The Moral High Ground

It’s common for fundamentalist Christians to think of themselves as the moral guardians of our culture, a bulwark against the rampant sex and violence in the mass media. But this self-flattering caricature runs up against inconvenient reality: there is plenty of evidence which shows that Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.

One of the best examples of this is Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. This movie had a worldwide gross of over $600 million, of which we can safely assume most came from Christian viewers. Of the movie’s two-plus hour runtime, nearly all is devoted to depicting the torture and execution of Jesus in obsessive, graphic detail, from brutal floggings to the hammering in of crucixifion nails, even adding extra tortures not mentioned in the gospels. Film critic Roger Ebert called Passion “the most violent film I have ever seen”, and Slate critic David Edelstein suggested it should be renamed “The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre”.

Another example is the video game Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind novels. In the game, players take the role of commander of the “Tribulation Force”, an army of Christian believers, converted after the rapture, who must battle the forces of the Antichrist. In essence, the player’s mission is to either convert or kill all non-Christians. U.N. soldiers are represented as minions of the Antichrist, and the player characters exclaim “Praise the Lord!” each time they shoot one of them.

And then, of course, there are the violent and gory scenes from Left Behind itself, where Jesus returns to earth to slaughter his enemies by the millions:

“Tens of thousands of foot soldiers dropped their weapons, grabbed their heads or their chests, fell to their knees, and writhed as they were invisibly sliced asunder. Their innards and entrails gushed to the desert floor, and as those around them turned to run, they too were slain, their blood pooling and rising in the unforgiving brightness of the glory of Christ.”

For deeply religious Christians, it seems that violence is acceptable as long as it’s depicted in the proper religious context. When it’s presented as God’s righteous judgment, they find violence perfectly okay and often even praiseworthy. The Bible itself, of course, is the greatest example of this – considering the many brutal slaughters and wars of extermination it records the Israelites waging against their enemies at God’s command, none of which ever seem to give fundamentalists any concern. (The sexual content of the Bible doesn’t bother them either.)

Turning to the topic of sex, there’s little difference to be found between Christians and non-Christians here as well – or rather, if there is, it’s in the wrong direction. It’s long been known that, statistically, socially conservative states and evangelical Protestants in particular have higher rates of teen pregnancy, divorce, and STD infection. The “abstinence-only” sex education programs and virginity pledges so beloved by religious conservatives have repeatedly failed to make any measurable difference in sexual behavior.

Corroborating evidence comes from another study, by sociologist Benjamin Edelman, concerning access to online pornography. It turns out that of all American states, the one with the highest rate of subscriptions to adult sites is the socially conservative, Mormon-dominated Utah. The FBI also confirms that Utah outranks most other states when it comes to web searches for explicit content. Nor is this just a Mormon thing, as Edelman adds:

“Subscriptions are slightly more prevalent in states that have enacted conservative legislation on sexuality,” Edelman writes. In the 27 states where “defense of marriage” amendments have been adopted, there were 11 percent more porn subscribers than in other states, he reports. Use is higher also in states where more people agree with the statement “I never doubt the existence of God.”

Clearly, there’s a great deal of sexual repression lurking beneath the surface facades of piety. When it comes to sex and violence, religious teachings may instill an outward attitude of condemnation, but they evidently make little difference in people’s actual desires and behaviors.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    That’s interesting! if the statistics on “religious” states are correct the very people who condemn consensual non-exploititive sexual conduct in homo / trans-gendered individuals are the very people funding the sexual exploitation of individuals via porn.

  • http://yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Sex and violence always seem to sell – the sex part I can understand, but why are humans so drawn to violence? I include myself in this, since I’m an avid fan of hack-n-slash horror (especially if it’s Japanese), but I’d be hard pressed to say why I find watching graphic disembowellment appealing.

    Or is it just me? Could be I’m a bit of a sicko, I guess – after all, I am a godless heathen…

    If anyone can offer a good explanation of the human propensity to violence, I’d be interested to hear it.

  • Hu

    yunshui, you may check out Desmond Morris’ little book: “The Nature of Happiness”. Violence appeals to some people probably has something to do with our evolution history. After all, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. Violent hunting, chasing and fighting were essential to our survival. This “competitive happiness” is probably a kind of primeval instinct.

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    yunshui,

    My guess is that violence is frightening (and therefore possibly exciting) in a way that few other things are. Perhaps being frightened occasionally makes us feel more human. NB: This is just an uneducated guess on my part.

    In the modern world, fighting for one’s life (or that of one’s family) is thankfully not something that many of us ever have to do. Nevertheless, I think the instinct to do so if necessary is written into our genetic heritage deeply enough that we might feel oddly uneasy with a peaceful life. I’ve no desire to needlessly risk my life, but the idea of physically fighting for survival is exciting. Something that would certainly focus the mind!

  • TJ

    Eshu, I think you got it right. The adrenaline rush of more-or-less safely engaging the “flight or fight” response is what makes roller coasters and horror movies fun. Getting away with it is probably a good part of it, too. Evolutionarily, you want to take risks, but be scared while you take them so you don’t risk too much at once. Getting away with it, though, should feel good, so that you’ll take more rewarding risks. On a personal level this may not be the greatest strategy, but statistically, if 10% of the risk-takers end up dead, 10% get nothing, and 80% end up with more material wealth (more food, better social status, more access to mates), then risk-taking would spread pretty quickly. It’s more complex than that, but that’s the basic idea, I think, behind why mock fear (in video games, movies, and amusement park rides) feels so good to so many people.

  • Mercredi

    So, the problem with citing this study as evidence of sexual repression in conservative states is that it only looks at online porn subscriptions, and not commercial porn consumption overall. I think it’s reasonable to assume that porn is more difficult/socially frowned upon to obtain through non-internet means in more conservative states. To what degree, I have no idea – maybe it’s more than enough to account for the difference in online porn subscriptions, maybe it’s not. But it’s not giving us the full story of commercial porn consumption by state, and definitely not overall porn/erotica consumption.

    And I’m not even sure porn consumption correlates with sexual repression.I think that could be a fascinating study, provided it’s made clear what “porn” means for the purpose of the study.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    South Park had the best description for “The Passion”. It’s a snuff film.

  • David Ellis


    That’s interesting! if the statistics on “religious” states are correct the very people who condemn consensual non-exploititive sexual conduct in homo / trans-gendered individuals are the very people funding the sexual exploitation of individuals via porn.

    We need to be far more cautious in interpreting statistics. The theists are all too prone to interpret statistics to fit their ideological agenda. Let’s not make the same mistake.

    For example, the fact that there is more porn consumed in regions of higher religiosity does not, in fact, necessarily indicate that religious people are more prone to consuming porn. It could be that the same factor that results in higher religiousity in some people results in higher porn consumption in others. Poverty and lower educational levels are the most obvious possible factor. And that’s just one possibility. There could be countless others.

  • nfpendleton

    Totally anecdotal, but interesting, is the fact that most young pastors – especially those who work specifically with teens and pre-teens – that I’ve personally met, have been revealed to have quite a healthy appetite for pornography in general and fooling around with young girls in specific.

    Again, this is merely anecdotal. But still interesting.

  • John Nernoff

    Somebody else can fill in the details, but don’t some Arab countries have public displays of beheadings, and also animal torture and/or gory deaths related to “halal” type of ritual slaughter for food?

  • Alex Weaver

    That’s interesting! if the statistics on “religious” states are correct the very people who condemn consensual non-exploititive sexual conduct in homo / trans-gendered individuals are the very people funding the sexual exploitation of individuals via porn.

    I’m still holding onto a sliver of hope that someone who argues that pornography is “exploitive” will actually explain the reasoning behind this claim. Also, the implicit contrast between appearing in pornographic depictions, and behavior that is identified as “consensual,” is intellectually dishonest.

    Additionally, Adam, I think it’s worth noting in the post that, contary to the religious right’s position, sex or depictions thereof is not categorically or inherently “immoral,” at least as a tangential aside.

  • valhar2000

    Alex, I agree with you. It is for this reason that it is important to point out that, contrary to the Religious Right delusion, many unbeleivers judge religious morality to be inferior as defined by the standards of its practitioners. This is, in fact, the core of the criticism Adam is making, after all: pointing out the hypocrisy of claiming that some action is inmoral and then doing it anyway.

    The same goes for many of the “Islam is a religion of peace” crowd, who will say that even while they are advocating for violence against non-muslims.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    I’m still holding onto a sliver of hope that someone who argues that pornography is “exploitive” will actually explain the reasoning behind this claim.

    Actually Alex I would agree with you that most mainstream porn is not exploiting the participants. I do know some people involved in the U.K porn industry and they are more than happy doing what they do thank you very much. However they also tell me there is a darker side to the industry at the extremes, especially some of the hardcore web porn which often exploits illegal immigrants and other disadvantaged groups. Are these conservatives and religious hypocrites subscribing to this kind of porn? Don’t know, but I would guess they’re not just content with Playboy content.

  • KShep

    You guys have it all wrong—-maybe all that porn they’re watching in Utah turns them all to Mormonism.

    I mean, think about it: the participants in porn seem to get religion all the time. Does anyone in those films ever yell out “Oh My Flying Spaghetti Monster!!!!” at the….ahem….appropriate time? It’s all a conspiracy to steer us all to religion, I tell ya…..:^)

    I’ve long held that the worst thing about being an atheist is that there’s no one to talk to during an orgasm.

  • Leum

    If your partner is imaginary then there’s nothing silly about talking to someone else imaginary. If your partner is real you can always talk him/her/hir.

  • Steve Slater

    I can’t speak for other “fundamentalists”, only for myself, nor would I presume to generalize about atheists. I have entertained thoughts that I would be ashamed to have exposed to public view. I do SUSPECT that we are all pretty much the same, and I agree with the statement “Christians as a whole are every bit as drawn to sex and violence as everyone else.” In deciding on moral issues, I am motivated by a concern for what is destructive for me, my children, and society at large. Perhaps you are too; we just may disagree on what is destructive. Yes, I agree there is plenty of self-righteousness to go around — on both sides. One difference: “fundies” don’t take a vote on what is moral – truth is not a matter of preference or taste for us – we believe it is revealed in Scripture. Whether that is good or bad is another discussion.

    On sex and violence in the Bible. Sex is not something shameful in the Bible; it is something good that has been perverted and debased in society. Sex in the Bible is not described in such a way as to evoke erotic feelings as pornography does. Violence also is not described in a gratuitous way – in a way to evoke excitement or pleasure. Violence is repulsive in the Bible, not something you enjoy reading about, and I would argue that is the intent.

  • Alex Weaver

    …/it/them/other.

    Steve, define “exploiting” in the context of the third to last sentence. Are we talking about ways of treating hired workers which would be considered unethical or illegal in other industries?

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    Steve, define “exploiting” in the context of the third to last sentence.

    I’m talking about forced prostitution. Don’t think even MacDonalds does that. But as I say I don’t think mainstream pornography involves exploitation, just the dodgy fringes.

  • http://uncyclopedia.org/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Steve Slater “…’fundies’ don’t take a vote on what is moral – truth is not a matter of preference or taste for us – we believe it is revealed in Scripture.”
    I hate to point this out, but the relativist last third of that completely undermines the absolutist beginning.

  • H4x0r

    One question… If you are an Atheist, how can you then refer to the “Moral high ground”? Morality is a religous concept based on the character of God Himself… Without God there is no truth or lie, there is no right or wrong and there is not Moral high ground. If you now say that I am wrong…you then by reason itself admit the existance God by way of his moral character.