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Sex and Atheism

Guest Author - Jenna Sawyer

To begin this article, a reference to some intriguing questions of sexual morals in the Old Testament: Dinah, Lot's Daughters (with the mob, though bearing children by their drunk father is also interesting), and a clip from Deuteronomy. Respectively , they can be found in Genesis 34, Genesis 19:1-8, Deuteronomy 22:13-2. I cite these only as examples of what was at one time acceptable behavior. Lot offering up his daughters is especially disturbing now, but at the time it was presumably perfectly righteous, since he is still allowed to leave the city and is called righteous later on. Among a wide selection, I picked Dinah because I find her story one of the saddest I have ever read. The piece of Deuteronomy, specifically the conclusion of stoning her at her father's door, is just chilling. Imagine watching that take place on your neighbors' doorstep. We know that carnal rules have varied greatly throughout history, from culture to culture, religion to religion, and so on, but that is hardly helpful in making personal judgments.

Now, for a New Testament change, a few words from Paul on the subject (I'm not picking on him. As I've said before, his views come up so often, intentionally or not.) He tells us that it is better not to get married. (You can find all his ideas on this subject in 1 Corinthians 7.) I gather he means for us to remain virgins, although he grants the concession that those who do not feel up to remaining virgins should marry. This is one of many cases in which I ask him, emphatically, why. If one follows the creed that bodies are inherently dirty, then this idea of sex as impure makes sense, but why should we consider our bodies dirty? This has never failed to baffle me. This intricate, capable structure is not something I can bring myself to label dirty. I have often thought, when revisiting Paul, that his professed celibacy was the result of some negative psychological experience. I don't mean that any person who does not have sex is without question suffering from a psychological complex. That is just what I've always thought when reading Paul's words and tone, so much as that is possible.

I cite mostly from the Christian Bible because my greater familiarity with it provides more readily available examples. But examples are universal propositions, not bound to apply only to their source. That's the beauty of them. If anyone would like to offer input from other sources, on any topic, I welcome it, of course.

So, now the question: how does one form sexual morals without the supervision of religion, or, as the examples above point out, even with it? As I have never accepted any authority but my own over my ethics, and, most especially, ethics so private, I will present here some methods of thinking I have used to arrive at my rules for sexual conduct, to show that is indeed possible for one to form them independently.

Sex is a powerful thing. We all know that. Our decisions about what is and what is not proper with regard to sex can be founded on that very truth. On the obligation to our selves, to our bodies, to use anything with a powerful effect on them wisely.

A person with self-respect and pride in his or her mind and body does not offer something so intimate and uniquely expressive as sex without thought. Something so pleasurable and meaningful should be a reward to ourselves and to someone we consider worthy. Why do I call it meaningful? What about the idea that it can be engaged in entirely casually? Simple. I base the meaning of the act in its considerable potential health benefits, emotional impact, possible consequences, and stunning intricacy of design. And, yes, because of that inherent pleasure. It is precisely because it can be so beautiful that we should do our best to make it so.

I am not passing judgment on any sexual behavior here, assuming it is all consensual (and in "consensual" I include the proviso that both parties be of a level of intelligence and maturity to give consent). Here I add that, by the same personal integrity that should urge us to engage in the act as an exchange rooted in significance (I mean mutual respect for values and qualities in one another there, not necessarily the deep, eternal love marriage is supposed to represent), both parties should, of course, take precautions against harmful consequences. Yes, and ideally both partners take care to ensure both physical and mental well-being. That is a reasonable offshoot of the very fact of having a mind and body.

Now, let's consider some standard prohibitions. Two especial targets are masturbation and homosexuality (I would like to state blatantly here that I absolutely do not condone any disapproval of those things). About the first, there is a Bible passage some say indirectly condones it, that being Leviticus 15: 16-17. Also in relation to the first, there is still an occasional mention of Onan, despite the generally accepted idea that he was killed for refusing to fulfill his (rather strange) duty, not for his way of shirking it. I mention it mostly for the benefit of those not familiar with a story that is interesting not only because of what Onan did, but because of why he was in the position in the first place (Genesis 38: 8-10).

If sexual morals are to be taken from such ancient sources as the Bible, in which many practices considered standard in their times are no longer socially acceptable, who decides which ones to ignore? The individual, I would hope, but, then, shouldn't the individual go all the way and determine his or her idea of proper behavior from the ground up? If some of the religious text can be ignored to suit modern trends anyway, why not decide it all through a personal process?

With both of the above oft-prohibited behaviors, what is the actual good cause for the condemnation? I mean an actual biological axiom. Is it because these behaviors don't produce children? Solely procreative sex brings us around to the same question- what in the nature of sex makes that an absolute? If anything, its capacity for containing all those feelings we regard as noble- appreciation, love, honor, respect, tenderness, joy- gives at least one reason to have sex that is entirely separate from the creation of children.

My process is the one I would recommend to anyone, religious or not. Think about it for yourself (in all things, not just this, of course). Even without believing in God, I believe that the mind and body are miraculous (actually more so for that), and that, because we posses them, we should treat them as the precious things they are. In any sexual situation, ask: How will I feel about myself when this is over? Is this person someone I can respect (judged by your individual values)? I also recommend passing judgment only on your own sexual behavior (again, I make an exception to those cases in which both people are not willing. However, for the times you are debating the conduct of others in the process of developing broad concepts into the constituents of your moral codes this is the best place to start: Do I have sound, factual, objective reason to think it is wrong?
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