Friday, September 4, 2015

Sex and Fundamentalism

I dont know if any of you folks have been following the Josh Duggar scandal. He comes from the 19 Kids and Counting family, a big clan of fundamentalist Christians who belong to a cult founded by Bill Gothard. Gothard is a very strange character into big families (the "full quiver" movement), patriarchy, sexual purity, and nonsensical interpretation of the Bible.

The Duggars have lost their TV show and generally fallen from grace because it was revealed that as a young teenager, Josh molested his younger sisters and never faced legal consequences. Stories have been circulating about his "porn addiction," and just recently his name turned up on the list of Ashley Madison accounts.

But what I wanted to write about was the reactions of many liberals to this scandal. Here is one from The Huffington Post that can stand for a whole genre:
But the Ashley Madison account? The affairs? The strippers? I only have one thing to say on that front -- Duh.

Of course he behaved that way. He was kept from a normal life, a normal childhood, a normal upbringing. He was raised to believe that the natural, healthy feelings he was having about sexuality were wrong. He was taught that there shouldn't even be any kissing until marriage. Are you kidding me? Think about that for a minute -- telling an adolescent that they are to bottle up all of their healthy, happy sexual feelings because they are "bad" and "wrong." It's sick. It's dangerous. And, obviously, it's escalating all around.

In fact, I believe it was that very upbringing that lead him to the criminal behavior with his sisters. He was taught that victims were to blame. He was taught that women were put on this earth to serve men. He was taught that life barely existed outside of the four walls of his family home. What on earth did we expect to happen?

This seems so obvious to many people that they don't even bother defending it. They just assert that fundamentalist beliefs lead to screwed-up sexuality. But do we know any such thing? I submit that we do not. I am not aware of any evidence showing that fundamentalists are more likely to molest children than secular people are. I have the same creeped out reaction to Gothard's cult that many other secular people feel, but our finding Gothard loathsome does not mean that his teachings lead to child abuse. Child abusers come from all cults, creeds, races, and classes. The one thing they have in common is that many of them were abused themselves.

And as for the Ashley Madison thing, does anybody want to argue that secular people don't have affairs?

People like our HuffPost author assume that to "bottle up" all of our sexual feelings is "sick" and "dangerous." What does she think of the Dalai Lama? Is he sick and dangerous? He is just one of thousands of priests, monks, and nuns who have led quite happy lives and done much good for the world. In fact, so far as we can measure these things, the happiest people in the world are Buddhist monks. I don't actually know very much about Buddhist monasteries, and I assume that they have the same sexual troubles as Christian monasteries; but just because some people fail at chastity doesn't mean that it isn't a good choice for others.

Does high school sex really make people happier and better adjusted? I don't see any evidence of that, either.

Human sexuality is so complex, and so diverse, that I am skeptical of all generalizations about it. As for the notion that casting aside Victorian ideas about sex would lead to a society free from neurosis, I think the history of America since 1960 pretty well disproves it. I think the assertion that Josh Duggar ended up a sexual creep because of what his parents teach is dubious in the extreme. How could we possibly know?

But what really moved to to write about this is the gloating. Every time some fundamentalist preacher falls, liberals set up a raucous cheer that has always bothered me. Why celebrate any man's humiliation? The liberal reaction has something to do with "hypocrisy." It is obnoxious, people say, to go around criticizing others for doing what you do yourself. I suppose it can be. But none of us can live up to our moral principles all of the time; the only way live without any hypocrisy would be to have no principles at all. I suppose having principles is different from preaching about them, but preachers of morals are important people in many human societies -- it is a job that many people want someone to do, and are in fact willing to pay generously to support. So someone will do it. And some of those preachers will in action fall well short of their words. It doesn't strike me as anything worth getting excited about. Nor it is it any kind of philosophical threat to the Christian worldview, which holds that all people are sinners, and all will at some point fail. The failure of any one person, or even all people, to live up to a moral code or any other standard is not in itself an attack on that code. There is nothing wrong with aspirations.

What I wonder is, why do secular people care so much? I don't. I have zero interest in what fundamentalists say about morality; it affects me not one bit. Obviously in our society there are contexts in which we have to negotiate our diverse views about sexuality, viz., sex education in public schools. But as the remarkable change in the acceptance of homosexuality shows, the rest of us are perfectly capable of getting on with life regardless of what the Baptist preachers say.

It seems to me that people who felt secure about their own ideas would not be so interested in what fundamentalists say. To care is to accord the preachers exactly the authority they crave, the authority to judge you. If you feel judged by fundamentalist preaching, perhaps you need to look carefully into your own heart and figure out why. Because lashing angrily back at them, and partying it up when one is revealed as a philanderer, is a strange way to stand up for secular values.

The only thing I feel about Josh Duggar's humiliation is sadness; sadness for the girls he molested, for all parents who have to confront such behavior from their children, for his wife, for his siblings who thought they were part of something positive and godly. There is nothing to celebrate here, and no grist for any kind of systematic attack on Christian morality or child-rearing. Bad things really do happen to good people. To believe that hypocrites deserve to be publicly humiliated, or that parents who teach abstinence deserve a child molester for a son, is exactly the sort of Old Testament morality that I want to get away from.


David said...

I would certainly agree with most of what you say, particularly because the gloating over hypocrisy implies that, if the person could be proved to be not hypocritical, their preaching would be okay. If we could show that Bernard Gui was absolutely consistent and sincere and followed the clerical rules absolutely faithfully, would that be a mark in favor of the Inquisition? I find sincere fanatics much more dangerous and scary (and important) than hypocrites.

On the other hand, people who are deeply bothered by evangelicals have a real point. Evangelical preachers have a fair amount of power and influence. And, when someone like Dobson says that we are a Christian nation and non-Christians (like me) are here on sufferance, rather than as a matter of right (as I have heard him say), I think botheration in response is not just a matter of personal neurosis.

G. Verloren said...

Be very careful about invoking Buddhist monks as icons of sexual purity - Tibetan monks in particular.

Not a lot of Westerners are familiar with it, but Tibet's theocracy especially had a very long history of institutional pederasty that operated right up until the invasion by China. It might surprise many of us occidentals, but the same human vices seem to be present everywhere - even Tibetan Lamas were often guilty of greed, corruption, ruthless political maneuvering, and sexual deviancy.

Buddhism as a whole was and is no more or less susceptible to human failings than any other religion. Monasteries are places of learning and reflection, but they've often also been places of fierce political rivalry, economic competition, and even open warfare and revolt. Many high priests have attained their stations through wealth or military might, and made good use of their showy trappings as holy men to conceal their less than holy behaviors. The same has likely been true of almost every religious order that has ever existed.

As for the Dalai Lama himself, that's a strange topic. We do know that previous Dalai Lamas haven't always been the most moral of men. But His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso himself is something of a wonder - a man shaped by the circumstances of his life to be a remarkably kind, patient, effectively saintly figure. It's very easy to believe he has remained chaste his entire life.

But he is almost by definition the exception - his life was so very far removed from that of your average mid-level Lama, and even more so from that of a lowly monk. He was reared from early childhood to be a living Buddha and the temporal and spiritual leader of his people, and his entire life was structured and monitored by an entire institution. He literally never had the chance to stray, even if he had wanted to.

Yet many other monks and lamas come from much more worldly origins, ranging from truly pious believers, to ambitious social climbers, to reformed criminals seeking a fresh lease on life, and everything in between. How many of those men have strayed from their teachers? Certainly a substantial number. And yet, life goes on.

The big difference I see between Buddhist and Christian teachings is that Buddhism is inherently a more forgiving cosmology. You're not expected to reach Buddhahood on the first try. Mistakes are expected and largely accepted, because this is but one of many lifetimes before you. You're supposed to make incremental progress toward nirvana, getting a little closer with each rebirth. Only the truly exceptional become enlightened all at once.

In contrast, Christianity is fiercely judgemental. You have one life to live, and then depending on how you did, you receive either eternal torment and punishment, or eternal bliss and reward. The tolerance for mistakes is much lower, and the social repurcussions of transgression are far greater.

Moreover, unlike Buddhism which has an implicit understanding that the uneducated laity are, by virtue of their ignorance and the hardships of their lives, not fully responsible for their transgressions and therefor should be held to less strict standards of morality, Christianity operates from a position of suspicion and judgement from the very start - Humanity is treated as intrinsically condemned by the concept of original sin. There are a series of requirements (differing by denomination) that must be fulfilled to earn "salvation", and without all of them an individual is literally damned.

Perhaps the simplest way I can think to illustrate the difference in how the dogma of each religion influence the cultures of their adherants is to remark that it would be almost laughable to speak of the practice of deathbed conversions among Buddhists.

G. Verloren said...

Anyway, you ask why some secularists care so much what fundamentalists say about morality, and you remark that it affects you personally not one bit.

Perhaps the difference is that others feel it very much does affect them personally quite a bit actually.

Fundamentalists don't just sit back idly criticizing other people - they're out there actively waging a cultural war, trying to force their values on others in very real, tangible ways. They're out working and lobbying to influence or enact laws and systems which have profound effects on the lives of many secular individuals.

Perhaps most notable is their efforts to cripple abortion clinics - they haven't been able to overturn the federal right to an abortion, so instead they work to erect as much red tape and expense as possible for such clinics to overcome, with the hopes of forcing them to close down. There are a number of states where although abortions are fully legal, they are effectively not available to the vast majority of women who would seek them.

But other fundamentalist causes also include actively meddling in the education system and its cirriculum; working to restrict rights of all kinds for homosexuals; interfering with the right to worship of other religions; forcibly excluding and disenfranchising immigrants; and more.

These aren't just simple grumblings of dissent from a fringe extremist subculture - these are full blown organized campaigns to deny equal treatment under the law to any parties they don't approve of. They're actively working to force their values on others by any means necessary, and when their efforts see any measure of success, they make the lives of many of their fellow human beings more miserable and difficult.

So while you in your comfortable middle class lifestyle as a heterosexual middle aged white male New Englander might feel unaffected, there are plenty of people who don't match that description who feel quite plainly attacked by fundamentalists. If you were a poor lesbian black woman living in Texas, you might feel very differently than you do now.

John said...

There are certainly real political conflicts in America, many with fundamentalists on one side and me on the other. But that is no reason, I think, either to make false statements about fundamentalist teaching as the cause of sexual abuse, or to make such a big deal about the hypocrisy of preachers. As David said, this implies that they would be right if they were entirely correct in following their own rules. I concede no such thing.

To me the deep problem is with an Old Testament view of the world, in which God strikes down sinners against Bronze Age codes and punishes sinful nations with Assyrian invasions. The way to combat such beliefs is to build successful secular families and communities. To make the world a better place, with less hate and malicious judgement in every direction.

G. Verloren said...

Oh certainly, less anger and resentment and negativity and hatred would be very nice.

But it's not as if the secular community doesn't have reasons for being angry and resentful and negative and hateful a lot of the time. Those reasons aren't very good, and certainly don't justify or excuse anything, but they at least make such behavior understandable, if still destructive and sad.

Of course, such negativity is pretty common among people of all persuasions these days. People seem to have a hard time championing their various causes with patience and dignity. Whether it be race, sexuality, political ideaology, religious belief, or any other major issue, it seems like everybody is eager to get offended and start shouting instead of sitting down and trying to figure out how to fix things positively.

There's a lot of anger floating around, and a lot of noise going along with it. It makes it hard to have meaningful and impactful discussions about things. But patience seems to be in short supply, and there are some factions which simply aren't interested in meaningful discourse anyway.

There's a lot going on socially and culturally right now, but it's all very disjointed and chaotic, which means there's a lot of wasted energy and frustration going around. Civility is stretched a bit thin, particularly in areas where people are actively suffering but nothing seems to be changing.

I think this is partly a predictable response to the advent of mass digital communication. Before, if all you had to offer was anger and abuse, your message never got out. But now there's the internet, allowing anyone to say anything they like however they choose to and still have a pretty big audience. And culturally, we still haven't yet truly developed a code of conduct for this new scenario.

It's kind of like how aerial drones are currently in a big legal gray space - there's a lag time involved, and the laws haven't yet caught up to the technology because of the immense inertia that has to be overcome to move our legal machinery.

The same concept applies to our modern communications - we're finding ourselves in a giant echo chamber with untold numbers of faceless, semi-anonymous voices. We've yet to collectively establish a code of conduct for how to deal with our newfound ability to be heard.

But we will. Humanity has dealt with this sort of problem many times in the past. When cars first became widespread, the laws lagged behind and it was pretty crazy for a number of years there until everything got squared away. When newspapers started being published daily instead of weekly, and competition for readership became fierce, we saw a lengthy period of absolutely bonkers journalism dominated by brazen, shameless sensationalism - but people eventually got sick of it and over time modern journalistic ethics grew to dominate the media.

The internet is going through the same sort of cycle. We're still languishing in a sort of "Yellow Journalism" phase, where the heightened rate of content production favors the most attention grabbing and controversy spurring material, but given time I'm confident people will start demanding more level headed and civil discourse from the media. It might a while, unfortunately, but the overall pattern should re-emerge eventually.

Katya said...

"It seems to me that people who felt secure about their own ideas would not be so interested in what fundamentalists say."

One can be secure about one's ideas *and* recognize that those ideas are under attack by certain tenets of American Christian Fundamentalism. These things are not contradictory.