SEX and religion — is there any combination more likely to get people all hot and bothered? Yet the intertwining of these topics — because sex and religion are even more joined at the hip than politics and power — generally makes for more interesting dinner party conversation than, say, falling house prices or shrinking job markets. Providing you don’t accidentally sit next to a fundamentalist of any kind, (the word ‘mental’ isn’t in there for nothing).
“Many religions drive with one foot heavy on the sexual accelerator and the other riding the sexual brakes,” writes Wendy Doniger, Professor of History of Religions at the University of Chicago and quoted in the Washington Post. “Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism celebrate, on the one hand, the power of sex within marriage and are keen to harness its power for their worshippers, while, on the other hand, they warn you that hair will grow on the palms of your hand if you masturbate.”
That individual religions are a result of their surrounding culture is a given, but could God be manmade too? Radiologist Andrew Newberg scanned the brains of praying Catholic nuns and meditating Buddhist monks and found some overlap between their neural activity and that of sexually aroused people. Sex is a rhythmic activity, as is chanting and mantra repetition. Like sex, religious experiences produce sensations of bliss and transcendence: hence mystics using sexualised language to describe religious rapture. St Teresa of Avila comes to mind, with her breathless recollections: “I saw in his hand a long spear of gold ... He appeared to me to be thrusting it at times into my heart and to pierce my very entrails; when he drew it out, he seemed to draw them out also, and to leave me all on fire with a great love of God.”
Another idea is that religion is an accidental by-product of human evolution. Anthropologist Stewart Guthrie in his book Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory Of Religion (Oxford University Press, 1995), attributes religion to anthropomorphism, or “the attribution of human characteristics to non-human things or events”.
Expanding the idea in Scientific American magazine, Guthrie explains how our anthropomorphism is an inborn adaptive trait, which enhanced our ancestors’ chances of survival.
Just as ancient societies had sun gods, moon gods, tree gods, etc, as the human mind evolved, so too did our explanations of hard-to-explain events: we called this ‘God’.
It doesn’t really matter, so long as we focus on the fruits of human religions rather than the nuts — yet when it comes to sex and religion, there is a surfeit of nuttiness.
Many religions share similar attitudes to sex. Go ahead, have your four minutes of fun — providing you adhere to the following criteria: you are heterosexual, married (to each other), are doing it in the missionary position, and only to make babies.
Venture outside this fantastically limiting remit, and you are going to hell. God forbid — quite literally — that you engage in anything “unnatural” with someone who is a non-spouse, or worse, who shares the same anatomy as you. Sinner. Haven’t you read your Bible/Koran/Torah?
Religions tend to hate women of all kinds even more than they hate gay men. For a start, there’s what iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, in his book God Is Not Great, calls “the hysterical cult of virginity”, which, coupled with “the dread of the female form and female reproductive functions”, means that misogyny runs through most religions.
Religious denominations are obsessed with virginity and chastity — providing the virgins are female. The male sexual fantasy around female virginity occurs repeatedly in Christianity with that most unlikely creation, a virgin mother, and in Islam with the houris — the heavenly virgins which are said to await martyrs and suicide bombers after death.
On the other hand, religions like certain sects of Hinduism, revere sexual experience over sexual ownership and include depictions of sexually active females in sacred texts and temple art.
Within the Hindu pantheon, the god Shiva is represented by a lingam — a phallus — while the goddess Parvati, his consort, is represented by a yoni — a vagina. For Shiva and Parvati, religiosity and sexuality are one and the same. All over India, there are temples devoted to the Shiva lingam (although the sacred yoni is, as expected, less prominent). Yet this does not mean Indians are anything other than extremely sexually modest; outside of cosmopolitan urban areas, the baring of even a female shoulder in public is considered taboo. As for public semi-nudity on beaches — forget it.
Hinduism may have given the world Tantric sex and the Kama Sutra, but these are semi-sacred practices which must occur behind very closed doors.
Few religions have ruined sex for its followers as much as that sub-sect of Christianity, Roman Catholicism.
We all know how its warped, ultra-controlling take on human sexuality manifested in widespread clerical paedophilia. The Vatican’s refusal to ordain women, and statements about how condoms contribute to the spread of HIV/AIDS have since backfired with followers unfollowing in droves.
Meanwhile, back in the bedroom, Catholic doctrine successfully instilled an idea that sex was shameful — particularly in Ireland, where abuse often replaced healthy sexual expression. But this is not the norm, however in other Catholic countries. In Brazil, the biggest Catholic country in the world, sexuality is rather more celebrated, with Brazilian Catholicism fused with African-influenced religions and tropical heat for a rather more joyful, compassionate perspective.
Ireland’s prolonged period of sexual darkness began when a patriarchal religion eclipsed reverence for the mother goddess, yet Ireland still has the largest amount of sheela-na-gigs (stone representations of women displaying their vaginas) in Europe.
Even the words we now use to insult women were once used to exalt them. ‘Hag’ comes from the Greek ‘hagia’, or ‘holy one’, and ‘whore’ comes from the Greek ‘hierodule’, meaning ‘sacred’ or ‘beloved’. ‘Prostitute’ used to mean ‘one who stands in for the goddess’. In ancient times, sexuality was powerful and sacred — and female.
Some strands of Protestantism, have a more humane attitude to sex. Clerics are both men and women, marrying and having families is encouraged, and the beliefs are not quite as virulently homophobic.
Buddhism, on the other hand, is not a religion, but a philosophy and has no external deity but relies on the drive for an enlightened self. So it must have come as something of a surprise for devotees when in 1997 the Dalai Lama said that from a traditional Buddhist perspective, homosexuality was “sexual misconduct”.
Even in Buddhism, there is homophobia. However, to his credit, the Dalai Lama leader retracted, saying that any form of discrimination based on sexuality was wrong.
But what about those sects which advocate sex, and lots of it? The US Christian fundamentalist movement Quiverfull takes its name from Psalm 127:5, which suggests that a man ought to have a quiver full of children. This results in huge home-educated families, with a dominant male and submissive female as the norm.
Another advocate of lots of sex was Osho, the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, who died in 1990, and was the leader of the Indian sect popular with western hippies. Osho was all about Tantric sex, although also quite a fan of the quicker kind: “It is a natural tranquilliser, a good sleep will follow, if your mind is not burdened by religion. Otherwise even the tranquilliser is destroyed. If you feel guilt even your sleep will be disturbed. You will feel depression, you will start condemning yourself.”
Not if you’re a humanist, you won’t.