Culture matters: Reconciling faith and homosexuality across borders

Members of which of the following faiths are least likely to express disapproval of homosexuality?

A. Catholicism.
B. Buddhism.
C. Hinduism.

If you answered A, you would be correct, according to an analysis of World Values Survey data from 87 nations.

And the members of what tradition along with Islam appear to be the most likely to express disapproval? Protestantism.

These are just a couple of the findings some may be surprised by in a new book, “Cross-National Public Opinion About Homosexuality: Examining Attitudes Across the Globe.

Sociologist Amy Adamczyk of the City University of New York explores data from three waves of World Values Survey data covering nearly 85 percent of the global population, along with country case studies, media analysis and in-depth interviews.

Her general findings are that tolerance for homosexuality “tends to be reduced by overall levels of religious importance, affected by the dominant religion, and boosted by economic development and democracy.”

Still, no one factor tells the whole story.

The “mystery” she helps unravel is why, despite the fact most world religions have proscriptions against homosexual practices, some nations are much more tolerant than others.

Faith matters, but so does culture.

Finding a way out

Coming out in a religious community can be difficult under the best of circumstances.

But research finds it is especially challenging when both one’s belief system and the larger culture – from public opinion to state policy to popular culture and the media – all reinforce disapproving attitudes.

One recent study found that gay Polish immigrants in Chicago were much more likely to retain their Catholic identity than gay men in Warsaw who were raised Catholic.

Only one of the 27 gay men raised by two Catholic parents in Warsaw remained Catholic. Ten of the 23 men in Chicago were still Catholic.

The perceived hostile environment in Poland forced many gay men to make a hard choice and declare themselves atheists, researcher Hubert Izienicki discovered in in-depth interviews.

“In contrast, the gay respondents in Chicago find themselves in a religiously pluralistic and immigrant society, which allows them to retain their religious tradition and Catholic identity alongside their identity as gay men,” he reported.

In her work, Adamczyk also found that governments and social and religious institutions sharing opposition to homosexual practices can be a toxic combination for acceptance of homosexuals.

For example, in many Muslim-majority nations, the importance of religious proscriptions on sexuality and the close ties between religion and state appear to account for much of the high rates of disapproval of same-sex relations.

But in nations such as predominantly Catholic nations such as Spain and Brazil, which have moved from authoritarian governments to democracies, the changes in acceptance have been considerable.

In the early 1990s, 38 percent of Spanish adults and 70 percent of Brazilian adults said homosexuality is never justified. In the current decade, just 8 percent of Spaniards and 36 percent of Brazilians hold similar views, Adamczyk noted.

What she found most surprising was that East Asian nations such as predominantly Buddhist Japan, a Democratic nation that has enjoyed economic success, have relatively high rates of disapproval.

In interviews, she discovered the attitudes were largely the result of cultural influences, including those emphasizing the importance of obedience, ancestral ties and maintaining family bloodlines.

“Religion, economic development and democracy are powerful for shaping public opinion,” Adamczyk wrote. “However, within individual countries the process is by no means simple, and change does not move at a similar pace across nations.”

Seeking their own place

Religious communities can make a difference, some researchers note.

Pope Francis made a global impact in 2013 when he stated, “If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?”

In June, New Jersey Cardinal Joseph Tobin welcomed 100 gay and lesbian Catholics and their families to Mass in Newark. “I am your brother, as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother, as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord,” Tobin declared.

One man who attended told The New York Times, “It was a miracle to have church leaders say, ‘You are welcome; you belong.’ And I felt, after a lifetime of struggle, that we are home.”

That doesn’t surprise Adamczyk. “It really helps when religious officials come out and say we’re tolerant,” Adamczyk said.

What does not work is polarization, where some gay rights groups or religious communities view each other with hostility, cutting off the possibility of dialogue and often adding to the mental health struggles of people seeking to reconcile their religious and sexual identities.

It’s important to remember that what is at stake is not an abstract issue, but the actual lives of real people, three scholars from the Netherlands wrote in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

Every individual situation has its own issues and options, the authors noted.

“No matter how one describes the conflict, on every side of the divide we find individuals and communities that try to make sense of their lives and live with integrity towards their own values, towards the people that matter to them, and towards what is sacred in their lives.”

Image by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]
Image by Katy Blackwood, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Image by Drama Queen, via Flickr [CC BY 2.0]

Leave a Reply