Human Sexuality and Religious Norms
Decades after the sexual revolution, many religious conservatives remain fiercely committed to preaching, if not always living, an absolute and absolutist understanding of human sexuality. Mainstream biologists, psychologists and sociologists, building on the science of evolution and other modern advancements of understanding, have helped redefine the meaning of normal when it comes to sex, moving mountains so to speak, and yet these religious conservative retain a rule-heavy belief about who should and shouldn’t be having sex and how sex ought always to be done by those morally permitted to get down to business. In word, if not always in every deed, they morally reject sex before marriage, entertaining lustful thoughts, masturbation, fornication, cohabitation, homosexuality, and pornography. They stand athwart the new normal yelling “Sin!”
Social progressives may hold out hope that these religious conservatives will one day appreciate sex as something good outside the hard and fast rules of their religion. I think this change unlikely because it would take a fundamental paradigm shift. Conservative Christians, for example, view human sexuality principally as a sacred reality. In a number of moral theologies, God designed human sexuality for the purpose of procreation, and commanded all human beings, from Adam and Eve onward, to be fruitful and multiply, engaging in sex strictly in accordance with the order of the divine plan. St. Thomas Aquinas argued this philosophically, concluding that every emission of semen, ordered in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good and nature of man, and if done deliberately, a sin. Every sexual act must, in principle, follow a form that is open to life, whether or not the couple’s union is fertile, infertile, or sterile. To engage in sex in any way contrary to the good, human nature, and God’s design makes the person or persons involved arbiters of God’s plan, manipulators of something holy, grave sinners. They are not to take control of their sexuality, but control their appetites and behaviors in keeping with a strict religious meaning of sexuality to which is owed devotion and obedience. The giver of the gift of sex makes the rules, and they must follow these norms.
It should be noted that some religious conservatives will, in addition to approaching the reality of human sexuality from a theological position, also strive to understand its meaning from the standpoints of science, philosophy, and culture. They may accept that human sexuality is the result of millions of years of evolution, but—and this is key—they will interpret this evolutionary meaning in light of their religious doctrine. Where evolution may suggest a fluid meaning to sexuality, this meaning will be understood within the framework of the God-given morally-absolute meaning. All inquiry here will begin and end within the religious sphere, even if detours are taken into the sciences.
So long as these religious conservatives begin their understanding of human sexuality on the premises of revelation, they’ll not change on the basics. To make such change would indicate that the meanings of sex and of revelation are not truly fixed. What we might see in time is some of these religious conservatives changing the starting point of their approach to sex and sexual norms from religious premises to secular ones, beginning, for example, without the assumption that human sexuality has an immutable divinely-given meaning, but rather a fluid evolutionary one. Were this road to be taken, while religion retained, the statements in revelation pertaining to sex would have to be reinterpreted so as to be taken less literally. The theologies of God’s providence over human procreation would need to be rethought. In this context, a sexual revolution would necessitate a religious revolution. We’re unlikely to witness such a sweeping change, especially given the position of religious conservatives, who stand not passively against the waves of secularism, but seek actively to turn the tide and win converts to their cause.