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Category Archives: Religion

Echoing my earlier post on religion and sexuality, Conor Friesdersdorf writes:

Orthodox Catholics believe sex outside marriage is sinful, that it goes against the wishes of God. In asserting so, they exert powerful influence on a very few people, and effectively cede all ethical questions concerning pre-marital sex to Dr. Drew, Dan Savage, sundry glossy magazines, the Office of Campus Life Orientation Coordinator, and the films of Judd Apatow.

His whole post is worth reading, as is the longer piece he references, Benjamin Dueholm’s thorough analysis of advice columnist Dan Savage.

In an earlier post, I noted how academia’s disinterest in important questions related to dating facilitated the rise of amateur theory to take its place.  One problem with this is that amateur theory tends to be bad, scientifically.  A second problem is that it tends to be unethical, since amateur authors are not constrained by the same ethical standards usually applied to academia.  Feminist Clarisse Thorn (who has an interesting and amicable interview with Neil Strauss) writes:

Some pickup advice only works because it capitalizes on the insecurities of women who have low self-esteem, and can manipulate those women — not because those women actually want to have sex…some pickup artists describe using “freeze-outs” on women who say they don’t want to have sex…the woman says no, the pickup artist says “Okay,” … and then he turns away from her and starts checking his email or doing something else very boring that does not include her…he goes cold and ignores her until she agrees to have sex with him.

I find this pretty deplorable, ethically.  But so long as pickup artists remain an authority on dating theory, men are going to listen to them.

Historically, religion has been the strongest moral authority, but unfortunately, modern religion is not well positioned to confront pickup artists.  First, I suspect that many young men who look to pickup artists for advice are fairly alienated from religious institutions.  But second, and more importantly, the advice modern religion offers is antiquated, incomplete, and bad.  The two primary distinctions drawn by religion with regard to the ethics of sexuality are marriage and intent to procreate.  For most religions, any sexuality that fails to comply with one or both of these distinctions is at worst morally evil, and at best morally neutral.  This leaves an enormous gray area, wherein an engaged couple’s sexuality is often treated the same as when a guy meets a girl in a bar, lies to get her into bed, and then never contacts her again.  Clearly there’s a distinction to be made between the two cases, a line to be drawn, but modern religion has failed to do so.

Academia and religion both punt on an important topic.  Amateurs pick up the ball.

Reading the story of the Fall of Man this morning, I found myself thinking of experiment psychologist Jonathan Haidt.  Haidt’s research explores foundational moral principles that are common across culture, classifying them into five common themes: Harm/Care; Fairness/Reciprocity; Ingroup/Loyalty; Authority/Respect; and Purity/Sanctity.  Of these five, Haidt finds that Westerners, and particularly liberal-leaning Westerners, tend to challenge the last three principles, while non-Western cultures are more amenable to all five principles.

It’s thus interesting that Original sin, which fits pretty clearly into Authority/Respect, is a foundational principle of Western religion.  The reason eating from the tree of knowledge is considered sinful is solely that it constituted disobedience of God.  Adam, Eve, and the Snake are vilified for their actions, but when viewed through a modern liberal lens, it’s hard to find their actions all that disagreeable, especially given that they were acting towards a pursuit of knowledge, which nowadays is generally accepted as a virtuous thing to do.

In the West, the question of whether authority figures deserve respect is generally taken to be context-dependent.  When leaders are thought to be acting against their people’s interest, their authority may be questioned and rejected.  In this story, God appears to act unjustly, telling Adam that, “in the day that you eat of [the tree of knowledge] you shall surely die”, a statement that’s factually untrue.  Furthermore, God’s intention seems to be to restrict Adam and Eve’s knowledge, which hardly seems a justifiable objective.  God’s authority in this case stems solely from God’s authority; the commandment itself is hard to justify in moral terms, and based on a false premise.  When unjustified authority clashes with the pursuit of knowledge (e.g. banning books, regulation of media), authority figures usually aren’t respected.

I get that God is not a politician, and that challenging God’s authority is fundamentally different than challenging a person’s, but it seems really curious, that this particular act is deemed so terrible.  The sin would be much more compelling if its consequences were worse than a couple people realizing that nudism isn’t cool, and if the broken rule weren’t based on a lie and motivated by preservation of ignorance.