You know how people, after reaching a rock bottom point in their lives, often find religion? You know, the old redemption and salvation story. They have had evil done to them, did evil themselves, but now they walk the righteous path! It’s a powerful narrative, and the times it has been utilized in story-telling (both in text and in personal behavior) are countless. It’s a ubiquitous narrative structure of religion, literature, and personal psychology.
In sort, it’s one of the most fundamental aspects of being human.
Now, I could go on about how this narrative is flawed, especially in how it is utilized by religion as a vehicle for more than mere narrative, but of actual truth, but that’s obvious and banal. Besides, many atheist commentators have made that point numerous times, and blogs which keep pestering the same points get stale after a while.
So, how about this; Let’s try and take that narrative and fit it onto a different vehicle. Let’s see how, perhaps, this narrative relates to how we create a false dichotomy in terms of relationships, specifically when it comes to cheating and exclusive commitments.
Similar to the penitent sinner, there is the repentant adulterer. Yes, there are the people who have cheated and who try and commit themselves to being successfully monogamous, but I’m interested in the less obvious versions of this story. I’m interested in a story of the person who struggles with the desire to cheat, and who fights of this desire with an ideal of monogamy and exclusivity. I imagine that this struggle has many facets that we would recognize in man other tropes, including many “romantic” ideals which include concepts such as “one true love,” “soul mate,” and “belonging” to someone.
Somehow, the natural, and undoubtedly widespread, inclination to be attracted to many types of people is shrugged off by rationalizing some special exceptionalism or superficial romantic notion of exclusivity by people who are struggling to fit into respectable expectations. To fit in. They see their desire as a roadblock, rather than as an alternate route. They probably don’t even see the path less traveled. They see the road, the obstacle, but not the other lanes of traffic.
Why is this narrative so clean and obvious in our culture? Is it as simple as the fact that many cultural forces, including the conservative influence of religion, have tried to battle our animal nature, trying to beat the swords of our lust into ploughshares of civil monogamy? Is it as simple as groupthink and herd behavior?
In today’s cultural and political climate, “family” (usually meaning a man and a woman who have children) is often held up to be the foundation of our society and culture. This structure, solidified in monogamy, sexual exclusivity and (ultimately) ownership, is thought to be what holds all of this together. If it disappeared, it would lead to anarchy (“yay” the anarchists may say).
So to not struggle against our instincts is to invite destruction. Not merely of our relationships and our personal salvation and redemption story, but to that of our entire society. This is why I think that the insights of both atheism and polyamory, founded by skepticism (the method, not the community), are so radical. They question the very dichotomy of not only our instincts with many assumed ideals, but they present an alternative perspective through which to view these instincts. They seek to deconstruct the problem, very much in the tradition of the best of postmodern criticism (yes, there are good aspects to postmodernism, believe it or not!) so that we can see the problem from a different perspective.
At bottom, the answer is not to repress, struggle against, or transcend our instincts, but rather to find a way to make our instincts the fuel for creating a responsible, mature, and enjoyable life. The answer to desire is not always denial; sometimes it’s merely to re-think the nature of that desire in terms of what is possible, even if not popular or easy. Our instincts are not good nor are they bad, but they are real and they will continue to pester us, so we might as well get comfortable with that. And since we are getting comfortable with them, we will have to live with giving them some limitations, boundaries, and maybe even rules.
Monogamy is not the answer to variety of sexual and romantic desire. Monogamy is the answer to a genuinely limited set of such desires. Monogamy is what happens when happiness involves one person. Religion is not the answer to our metaphysical needs (cf Nietzsche). Religion is only such an answer when it happens to be true (and unlike monogamy, religion may never fit this bill. That is, monogamy may be rational, but religion may never be so).
We have the capability to re-define things such as “family,” “commitment,” and “love” to be broader than the exclusive and restrictive definitions which are common today. We, if we are to care about progress over the conservative impulses of some of our culture (conserving a system that simply does not work), must continue to demonstrate that progress is not only inevitable, but that it is morally superior.
We should be struggling along with our instincts and desires, rather than against them. It’s not only a pragmatic strategy, but an authentic (and thus moral) one.
In short, keep sinning because it’s not actually a sin. But do it responsibly.