Inspired by a good post on Spanish Inquisitor, as well as a similarly good post by Greta Christina (the atheistic stars have aligned!), I had some thoughts about the role of mysticism in religion, especially as it relates to sex.
Freethinkers should be working to disseminate accurate information about sex, of course – information on how to choose a sexual partner, how to use birth control effectively, how to get an abortion if need be, how to be respectful and responsible toward one’s partners, and how to recognize and fend off those who aren’t. The evidence amply supports the proposition that comprehensive sex education is far more effective than other methods at reducing STD transmissions, unwanted pregnancies, divorce, spousal abuse and unhappiness in general.
But more fundamentally, we need to confront the belief system that lies at the heart of these and many other sexual ills. Rather than just disseminating facts, we need to change attitudes – specifically, the attitude that sex is a dangerous, mysterious thing that should be kept a secret and not talked about. This is an ignorant and fearful mysticism, and it needs to be dispelled.
Sex is a basic biological function that is part of every human life. Why should we treat it any differently than eating or sleeping? There is no rational reason to view it as any different, fundamentally, than any other area of human behavior. Yet a reasonless mysticism still holds sway in this area far too often – one which proclaims that these are forbidden areas, that mere knowledge of sexual information is somehow intrinsically harmful. We can see this in religious conservatives’ outraged reaction to schools and library books that teach accurate information about sex; TV and movie censors that treat sex as automatically indecent; in lawmakers who criminalize businesses that sell items used for sexual pleasure by consenting adults; and in absurdly punitive and cruel laws that stigmatize consensual sexual contact by legal minors, in some cases forcing them to register as sex offenders for life and otherwise treating them the same way as genuine predators.
The crusaders in this anti-sex lynch mob are right in only one way: When we treat sex as dangerous and destructive, we make it dangerous and destructive. A New York Times article about the dangers posed to children by online pornography makes this point clear with two contrasting examples:
One woman, for example, told me that she became hysterical when her eight-year-old stumbled onto a pornographic photo. She told me that she literally dove for the computer, crashing over a chair, yanking out the power cord and then rushing her daughter outside.
I walked over, saw what was going on, and closed the window. “Yeah, I know,” I told him. “Some people like pictures of naked people. The Internet is full of all kinds of things.” And life went on.
Can there be any doubt that, if any harm is done to the child in the first example, it will be done by her mother’s hysterical overreaction, rather than by the photo itself? As the article notes, these pictures have no inherent emotional significance for young children. If the parent doesn’t react abnormally, a child likely will not even think twice about it. On the other hand, that woman’s daughter, by seeing her mother act as if the computer had suddenly turned into toxic waste, has been sent a powerful message that there is something forbidden and dangerous about such images. That message, rather than one of calm and maturity, is the one that’s likely to lead to psychological problems and an unhealthy view of sexuality down the line.
In many areas, but especially in sex, this irrational attitude of fearmongering and enforced ignorance has infected society’s discourse. Atheists and freethinkers, whose minds are not blinded by dogma, can act as the antidote. We need to de-mystify subjects like sex – that is to say, we need to take the mysticism out of them and treat them with the maturity and reason they deserve.