This article was originally written for and published on the Patheos blog Removing the Fig Leaf.
Ignorance can be a dangerous thing when those who are ignorant are held up as great teachers, as they often are in traditional religions. Progressive variants aside, most religion is conservative by nature and tends to focus more on what you shouldn’t do than what you should do. Often the things you shouldn’t do include thinking about anything you shouldn’t do, so children growing up under such teaching learn ignorance rather than understanding. They are discouraged from asking why, and encouraged to accept everything they’re taught on the authority of the teacher.
Sometimes this ignorance is amusing, such as when James Dobson claimed bisexuality means participating in orgies and Franklin Graham condemned fellow Christians for loving his enemies. But I feel a sense of sadness whenever I hear it, because I’ve seen the damage caused by fools who think themselves wise. Notably, Graham’s “enemies” are LGBT children who are at much higher risk of homelessness, abuse, and suicide than their straight peers.
I’ve seen families and friendships torn apart, churches split with hateful words, and children denied the love of their parents. I’ve seen young people end up homeless or in the hospital because they dared to be individuals instead of conforming to the expectations of their family and church. I’ve seen kind and loving people harassed and slandered for asking the wrong questions or holding the wrong opinions.
I try not to criticize conservatism itself, as the philosophy has its place and isn’t inherently bad. But so much of modern religious conservatism, at least in America, has become purely reactionary. Rather than standing for something, religious conservatives define themselves by what they stand against. This is particularly evident when it comes to the issue of sex, where religious institutions often fail to offer any positive alternative to the supposedly evil things they oppose.
When a child grows up in an environment saturated with a negative and reactionary worldview, they miss out on a real understanding of the issues. The child may not comprehend the severity of consequences, especially if the list of forbidden things includes, for example, music with a certain beat. Simply labeling things evil because “God says so” will put all of those things on the same level, as if they’re all equally wrong. The child may not see anything wrong with rock music, and consequently may not understand the seriousness of sexual crimes because they’ve always looked at both issues in the same way. It leaves fear of parental punishment as the only incentive to obey. There’s no moral judgment, just the question of “can I get away with this?” If there is no direct negative consequence of listening to rock music, why would there be any for sexual crimes?
So we end up with story after story of people like Josh Duggar, Matthew Durham, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, my own cousin, a guy I know, another guy I know, another guy I know…and countless others. When your morality is based solely on what an old book of scripture tells you to do, it is no longer morality. You’re not distinguishing between good and evil, you’re just blindly obeying an authority. Add to that the common doctrine that everyone sins constantly, and it becomes trivial to rationalize any wrongdoing. You learn to feel that your evil actions were inevitable anyway and you’ll be fine if you just apologize to God. It also helps when your holy book treats sexual abuse of women as a property crime, rather than the violation of an actual person.
A second contributing factor to the ugly side of religious purity culture is an obsession with appearances. In many Christian sects it isn’t enough to avoid doing evil things; you must also avoid the appearance of evil. Too often that means shoving problems out of sight instead of dealing with them, which creates the perfect environment for abuse to flourish. Many religious institutions have been found to be covering up abuse, often sexual in nature, in order to protect their reputations. A recent example is Bob Jones University, and there are numerous other stories of rampant sexual abuse uncovered in churches, missionary organizations, and religious schools.
This concern with reputation also prompts some parents to reject their children, as they worry about how the rest of their religious community will judge them. For Christians who take the Bible literally, having a child who grows up to adopt different beliefs is an indication that they failed as parents (Proverbs 22:6). This is perhaps one reason that 40% of homeless children in America are LGBT, and over two-thirds of them are homeless because their families rejected them specifically for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
And people like Franklin Graham call those kids the enemy. Better to oppress, demonize, and hurt homeless children than to give the appearance of supporting evil by showing them love!
I don’t criticize religion lightly. Every point I make is founded on my own experience and extensive study of religion. I spent the first two decades of my life so firmly embedded in conservative Christianity that I didn’t notice these problems until I left home and found that the world was not as I’d been told it was. I was the child raised in ignorance, I was the teenager who saw every prohibited thing equally, and I was the young man rationalizing his wrongdoing.
The day I learned my cousin had molested several young girls was the day I started to understand these things. Little by little I figured it out, until I’d figured myself right out of my religion. Once I realized that the morality of an action is defined by the experiences of the people affected by it, the Christian morality I’d been raised with looked so flat and lifeless, like the onion-skin pages from which it was sourced. It’s a primitive authoritarian doctrine meant to control a nation, not provide a basis for distinguishing between right and wrong. Entire chapters are devoted to gruesome details of the horrible punishments God promises to bring down on the people who don’t follow his rules, and few reasons are given for any of the rules…except that God says so.
But secular morality, as I’ve discovered, isn’t like that. It doesn’t rely on an argument from authority or threats and bribes like the God of Christianity does. It doesn’t define itself by what it prohibits. Instead it works from a positive foundation of personal freedom and respect for the lives and autonomy of others. While Christian sexual ethics are all about obeying God, secular sexual ethics are all about doing good to the real person with whom you are interacting.
I think that’s beautiful.