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Religion and Sexual Shame

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Man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery in Japan-J. M. W. Silver.
Man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery in Japan-J. M. W. Silver.
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The World Health Organization once estimated that more than 100 million couples around the globe make love during a typical day. Sex is a powerful human force. It's natural, healthy, normal and wonderful. However, Western religion has spent millennia tainting it with shame, guilt and punishment. Holy men equate sex with "sin."

The Bible contains 96 verses denouncing "harlots," "whores," "whoredom" and the like branding many females as vile temptresses. It decrees that brides who aren't virgins shall be taken to their fathers' doorsteps and stoned to death (Deut. 22:21). It mandates that adulterers, both male and female, must be killed (Lev. 20:10). For gay males, it commands: "They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them" (Lev. 20:13).

Today, a few evangelists such as Colorado preacher Kevin Swanson still declare publicly that gays should be killed.

Early church leaders ranted against lovemaking. In Sex In History, Reay Tannahill wrote:

"It was Augustine who epitomized a general feeling among the church fathers that the act of intercourse was fundamentally disgusting. Arnobius called it filthy and degrading, Methodius unseemly, Jerome unclean, Tertullian shameful, Ambrose a defilement."

Christian father Origen of Alexandria reportedly castrated himself to halt sexual temptation.

The earliest known papal decree, by Pope Siricius in 386, forbade church elders to make love with their wives (but it had little effect).

Medieval cardinal Hughes de St. Cher wrote: "Woman pollutes the body, drains the resources, kills the soul, uproots the strength, blinds the eye, and embitters the voice." (1)

For centuries, punishments for unapproved sex were backed by the church. When Puritans under Oliver Cromwell ruled England in the 1600s, death was decreed for adultery.

Just over a century ago, Anthony Comstock and his Committee for the Suppression of Vice prosecuted sex in America. Around 2,500 people were jailed on morality charges. Margaret Sanger was locked up eight times for advocating birth control.

In 1993, Pope John Paul II declared unwed sex and birth control "intrinsically evil." In my town (Charleston, WV) two brave nuns, Patricia Hussey and Barbara Ferraro, joined protests against church taboos and were forced out of their order. They wrote a book, No Turning Back, which says:

"The church really hates the idea of people having sex for fun. There is something prurient and dishonest about the church's loathing for the body."

Legendary newspaperman H.L. Mencken put it this way:

"Christian endeavor is notoriously hard on female pulchritude."

Philosopher-mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote that a "morbid and unnatural" aversion to sex is "the worst feature of the Christian religion." He added: "Monks have always regarded Woman primarily as the temptress. They have thought of her mainly as the inspirer of impure lusts." (2)

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James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia's largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  Mr. Haught has won two dozen national news writing awards. He has written 12 books and hundreds of magazine essays and blog posts. Around 450 of his essays are online. He is a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine, a weekly blogger at Daylight Atheism, (more...)

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