“We overestimate how effectively scientific arguments secularize people. It’s not science that’s secularizing Americans — it’s sex.”
That is the conclusion of University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus in his article Christians are part of the same dating pool as everyone else. That’s bad for the church, in The Washington Post.
His book “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy” (Oxford, 2017), Regnerus discusses the changes in sexual attitudes and behavior over the last few decades and demonstrates their consequences in marriage, family, and culture. This article looks specifically at the impact of what he calls “cheap sex” on the church, with which he is in sympathy.
Though Christians too are struggling with sexual issues, churches are still made up mostly of adults who are married. But he observes, citing an interesting article about pornography, “Cheap sex, it seems, has a way of deadening religious impulses.”
Cohabiting couples tend to stay away from church. So do others engaged in sexual practices that they know violate Christian sexual morality. It isn’t that churches are actively rejecting them. Most churches are far less strict than they used to be and many would be quite welcoming. But cohabiting couples and sexually-active singles don’t feel comfortable in church, as if they know that their behavior is transgressive.
This has implications for the much-discussed problem of why young people tend to desert the church as soon as they go off to college. Dr. Regnerus says, “Perhaps the increasing lack of religious affiliation among young adults is partly a consequence of widening trends in nonmarital sexual behavior among young Americans, in the wake of the expansion of pornography and other tech-enhanced sexual behaviors.”
So it isn’t that young people go off to the university and lose their faith because of an atheistic professor teaching them that there is no God. Rather, it may be because they want to take part in the sexual dating and hook-up culture that dominates most university campuses. More precisely, a student who wants to have sex with his girlfriend but who is constrained by his fear of God’s judgment is more likely to find the atheistic professor more persuasive.Of course now, sex has become so “cheap” that a word like “girlfriend” has become anachronistic. With online pornography, the student hungry for sex doesn’t even need a girlfriend–just a computer.
But eventually, the young adults have tended to get married and to have children. At that point–that is, when their sexuality becomes ordered and fruitful according to God’s design–they usually return to church. And no matter how many wild oats they have sown in their personal lives and even though they still fall into the more permissive age demographic, couples tend to revert to more conservative sexual values once they get married.
But today, due largely to the “cheap sex” that Dr. Regnerus chronicles, many adults are not getting married. So many of those who left as young people are not returning to church at all.
Many of the “unchurched” don’t go along with Christian sexual ethics, which prevents them from attending. Some congregations, for whom attracting new members is everything, are trying to attract the unchurched by toning down their teachings about sex, but that seldom works.
The notion that sin causes unbelief makes sense. And it accords with numerous life stories. St. Augustine resisted conversion, even after he became convinced of the truth of Christianity, because he knew that he would have to give up his illicit sexual relationships. Autobiographies of contemporary secularists often tell about “giving up my religion” in the course of their early sexual experiences. And it fits with people we know. And, often, our personal experiences.
It also refutes what some naive Christians blithely assume: “I will give in to this sin, but I can always repent later.” Sin hardens the heart and sears the conscience, to use Scriptural terms. At some point, you cannot repent. You start to justify your behavior. Which entails denying your sinfulness. Which makes you care nothing for the Gospel.
Sin is toxic to faith. Then again, faith is toxic to sin. So those who want to cling to their sinfulness want to keep away from faith, often becoming actively hostile to it.
God’s Word of Law and Gospel can break this cycle. And God’s provision for sexual desire is marriage, which replaces “cheap sex” with valuable sex, reversing its sterility to make it life-giving.
Illustration by geralt, Pixabay, CC0, Creative Commons