When attempting to determine whether something is “natural ” (vis-a-vis yesterday’s post on Catholicism and homosexuality) one good way of investigating the issue is to use the genealogical method. So far as I can tell, there are no hunter-gatherer or pre-Neolithic societies that had taboos against homosexuality. We can therefore trace the history of the “sin of sodomy” (or religious injunction against homosexuality) back to the Hebrews.
The first recorded reference to sodomy, however, comes from the Assyrian Empire (circa 1500 BCE), where we find a fragmentary cuneiform inscription prohibiting sodomy among or between Assyrian soldiers. This prohibition applied only to the military and was not stated in moral or religious terms. Although the reasons for this regulation are unknown, we know that in Assyrian society at large there was no prohibition against homosexuality and it was widely accepted — as it was in all other Mesopotamian city-states.
Given the widespread acceptance and practice of homosexuality in the ancient Levant and elsewhere in Mesopotamia, what might account for the Hebrew treatment of homosexuality as a “sin against God”? Why did they make this a moral and religious issue?
The answer probably stems from the fact that the Hebrews always were a smaller group buffeted by the large-scale societies and empires that were continually warring with one another throughout Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Egypt. It is of course well-known that the Hebrews suffered several catastrophic military defeats, some of which ended in enslavement (the Egyptian and Babylonian captivities) and some of which resulted in loss of lands and emigration (the famous “Lost Tribes of Judah” and Jewish diaspora).
In this setting, the Jewish-Hebrew tribes would have been demographically challenged — they needed more tribe members to defend themselves and war for territory. This challenge would have led to an emphasis on fertility and procreation — two things not often associated with homosexuality. Making sodomy a sin and prohibiting homosexuality would have served these procreative goals and the interests of the group.
Early Christianity suffered under similar circumstances: Christians were small in number and heavily persecuted. Adopting the Jewish prohibition against homosexuality, treating sodomy as a sin, and encouraging marriage-based reproduction served the interests of small Christian communities. Increasing group size through reproduction is often an effective method of defense, and creating laws and rituals encouraging reproduction is one way of accomplishing this goal.
In more recent times, we see a similar example among the Mormons — who are famous for encouraging marriage (often plural) and having large families. The Mormons also suffered from heavy persecution during their early history, and one way of increasing their group size was to do so through reproduction. It was, over time, a highly effective strategy.
Religious laws and ritual regulations often have a basis in social ecology, a fact well demonstrated by Marvin Harris in his studies of the sacred cow of India and the Jewish-Muslim proscription on pork eating. Michael Harner made a similar showing regarding Aztec ritual sacrifice. Vernon Reynolds and Ralph Tanner treated this issue at length in their book, The Social Ecology of Religion.