Sex and God: Is Religion Twisted?
by James A. Haught
The following article is from Free
Inquiry magazine, Volume 17, Number 4.
"Christian endeavor," H. L. Mencken wrote, "is notoriously hard on
female pulchritude." He was right, of course, and he should have included Jewish
endeavor and Muslim endeavor in his observation. Western religions have spent millennia
inflicting shame, guilt, repression, and punishment upon human sexuality - especially
Asian faiths aren't so punitive. They generally accept lovemaking as a natural part of
life. Some Hindu temples are covered with statues of copulating gods and goddesses.
Millions of Shiva worshipers pray over models of his erect penis. Tantric sects practice
But the West presents an opposite, ugly story: a long chronicle of religious hostility
to lovers - for no rational reason.
Annals of Antagonism
The Old Testament raged against "whoredom" and commanded that nonvirgin
brides be stoned to death (Deut. 22:21).
In the first century C.E., Paul urged celibacy for Christians. The earliest known papal
decree, issued by Pope Siricius in 386, attempted (without much success) to forbid church
elders from making love with their wives. Scholar Reay Tannahill says that early Christian
leaders made sex and "sin" synonymous. "It was Augustine who epitomized a
general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally
disgusting," she says. "Arnobius called it filthy and degrading, Methodius
unseemly, Jerome unclean, Tertullian shameful, Ambrose defilement." 
When priests oversaw the historic witch-hunts - in which thousands of women were
tortured and burned - church writings reeked of revulsion to female sexuality. A medieval
cardinal, Hughes de St. Cher, wrote: "Woman pollutes the body, drains the resources,
kills the soul, uproots the strength, blinds the eye, and embitters the voice." 
In late nineteenth-century America, Anthony Comstock and his "Committee for the
Suppression of Vice" pursued sex like a hunted animal. About 2,500 people were
convicted on morality charges, and Congress passed the puritanical Comstock Laws. Margaret
Sanger was jailed eight times for advocating birth control.
Until recently, thanks to church pressure, nearly every U.S. state had Old
Testament-style laws against "fornication" and "sodomy" and the like.
It wasn't until 1972 that the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that all American couples
have a right to practice birth control. The clergy's opposition to contraception had been
based not so much on a desire for limitless breeding as a desire to prevent people from
enjoying the sexual freedom brought by birth control.
Today, the church's ability to imprison nonconformists has receded. However, nearly
every censorship effort or attempt at sexual repression still comes from religion.
North Carolina's 1.2 million Southern Baptists recently voted to shut off their
television sets for a day to protest "moral depravity" in shows such as
"NYPD Blue," which contains partial nudity and sexual situations.
In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared unmarried sex and birth-control "intrinsically
evil." In my city (Charleston, West Virginia), two brave nuns, Patricia Hussey and
Barbara Ferraro, battled Catholicism's sexual taboos until they finally were forced out of
their order. They recounted their struggle in a 1990 book, No Turning Back.
It says: "The church really hates the idea of people having sex for fun. ... There is
something prurient and dishonest about the church's loathing for the body."
As the American public has seen, sometimes the ministers who rail loudest against
"filth" and "pornography" are cloaking their secret sins. Television
evangelists Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker both fell to private sex scandals. Georgia
revivalist Mario Leyva went to prison in 1990 for sodomizing more than 100 church boys,
and two assistant pastors likewise were jailed. Numerous such cases appear in the news.
As American clergy endlessly strive to censor sex from public media, an odd
contradiction has arisen: Ministers raise little objection to a movie containing 50
murders - but a glimpse of a woman's nipple brings their wrath. A popular song commented:
"Bullets fly like popcorn on the screen, recommended wholesome, nice and clean.
Making love's the thing that can't be seen. Why?"
(Using legal language, Congress and state legislatures periodically ponder laws to
imprison purveyors of "ultimate sexual acts." In my newspaper, I once asked
readers to suggest what might be an ultimate sexual act. A couple in a rubber raft going
over Niagara Falls? Two elephants in a china shop?)
Meanwhile, the sexual hangups of Christianity today are trivial compared to those in
the Muslim world, where suppression of women continues at Old Testament levels. Some
- In Muslim Somalia, an estimated 98% of girls are genitally mutilated to inhibit their
sexual pleasure throughout their lives and keep them "pure" for husbands. But it
doesn't always work. In 1993, a United Nations team found five women being stoned to death
for adultery. They had been condemned by mosque leaders, and the execution was carried out
after evening prayers. Cheering villagers videotaped the killing. U.N. observers who tried
to save the women were driven off by threats of death. U.N. agent Cecelia Kamau said
bitterly: "Fundamentalism is really catching on."
- In Muslim Algeria, zealots shot high school girls in the face for not wearing veils and
cut the throats of professors who taught boys and girls in the same classrooms.
- In Muslim Iran, morality patrols flog women who allow a lock of hair to show beneath
their shrouds, and clerics laboriously black out women's faces in imported magazines.
- In Muslim Afghanistan, a major mujahideen (holy warrior) leader got his start by
throwing acid in the faces of unveiled college girls. Now that even-more-puritanical
Taliban religious students have seized Afghanistan, they've decreed that all windows must
be painted black, lest someone look at a woman through one, and they stone women to death
for being in the company of a man who isn't a relative.
It would probably take an army of psychiatrists and historians to pinpoint all the
reasons Western religions developed such hostility toward human sexuality. More important
is the question: Is this attitude justified? Are there ethical, rational reasons to
support the religious condemnation of normal, sexual desires?
Perhaps the most detailed and insightful answer came from none other than humanist
Bertrand Russell, who said that a "morbid and unnatural" attitude toward sex is
"the worst feature of the Christian religion." And much of what he said applies
with equal force to the other Western religions. He asserted that religious aversion to
sex is not only unfounded but harmful. Against the prevailing anti-sex views of religion,
he argued that sexual pleasure is a positive good and that religious objections are based
not on reason but on dogma. But perhaps his most important argument was that religious
anti-sexuality attitudes inflict untold human misery, especially on women. He observed:
Monks have always regarded Woman primarily as the temptress; they have thought of her
mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts. The teaching of the church has been, and still is,
that virginity is best, but that for those who find this impossible marriage is
permissible. "It is better to marry than to burn," as St. Paul brutally puts it.
By making marriage indissoluble, and by stamping out all knowledge of the ars amandi,
the church did what it could to secure that the only form of sex which it permitted should
involve very little pleasure and great deal of pain. The opposition to birth control has,
in fact, the same motive: if a woman has a child a year until she dies worn out, it is not
to be supposed that she will derive much pleasure from her married life; therefore birth
control must be discouraged. 
Strangely, Russell said, the church doesn't seem to care how much misery its rigid sex
laws inflict on people. He cited this example:
An inexperienced girl is married to a syphilitic man; in that case the Catholic Church
says, "This is an indissoluble sacrament. You must endure celibacy or stay together.
And if you stay together, you must not use birth control to prevent the birth of
syphilitic children." Nobody whose natural sympathies have not been warped by dogma,
or whose moral nature was not absolutely dead to all sense of suffering, could maintain
that it is right and proper that that state of things should continue. 
Russell maintained that it wasn't just regarding sexual behavior that the Christian
attitude was harmful to human welfare - but also regarding basic knowledge of sexuality:
Every person who has taken the trouble to study the question in an unbiased spirit
knows that the artificial ignorance on sex subjects which orthodox Christians attempt to
enforce upon the young is extremely dangerous to mental and physical health, and causes in
those who pick up their knowledge by the way of "improper" talk, as most
children do, an attitude that sex is in itself indecent and ridiculous. I do not think
there can be any defense for the view that knowledge is ever undesirable. ... But in the
particular case of sex knowledge there are much weightier arguments in its favor than in
the case of most other knowledge. A person is much less likely to act wisely when he is
ignorant than when he is instructed, and it is ridiculous to give young people a sense of
sin because they have a natural curiosity about an important matter. 
The basic problem, according to Russell, is that the church's ethics are confused:
The church, by its insistence upon what it chooses to call morality, inflicts upon all
sorts of people undeserved and unnecessary suffering ... because it has chosen to label as
morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human
happiness; and when you say that this or that ought to be done because it would make for
human happiness, they think that has nothing to do with the matter at all. "What has
human happiness to do with morals? The object of morals is not to make people happy."
Ironically, century after century of holy hostility to sex hasn't dampened humanity's
zest for it. A 1992 World Health Organization report estimated that more than 100 million
couples around the globe make love in a single day. And people relish sexual entertainment
Most Westerners have come to regard sex as wholesome and wonderful. Sanctimonious
strictures seem to suit fewer and fewer people. Episcopal priest Raymond Lawrence wrote in
a national United Methodist journal: "The churches are in danger of evolving into
havens for the sexually suppressed or, worse, communities of profound hypocrisy." 
- Reay Tannahill, Sex in History (Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.: Stein & Day,
1980), p. 141.
- Wayland Young, Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society (New York: Grove Press,
1964), p. 201.
- Bertrand Russell, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and
Related Subjects, "Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to
Civilization?" (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957), p. 27.
- Ibid., p. 21.
- Ibid., p. 28.
- Ibid., pp. 21-22.
- Quarterly Review, Summer 1985.
James A. Haught is Editor of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia and
the author of 2000 Years of Disbelief (Prometheus Books, 1996). He is a Free Inquiry Senior Editor.