Sex and religion aren’t often mentioned in the same breath. One is fleshly; the other spiritual, right? Like oil and water.
Yet, both are integral to our person and to our psyche. Both faith and sexuality are deep expressions of who we are. We can’t chuck our sexuality at the door of the church or temple or synagogue; nor can we drop whatever we believe about God at the door of the bedroom.
So I was interested to read about a recent survey conducted by psychologist Darrel Ray, who compared the behavior and feeling of nonbelievers (agnostics and atheists) to those of believers (mostly of Christian persuasions). In a nutshell, he found that both groups behave similarly. Both became sexually active at about the same age, have similar levels of sexual activity, do the same things in the bedroom. They even pursue affairs at similar levels. The significant difference was that the believers tended to feel more guilty. This was particularly pronounced in more fundamental denominations: Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, and Baptists. But mainline Protestants and Catholics experienced higher levels of guilt, too, than atheists or agnostics. Not crippling, but noticeable.
Leaving aside for a moment serious questions about Dr. Ray’s motive and methodology (he calls religion a disease and himself a “recovering religionist”), his report raises some interesting questions. Do people who believe in God feel guilty about sex? Are certain acts, masturbation or oral sex, for example, more troubling or guilt-provoking? If so, why would this be? Does guilt derive from actual church teaching or from cultural conditioning or from something misunderstood or misapplied in childhood?
Even the religious institutions themselves struggle to honestly incorporate sex in a faith context. Yes, sex, in the context of a loving, uncoerced relationship, is a beautiful, God-given gift. Just read the Biblical Songs of Songs. However, as it’s practiced on the ground, the message isn’t all that clear, and even some church leaders admit as much.
“In the context of Catholic teaching, I would think it safe to say that the connection [between faith and sexuality] is contorted, controverted, and often confusing,” says Dr. Michael Higgins, vice-president of Mission and Catholic identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.
“If we could only transcend the ‘forbidden fruit’ mindset, perhaps religion could evolve into a much healthier sexual ethic,” said Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, of the Reformed Jewish tradition.
Dr. Sheema Khan, a practicing Muslim, said that “…sexuality forms part and parcel of [Muslim] spirituality. There are even prayers prior to sexual intercourse, and… foreplay is encouraged (as part of religious teachings).” But she also condemned the Muslim preoccupation with the “purity of women,” which could result in the ritual killing of a woman suspected of having sex outside of marriage.
So it would seem that if we aren’t sure how to feel about sex or some sexual behaviors, or if some indefinite guilt is associated with sex, we aren’t alone. Our religious institutions are grappling with the same issues.
But isn’t this the nature of life—to honestly articulate and wrestle with our inconsistencies? And in the end, to become more mature and integrated?
I remember the advice a wise old pastor gave my mother when she was trying to reconcile church teaching with the expression of sex in her marriage. “I don’t think that anything a loving couple does in the bedroom to give each other pleasure can possibly be sinful,” said this man of God. Amen to that.