You will sometimes hear the line (often misattributed to G.K. Chesterton) that the man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God. Obviously the statement should not be taken as meaning that the man hopes that God will be the one who greets him at the door. The message is rather that people who are looking for ultimate fulfillment in the quest for pleasure or wealth or power or any other element or aspect of creation will not find it in these things.
Only societies that have successfully sublimated rampant male sexuality into marriage have built civilization.
The world is filled with countless cultures but only one civilization. A civilization eschews violence in favor of voting and replaces bullets with ballots. A civilization respects and values its women, escorting them onto the lifeboats before the men. It values life and protects it by advancing the study of science and medicine. It lifts its citizens from drudgery by promoting a vibrant economy. It prefers beauty to vulgarity and gentleness to brutality. Its basic unit is the family.
Every society that has successfully achieved civilization has learned that indulging human desire in unrestrained fashion leads both to personal and societal calamity. Everybody knows that overeating with no self-control is bad. People all recognize that alcohol without moderation brings massive problems. Yet, when it comes to sex, many feel that unrestrained indulgence is liberating and progressive. The tragedy is that unbridled concupiscence does more to rot the fabric of a society and erode the spirit of its citizens than almost anything else.
In 1935, renowned anthropologist Joseph Daniel Unwin tried to prove the opposite: that marriage was an irrelevant and even harmful cultural institution. He was forced by the evidence to conclude that only marriage with fidelity, what he called absolute monogamy, would lead to the cultural prosperity of a society. Anything else, such as “domestic partnerships” would degrade society.
In his address to the British Psychological Society, Unwin said this:
The evidence was such as to demand a complete revision of my personal philosophy; for the relationship between the factors seemed to be so close, that, if we know what sexual regulations a society has adopted, we can prophesy accurately the pattern of its cultural behavior…
Now it is an extraordinary fact that in the past sexual opportunity has only been reduced to a minimum by the fortuitous adoption of an institution I call absolute monogamy. This type of marriage has been adopted by different societies, in different places, and at different times. Thousands of years and thousands of miles separate the events; and there is no apparent connection between them. In human records, there is no case of an absolutely monogamous society failing to display great [cultural] energy. I do not know of a case on which great energy has been displayed by a society that has not been absolutely monogamous…
If, during or just after a period of [cultural] expansion, a society modifies its sexual regulations, and a new generation is born into a less rigorous [monogamous] tradition, its energy decreases… If it comes into contact with a more vigorous society, it is deprived of its sovereignty, and possibly conquered in its turn.
It seems to follow that we can make a society behave in any manner we like if we are permitted to give it such sexual regulations as will produce the behavior we desire. The results should begin to emerge in the third generation.
”Sexual Regulations and Cultural Behavior,” Joseph Daniel Unwin, Ph.D., in an address given to the Medical Section of the British Psychological Society. Library of Congress No. HQ12.U52
We still need to feel that our life matters in the scheme of things. We still want to merge ourselves with some higher self-absorbing meaning in trust and in gratitude. But if we no longer have God how are we to do this?
One of the first ways that occurred to the modern person was the romantic solution. The self-glorification that we need in our innermost being, we now look for in the love partner. What is it that we want when we elevate the love partner to this position? We want to be rid of our faults. We want to be rid of our feeling of nothingness. We want to be justified. We want to know that our existence hasn’t been in vain. We want redemption; nothing less . . . Needless to say, human beings can’t give you that . . . No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood.
Sex is an instinct that produces an institution; and it is positive and not negative, noble and not base, creative and not destructive, because it produces this institution. That institution is the family; a small state or commonwealth which has hundreds of aspects, when it is once started, that are not sexual at all. It includes worship, justice, festivity, decoration, instruction, comradeship, repose. Sex is the gate of that house; and romantic and imaginative people naturally like looking through a gateway. But the house is very much larger than the gate. There are indeed a certain number of people who like to hang about the gate and never get any further.
We all long to belong. We all need to be connected to something bigger than ourselves . . .
Sex, unfortunately, is used as a shortcut to love.
Sex can be the most intimate and beautiful expression of love, but we are only lying to ourselves when we act as if sex is proof of love . . . We live in a world of users where we abuse each other to dull the pain of our aloneness. We all long for intimacy, and physical contact can appear as intimacy for a moment . . .
Is there any moment that feels more filled with loneliness than the second after having sex with someone who cares nothing about you?
There is no such thing as free sex. It always comes at a cost. With it, either you give your heart, or you give your soul. It seems you can have sex without giving love, but you can’t have sex without giving a part of yourself.
When sex is an act of love, it is a gift. When sex is a substitute for love, it is a trap . . .
Love isn’t about conquest . . . Deep down inside we know we cannot fill the vacuum within our souls by consuming people. We are not only robbing others; we are pillaging our own souls.
Eventually, it hits you: you cannot take love; you have to give it. Love is a gift that cannot be stolen . . .
Love is not about how many people we have used, but about how much we have cherished one person.
When I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’. Without the subjective pole, it becomes mere cool appraisal or ‘tolerance’. Without the objective pole, the celebration of the other as other, it is simply lust, cutting the beloved down to the size of my desires and projects, whether it be sexual lust exploiting another human being or industrial lust exploiting raw materials for profit despite the consequences. A colleague of mine put his finger on the first of these, speaking of ‘the decline of sex’, and explaining, ‘We all know how to do it but we’ve all forgotten why.’ That is exactly the same as the second, the Frankensteinian scientism of our day: we can do it, so why not and who’s to stop us? And this is where Jonathan Sacks’s aphorism comes in again: science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean. And sometimes the meaning tells you to stop pulling them apart. It’s a crisis of meaning that we face in our day, and a crisis of knowledge that brings that into focus; and the answer to the false antithesis of objective and subjective, which has been throttling our culture for too long, is a full-on reawakening of an epistemology of love. We have had enough of the Faustian pact in which we merely ‘tolerate’ one another; ‘toleration’ is an Enlightenment parody of love. It is time for the dangerous gospel notion of love to make a comeback in our culture.
Some people try to treat sex as an animal act. In a scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind, the brilliant but socially inept mathematician John Nash approaches an attractive woman in a bar: “Listen, I don’t have the words to say whatever it is that’s necessary to get you into bed, so can we just pretend I said those things and skip to the part where we exchange bodily fluids?” He learns quickly, from the imprint of her palm on his face, that reductionism does not work well as a pickup line.
Schizophrenic is the best way to describe modern society’s view of sexuality. On the one hand, scientists insist that we are organisms like any other animal, and that sex is a natural expression of that animal nature. The pornography industry (which in the U.S. grosses more money than all professional sports combined) happily complies, supplying sexual images of the famous and the anonymous to anyone willing to pay.
But when people truly act out their animal natures, society frowns in disapproval. John Nash gets slapped for telling the truth. A few states in the U.S. allow legalized prostitution, but no parents encourage their daughters to pursue such a career. Hollywood may glamorize adultery onscreen, but in real life it provokes pain and a rage sometimes strong enough to drive the wounded party to murder the rival or jump off a bridge.
The root cause of this schizophrenia is the attempt to reduce sex between humans to a purely physical act. For humans, unlike sheep or chimpanzees, sex involves more than bodies… [A]ny rape counselor knows that the real violence occurs on the inside and may lead to years of depression, nightmares, memory loss, and sexual dysfunction. Victims of abusive relatives and pedophiliac priests testify that something far more than a body gets hurt when a trusted adult abuses a child sexually. Decades later, suffering persists.
In a 2007 article (now in his website archives), atheist Richard Dawkins frowned upon those valuing faithfulness. In “Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster,” he asked, “Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place?” He says that we need to intellectually “rise above” the sexual jealousy that blind Darwinian evolution has produced in us and cheerfully permit our spouses to carry on any sexual recreation they choose to have outside the marriage bed. “Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others if he or she is that way inclined?” he asks. Dawkins is being completely consistent with his worldview by denying any objective sexual morality, even where marriage is concerned, so long as no one is harmed. (It remains unclear, however, why harming anyone or anything is objectively wrong in his view, where morality is nothing but an evolutionary social construct.)
My sense is that most self-described atheists, particularly those who are in happy marriages, have a deep-seated conviction that something is truly wrong with marital infidelity. As God’s image-bearers, the Truth of Things resonates strongly within their soul, and they know that spouses should be faithful. Just like they know, intuitively, that it is wrong to stab puppies with scissors for fun. The Apostle Paul talked about how even those who do not profess to follow God often still follow His law, for it is written on their hearts—“their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15).