Eighty Years Old and Still Scandalous

This year, of course, is the 150th anniversary year of the publication of On the Origin of Species. While the commemorations of Darwin and his revolutionary book are numerous, nobody seems to have noticed that this is also an anniversary year of another book that was in its own way revolutionary. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of Bertrand Russell’s manifesto of sexual liberation, Marriage and Morals. At the time, Russell’s book was considered quite shocking. Its publication probably played a large part in the filing of the lawsuit in 1940 that prevented Russell’s appointment as a professor at the City College of New York. A bigoted judge ruled that his appointment would establish a “chair of indecency” at the college. Now, having lived through the sexual revolution, and the feminist and fundamentalist counterrevolutions, many of Russell’s suggestions sound rather tame to us, e.g., that marriage need not be a necessary condition for cohabitation.

Still, some of Russell’s remarks remain provocative. He is uncompromising about the bad effects of traditional religious teachings concerning sexuality. Here is a quote from my essay “Bertrand Russell,” published in Icons of Unbelief, edited by S.T. Joshi, Greenwood Press, 2008:

Russell is particularly scathing about orthodox teachings on human sexuality. He holds that early Christianity promoted an unhealthy view of sexuality by regarding perpetual virginity as ideal with marriage a poor second best (It is best to be celibate, says Paul, but “It is better to marry than to burn,” I Corinthians, 7:9). Indeed, says Russell, orthodox Christianity has viewed all sexual desire with suspicion, even within marriage, and this has led to bad consequences:

The Christian view that all intercourse outside marriage is immoral
was…based upon the view that all sexual intercourse, even within marriage, is
regrettable. A view of this sort, which goes against biological facts, can
only be regarded by sane people as a morbid aberration. The fact that it
is embedded in Christian ethics has made Christianity throughout its whole
history a force tending towards mental disorders and unwholesome views of life
(Russell, 1929, p. 48).

Now in recent years conservative Christians have changed their rhetoric about sex. There are even Christian sex manuals. Tim LaHaye, of “Left Behind” fame did one with his wife, Beverly. Today’s hip, cool, with-it Christians do not speak of sex as taboo, the forbidden fruit, but say that sex (at least, heterosexual sex between married partners) is “sacred.” But, of course, the concept of sacredness is conceptually and psychologically deeply entwined with the concept of the taboo. In fact, the sacred and the taboo are just flip sides of the same coin. When something is sacred it is untouchable and inviolable–kinda like being taboo. Saying that sex is “sacred” is just as distorting as to say that it is taboo. Sex is great, but it ain’t sacred. Beneath the veneer of rhetoric, I don’t think Christian attitudes towards sex today are very different from the ones Russell criticized.