Dan Savage’s Playboy interview is interesting for many reasons (among them: Playboy still exists?) and he gets many things right in it and the interview is worth reading. Nonetheless he gets one important thing mostly wrong:
Sex negativity is imposed on us by religion, parents and a culture that can’t deal with sex. [. . .] Judaism, Christianity, Islam and almost every other faith have constantly tried to insert themselves between your genitals and your salvation, because then they can regulate and control you. Then you need them to intercede with God, so they target your junk and stigmatize your sexual desire. If you have somebody by the balls or the ovaries, you’ve got them.
Let me channel Jonathan Haidt and The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. Haidt writes that “Groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.” Religions serve or served a lot of purposes, and as Savage and Haidt both note regulation was one of them, and sexual regulation exists, as far as I know, in all cultures that have produced writing.
Regulation and control aren’t just about control for their own sake; they’re about solving coordination problems that allow people to act within a system with some expectation of how others will act. Religious regulations weren’t just about stigmatizing desire: they were about trying to create functional societies that minimize jealousy, wasteful resource fights, and so on, while maximizing the chance that the society’s members actually survive and reproduce. Religions act as operating systems for societies (which is a metaphor I’ve stolen from Neal Stephenson). The surviving religions have literally been battled-tested.
Stigmatizing sexual desire happens because desire can be overwhelming and destructive. That was particularly true in an age before birth control, antibiotics, and the many other lovely technologies we take for granted. Even then, a lot of desire found a way towards expression.
It is true that a lot of modern religious figures don’t understand that good guides to life in the year 1000 may not be particularly relevant in post-industrial societies, or that technology may be rapidly reconfiguring what rules make sense and what rules don’t. Robin Hanson has argued in a variety of places (like here and here) that pre-modern foraging societies and farming societies had very different sets of values based on their respective needs. Each group tends to think that its morality is eternal and unchanging, but its morality, rules, and codes may actually arise in response to the conditions of the society. Hanson thinks we may be moving back towards “forager” norms, since we’re now much wealthier and much more able to collectively bear the costs of, say, single motherhood, members of society that don’t produce more than they consume, and so on.
The major Western religions (Christianity and Islam in particular, and Judaism to a large extent) arose or developed in farming societies, and their times have marked them. That sort of idea didn’t of course make it into the religion—one way to enforce religious thinking is to argue that the thinking is eternal and unchanging—and it couldn’t: the Industrial Revolution was impossible to predict before it happened. Values battles of the last 50 (and really more like 100 – 150) years have occurred because social changes lags and sometimes impedes technological change.
We may also see religious systems persist today because followers of religious systems may simply leave many more descendants, who in turn follow the religion, and than those who don’t. I don’t have a citation for this off the top of my head, but it’s fairly well known in social science that religious people have more children, and start having children at younger ages, than secular people. Children tend to act like their parents to a greater extent than is commonly realized.
Given those facts, we may see religions persist because they still enable people to create more people faster than those who don’t participate in such a system. Europe may be a societal-wide example of this phenomenon: it’s probably the least-religious place on earth, and yet the continent is facing serious demographic challenges because of the age distribution of its population and the fact that native-born Europeans are not having enough children. As always there are many other factors at play and I don’t want to isolate religious belief as the sole factor, but there is likely more than correlation going on too.
Note that I’m trying to be relatively value-neutral and descriptive in this post. The amount of value-neutral commentary on these issues is in my view much too low, which may be why we see a lot of ignorance and shouting in public spaces, while people otherwise quietly go about their lives.
I’ll also note that as a religiously indifferent person myself, I find it odd to write this quasi defense of religion. Nonetheless Savage is looking at a small piece of a larger whole and mistakenly thinking that the piece is the whole.
Here is Tyler Cowen on related matters. Here is my earlier post on religion in secular life. The extent to which religious behavior is driven by feeling is underrated. Sex and religion are also fields that some people choose to make their defining characteristic. The religious tendency in this direction is well-known, but as Katherine Frank writes in Plays Well in Groups: “This is at some level a hobby, sex for fun. As with any hobby, you will make friends, acquaintances and even enemies as you partake. Sex is easy—insert tab A into slot B—but friendship takes time to development” (64). “Hobbies” generally don’t define people, yet how many of the religiously inclined would describe religion as a hobby? Is friendship a hobby?