All Worked Up about Making Sense of Religion


Anyone who reads this column and/or personally knows me knows I’m a student of world religions and faiths. That being said, I must also say that what frustrates me as a student of religions, is that of all the disciplines to be studied, religion is the only one where nothing ever really falls into place; there’s never really a moment of clarity and complete comprehension; when the little lightbulb turns on over one’s head and one says, “Ah. It all makes sense, now.” If you study physics or medicine or the law or Shakespeare or chess or Russian or the nuances of the “West Coast Offense,” when you’re first trying to make sense of it all, there’s nothing but confusion. However, study long enough and hard enough and with enough discipline, eventually all the pieces come into place, there’s a moment of sublime clarity, and the student says, “Ah, it all makes sense now.”

Not so with religion. At least, not so for me. Not yet.

That doesn’t mean I haven’t tried. I’ve read up on several theories not only about religions themselves, the origins and interpretations of various scriptures, the histories of the great world faiths, the various sociological and psychological purposes religions serve and how and why they might have come into being, those parts are making sense to me.

I’ve got a good idea about the various thought processes applied to religions throughout history; what I don’t get are the thought processes related to religious faith TODAY.

In the First Book of Kings, Chapter 7, verse 23, (and again in 2 Chronicles, 4:2, a cistern in King Solomon’s palace is described as being ten cubits across and thirty cubits around. That is, the cistern’s circumference is exactly three times its diameter. Now, any high school geometry teacher will tell you that when you measure any circular object anywhere in the universe the circumference is, was, and always will be 3.14159265 etc. etc. etc. times the object’s diameter. That inviolate, invincible, indestructible ratio is called “pi” after the Greek letter, and it’s the subject of endless fascination among mathematicians. But I digress. The point is, that anyone, upon reading that scripture, would logically conclude that either the writer made a mistake, the builders of the cistern made a mistake, or that someone, somewhere, made a mistake, and that the cistern’s circumference wasn’t really thirty cubits, but was instead 31.4169265 cubits around, because that’s what pi times the diameter of the cistern ought to be.

That is, unless you believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, without mistake, misinterpretation, or error of any kind. If that’s the case, then clearly, when the builders of the cistern measured its circumference, it was exactly thirty cubits around. I’ve had this argument with countless Holy Terrors, and their answer is always the same. No mistakes here. One particular young believer said to me, “I don’t know why you don’t get it! If the Bible says it was thirty cubits, it was thirty cubits! God can do anything!”

I bring all this up because this conflict between what appears to be simple common sense and rigid, religious dogma seems to strike to the very heart of every aspect of human life, including, not surprisingly, human sexuality.

Take, for example, masturbation. Throughout human history, masturbation has been considered one of the most evil and depraved human acts, the source of all manner of miseries, from blindness to hair in the palms of one’s hands to, even death according to the Book of Genesis, 37:8-10. “And Judah said unto Onan, “go in unto thy brother’s wife, and marry her, and raise up seed to thy brother. And Onan knew that the seed should not be his, and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother. And the thing which he did displeased the Lord; wherefore He slew him also.”

Of course, in these more enlightened times, we have a more enlightened view of masturbation. It turns out that masturbation can reduce blood pressure and stress, the risk of prostate cancer in men, cervical infections in women, and even heart disease. Masturbation even, (get this) appears to increase fertility, especially in men. It seems that sperm have an expiration date, so jacking off on a regular basis apparently gets the stale product off the shelves so that it can be replaced by the fresh stock.

In light of all this scientific evidence of the benefits of masturbation, what are the positions of most of the world’s major faiths on the subject of tossing off for the sake of health, well-being, and fertility?

Roman Catholicism: Masturbation is “gravely disordered, as it frustrates the natural purposes and ends of sexuality,” Pope Paul VI, “Humanae Vitae,” 1968.

Ellen G. White, one of the founders of the Seventh Day Adventists, believed masturbation was a “solitary vice” which actually caused all manner of ailments, including but not limited to lung disease, cancer, insanity, and physical disfigurement.

Spencer W. Kimball of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, said masturbation is a form of “slavery to the flesh,” and “is not approved of by our Lord or by His Church.”

So, in light of all this scientific evidence about the benefits of masturbation, most world religions retain the same Dark-ages type mentality they’ve been practicing for centuries. This should not be a surprise. After having persecuted Galileo Galilei for supporting the theory that the earth revolves around the sun, it took the Catholics 500 years to say, “mea culpa.”

Pick virtually any element of human sexuality that doesn’t relate to procreation, from pornography and erotica to sex toys to homosexuality and gay marriage, for every study, article, or theory that sets forth the possibility that those elements are beneficial, (or at the very least, do no harm), you can bet that religious activists will be lined up around the block to oppose that element, if for no other stated reason than, “Because I said so!”

I bring all this up because exactly fifty years ago, in 1960, the birth control pill was introduced to the world. It’s no exaggeration to say that this event ranks up there with the right to vote as one of the most significant advancements in the history of women’s rights in the last thousand years. Freed from the risk of unwanted pregnancies, women found it easier to enter the workforce, obtain higher educations, and, yes, enjoy sex with more security and less risk. It’s no accident that the “sexual revolution” followed closely upon the heels of easy access to The Pill.

Of course, where sexuality is involved, so is religion. In his excellent article for the New Yorker, “John Rock’s Error,” Malcolm Gladwell documents the conflicts that Dr. Rock, inventor of the Pill, faced as he extolled the Pill’s benefits in light of the opposition of the Catholic Church, and of his own membership in that church. The upshot of the article, (which is excellent, by the way, find it here or in his most recent book, What the Dog Saw. Better yet, order What the Dog Saw through ERWA so our website benefits. Thanks)..where was I? Oh, yes. The upshot of the article is that Dr. Rock’s stated purpose in researching and developing the Pill was not only to curb unwanted pregnancies, but to generally improve the state of women’s health. Although hard numbers didn’t emerge for several years after 1960, it turns out that the Pill not only reduces the risk of complications stemming from pregnancies, but it reduces the risk of breast, ovarian and cervical cancer, not to mention the numerous discomforts and pain stemming from menstrual cycles.

It took the Catholic Church eight years to make up its mind about whether to support or condemn the birth control pill. Should the Church endorse the pill as a positive element of women’s health, or should the Church condemn the pill as something that interferes with the only appropriate use of sex, namely procreation?

Ultimately, the Catholic Church opted to oppose the use of not only the Pill, but any form of birth control other than the so-called “rhythm method.” This was announced in the aforementioned “Humanae Vitae” declaration by Pope Paul VI in 1968. While the document’s stated rationale for opposing birth control went on and on about acceptable and unacceptable purposes of intercourse, about the sanctity of human life and the objectives of procreation, at least some of the Church’s reasoning was more…pragmatic.

August Bernhard Hasler, in his book, “How The Pope Became Infallible, quoted a report to Pope Paul VI made by, among others, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. “If it should be declared that contraception is not evil in itself, then we should have to concede frankly that the Holy Spirit had been on the side of the Protestant churches…(which had supported birth control as early as in 1930)…It should likewise have to be admitted that for half a century the Spirit failed to protect…the Catholic hierarchy from a very serious error. This would mean that the leaders of the Church, acting with extreme imprudence, had condemned thousands of innocent human acts, forbidding, under pain of eternal damnation, a practice which would now be sanctioned.”

In other words, the Catholic Church was faced with the prospect of either 1) endorsing something with proven medical, social and economic benefits, in light of improved scientific evidence and advancement, or 2) rejecting that endorsement and maintaining the same cold, hard, rigid, inflexible position it had held for centuries. The Church hierarchy chose option 2 simply because choosing Option 1 meant ADMITTING THEY’D BEEN WRONG.

Ah. It all makes sense, now.

J.T. Benjamin
July 2010

“All Worked Up” © 2010 J.T. Benjamin. All rights reserved.

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