This weekend I attended the Midwest meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers at Evangel University. The theme of the conference was “Christian Philosophy and Public Engagement.” The keynote speakers included Alexander Pruss (Baylor University), Leigh Vicens (Augustana University) and the eminent Richard Swinburne (Oxford University). Each of the keynoters gave thoughtful and stimulating presentations.

Unfortunately Swinburne’s talk sparked controversy, though it really shouldn’t have. In his presentation, entitled “Christian Moral Teaching on Sex, Family and Life” he addressed, among many other moral issues, homosexuality. img_2160  He noted that the inability of homosexual couples to procreate constitutes a “disability” and referred to those gays and lesbians who are unable to develop heterosexual desires as “incurable.” During the Q&A that followed, an attendee named J. Edward Hackett badgered Swinburne with a Foucauldian rebuke, insisting that Swinburne’s constituted “metaphysical violence.” Hackett never addressed his actual arguments but simply made this indignant accusation, to which Swinburne responded with admirable patience and grace.

The next day Hackett posted about it on the Philosophical Percolations blog. Hackett’s piece is a semi-coherent rant that misconstrues Swinburne’s actual remarks, though he is correct in noting that Swinburne believes—in agreement with Christian scholars throughout church history—that homosexual behavior is morally wrong. This was followed just hours later with disclaimers by both the SCP president Michael Rea and img_2162executive director Christina Van Dyke, distancing the SCP from Swinburne’s remarks. Rea’s statement, posted on his Facebook page, is as follows:

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 President 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.

Not surprisingly, this prompted a lengthy discussion with opinions expressing both support and criticism of Rea’s disclaimer. Personally, I side with those who are critical of Rea’s approach, and for several reasons.

First, while Rea would likely insist (as some supporting him do) that such a disclaimer does not necessarily constitute a rejection of Swinburne’s view, such seems to be implied. Disclaimers like this are only issued when an organization regards someone’s views as embarrassing or problematic and thus effectively amounts to a censure. For an academic society to do this to an invited speaker is really bad form, but it is especially inappropriate when the speaker is someone of the stature of Richard Swinburne, who is one of the top philosophers of religion in the world and whose work for the Society of Christian Philosophers for more than three decades has been immense. If I were Swinburne, I would feel humiliated by this. Talk about “hurt” that is worthy of “regret.”

Second, this disclaimer sets a dangerous precedent and chills the academic air for anyone in the SCP who holds the traditional view on the ethics of homosexuality. Will I be the next one to be called out by an SCP officer if I express the same view at a future conference? While surely not intended to censor the advocacy of the traditional view of Christian sexuality at SCP meetings, from a psychological standpoint Rea’s remarks could be tantamount to this. Some Christian scholars active in the SCP, especially those who are early in their careers, may be intimidated into silence about their traditional views on sexual ethics. This is hardly an atmosphere that is desirable for an academic community where the free and open sharing of ideas is crucial.

Third, it is disturbingly ironic that Rea’s disclaimer distances the SCP from what is an historic Christian conviction regarding the morality of homosexual behavior. Would he have posted a similar disclaimer if a keynote speaker had defended a permissivist view on homosexuality? I doubt it. But now that the traditional view is under fire in our culture, he deems it necessary to disclaim a speaker’s assertion of the view—a stance which, by the way, was not as strong as some assertions in biblical passages such as Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, and 1 Timothy 1:9-10 (not to mention the language used in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13). One wonders if Rea would have posted a similar disclaimer if St. Paul himself delivered a keynote address at the SCP. After all, if the apostle simply read the relevant passages from his epistles, his remarks would be no less “hurtful” than Swinburne’s.

I don’t know where this controversy will lead or how this will impact the SCP. But one thing is certain: it is indicative of a dramatic and alarming shift regarding discussions of sexual ethics within the Christian academic community.

16 Responses to “Swinburne, Homosexuality, and the Society of Christian Philosophers”

  1. John B. Crane


    Dr. Spiegel,

    It has been a LONG time since I have talked to you, and you may not even remember me, but I am John Crane and graduated from Taylor in 1995. Since then, I have watched and admired your work from a distance. And since my time at Taylor I eventually went on to found a student leadership development program called the Sagamore Leadership Initiative, which is dedicated to helping next generation leaders learning what it means to be courageous principled leaders in today’s challenging culture. The need for courageous leadership has never been greater. (And now, I am on the verge after November 8th of becoming one of the newest State Senators in our IN legislature where courageous leadership is also needed.)

    All of this to say, I very much appreciated not only your articulation of the implications of this situation, but more importantly, your own willingness to take this important stand. Your analysis was spot on, and if folks in the SCP (let alone the larger Christian higher education community) don’t demonstrate a corresponding semblance of courage to speak truth, we will all suffer the consequences of an increasingly totalitarian society. And particularly in the academic arena, our next generation(s) of young people will fail to get the kind of biblically-grounded education that makes for a truly free society.

    Keep up the great work! If I can ever be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to let me know. I can be reached by email at or by phone at 317.450.0866. Thanks again for your example!

    • Jim Spiegel


      Hello John! I certainly do remember you. Congratulations on the Senate run which does bode well for your election six weeks from now. Very exciting. Also, thank you for your kind words regarding my work. Godspeed, brother!

  2. Ryan


    The only questionable premise in Richard Swinburne’s basic argument against homosexuality is the first premise (1), which states that ‘homosexuality is a preventable disability’. Let me spell out a brief defense. There are two parts to this premise: first, (a) that homosexuality is preventable; and second, (a) that homosexuality is a disability.

    (a) A condition, whether physiological or psychological, is preventable if it is not necessary and inalterable but contingent and alterable. Homosexuality is clearly contingent and alterable because there is no essential necessity. There is no essential necessity because homosexuality is not essential to the quasi-genus of sexual difference and or the teleology of sexual reproduction but an accidental defect that inhibits any teleological reproduction that reunites the quasi-generic sexual difference of man and woman. Since homosexuality is, therefore, contingent and alterable, it must be preventable.

    (b) A condition is, likewise, a disability if it negates an ability. Homosexuality negates the ability to reproduce by inhibiting sexual attraction to the opposite sex that motivates sexual reproduction. Since sexual reproduction is a natural ability, and even one that is necessary for society and for the species, the negation of this ability must, therefore, be considered a disability.

    This should be imminently agreeable from an Aristotelian or Thomistic standpoint. The main challenge concerns the Aristotelian essence-accident distinction and the teleology of sexual reproduction described in part (a): for if there is no distinction between essential necessity and accidental contingency, and there is no teleology for sexual reproduction, then homosexuality cannot be considered an accidental defect of an essential teleological end that can and should be prevented to ensure the fulfillment of this purpose. I would, however, challenge anyone who raises this objection to offer a non-essentialist and non-teleological account of sexuality and sexual ethics that could preserve the meaning of any of these terms. In any case, I expect that any such deliberations might fall on deaf ears so long as all parties refuse to discuss the nature of sexuality and sexual ethics.

    • Mark


      “Homosexuality negates the ability to reproduce by inhibiting sexual attraction to the opposite sex that motivates sexual reproduction.”

      Hardly does it strictly negate the ability. I hate to break it to you, but many a homosexual throughout history has procreated — as one would expect: a homosexual’s sperm is just as capable as a heterosexual’s of fertilizing an egg.

    • Ross Buck


      This is a good argument and I think it would work against vows of chastity and celibacy very well.

      Replace homosexuality with celibacy or vows of chastity.

      “(a) A condition, whether physiological or psychological, is preventable if it is not necessary and inalterable but contingent and alterable. Homosexuality is clearly contingent and alterable because there is no essential necessity.”

      “(b) A condition is, likewise, a disability if it negates an ability. Homosexuality negates the ability to reproduce by inhibiting sexual attraction to the opposite sex that motivates sexual reproduction. Since sexual reproduction is a natural ability, and even one that is necessary for society and for the species, the negation of this ability must, therefore, be considered a disability.”

      The nice thing about vows of chastity and celibacy is that these disabilities are more easily cured than homosexuality.

    • Ross Buck


      I would like to address your the notion about human sexuality in terms of the essential teleological end for sexual reproduction. (I leave out the reality today of artificial insemination). I will point out that the teleological end for sexual reproduction is not the only essential teleological end for human sexuality.

      (1) Human sexuality has a teleological end for sexual reproduction; and
      (2) That human sexuality has other essential teleological ends (bonding, physical benefits, etc).

      To say that (1) is the only teleological end for human sexuality is to reduce human sexuality, in all its richness, to an animal function that denies the full human being. We aren’t just animal procreators but human beings whose social relations and expressions are an essential teleological end.

  3. Steve Hoffmann


    I posted this link on FB, but blogger Rod Dreher takes this up today:

    The most important of Dreher’s points to me are (1) that many conservative Christians do not understand the times and (2) that the contemporary liberalism has a lot in common with Marxism.

    With regard to the first point, it is clear that division over sexual ethics will rend evangelicalism. I resist drawing the theological boundaries as narrowly as too many evangelical leaders, readily acknowledge that we have learned things about homosexuality that rightfully challenge some traditional assumptions about people with same-sex attraction and accept the necessity of accommodating differences over sexuality in our society, polity and (in a more limited way) even churches. However, there is no question that the gay rights movement is driven by a set of assumptions in fundamental conflict with orthodox Christianity, and that its proponents seek to marginalize or destroy any individuals or institutions refusing to share those assumptions. I think liberal evangelicals like Rachel Held Smith and David Gushee who celebrate gay rights are on a course toward theological liberalism that follows the trail blazed by Brian McLaren. But it is also disturbing that many theological conservatives believe that silence or accommodation can buy a modus vivendi.

    With regard to the second point, it is clear that the identity politics that drives contemporary liberalism promotes a culture that resembles, functionally if not substantively, the ideological indoctrination found in communist political systems. One does not have to label Trump a “Nazi” or Sanders a “Communist” to recognize that these extreme ideologies were rooted in appeals that resonate with populists of the right or left in America (or Europe).
    Identity politics undermines the “mediating institutions” that Tocqueville saw as crucial to American Democracy. Vibrant and autonomous voluntary organizations, including religious institutions, are crucial to moderating the power of government as well as the corrosive effects of individualism.

  4. Rob Hughes


    Did Richard Swinburne’s presentation address the serious criticisms of his published views that Martin Pleitz’s 2008 paper raised?

    Perhaps Pletiz’s most important point is that cures, treatments, and preventative measures are sometimes worse than the conditions they are intended to address. Swinburne proposes to prevent or to “cure” homosexuality using methods that are likely to cause suffering to gay people and to children who are predisposed to homosexuality. These methods include increasing the social stigma associated with homosexuality. Suppose we grant Swinburne’s claim that homosexuality is a disability, the inability “to enter into a loving relationship in which the love is as such procreative,” and that treating or preventing this disability would be desirable. (I reject this claim, as does Pleitz, but grant it for the sake of argument.) Suppose we also grant Swinburne’s dubious empirical claim that efforts to “cure” or to prevent homosexuality by these methods can be effective. Why should we believe that the disability in question is serious enough to merit the suffering associated with these methods?

    I am also curious what, if anything, Swinburne has to say in response to the extensive empirical evidence that future sexual orientation is determined before school age. Does he have good evidence that it is possible to prevent homosexuality through interventions in childhood? Does he have good evidence that it is possible for gay adults to develop a heterosexual or bisexual orientation by choice or in response to social pressure? (It will not do to provide evidence that gay people can choose to be celibate or that gay people can choose to have sexual relationships with people to whom they feel no attraction.) The history of “reparative therapy” is a history of painful and sadistic failure.

    If Swinburne had answers to these two lines of critical questioning, I would like to know what they are. If he does not, his argument is plainly a failure, and no philosophers (Christian or otherwise) should take it seriously.

  5. Jack


    I wonder if you have read the recent metastudy in the New Atlantis? Some of your claims about empirical evidence are open to question.

    Swinburne most centrally believes that homosexual acts are immoral. I’m not sure why what you write would disprove this or even show it better to partake in these acts.

  6. Rob Hughes


    Swinburne does not merely assert that homosexual acts are immoral. To his credit, he gives an argument for that view. To his discredit, that argument is bad. It should not persuade anyone not already committed to its conclusion. My post above is not intended as an argument that homosexuality is morally permissible. Rather, its purpose was to explain why Swinburne’s argument fails.

    Since my earlier posting, I learned that Swinburne wrote a reply to Pleitz. The reply clarifies the argument in a way that addresses some of Pleitz’s objections. It also shows that the argument is even worse than I thought it was. It relies on the following astonishing claim: “It is plausible to suppose that by refraining from sexual acts people help to cure and prevent homosexuality:” (222) This premise, Swinburne writes, is “crucial” (223). It is also entirely unsupported.

    What evidence does Swinburne have for this claim? Here is the complete list of evidence he cites in the appendix to his 2007 book:

    a) Twin studies indicating that identical twins do not always have the same sexual orientation. This is evidence that genetics do not completely determine sexual orientation. It is not evidence that sexual orientation can be influenced by events that take place after early childhood.

    b) An unsourced assertion that “there is … evidence that child abuse encourages male homosexuality.” (362)

    c) One study claiming that children of gay parents are somewhat more likely to be gay themselves.

    d) A 2001 study of 200 individuals who reported that they had changed their sexual orientation through “reparative therapy.” The study was widely criticized. Its author, Robert Spitzer, retracted the study in 2012 and said that its methodology had a “fatal flaw.”

    There is no evidence here for Swinburne’s crucial empirical claim. Maybe Spitzer’s study offered some weak evidence at the time Swinburne’s book was published, but the study has been retracted, so Swinburne can no longer rely on it.

    The New Atlantis metastudy is long. On a quick read, I do not see any evidence for the claim that Swinburne needs for his argument to go through, namely, that consensual gay sex in adulthood can alter an adult’s sexual orientation.

  7. Wesley


    Michael Rea’s apology was about Swinburne’s statements concerning homosexuality?

    I am almost embarrassed to admit that I thought it was about his statement concerning the prohibition against extra-martial intercourse. I was going to say as someone prone towards breaking that prohibition, I was not offended, and did not feel he was being hateful towards me and others like me.

    Thank you for writing this article. I understand better, now, though I still can not figure why a Christian society member would regret a paper expressing Christian sexual ethics. It’s a strange world, indeed!

  8. J. Edward Hackett


    Hello Jim,

    I did not “badger” Swinburne, though you are right that it was in principle motivated by Foucault’s thought. I actually have the whole conversation recorded on my phone and can reproduce evidence to the contrary. We might think of metaphysical violence as a claim more motivated by Levinasian thoughts, too or de-personalization alongside Schelerian terms in Catholic personalism. I assure you however indignant you thought my accusation it was motivated by philosophical reasons. These may be reasons to which you and Swinburne disagree, and while you are right that I did not engage his argument, many have done a good enough job showing that Swinburne’s embrace of reparative therapy coming from the same book that inspired his talk are full of shit. However, if you like, I can always meet you or any of Swinburne’s army to counter such idiocy with the finesse of philosophical argumentation.

    What baffles me and continues to do so is the thought that the SCP is/was a place where Christian doctrine cannot be questioned philosophically to the point that the most common response to my “Foucauldian rebuke” was the disbelief that Swinburne cannot hold these conservative beliefs about sexuality (which also was a simultaneous reaction to Rea’s apology prompted by the criticism invited by my post). It’s amazing that members of that very Evangelical audience couldn’t even ask the question if the “historic Christian conviction regarding the morality of homosexual behavior” is wrong. Does not philosophy provide us with the imagination to even ask questions contrary to our own convictions? Or is it beyond us to think that Biblical morality can be wrong and that we may be getting the requirements of Jesus’s command to love entirely wrong concerning this and many other issues? Moreover, nobody dared to meet me where my thoughts came from in that blog post (James, Levinas, and Foucault); everyone expected me to meet Swinburne even though it is very clear that my points were raised about the metaphilosophical assumptions that went into making the remarks he did.

    Rest assured in the next year, I will strive to put forward a more thorough meditation on this issue. There’s at least a journal article here for some place, and I’ll offer Faith and Philosophy first dibs (if they’ll have it, that’s another matter entirely) My distance from it now is prudence because of reactions like yours and Dreher have inspired some to anonymously e-mail me and threaten my life. Let me know, however, if you ever want to debate me on your conservative beliefs about tolerance, acceptance and love and Christian ethics. I’m open and will rise to the occasion. For what it’s worth, I wish you well and others here who may disagree with me.

    All the best,


    • Kenny


      Mr. Hackett, I’m very glad that you posted. I am neither a Christian nor a philosopher. Plus I live in Brooklyn. So, as you can imagine, I find Swindburne’s comments (the ones that I have read quoted in full) not only appalling but absurdly wing-nut. I mean, give me a break. Really? In 2016, you’re going to ask old gay men to knock off the hanky-panky so that young GAY men can say, “Hey, you know, I think I’ll get married and make babies instead”? Now … in full disclosure … I know Jim from a long, long time ago. He was really cool in high school. I would never have listened to The Clash without his influence. Maybe if older hipsters had only listened to Benny Goodman he would have had a better example to follow and never would have shared this Devil music with me! HOWEVER, I am without question an interloper here. This blog is not “for me.” So I am being a bit of a troll even to saying this much. It’s like going into a Harley Davidson discussion group and saying that Ducatis are better. BUT I was glad to read your response.

  9. Gabriele


    Thank you gentleman for an interesting debate on the subject. If we are to understand the argument for inclusion of homosexuality as to be a moral issue that is currently misunderstood (like slavery, race, bi-racial marriage, or even the flatness of the earth) we must with all humility, be able to hear the other persons point of view. When we cannot listen and cannot listen to learn (but instead feel we ‘know’ all things), we fail to demonstrate one of our most innately God-given traits of empathy and understanding, which, when it coincides with logic and correct thinking is the light of truth. If the argument for inclusiveness is an understanding of gender as more than a basic two male/female dichotomy, but a continuum with a gender spectrum, the debate is indeed more complex than any of us understand– and if what is described as ‘heaven’ (or when we are with God) there is truly no male nor female (in the sense that what has divided us is united in Christ) and their is no marriage in heaven because our unity with Christ is complete such that our oneness and ability to be fully known is accomplished, then we will all stand together with relationships of love. I cannot fully understand now (although I once admittedly opposed it) how gay marriage or indeed being gay is detestable. But rather would agree that it was considered an abomination to the Israelites, but may not be an ‘abomination’ to us in Christ just as tattoos, wearing ‘men’s clothing for women, having mixed fibers in clothing, etc. were considered unclean. At times I feel like we have “lost the plot”(thank you Newsboys) in regards to how Christ would be responding to these issues. Is God Male? or is He portrayed as male for our human understanding— if God who is a person, is neither male, nor female must we despise those who do not fit so neatly into our earthly categories which are incredibly tempered by FEAR of men, Ignorance and lack of Compassion. I sadly hear Jesus’ chilling words asking if I would start judging rightly, rather than by appearances. (John 7:14). An interesting documentary worthy of consideration is “For the Bible Tells Me So.” Which, for many may be one of the first glimpses up close to the dilemma of so many youth who are very keenly struggling with their sexuality, society, and their faith in God –which is inextricable tied to their acceptance by their parents and acceptance from peers to be able to live out their faith in community. For our logic must be tethered with knowledge of persons, not merely knowledge of facts. The fact that proverbs says that “Pride is also an Abomination” (John 7:24) puts me in the fires of hell, just as readily as anyone else. I’m so grateful that the grace of God covers my Pride and grants me “eyes to see, and ears to hear” what Jesus true message is– Love God and Love your Neighbor.

    Thanks for a lively discussion and I ditto the remarks– thanks Dr. Spiegel for your love of ‘good’ music which helped me broaden my horizons and learn to appreciate the deep things of artists I had never heard on my ‘positive’ hit Xian radio station.
    Grace & Peace


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)