Our growing awareness of our own sexuality drives us further into discovering who we are.
I recently tweeted something of an epiphany and I’d like to take a minute to unpack what I meant when I said it:
Some days I wonder if an honest look at human sexuality isn’t the strongest counterapologetic to the Christian faith anywhere.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie)
That statement reflects a growing conviction in me that talking about sex triggers something among the religious, something which no other discussion will provoke. There is a fierce protectiveness, a visceral knee-jerk derision which you won’t get when talking about any other topic. This touches a nerve.
Of course, everyone is interested in sex by nature. That’s nothing new. But I’m suggesting that an open and honest discussion about sex threatens something fundamental to the Christian faith. It may very well be that a whole blog about sexuality jeopardizes something which mere argumentation and debate could never touch.
Unless I am wrong (and I am never wrong)* the core of the Christian faith (and of most religions in general) is emotional, not intellectual. It originates with and draws its power from emotions like fear, trust, guilt, hope, ambition, the need to survive, and the need to belong. So try as we may to address the philosophical and theological underpinnings of this religious worldview, we don’t “get through” to them because they already have centuries of intellectual defenses built up against the usual criticisms of their belief system.
I’m not just talking about apologetics, though. I’m also talking about a personal, existential awareness among those of us who deconvert. Many of us, whether gay or straight, gender fluid, trans, or cisgender, encounter this same peculiar discovery: Our growing awareness of our own sexuality drives us further into discovering who we are, and simultaneously away from being able to identify with the Christian faith.
And no, I’m not suggesting that subjective emotional things like sexual attraction and the need to “get your rocks off” are an adequate basis—in and of themselves—for rejecting a worldview which makes claims as grave and consequential as Christianity makes. There are plenty of other, more substantial and objective reasons for doing that. What I’m talking about is more epiphenomenal, like a secondary layer of signals which our own psyches have been sending us, warning us that something about what we were taught just isn’t right.
The Story We Were Told
Put simply, the standard Christian narrative about sexuality is this:
God designed human beings to be heterosexual and sexually dimorphic (distinctively male or female). He designed sex to occur strictly between members of the opposite sex who have entered into lifelong, exclusively monogamous relationships. No other context for sexual intimacy is legitimate. All other contexts produce harm.
Furthermore, sex is either primarily for procreation (if you’re Catholic) or else it is for procreation and pleasure (if you’re anything else), but it still shouldn’t get too kinky, because that is a perversion of what God wants. And when done right, sex is great but it still should never be allowed to rival more spiritual pursuits like prayer, worship, evangelism, and service to others. Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all of that, yada yada.
This is the narrative we were taught. It was, quite frankly, beaten into us from our youngest days. And I’m not just describing one or two outlying factions of the historic Christian faith. I’m talking about a standard narrative that has dominated every major stream of this religion since its inception. Anyone who suggests otherwise has not done his homework.
It may be true that today you will find people who have essentially left historic Christianity and are reimagining newer, more progressive ways to reframe their understanding of their religion. More power to them. They may very well find more sex-positive ways to embrace the rich diversity of natural, healthy human sexuality we discover when we aren’t so compelled to shoehorn everyone into this preconceived mold. But they will have to do so in spite of the rest of their Christian brothers and sisters, who will cry foul and label them heretics. These folks will probably feel more at home talking about sex with non-believers than they will with “their own kind.”
In the space that remains, I want to enumerate five different ways that a healthy view and experience of human sexuality creates cognitive dissonance within the mind of a devout Christian. I trust that as I work my way through the list you will see that these are the very reasons why an open and honest discussion about sex feels threatening to the defenders of this religion.
Five Ways Sex Threatens Christianity:
1) Christianity is dualistic to its core, and that makes sex a rival for people’s affections.
Believe you me, I fought that realization for a long, long time. I was always among those who valiantly championed an integrated spirituality, one which attempts to see all of life as an act of worship, even sex. I was never okay with dividing life into spiritual and unspiritual tasks. But at some point it finally dawned on me that I was fighting against the roots of my own religion.
The bottom line is that sex and a dualistic spirituality like the kind we find in Christianity just don’t mix together very well because they pull your attention in opposite directions. The one will always be a natural rival to the other. That’s not to say that Christians don’t love sex, because obviously they do (they are still human beings). But they grow up viewing it like a radioactive substance they should only handle when they must. They aren’t supposed to talk about it much, and when they do, they make it crystal clear that they are very uncomfortable talking about it.
I’ve never heard a preacher or a youth minister speak about sex when it wasn’t completely cringeworthy. It happens every time. Why? Because sex and Christianity are just awkward bedfellows.
But humans are wired by Nature to love sex. We crave it, we work hard for it, and whenever we are doing it, the world just seems right. Human beings never feel so at home in their own bodies as when they’re having sex. Can you see how intrinsically threatening that would be to an ideology that wants you to not feel at home in your own body?
2) The Christian narrative feeds on guilt, and our sexual insecurities are the gift that keeps on giving.
To seek forgiveness you must first believe you are guilty of something, and nothing taps into human feelings of inadequacy like our sexuality. It starts at the youngest years when boys begin to recognize they aren’t as…mature…as their own fathers, and little girls realize they haven’t yet grown into their mother’s shape. Then as they go through puberty they discover their own sexual desires (and powers) and are made to feel that those are either wicked or else highly inappropriate at their age, as if their own bodies cannot tell them when they are ready to feel whatever they are feeling.
On the other hand, when a person begins to feel at home in his or her own body, that sexual confidence begins to undermine the narratives that pile guilt on top of insecurity. No one seeks to fix what they do not think is broken, so it behooves the faithful to keep finding things that are wrong with you in that area. But if you cannot be made to feel you are broken, their sales pitch falls flat. If you ever learn to accept your own sexual urges, needs, and preferences as healthy, you become immune to the onslaught of guilt.
3) Religion also thrives on control. If they can control what you do with your privates, they can control everything.
Now, I’ll be quick to admit that most devout Christians do not wake up in the morning and think to themselves, “How can I further exert control over the lives of others?” Only a deranged, unhealthy person consciously plans dominance over another person. But sociologically and psychologically speaking, indoctrination functions in precisely that manner, spelling out the boundary markers which tell you who’s “in” and who’s “out.” It doesn’t matter that the well-meaning people who feed this system have no idea that’s what they’re doing.
Sociologists tell us that the higher the cost of membership in a group, the greater will be the loyalty and solidarity of its members. The ancient Jews took a knife to each other’s genitals, making it crystal clear that this religion demands the utmost loyalty imaginable. As if there were something legitimately wrong with having a foreskin.
But think about that for a second: The tradition on which the Christian faith was founded once argued that the natural shape of the male penis is not pleasing to God, and that women who are menstruating are ceremonially unclean. Not just needing a bath, but impure. It’s not so difficult to see how dictating what people do with their genitals came naturally to this family of religions. And if you can control that—if you can get people to surrender their sexual freedom—you can control everything else they do.
4) Christianity teaches that you do not own yourself, and that presents a major problem for sexual health.
According to the Bible, even your own body belongs to someone else. The concepts of personal agency and self-ownership are not only foreign to the Christian faith, they are naturally opposed to it. But teaching people that they don’t have the final say in what happens with their own bodies is a recipe for sexual dysfunction.
Sexual health depends on learning personal agency, but consider for a moment the plight of a woman raised in a devoutly Christian environment: Young women are taught from their earliest years that they belong to their fathers right up until the moment that they belong to their husbands. And everyone, whether male or female, learns they are beholden to an invisible Supervisor who exercises complete authority over what they do with their bodies.
Think about the implications of that for people who have been sexually mistreated. Would they even feel entitled to determine for themselves what constitutes mistreatment? Have they even been taught that is their decision to make? What about something more innocuous, like masturbation? Does a person get to determine for himself what turns him on, or “gets him off?” Christianity buries human sexuality under a gargantuan pile of restrictions and expectations, and frankly nothing kills a healthy sexuality better than that.
Jesus even raised thinking about sex to the same level as having it, making fantasizing about another person a thought crime. Apparently for the Christian faith, even your own thoughts about sex do not belong to you. In retrospect, that’s pretty messed up, you know it? A robust fantasy life is essential to having a rewarding sex life. Experience bears this out. Which brings me to my last point:
5) Our real-life sexual experiences invalidate the Christian narrative about sex again and again.
It’s no wonder the church works so hard to scare people away from having too much sex. If you ever get out there and start doing it, you’re going to discover something they don’t want you to discover: A great many of those horror stories you hear about negative consequences befalling “loose” men and women are complete bullshit.
I’m not saying there are no rules at all, and I’m not saying you should put yourself in harm’s way. But I am saying the church has multiplied and magnified what constitutes harm in order to scare you into restricting your sexual encounters to the ones their ideology prescribes.
Touching yourself won’t really make you go blind. Having sex with a person doesn’t give away a piece of your soul. Casual sex doesn’t necessarily cause babies or give you a disease if you’re safe about it. And being attracted to someone of the same sex does not in any way relate to your character or your moral uprightness. What you do with your genitals is NOT the most important thing about you. In the grand scheme of things, I would argue it’s one of the least relevant things in determining what kind of person you really are.
The church has never understood that. Even to this day, their hangups about sexuality are tearing entire denominations apart. It’s too important to them to simply agree to disagree. They would rather schism than give up their right to tell you what you do in the privacy of your own bedroom.
Not the Kind of Argument I Meant
Now, I realize that little of what I’ve laid out today will convince the devout to change their mind about what is “okay” sex and what is “not okay.” But I’m not really talking to those people today. I’m trying to describe a series of discoveries which will automatically resonate with anyone who has taken this journey out of their religious background, wherever they currently are on that long journey. They know what I’m talking about. They’ve felt it themselves—that enlightening moment when you realize that in many ways the world isn’t as “messed up” as you were told it is. It simply is what it is. It’s not wrong or right, it just is…and so are you.
You just are who you are, and it doesn’t matter how much they try to tell you that you’re not who you’re supposed to be. If you’re lucky, you reach a point at which it finally sinks in that they don’t know what they’re talking about. You are just fine the way you are. They seem so confident in their condemnation of who you are but they are way off. They are regurgitating a socially reinforced construct, and nothing more. Real life is challenging their narrative, and real life is far more convincing than the stories they tell.
* If you didn’t catch the Princess Bride reference at the beginning of the post, I suggest you hop onto Netflix and make that the next movie you watch. It’s a classic.
This essay originally ran on Patheos’ Fig Leaf series.
Learn more about the ideas and discussion behind the Fig Leaf Series here.