This is part of a series of posts which tackles sexual ethics and debating strategies (but not at the same time).
Although I thought Christopher Yuan presented a reasonably compassionate explanation of his beliefs about sexual morality when he came to Yale, there were some parts of his talk that made my hair stand on end. I honestly don’t know whether some parts of his talk were intended to be subtly derogatory of gay people and gay culture. I’m a debater, so I pay a great deal of attention to language and framing, and if I had used some of the narrative constructions of Yuan’s talk, it would have been with the intention of denigrating gay people, since the language he used was well tailored to that purpose.
However, especially when speakers are making a pitch to people who don’t share their principles and points of reference, it’s easy to put a foot wrong, and I try to remind myself to remember Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.
I don’t know which influenced Yuan’s choice of phrasings, but I’m posting a rundown of what came off as nasty, so no one who reads this blog needs to give offence by accident.
“Of course that’s only my experience”
Yuan fell in with a promiscuous and drug-using crowd after he left his family. Several times during the talk, he mentioned quickly that not all gay people live the way he did, but those disclaimers were fleeting and unlikely to register as much as his lengthy and sorrowful description of his experience. Given that his usual Christian audiences may not know many gay people personally, he leaves an impression that most gay people are self-indulgent and self-destructive.
Christians can have a tendency to do this in more contexts than lectures on gay sexual ethics. I’ve heard plenty of Christians talk about their prior-to-conversion experiences where they “deliberately and consciously rejected God’s love because they didn’t want to give up their vices” or because they “couldn’t accept any limit on their own actions.” That is not the experience of every atheist, and it’s incredibly pejorative to assign your motivations to everyone else.
Christians should be able to offer more positive examples of gay life or non-Christian life than the kinds of anecdotes offered by Yuan, even if they ultimately believe that those lives are missing something essential. If you can’t come up with any relatively healthy examples of atheists/gay people/etc, you probably don’t know very many of us, and we’re not inclined to listen to your perspective until you’ve done a modicum of research. Atheists like me often suspect Christians of offering false dichotomies like “bathhouse culture OR celibacy” or “nihilism or Christianity.”
If Christians want to persuade us, they need to be able to acknowledge the existence of stable, monogamous homosexual relationships and the reality of atheists who follow and promote moral law. Then they need to find a way to persuade people like me that there’s something seriously wrong with those options. When Christians don’t address these positive and common experiences, atheists like me assume Christians omit what they cannot answer. When they do it persistently, I start to suspect them of just using rhetoric to puff up their allies and scare them with the caricatures of atheists and queer people they’ve presented. It’s no foundation for discourse and persuasion.
More discussion of mistakes Christians make when talking to other audiences to come…