Is Homophobia a Religious or a Psychological Issue?

“My faith won’t allow me to ACCEPT what took place over the weekend! Sorry, NOT sorry! #AdamAndEve #NotAdamAndAdam.” -Maurice Price

Maurice Price was not the only pro football player to express an anti-gay attitude following the drafting of Michael Sam, the first openly gay person to be drafted into the NFL.

Price defended his comments by referencing his religious beliefs. He is a Christian and since Christianity considers homosexuality to be a sin, then condemning homosexuality is fair. He is not alone in this regard as a common defense of homophobia is that it has more to do with defending one’s religious values than attacking a minority group.

Historically, prejudice of any kind could be freely expressed with few repercussions (emotional, legal, or otherwise) so long as there was a reasonable justification. Religion has often served as the justification, and has therefore facilitated an array of prejudice, from racism to sexism to homophobia.

Over time, the use of religious beliefs to justify prejudice has tended to decline, but still persists — especially when it comes to homosexuality.

Whether one can defend homophobia on religious grounds is a topic unto itself. But let’s imagine for the sake of argument that one could defend a prejudiced opinion on the basis of religion. Were such a position defensible, it would be necessary to ensure that the homophobia was motivated solely by religious values, as opposed to psychological factors.

The difficulty facing those who wish to defend their sexual prejudice is that psychological research has shown that homophobia tends to be much more complicated than the picture painted by Maurice Price and others who argue they are simply expressing their religious values.

Why So Mad?….

Before even discussing the psychological research, we can draw inferences about a person’s psychology based solely on their emotional responses to homosexuality. We can fairly assume that non-religious factors are motivating prejudice when there is a stark discrepancy between someone’s moral outrage and the relative seriousness of the sin.

There are hundreds of laws and principles discussed in the bible and they are not all equal. We know that some are more important because of clear demarcations (ex: The Ten Commandments) or because some rules receive more attention than others.

For example, eating shellfish is less serious a sin than adultery given that the latter appears as one of the 10 commandments and receives attention throughout the bible via important figures. Conversely, despite being forbidden in the Old Testament, shellfish are not discussed in the ten commandments, and rarely does one read of Jesus discussing their place in the moral landscape.

We would expect people’s psychological reactions to moral violations to be commensurate with the seriousness of the violation itself.

For example, if someone is more offended by someone eating shellfish than adultery, it tells us more about the person (ex: perhaps they’re vegan!) because this type of reaction is not consistent with the underlying values of the religion.

Indeed, such a reaction implies something specific about the psychology of that individual.

So, when a person expresses disgust and outrage toward a homosexual and only a mild rebuke of an adulterer, it tells us that something else is likely driving their reaction. Homosexuality is not one of the 10 commandments, does not receive much attention throughout the bible, and Jesus never addresses the issue.

A Psychological Profile of Homophobia

First, as with other forms of prejudice, those who hold anti-gay beliefs are more likely to be older, less educated, live in a rural area, and to have less contact with homosexuals. If religious values were the sole determinant of homophobia, then we would expect all religious individuals to hold the same view, regardless of these factors.

Second, those who hold authoritarian beliefs are also more likely to be homophobic. People who are highly authoritarian hold a strict belief in the need for social order and conformity to rules. They also tend to be especially intolerant of people who violate their concept of social order, and having this personality trait — which is related to, but distinct from religiosity — increases the likelihood of sexual prejudice.

Third, there is an interesting gender difference when it comes to homophobia. Heterosexual men are much more hostile and prejudiced toward gay and bisexual men than are women.

There is good reason to believe that this bias occurs because heterosexual men are often highly motivated to protect their masculine identity. In fact, experimental studies have shown that when you intentionally threaten men’s sense of their own masculinity it causes them to act aggressively toward gay men.

This psychological tendency may help explain the homophobic reactions of men who play football. The very idea that a gay man could out-play and even out-hit you must be very threatening for men who idealize masculinity.

Given that homophobic men tend to overcompensate in response to masculinity threats, I leave it to the reader to supply their own analysis of what motivates Vladamir Putin’s predilection for shirtless photos.

Homophobia may also serve useful psychological functions as well. For example, when someone’s self-esteem or identity is fragile, then attacking someone else could help to repair the damage by making oneself feel superior.

As you can see, homophobia and its expression can be complicated, and often involves more than just a simple one-to-one expression of religious conviction.

Expressing Values

It is important to point out that not all religious believers exhibit sexual prejudice. I have met many people with strong religious convictions who fully support gay rights. They consider such belief in equality to be an expression of their religious beliefs, as there are certainly biblical passages that refer to loving one’s neighbour.

Which raises a key question — why is it more important to defend a law dealing with sexual orientation than it is to defend laws of love and nonjudgment toward others?

The answer to such a question is likely to say more about one’s psychological profile than their religious affiliation.

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