In the name of upholding ancient gender norms, Christian apologists are increasingly willing to throw out all of modern science.
It’s a sign of the times: former leaders of the atheist movement are now finding common ground with Catholic apologists to oppose equal rights.
That’s the short summary of this article by Brian Graebe in The Catholic Thing, in which a Catholic priest finds himself agreeing with Richard Dawkins that transgender people don’t exist. However, the irony (such as it is) is that they’re against it for opposite reasons.
Dawkins demeaningly compares gender transition to transubstantiation, dismissing them both as impossible. Graebe says the opposite: wafers and wine can change into flesh and blood, but human beings can’t change gender. To justify this claim, he says:
To be human is to be body and soul, not as loosely tied elements but as an essential unity. A male human has a male body and a male soul. A female human has a female body and a female soul. That a soul is male, or female may surprise us since we often associate sex only with the body. But we are sexed persons, not just sexed bodies. A man is a man because the maleness of his soul acts through and finds expression in his body.
You may find it surprising to hear a priest insisting that souls are male or female. Modern Christian apologists are increasingly insistent that sex and gender are fundamental aspects of the universe. It’s a defensive move in response to a society that’s no longer enforcing gender roles as strictly as it used to. In this respect, Graebe is part of a trend.
However, this theorizing contradicts their own scripture. Jesus says that the saved in heaven “will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels” (Matthew 22:30), strongly implying that human souls are genderless.
Is it even coherent to say that a soul has sex or gender? The idea of the soul as a mystical essence that survives the death of the body, and retains the most important aspects of our selves, is well-established in religion and popular culture.
However, the more you reflect on this notion, the more problematic it becomes. Souls, being non-physical, can’t have gonads, or hormones, or anything else in the modern scientific model of gender taxonomy. You can say that souls possess a Platonic essence of gender, an entirely abstract masculinity or femininity… but how can this work? What is it made of?
The Abrahamic religions have a pre-scientific understanding of gender, just as they have a pre-scientific understanding of other natural phenomena. We now know that gender identity is a complex and emergent phenomenon stemming from the complex interplay of genes, hormones, culture, and other causal factors we don’t fully understand yet. To say that such an experience could be meaningfully retained by a disembodied consciousness defies logic. It’s like trying to pour memories into a bottle for safekeeping, or boxing up a sense of satisfaction to warm yourself on a rainy day. It makes for poetically evocative metaphor, but it’s not the stuff of physical reality.
However, we can cut off this angels-dancing-on-pinheads debate with a simpler and more trenchant reply: Souls don’t exist.
No ghost in the machine
There’s no supernatural locus of consciousness inside us, no ghost in the machine. We are our physical bodies. More specifically, we are our nervous systems. The patterning of our neurons gives rise to consciousness and self-awareness. It creates our thoughts and beliefs and it’s the mechanism by which our choices are made.
This isn’t a matter of faith. The evidence of neurology strongly supports this proposition. Injuries to the physical structure of the brain can alter a person’s identity, personality, or behavior. They can make a diligent, hardworking person slothful; they can cause religious belief to fade, or ignite it where it didn’t exist before; they can erase a person’s sense of empathy or cause violent behavior. No evidence has ever proven the existence of a soul that can think, reason or perceive apart from the body.
This materialist viewpoint has some important implications. For one, it means there’s nothing we’re “supposed” to be, and no one way we’re commanded to live. There’s no higher authority that defines what’s normal—or normative—for a human being.
Rather, the umbrella term “human” encompasses a wide spectrum of variation. As is always the case in evolution, some of this is for the better, some is for the worse, and most is simply neutral. There’s no place where you can draw a line and state definitively that everything on one side is right and everything on the other is abnormal or wrong.
Shoulds and shouldn’ts
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all beliefs or all behaviors are equally good. Some are helpful for human survival, while others are objectively harmful to us. Starting from the basics, we can build up a detailed theory of human flourishing. We can reason amongst ourselves to determine what best contributes to well-being and what impedes it. That’s how we arrive at morality.
Even then, moral knowledge, like scientific knowledge, isn’t something we discover once and then chisel into immutable stone. Morality is an ongoing conversation, as we enlarge the circle of empathy and come to recognize injustices we’ve previously overlooked. It’s always open to questioning and reevaluation.
There are, indeed, some “shoulds” that our biological nature imposes on us. For example, humans should eat a diet rich in vitamin C so that we don’t get scurvy, because our bodies have lost the ability to synthesize it.
On the other hand, there are some “shoulds” that were never anything but habit, prejudice, or arbitrary custom. For example, we no longer believe that white people are genetically entitled to colonize and rule over other races, or that women are unsuited to vote or to hold political power, or that the state should enforce religious orthodoxy and punish heretics and dissenters. Part of moral reasoning is learning the difference between rules that have good reasons backing them up and ones that never did.
One of the most hotly contested areas right now is the question of gender roles, and gender in general. What makes a person a man or a woman? Do you have to be one or the other? Can you be neither, or both, or somewhere in between? What does your gender imply about who you can love, or what roles you should fill in society, or how you dress or present yourself in public? Is anyone harmed if we let people explore these questions for themselves?
The LGBTQ movement—first the campaigners for gay and lesbian rights, and now for transgender rights—deserve credit for shaking up our thinking. They’ve made a compelling case that most of the old beliefs about gender were arbitrary taboos, trapping people in lives that confined them and made them miserable. Just as we’ve rejected stereotypes about how women or people of color were “meant” to live, we’re now confronting these stereotypes in turn.
However, every step forward provokes a backlash from those who benefit—or seek to benefit—from oppression. The Catholic church (and, sad to say, Richard Dawkins) are clinging to the notion that all the old beliefs about gender were fine as they were and nothing needs to be questioned or changed. They continue to insist that people should be compelled into roles determined at birth, with no regard for what those people want for themselves.
Are intersex people God’s mistakes?
The heart of Graebe’s argument is his insistence that God doesn’t make mistakes. He says it’s impossible to have a “male soul” in a biologically female body, or vice versa. Therefore, he concludes, anyone who believes themselves to be transgender is self-deluded:
To deny that essential unity is to say that God made a mistake. …Jesus says, “This is my body,” but we cannot say that of ourselves. Our body belongs not to us, but to God, and he will not be mocked.
Again, there’s an obvious reply: How does this theology account for intersex people?
As I wrote in Christians against pronouns, it’s objectively true that there are human beings who defy simplistic notions of a gender binary.
Some people are born with ambiguous genitalia, neither a penis nor a clitoris (both of which develop from the same primordial structure in the fetus), but something intermediate.
Some people have XY sex chromosomes, but their bodies don’t respond to androgen hormones, causing them to develop along a physiologically female trajectory. They’re infertile, but only a detailed medical exam would reveal the cause. Caster Semenya, the South African athlete, is a famous example.
Some people have the condition called 46,XX/46,XY, in which two fertilized zygotes, one XX and one XY, fuse together in the womb and develop into a single fetus. This results in a single person with chimeric genes. Some of their cells express one set of sex chromosomes, and other cells express the other. People with this condition can be physiologically male, physiologically female, or intersex.
In rare cases, some people have ovotesticular syndrome, in which they have gonads that are neither ovaries nor testes, but contain tissues characteristic of both.
The mere existence of these people defies Catholic dogma. Religious beliefs which claim that everyone is either strictly male or strictly female, with no ambiguity and no in-between, crash and wreck on the rocks of these objective facts.
Did God make a mistake when he created intersex people? If not, what gender are their souls? Unless your theology has an unambiguous answer for this, you shouldn’t be pontificating (so to speak!) about transgender people.
Graebe claims that whatever way your body is at birth, that’s the way God meant for you to live. If that’s so, why do Catholics accept eyeglasses, or wheelchairs, or appendectomy, or birth by C-section? Aren’t all these medical interventions also implicitly saying that God made a mistake and that it’s up to humans to correct it?
This logic leads straight to a rejection of all medicine. Catholic apologists are so determined to uphold ancient gender norms, they’re willing to throw out everything else… including virtually the entire modern era.