Disclaimer: In this article, for the sake of simplicity and consistency, we will be using the term “homosexual” as a blanket term to represent all queer, bisexual, pansexual, questioning, and other non-heterosexual orientations. If you would like to learn more, you can read our Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity article. If you need resources or support, you can visit our Support Groups and Organizations page, as well as our Resources page.
Religion and sexual orientation have historically appeared to clash. For centuries, “the religious condemnation of homosexual acts, and even homosexual persons, was unquestioned.”1 In the United States, regular participation in organized worship has proven to be the strongest demographic predictor of whether a person disapproves of homosexuality or not.1 The relationship between religions and homosexuality is complex and has fluctuated immensely throughout time. Every faith holds a unique view on sexuality that has come to shape how we perceive sex. Oftentimes, these convictions are adjusted as we adapt to the diversity of sexual expressions in the world.
Religious Approaches to Homosexuality
There are three primary stances on homosexuality in regards to religion:
- “Love the sinner, hate the sin”
- Full acceptance1
Rejectionism is a system of belief that entirely objects to the idea that homosexuals deserve equal rights. This belief is held by Judeo-Christian denominations that embrace a more fundamental, Biblical interpretation of sexuality, as well as many predominantly Islamic nations. Some countries and belief systems punish homosexuality by sentencing those caught engaging in homosexual practices to death or torture. These states of Yemen, Iran, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates all have legislation that criminalizes homosexuality.2 Rejectionist philosophy widely varies among its proponents on its stance on sexual orientation being a choice. The religious sects and individuals that utilize prayer-based conversion to “cure” gay people of their affliction believe that homosexuality is a choice and that, with enough guidance, can be reversed.3 The rejectionist philosophy asserts that homosexuals can be forgiven by God only after sincere efforts to repent for the sin of their sexual orientation.
“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”
“Love the sinner, hate the sin” holds that LGBTQ people should be regarded an with equal amount of respect; however, homosexual behaviors are not tolerated. This modified rejectionism perspective accepts that sexuality cannot be changed but states that one can only be obedient to a higher power as long as they abstain from acting on their desires.
The full acceptance approach asserts that queer people are entitled to all of the same civil and social rights as their heterosexual counterparts. This ideology asserts that homosexuality is not a sin and that LGBTQ people are accepted by God just as their heterosexual counterparts are.
Churches have even been created under this egalitarian ideal of full acceptance. Reverend Troy Perry founded the
Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1968 as a part of his coming out process in his book: The Lord is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay. The advent of this Church signaled to how inclusive spirituality can be. The Metropolitan Community Church identifies as a “global movement of spiritually and sexually diverse people who are fully awake to God’s enduring love.”4 The language used is clear: God accepts sexual diversity. Since its founding, the MCC has attempted to spread their full acceptance position to greater society, applying it not only to sexual diversity, but also racial and gender diversity as well.
Similar to the Universal Fellowship, most religions have subgroups of queer-identified members. People are able to straddle the boundary between faith and sexuality by building a community and participating in support groups within each faith that acknowledge gay identities and affirm the normalcy of religious queer people.
Discrimination Against Homosexuals
For centuries, legislation has tried to restrict sexual acts like sodomy and polygamy. The United States, for example, had laws against sodomy in most states up until the 20th century and still outlaws polygamy.2 Such harsh ordinances often stem from strict religious practices that advocate celibacy, monogamy, and heterosexuality. This emphasis on piousness has consequently created a hierarchy of purity where normal and healthy sex is defined as heterosexual, married, monogamous, and intended for reproduction. As a result, polyamorous and homosexual sex, as well as sex outside of marriage, have been labeled as abnormal, repulsive, and something that should be punished by law. These notions of “normalcy” are based on documents written centuries and millennia ago when mankind lacked a complete understanding of the wide spectrum of sexuality. As our world progresses, more people now appreciate that all forms of sexual orientation, gender identity, and relationships are natural and healthy, and that they should be treated equally under the law. Unfortunately, many people and governments still fail to accept this, leading to the continued discrimination against LGBTQ people. Although many religious groups have negative attitudes toward homosexuality, some people use their religious beliefs as an excuse for their own homophobia. These people are intolerant of homosexuality regardless of their spiritual views, but their religion can provide justification for their hateful and discriminatory attitudes against LGBTQ people.
Some ministries offer prayer-based conversion, or “praying the gay away.” This strategy asserts that meditation, prayer, and repentance can change one’s sexual orientation. However, in 2009 the American Psychological Association concluded that there is zero evidence of success of any conversion treatment and that many may actually be harmful, causing increased signs of depression and thoughts of suicide).5
Individuals who fall outside of this traditional box —including unmarried, polyamorous, or queer-identified people—may feel anxious about the fact that their sexuality does not perfectly align with these spiritual mandates. Some individuals feel torn between the morals and rules they were raised with and who they are. When a great deal of one’s ethics are based on their faith, it may directly conflict with their identity as a nonvirgin, queer, or polyamorous individual. Mitigating tensions between religion and sexuality can be difficult, but knowing that gay and religious identities can coexist in harmony can be helpful. It is completely possible to be devout and sexually active, queer, or polyamorous. Though an individual may not follow their religious doctrines down to the last word in terms of sexuality, one can still structure their life around the premises of respect and love that are the foundation for many faiths around the world.
Major Religions’ Approaches to Homosexuality
Different religions have taken a wide range of perspectives on sexuality. Here, we explore some of the most well-known religions across the world.
Christianity is one of the religions that has had the most prominent and outspoken views on homosexuality. A letter from the Corinthians taken from the New Testament of the Bible succinctly sums up how some Christian denominations choose to view sexuality: “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (7:2).6 This conservative discourse has brought about a large part of the limitations and stigmas that revolve around sexuality in many Western societies today. Christianity has emphasized a need to be chaste and has labeled those who do not abide as sinners. Homosexual couples, therefore, are excluded from the sacrament of matrimony. In spite of this, Christianity encapsulates a wide variety of views. There are many diverse groups and individuals who belong to the Christian faith and they all have their own views. For example, the highest authority of the Catholic faith, the Pope, has opinions that are distinct from his predecessors. Pope Francis has publicly stated that he does not judge gay people if they maintain their faith, despite the Catholic Church’s history of disapproval of homosexuality.7
Jewish views on homosexuality are found mainly in the Old Testament of the Bible. Sexuality is portrayed as “a gift to be used responsibly and in obedience to God’s will.”3 Pervasive themes include the importance of intimacy and procreation in a relationship between a male and a female. Infidelity and polygyny (when a man has more than one wife) are scorned. This is because the Canaanites, an early sect of Judaism and rival of the Israelites, openly practiced mating rituals and temple prostitution in their culture. Considering that the Canaanites and Israelites were enemies, Jewish law began to regulate any foreign sexual behavior like homosexuality. Sexual variation was seen as a threat to group harmony. Queer individuals still struggle with full acceptance in this faith.8
There is a great deal of variety in the Islamic faith regarding homosexuality, mainly due to the fact that Muslims do not have a single, central source of authority (like the Pope, for example). As a polylithic (consisting of many different facets) faith, it allows for a diverse range of beliefs. In general, Muslim texts take a much more sex-positive stance than most. Sexuality is first and foremost a mechanism for pleasure, and secondarily a means of reproduction (which is quite the opposite of Catholicism). Intercourse in marriage is considered the highest good of human life.3 Both polygyny (marriage between a man and multiple wives) and concubinage (the practice of having a woman who lives with a man but has lower status than his wife) are sanctioned by Islam; even the Prophet Muhammad had several wives. Muslims do not follow celibacy, or refraining from sexual activity until marriage.9
Unfortunately, this sex positivity does not extend to queer Islamic people. The central religious text of Islam, the Quran, alludes to homosexuality in the form of a biblical story of the “people of Lot.” The people of Lot engaged in homosexual behaviors and were punished by a natural disaster that destroyed the entire group.9 Beyond this biblical tale, the Prophet Muhammad was known for his disapproval of homosexuality, although he was never documented as punishing anyone for it.10
Hinduism, on the other hand, does not treat homosexuality as a sin. It recognizes that each human has their own individual romantic and sexual attraction, and does not discriminate based on same-sex partnership. In Hindu society, homosexuality is regarded as one of many possible expressions of human desire.1 This refreshing take on sexuality has empowered many who believe in a higher power but have not felt that their religion adequately encompasses their orientation. There are four themes that permeate the religion. Kama, the pursuit of pleasure, is one of these. This is where the origins of the Kama Sutra lay, which is a piece of literature written on the achievement of sexual pleasure. The Kama Sutra demonstrates the sex-positive nature of this religion.2 Many Hindu temples display carvings of both men and women engaging in homosexual sex. Furthermore, Hindu philosophy recognizes the existence of a third gender, one in which people embody a mixture of masculinity and femininity. This third gender, or hijra, is granted semi-divine status and epitomizes the tolerance that permeates Hinduism.11
There is little discussion on the matter of sex in the teachings of Buddha; instead, most publications focus on enlightenment. There are several paths to enlightenment and sexual expression constitutes one of these. Tantric Buddhism, one of the three primary branches of the faith, says that “Sexual union epitomizes the essential unity of all things by the joining of energy.”1 It does not specify the gender of each partner and thus does not explicitly condemn homosexuality. Rather, it merely preaches against sexual misconduct such as adultery and nonconsensual acts.
Classic Greek Philosophy
In classic Greek philosophy, sex was not viewed as inherently evil. In fact, it was an activity celebrated amongst the gods in ancient texts. Pederasty—a sexual relationship between an older gentleman and a younger man—was celebrated in ancient Greece and well-represented in the culture. It was seen as a rite of passage to military life. A myth from classic Greek philosophy tells the story of how Zeus abducted Ganymede, a hero from Troy, and engaged in homosexual relations with him. Both Aristotle and Pindar recognized pederasty as a way of mentorship for young boys in becoming a man. Homosexual behaviors like pederasty are documented as early as the 5th and 4th century BCE, highlighting how natural and accepted these acts were in society.3
Increasing Acceptance of Homosexuality Within Major Religions
Despite many religious groups’ institutional disapproval of homosexuality, there has been major progress in increasing acceptance of homosexuals and homosexual behavior, particularly in the Christian and Catholic faiths. Current trends in Christianity point toward homosexuals becoming more accepted and included in the community. These trends are the result of behavioral science and society re-defining what is normal and natural (i.e. homosexuality is a perfectly normal and healthy sexual identity and form of expression).3 Although the Church still views sex as a means of procreation first and foremost, ideas of sex as a means to pleasure and intimacy have been surfacing, leading to Christianity accepting more diverse forms of sexuality.
The Catholic Church has also undergone some changes leading to an increased acceptance of homosexuality namely due to the influence of Pope Francis. In September of 2013, Pope Francis stated “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”7 This statement stands in direct contradiction to the Church’s previous attitudes toward homosexuality. In fact, the previous year, Pope Benedict XVI publicly announced that gay marriage was a threat to global peace.7 Pope Francis’ relative lack of judgment of homosexuals is the largest stride toward full acceptance the Catholic Church has ever made, and hopefully will only lead to more accepting attitudes in the future.
The Episcopal Church has moved to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies after modifying the church’s definition of marriage by changing the language from “man and woman” to “couple.”12 Additionally, the Presbyterian Church voted to formally sanction same-sex marriage in 2015.13
Just as there are countless diverse religions and belief systems, there are also countless different religious outlooks on homosexuality. Although many of these outlooks may seem to be discriminatory or “anti-gay,” many religious institutions are re-examining and modifying their stance on homosexuality in order to be more inclusive and adaptable to modern sexuality in all its expressions.
Integrating gay identity with other intersectional identities like religion and culture may require some time, but it can be an extremely fulfilling and successful process. Slow but steady progress is being made as the relationship between sexuality and religion continues to evolve. A person does not need to choose between their faith and their religion. Religion and sexuality are two extremely important facets of an individual’s identity and the two can coexist peacefully and provide immense personal fulfillment and satisfaction.
1. Baldwin, Janice and Baldwin, John. Topics in Sexuality: Advanced Studies. McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc., 2012.
2. Bearak, Max and Cameron, Darla. Here are the 10 Countries Where Homosexuality May Be Punished By Death. The Washington Post, 2016.
3. Levay, Simon, Baldwin, Janice and Baldwin, John. Discovering Human Sexuality Second Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc., 2012.
4. Metropolitan Community Churches: Vision Statement. MCCChurch.org, 2013.
5. American Psychological Association. Resolution on Appropriate Affirmative Responses to Sexual Orientation Distress and Change Efforts, 2009.
6. The Holy Bible: King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.
7. Hale, J. Christopher. The Pope Francis Statement That Changed the Church on LGBT Issues. Time Magazine, 2015.
8. Rich, Tracey R. Jewish Attitudes Toward Sexuality. JewFAQ.org, 2011.
9. Bouhdiba, Abdelwahab. Sexuality in Islam. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985.
10. Akyol, Mustafa. What Does Islam Say About Being Gay? The New York Times, 2015.
11. Khaleeli, Homa. Hijra: India’s Third Gender Claims Its Place in Law. The Guardian, 2014.
12. Conger, George. The Episcopal Church Approves Religious Weddings for Gay Couples After Controversial Debate. The Washington Post, 2015.
13. What Same-Sex Marriage Means to Presbyterians. Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 2015.
Last Updated: 17 February 2017.