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Praying the gay away: when religion hijacks science

It’s been decades since electroshock therapy or other psychiatric interventions were routinely employed to “treat” homosexuality. These days, reparative therapy is more popular. It involves a combination…

Religious groups claim “ex-gay” therapies have scientific merit. flickr/michael keith photography

It’s been decades since electroshock therapy or other psychiatric interventions were routinely employed to “treat” homosexuality. These days, reparative therapy is more popular. It involves a combination of therapy and prayer to “cure” homosexuality – praying away the gay, as they say.

A number of high-profile organisations advocate and provide reparative therapy, most notably the (American) National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), which argues that the therapy rests on scientific merit.

Science has long been a battleground for religious and political debate. Abortion debates are a classic example of this. The moral divide between pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners is so immutable that the debate is increasingly contested on scientific grounds.

Often anti-abortion campaigners will argue their case on the “evidence” that abortion psychologically or physically harms women (rather than on their moral position on abortion). This obscures the religious agenda behind a veneer of scientific objectivity.

Of course, when it comes to homosexuality, religious campaigners similarly accuse gay and lesbian rights campaigners of hiding their agenda behind science.

Evidence demonstrating the success of reparative therapy is valuable to conservative religion. If sexuality is changeable, an argument can be made that homosexuals are made, not born. This allows religious groups to create a scientific platform for resisting the argument that homosexuality is a normal and natural part of humanity, and should not be a point of discrimination. Focus on this point locks debate about homosexuality further into a scientific realm, concentrated on the nature of homosexual attraction rather than the morality of endorsing discrimination.

flickr/leah.jones

There’s very little evidence for the efficacy of reparative therapy. In 2009, the American Psychological Association released a statement renouncing reparative therapy. It cited a dearth of scientific evidence supporting its efficacy and the likelihood that it may cause harm.

The Spitzer study

The main piece of research regularly cited by the so-called “ex-gay movement” is a 2001 paper by Columbia University Professor Robert Spitzer. He interviewed more than 200 people who all self-identified as having increased heterosexual attraction following reparative therapy. But most of the study’s participants were referred by groups running reparative therapy and were presumably highly religious, holding a deep desire to be considered heterosexual.

Despite knowing this, Spitzer concluded that “change in sexual orientation following some forms of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.”

Reparative therapy groups lauded the findings. Spitzer is a high-profile psychiatrist who was instrumental in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-II). This placed him clearly on the public record for his belief that homosexuality is “normal.”

Spitzer’s distance from religious groups made him a perfect, if not unwitting, spokesperson for reparative therapy. But this was never his intention – people didn’t interpret Spitzer’s research in the way he thought they would.

According to Spitzer, the goal of his study had been to investigate the truth of the claim that no-one had ever changed sexual orientation through therapy. He wasn’t seeking to evaluate the efficacy of ex-gay programs for all people. Rather, given the dominant view was that sexuality couldn’t be altered, he was curious about whether reparative therapy had worked for some people.

But Spitzer was naïve to assume his personal “objective” scientific curiosity would be understood and allow him to remain at a distance from the religious and political agenda in which his research was situated. Essentially, he tried to ignore the key role that scientific research plays in religious debate.

Once in the public domain…

Sptizer publicly denounced his research in a recent interview with web editor for The American Prospect, Gabriel Arana, who himself had experienced reparative therapy.

“In retrospect, I have to admit I think the critiques are largely correct. The findings can be considered evidence for what those who have undergone ex-gay therapy say about it, but nothing more,” he said. Spitzer also acknowledged that failed attempts to rid oneself of homosexual attraction “can be quite harmful."

But the Archives of Sexual Behaviour hasn’t published a formal retraction of Spitzer’s paper, arguing that a retraction is not appropriate given Spitzer is not claiming he made an error or his data was flawed.

It remains to be seen whether Spitzer’s new stance makes any difference to the role his research plays as an advocacy tool for reparative therapy. Critiques of Spitzer’s method have been widely available for years and there was nothing deceptive or fraudulent about his work that renders it untrustworthy. It’s likely that reparative therapy groups will continue to claim it as evidence.

Scientific and psychological research is a major area in which religious, moral and political debate is contested. It goes without saying that demonstration of rigour in this context holds an added level of importance. But researchers lose control of how their work is interpreted once published. No matter how much a researcher tries to distance herself from this, her work is still part of the game.

Join the conversation

36 Comments sorted by

  1. Sandra Kwa

    Grad Cert Ethics and Legal Studies, CSU

    Thank you - I enjoyed this article. I've been participating in comments on a recent Conversation where science was the battleground for proving the truth of religions at all. If only science could resolve that fundamental question (ie that there is no god), then there could be no claim that homosexuality is a sin against some higher, superhuman, authority.

    Then it is simply up to individual humans to decide whether heterosexuality is a preferable, or more "natural", state and thus freely choose…

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    1. Jennifer Power

      Research Fellow at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria's Family Institute) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Sandra Kwa

      Thanks Sandra, I never quite understand why humans feel it necessary to enact moral judgement in the first place. By their logic, it should be God's role to pass judgement not their's surely?

      There was a dearth of scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of reparative therapy. Typo!

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    2. Jessie Richardson

      Editor at The Conversation

      In reply to Sandra Kwa

      The typo's been corrected, cheers for picking that up Sandra!

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    3. Hugo Freeman

      Student

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      Hi Jennifer,

      Re; "why humans feel it necessary to enact moral judgment"

      I watched an interesting and funny book launch by Tom Cathcart and Daniel Klein which did address this question at some stage. According to these two, humans make judgments as a means of denying the inevitably of death(restricted of course to some philosophical schools of thought). I.e. religious folk dislike gays because they are different and cannot physically breed hence threaten their ideal that they will live in eternity and cannot cope with this realisation. Something like that anyway.

      The irony is that religions will often cherry pick objective scientific research in a very subjective manner. I would love someone to convince me that homosexuality is wrong and unhealthy without mentioning the words "God", "Bible" or "Jesus", lord, etc... and in 250 words or less of course.

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    4. Jennifer Power

      Research Fellow at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria's Family Institute) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Hugo Freeman

      I guess there are many people, religious or not, who could be accused of cherrypicking 'facts'. It's more frustrating, I find, when people cherrypick biblical references, eg, implying some references are irrefutable and eternal while others can be read in historical context (ie. some people seems to think homosexuality is on the 'always gonna be a sin' list while other sins, such as eating shellfish, seem to be okay these days). Surely if we feel we have the right to impose our reading of God's judgement on others, we also have the right to interpret the bible is an appropriate historical context?

      That makes sense though that fear of death might confuse these issues.

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    5. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      I don't see it so much as fear of death as much as a disproportionate focus on sexuality amongst the range of moral issues. Some of the religions/cultures that moralise strongly about sexual orientation also focus on female sexual behaviour and how it reflects on the honour of the family. Hence we see the extremes where one's own children might be ostracised and even killed in the name of morality.Some cultures have evolved to regard sexual behaviour as having exaggerated moral significance in comparison to other potential "sins". In this context, what may have originated in "tribal" rules have continued to hold a strong moral significance - out of proportion to the harm done by these "sins".

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    6. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      Dr Power, we all regularly make evaluative assessments of the morality of certain acts and situations. These judgements may be provisional and fallible, and they may be applied first and foremost to oneself (Jesus invites his disciples to remove the log from their own eye before they attempt to remove a speak from the eye of a sister or brother), but they are more or less unavoidable.

      "while other sins, such as eating shellfish, seem to be okay these days"
      A minor point about biblical hermeneutics…

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    7. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      I have read the article and quickly went through the links, and I can't see the name of any religious organisation. The only connection to religion has been carried out by the author.

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    8. Sandra Kwa

      Grad Cert Ethics and Legal Studies, CSU

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Hi Byron. I'm not clear if you stopped at shellfish to avoid the "hotly debated question", but other Christians (link above) seem to extend the Mark 7 chapter to cover also the setting aside of Old Testament objections to homosexuality, particularly vs 15: "There is nothing from without a man that, entering into him, can defile him." Or is that drawing a long bow, "hermeneutically" speaking?
      http://rainbowallianceopenfaith.homestead.com/JesusProGay01.html

      Is "hermeneutics" your field? I always had a problem with the holy word of an all-powerful deity being so out-of-date and so in need of copious commentary and scholarly interpretation. Since God refuses to actually talk to people, why can't he at least keep his written word succinct, clear, unequivocal, and updated? If I presented a thesis that rambled like the bible, wildly exceeding any sensible word count to convey what should be a simple universal message, I'd fail in a flash!

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    9. Byron Smith
      Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

      PhD candidate in Christian Ethics at University of Edinburgh

      In reply to Sandra Kwa

      My point was quite a simple one. Some hermeneutical questions are relatively straightforward (applying Mark 7 to food, since that it the very focus of the discourse). Others are not (applying Mark 7 to homosexuality). Comparing shellfish consumption and homosexuality conflates the two and makes a comparison that turns out to be less than highly illuminating.

      It would be nice if god fit our preferences wouldn't it? But then perhaps we might be tempted to think she was merely a projection of our desires.

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    10. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Byron Smith

      If I understand correctly, the Hermes (from whose name hermeneutics is derived) was an interpreter of meaning within (his contemproary) language.

      Plato is quoted as saying of Hermes: "“I should imagine that the name Hermes has to do with speech, and signifies that he is the interpreter, or messenger, or thief, or liar, or bargainer; all that sort of thing has a great deal to do with language. As I was telling you, the word eirein is expressive of the use of speech, and there is an often-recurring…

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    11. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      The perhaps, Dale, you weren't really trying. Within the NARTH site, "media watch" takes you to "theological issues".

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    12. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      I think its a long bow to connect NARTH to religion.

      This is the mission statement of NARTH.

      "We respect the right of all individuals to choose their own destiny. NARTH is a professional, scientific organization that offers hope to those who struggle with unwanted homosexuality. As an organization, we disseminate educational information, conduct and collect scientific research, promote effective therapeutic treatment, and provide referrals to those who seek our assistance.

      NARTH upholds…

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    13. Sandra Kwa

      Grad Cert Ethics and Legal Studies, CSU

      In reply to Byron Smith

      Hi Byron. I obviously can't make you make a comment when you specifically said you are making no comment, but if you change your mind, I would genuinely be interested to know your opinion, as a PhD in Christian Ethics, as to Christ's attitude to homosexuality.

      My brother agonised for years trying to reconcile his homosexuality with his Christianity, and couldn't in the end because our church was (is still) so firmly against it. The church's attitude made it all the more painful for my mother to…

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    14. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale Bloom - where in the article above did the author say that NARTH was a religious organisation?

      The NARTH site does, however, link to several religious organisations with similar aims. Clearly you missed this one:
      Review Of 'Ex-Gays? A Longitudinal Study Of Religiously Mediated Change In Sexual Orientation'
      http://www.narth.com/docs/rekersrev.html

      Pretending to be disingenuous doesn't cut it.

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  2. Debbie Hoad

    student at University of Canberra

    "Spitzer concluded that “change in sexual orientation following some forms of reparative therapy does occur in some gay men and lesbians.”

    My understanding was that 'reparative' therapy can repress homosexual feelings of attraction, but does not result in the person becoming heterosexual. In other words, it just teaches them to hate or feel repulsed by the idea of sex (the kind of sex that is within their natural orientation). It doesn't actually change their sexual orientation.

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    1. Jennifer Power

      Research Fellow at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria's Family Institute) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Debbie Hoad

      Yeah, seems weird Spitzer missed that point! Although, in his defense, he looked at reported sexual attractions as a marker of orientation. So he was interested in whether heterosexual attractions could be increased. I don't think he explored how people came to feel about sex or sexuality or themselves in general as a result of reparative therapy -- probably one reason for his retraction.

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    2. Grendelus Malleolus

      Senior Nerd

      In reply to Jennifer Power

      It also appears to see sexuality as a binary state (hetero/homo) whereas other studies have shown it to be more of a continuum.

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  3. Debbie Hoad

    student at University of Canberra

    Here's a question. Let's assume for the sake of argument that homosexuality was 100% choice (I know it's not, but this is a hypothetical scenario). How would it matter?

    This is never going to affect the whole of the population. No-one is under any obligation to perpetuate the species or add to our over-population. And it's not like it being a choice would make religions any more right in their unevidenced, discriminatory doctrines and policies (if you can't answer that claim without referring…

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    1. Jennifer Power

      Research Fellow at The Bouverie Centre (Victoria's Family Institute) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Debbie Hoad

      yeah I agree.The focus on whether or not there is a 'gay gene' in some ways suggests that it would be ok to discriminate against people if they choose to be homosexual. Why would this be okay? People have a write to do with their own hearts and bodies as they choose as long as it does not hurt others.

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  4. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    My view on this issue after nearly 30 years in adjunct studies of gender and sexuality consistent with my disciplinary focus on coming-of-age, seemingly unavoidable once a decision is made to study Western Society from an ethnographic perspective, that is, to turn the Other back on itself, is that what first becomes most noticable is Western obsession with SEX itself.

    Only then, once the generalised hypersexuality of Westerners becomes more apparent, is an apparent breakdown into cultural cultural…

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    1. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Quote: how about allowing more freedom to explore sex and sexuality

      Answer: So we should allow , as an analogy , people marrying their dogs as Dawkins proposes , BECAUSE it would make Dawkins 'feel good' to BE able to have sex with his dog ? RATHER than to 'label' Dawkins as being NUTS ?

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  5. Jon Hunt

    Medical Practitioner

    It has occurred to me that the only people who have a problem with homosexuality are people who have a problem with homosexuality, and not the homosexuals themselves. Unfortunately it is these people who make their problems the problems of homosexuals. I'd be inclined to say that it's none of their business, and that there really must be more pressing things to be worried about.

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  6. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    Tony Abbott's sister seems to have managed to rid herself of heterosexuality rather successful.

    Aren't we in danger of behaving exactly like those religious bigots we all deplore?
    "I can't imagine anyone being attracted to a person of the same sex, ergo everyone who is must be sick" versus "I can't imagine anyone wanting to change their sexuality, ergo everyone who does must be exploited, deluded and needing enlightenment from superior persons like myself."

    It seems a little bit unfair to blame religion for the past excesses of the medical profession. Electroshock therapy, hormone therapy and the likes were all the product of minds of scientific inspiration rather then particularly pious types. After all, scientists of the past managed to find what seemed to them impeccable scientific rationalisations of homosexuality being a matter purely of medical pathology.

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      I have no more or less reason to deplore religious bigots than secular bigots, especially as fundamentally ill-informed as we have routinely from you and like trolls, Sean. It seems to me way past time people got off the science-bashing wagon as well.

      Religious faith has produced some of the most illuminating and beautifully awe-inspiring works of science, art and culture in history, evidenced from ALL religions. The fruits from scientific endeavour have inspired some of the great questions of faith and existence.

      It barely needs to be added that many of these cultural icons were and are not only scientifically well-grounded and religious, but homosexual into the bargain.

      Let's keep things in perspective and on track, shall we?

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    1. In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Comment removed by moderator.

    2. In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Comment removed by moderator.

    3. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      "Gynecomastia in transgender populations"

      "Hypogonadism"
      "Manifestations include loss of libido, impotence, amenorrhea, testicular atrophy, gynecomastia , and sparse body hair"
      "Complete reversibility of hypogonadotropic hypogonadism with intensive venesection"

      "Phlebotomy alone may be adequate treatment for hypogonadotropic hypogonadism "

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    4. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Perhaps you have posted on the wrong thread, Mr Hennessy. This article is about sexual orientation, not hormonal imbalance or hypogonadism.

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    5. Sue Ieraci

      Public hospital clinician

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Mr Hennessy, you appear to be confusing sexual orientation (one's sexual attraction towards others) with gender identity (one's sense of one's own gender).

      Oh, and "Hormones aren't related to sexual orientation ?" is a question, not an answer.

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    6. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Sue Ieraci

      Hormone misadventure. Too many female hormones makes a guy a girl or somewhere in between IE: hermaphrodite and too many male hormones makes a girl a man or somewhere in between. Hormone misadventure is a medical condition which affects the brain. Evidenced by double the rate of psychosis in those with hormone misadventure.

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  7. Dan Nobull

    PartiZan social critic

    Interesting take. Jennifer Power, you state: "But most of the study’s participants were referred by groups running reparative therapy and were presumably highly religious, holding a deep desire to be considered heterosexual". This statement is meant to authoritatively underpin the title, 'Praying the gay away: when religion hijacks science'? Could you explain then, please, why the same critique should not apply to the recently announced study, 'Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families…

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