This year, of course, is the 150th anniversary year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. While the commemorations of Darwin and his revolutionary book are numerous, nobody seems to have noticed that this is also an anniversary year of another book that was in its own way revolutionary. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Bertrand Russell’s manifesto of sexual liberation, Marriage and Morals. At the time, Russell’s book was considered quite shocking. Its publication probably played a large part in the filing of the lawsuit in 1940 that prevented Russell’s appointment as a professor at the City College of New York. A bigoted judge ruled that his appointment would establish a “chair of indecency” at the college. Now, having lived through the sexual revolution, and the feminist and fundamentalist counterrevolutions, many of Russell’s suggestions sound rather tame to us, e.g., that marriage need not be a necessary condition for cohabitation.
Still, some of Russell’s remarks remain provocative. He is uncompromising about the bad effects of traditional religious teachings concerning sexuality. Here is a quote from my essay “Bertrand Russell,” published in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi, Greenwood Press, 2008:
Russell is particularly scathing about orthodox teachings on human sexuality. He holds that early Christianity promoted an unhealthy view of sexuality by regarding perpetual virginity as ideal with marriage a poor second best (It is best to be celibate, says Paul, but “It is better to marry than to burn,” I Corinthians, 7:9). Indeed, says Russell, orthodox Christianity has viewed all sexual desire with suspicion, even within marriage, and this has led to bad consequences:
The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral
was…based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is
regrettable. A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can
only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it
is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole
history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life
(Russell, 1929, p. 48).