Can Atheists Have a Code of Sexual Morality?

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Can atheists have a code of sexual morality?

With the publication of recent books about atheism, the simultaneous attempts to blur the separation of church and state promised in our Constitution, and Americans’ unending obsession with matters sexual, the question arises:

Can atheists have a code of sexual morality?

This question is at once hilarious, insulting, pathetic, and revealing. It only makes sense if you believe in two things:
1. Moral thought and behavior are essentially determined by the fear of punishment;
2. The definition of “morality” regarding sex is different than it is for other human endeavors.

And indeed, young children and emotionally under-developed adults do make moral choices based on the fear of punishment. Organized religion relies on and promotes this style of personality organization: “Do the right thing or God will punish you.”

And what is the right thing regarding sex? Every organized religion has highly specific answers to this question. They mostly involve “God doesn’t want you to do sex this way; God strongly prefers you do sex that way.” And if you disagree with God about your sexual expression, see rule #1.

Organized religion typically imagines sexual “morality” as involving limitations. In most cases, the less sex you have the better God likes it; God, apparently, also wants you to limit the number of sexual partners with whom you do the right or wrong sexual acts.

So religiously-oriented people ask, in all sincerity, “if you’re not afraid of being punished for doing the wrong sexual acts, how and why do you keep from doing them? And if you don’t follow God’s rules about which sex acts are allowed and forbidden (as interpreted by a priesthood or sacred commentary), how do you know you’re making moral choices?”


So here is the adult version of atheist sexual ethics: Do not do unto others as you would not have others do unto you.

(Memo to religious people—does this sound familiar?)

In more contemporary and pragmatic language, atheists operationalize sexual ethics this way:
* Consent
* Honesty
* Responsibility

Of course, implementing this requires some thought. Are both people in a position to consent (consider alcohol, age, the pressure of status differences, etc.)? Does honesty cover not just telling the truth, but also not leaving things out? And do both parties have the knowledge, insight, and self-awareness to be able to take responsibility for their decisions?

Grownup atheists don’t need to fear some metaphysical being in order to prefer doing what’s right—all clear-thinking adults prefer doing what’s right. And grownup atheists don’t need a one-size-fits-all menu of sexual acts. They know that doing only the sexual acts on God’s Preferred List is no guarantee of moral decision-making or ethical behavior. And they have experienced the deep satisfaction of ethical decision-making while rockin’ the house with taboo sexual acts that would make seraphim and cherubim blush.

Is every atheist morally upright? Of course not. Does every atheist follow an honorable code of sexual morality? Definitely not.

But the question—can atheists have a code of sexual morality?—is very much like asking if blacks can really be good parents, or if gays can be expected to keep their hands off their fellow soldiers while showering or sleeping.

Just substitute the word “Baptist” or “Jew” for the word “atheist” to get a sense of how offensive and absurd the question is.

If I’m trapped in a foxhole—or a shower, slumber party, or abandoned farmhouse—give me someone who celebrates the human capacity for understanding and choosing what’s right, rather than someone who needs to be told what’s right, and then chooses it to avoid punishment.

As far as sexual decision-making being different from other kinds of decision-making? That sounds like something made up by people who believe that our sexuality is dangerous, and isn’t really ours, and that our bodies are dirty. If I thought that, I’d also believe that less sex is better than more sex.

No, making choices regarding sex is like making other choices.

Some people want to maximize human respect.

Other people just want to stay out of hell. They’re the ones who trivialize the majesty of sex.

(Note: Thanks to Greta Christina for her years of work in this area, and for supporting me in mine.)

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