Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 12

Sexual Morality


Looks at sexual morality from an evolutionary point of view and condemns the traditional religions for their positions on women's rights and birth control.

For as long as our ancestors have walked upon the earth, they have struggled to survive against the forces of nature. Burned by the sun, drenched by the rain, and frozen by the ice and snow, they were driven by hunger to fight for whatever they could find to eat. Attacked by enemies and afflicted by diseases, the strong survived while the weak were worn down, and the slow and ill-fated perished.

They lived to enjoy a few simple pleasures. The taste of a good meal on an empty stomach, a warm place to sleep on a cold night, a caring embrace, perhaps a tender moment of love, and then the fulfillment of conceiving a new life. They were innocently led by the mysteries of nature to add another link to the unbroken chain of generations, before the decay of old age, the onset of disease, and then death.

Sexual reproduction

Most people consider it to be their purpose in life to find a partner and raise a family. Men, women, and the traditional family structure have all evolved for the creation, protection, and education of new generations. But there is a cold reality behind the warmth of love. Sexual reproduction is about increasing the rate of evolution, not about increasing the size of the population.

The reason why humankind is divided into males and females is because sexual reproduction allows the beneficial mutations from separate ancestries to be combined in the DNA of a few fortunate children. Sexual desire is usually what brings couples together, romantic feelings keep them interested for a time, and then the bond that grows through familiarity may keep them together for life.

Evolution favors any mutation that increases the drive to find sex partners. As a result, our reproductive organs have evolved sensitive nerves that stimulate powerful pleasure centers in our brains. Sounds, smells, and visual cues arouse the sexual instinct, and then the anticipation of sexual pleasure draws couples together, sometimes resulting in a man's sperm fertilizing a woman's egg, which in the natural world, inevitably leads to children.

Pregnant women are vulnerable, their health is at risk, and they need more food and care. Although most women gain pleasure from sex, they are also compelled to consider their future and the future of any children they give birth to. Raising children alone can be an enormous burden for a single mother, and without the support of family members or government assistance, the children of a single parent can be seriously disadvantaged.

While most men are likely to pursue sex for pleasure, most women are torn between their own desires, the desires of men, and the expectations of their family and culture. From adolescence onwards, much of our thought and behavior develops in response to the tangled web of sexual instincts and related issues.

Traditional morality

The human brain is just a mass of nerve cells stimulated by sight, sound, touch, and other sensations carried in from around the body. The brain adapts to these sensations however it can, but the needs of an organized society must often force restraints upon our natural responses. Sexual reproduction adds complication and occasional conflict to the delicate balance between individual desires and community needs.

There are no perfect rules for sexual behavior, but the conservative elements of society often try to enforce traditional rules and understandings. Sometimes when these rules are based upon mistaken ideas, they generate more problems than they solve.

Since prehistoric times, restraint of the sexual instinct has been one of the primary responsibilities of religion. Females were generally forbidden from having sex until a public commitment was made by the male to stay with the female and raise the children. Marriage rituals and laws against adultery reduced the transmission of sexual diseases and provided a stable family environment for the raising of new generations. In some cultures, divorce was forbidden and adultery was punishable by death.

Population growth

Around ten thousand years ago, the population of the entire world was around ten million people. This was the maximum number of people that could be fed by hunting wild animals and gathering plants. The population increased when the climate improved and the land became more fertile. When the climate worsened and the land became less fertile, children starved and the competition for territory usually led to tribal war.

Food became abundant and populations grew as the knowledge of farming spread. By the time of the Roman Empire, the population of the world had multiplied to over one hundred million people. The rich and powerful lived in luxury, but the vast majority of people were peasant farmers who were lucky to be left with enough food to survive. Most of the fertile land was occupied, and there were few opportunities for employment in the towns and cities.

Starvation, disease, and war prevented further population growth. Although grain storage helped to overcome crop failure, any long term problem with the harvest usually led to social disintegration and migration. Diseases were common in densely populated areas. Most families were fortunate to have two or more children survive long enough to breed. Gradual improvements in farming techniques allowed the population to rise to around 500 million by the year 1500.

Food production has increased dramatically over the last few centuries with dam water irrigation, motorized farm machinery, railway transport for fertilizer and farm produce, and food preservation. The population reached around one billion in 1830. By 1930, it had doubled to two billion, and by 1975, it had doubled again to four billion. The growing populations of industrialized nations found employment in factories and businesses, while the undeveloped nations continued to suffer unemployment, poverty, war, and starvation.

Women's rights

Aristotle declared that an unborn baby was not alive until the woman could feel the first movement in her womb. Saint Augustine wrote that an unborn baby has no soul for the first 40 days of pregnancy for a boy and 80 days for a girl. Such opinions were written into church law and reinforced by a succession of popes, and for more than 1500 years, the Catholic Church did not consider abortion to be a serious sin, and society did not consider it to be a moral problem.

Abortion within the first few months of pregnancy was legal and acceptable in Europe and America until the 1800s. As growing numbers of people moved to the cities to work in factories and businesses, their outlook on life became increasingly materialistic. Couples wanted smaller families and religious morality was losing its influence. Abortion grew to become a popular form of birth control. This led the medical profession to become increasingly concerned about unsafe practices, and they pushed to have abortion outlawed, first in England and then later in the United States.

Reliable condoms and other birth control devices became available around the mid 1800s. The idea of ‘voluntary motherhood’ became popular and birth rates in industrialized nations began to fall. Some women believed that reliable birth control would finally give them the opportunity to participate more actively in society, rather than being tied down to the traditional roles of keeping the house and raising the children.

Women's groups began to demand the same rights as men. They wanted the right to earn money, the right to own property, and they wanted access to education. But in the eyes of the law, women were merely the property of their husbands, slaves to their husband's needs and desires. Women in democratic countries soon realized that in order to achieve equal rights, they must first win the right to vote.

The most vocal opponents of women's rights in Europe and America were the Christian churches, whose misconceptions about male superiority came from both church tradition and from the Bible. In America, church leaders were joined by conservative politicians, who were concerned that birth control was an expense that could only be afforded by wealthy white women. They feared that if wealthy white American families had fewer children then they would eventually lose their dominance and be overrun by large families of poor immigrants and colored people.

Conservative political and religious forces spearheaded a cultural backlash against the women's rights movement by provoking widespread fear about women deserting their traditional roles as wives and mothers. They argued that it was selfish for women to avoid their maternal duties by using birth control.

In 1869, the Catholic Church condemned abortion as an immoral act. In 1873, a law was passed in the United States that not only banned the sale of birth control devices, but also prohibited the distribution of any information about birth control techniques. Speaking about birth control in public or even writing about it in a letter could get you thrown into jail.

Meanwhile, women in England continued to demand the right to vote in the face of fierce resistance from conservative politicians. Public demonstrations were broken up by police. Protest organizers were arrested, and many women continued their protests in jail by going on hunger strike. Some protesters were so outraged by the attitude of conservative Christians that they began setting fire to churches.

Australia and New Zealand were the first democratic countries in the world to give women the right to vote. Women were finally given the right to vote in England and the United States in the aftermath of the horrors of the First World War. French women were forced to wait until after the Second World War.

Margaret Sanger

Margaret Sanger was a nurse who worked with poor women in New York City in the early 1900s. She was appalled by the poverty and suffering caused by unwanted pregnancies. After seeing one woman die from a horrific attempt to give herself an abortion, she gave up nursing to dedicate herself to fighting for the legalization of birth control.

She began by writing pamphlets about women's rights, and in 1914, she fled the country after being charged with distributing illegal information about birth control. She spent a year in Europe researching birth control techniques and then returned to the United States after her case was dismissed.

She later opened a clinic in New York to offer advice about birth control to married women, but the clinic was soon shut down by police and she was arrested. The case attracted nationwide publicity, and after winning her court appeal, the interpretation of the law was changed to allow doctors to advise married women about birth control.

Over the next few decades, Sanger helped to establish national and international organizations to fight for the availability of birth control devices. The Catholic Church was her fiercest opponent. She continued to be hounded by religious fanatics and was jailed several more times until birth control was finally legalized in the United States in 1936.

She later helped to organize funding for research into new birth control methods. The fruit of her efforts was the birth control pill, which became publicly available in the 1960s. Along with the cultural changes that followed the invention of the television, the birth control pill helped to bring about a revolution in sexual behavior.

The Sexual Revolution

Before the 1960s, the social pressure against unwed motherhood was so strong that few unmarried women were willing to have sex unless they believed that the man would marry them if they became pregnant. These days, the widespread availability of birth control has led to dramatic changes in attitudes towards sex and marriage. Having finally broken the connection between sex and pregnancy, many women now feel free to pursue the same desires and enjoy the same opportunities as men.

Birth control allows women to delay childbearing until they are older, more experienced, better educated, and more financially secure. Not only can educated women contribute more to the economy, but more experienced mothers are better able to raise more capable children. Women who are financially independent can more easily demand the same rights and opportunities as men. After years of struggle against male domination, women in most industrialized democracies have achieved equal status to men in the eyes of the law.

Now that the sexual morality of traditional religion is widely rejected, it is common for people to have more than one sexual relationship before they choose to have children. Couples often live together for years before they marry. Some men and women avoid lasting relationships as long as they can continue to attract desirable partners. The result of liberated sexual behavior has been a decline in the population of modern industrialized nations. It is only because of immigration from poor countries that the populations of some industrialized nations continue to rise.

Freedom vs oppression

While acknowledging that irresponsible sexual behavior should never be encouraged, when modern sexual freedom is compared to the cruelty and inhumanity of traditional sexual oppression, freedom definitely seems to be the better option.

Outlawing sex before marriage forced young people to rush into unsuitable partnerships. Outlawing birth control and abortion drove women to risk death in backyard abortion clinics. Outlawing divorce promoted violence against women and children. When divorce was made more easily available, married couples who had not seen each other for years were finally free to marry new partners. Outlawing homosexuality only led to the widespread blackmailing and imprisonment of otherwise innocent men and women.

The old way of thinking was that strict censorship was necessary in order to maintain high moral standards. With the invention of color photography, there was widespread concern about the effect that the spread of pornography would have on society. Surprisingly, the legalization of pornography led to a massive decrease in violent sexual crimes against women. It appears that pornography, like prostitution, can play a useful role in society by helping to relieve unfulfilled desires.

Population control

Our traditional religions have been continuing their ancient duty to repress the sexual instinct. They mistakenly believe that they can force people to abstain from enjoying the pleasure of sex by preventing access to birth control. But as the world's population becomes unsustainable, and uncontrolled population growth condemns many developing nations to poverty, the influence of traditional religion has become a serious problem.

Without birth control, the growing populations of poor countries are only limited by starvation, disease, and war. Most women in poor countries want access to birth control, but because of poverty and the interference of religious organizations, they cannot gain access to it. Faced with the demand for sex from their husbands, they continue to give birth, only to watch helplessly as their babies starve. The surviving children grow up without access to education and with little or no hope of employment.

While most people in industrialized nations can easily afford the cost of birth control, it remains beyond the reach of those who need it most. Only when birth control is provided for free to women in developing nations will the cycle of poverty, starvation, disease, and war be broken. Free birth control would allow every couple to choose how many children they want to have. The global cost of providing free birth control would be small compared to the long term financial, environmental, and human costs if nothing is done.

Religious morality

The Catholic Church remains the most powerful opponent of birth control. Through political influence in Catholic countries and in the United Nations, they have succeeded in slowing down by decades the worldwide acceptance and availability of birth control. They have been a leading contributor to overpopulation, third world poverty, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

The Catholic Church has continued to campaign against the use of condoms, even in places like Africa, where the deadly AIDS virus is taking an immense toll on human life and health. Church leaders are so fanatical about restricting the rights of women that they have even fought to prevent rape victims from receiving the ‘morning after’ pill or safe abortions.

Albert Einstein once said ...

I am convinced that some political and social activities and practices of the Catholic organizations are detrimental and even dangerous for the community as a whole, here and everywhere. I mention here only the fight against birth control at a time when overpopulation in various countries has become a serious threat to the health of people and a grave obstacle to any attempt to organize peace on this planet.

Some Islamic authorities also oppose the availability of birth control, but women living under Islam face much more serious problems. Women in some Muslim countries are denied access to education and are not permitted to work outside the family home. Girls cannot marry without the permission of a father or brother, and young girls are sometimes forced into arranged marriages with much older men.

Islam teaches that eliminating temptation is more effective than trying to resist it. Men and women who are not married are forbidden to interact with one another or be alone together. Women are not permitted to walk in the street unless accompanied by a close male relative. If seen with a man who is not a close relative, a woman can be arrested and examined to see if she has recently had sex. Under strict Islamic law, sex outside of marriage is punishable by death. Even rape victims are commonly jailed for adultery.

Islamic authorities believe that they can suppress the sexual cravings of men by forcing women to wear clothing that hides their physical beauty. In some Muslim countries, women cover their faces with veils; in others, women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe with full length body bags. Films showing women without suitable covering are banned. Women who do not conform to oppressive Islamic moral dictates are often brutally attacked or killed.

The traditional religions have long lost any intellectual credibility or moral authority and can no longer be trusted to provide appropriate guidelines for sexual behavior. Religious fundamentalists do not believe in evolution, and so their ideas about sexual reproduction are about as far removed from reality as any ideas can possibly be. They do not believe that sexual morality should be allowed to change in response to changing birth control technology.

Restricting the rights of women now has less to do with sexual morality and more to do with religious leaders scheming to increase the following of their particular religious sect by manipulating their believers into outbreeding the followers of other beliefs.

Traditional religious organizations operate like businesses that compete to exploit people's need for belonging and their anxiety about the unknown. They profit from our sentiment for ancient words of wisdom and they capitalize on our cultural investment in ancient myths and rituals.

Religious leaders sometimes think and act like ruthless businessmen who will seek any opportunity to increase their market share. In violent times, they often resort to violence, and in peacetime, they often use threats of damnation and other forms of coercion and bullying.

As the head of a thriving transnational corporation which earns countless billions of dollars each year and employs millions of people worldwide, just like any other business executive, the pope's highest priority is the success of his church, not the welfare of humankind, and unless the church changes its policies on birth control, then these two objectives are not compatible.

While most religious leaders express strong opinions on issues associated with sexual morality like marriage, homosexuality, and abortion, they rarely ever speak out about real moral issues like racism, dictatorship, or war. If anything, traditional religion is often used to justify these rather than to oppose them.

Democratic balance

Abortion pills are now available in some countries. And although abortion can be much safer than childbirth, even safe methods of abortion can occasionally lead to complications that harm a woman or reduce her chance of ever conceiving again. No form of birth control is totally reliable, and increased sexual activity leads to an increase in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Dangerous sexual practices in some cultures have led to the rapid spread of the deadly AIDS virus.

Our modern television culture does not always emphasize the difference between love and sex. Many pop musicians, moviemakers, and advertising agencies, knowing what sells, have turned their art forms into soft pornography. Children are being encouraged to become sexually active at increasingly younger ages. Because of this predictable lack of responsibility, many concerned parents and grandparents are turning to conservative politicians for protection.

Now that memories of the sexual revolution have faded, having explored the possibilities and discovered the consequences, the modern world is now slowly settling into a democratic balance between the desires of the young and the concerns of the old, with consideration for the needs of both families and singles.

There are no perfect rules for governing sexual behavior, but a wise person would never allow themselves to be driven by the pursuit of sexual pleasure at the cost of their health, their reputation, or their peace of mind. And they would never engage in any activity that was harmful to others or damaging to the welfare of the wider community.

Continue to chapter 13 ... Modern materialism

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The Journal of Evolutionary Philosophy