Can you be 'born Christian'? 'Born gay'? 'Born trans'? This is a perilous question to ask, because frankly everyone reading will already have an answer to these questions. What's more, the more certain you are about how to resolve these questions, the angrier you will get when you confront those who believe otherwise. It is absolutely vital to some Christians that their children were 'born Christian' i.e. born into a Christian family, and it is equally vital to others that they were 'born gay', or 'born trans'. If we are used to encountering fights here, we expect it to be between the Christians and the gay community... so it's a new and fascinating situation that we are now witnessing battlegrounds between trans advocates and their gay and lesbian opponents who amazingly have now forged political alliances with certain Christians. How did this happen?
These topics stray into what philosophers call 'metaphysics', and all your untestable beliefs can be described as 'metaphysical'. This includes such diverse subjects as the qualities of God, or the belief that the sciences are destined to achieve ever-more-accurate descriptions of reality. It includes belief in your own nation's existence, and the existence of yourself as an individual. It includes the idea that a child can be 'born gay' or 'born trans', or that either is a 'lifestyle choice'. In short, in includes everything that lies outside of the possibility of definitive evidence, although an unfortunate quality of contemporary metaphysics is that people have become incapable of recognising this.
Pragmatically, a complete discussion of metaphysics is impossible. If I focus primarily upon Christians here it is solely because this religious identity has the key role in the United States where the political skirmishes I am sketching originated and from whence they propagated. They apply just as well to Hindus, Sikhs, or indeed Odinala of the Igbo, at least some of the time. Likewise, I am going to use 'gay' as shorthand for 'gay and lesbian', and I shall avoid using any of the various vowel-free Scrabble words deployed to pretend that there is still a unified community represented by the Rainbow flag, rather than the grim 'queer wars' that have been raging for more than a decade now.
The roots of these issues are far older. Aristotle coined the term 'metaphysics' for whatever thinking could happen 'beyond physics' (hence the name), but for our purposes we only need to go back a hundred and not two thousand years. For if there was a single topic that dominated the trajectory of the twentieth century it was metaphysics... specifically, the steadfast avoidance of this philosophical hinterland, and the denial of its relevance. From the Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s onwards, metaphysics were marked as suspect, deemed the exclusive preserve of that catch-all category of dismissal 'religion'. It is frankly no surprise at all that the bizarre fruit grown from this trend in the twenty first century are beliefs that to the eyes of many people are indistinguishable from religions.
Yet metaphysical commitments are not religions, not least of all because they do not foster a direct community of care, which is a central defining trait of all religious traditions. The association of 'metaphysics' as purely a religious matter, therefore, distorts religion as much as it does the sciences, knowledge, and morality - all of which must be bootstrapped by metaphysical commitments. It is the breaking away from organised religion (primarily but not exclusively Christianity) that is the historical backstory of the twentieth century turn away from metaphysics, and that legacy has had unfortunate consequences.
Part of this story is the one I have told many times before, about how the association of metaphysics with nonsense by the Vienna Circle of philosophers and scientists led inexorably to new and more disturbing forms of nonsense. These prototypes for the analytic philosophers' fateful trajectory tried to 'think scientifically' by dismissing everything that could not be known as irrelevant to all rational thought. Perhaps if they'd read and understood Friedrich Nietzsche, they'd have appreciated the bitter irony of this curiously self defeating move, as nobody before or since Nietzsche has been so spot on about it being "still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests."
We deceive ourselves when we think we can secure our knowledge without resort to metaphysics, because even the commitment to investigate matters through research requires a metaphysical foundation. Albert Einstein and his generation of scientists understood this. They had necessarily read Immanuel Kant, whose philosophy underpinned every position on scientific matters after him. But the current generation of researchers not only don't know Kant, they don't know Karl Popper, or even Francis Bacon - indeed, they seem to know nothing at all about the established practices of the sciences. How else are we to explain utterly incomprehensible remarks like Peter Hotez's recent and bizarre suggestion that "one doesn't typically debate science"...?
A great deal of trouble has been caused by this century-long attempt to brush metaphysics under the carpet. Quite honestly, scientific investigations are extremely difficult to pursue if you cannot distinguish experiment and theory from metaphysics, something that arguably reached peak nonsense in evolutionary psychology and related subjects that throw away all the complexities involved in investigating biology and behaviour over geological time. As I accused in The Mythology of Evolution, these half-metaphysical domains offer the kind of simple pat answers that we also find in Victorian natural historians attributing the perfections of nature to God.
But all this is nothing next to the metaphysics of gender, which is now eclipsing the blurring of scientific research via various forms of 'science-loving' beliefs as the premier metaphysical battle line. On the one hand, there are trans activists espousing gender metaphysics that mean that you can be born a different gender to your biological sex, a gender that exists in the mind of the individual and can only be known by them. I have some sympathy for the radical existentialism being attempted here, and also for its inherent absurdity since I am a lover of the absurd. But I draw the line at death threats, something trans activists have repeatedly engaged in and refused to denounce.
When your metaphysical beliefs tell you that other people have to believe a particular way, you are immediately in the problematic territory that caused the Abrahamic religions to get their bad reputation. 'Believe or die' has been the clarion call of the metaphysical fanatic for millennia. Any attempt to defend against this by evoking the image of 'trans genocide' is a gross insult to the historical victims of genocide, such as the 1994 mass murder of the Tutsi in Rwanda. Supporting trans people in their individuality is a key contemporary challenge - yet this is categorically not achieved by vocal advocates being unable to distinguish between literal and figurative genocide, nor indeed by a refusal to condemn those who purposefully terrorise their political adversaries.
Don't think for a second, however, that the trans activists are the only people whose gender metaphysics have spun out of control. Among their political opponents are gender-critical feminists who assert the absolute truth of biological sex and the utter unreality of gender. While I support their freedom to break out from the strictures of social gender however they wish, it can hardly be said that this position represents truth to the trans activists falsehood. The 'unreality of gender', after all, is in the same boat as the reality-or-otherwise of nations and individuals - if we are to disbelieve social realities, why stop at gender...?
It was difficult to appreciate the vast cultural problems of metaphysics when the topic was 'atheists versus Christians', because each side had their own metaphysical commitments to 'God' or 'Not God' and could only encounter the other side's perspective as madness. Now we have reached an equivalent state regarding the metaphysics of gender as well - nobody seems to have realised that we are facing multiple radically different gender metaphysics. Two of these are visible in the clash between the classical gay and lesbian belief that 'you are born gay' and the new metaphysical belief that 'you are born trans'. Factions in the gay community now claim, not without justification, that foregrounding trans gender metaphysics amounts to 'erasing' gay culture. Small wonder the Rainbow Alliance has been torn asunder by this new factionalism that brings to mind the wars in the wake of the Reformation in 16th and 17th century Europe...
Of course, it doesn't end there. There is also the metaphysical belief of certain Christians that being gay, lesbian, or trans is a 'lifestyle choice', which was in fact a major cultural battleground before gender nonsense took the main stage. We might recall that the New Atheists made a push not that long ago to have us rethink religion so that all religions might be deemed a 'lifestyle choice' - another pointless and offensive metaphysical skirmish to throw onto the ever-growing pile. Honestly, if you can accept that you can be 'born Christian', it's not that big of a stretch to being 'born gay' or 'born trans', yet all of these descriptions fall short of getting to the heart of the matter.
What's frequently in conflict here is somewhat closer to 'family versus individual' - since 'Christian' is an identity built over millennia upon ideal conceptions of the family and, for good or ill, both gay and trans identities were predicated at least in part of their troubled history upon breaking with the family. If you take a visit to a Spencer's store in the US and browse their 'statement' T-shirts you'll immediately see why I can say this ('This is not a phase' is clearly a message intended for parents). The battleground over access to medications for trans people has become so fraught precisely because it continues this undermining of the legitimacy of families.
It is staggering to me that those who argue for the medical autonomy of minors cannot even conceive of the risks involved in handing the responsibilities of parenthood over to government intervention. The trans community urgently needs to think through the problems it actually faces. On the one hand, the power of doctors is denied in the trans invocation of 'assigned at birth'. On the other, the trans community is enslaving itself to medical corporations that are far more interested in selling drugs than in respecting what it means to be trans. All manner of disasters lie not very far along this path.
So what's the truth about how we are born? Can you be 'born Christian'? 'Born gay'? 'Born trans'? It depends upon what you believe, upon your own metaphysical commitments. Sadly, it is precisely because these commitments are untestable beliefs that these disputes have become largely meaningless distractions from far more important political matters. If you are a Christian, your children can be 'born Christian', and if you are gay or trans you can back-project and say you were 'born that way'... but in so much as there is any kind of absolute truth here, it is only that you are born a baby, and what you may discover you are or are not as you grow up has precious little to do with your birth.
The political skirmishes in the early twenty first century that railed against the idea of 'gay' or 'trans' being a 'lifestyle choice' revolved around what kind of legal protections ought to be afforded. That's precisely what made these disputes so bitter. Frankly, acknowledging that these are metaphysical beliefs ought to be enough to see that we must allow these diverse perspectives, because religious freedom is supposedly protected. Today, the category of 'religion' obscures more than just the truth about religious practitioners - it conceals the necessity of recognising all metaphysical beliefs and thus never instituting one set to the exclusion of all others. Teaching young students that there are 1,001 genders is to take one set of metaphysical beliefs and to canonise it - if that would not be an acceptable thing to do with Christian beliefs, it cannot be acceptable for gender metaphysics either.
Freedom, the authentic capacity to set your own purposes, rests upon the demilitarisation of metaphysics. Freedom of religion was the formulation that made sense to the Founding Fathers of the United States of America, but today limiting metaphysical beliefs to 'religion' is causing more trouble than it is worth because the term 'religion' has devolved into merely a generic bogeyman. What is needed now is freedom of metaphysics, and this is next to impossible when gender metaphysics are absurdly couched as a scientific dispute, all while prominent imbeciles insist that the sciences are not in the business of discussion, as if truth emerges from the heads of scientists by divine intervention. What a mess!
You must own your metaphysics, or else your own beliefs will betray you without fail. You - along with every other human - cannot live from moment to moment without embracing a peculiar set of untestable beliefs that underpin everything meaningful about you and those around you. Only when you can do this, when you can acknowledge that your metaphysics make you who you must be will we come close to ending the uncivil war of gender metaphysics, and behind and before it, the cultural skirmishes over religious practice and its alternatives. Freedom of metaphysics is the unrecognised political necessity of our time. Until we appreciate this, there will be nothing but endless, intractable culture wars that harm everyone involved in ways we have not even begun to acknowledge.
The opening image is a detail from Sonia Gechtoff's 1959 Children of Frejus. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down as asked.