"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Is abstinence immoral?

I know, you wouldn't think I would raise a question like that. And I wouldn't—in earnest, anyway. I made it my title to start focusing your attention on what's really interesting about those who would answer "yes."

During the heyday of the so-called "sexual revolution," in New York a generation ago, I did encounter that answer from a few people I knew. Having observed my sometimes successful efforts to be chaste, they assured me that ongoing success would endanger my mental health. If that were true, I suppose chastity would be immoral. But that viewpoint, there and then, was only to be expected. What I've never expected is to see it becoming conventional wisdom. Apparently it is.

Ted Olsen at Christianity Today's "Sexuality and Gender" forum has posted some interesting tidbits in support of the following trenchant observation:

Can we be good without God? The question seems somehow abstract, a topic for Atlantic Monthly cover stories and college seminars more than practical applications. So here's another question: Can we keep our pants on?

Ironically, the group that often answers "yes" to the first question says "no" to the second. And some believe that not only can't we stay chaste, but we should not.
(Emphasis added.) Olsen proffers many tidbits in support of those last two assertions. Typical is this: "An abstinence-until-marriage program is not only irresponsible," U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said last year. "It's really inhumane." My eyes are still bulging; she actually said it is inhumane to counsel and educate young people to avoid fornication. The only humane thing would be to give them condoms and winks.

Such abject surrender to hormones seems like conventional wisdom only because the MSM promote it tirelessly, though more through spin than through philosophical argument. Yet the philosophy is most instructive.

Olsen is right, and there's an obvious inference to be drawn. People who like to point out that one can be good without believing that there's a God who requires us to be good tend to have a different moral code than those who believe that morality has some foundation in God. That some atheists and agnostics are virtuous, to a degree, goes without saying; that secular and religious morality intersect at various points also goes without saying. So what's the difference that accounts for Olsen's ever-more-accurate point?

The difference is that secular morality, at bottom, is relativistic. Sure, there have been rather fastidiously moral people, including some philosophers, who were neither theists nor relativists. There still are. But once ethics are unmoored from God, then a moral philosophy that is absolutist in principle becomes relativistic in fact. For all such morality is, ultimately, a matter of opinion; and opinions in turn are affected more by culture and its evolution than by any philosophia perennis or religious authority. Thus, once contraception and abortion both became widely available, especially to the young, the sort of sexual morality once sustained by Judaism and Christianity, and retained by the Victorians regardless, became far weaker than the appeal of sex without apparent consequences. Only God, and a life sustained by a relationship with God, can definitively resist the power of that appeal in a person's life.

Okay, I admit that STDs convince some here and there to get back on the straight and narrow—the ones who don't seek cheap grace in the form of condoms. But that actually segues into my next point. The elements of traditonal morality that secular liberalism retains are those which don't require much inner self-denial, have some clear utilitarian value, and make us feel good about ourselves. That's why the morality of secular liberalism is actually harder on certain sins, such as neglect of the poor and the sexual abuse of minors, than traditional morality. Championing obvious victims and vilifying the victimizers makes us feel good about ourselves, reduces the amount of overt nastiness in society, and doesn't require much sacrifice of us as individuals beyond government action—i.e., laws and taxes. But the same people who execrate non-consensual sex also execrate the voluntary renunciation of consensual sex outside marriage. People can't be expected to deny themselves to that extent, can they? We're only human, after all; and aren't humans just animals with speech and creativity?

Which brings me to the ultimate irony in such morality. These people are always chanting "Choice, choice," as though we have some sort of freedom of the will that mere animals lack and as though such liberty were an inherent, not just a socially constructed, right. And we do have some such liberty: as creatures of God subject to God. But once freedom is unmoored from God along with morality it becomes, literally, autonomy. Humans, either individually or collectively, thus legislate for themselves without reference to a divinely bestowed natural law whose precepts are written in the collective conscience of the race. Once that happens—and the many Barbara Lees of the world take it as a fait accompli—then expectations descend to the least common denominator toward the bestial. That's what's happening in our society with sex. If it doesn't stop, we'll find that it happens with everything else too.

My argument is essentially the same as that of C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man. I always used to require it in my undergraduate ethics courses because, written in the World-War-II era, it was one of the most prophetic books of modern times. Read it if you haven't already.

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