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Religion, Sex, and Morality

Presented in Family of the Heart Seminar
Toronto April 15th, 2012

Human beings are moral beings. That is one major way in which they are different than animals which follow their instincts and do not have to deal with moral dilemmas. Sheep eat grass and lions eat meat but humans have to choose between eating meat and becoming vegetarian. Humans have to choose between right and wrong, good and bad, healthy and unhealthy. Those values have been developed by two traditions, religious and secular. Some religious people have adopted a judgmental attitude towards secular people. They believe that religion is the only source of moral values; thus they perceive secular people, whether atheists or agnostics, free thinkers or humanists, as immoral and unethical.

Many religious people have told me that they were surprised that even being an atheist and a humanist, I was a kind and caring human being and a compassionate psychotherapist. For a number of years I have been sharing my values as a secular humanist and highlighting the differences between religious morality and secular ethics, especially in the domain of human sexuality. In this essay I will share some of my reflections as a humanist psychotherapist.

Sexual morality dictated by religions is hundreds and thousands of years old and reflects the values of past centuries. Many religions have codified and institutionalized the cultural values of their era as many secular cultures existed before religious traditions. Most religions dictated the following three main sexual values.

  • Sex was allowed only inside the institution of marriage; and even in that institution, husbands and wives were told how to have sexual encounters. Christianity promoted the missionary position even in the bedroom. Followers of religions were taught the virtues of celibacy and chastity, and they were prohibited from fantasizing about other people, a sin for which they would be severely punished.
  • Sex was allowed mainly for reproduction. Every religion, like every tribe, sought to increase its numbers, so they exhorted their followers to have more and more children. That was the foundation for the religious prohibition of contraception and family planning. Many religions did not respect women’s reproductive rights.
  • To control the sexual behaviors of their followers, religions used a carrot and a stick, a punishment and reward method. Religions created fear of hell; those who did not follow the dictates of religion were branded as sinners and threatened with eternal hellfire and damnation. On the other hand, those who followed the right path were declared virtuous and pious and promised that they would go to heaven.

As a humanist psychotherapist who helps individuals and couples with sexual and marital problems, and as a humanist who promotes secular and humanist values in our communities, I have the following concerns about religious morals.

  • Religious morals give a lot of social and religious power to clerics, whether priests, maulanas or rabbis. Many clerics claim that only they can correctly read scriptures and interpret divine revelations, so that they are the only ones who know the ultimate truth; thus others, who are less educated and less knowledgeable about religious morals, should follow their dictates. Many clerics conduct religious marriages and encourage their followers to have lots of children.
  • Religious morality about sexuality produces feelings of shame and guilt in many people, leading to emotional and relationship problems. In my clinical practice I meet many men and women who suffer from anxiety and depression, anger and resentment, because as teenagers they felt guilty about being involved in masturbation and premarital sex.
  • Religious morality is most distressing for those who are not heterosexual. They have a hard time accepting themselves. I met many gays, lesbians and bisexuals who kept their sexual life secret as they were afraid that they would be harshly judged by their families and communities. Some of them even got married to please their families and felt they were living a lie. Not being able to share their truth caused many long-term emotional and social problems. Some of them became so depressed and suicidal that they needed psychiatric help.

As a humanist psychotherapist I am of the opinion that secular ethics provide us the following values.

  • A sexual relationship between two consenting adults is a private matter and does not need the blessing of any god or religion.
  • Love is more important than marriage. People who love each other and want to live with each other do not need to be religiously married and do not need the blessings of clerics.
  • Secular ethics encourages people to accept their truth and if they are born as gays, lesbians, or bisexuals, they need to cherish their sexuality and share with others lovingly, without fear of rejection and persecution. Families and communities need to evolve and accept people with alternative lifestyles compassionately and wholeheartedly.
  • Secular laws of the state need to respect the human rights of all citizens, especially women and sexual minorities.
  • While religions treat human beings as children and give them directions, secular humanist philosophy treats humans as adults and encourages them to trust their conscience and follow the golden rule: do unto others what you would like to be done to you.
  • Secular ethics inspires communities to live by secular laws, so that people with emotional or social problems or who indulge in sexual abuse or sexual violence are controlled by the laws of the state. To deal with such people we need compassionate lawyers, judges and psychiatrists who seek to reform them, rather than judgmental clerics who declare them sinners and want to send them to hell.

In the end, as a humanist psychotherapist my view is that to promote secular ethics and create a humanistic world, we need to respect human rights and associate sex with love and affection, rather than sin and guilt. To grow as a human species and evolve as sexual beings, we need to embrace advances in science and psychology rather than age-old scriptures that impose contradictory sexual morals and create fear in people. We as human beings, individually and collectively, have a choice to let scriptures and clerics control our sexuality and love or let our personal and social conscience guide us. We have a choice to follow religious or secular values. Because of the advances in secular science and psychology, biology and sociology, the number of secular-minded people is increasing all over the world. In 1900 the number of atheists and agnostics, freethinkers and humanists was 1% worldwide; by 2000 this had had increased to 15%. In Canada it is 19% and in Scandinavian countries, more than 50%. All these people have chosen to follow secular ethics rather than religious morality. Jean Paul Sartre, the existentialist philosopher, used to say that to love our neighbor we do not need God.