosexual relationships. He explains that to call the latter marriage is to separate the notion of family and marriage from any transcendent meaning, to deprive children of their “fundamental identity” and to condemn them to an upbringing that is demonstrably less stable. The data show that relationships founded first of all on an underpinning ethic of feelings and impulse satisfaction (either de facto or same-sex) are dramatically less stable than commitments of choice. He demonstrates that high de facto and extramarital birth rates and legalisation of same sex marriage go together. He offers data on the high breakdown rate of both approaches, and reflects on the great disservice to children raised in such settings.
Why do we accept politicians to represent us when they fail our children so badly?
Cowen’s analysis of the Safe Schools controversy exposes, in what had been presented as an anti-bullying campaign, the surreptitious intention to legitimise and promote same sex behaviour. Having exposed the intention, he highlights the arrogance of those who think they have the right to impart a morality at odds with parents.
He demonstrates that the removal of same sex attraction from the official list of psychological disorders in the 1970s came as a result of non-empirical, ideological value judgments and ethically compromised research. Unfortunately this popular view has had widespread legislative and judicial effects. He writes of the “false conflation of ethics with science and culture”, citing the JONAH case of 2015 in which a U.S. court refused out of hand to hear up to date clinical evidence.
Hope and change
Cowen examines the bogus science underpinning the view, still held by the Victorian government in its 2016 creation of a Victorian Health Commissioner, that homosexual behaviours are set in concrete in every case. He presents decisive evidence that, if underpinned by a worldview open to the spiritual, reparative therapies are in fact extraordinarily effective. “The homosexual is the most poignant victim of the same-sex ideology,” he writes. Children who are directed into believing they are unchangeably gay, and gay adults who are denied hope of change, even if they wish — arguably these are the most at risk.
We are on the cusp of creating a society that convinces itself that there is no difference between impulse and conscience, where subjectivity is above science, where politicians no longer serve the family but place themselves above this natural institution, and where legislation and legal precedent determine ethics. The imposition of this world view that is essentially hostile to traditional religion and values cannot enable human beings to flourish.
Frankl writes that tolerance must be “about love and respect for people, not for their views and behaviour.” Yes, we can respect individuals but fundamentally disagree with them, and explain courteously the reasons, without their taking offence. This issue has far greater consequences than miffed feelings.
Rabbi Cowen has given us a book that is rigorous in its argument, and broad in the scope of its research. Would that this book were required reading for every Victorian politician and for any lawmaker thinking of messing with marriage. My only complaint is that this excellent book would be well served by a comprehensive index so we might better mine the insights and evidence it offers.
Andrew Mullins is Adjunct Professor at the University of Notre Dame Australia.