Why is Secular European Society Doing so Much Better Than God-Fearing America? Let’s Start With Sex
In my last essay I outlined how sociological research is revealing that the prosperous democracies with high levels of religiosity -- especially the conservative, creationist USA -- tend to have high levels of social dysfunction, especially in terms of murder, incarceration, juvenile and adult mortality, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion, and teen pregnancy. It is one thing to know that the relentless effort by the religious community to convince their flocks that failure to adhere to traditional religious values leads to societal chaos and depravity is abjectly false. It is also important to understand why secular nations are doing better than the more religious ones, with some achieving levels of societal health never before seen in history. In the last few years sociological analysis has come up with the basic answers, and one way or another they are not going to make a lot of people happy.
The good news for those of liberal bent is that the strongly secular democracies – that would pretty much be all the advanced western nations other than ours – have adopted a broad set of progressive social and economic policies that, for all their imperfections, have been remarkably effective. So let’s start with one of them. Sex. In the rest of the west the old Christian notion that sex is a moral issue that should be practiced or not according to the supposed scriptural dictates of a creator was largely abandoned in the post WW II era. Instead, late teen sex is now seen as a normal part of maturing. In a Brit drama series I once caught on PBS, a 16 year old lost his virginity at his girlfriend’s home with her family down stairs knowing what was going on and being fine with it, as it was the boy’s mother. Partial nudity on the beaches and in parks, and in advertising, is more widely accepted across the pond. And what is the result of all this acceptance of sex outside of holy matrimony? Not much. Literally, a large scale comparison of sexual behavior in the French and in Americans found little difference in terms of sex in and outside marriage, with the proviso that in some ways the French are a little more conservative. Teens start having sex at about the same average age across the western nations. But in ways that count they are doing much better? How? Simple. Condoms, condoms, condoms.
Because sex is seen as a pragmatic health care concern rather than an ideological moral issue in other western countries, they hit the kids with explicit sex-ed early in grade school. The theory is give youngsters a heads up on the facts of sex before they even want to hear about them and then they will be better prepared with some practical knowledge when the hormones kick in. Abstinence is not emphasized. Condoms are. Americans who travel to Europe can be off put by all the prophylactic ads. The goal is not to eliminate all risk – that will never happen -- it is to manage risk in a realistic manner that brings down adverse consequences to a practical minimum. One result is that gonorrhea and syphilis are nearly extinct in Scandinavia. When the sexual revolution got underway nearly half a century ago its advocates were often as naïve as they were optimistic, the venereal disease epidemic of the 60s and 70s followed by HIV was one consequence they did not see coming.
There are good reasons to criticize the excesses of the sexual revolution, but in their extremist counter movement religiously motivated traditionalists have managed to be even more nonsensical in their version of sexual idealism. The Ring Thing and True Love movements have inspired a couple of million teens to pledge abstinence until they wed. Then there are the Purity Balls where fathers vow to guard their daughter’s virginity until the special day he gives her away to the one and only man she will ever have intercourse with. At least those are private affairs. The evangelical churches succeeded in getting the then Republican Congress to help finance abstinence only sex-ed in public schools to the tune of nearly 90 million dollars a year in combined federal and state funds. (Ever notice how the right is against big, inefficient government programs – unless it’s for something they like?) Found in a third of the school systems, abstinence sex-ed is not actual education; the rules dictate that the lessons must go to lengths to deliberately not tell children about a whole lot of the facts of sex through a combination of calculated omission and frequent distortion. Real teaching, of course, tries to cram the growing brains of the tykes with as much information as they can hold.The biggest deception is the line that abstinence is a sure way to lower the risk of STDs or pregnancy to zero. The problem is that abstinence actually has a very high failure rate. It’s called having sex. Surveys find that a third of Americans disapprove of premarital sex, but that all but 5% do it, so even the great majority of those who think nonmarital sex is a bad idea can’t keep themselves from participating. It should be no surprise that all but a small fraction of those who pledge abstinence break the vow before marriage. The drive to have sex is simply overwhelming. Back in the olden days they knew how to handle this basic fact of human biology. Folks got married about the same time, or just a few years after, puberty began, while in their teens. These days you are talking a decade or much more between wanting to have sex really bad and getting official sanction for it. Such a situation has never before been faced in history, and the notion that the majority, or even a large minority, is somehow going to resist having sex during that yawning gap is inane.
Nearly all westerners including most Americans can figure that one out. The only folks sufficiently detached from reality to actually advocate such a hopelessly impractical policy as abstinence-only these days are the 15% of the population (according to an NPR/Kaiser/Kennedy poll) whose conservative thinking is driven by supernaturalistic beliefs. The result of doing what the religious right thinks best is the fine mess our nation finds itself in. Which brings us to an interesting item. Back when the Repub Congress launched the abstinence only program they commissioned a study to verify its efficacy. I noticed that the report did not come out on schedule, and failed to appear in subsequent years. Meanwhile study after study -- some by private organizations, some by states wondering just how well the program they were supplying a third of the funds for was working out in their schools -- came to the same conclusion. Abstinence-only does not work. Lacking basic information on sex, and taught that condoms are highly unreliable, the maleducated abstinence-only students all too often find themselves performing various sexual acts – research indicates they are especially prone towards oral activities – when the hormones start flowing, but they lack the practical knowledge or equipment to keep their level of risk to a reasonable minimum. Even if abstinence-only grads have less sex, they are at markedly higher risk of something bad happening when they almost inevitably do become sexually active. The traditionalists’ desperate dream of achieving “purity” is backfiring in a classic example of unintended consequences. One result is that STD infection rates are up to hundreds of times higher in America than in some nonreligious democracies (nor is the problem limited to our nation’s poor minorities, gonorrhea is common among middle class whites).
Finally, the big congressional study came out last year. Not that there was a high profile announcement from the White House touting the success of the faith-based sex-ed program. Instead it was released into the news dead zone that is Friday afternoon. The study agreed with the others that abstinence-only is a bust. That’s 90 million taxpayer’s dollars a year down the drain.Because of the well documented failings of the just-say-no approach to sex ed, a growing number of states are balking at accepting the program’s federal funds, preferring to offer their students an real education on the subject. There is, of course, no perfect system. Condoms do fail on occasion, people don’t like them, folks do foolish things. And the situation here in America is not all bad. Rates of STD infections, abortions and youth pregnancy have been going down over the last two or three decades – during the same period that the number of nonreligious has been soaring. Even so, the fact that cannot be gotten around is that the tell-the-kids-the-facts strategy employed in the other advanced nations is producing better overall results than the faith-based techniques that still hold sway in much of America. The problem for the right is that they cannot admit they are wrong. Not only would it require dropping a core tenet of Bible based morality, it would mean abandoning their long term campaign to return the nation to the set of social mores it operated under back in the 1950s – although studies show that nine out of ten people were having sex outside marriage even back then. In other words, they will have lost the Culture War. Actually, they already have lost the Culture War, but that is a another ball of wax.
The ideology driven struggle of the social and religious right to oppose progressive and enlightened attitudes towards human sexuality is an outstanding example of how traditionalism based on dubious reading of ancient tribal scripture is clearly doing damage to the societal health of the nation. But as the next essays will show, the problem is whole lot bigger, and more complex, than that.
By the way, the idea that the Bible bans sex outside of marriage is something of a stretch, because there is no passage that outright says it is a no-no. The idea that the scriptural creator thinks it is a big sin has to be inferred. That is why Jews tend to be less uptight about sexual matters than Christians, and the latter’s obsession on the subject stems from the writings of latter Biblical figures such a Paul, Jesus says little on the matter. Even harder to justify on a Biblical basis is a ban on abortion. There simply is no verse that says it is forbidden. That glaring truth has caused a small minority of fundamentalists who really try to take the Bible literally to cite the passages that suggest human life begins with the first breath after birth. The right’s current and cynical obsession over abortion stems from the arbitrary invention that God is pro-life, even though, as Mark Twain pointed out in Letters From the Earth, the Biblical God repeatedly orders his followers to outright murder children. Although Jesus says little about sex in the gospels, there is one thing he was very explicit about. He thought that ensuring celibacy by becoming a eunuch is a fine idea. Good ahead and check it out, it’s right there in Matthew 19:12 -- I don’t make these things up. Isn’t it curious how the right wingers who proclaim they are people of unwavering principle who base their moral code on the testaments go on and on about the Bible and Jesus say this and say that about sex even when they really don’t, and when it comes to an explicit New Testament statement for how to keep sexually pure by self castration they don’t breath a word?
Further reading and documentation –
This essay is a follow on to “Why the Claim that Progressive Secular Values and Policies Are Bad For Societies is a Great Big Lie” 1/18/08, www.opednews.com/articles/opedne_gregory__080118_why_the_claim_that_p.htm, which in turn is a follow on to “The Real Reason the Religious Right is Losing America,” OpEdNews (2007) 12/16, www.opednews.com/articles/life_a_gregory__071214_the_real_reason_the_.htm.
To see just how badly America is doing compared to other western nations in terms of sexual consequences and other matters see Gregory Paul “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable Societal Health with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look,” Journal of Religion and Society (2005), 5, http://moses.creighton.edu/JRS/2005/2005-11.html.
Studies showing that the progressive sexual mores are producing superior results to abstinence unless married ideology here and abroad include the following. C. Panchaud et al. “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Among Adolescents in Developed Countries,” Family Planning Perspectives (2000) 32, 24-32; S. Singh and J. Darroch “Adolescent Pregnancy and Childbearing: Levels and Trends in Developed Countries,” Family Planning Perspectives (2000), 32, 14-23; K. Wellings et al. “Sexual behavior in context: A global perspective,” Lancet (2006) 368,1706-1728; L. Finer “Trends in premarital sex in the United States, 1954-2003,” Public Health Reports (2007) 122, 73-78 details the numbers on who is really doing what; Peter Bearman and Hannah Bruckner, 2001 “Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and the Transition to First Intercourse. American Journal of Sociology (2001)106, 859-912 and “The Relationship Between Virginity Pledges in Adolescence and STD Acquisition in Young Adulthood.” National STD Conference (2004), www.iserp.columbia.edu/people/faculty_fellows/faculty/curiculum_vitae/
bearman.pdf.Minnesota Department of Health, “Final Evaluation of the Minnesota Education Now and Babies Later Program,” (2004), www.saynotyet.com/pdfs/
eval-report/enabl-report-doc.pdf; Trenholm, B. 2007, “Impacts of Four Title V Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs (Report to Congress), www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications?PDFs/impactabstinence.pdf.
Randall Balmer, God in the White House (HarperCollins, 2008) exposes how conservative Protestant leaders, searching for a wedge issue in the late 1970s, invented the evangelical anti-abortion movement some years after Roe versus Wade.