Saturday, July 09, 2016

Some notes on the issues of sexual conduct I have been discussing

The modern latitudinarians speak,
for instance, about authority in religion not only as if there were no
reason in it, but as if there had never been any reason for it. Apart
from seeing its philosophical basis, they cannot even see its historical
cause. Religious authority has often, doubtless, been oppressive or
unreasonable; just as every legal system (and especially our present
one) has been callous and full of a cruel apathy. It is rational to
attack the police; nay, it is glorious. But the modern critics of
religious authority are like men who should attack the police without
ever having heard of burglars. -G. K. Chesterton Orthodoxy
The Bible was written to suppress people---Larry Flynt

Let me clarify my position on these issues somewhat better. My original comments on this issue was occasioned by Richard Carrier's sexual harassment issues, but also in response to some issues in the recent history of the atheist community, such as Elevatorgate.

I mentioned that a more liberal view of sexual conduct is often a selling point for atheism. I did not mean to suggest that people who are atheists are atheists because they want sex. That would be the Christian version of the Ultimate Bribe Argument. The atheist version of the Ultimate Bribe argument is that although theists present rational considerations on behalf of their religious beliefs, we can be sure that these rational considerations are not the real reasons they believe what they do. Rather, it is because they get something that cannot live without emotionally, namely the hope of eternal life. The Christian version of the UBA says that atheists don't want to think of their sex life as morally wrong, nor do they want to go through the difficult and painful process of repenting of their sexual sin and observing limits to their sexual conduct, so they look for any excuse they can to deny the truth of Christianity, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that supports it.

 But I think a lot of people think that a more liberal sexual ethic is an important side benefit of atheism, one that liberates a person from the guilt they might feel if they have failed to satisfy what they believe Christianity requires of them. While eternal life is a motivating factor for some Christians, sexual freedom is a motivating factor for some atheists. But if these arguments are pressed far enough, they become discussion stoppers. Any attempt on either side to offer an intellectual reason for believing one way or the other can be stopped just by saying "I don't care what you say, I know why you REALLY think what you do." I realize that these explanations are appealing to people who can't see any intellectual value in their opponents' position. And I think we do have to be aware of the ways in which nonrational considerations might affect our beliefs, and that we might be less rational than we think we are. But in thinking about what our opponents believe, all we have are possible psychological explanations.

What I said was that we shouldn't be too terribly surprised if the atheist community has a problem with sexual harassment. Some have suggested that these problems have arisen because atheist communities are more sensitive to sexual harassment and take it more seriously than others.

But I think there is another possible explanation. Possibly secularists, in overreaction to the sexually restrictive character of the world's leading religions, have, as it were, fallen off the horse on the other side, and are not willing to recognize that sex, like every other type of activity, must be guarded by ethics, and that in this area as in others, there are times when we would very much like to do what would really be highly unethical and wrong. The Orthodoxy quotation, though it concerns a somewhat different matter, suggests the direction of my complaint. To read some people of a secularist persuasion, there is no possible reason why any reasonable person would ever want to have moral rules restricting sexual behavior. Thus, sexual behavior gets a pass even when it does harm in a way that other conduct does not. The exception seems to be a requirement that the parties consent, but even here the complexities of what really constitutes consent is simply not recognized. 

In C. S. Lewis's Essay "Have We No Right to Happiness," Lewis points out a blind spot that modern people have concerning sex:

“After all,” said Clare. “they had a right to happiness.”
We were discussing something that once happened in our own neighborhood. Mr. A. had deserted Mrs. A. and got his divorce in order to marry Mrs. B., who had likewise got her divorce in order to marry Mr. A. And there was certainly no doubt that Mr. A. and Mrs. B. were very much in love with one another. If they continued to be in love, and if nothing went wrong with their health or their income, they might reasonable expect to be very happy.
It was equally clear that they were not happy with their old partners. Mrs. B. had adored her husband at the outset. But then he got smashed up in the war. It was thought he had lost his virility, and it was known that he had lost his job. Life with him was no longer what Mrs. B. had bargained for. Poor Mrs. A., too. She had lost her looks—and all her liveliness. It might be true, as some said, that she consumed herself by bearing his children and nursing him through the long illness that overshadowed their earlier married life.
You mustn’t, by the way, imagine that A. was the sort of man who nonchalantly threw a wife away like the peel of an orange he’d sucked dry. Her suicide was a terrible shock to him. We all knew this, for he told us so himself. “But what could I do?” he said. “A man has a right to happiness. I had to take my one chance when it came.”
Lewis goes on to add: 
Clare, in fact, is doing what the whole western world seems to me to have been doing for the last 40-odd years. When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, “Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat all our other impulses.” I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant that sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you’re a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is “four bare legs in a bed.”
Let's start with Richard Dawkins. Remember his comments downplaying the sexual misconduct of even Catholic priests? Or his Dear Muslima comments about Rebecca Watson's complaints about how men pursued sex at atheist conventions. Watson, to be sure, is anything but an advocate of traditional sexual ethics. She objected to the way in which such sex was pursued. Yet, somehow by making these complaints Dawkins implied that somehow she was trivializing the suffering of women living under Sharia law, or suffering female genital mutilation.

Or consider Darrel Ray's denial that sex addicts exist. That people pursue sex compulsively, even when it harms themselves, their families, and their careers, seems as obvious as can be, and to deny this seems like a great occasion for the Strait answer: 

I got some ocean front property in Arizona.
From my front porch you can see the sea.
I got some ocean front property in Arizona.
If you'll buy that, I'll throw the golden gate in free.

I am certainly not suggesting that Christians don't have blind spots when it comes to sexual issues. Chief amongst these has been the tendency in Christian groups to make sexual compliance a litmus test for spiritual success, and the mistaken idea, very prevalent until recently, that same-sex attraction is always repairable.

However, traditional sexual ethics facilitates a stable atmosphere for childrearing, eliminates the need to market oneself throughout life as a sexual partner, and prevents people with money and power from taking using that power for sexual benefit. Even from a secular standpoint, these goals need to be taken seriously. 


Crude said...

Even from a secular standpoint, these goals need to be taken seriously.

But why? They've got such great examples showing how you can be good without God, especially when it comes to sexual ethics!

Victor Reppert said...

Polyamory and swinging and even the attending of orgies requires more ethical behavior and more careful attention to boundaries and consent than traditional sexual relationships do. And people who are ethical enough to be accepted in those communities are the very people who get Atheism+ and why it is needed.
The bottom line is, we are already enthusiastically in favor of people pursuing all kinds of sexual activities, even at atheist events. Many of our most avid supports are wholeheartedly doing this. The only thing we are concerned about is that people do this ethically, that people don’t use their sex drives as an excuse to harass, harm, or cross boundaries.

--Richard Carrier.

See, in order to be poly you've got to be more ethical than if you are just monogamous. How did that work out?

I really think Carrier was led up the garden path by secular ideology.

Crude said...

I really think Carrier was led up the garden path by secular ideology.

Perhaps. I admit, I'm tempted by an alternative view: 'secular ideology' tends to act as a magnet for off-putting sorts. I could make some good jokes here, but I'll leave it at that.

jps said...

My observation it that in debating questions of sexual ethics on internet fora, the concept of 'sexual rights' and 'sexual minorities' and the like, has now become so embedded in popular discourse as to be unquestionable, and that to question it, is to immediately be accused of 'authoritarianism and bigotry'. So I think in effect what has happened, is that Western culture has legitimised hedonistic sexuality to the point where its expression is regarded as a fundamental right. It basically has a place at the table. As Mary Eberstadt says in a comment on that 'The first commandment of this new secularist writ is that no sexual act between consenting adults is wrong. Two corollary imperatives are that whatever contributes to consenting sexual acts is an absolute good, and that anything interfering, or threatening to interfere, with consenting sexual acts is ipso facto wrong.'

I am not a political conservative, but am socially very conservative compared to my adult sons and their friends in these questions. But I'm a voice in the wilderness, I can't even voice my feelings on it. 'The opposition that dare not speak it's name'.

IlĂ­on said...

If you dare, ask your sons for their opinion on either:
1) you cheating on their mother;
2) you pimping out their mother to other men.