Religion Is All About Sex?

The Freudian take on religion, that it is all about sex, or more precisely all about repressed sexual urges, is hardly new.  Nevertheless, it was somewhat startling when renowned sociologist of religion Peter Berger returned to this trope last week on his The American Interest blog in an entry entitled “Religion As An Activity Engaged In By Consenting Adults In Private.”  In the last paragraph he advances the hypothesis that “The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution.”  By this he means that rising secularism in the U.S. is a hostile defense of the freer sexual mores arising out of the 1960s against the conservative (Evangelical and Catholic) attempts to reverse them.

Fascinating!  Although it is not clear, at least to me, why this particular hypothesis, and not some other, arises in response to the series of reflections about legal cases involving public displays of religious symbols that make up the bulk of the blog entry.  Apparently it has to do with the predilection of the much noted, rapidly expanding “nones” toward disappointment or disillusion with organized religion and identification of churches with intolerance and repression.

I could have been a “none!”  After all, I am a professed member of a religious order.  Oh, wait, no; that would have been a nun.

In all seriousness, though, I very well could have been a “none.”  As I chronicled in my chapter in Secular Monasticism: A Journey, I became deeply disappointed and disillusioned with the religiosity of my upbringing during college.  This was in significant part due to the intolerance and repression of those at the margins of society enacted, enabled, or merely tolerated by so many supposedly religious people.  It was only by the grace of God and the guidance of similarly disillusioned mentors that I was able to recognize that the hypocrisy of human institutions is a poor excuse for giving up on God.  Apart from them, I likely would have ended up a “none.”  Today I find myself with vastly more sympathy for the “nones” I encounter than for most of the Christians.

The question that requires answering is what exactly the “nones,” or those of us in marginal spiritual communities for that matter, have become disappointed or disillusioned with, and who or what we are anxious about churches repressing or being intolerant toward?  Professor Berger would have us believe that the crux of the anxiety is sex.  If the only point of reference were the evening news, this perspective would be understandable as religious leaders are portrayed as having nothing to say except on the topics of sex, sexuality, abortion, rape, marriage, and other issues below the navel.

I would like to suggest that sex is just the tip of the iceberg of anxieties for the “nones” and those of us who sympathize with them.  The culture wars over sexuality, abortion, and marriage particularly are symptomatic of a wider shift in the overall worldview among late modern people.  In her book The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle explores this shift in terms of the helpful typology of “behave, believe, and belong.”  The role of religious institutions in dictating how to behave or what to believe is what the “nones” and company are calling into question.

Instead, us late moderns are much more interested in the question of how to belong in a world marked by extraordinary pluralism across virtually every domain of life.  Yes, we want to figure out how to belong with people of a variety of sexual orientations.  But we also want to figure out how to belong with people of other religious traditions, of other racial and ethnic groups, of other political ideologies, and of other economic means.  And we want to figure out how to belong with nature and non-human animals.  Furthermore, when churches do speak on these issues, it is often out of step not only with how late moderns have come to view the world, but with what the founding impetus of the religious traditions themselves taught.  The “nones” are not hostile toward religion over sex; they are hostile toward religion because they see it as hypocritical.

So was Jesus.  The reason that I did not become a “none” is that I realized that the things which I had become disappointed and disillusioned with the church (and its intolerance and repression) about are the very same things that Jesus was disappointed and disillusioned with the Judaism of his day (and its intolerance and repression) about.  And Jesus was certainly hostile toward the religious leaders and institutions of his day, at least from what we know from the accounts of the gospels.

What exactly is a disappointed, disillusioned Christian to do, if not become a “none?”  There are a variety of options.  One is to work for change from within.  In my own case, however, I found a marginal spiritual community to call home.  In the Lindisfarne Community, we practice what we call a secular monasticism, which has a great deal to do with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “religioneless Christianity.”  Bonhoeffer developed this concept of religionless Christianity in the face of the horrendous hypocrisy of the churches in Nazi Germany.

Religionless Christianity is a Christianity that has lost itself in the world. It is the “leaven in the lump.” It is a hidden way of following the Christ that does not trumpet its arrival. It does not seek to proselytize. It simply is. It is being and becoming. It is Christ in the midst of God’s world. It requires new expressions of faith and new ways of praying. It is willing to discard much of the clutter of the centuries. It dies to self that others may live. It is solitary and communal. But I suspect it is never big, never the crowd. The group psychology of the crowd (witness Nazi Germany) is a fearful thing.

Andrew Fitz-Gibbon. An Intentional Life: Musings of a Secular Monastic.

Religion, then, is not about sex, or at least not only or primarily about sex.  Neither is the turn away from religion about only any one issue.  Besides, the more interesting question on tap is whether an alternative vision, a religionless Christianity, can become compelling to the “nones.”

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