As a student of anthropology, I think a lot about cultural constructs which permeate our lives, most of which are pretty invisible to us most of the time. From an early age I was fascinated with the various institutions of religion, as well as the many more personal spiritual ideologies people espouse, and the various psychological and sociological structures which surround them. Later on, I started thinking about similar aspects of how we think about sex and relationships, and eventually found many similarities between how we think about gods, spirits, and sex. This is no surprise since one of the best ways for religions to hold our attention is to demand certain behaviors is to hold us hostage with fears about our deepest inclinations; sex is a great example of this.
In religion, there is this idea of atonement. It comes in many forms from many theological systems, but it is basically the way that we come to make amends with some supernatural or natural power. Whether we have to deal with a fundamental brokenness in our nature, some separation, or lack of enlightenment (to only scratch the surface of ways religious ideas deal with this atonement thing) from the power we seek atonement with, there is a set of actions and beliefs which we must do or have in order to reach some ideal relationship with the universe, deity, or ourselves.
It is my view that the religions which survive best find a balance of difficulty and comprehensibility in the ideals it sets up. Adherents must be, like the Tantalus of Greek mythology, perpetually reaching for this ideal of atonement which they cannot really achieve, but it must be something they can imagine as a logically possible thing to have. Sure, people can think that they have achieved the goal (as many Christians believe they are saved), but the scriptures and religious leaders will always mention that this is pride, or something similar in order to keep them in check.
Opposed, conceptually, to atonement is some detriment presented as part of our nature or circumstance. We stand unenlightened, sinful, or separated from some god(s), knowledge, or understanding and we will remain there until we atone, repent, or whatever must be done to solve this problem, heal this sickness, etc. As Christopher Hitchens said many times,
Even the most humane and compassionate of the monotheisms and polytheisms are complicit in this quiet and irrational authoritarianism: they proclaim us, in Fulke Greville‘s unforgettable line, “Created sick — Commanded to be well.”
The bottom line here is that there is a tendency in human worldviews, whether religion or otherwise, to present a highly unlikely ideal against some much more likely, and often repugnant, set of behaviors or beliefs which we must be encouraged away from.
The sin of non-monogamy and the atonement with The One.
There is a mainstream view of sex and relationships, here in the modern west and most other developed nations, with monogamy as the ideal relationship type. The majority of cultures have some version of this practice, and it’s major competitor is some kind of patriarchal polygamy. Polyandry or true sexual/relationship equality is rare and considered aberrational when it occurs. It took quite a while before we would have a sexual revolution, and with it true freedom started to become part of our cultural consciousness.
And yet even still there exists within our sexually liberated world a distinction between studs and sluts; men are expected to be promiscuous, women are often valued for their “purity.” These promiscuous men and these sluts are expected, or at least encouraged, to eventually outgrow this part of their life and find The One, or at least settle for A One.
For most people who have a period of sexual liberation, it ends with the attempt to reach an ideal of monogamy. Men and women may be expected to have sexual experiences in their teenage years and into their 20’s, but eventually most people expect them to settle down. “Settling down” means taking relationships seriously, and usually means exclusivity, marriage, and monogamy. So while we are liberated as a culture in terms of having sex before we “get serious,” get serious we should, because seriousness means exclusivity and exclusivity is good.
The fallen circumstance, or nature, which even our progressive culture patiently tolerates for is one of promiscuity. But this sexually liberated part of our lives is held against a stable future ideal of monogamy. The holy grail of relationships, The One, is presented against the superficial and regrettable reality of youthful promiscuity. This One is The person with whom we can have a real relationship, rather than failing perpetually hopping from one insignificant relationship to another (sometimes at the same time!).
A mnemonic device I learned years ago about the word atone was that you can break it down into at+one. In other words, especially for many Christian traditions, the goal was to work to become at one with some god or another. All of our other inclinations, not having to do with this atonement, should be secondary to that relationship of working towards chasing that ideal, because nothing was more important than that. Monogamy has taken a similar place in our culture as that ideal of religious atonement; the sinful and superficial world of sex, lust, and other failings of human behavior are presented against an ideal of monogamy. That is, even liberal society maintains this ideal, even though that liberality allows sexual promiscuity, co-habitation before marriage, etc. Anything that looks like monogamy, even if it isn’t really marriage, is what we should be striving for. The difference here between mainstream conservatives and liberals on this issue is how we get to monogamy, not whether that is the goal.
This shows me that culture tends to be truly human (all too human!) and tends to have worldviews which are conservative even when we are progressive (I actually argue that today’s liberals are tomorrow’s conservatives, because the mainstream is largely conservatives concerning ideals). We conserve ideals, even as our values shift. So, even as we become increasingly liberal as a society in terms of seeing redemption and atonement in looser and looser terms, we hold onto the ideal itself. Liberal views about the supernatural and what we should be doing with our lives changes in terms of the details of the path to get there, but the destination does not really change. This is one of the greatest failings of most of mainstream liberal culture; it does not seek to question the ideals, assumptions, and goals of our worldviews.
Ideals Worth Wanting
What should be the strength of progressive culture, or perhaps a radical culture, is the re-valuing of our values. We need to evaluate what is worth valuing, not what we should change in terms of how to get to our Heavens, Nirvanas, or other paradises whether they be otherworldly or physical. The question is not how we can get to paradise or what we are allowed to do before we settle into monogamy, the issue is why do we value such ideals? Why is being at one with some supernatural power good? Why is monogamy the ideal?
I don’t think there are good answers to those questions, except to say that perhaps those things should not be ideals at all. With religion, atonement is merely an impossible goal, set before us to tantalize us and keep us striving and behaving within acceptable boundaries. Monogamy is no different, in that the only way to achieve it is to pretend as if our ability of love is so limited, and our sexual desires so parochial, that we force ourselves into ideal relationship expectations while repeatedly failing in thought if not act. There is no reason to set us up with impossible ideals which make no sense to value, whether with gods or monogamy, when we have real ideals to inspire us.
A skeptical approach to reality brings us to an informed and skeptical atheism, and allows us to love the people we love, the way we want to love them, in order to live authentic and rewarding lives. And while we may never be ideal skeptics or lovers, we can at least have ideals worth wanting.