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How religion has let society down

In 1977, a guy named Stewart Parnell founded a company called Peanut Corporation of America. Parnell built the company into an enormous supplier of peanut butter, primarily for candy makers, that eventually was responsible for about two and a half percent of the nation's total production of peanut butter. He had a very simple strategy for business success: underbid everyone.

Peanut Corporation of America made tens of millions of dollars a year but ran on a shoestring budget. In fact, Parnell Was so cheap that some of his processing plants were unlicensed and unregistered; he ran a plant in Plainview, Texas, that the state government didn't even know existed.

Which is an awesome money-saver, if you think about it. You can't be forced to comply with inspection results if the facility is never inspected; you don't have to worry about FDA regulations or compliance with OSHA mandates if the FDA and OSHA don't know you exist.

This is actually a post about religion, and not, say, Libertarianism. Hang on, I'm getting there.

Anyway, as you might expect, this approach to business had a predictable result. In 2008, nearly 700 people had food poisoning from peanut butter produced by Peanut Corporation of America, and nine of them died. A massive recall was launched, the government started inspecting Peanut Corporation of America facilities and discovered a horror show (peanut butter that was shipped even though the company knew it was contaminated with salmonella, leaky plant roofs, air conditioning systems that sucked bird shit from the roofs and sprayed it over vats of peanuts, that sort of thing. The plants were closed by the government, the company went bankrupt, and there are still Federal investigations pending against our hero, Mr. Parnell.

All this did lead to one humorous moment, when he was called to testify before Congress and took the fifth when he was asked to eat some of his own peanut butter. Mad lulz aside, though, it seems Mr. Parnell is a very bad man.




He's also a very bad man with an unimpeachable religious pedigree. He belongs to that particular school of Evangelical Christianity prominent in his home town of Lynchburg, VA. His sister was married to a relative of Jerry Falwell's family, and he himself was a conservative Southern Baptist.

Now, one of the things we hear about religion is that religion serves a valuable social function by providing a framework of morality. Morals, the religious say, are codes of conduct created and sanctioned by God to direct human behavior toward one another, and indeed some religions claim some morals which are, in fact, good ways to behave.

The problem is that the moral values promoted by religions, especially conservative religions, tend not to focus very heavily on things like "do unto others as you'd have them do unto you"--a value claimed by many religious tradition but not really advocated very strongly by most of them. Instead, the moral values are more often, it seems to me, promoted as arbitrary lists of things you're supposed to do and things you're not supposed to do, with no coherent underlying logic to them.

And it seems a lot of them are about sex.




When you look at the major organized religions in the United States, and examine their moral teachings closely, you can't help but come away with the notion that God is nothing short of obsessed with what goes on with our crotches.

This obsession with sex extends to social ideas about morality. If someone tells you "I have strong morals" or "I believe in good moral values," you can be pretty sure that what they're talking about is sex.

And they're probably not going to follow those statements up with "I believe that people should do unto others as they would have done unto them," either. For all the fact that religion likes to give lip service to notions like that, I doubt many "moral values" folks actually say "That's why I believe in people making their own choices about who they have sex with, because I want them to let me make my own choices about these things."



There are all sorts of reasons why institutional power structures are obsessed with sex. It's a great hook; control people's basic drives and you control the people. It's an inevitable outcome of the way our brains work; fMRI studies have suggested that people who hold socially conservative ideas are strongly motivated by feelings of disgust, and tend, by and large, to believe that if something makes them feel an emotion of disgust, their emotional response is proof that the thing itself must be inherently wrong. It's a characteristic of the way we form social bonds; we are strongly driven, as part of our evolutionary heritage, to divide social groups into "in" groups and "out" groups, and to seek differences to delineate those groups.

And so on, and so on. None of those things is really all that interesting, I think; it's all just part of the tedious and yucky parts of how social power structures flow, as disagreeable but inevitable in its operation as the flow of sewage through a city's pipes, and often just as pungent.




That's not the bit I think is important. The drab banality of institutionalized power isn't, for me, the most disappointing thing thing about organized religion. The most disappointing thing, to me, is the way that such organizations have seized the mantle of moral authority and then utterly fumbled it, to the detriment of society as a whole.

So many religions have made such vigorous claim to the throne of moral arbitration that there are actually people who believe that without religion, a person can not be moral. People ask ridiculous questions like "Can atheists be sexually moral?" Commentators claim that without a god, a person can not have "morality in his heart;" and some people even point to the fact that the non-religious are less obsessed with sex than the religious as proof that those without religion are less moral.

But having successfully made the argument to a great many people that they and they alone can protect and promote morality, what do they do with it? That's the part that disappoints me.

You can argue, of course, that men like Stewart Parnell are driven by greed, and would not behave in moral ways regardless of the teachings of their adopted religions. And that might be true. But the fact is, the major religious organizations tend to focus so heavily on sex as the beginning and end of morality that other lessons are let slip by the wayside.

When a person adopts the idea that morality is primarily about the goings-on in his crotch, a dangerous thing happens. That person can very easily say to himself "I m a good person; I don't cheat on my wife, have premarital sex,lie with other men as I lie with women, or do her up the poop chute. I am a moral person; immorality is about my sexual behavior, and I keep my sexual behavior confined within the proper parameters." And once a person says "I am a moral person," he may stop watchdogging his decisions. He doesn't question the moral nature of his own actions, because, after all, morality is about sex, right?

I'm not saying that religions don't talk about the moral dimension of things besides sex. But I am saying that, by and large, so much emphasis is placed on sex that they don't make the case for an overarching, coherent foundation or morality; they don't argue that morality is ultimately founded on the notion that you should treat others with compassion and respect, and not make decisions which adversely affect the lives of others.

By, for example, selling them contaminated peanut butter.

And they can't. They can't make this case, because if they do, many of the constraints they place on sex begin to look like anomalies, arbitrary rules not founded in any sort of notion of treating others with compassion and respect.




Looked at through the lens of treating others the way they want to be treated, there is nothing immoral about, say, oral sex. Or sex with two partners, if all the people involved are on board with that. Or masturbation. These things don't fit the notion of morality as a framework that prevents people from doing harmful things to one another; they aren't harmful.

In fact, if you assume that framework for moral choices, prohibitions on masturbation begin to look downright stupid, and a god who would send someone to an eternity of suffering simpy for touching herself begins to look vicious and petty.

Especially if you accept that it was that very same god who put our wibbly bits within arm's reach in the first place.




Morality is not about memorizing a set of rules. It is, when it is most properly applied, an entire system of ethical decision-making, one that places a watchdog within us which examines our choices in light of the way those choices affect others. It is an internally consistent set of checks and balances, which reminds us to place ourselves and our actions within a larger context and take responsibility for the effects of those actions on other people.

Masturbating isn't immoral. Poisoning seven hundred people with products that you know to be contaminated because you can make money by doing it, is. By creating the perception that morality is first and foremost about sex, the large religious institutions have consolidated social power and, in the act, destroyed their own moral credibility. They have failed to teach morality as more than a list of rules about who to fuck, when to fuck, and in what position to fuck, and in so doing they have exerted a harmful influence on society as a whole. The Catholic church, for instances, focuses so heavily on ideas of sex that they condemn the use of condoms in AIDS-ravaged Africa, a moral teaching which helps promote the very human misery and suffering they then spend millions to try to relieve. Conservative Islamic teachings on sex are so repressive that to a Fundamentalist Muslim, paradise is a seedy gang bang out of a 70s porn flick, where the pious can look forward to the awkward ministrations of 72 sexually inexperienced women.

This weird, obsessive-compulsive fixation on sex will have to end before any religious institution can really become the moral authority they all claim to be.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some peanut butter eggs to eat. I hope the company that made them isn't owned by a conservative Christian.


Comments

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the_xtina
Apr. 22nd, 2010 07:07 am (UTC)
...and some people even point to the fact that the non-religious are less obsessed with sex than the religious as proof that those without religion are less moral.

I...

People are weird.

I mean, I read and experience weird shit, so it's not like I am perpetually taken aback or anything, but bwa, I don't even, and other memetic indications that I cannot process this information.
mantic_angel
Apr. 22nd, 2010 08:29 am (UTC)
This seems to be a post about Christianity and Islam, not religion?

Or do I just never hear about the Buddhists / Hindu / etc. sexual obsession because they're a minority here in the US? (The disadvantage of them being a minority is they seem enlightened; after all, I'm comparing vague statements of principle to the actual practice of other religions)

----

I do also have to argue that the Unitarian Universalists are the coolest religion I have ever run in to, and sex is a large part of that. As part of our youth group we were forced to go to a sex shop and buy condoms, etc. :)
tacit
Apr. 22nd, 2010 08:45 am (UTC)
It's a post about how the dominant religious traditions in the US have failed to equip people to make educated moral choices. Buddhism, Hinduism, and Unitarianism have, overall, only a very minor impact on American society.

Though to be fair, fundamentalist Hinduism is so sex-obsessed that it makes Southern Baptists look downright permissive. Conservative Hindus condemn across the board any pre-marital sexual contact at all (which includes kissing or holding hands), any nontraditional family structures, and any homosexuality, and regards masturbation as an "impure act." Indian society has prohibited sex education, and conservative Hindu countries like Nepal have restrictions on women leaving the house that are nearly as prescriptive as those of Muslin societies. The days when Hindu societies produced the Kama Sutra and celebrated sexuality with engravings on temple walls are pretty much over.
(no subject) - joreth - Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:26 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lovewithoutfear - May. 16th, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - vortexae - May. 14th, 2010 09:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - mantic_angel - May. 15th, 2010 06:49 am (UTC) - Expand
tedeisenstein
Apr. 22nd, 2010 08:49 am (UTC)
"Conservative Religion: the notion that an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful, universe-spanning God is interested in your genitals."
libbydabomb
Apr. 22nd, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Spread Christianity throughout the world.....
I have been telling people the following, "I may be Born Again but I'm not [too] crazy. Jesus can perform miracles but he won't pay your bills, go to work for you, or raise your kids for you. When He can do that then that means He's pretty good at what he does."

If I could spread Jesus throughout the land, I would-- except I know that most of my friends don't care and I think that finding Jesus has to happen in its own time natually-- it took me surviving a sex ritual cult, flipping back from agnotism to paganism and then finding out that the cult I was apart of was full of shit and brainwashing me to realize that my spiritual outlet needed to come from elsewhere. Finding Jesus happened on a fall day and it was completely unexpected. The positive changes that have happened in my life have been directly in part because of my faith in the Lord.

Is Christianity for everyone? No, not at all. It works for me, but I understand it does not float everyone's boat. And that is fine.

I too am struggling with a lot things. I am Christian but I also struggle with parts of my sexuality (kink, leather, etc.) that would def. be considered ironic with the messages that Christianity teaches. I asked my pastor, "So,I can still be a boot licking sado masochist and Jesus will still love me?" and she paused and said, "yes, He will still love you." So I have to believe that His love is unconditional no matter what and that with unconditional love anything is possible.
devianttouch
Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:42 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed this post. It sums up a lot of how I look at religion. The obsession with sexuality is a big part of why I left in the first place, although it isn't why I'm not religious now (now it's because I understand more science).

I think "don't poison people" is a pretty basic moral concept - one this atheist can get behind!
rekre8
Apr. 22nd, 2010 02:14 pm (UTC)
"Thou shalt not suffer a poisoner to live"
magentamn
Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:45 pm (UTC)
The Tanach, the "Old Testament", is where most of the anti-sex laws originate. They were probably devised to: a) keep the ancient Israelites from imitating neighboring Pagans and b) make sure there were lots and lots of offspring so the tribe would survive. Both reasons are out of date. And I find it ironic that all the anti-sex-obsessed fundies ignore almost all the other prohibitions that are in the text, and parts of the ten commandments. I grew up Jewish, and honoring the Sabbath was very important. Almost all of these sex-obsessed idiots ignore the Sabbath rules, whether they chose Sunday or Saturday, not to mention ignoring many of the other prohibitions, like ones about not mixing two kinds of fiber in cloth.
tacit
Apr. 25th, 2010 12:11 pm (UTC)
The Catholics consider having lots and lots of babies a moral duty, so to them at least the notion of having lots of offspring isn't out of date. I attended a Catholic wedding once, and found the whole event a bit tawdry and more than a little creepy; the priest emphasized MANY times how important it was for the newlywed couple to have many children and raise them all Catholic.
(no subject) - vortexae - May. 14th, 2010 09:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - lovewithoutfear - May. 16th, 2010 11:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
delphinea
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
Well said. And that said, given my recent cessation of breastfeeding, I found this typo quite amusing -- "morality is ultimately founded on the notion that you should teat others with compassion and respect".

I've *always* teated others with compassion and respect, and even passion and wild abandon. :-P
tacit
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:24 pm (UTC)
Oops! Fixed, thanks!
thenanerbananer
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:45 pm (UTC)
...and thanks to Mr. Parnell, those of us with impeccable food safety programs and records have had to re-double our efforts and work even harder to keep the FDA off our backs.

I know this is kind of off the subject for this post, but folks like Mr. Parnell are really fucking it up for companies like mine who are trying really hard to keep the food product we sell safe for human consumption.

I'm a food safety manager...and I'm polyamorous and love sex.

Guess this makes me the worse person though...
joreth
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:31 pm (UTC)
You try to keep your customers safe, provide quality products, care about the health of consumers, and HAVE SEX! You evil, evil woman!

*snerk*
(no subject) - thenanerbananer - Apr. 22nd, 2010 07:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
whitenightsmoon
Apr. 22nd, 2010 04:09 pm (UTC)
I am not religious and I never was. We had religion classes once a week since the first grade over here and until the 12th and even then I argued all the time with the priest, telling him why things didn't make sense and why I would not accept a god like that. Poor man, he was begging me not to ask anymore and asking me why a 7 year old is so curious and can't just accept other people's judgements. And of course, even later, when I had teachers (female), they never had answers for what I argued. Me being as passionate as I am about this I felt a bit like choking the teacher who said that women who abort are strapped on a cliff in the afterlife and huge eagles eat them forever, haha. Very Prometheus like, haha. I almost got expelled that time.

No one in my close family was/is either. Where I live, orthodoxism is the official religion, but mostly ladies over 60 and a few men around the same ages go. The priests say the things in church in the form of chants and they're rather unintelligible. From what I know, they tell biblical stories that have a moral in the end and pray every now and then. Over here, people who say stupid things like "girls who like oral are sluts" don't really say them because of religion, but because they don't pass stuff through the mental filters. If asked, they can't give any real reasons why giving oral is bad. And what I wish upon them is that they never, ever get oral again ;)

I am not familiar with the doctrines of Parnell's religion, but I'd think it states somewhere it's wrong to kill others and to lie. Do they use the 10 commandments? If so, then it's hard for me to think Parnell believed that what he was doing was right. The laws are also clearly against killing innocents and doing what he did. Unless he was mentally ill and that would make sense, since he lives his life according to what he *thinks* a being in the sky wants and since he seems to have thought he could get away with this.

I, too, had someone argue with me that morality and compassion can't exists outside belief in a god and that it's inherited through religion. He also said that if people didn't believe in god, they would commit crimes. I find that pretty crazy, to be honest. Basically implying that if he wouldn't believe there was a god who would send him to hell if he killed, he would do it. "Oddly", I never ever refrained from doing something because of god. In fact, I never took any god in consideration while deciding to do anything, not even when I was very, very little. And I could not do something vile, haha. And, by the way, is touching yourself worth an eternity in hell? Oh, yes, yes it is. I never liked the way heaven was presented. Sounds boring to me. No sex, no life...besides, being alive is so much fun, I could never give it up to be "an angel". But that is another debate.

I think compassion might be something we are born with or not, because it seems to me that religious lunatics can't be taught that having any kind of consensual sex is perfectly fine. I always wondered about this. How can people live their lives according to what they think someone invisible says? How did this even start? Why don't they use their logic filters? Do they have them? Does one get born with logic, compassion and so on? (What is the meaning of life, why are there so many species of everything and so on. Just kidding. Though I have been thinking a lot about the second question these days...) I'd like being pointed towards interesting reads in relation to these questions, if you know them.
joreth
Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:35 pm (UTC)
Logic is learned, although some people learn it easier than others.

Sure, Parnell's religion covers things like don't kill and don't lie, but tacit said that the obsession with sex is so strong that everything else gets overlooked and sex becomes the primary defining character, leaving people to pick and choose which parts of their text they want to follow, and conveniently ignoring everything else.
(no subject) - whitenightsmoon - Apr. 22nd, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Apr. 22nd, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - whitenightsmoon - Apr. 22nd, 2010 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Apr. 25th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - whitenightsmoon - Apr. 25th, 2010 05:13 pm (UTC) - Expand
shevabree
Apr. 22nd, 2010 04:17 pm (UTC)
The religious right are often neither.

And on a funny note as I'm sitting in our university center about to head to class someone comes over and lays a leaflet down next to me for one of the campus christian groups.
miss_lisa_ma
Apr. 22nd, 2010 05:45 pm (UTC)
Whatever higher power may or may not be out there, religion is a most human creation. So, like all human endeavors, it is what we make it. People can use it as a tool to seek enlightenment or help others, or as a weapon to enrich themselves and beat up on others in one way or another. Sometimes a little bit of both, and a whole lot of muddy-in-the-middle stuff, too.

What is a shame is the level of privilege some religion gets in this country, as you've described so well. The unquestioning presumption that Certain Kind of Religious=Moral, and the related implication that Anything Else=Less Moral or Immoral, make me want to spit teeth.
merovingian
Apr. 22nd, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
I hear you and mostly agree.

Something to know, though: the 72 virgins thing? That's not actually any kind of thing in Islam -- it's vaguely mentioned in some texts, but isn't really a big part of what Muslims talk about when they talk about the afterlife.

For reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/72_Virgins

It's just a repulsive enough idea that it became very popular among anti-Arab conservatives in the U.S.

(I'm not saying that there aren't a huge number of problems with fundamental Islam and sexuality. From horrible treatment of women in Afghanistan and Saudi, to heart-wrenchingly terrible acid-splashing attacks in Muslim communities in Bangladesh, to rising persecution of homosexuals in Egypt, to increasing hostility even in fairly tolerant countries like Lebanon, there's a big problem that requires a lot of social change. But the 72 virgins thing is more a Western smear attempt than an actual doctrine of Islam.)
peristaltor
Apr. 22nd, 2010 07:00 pm (UTC)
The Wife and I suffered through a joke last night with no punch line -- South Park's 200th episode. There was so much bleeping, we didn't know what to do. And it wasn't profanity, as we Americans define it. Oh, and one character was entirely blacked out with the word CENSORED across the black box.

It turns out Parker and Stone tried to portray and mock the prophet Mohammed, but Comedy Central wouldn't let them even try. Jesus, slammed. Joseph Smith, mocked. Buddha, slighted. But no, not Moe.

You're absolutely right about the sex thing. It misses needed moral touchstones (like don't poison people) because it obsesses over silly ones. Which makes me want to do things I really don't even want to do, like tear off my clothes in a church just to force my nudity on the religious. I'm tired of the enforced morality over my pee pee or over someone else's supposed sacrosanct idolatry.

/rant
kawakiisakazuki
Apr. 22nd, 2010 07:37 pm (UTC)
After much pondering, I tend to the standpoint that the whole sex stuff is really a *cultural* thing more than a religious one. People use religious dogma as justifications for cultural taboos against sexuality, but non-religious people are just as likely to use other excuses for the same taboos, I think. At least that is my impression. Some strains of radical feminism are more puritan than religious fundamentalists. Also the profound hypocrisy about sex is difficult to explain solely on religious grounds - all religions are pretty clear that you can't fool god - but is perfectly predictable when the taboo is social instead.

I think the root of the problem is that a lot of people inherit sexual hang-ups from their parents, grow old surrounded by others with similarly dysfunctional sexuality, and cope with the abuse by externalizing - thereby spreading the poison. It's just so hard to have any mature conversation about sexuality when people either act scandalized or else start giggling at the naughtiness...
tacit
Apr. 25th, 2010 12:28 pm (UTC)
I would tweak that a little to say that thee are both religious and social taboos about sex, but the religions turn those taboos into matters of orthodoxy, and in doing so become efficient instruments for transmitting those taboos.

There are social taboos about sex and sexuality, but they seem to me to be fairly nebulously defined, and transmitted indirectly. The religions turn those into sermons: "If you have sex this way, you will go to hell." That creates a feedback loop, where the religious institutions become instrumental in spreading and reinforcing the taboos.

The Second Wave feminist arguments against sex, for example, lacked staying power, and have been completely rejected by many Third Wave feminists--in part because they did not have the power of a formal and socially privileged institution behind them.
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crysthewolf
Apr. 23rd, 2010 12:29 am (UTC)
I can't remember the last time I read something that expressed so well PRECISELY what I'd been thinking for so long.

I wish that I thought that saying it so well would make more of a difference to more people, and not just make those of us around go "EXACTLY!!!! EX-FUCKING-ACTLY!!!!!! That's what I've been trying to say ALL ALONG!"... but then again it may very well.

And if nothing else, I feel like I'm not the only one that thinks, "Look. How can you people not see this? When will you pull your heads out of your collective fanatical asses and think for yourselves? Can you imagine how many problems it would solve?!"
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