Religion & Sexuality: Iron Age or Dark Ages?

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Since today is Christmas Day, our subject is sexuality and religion. Specifically, what do the world’s three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, & Judaism) say about sex? Of course, it depends on whom you ask. Each religion’s adherents form a wide spectrum of observance, from the orthodox/fundamentalist to the “I like the holiday food.”

That said, here are some of the common ideas about sex featured in the mainstream traditions of one or more of the three religions:

* no sex during menstruation
* no birth control
* no abortion
* no same-gender sex
* no anal sex
* no oral sex
* no sexual fantasy
* no masturbation
* no non-monogamy
* no sex before marriage
* no marrying outside the religion
* no sex outside marriage

Let’s remember that these rules were formulated and distributed primarily between 1,200 B.C.E. and 800 C.E. To put this in context, the people involved:

* lived primarily as nomads or shepherds, or (later) on farms or in villages;
* had tremendously high rates of infant & child mortality, as well as women dying in childbirth;
* expected to live, if things went well, to about age 40;
* had almost no privacy;
* had no electricity, and virtually no light after dark;
* had very little non-family mixed-gender interaction;
* had no indoor plumbing, and rarely bathed;
* with few exceptions, never went anyplace more than 50 miles from their birthplace.

As a result, large, hierarchical families were crucial for both individual economic survival and community political survival. Families formed clans and tribes to regulate marriage, economic transactions, and political conflict.

The idea that we in the 21st century would live according to rules set up by people living in such extraordinarily different circumstances is bizarre. How many modern people want to be limited to the medical, agricultural, or industrial knowledge of a thousand or two thousand years ago? Do we want their blood feuds, their beliefs in witchcraft, their lack of hygiene, their dependence on nature, their frequent illiteracy, and their complete lack of social mobility?

No? Then why do three billion men and women today limit their sexual expression to the behaviors, beliefs, superstitions, and fear of those people?

Note that I am not talking about “cultural” ideas about sexuality. Different locales, in different centuries, have or have had contrasting norms: the Victorian English (little intercourse in middle-class marriage), 1950s Americans (very little cunnilingus), today’s rural Irish (sex without fully undressing), India for centuries (arranged marriages), some 20th-century Arabs (clitoridectomy). The Nazi encouragement of non-marital sex and the ancient Greek habit of upper-class heterosexual men with boys are other examples.

None of these customs was dictated by religion; God’s will wasn’t or isn’t invoked as the reason.

But today, in the 21st century, educated people actually believe that God cares about which orifice, which time of the month, which sperm, which embryo, which partner. If you believe in God, I propose that God has more important things to worry about—global warming, a nuclear North Korea, the HIV epidemic orphaning millions of African children, how to feed China & India, and the Red Sox’s desperate need for a dependable relief pitcher.

And if you believe in God, if you believe that sexuality is a divine gift, I suggest that you simply have sex in a godly fashion. Following the rules of religion is no guarantee that your sex will be godly (ask the battered wives who have monogamous intercourse); just as importantly, many people who break those rules have sex at which God would smile.

Christmas is a good time to remember that when it comes to sex, religion and spirituality, religion and godliness, religion and “love thy neighbor,” are two different things.

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