Sin and Safe Religion

In college I knew of young men who were apprehensive about kissing their girlfriends because they might have a lustful thought. One individual of my acquaintance, for this same reason, refused to hold hands while on a casual walk around campus or a lovely stroll through the park. He avoid all sensuality out of fear for his soul. Apparently these fellows imagined that marriage would magically focus their sexual appetites into virtue; they made no effort to develop modesty and chastity at this stage of their relationships. They expected the young women they admired to be virtuous—modest, for example—but mostly, it seemed, so they would not succumb to sin. Any sensuality was a near occasion for sin, and so all sensuality had to be kept at an unbridgeable chasm’s length.

As you might imagine, these individuals, so focused on avoiding their sexuality, failed time and again to master it. Of course! They weren’t even trying to master it. Holiness for them was merely the absence of sinful deeds, not the fruit of self-control that comes from taking the risks of living life as someone with a body. In a real sense, they were trying to escape their bodies. They were afraid of them, fearful their appetites and passions and sensations would lead them to spiritual ruin. Their disposition was unhealthy, psychologically and spiritually, unfair to themselves and to others.

From what I could tell, this attitude and behavior was religiously motivated, at least to a degree, and emerged from a religious focus on sin. As you can really focus on only one object, to focus on sin is to blur all else. When all you do is focus on sin, and when that is the primary perspective of your religiosity, then you will likely approach religion mostly as a sanctuary from sin and spiritual harm rather than as a tool for physical and spiritual wholeness. Avoiding sensuality is one result of focusing on sin; there are others.

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Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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14 Responses

  1. Tod Kelly says:

    So is self-censoring yourself to different ideas and art.

    Good post.

  2. BlaiseP says:

    As someone who was raised in exactly those circumstances, where boys and girls were warned about the Sins of the Flesh* , it led to a lot of really prurient desires, the sort of thing where even normal desires were considered deviant. Really disgusting, ignorant stuff. For example, I had no idea girls had any sexual desire. Came as a tremendous shock to me.

    When sexuality is repressed in this way, desire become commingled with shame. Rather than view abstinence within reasonable boundaries with consequences in mind: unwanted pregnancies, STDs and the like, a knot of self-loathing builds up in ways I can’t quite express. It’s bad enough becoming an adolescent, it’s worse when you feel as if you’re turning into a truly reprehensible monster you can’t control.

    Thing is, I’m not sure all that abstinence schtick, saving yourself for marriage, actually produces better outcomes. A good bit of sexuality is learned, whatever may be true of our natural proclivities. Once you’ve got guilt stirred in, there’s no extracting it: to be aroused is to be guilty of something, ipso facto.

    To top it off, sexuality is discussed, and often. They’ll drag out the Song of Solomon, all that mystic union stuff, the delicate romances, the furtive glances, the enjoyment of each others’ bodies. It’s like sex is going to be something so wonderful you’ll be glad you waited. And then, and then… once they do get married, it’s a huge letdown. They’re perfectly ignorant of each other’s bodies, and let’s face it, the first few times, sex isn’t all that great. Significant, yes. Great sex, ecch, great sex is when you really understand your lover’s body and these poor kids don’t even understand their own all that well. Masturbation is a big no-no. And it’s all about guilt when you are doing it.

    Adultery is incredibly common within the more fundamentalist traditions: once they’ve tied the knot and been duly consecrated to each other, yadda yadda, where’s the guilt? Where’s all that delicious transgression they learned to associate with desire? It’s not there. So they to in search of transgressive sex, poaching each others’ wives and daughters and sons and husbands. It’s madness in those churches and Christian schools. Worse than any soap opera you’ve ever seen.

    * my boarding school didn’t even allow girls to wear pants, granted that was some time ago.

    • They didn’t let girls wear pants and they thought that would stop sexual activity?

      • Kim says:

        In the 1960’s, it was a “get booted out of school” offense for a girl to wear pants in a public high school. Miniskirts were fine (even the really short ones). But the dress code said skirt!

      • BlaiseP says:

        Oh Lord, where do I even start with what they thought would stop sexual activity? Guilt was a way of life. Boys and girls strictly segregated, flirting became subtle and truly devious: if such little romances were discovered, there was hell to pay for both parties.

        Repression begat repression. Whole genres of guilt swam before our eyes. Even to make an accusation was to bring down the wrath of the dorm “parents”, whom we were obliged to call “Uncle” this and “Aunt” that. When a missionary wasn’t working out on station, rather than get rid of them and send them back to the States, they’d dump them on the mission school. Three hundred sixty-odd little grammar school children, each more effed-up than the last.

        Now if missionaries travel far afield, with those transits, they travel together. It was my fate, many years later, to meet the boy who had sexually abused me at the front of my parents’ church in East Point Georgia, surrounded as he was by various admirers, for missionaries are the big stars of the Evangelical world. I walked into the little circle and said “You remember me? Yes you do. And you remember sexually abusing me. I certainly do.” A stunned hush fell over the group, then a murmur of fear and outrage spread like wildfire through the aisles, for my family and his had both been supported by the same church.

        Oh the stories I could tell you, of my cousins accusing their father, also a missionary, of abusing them, (untrue, as later investigation would reveal) and how that bomb detonated in the bowels of the mission. About that time, a torrent of pent-up accusations of abuse surfaced. The mission nearly went under. The head of the mission convened a conference and apologised in tears to all the children who’d been abused over the years by this insane policy of dumping troublesome missionaries on the school. But by then, these kids were grown. One particular psychiatrist, my own as it happened, had seen no less than six of my classmates, coming through the pipeline, all identifiably abused by the same teacher. Four of my classmates in a class of 29 would later commit suicide.

        Dickens could not write a story so horrible. I count myself lucky to have escaped alive.

  3. NewDealer says:

    I am always surprised when I hear stories like this. It is completely outside my experience growing up.

    I grew up in a Reform Jewish household in a fairly progressive and well-to-do suburb of NYC. My parents sent me to Hebrew School (which was during afternoons and evenings) until 12th grade even though they were open atheists.

    My Jewish education never once talked about sinfulness in this kind of way. We had to learn Hebrew of course but I don’t ever recall anyone lecturing about sex as sin. There were also no lessons on Judaisms complicated lessons on the afterlife (A hell might or might not exist but it is very different than Dante’s Inferno). Many of my classmates were Roman Catholic and they but I don’t think they had any of the feelings represented above. I couldn’t even tell you where the nearest mega-church was to my hometown. Does Long Island even have megachurches is a good question.

    I once belonged to another internet community with a lot of atheists along the Dawkins line. I resented and hated that they thought all religion was like Christian Fundamentalism and could not see the differences between Judaism and Christianity. But I think they all grew up in households that encouraged people to think like the men you mentioned above, so I really cannot blame them. I don’t see how such a strict upbringing can not cause psychological problems.

  4. Jaybird says:

    The attitude within our community was some variant of “making out on the couch is fine, have a blast. Keep one foot on the floor.” There was a lot of stuff that younguns could get away with. A lot a lot… but they just had to remain clothed.

    It was possible to make out with one’s boy/girlfriend even with parents somewhere else in the house… you just had to be doing stuff you wouldn’t mind them walking in on (AND THEY WOULD). Keep one foot on the floor and you’d be golden.

  5. GordonHide says:

    Sexual repression might be the worst aspect of the Abrahamic religions. Combine that with the idea that what you think can be immoral and you have a recipe for a dysfunctional society.

  6. Rachel says:

    What a poignant, well-written article that brings up some really great points.

    As someone who works in NY with women suffering from sexual dysfunction, I often see the conflict that people have when it comes to viewing their bodies as a sexual being. When sex is viewed as ‘dirty’ and ‘sinful’ it’s difficult to develop a healthy sexual relationship, even when it’s sanctioned.

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. Hopefully this article will inspire other interesting articles to promote the discussion.

    Medical Center for Female Sexuality, NY NY

  7. Kyle,

    I get what you’re saying. In fact, what you describe resembles very closely decisions I made in my teen years and early 20s (and the consequences were similar to what you allude to for your acquaintances).

    At the same time–to play the prude’s advocate–isn’t something to be said for avoiding temptation, at least in those circumstances where one knows one would probably do something wrong. Lust is probably one of the lesser sins, and so maybe that’s a Grendel that’s worth any spiritual warrior to slay. (Apologies to Tod and the other Beowulf readers for the infelicitous metaphor.) But what about the Ring of Power? Gandalf refused to keep guard of it for fear that he wouldn’t be up to the task. (Same with the Palantir.)