Morons at Work


Written on 11:31 PM by Jack B.

Some guy named John Bowker, a religion professor in England has written this piece, Will Religion Become Irrelevant?, which argues that if religion - particularly conservative religion and particularly Catholicism and Islam - doesn't change its views when it comes to (what else?) sexual morality and reproduction it is doomed.


The pervasive control of religions in the fundamental domain of sex and food may have worked well for millennia – indeed, it has worked well, since otherwise none of us would be here. But it is no longer needed from the point of view of natural selection, with the clear caveat that the new styles of sexuality and reproduction have themselves to be tested from that point of view: it is far too early to know what the impact of AIDS on styles of sexuality is going to be. However, at the moment, religions are no longer necessary to secure the goal of gene replication.

What do religions do in this new circumstance? They adopt, of course, many different strategies, of which one is obvious: they do nothing – or rather, they carry on as usual. That is the crisis facing religions. Because religions have become through time such highly organized and effective systems, in which sex and reproduction are integrated into a coherent system, it seems immensely threatening if sex is pulled out of the system.

This can be seen most obviously in the Roman Catholic, or more accurately Vatican Catholic, insistence that the unitive and the procreative functions of sex cannot be divorced. Humanae Vitae insists that ‘each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life,’ and that ‘every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible’ is intrinsically evil.

This is based on an appeal to natural law and to the right of the Church to pronounce on such matters. Natural law is not of course to be confused with that which happens naturally: ‘The natural law,’ says the Catholic Catechism, ‘expresses the original moral sense which enables man to discern by reason the good and the evil, the truth and the lie.’ But then it is simply a matter of rhetoric to claim that the unitive and procreative functions, sex and reproduction, cannot be separated. In most religions they are separated, so it is simply not true that there is a natural moral discernment that they cannot be separated. In nature, in any case, they certainly can be separated, even in the most obvious sense that the words ‘sex’ and ‘reproduction’ are not synonymous.

Certainly all organisms have to reproduce if genetic survival is to be ensured, but they can do this by asexual as well as sexual means. Asexual reproduction of single-cell species, such as protests or blue-green algae, is comparatively simple: it involves duplication of chromosomes followed by a division. Sexual reproduction is vastly more complicated, and far more costly, as a behaviour.

So what are the evolutionary advantages of sexual reproduction? Part of the answer lies in the way it increases genetic diversity. But part of the answer lies in the fact that sexual activity serves more purposes naturally than reproduction alone.

In fact, one of the major rewards of unitive sex being divorced from reproductive sex, and not just in the infertile periods, lies in the bonding and continued commitment of each to other, above all of male to female, though it could equally be male to male or female to female. The protective advantages are obvious, especially for women: men do not simply seek to replicate their genes with the maximum number of partners. They remain committed to the investment in a single partner.

To put it as simply as possible (and this is almost exactly the opposite of what Humanae Vitae maintains), there is, in the human case, far more to sex than reproduction. It is essential and natural, in the human case, that not all sexual acts should be open to the transmission of life. Most people, as they grow older, come to realize that there is more to life than sex. What human and religious experience teaches us is that there is more to sex than life.

The Vatican claims can of course be justified within its own closed circle of coherence. That is not the issue, or the new crisis. The real issue is whether it is necessary for religions to defend without change systems, which have worked so well for so long, when circumstances have changed in a radically disjunctive way. That is the issue of the closed circle. To what extent, if at all, can knowledge or insight be allowed from the outside into a circle of internal coherence if it challenges a proposition which is justified within the circle? If one part goes, is not the whole threatened, particularly in a system in which matters of faith and morals can be defined infallibly?

Not that Vatican Catholicism is alone in this. Any religion that relies on inerrant revelation will be comparable. Thus in Islam, whatever is allowed or forbidden in the Quran is absolute. There is much in human life and behaviour that is, by the mercy of God, left open, but the Quran is not open to change or negotiation. From the Quran and from the example of the Prophet and his Companions, it is clear what the purpose and practice of marriage must be; the primary purpose of marriage is the service and worship (‘ibadah) of God, and that is achieved by living together as God wills. Only then is the second purpose, the birth of children, brought into context. What does God will? Doi, summarizing Islamic law, makes this clear: The man, with his aggression, is charged with what is called the ‘instrumental’ functions: maintenance, protection, dealings with the outworldy matters and leadership within the family. The woman is entrusted with caring for and rearing the children, organizing the home, and creating the loving atmosphere inside her matrimonial home. Work or trade are not prohibited to woman in Shari’ah provided they do it within the framework of modesty and with the permission of the husband; they are not recommended to undertake such activities unless there is a justification for them to go to work and should be without prejudice to their husband’s rights.

This is an example of religions as a protective system, of the kind so well rewarded by natural selection. Can this change without calling the Quran into question? The crisis is the same. Of course the Vatican and Sunni Islam do not agree on all matters. In fact, in Islam contraception is permitted for valid reasons, and those reasons are often listed: the most important are those that have to do with the health and well being of the mother or of existing children. Where the Vatican and Islam are agreed is in defending the status of religion as the protective system in which alone sexual activity and gene replication should occur, and must occur, in the ways they say....

...blah, blah, blah....

...Religions have acquired so much truth and so much wisdom through the course of time that they should be way out in front showing how to live in this new world in ways that seek what Hooker called ‘the common good.’ That must include in our time accepting and affirming with gratitude the emancipation of women, not from religion, but from the now unnecessary restrictions and protection which religions used to exist to provide.

Will they give the lead in this way? One kind of answer is given by the ways in which people live their lives. An authoritative answer can be given only by those who write the catechisms and the handbooks of sharia, the responsa and the applications of dharma. At the moment it looks as though it will not happen, and the human loss will be great

Notice the "Vatican Catholicism" dig, as if the "real" Catholicism exists outside the Vatican. Is this obnoxious or what? Doesn't this guy know any demographics or surveys or is he just pulling this stuff from out of his behind? Religions that have gone in the direction he sights (such as the Established Church of his own England) are dying rapidly and have no real influence whatsoever. They are, to use Bowker's phrase, already irrelevant.

Meanwhile Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, Catholicism is also still growing as is Pentacostal Evangelicalism which in some ways is more conservative that the "Vatican Catholicism" this guy so derides.

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