Tuesday, August 20, 2013

On Atheistic Sexual Ethics

I haven't given up on my conversation[1] with Chris Attaway, the Christian author of the blog The Discerning Christian[2].  I had had a post in mind to respond to his last one to me[3] but work, activism, and home have required a lot of my time.  By the time I had time to write it, which still hasn't been much lately. I had forgotten the post I had written in my head.  Instead of starting over on it and continuing on that same topic too long, I'm responding to his post to Dan Fincke[4].  Dan has started a series where he addresses theist questions on Thursdays and Chris offered one a few weeks ago.

A common tactic of Christians discussing morality with atheists is to say we're unable to be moral.  In a rare moment for such discussions, this Christian isn't doing that.
I don’t ask this like one might ask rhetorically, “How can you be good without God?” Rather, while I find myself agreeing with many atheists more than with conservative Christians on issues of sexuality (with important distinctions), I also am unclear on the foundation of any sort of secular sexual ethic.
The basics of his inquiry come down to this question.
What are atheistic sexual ethics?
While I don't think he's suggesting it's the case, since he flat out said he wasn't doing that, I still feel the need to point out that there is no single atheist moral code.  Because atheism is the lack of a thing, rather than a thing, it can never dictate morality or anything else.  This is a common confusion, often even for atheists.  So being clear about it important to me.

Another thing I need to be clear about is the answer to this question is my own and not necessarily representative of anyone's else stance on this.  For example, I know that the intended target for the question, Dan Fincke, doesn't agree with me on morality[5].  But rather than get distracted by going into why I think he's wrong, I'm simply going to give my answer and save the rest for a later time.

And there will have to be later times because this issue is incredibly complex and the following will certainly not be everything I could say on it.  That complexity is why morality is such a common discussion topic.

To answer his question, an atheistic sexual ethic is merely a sexual ethic that does not invoke a god.  That's the simple answer to this complicated issue.

Fundamentalist Christians, and many of the more reasonable Christians, like to say the foundation of their morals is their Bible or their god.  But, like all of us, it simply comes from within themselves.  Even Christians who claim the same source for their morality cannot agree on everything.  Even among Christians, there are serious differences.  Chris takes on the morality of other Christians regularly[6].  There's a reason peoples' gods always agree with them.

Morality is dependent on each individual person, even for those who claim there's an objective morality.  Take a close look at the morality of anyone who claims it's from an objective source.  You'll find it being filtered through their personal morality.

We let ourselves believe the morality is objective if have things we agree on within a group.  Fundamentalist Christians hate gays, so they think their god says to restrict their rights.

Chris provided some of his own thoughts on his question, which I think partially answer his own question.
1. We do need sexual ethics
This goes without saying, but sexual ethics are obviously not just “anything goes.” Rape is obviously out of the question, as is sexual child abuse (we should distinguish this from pedophilia as an incurable attraction to children). Incest is certainly gross and cause for disdain from a bioethics standpoint. There are certainly more issues within sexual ethics, but these already demonstrate the need for such a thing to exist.
Rape & child abuse are indeed things we should not allow.  We don't need a god to know this.  We can see for ourselves that these things are bad.  They're bad for both the individual and society.  If we examine why, it comes down to the fact that these things do harm.  We can observe the tangible effects of this harm.  It largely involves the fact that victims of these things did not consent to what happened.  Which brings us to his next point.
2. Mutual consent is necessary but not sufficient
One of the primary maxims I hear in regard to sexual ethics is to strive for “mutual consent.” We certainly do not want one person having sex without the consent of the other — we call that rape; thus, mutual consent is necessary for ethical sex. But in the case of incest, we clearly demonstrate that the biological component of sex is a factor in sexual ethics. While an incestuous couple could theoretically remain childless (say, through a surgical procedure), I am fairly certain we would all still frown on such action.
In the morality of sex, consent is not merely necessary.  Consent is paramount.  Without consent, it's not sex.  It's assault.  Beyond that, as far as I'm concerned, consent is sufficient in most cases.  If two (or more) adults want to engage in a behavior, and all parties are of sound enough mind to give consent and do give that consent, it's not our place to tell them what to do with their own bodies.  To borrow a recent quote from the Pope[7], "Who am I to judge?"

There's room for discussion on what qualifies as a "sound mind".  Things like the desire to loss a limb[8] are something I'm unsure of my own stance on.  It's those situations where I think the discussion lies.  And that discussion is necessary because the answers aren't coming from a god or any other ultimate deciding factor.

For incest involving children, whether or not it's incest is no where near as important as the involvment of children.  Even if incest among consenting adults was accepted, it wouldn't mean allowing the involvement of children.  Children cannot really consent.
3. Children are a significant factor
The reason I would put forward for why we still frown upon incest even if the couple takes biologically responsible actions is that incest shows disrespect for sex as a procreative action, particularly if we understand its genetic implications. Her, I find myself agreeing with the spirit of the Catholic sexual ethic, though disagreeing on many, many specifics such as gay marriage and birth control, supposing that there is a telos or purpose to sex which factors into how we should treat it, and that we must respect sex as a reproductive act* as much as a pleasurable act. This would obviously discourage other more widely-accepted sexual practices (casual sex, perhaps), but I am not sure how to object to incest consistently, otherwise.
*In the case of infertile or same sex couples or couples on birth control, I only mean to suggest that sex should take place with a sense of “as if,” respecting the spirit of the sexual act as a biological act.
For incest among consenting adults, who have taken measures to prevent conceiving inbred children, people certainly would frown on such action.  But why would they?  But why should they?  Is there a good reason to disapprove of this behavior or is it an emotional, instinctual reaction no different than the emotional dislike many have for homosexuality?  There certainly isn't a Biblical reason to oppose incest[9].

For me, sexual ethics are no different than any other morality.  The closest thing you could find to a foundation of my morality is Humanism.  But that's not the foundation of it.  I derived my morality decisions the way I do long before I ever learned of the concept of Humanism.  It's a decent general description of how my morality works, but it's not a foundation.  I don't get my morality from Humanism.  I get it from myself.  Just like everyone does.  Including Christians who say their morality comes from the Bible, but still oppose incest, eat shrimp[10], or otherwise ignore the dictates of the book they say they follow[11].

We use consensus to decide what we do about our shared morality.  It's easy to get consensus on things like rape & murder.  Other things, like taxes & government spying on citizens, may never see consensus.  So the morality argument continues.  As it should continue, as long as we use reason.

Arguing over morality using reason will get us to decisions better for our society, like the various freedoms guaranteed by the US Constitution.  Arguing morality using religion will get us things like kids dying because their parents believed in faith healing, the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, 9/11, the American invasion of Iraq, the Vatican's lies about condoms & AIDS, the systematic consequence free rape of children, genital mutilation, oppression of women, violence against homosexuals, fraud by assholes like Peter Popoff & Pat Robertson, and so so much more.

1.  http://aparticularblogbyaparticularatheist.blogspot.com/search/label/Discerning%20With%20A%20Christian
2.  http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/
3.  http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/a-response-discerning-the-bibles-stance-on-homosexuality/
4.  http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/2013/07/12/what-are-atheistic-sexual-ethics/
5.  http://youtu.be/hlbKve5pjg8
6.  http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com/2013/02/04/why-call-it-abuse-because-mark-driscoll-is-more-dangerous-than-westboro/
7.  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-23489702
8.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apotemnophilia
9.  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+19%3A31-36&version=NIV
10.  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Leviticus+11%3A10&version=KJV
11.  http://www.11points.com/Books/11_Things_The_Bible_Bans,_But_You_Do_Anyway


  1. all nonsense while the war rages

    the end of effective social movements







    how we won the James Randi Million Dollar Paranormal Prize


  2. Hey, it's Chris. I appreciate the article. I will get back to you soon!