Friday, September 14, 2007

Marriage and Morals, Chapter 5

Chapter 5 (pages 44-62): “Christian Ethics”

St. Paul and Christianity presented a new approach to marriage, that it was necessary not for “the procreation of children, but to prevent the sin of fornication [p. 44].” Marriage for St. Paul was what would be called today -- i.e., 2007 -- a form of harm reduction, like methadone maintenance for heroin addicts: “it is better to marry than to burn.” [The passage is from First Corinthians vii. 9, quoted by Russell on page 45.] St. Paul “does not suggest for a moment that there may be any positive good in marriage…[p. 46]”; rather, he is concerned only with minimizing fornication. “It is just as if one were to maintain that the sole reason for baking bread is to prevent people from stealing cake [pp. 46-47].” But St. Paul doesn’t explain what is so bad about fornication. The wholesale condemnation of fornication – as opposed to the condemnation of adultery, i.e., sex with a married woman – was a Christian innovation. The condemnation of sex outside of marriage seems to be a byproduct of condemnation of all sex, even of the marital strain. “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 [p. 48].”

The Church even was anti-bathing, because anything that made the body more appealing was a temptation to sin. Lice were signs of holiness. “It is evident that, where such views concerning sex prevailed, sexual relations when they occurred would tend to be brutal and harsh, like drinking under Prohibition [p. 50].” Russell includes long passages (on pages 49-52) on the Church’s disparaging view of sex and marriage from W.E.H. Lecky’s “History of European Morals.”

The Catholic Church has taken Paul’s condemnation of sex still further, by making a sin even marital sex that is not intended for procreation. Marital sex that is intended for procreation, then, is justified, even if in other respects – for instance, it threatens the health of the mother – it is ill-advised or cruel. The Catholic approach is based upon St. Paul’s asceticism and a belief that births are good, since every person has a soul capable of salvation: “…the fact that souls are equally capable of damnation is not taken into account, and yet it seems quite as relevant [p. 53].” Catholic political influence makes it hard for Protestants to use birth control, but most of the Protestant children, by Catholic reckoning, will go to Hell.

Though children are the purpose of marital sex in Catholicism, the Church does not allow marriages to be ended on the basis of sterility. This shows that the greater factor underlying the constraints on sex is Pauline asceticism, and not procreation. Declaring marriage to be a sacrament covers up the Catholic low opinion of marriage, while also leading to much unhappiness as bad unions are virtually indissoluble, and remarriage disallowed.

Nevertheless, the Catholic church is fairly tolerant towards sin. This tolerance increased its power, as only priests could grant the absolution that would prevent eternal damnation.

Protestantism is more tolerant in theory, but in practice often less tolerant. Protestants are not as committed to celibacy, while often not regarding marriage as a sacrament and permitting divorce. “But Protestants were more shocked than Catholics by fornication, and altogether more rigid in their moral condemnations [p. 56].” Protestant sinners are worse off than Catholic sinners, lacking the institutions of confession and absolution.

Those educated in the Christian tradition (i.e., most of us), have a hard time viewing these matters neutrally, without prejudices inculcated by an intensive childhood exposure to religious teachings. What is really wrong with sex? The Church’s negative attitude “must be regarded as purely superstitious… [p. 57],” the product of “a diseased condition of body or mind, or both [pp. 57-58].”

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible. The Pelew Islanders believe that the perforation of the nose is necessary for winning eternal bliss. Europeans think that this end is better attained by wetting the head while pronouncing certain words. The belief of the Pelew Islanders is a superstition; the belief of Europeans one of the truths of our holy religion [page 58, footnote omitted].”

Jeremy Bentham noted that concepts had different names, depending on whether the writer was hoping to praise, dispraise, or be neutral towards the concept. It would be best to avoid words like “fornication” and “adultery” that carry a negative connotation, as well as “gallantry,” which signals approval. But neutral terms – ‘extra-marital sexual relations [p. 59]’ – undermine graceful writing; nevertheless, they must be the dominant, though not exclusive, means of discourse on these matters. (On page 60, Russell notes the personal double standard, that what I do is “gallantry” and what you do is “fornication.” Recall also Byron's Don Juan: "What men call gallantry, and gods adultery,/ Is much more common where the climate 's sultry.")

“The Christian ethics inevitably, through the emphasis laid upon sexual virtue, did a great deal to degrade the position of women [p. 60].” Men did the writing, and women were temptresses. The temptresses had to have their opportunities to tempt restricted. “It is only in quite modern times that women have regained the degree of freedom which they enjoyed in the Roman Empire [pp. 60-61].” Their freedom was “curtailed under the pretence of protecting them from sin [p. 61].” Now that the notion of sin is crumbling, female freedom is increasing.

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