Advice for our time

The conception of Sin which is bound up with Christian ethics is one that does an extraordinary amount of harm, since it affords people an outlet for their sadism which they believe to be legitimate, and even noble. Take, for example, the question of the prevention of [a certain sexually-transmitted disease]. It is known that, by precautions taken in advance, the danger of contracting this disease can be made negligible. Christians, however, object to the dissemination of knowledge of this fact, since they hold it good that sinners should be punished. They hold this so good that they are even willing that punishment should extend to the wives and children of sinners. There are in the world at the present moment many thousands of children suffering from [this disease] who would never have been born but for the desire of Christians to see sinners punished. I cannot understand how doctrines leading us to this fiendish cruelty can be considered to have any good effects upon morals.

What STD is this? Easily preventable but devastating to the health; spread to those who trust their lovers who swear they’re clean and eschew protection; passed on to countless children? The author must be talking about HIV.

Nope, it’s syphilis, and the above quote is from Bertrand Russell in 1930. (“Christianity and Sex,” Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization?)

The Catholic Church, in particular, is notorious for opposing condom use even amidst the African HIV/AIDS crisis (and the African population crisis). Better that you sin by having unprotected sex outside of marriage, and subsequently die of AIDS, than that you sin even more terribly by having sex with a condom — “closing yourself to the possibility of life,” as sickly ironic as the Catholic viewpoint is — and eventually die of something less politicized.

Can we call it progress that Pope Benedict XVI apparently thinks that, for prostitutes and those already HIV-positive, condom use is not as absolutely horrible (but still pretty horrible)?

Where can we look for a solution to our problems? Why aren’t sin and hellfire enough to dissuade people from having sex in the first place?

Those who have a scientific outlook on human behavior, moreover, find it impossible to label any action as “sin”; they realize that what we do has its origin in our heredity, our education, and our environment, and that it is by control of these causes, rather than by denunciation, that conduct injurious to society is to be prevented.

Russell said that in 1936 (Our Sexual Ethics). The fact that we still have to make these points time and time again only leads me to one conclusion:

Most enlightened people live in an unreal world, associating with their friends and imagining that only a few freaks are unenlightened nowadays.

Russell, 1930 (Introduction to The New Generation). In reading Russell’s essays, I was naïvely surprised that his criticism of the moralistic treatment of sex, and his criticisms of popular morality and religion, are just as relevant 80 years on. Evidently more of the enlightened few need to speak up.

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