On Puritanism

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by Plato Mamo

It is no great secret that the influence of Christianity on the so-called Western civilization has been disastrous. In addition to the disdain of reason and knowledge, the emphasis on subjective, emotional “faith,” the fanaticism, the intolerance and the ensuing atrocities (inquisition, public burnings), the vindictiveness, the hypocrisy, we have a bizarre, even insane, hostility to the body, especially in its sexual function. Even given the spirit-body dualism, what explains the enmity of the “carnal mind” toward God (Romans, 8:7)? What are the sources of this enmity?

In the Old Testament (O.T.) we have the usual heinous crimes of adultery, homosexuality, bestiality and, of course, blasphemy (Leviticus 20). The punishment for them is death by stoning. Why stoning? It is so that the mob will not only witness the execution, they will take part in it, pleased with their own virtue. We also read that if a son is rebellious and will not listen to his parents, if he is a glutton, the people will stone him to death. If a damsel, on being married, cannot produce the “tokens of virginity,” she will be stoned. If a man rapes a woman and she does not cry for help, both will be killed. (She was asking for it, perhaps she was dressed as a slut.) If a man rapes a woman and she does cry out but no one helps her, only the man shall die (Deuteronomy 21-22). The variety of offences and the savage punishment clearly brand these people as barbarians. However, these are social crimes; the society will take care of the culprits. Indeed after each punishment is prescribed, the people are told: Thus you shall remove the evil from among you. There is no suggestion that God looks into the carnal mind. He watches what you are doing in case you disobey him by, e.g., ejaculating on the ground instead of in your sister-in-law (Genesis 38:9).

Aside from these prohibitions, the O.T. writers are not particularly interested in sex. We hear of harlots who, like the slaves, are low on the social scale. We have this disgusting story from the “holy” book. Judah, one of the sons of Jacob, goes abroad and sees a woman whom he takes to be a harlot. She is in fact his daughter-in-law. (She is a widow since God had killed Er, her husband.) He copulates with her, gives her a signet and goes home. All is well until he is told that Tamar is “with child by whoredom.” He then orders that she be burnt! Fortunately, she produces the signet (Genesis 38:15-26)!

All this changes with Christ. With the exaggeration he is so fond of (love your enemies, turn the other jaw) he says: “You have heard thou shall not commit adultery. But I say unto you that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5.28). This, of course, is another silly exaggeration, but it was not seen as such. It was taken very seriously by his followers and expositors and has caused great suffering.

It is a breath-taking absurdity. We are sexual beings. The sexual desire is as natural to us as any desire for things that sustain and promote life. To be sexually aroused by an attractive woman is a perfectly natural event. Yet Christ condemns it as the crime of adultery which, for him, is so serious that it merits eternal fire! By erasing the distinction, crucial in moral philosophy, between desire and act, he condemns a sexual being to eternal torment for following its nature. But he has more to say. “If your right eye offends (scandalizes) you, pluck it out, for it is better to live with one eye than to be cast into the fire with both.”

Beginning with Paul, we have a veritable campaign against the “flesh” together with a contempt for woman as the temptress, the infectious one, the dangerous one. None of this was lost on his followers. Beginning with Paul, we have a veritable campaign against the “flesh” together with a contempt for woman as the temptress, the infectious one, the dangerous one. Let us remember the infamous lines from Corinthians 1: “It is good for a human being (anthropo) not to touch a woman.” Or the equally revolting text from Revelation 14:4, where some hundred thousand men are virgins (and thus saved) because they were not defiled by women.

These views were eagerly adopted by the “fathers” of the Church. Basil wrote a major opus praising virginity. Jerome (whose saintly dictum was “the power of the devil is in the loins”), Ambrose (who rebuked the emperor Theodosius for punishing a man who had burned down a synagogue) and Augustine did the same with enthusiasm. Augustine was guilt-ridden over his earlier life which he described as “a cauldron of unholy loves.” This hatred of the “flesh,” meaning the sexual, the “carnal” nature of man, became truly pathological in the early Middle Ages. Men retreated to the desert, to caves, on top of pillars. They mutilated, tortured, flagellated themselves, punishing themselves for those wicked, sinful urges. They formed monasteries on top of mountains where the temptress could not reach them and disturb their devotion to an imaginary Lord. But even in the desert, the devil, appearing as a gorgeous woman, would still lead them to sinful desires.

Later this mad hostility would shift from one’s body to the other. No one can possibly estimate the number of Jews, Muslims, heretics, witches who were slaughtered by the followers of the sweet, forgiving Jesus. [1] One might think that all that belongs to the past and that Christians no longer kill. Yet it was Lebanese Christians who murdered two thousand Palestinian refugees in the Shabra and Shatila camps during the Lebanese civil war. And the Catholic Croats, Nazi allies during the war, had murdered 700,000 Serbs because they were “schismatics,” i.e., Orthodox. [2] The Croats, like their mentors, were forgiven by the “international community” but the socialist Serbs were demonized and accused of genocide! [3]

In our own society, there are no excesses, no stoning of adulterers, no burkas. It is not because the religious fanatics have changed their views. (The Harper gang would probably like to bring back the death penalty as well as criminalize abortion.) It is because in a secular state they don’t have the power. Yet much of the old hostility remains. It appears in our attitude to nudity, pornography, prostitution.

Our prohibition of nudity is irrational, even scandalous. Horrific images of rows of corpses, the burning Buddhist monk (still shown, long after the event), simulated acts of killings, of violence, are regularly shown on television and in the movies. Extremely violent, gruesome video games are freely available to children, with the blessing of the U.S. supreme court (June, 2011). But the lovely breasts of a woman, organs for nurturing life, may not be seen either on the screen or in public! It is true that now, after Heffner and the sexual revolution, there are publications which show the female body in intimate detail, prompting a wit to say that now every American male can be a gynecologist. These are termed “pornography” by the Christians, who use Paul’s favored word, porneia, the work of prostitutes, and are said to be a great evil, illustrating the corruption of a godless, secular state.

Why are some parts of the body said to be shameful and even obscene? It is not because they are ugly, for they are not. No part of the human frame is ugly; only corruption and decay. It must be because men, more than women, are sexually aroused by visual stimuli; they lust after the “shameless sluts” and that, according to Christ, is a grave sin. But not everyone who opposes nudity and pornography is a Christian. What are their reasons? We have rationalizations coming from the “sinful flesh” tradition. It is said that we cannot have rampant promiscuity; sexual contacts have to be controlled and regulated. Otherwise the institution of marriage will collapse, the number of rapes will increase and so will unwanted pregnancies. That is not so. Marriage is necessary for the welfare of children. That the “carnal” man is so wicked that he, in his quest for sexual partners, would not care about his children is a bit of slander. Rapes are not due to excessive stimulation or uncontrollable desires. It occurs because women are vulnerable and the rapist hates women. Pregnancies too are the result of the inferior position of women, the enduring legacy of Paul. If a man cares for his partner, he will try to satisfy her and then, if condoms are not available, he will imitate Onan. But then we know what the Church thinks of condoms and poor Onan.

What makes this ban on nudity so strange is that the human body, especially the female body, is so beautiful. Artists from the ancient sculptors to Titian and Modigliani have produced their vision of that beauty. Every inch of a woman’s body is beautiful down to the exotic flower of the open labia. At this point the puritan will scoff: You hypocrite! You pretend to admire the beauty of the nude woman but in fact you are sexually aroused, you lust after her. But it is the puritan who makes this pernicious distinction between the appreciation of beauty which is the business of the pure, god-like spirit and sexual desire which carnal, disgusting and sinful.

In fact being moved by bodily beauty and the sexual urge are aspects of the same response. We are moved by the beautiful object, we want to protect it, to preserve it, to possess it. What else is the sexual desire but this strong attraction of the beautiful body which the Greeks called Eros. It is the desire to merge with the other body, to become one with it. The Greek word for the sexual act is synousia, the being together, two beings as one. (How far removed from the ugly “fornication” of the puritan!) This is why some mystics use the sexual union as an image of that ineffable union or wholeness which they are unable to describe. And the classical word for the harlot is hetaira, a companion, or as we say now (finally), an escort.

How pathetic, how perverse is the puritan’s hatred of the “flesh” and its biologically primary urge. He thinks that by denying these natural desires, by remaining “pure” (as if the opposite is “dirty,” Paul, in fact, uses, along with porneiaakatharsia, filth), free of the “filth of concupiscence,” he will please a being which exists only in a book and in his imagination. It does not occur to him to ask why this wise creator, who designed the sexual organs, the hormones and the desires, then turns around and pronounces the whole thing sordid, shameful and sinful!

Naturally this hostility to the flesh is easily transferred to the object of man’s lusts; that second class human, the servant of man (Corinthians 1), the one who tempts men to sin. Prostitutes, then as now, came from the lowest strata of society. That, plus the fact that they were exceedingly wicked, made them candidates for persecution. But, unlike witches, they were tolerated. They were tolerated because they provided an important service in a male-dominated society. Because men have desires that cannot be eliminated by Paul’s hysterical denunciations of porneia. But toleration alone did not give them any protection. They were considered so wicked that their welfare or even their life was of no consequence. The victims of Robert Picton were the lowest of the low; they were women, they were Indians and they were harlots. Killing and dismembering them was a mere trifle compared to the punishment the good Lord has prepared for them. Why is the harlot so wicked? Because she not only tempts men, which is sinful in itself, she gives them the opportunity to engage in porneia, to actually wallow in the filth of concupiscence. She is, as it were, the substratum of sin and perdition.

It is time to stop reading those barbarous texts, the sayings of deluded, hateful and fanatical old men and try to enjoy our humanity, the beauty of the natural world and the company of gentle and charming people.

 

Dr. Plato Mamo, Associate Professor Emeritus, is retired from the University of Calgary, where he taught in the Department of Philosophy. During his retirement, he began writing short, non-technical essays to help people who were struggling to leave religion but did not have arguments to counter the official story.

 

This article first appeared in issue 189 of Humanist Perspectives and is reprinted here at the request of the author.

 

NOTES:

  1. Public burnings continued well into the seventeenth century. A priest, Urbain Grandier, was accused by some hysterical and sexually frustrated nuns (he was handsome) of bringing the devils to possess them. He was burned at the stake in 1634, when Galileo was an old man of seventy and Newton would be born just eight years later. After his horrible death, his fellow priests, his executioners, kept asking one nun what kind of torments he was suffering now. She replied that he was forever cut off from divine grace. No doubt, no doubt, they said, “but what actual physical pains is he suffering now?” She then said that special torments were devised for each of his sins. See Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun.
  2. M. A. Rivelli, Le Genocide Occulte, l’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 1998.
  3. For an impartial treatment of the Yugoslav war, see D. Johnstone, Fools’ Crusade, Monthly Review Press, New York, 2002.

 

About the Author Karen Garst

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