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Chapter Six: A Moral Code

Section 5: God and sex

The sexual values promoted by religion are false, hypocritical and immoral.

Adam and Eve: Titian

Before we apply our basic moral code - do no harm - to our sexual lives, let's look at sexual morality in the Bible and Quran.

6.5a All over the place
What does the Bible teach about sex?
When it comes to sex, neither Yahweh nor Allah offer clear basic principles or a short set of easily remembered rules. Instead, they give humanity a hodge-podge of laws and commandments scattered throughout the scriptures.

Some examples... Leviticus 18 gives a long list of relatives by blood and marriage whose nakedness must not be uncovered (in other words, with whom you cannot have sex). Exodus 20:14 and Deuteronomy 5:18 both prohibit adultery. Prostitutes (always assumed to be women) are condemned in Proverbs 23:27-28. Male homosexuality is a no-no (Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13), as is lesbianism (Romans 1:26). Menstruation and nocturnal emissions are unclean (Leviticus 15:19-24 and Deuteronomy 23:10-11). Thinking sexual thoughts about the wrong people is forbidden (Matthew 5:28). And so on and so on.

But hold on - there appear to be some contradictions. A man can sell his daughter as a servant or in marriage (Exodus 21:7-9 - some interpret that to mean as a prostitute). Polygamy is permitted in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:10; Deuteronomy 21:15) but not, it seems, in the New. And there is uncertainty as to whether it is only priests' daughters who are forbidden to become prostitutes (Leviticus 21:9).

The Quran has fewer explicit rules on sex and fewer contradictions. Homosexuality is repeatedly condemned (7:80-81 and 26:165-166, 27:54-55 and 29-28). Menstruating women are unclean. Marriage is recommended. Adultery is off the menu (17:32, 24:2) except if the married woman is a slave, when it's ok (4.24). Polygamy is ok. And the Prophet can have sex with any
woman he wants (33:37, 33.50-51, 66:1-5).

6.5b Confusion and control

We learn a lot from these snippets of information about God, religion and sex.

Firstly, if God exists and the Bible or Quran reflect his thinking, it is clear that the deity has a very disordered mind. He appears incapable of stating in simple language the four simple rules that lie at the heart of his sexual morality:

(i) no sex before or outside marriage* - which means no sex with anyone other than your spouse;
(ii) marriage must involve at least one man and one woman;
(iii) you can't marry a blood relative** or your parent's second spouse;
(iv) if Christian, you can have one spouse; if Muslim, women can have one husband and men can have four wives.

*   The Bible does not seem to ban sex when neither partner is married but most
     believers consider it immoral.
** The Bible does not ban incest between brother and sister.

God's inability to express himself clearly has been a boon to millions of theologians over the centuries. Thanks to them, we now have thousands of different interpretations of the scriptures, each reflecting both God's woolly thinking and the writer's particular prejudices regarding sex and marriage. (For example, conservative heterosexual theologians find the evidence in the Bible they need to prove that God is against gay marriage while liberal homosexual theologians find the evidence they need in the same text to prove the opposite. Isn't theology wonderful?)

Secondly, in both the Bible and Quran all rules, sexual and otherwise, are directed only at men. Women are presumed unable to read, unworthy of education and unable to think. In God's opinion, women are always second class citizens subject to men's control. This is particularly true in the bedroom, where women's sexual behaviour is always controlled by men. (There are passages in the Quran - but not the Bible - which imply that women have sexual needs that should be fulfilled, but these are subservient to the general principle that it is men who decide when women's sexual needs are met.)

6.5c Less moral than they appear

Religion lays claim to morality, but its claim is false.

God's principle that women cannot determine their own sexual happiness is detrimental to women's physical and mental welfare. This is immoral. But what if we rewrite the scriptures to give women equal rights and look again at God's four rules? Do they meet our standards for morality?

Not yet. Homosexuals who are denied the right to marry are denied the right to happiness. Maintaining polygamy only for men (as in the Old Testament and Quran) places women in a position of inferiority. Both rules are immoral. Marriage should be open to all and we should either allow women as many husbands as men can have wives or ban all polygamy.

Many modern believers claim that the scriptures are out of date or have been misinterpreted. They say that God intended men and women and gays and straights to be equal. This is the same response as we saw in Section 2 - an attempt to have one's moral cake and eat it, accepting of some principles of humanist morality but attributing them to God.

If we can overcome the two obstacles of polygamy and same-sex marriage, we come to the heart of religious morality - incest is forbidden and sex is only acceptable if it occurs within marriage. Is that a valid moral principle?

6.5d Sex before marriage

We'll come back to incest in the next section but look at marriage here. Let's define it as legal recognition of couple's lifelong commitment to each other. Where there are children, marriage further strengthens the commitment of the adults to the children and provides the children with psychological and legal support.

Humanist morality does not insist that we marry and it does not automatically condemn sex before or outside marriage. That means that with certain caveats*, sex between two individuals where neither person is married nor committed sexually to another individual, is not in itself harmful. Indeed, sex can and should be a source of great happiness, both before and after marriage.

A couple may wish to have sex without getting married. They do not know each other well enough to commit to a lifetime together. They are responsible enough to protect themselves against disease and, if relevant, unwanted pregnancy. They are sexually mature and sex will bring them happiness. In these conditions, to deny single adults the opportunity to have sex with each other - as religion does - is immoral.

* We'll come back to specific questions - what is sex? how many partners? what age should the partners be? what is consent? what about disease? etc - in the next section. For the moment we'll assume sex is an activity involving two healthy consenting adults.

6.5e Sex outside marriage

But if one or both partners is married to a third person or if one partner is not the parent of the other's child or children, then warning bells may ring. That is because no action should harm a third person. If a man's wife knows and fully accepts that he has a mistress - and he has discussed the matter with both wife and mistress and is not falsely assuming his wife's consent - then sure, there is no problem if he and mistress get together. Ditto for the adulterous woman. But adultery is rarely as simple as that and humanist morality condemns any situation where a third party gets hurt.

The same is true where children are involved. A parent's decision to seek a new sexual partner has implications far beyond the couple having sex. Children are not automatically harmed by their single / widowed / divorced parent having sex with a new sexual partner, but both adults should be aware of and avoid the possibility. Again, the principle stands that sex is immoral when third parties are hurt.

Of course reason should prevail. The father of a five-year-old child has very different responsibilities from the father of a twenty-five-year-old. The twenty-five year old has no veto over their parent's behaviour. The five-year-old may not have a conscious veto, but his / her concerns may override the parent's desire for sexual intimacy.

Biblical morality condemns all adultery; in the Quran it's ok if she's a slave. When it comes to specific cases of adultery, there will be many times when religion and humanism agree that it should not take place. There will also be cases where religious morality comes to the wrong conclusion, while humanist morality - "do no harm" - will invariably be right.

6.5f Beware the hypocrite

Religious sexual morality is bad enough - it's merely rigid and confused. What's worse is the morality of religious leaders whose pronouncements on sexual behaviour condemn millions of believers across the world to a lifetime of unhappiness.

In poor Catholic countries, the Church’s refusal to condone reliable birth control has burdened parents with offspring that they cannot properly feed, clothe or educate. In Africa, the stigmatization of condoms has led to millions of people, including babies, becoming pic: source to be confirmed
Anglican bishops hoping to control your sex life
infected with HIV. In the Americas, hostility towards homosexuality underpins bigotry, violence and murder from Wyoming to Rio de Janeiro.

To be fair, the Catholic church is not unique. No religion understands sexuality. From lack of understanding comes fear, and from fear comes a need to control. Jewish, Christian and Muslim sexual morality is based not on the reality of desire but on millennia-old notions of inheritance, fertility and the subjugation of women.

Through the blinkered eyes of religion sex has only one goal: to produce children within marriage. Only married couples who have produced children or are theoretically capable of doing so are allowed the privilege of intimacy.

Most priests, rabbis and imams either do not practice sex or have limited experience of it. Failing to understand sex, they can only confront this basic human instinct with fear, dogma and ignorance.

Willing and able to restrict their own sexuality and sexual experience – or willing and able to lie about it – religious leaders insist that others do as they say.  Yet we are all different and the circumstances of our lives vary. What is simple for an elderly priest in Rome may be impossible for a young woman in Romania.

You wish no more children? Too bad; procreate or deny yourselves intimacy. Your most intimate relations are with others of your own sex? Tough; spend a lifetime denying yourself and your partner(s)  the deepest expression of love. You fear illness and death from HIV? Throw away that condom and allow yourself to be infected.

A century ago in the short story In the Country of the Blind, H G Wells described a society where people who had lost their sight considered that those who could see were deranged and that their eyes were the source of their madness. Religious leaders, who deny or restrict their own sexuality, are equally deluded in thinking they understand others' sexual behaviour. Allowing priests to dictate the boundaries of sex is like appointing the illiterate as censors.

Religion determines that sex is good not when it makes you and your partner happy but when society approves of it, and that sex is bad, not when it hurts you, but when society disapproves. Despite its claims to morality, the sexual values promoted by religion are false, hypocritical and immoral.

Chapter Six: Section 6 A broad spectrum

Are atheists immoral?

Religion makes a strong claim to morality - only God and faith, apparently, keep us moral.

It's a nice idea, but it's false. Religious morality is frequently harmful; only humanist values guarantee a truly ethical approach to life.

6.1: Defining morality
What's good for us?

6.2: God's morals
... leave much to be desired

6.3: Morals and ethics
From the abstract to the actual

6.4: Sex: what is it good for?
Whatever you want it to be

6.5: God and sex
Confusion and control

6.6: Sex: a broad spectrum
Tastes vary

6.7: Sex: Tell the children
Educate and protect

6.8: Abortion
An ethical approach

6.9: Humane justice
The death penalty is immoral

6.10: Suicide and euthanasia
Dying with dignity

6.11: Recreational drugs
A moral issue?

6.12: Do good...
... for goodness' sake

6.13: Summary
Chapter 7

How do you live when you realize that religion is false?

Do you descend into despair? Lead a life of crime and depravity?

The opposite, actually. Atheists appear more likely to live moral, happy lives than those who are stuck in superstition.

Beyond Religion