Letters to My Daughters #6: “On Science, Sexuality, and Social Justice”

Letters to My Daughters #6: “On Science, Sexuality, and Social Justice” October 30, 2013

20131030-144716.jpgI’m sure you have lots of questions about how I came to disbelieve the very faith in which I helped raise you girls during the first few years of your lives. There’s plenty I could say, but I’m in no rush to have that conversation with you because it would be an awful lot to process all at once. You are in the awkward position of having two parents on opposite sides of a pretty controversial divide. Now, when it comes to caring for you, we are very much on the same page. We talk over all important decisions and you should see nothing less than full cooperation and mutual support in all we do for you. But differences are there, and as with another issue I’ve mentioned before, I am pretty sure you are hearing regularly from one side but not the other. In this letter, I’d like to explain some of what those issues are.

I should also add that everything I will address in this letter represents the concerns of a growing number of Christians as well. The followers of Jesus are divided over these things, and there are several issues upon which many Christians will agree with secular humanists like me. Because I know that many intelligent, caring people within the Christian faith would essentially say “Amen” to everything I’m about to say, I feel like this stuff is fair game.

1.) Science is not an evil conspiracy. I’ve written to you before about how I value intelligence and critical thinking skills, and how I want you girls to continue in your natural love of learning (in spite of our educational system’s apparent determination to beat this out of you). You should not be made to fear scientific discovery simply because it challenges the way we think about certain things. You do not have to give up your faith in God in order to accept that the human race developed in a much slower and more incremental way than we previously believed. As long as you don’t feel compelled to treat the Bible like it’s a science textbook, you won’t be threatened by the idea of a shared ancestry with other species or with a universe that’s billions (not thousands) of years old. I know there are well-meaning people around you who would disagree with me on both of those things but, well…they’re wrong :) But you don’t have to take my word for it; both science and a growing percentage of Christians are saying the same things I am saying here, so I’m personally persuaded that there shouldn’t even be a controversy about them. This shouldn’t be seen as a battle between faith and non-faith, because plenty of believers have accepted the discoveries of modern science.

Another thing science is telling us is that our planet’s natural resources are not endless, and the way we use those resources impacts future generations. There’s a good reason movies like Wall-E portray the future of our planet in desolate terms. Even the artsy, right-brained folks at Pixar grasp the inescapability of a trashed planet if we do not address the way we live on this little blue world. But many people in church seem to think this is foolishness. I’m not sure they’ve ever asked themselves why they’re so unconcerned about it, but I suspect it has something to do with a belief that God will either scrap this planet and give us an upgrade (Earth 2.0!) or else he will remove us entirely so we can live in a better place. Either way, it then becomes a sign of a lack of faith if you show too much concern for the condition of our planet. This is a tragic and ultimately deadly mistake, not just for whales and bees and bald eagles, but ultimately for humans, too. At some point we have to start taking responsibility for how we manage the resources of our planet or else our children and grandchildren will regret it. This is something about which both believers and non-believers often agree, even if you can’t tell by surveying a typical Southern Baptist church (most Christians are not Southern Baptists, FYI).

2.) Sex isn’t dirty, and there are more valid expressions of it than many people would allow. Some Christian groups are obsessed with limiting sex to a very narrow set of acceptable circumstances, and some in youth ministry seem determined to make this their defining characteristic. It’s like an identity marker for them that they are so strongly against certain expressions of sexuality. But the rules about sex change from one society to the next, and from one generation to the next. Try telling tribes in Africa that they should be wearing more clothes, or maybe try telling people from the Victorian era that it’s okay for women to show their ankles. Try telling Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, or Solomon that a man is only supposed to mate with one woman. Each of them had either more than one wife or else they at least had multiple sex partners (some had both), and the Bible seemed to be fine with that at the time. How could that be? It’s because the rules about sex aren’t as timeless or fixed as some would have us believe.

Is homosexuality okay? If you asked people in the Bible they’d say: “No, because it’s not natural.” But they once said the same thing about being left-handed, too. It was seen as unnatural and anyone favoring his left hand over his right was wicked and deformed. Eventually that belief died away when people finally realized that for some people it really is natural. The same thing is happening today with homosexuality, and I predict that you will one day find that some of your friends fall into this category as well. Today we have consenting adults in loving, long-term relationships still being denied the right to marry because certain groups feel so threatened by the fact that the partners are either both males or both females. But this belief is dying away, and it really needs to go. Many Christians see this and have moved on; but of all the rules people can’t let go of, the ones about sex seem to be the most difficult ones to drop.

It’s not just about gay sex, either. Youth ministry can be obsessive in its worship of “purity” to the point that girls your age learn to think that their virginal status is the most important thing about them. The notion that your self-worth is tied to your ability to avoid all intimate contact prior to your wedding night goes back a long, long way. But this is a destructive, “objectifying” way to think about self-worth, and I honestly hope you girls learn to reject it. I’m not saying I don’t want you to be responsible about how you handle yourselves as you grow into your dating relationships. I want you to be emotionally ready before you venture out into the sensitive world of physical intimacy. But I also want you to know that there are more important things than what you do on dates. Too much guilt and pressure get piled onto teens about this topic and in the end it only makes everything worse. It teaches people to cultivate overly-critical feelings about themselves over desires which are completely healthy and normal, as if these urges were bad. They’re strong, yes, and they can lead us to make foolish choices if we don’t keep our heads about us. But they aren’t dirty, and many Christians would echo my conviction that too many obsessive rules have been built up around this one topic, making it look as if this is the most important thing about you. It’s not, though. I’ll tell you something on which even Jesus focused way more attention himself…

3.) Promoting social causes and fair treatment of people should take up way more of our energies than they currently do. There are many areas of life where this is true, and both humanists and Christians should be on the same page about making the world a better place for as many different kinds of people as possible. But sometimes churches focus so much energy anticipating life in the hereafter that they neglect caring for people in the here and now. Don’t get me wrong—they take care of their own. But if you’re not “one of them” you’re likely to go unnoticed. There’s a lot of inequality out there, and both humanists and Christians could be working together to do something about it. Women still don’t get rewarded for their work in a way that’s equal to similarly qualified men. Racial discrimination still goes on at every level of our society even though most have learned to hide their racial hatred in any number of ingenious disguises. Religious discrimination separates coworkers, friends, and sometimes even families. And I’ve already mentioned the inequality of our marriage laws towards people in same-sex relationships.

Finally, as time goes on, more and more wealth is becoming concentrated in fewer and fewer hands until the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” becomes cavernously large. Historically, whenever that happens, society becomes unstable and sometimes it leads to violence. I have a hunch this explains why so many popular books today are about dystopian futures preceded by violent uprisings. I think people are becoming increasingly unhappy about the way things are going, and some work needs to be done to address these huge inequalities before things get messy. The Bible is filled with messages about caring for the poor and the needy, but these messages often get lost in the midst of all the talk about staying pure and going to heaven. I’m happy to see that many Christians are beginning to deal with this and I hope in time more will join them. That’s the kind of work that people of faith and people like me could both join in together, making real-world progress around us.

All three of these things (science, sexuality, and social justice) need work, and I know many high-profile Christian writers and leaders who feel as strongly about them as I do. That’s why I consider them “fair game” and worthy of mention. I hope you will approach them analytically and critically, deciding for yourselves what makes the most sense.

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