Sex, morals and religion- an odyssey

We continue with our summaries of the book by Bethwell A. Ogot, History as destiny and history as knowledge. This is possible, to a great extent, because the chapters stand alone and can be treated individually.

A man revered by Kenyans generally but Catholics specifically, Cardinal Maurice Otunga, in 1998 termed calls for gender equality unchristian, ruled out the ordination of women as priests terming this ungodly and to crown it all, led a group of catholic faithful in burning condoms and books on AIDS prevention, and family life education.

The author tells us, starting with the ancient Chinese civilization, the basic form of marriage was polygamy. A married man, besides his wives, would seek entertainment in the company of ‘singing girls’. The grounds for divorce were; disobedience to parents’ in-law, having no son, adultery, jealousy of the husband’s other wives, leprosy, thieving and talkativeness. However, a wife who had no family to go back to wouldn’t be divorced or if, having married her when he was poor, he had become rich.

Starting in 8th Century BCE India, the gods were no longer important. Hinduism and Buddhism sought new ways to transcend the gods, to go beyond them. The Buddha appearing in 538 BCE taught that the only thing that was important was the good life. To the Indian, platonic love was inconceivable. To them, Bethwell notes, love, if it existed, had to be consummated. Those who renounced love had to do so utterly and completely. He notes the Kama Sutra, a manual of etiquette, dealing entirely with eros still has some application today.

Moving to Japan, the author notes the attitude towards sex, marriage, chastity, adultery is more concerned with etiquette and manners than with religious beliefs or tenets. To them, he writes, sex is considered a minor matter but something good, part of the general human feelings which cannot be evil and subject to moralizing. The real aim of marriage in Japanese society is the procreation of children and thereby to ensure the continuity of family life. He adds any purpose other than this simply serve to pervert the true meaning of marriage.

Turning our gaze to Africa, we find in Egypt, a religion that was a fertility cult, with the earth as the female element and the sun as the male and their union beget life. Monogamy was the general rule. The position of the woman was exalted. Her security guaranteed be legal provision that a father could reclaim his daughter if his son in-law insulted, injured or humiliated her and demand return of the dowry.

Elsewhere in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley, arose the Babylonian civilization. They bequeathed humanity with the Hammurabi code which had a strong and direct influence upon Mosaic law, though it was considered more liberal and humane.

From here, we see the birthing of monotheism in Palestine with their god which they argued transcended gender but would remain essentially male and with it the demotion of the women. In Judaism therefore, women were not required, and therefore not permitted to become rabbis, to study Torah and to pray in the synagogue. To their credit, however, it could be sinful to avoid such pleasures as wine or sex, since they had been provided for man’s enjoyment. We must however note their obsession with female virginity and almost pathological fear that illegitimate children might be smuggled into a family, which saw them promulgate a law

A bastard shall not enter into the congregation of the lord.

Christianity through the works of Paul, its architect, Augustine of Hippo, Tertullian and contrary to other religions looked at already, regarded sexual relations outside marriage as a grave sin. Total abstinence was considered a nobler state than marriage. Gregory the great declared it was the lust of our parents’ flesh that was the cause of our being and to this extent, human existence was itself sinful. To Augustine, the originator of the doctrine of original sin, god had condemned humanity to eternal damnation simply because of Adam’s one sin. To Augustine, we owe the heritage of a religion that teaches men and women to regard their humanity as chronically flawed. Augustine writing to a friend wrote

What is the difference, whether it is a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any women?

Augustine was clearly puzzled that god would have made the female sex, after all,

If it was good company and conversation that Adam needed, it would have been much better arranged to have two men together as friends, not a man and woman.

Tertullian, writing before Augustine had already instigated women as evil temptress and eternal danger to mankind. He wrote

Do you not know that you are each an Eve? The sentence of god on this sex of yours lives in this age; the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway, you are the unsealer of that forbidden tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You so carelessly destroyed man, god’s image. On account of your desert, even the son of god had to die.

In 1059, Pope Leo IX formally insisted on the chastity of all priests. During the reformation and counter reformation, the celibacy question arose. Melanchthon preached against celibacy, Zwingli married at 40 being the first priest of RCC to dare do so in five centuries and Martin Luther married a nun. The Anglican church arising from the King’s lust for a lovely damsel, in this view, was conceived in sin.

Contemporary works on sex can be seen in the works of Kant who argued there is no way in which a human being can be made an object of indulgence of another except through sexual impulse. The conclusions from the work of Paul Fleischmann is that the substitution of sexuality for religious life constitutes one of the most prominent and pervasive elements of cultural pathology. The works of Freud are also important, at least, to the extent that he laid the groundwork for the liberation of the sexual aspirations of women from both an oppressive personal sense of guilt and the shame and humiliation of social stigmatization.

Of most recent publication that has had a great bearing on sex, morality and religion is the Kinsey Report in the late 1940s. Of the many conclusions, two are of interest to us

  1. The complete failure of orthodox morality- in spite of religion, moral philosophy, the influence of schools, church, mosque, temple and social conventions, it is obvious that human beings obey their sexual instincts to a far greater extent than the most pessimistic puritans ever hinted at. They noted that sex could not b sublimated. Fear of punishment or exposure made little difference to a person’s sexual activities.
  2. The rules of self-conduct were invariably influenced by personalities of those who set up the rules. The report shows, indirectly, that practically all the popular conceptions of sex morality are ill founded, hence, moral judgements are dangerous because they are unavoidably personal.

In his conclusion, the author notes contemporary evidence shows a progressive shift in attitudes. In all societies throughout the world, the prize of the virgin in marriage has given way to sexual enjoyment on the part of both sexes before marriage.

His last paragraph, below, is almost a lament. He writes

Where does all this leave us in Africa? We abandoned our Old Testament for other peoples’ Old testament, Torah and Quran. Now that our mentors are abandoning their gods and their rights, we are blindly following them in their wastelands inhabited by hollow men and women. A catalogue of indecencies now stares us in the face, including nudity, transvestitism, prostitution, pre-marital sex, extra marital sex, rape, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism and other emerging unnatural mode of sex.

He finishes by asking a question

How do we obviate this sexual rot that is threatening to deplete the human race? Perhaps Africa need a Kinsey Report to analyse all the popular conceptions of sex, morality and religion, before we can pontificate ala Cardinal Otunga. Perhaps Africa needs its own sex manual, its own Kama Sutra. Perhaps Africa needs its own sex text books, from which ignorant teenagers can acquire basic biological facts.