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As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Times (UK) which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.


Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.

It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing.

First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, alone with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world – a directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall.

At 24, travelling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi.

We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission.

Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers – in some ways less so – but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. âPrivatelyâ because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught.

There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: âtheirsâ and therefore best for âthemâ; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours.

I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural-traditional mindset feeds into the âbig manâ and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety – fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things – strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

How can I, as someone with a foot in both camps, explain? When the philosophical tourist moves from one world view to another he finds – at the very moment of passing into the new – that he loses the language to describe the landscape to the old. But let me try an example: the answer given by Sir Edmund Hillary to the question: Why climb the mountain? âBecause it’s there,â he said.

To the rural African mind, this is an explanation of why one would not climb the mountain. It’s… well, there. Just there. Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Hillary’s further explanation – that nobody else had climbed it – would stand as a second reason for passivity.

Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosphical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates.

Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the knowhow that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted.

And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

By Matthew Parris and published in The Times on 12/27/08 and can be found here.


Feminism’s Self-Defeating About-Face on Porn

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Live Site News which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.


“Pornography is the theory,” renowned feminist Robin Morgan once wrote, “rape is the practice.”

Indeed, feminists used to widely understand that pornography was, at its very best, dehumanizing and degrading, a product by men and for men that portrayed women only as objects of male desire. At its very worst, it was a gory celebration of the destruction of the feminine, with women being beaten, raped, humiliated, and otherwise assaulted for the perverse pleasures of misogynists who claimed that their woman-hating was a “fetish.”

Today, however, feminists are supposed to be “sex-positive,” which means they have to support pornography, because with over 80% of the male population viewing it, resistance is futile.

Those who oppose pornography are not anti-sex. They are simply wise enough to recognize that pornography is poison. When used as a substitute for love, it is the equivalent of giving salt water to a man dying of thirst—it will merely inflame the desire further without bringing any satisfaction.

I remember a debate on pornography in one of my first political science classes in university—out of the entire class, only myself and one other guy were opposed to pornography. Most of the guys sat quietly, trying to avoid contributing to the discussion, while a few of the girls were the most vociferous defenders of this filth—almost as if they had something to prove.

Pornography, our new sexual dogmas say, is harmless, if not beneficial. And when I asserted in a number of articles that pornography fuels rape culture, the backlash from guys who couldn’t stop looking at porn was quick and angry.

So I began contacting experts in the field, people who had studied the impact of pornography on men and women. The most revealing and chilling interview I conducted was with Dr. Mary Anne Layden, director of the Sexual Trauma and Psychopathology Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. I had cited her work on pornography and violence before, and wanted to see what sort of things her research had uncovered.

Why, I asked Dr. Layden, did you start researching the links between violence and pornography?

“When I started as a psychotherapist, just about thirty years ago, I started treating patients who were victims of sexual violence and felt a special call to the damage that sexual violence did to these patients,” she replied,

When I had been doing the work for about ten years, because I’m a little bit of a slow learner, it occurred to me that I had not treated one case of sexual violence that didn’t involve pornography… some were rape cases, some were incest cases, some were child molestation cases, some were sexual harassment cases – in all of these different kinds of cases, pornography showed up in every single one.

So I said there seems to be some connection here. Over time, I got interested in what is common in the perpetrators of sexual violence because I realized we were never going to solve the problem of sexual violence by treating victims who’ve been damaged by the problem and treating them one at a time and trying to put them back together. There weren’t enough therapists in the world. There were too many victims in the world. We couldn’t solve this by pulling them out of the river one at a time. We were going to have to go upstream and see who was pushing them in.

And as Dr. Layden discovered, it was the porn industry that was pushing people into the river. Men are not born rapists, she pointed out to me. But for some reason, many are increasingly justifying sexual violence. Why? Because pornography has turned the bodies of women and girls into a commodity. It is shaping the way men see women.

“It’s a product,” Dr. Layden said, her voice getting more emphatic.

This is a business and I think that a lot of pimps would stop doing this if there wasn’t any money involved, but it’s a business and as soon as you tell somebody it’s a product, as soon as you say this [is] something you buy, then this is something you can steal. Those two things are hooked. If you can buy it, you can steal it, and even better if you steal it because then you don’t pay for it. So the sexual exploitation industry, whether it’s strip clubs or prostitution or pornography, is where you buy it. Sexual violence is where you steal it – rape and child molestation and sexual harassment is where you steal it.

So these things are all seamlessly connected. There isn’t a way to draw a bright line of demarcation between rape and prostitution and pornography and child molestation. There are not bright lines of demarcation. The perpetrators are in a common set of beliefs, and when we look at the research we can see some of those common beliefs, so that we know that individuals who are exposed to pornographic media have beliefs such as [thinking that] rape victims like to be raped, they don’t suffer so much when they’re raped, ‘she got what she wanted’ when she was raped, women make false accusations of rape because it isn’t really rape, sex is really either good or great and there isn’t any other option other than good or great, no one is really traumatized by it.

All of these are part of the rape myth. People who use pornography accept the rape myth to a greater degree than others. So we have a sense that pornography is teaching them to think like a rapist and then triggering them to act like rapists.

Pornography, like all other products, has done to the female body what economics always does to any product: If you commodify something, you cheapen it. It’s really that simple. But when your marketing strategy is inflaming lust and appealing to power by degrading women, there are devastating results. As Dr. Layden pointed out to me, we even stop seeing each other as human.

“When you cheapen sex and you cheapen women’s bodies, when you treat people like things there’s a consequence and one of the consequences is sexual violence but one the consequences is also relationship damage,” she pointed out.

There’s an interesting series of studies that actually highlights a bit of the phenomena of how this works. They were showing people just mildly sexualized pictures. They were men and women in swimsuits, men and women in their underwear, sort of relatively mild sexualized pictures and they showed them either upside right or upside down and looked at the processing in the brain, because it will display a phenomena of which part of your brain you’re using to process that picture that you see.

What we see with men, when people look at men, and look at them in their swimsuits or in their underwear, they’re using the part of their brain that processes humans and human faces but when we look at women in their swimsuits and their underwear we use the part of our brain that processes tools and objects and when you process a woman as a tool or an object you use. The rules that we use when we deal with tools or objects is if it’s not doing its job then throw it away, get another one.

So the feminists years ago said these men are treating women as sex objects and we thought that was a metaphor. It wasn’t a metaphor. It was an actual statement of reality, that they’re using the part of their brain which they use to process objects and things and there’s a consequence in the society when you start treating sex as a product and women as a thing.

Those who point these things out, of course, and those who oppose porn, are condemned as old-fashioned, prudish, and “anti-sex.” When I reminded Dr. Layden of this, she was decidedly unimpressed.

The desire for love is built into us. [One of my colleagues] said, ‘The real damage is that it threatens the loss of love in a world where only love brings happiness.’ That summarizes what we are doing, that everybody is hardwired to love and be loved. That’s what feeds our hungry heart, and we have a generation who are starved and have hungry hearts and yet they are eating the sexual junk food and becoming sexually obese because they’re so starved they would eat junk food if that’s all that’s available to them.

And so partly we need to have people talk about the glory of good sex, the wonderfulness of good sex, of how it bonds committed couples together and helps them keep their promises to each other, that there is a thing called good sexuality that is enhancing and enlivening and is love-based, but all of this sexual junk food that is out there is not it.

In short? Those who oppose pornography are not anti-sex. They are simply wise enough to recognize that pornography is poison. When used as a substitute for love, it is the equivalent of giving salt water to a man dying of thirst—it will merely inflame the desire further without bringing any satisfaction. To Dr. Mary Anne Layden, this is self-evident. And she intends to make sure as many other people as possible see it that way, too.

“If I said to people, ‘I want you to eat healthy food and don’t go to McDonald’s,’ they wouldn’t call me anti-food,” she said. “They would say you just want to promote healthy food and you don’t want people to go see that Supersize Me movie and find out if you eat McDonald’s every day for 30 days you’ll have a fatty liver. Well that’s what I want to do with sexuality. I want to promote healthy, loving, enhancing, soul-feeding sexuality, not sexual junk food.”

And the way to do that? With sky-high rates of porn addiction, is it possible? Dr. Layden has so many ideas that they come out in a rush.

“I think we’ve got to educate ourselves, we’ve got to tell the truth to others, you’ve got to speak truth to authority because once you know this stuff if you’re silent, silence is complicity,” she says.

We’ve got to go in to our schools and our libraries and say you’ve got to protect our children, we’ve got to say to our governments you’ve got to stop spreading permission-giving beliefs and that means don’t legalize prostitution. It tells men that it’s fine and more men will go to prostitutes. We’ve got to have laws against things that damage people; we’ve got to have outrage in this society when sexual violence is swept under the rug, when a professional athlete does it.

We’ve got to come together and have the journalists, the lawyers, the parents to get together as a mighty team and say this society is worth saving, our children are worth saving, sexuality is sacred. We’ve got to do it together and so it takes a concerted effort … When I hear people say we can’t put the genie back in the bottle I say fifty years ago 60% of the people in New York City smoked, today 18% in NYC smoke. Put the genie back in the bottle. We can do this one as well and it’s worth doing.

Like Dr. Mary Anne Layden, I am not anti-sex, although I don’t particularly object to being called old-fashioned. I am, however, very anti-porn—and that is because pornography is rapidly turning healthy, loving, and committed relationships into something “old-fashioned.” It is robbing the current generation of their ability to enjoy life-long and happy commitments. And as such, we have a responsibility to heed the call of Dr. Layden and so many other experts to fight the porn threat wherever it is found. Those who claim that pornography is harmless are, at the end of the day, woefully uneducated.

By: Jonathon Van Maren and published on Life Site News on January 26, 2015 and can be found here.


How conservatives out-intellectualized progressives

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in The Week which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.


The vital center is imploding throughout the Western world. Liberal norms and institutions face a greater challenge than at any time since the end of the Second World War. And so defenders of the liberal order seek, often desperately, to remind themselves of what principles they stand for and the premises that underlie their deepest political and moral convictions.

That’s what I take Molly Worthen to be doing in her recent, admirable essay in The New York Times. Worthen writes as a liberal who admires the way the American right has built an infrastructure of programs and institutes where young conservatives receive instruction in the history of political philosophy from Aristotle and Xenophon on down to James Madison, Adam Smith, and beyond.

Worthen thinks liberals should do something similar:

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon… [Great Books] are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump. [The New York Times]

Indeed. So why don’t liberals follow the lead of their conservative counterparts in reading classic texts?

Though Worthen never says so explicitly, the germ of an explanation can be found in her essay when she writes, somewhat defensively, that liberals “can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy.” And why would they be tempted to do that? Because most so-called liberals today aren’t liberals at all. They’re progressives — and progressivism is an ideology that has little if any interest in learning from the greatest books, ideas, and thinkers of the past. And that’s because, as the name implies, progressivism is a theory of historical progress. It doesn’t see itself as an ideological project with premises and goals that had to be established against alternative views. Rather, at any given moment it identifies itself with empiricism, pragmatism, and the supposedly neutral, incontestable examination of facts and data, which it marshals for the sake of building a future that is always self-evidently superior (in a moral sense) to everything that came before.

Whereas conservatives look to the past in search of wisdom, inclined as they are to presume that the greatest writers of past ages may well have been wiser than we are — and displayed greater understanding about morality and politics than we do — progressives tend to see that same past as a graveyard packed with justly dead ideas.

No wonder they don’t spend time reading Great Books.

Like a physicist who is too busy pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge to study the history of past errors and halting advances (now surpassed) within his own field, most progressives would rather continue their project of expanding the administrative-welfare state of which they consider themselves the rightful guardians (while stigmatizing its opponents) than turn back to examine the origins of and strongest case for their own most cherished ideas.

That’s why conservatives are much better placed than progressives to do the work of examining the intellectual foundations of the liberal political order. But that doesn’t mean liberals who are willing to distance themselves from progressive assumptions couldn’t follow Worthen’s advice and do something similar.

There are already tentative signs that some are doing just that. Liberal Bill Galston has recently gotten together with conservative Bill Kristol to encourage precisely this kind of rethinking and defense of liberal premises in the face of the populist challenge. Even more promising might be the efforts of classical liberal political theorist Jacob Levy and liberaltarian author Will Wilkinson, who will be pursuing their own similar projects through the libertarian Niskanen Center.

Maybe these efforts will even spawn the kind of Great Books programs for liberals that Worthen pines for. If they do, liberalism will be much the better for it — not least because it would be a sign that liberals had begun to separate themselves and their ideas from the powerful but pernicious ideology of progressivism.

By Damon Linker and originally published in The Week on December 6, 2016 and can be found here.

Is Belief in God Like Belief in Santa, Leprechauns, or Fairies? A Reflection

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one on Brian Nicholson’s Blog which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.



Can you imagine if I had left it at that? A one-word post on WordPress. Brother, I’d get comments “for dayz.” I’d also probably get some pretty strong retorts.

When it comes to topics related to the origins of the universe, many have come to conclude that there is Someone behind it all. In this post, I will compare belief in God to Santa Claus, fairies, and leprechauns, hoping to illuminate that the existence of a Creator is something far more worthy of conversation than these characters. The goal isn’t to prove that God exists. For that, see my equation below:

Just kidding.

The objective is to critically compare these characters of fantasy and folklore, and see if they bare any resemblance to the existence of a deity. So, let’s get this party started! Jeeves, turn on my mix-tape…

If you believe in God without evidence, then I can assert that leprechauns and Santa exist without evidence.Various YouTube Commenters Since Pre-Extinction of the Dodo Bird

The problem here, of course, are we having good reason to think those things don’t exist, and not comparably having good reasons to think God does not. It’s not simply that we don’t have evidence for Santa, but we have positive reasons to think Santa does not exist. We know there’s no workshop at the North Pole, there aren’t Santa sightings around the holiday season, and the milk and cookies are obviously eaten by the parents… I mean, come on, do your kids really expect that Santa ALSO went gluten-free around the same time you did?

Negative Claims

But, we can’t prove that things don’t exist, right? There are definitely examples where we can prove negative statements. For example, we know Leonardo DaVinci is no longer alive. We know George Bush isn’t the President anymore. We can certainly prove these negative claims. Even if we couldn’t prove that God does not exist, which I don’t believe is the case; this certainly doesn’t mean that He does. It just means making a claim about His non-existence is also making a knowledge claim, that of which requires justification. So at the very least, one should be agnostic.

Another problem with drawing these false analogies is that God, if He exists, is beyond the natural, or is supernatural. That’s why we can’t observe Him in nature or put Him in a test tube. But moral values and mathematics are also not observable in nature, in yet we see their effects all the same. Things like leprechauns, if they existed, would be a part of the natural world, and would certainly be making their appearance known if they wanted to. So, just because God cannot be tested scientifically does not mean it’s worthless to talk about His existence. To stubbornly assert science as the only route to truth is self-refuting, because:

Can the statement, “you should only believe what can be scientifically proven,” itself be scientifically proven?

Here we see that there are other methods of discerning truth that are valid, as science is. For example, we all accept moral truths as real, but we can’t prove that those exist by scientific means. Mathematical truths and logic are valid ways of discerning truth, but these are beyond the realm of scientific inquiry as well.

On the contrary, leprechauns, Santa, and fairies are all purportedly within our spatial-temporal realm, frolicking with Chips Ahoy!, delivering presents, stealing your credit card, and forever trying to increase the value of ye olde pot of gold with Rosland Capital. Someone might say, “what if we simply define Santa or Paul Bunyun as existing outside the universe?” Well, at that point we really cease to be talking about Santa or Mr. Bunyun at all. If we make Santa an immaterial, all-powerful mind existing outside our universe, it really becomes just another name for God. This is much like the debate Dr. William Lane Craig had with Dr. Lewis Wolpert, where Wolpert said, “I think a computer did it!” (talking about creating the universe). But a computer is a device comprised of matter, and needs time to operate, so if we just rob it of all the attributes that make it a computer and just define it a space-less and timeless computer, we are really just re-naming God.

In the case of a Creator, we aren’t peering into telescopes looking for some bearded man resembling the renaissance images of God The Father. We are looking for the effects of God… things like, say, the existence of a finite universe, the remarkable fine-tuning of the universe for things like stars, chemistry, and us. We may also consider the potential reliability of miracle claims, such as the resurrection of Jesus- something that has raised many an eyebrow for a long time. Even the skeptic scholar Paula Fredriksen admits, “they must’ve seen something,” talking about Jesus’ disciples.

For more on the fine-tuning argument, please click here https://briannicholsonblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/28/first-blog-post/

By contrast we do not see the effects of these mystical creatures. So we can reasonably say they don’t exist.

What’s probably the bigger issue is that God is not detectable like other things in our world are, and this is where I feel the larger disagreement stems from. Let’s take a look at the objection Carl Sagan presented in his book, “A Demon-Haunted World,” where Sagan compares God to an invisible, undetectable dragon in someone’s garage.

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?”

I’m not sure who was going around saying God could decisively be found in a garage, but this point seems to be missing what I mentioned earlier. We aren’t looking for God within space and time, but signs of something from beyond the universe, signs that there may have been an Agent involved in bringing the cosmos to life. In Sagan’s case, the person should really be asking why there is a reality for a garage to exist in in the first place. That’s where at least the possibility of God comes into play. Things like the Big Bang, the fine-tuning, the logically incoherent idea of an infinite series of past events, and the surprising fact that there is something rather than nothing, are just a few reasons that we shouldn’t dismiss God’s existence a priori. This doesn’t mean He does exist, but certainly this topic that has engaged philosophers and scientists for millennia is worth discussing.

In future posts I will talk more about problems with an infinite regress and Leibniz’ Contingency Argument. But for now, I hope we can see that the existence of God certainly deserves a place at the podium.

You can find the above blog post here.

Why Sex is Making us Morally Stupid

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I recently came across one in Mustard Seed Faith which, I thought, was pretty insightful. Be edified.

Mustard Seed Faith

C.S. Lewis, writing on June 3, 1956 to a man who asked him about masturbation, offered the following striking and relevant advice:

For me the evil of masturbation would be that it takes an appetite which, in lawful use, leads the individual out of himself to complete (and correct) his own personality in that of another (and finally in children and even grandchildren) and turns it back: sends the man back into the prison of himself, there to keep a harem of imaginary brides. And this harem, once admitted, works against his ever getting out and really uniting with a real woman. For the harem is always accessible, always subservient, calls for no sacrifices or adjustments, and can be endowed with erotic and psychological attractions which no real woman can rival. Among those shadowy brides he is always adored, always the perfect lover: no demand is made on his…

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We Are All Sadists Now

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I just came across one in First Things, which is a journal (print and online) published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.  It is a scholarly and rather academic publication which has many well respected contributors.  I have been a commentator on the changes of sexual culture in the West and its abandonment of traditional sexual ethics and mores (see here for an example).  It should not be a shock to anyone who knows me or reads my material that I think these changes are and/or will be a disaster to our culture, children, families, and marriages.  This article reveals one of the consequences of abandoning traditional sexual morality.  Be edified.


An article on campus sexual mores by Rod Dreher this week drove me to reflect on who is the most influential thinker of our present age. Thirty years ago as an undergraduate in England, I would have argued that it was Karl Marx. Yet Marx looks increasingly like a nineteenth century figure, as Jonathan Sperber has so deftly demonstrated. Even the twentieth century revolutions inspired by his thought now seem more often like ethnic conflicts merely pretending to be class war. Perhaps a more persuasive case can be made for Nietzsche and Freud, as Phillip Rieff thought. Certainly the advent of ‘Psychological Man’ is one of the dominant master narratives of our day. But Dreher made me think the real prophet of this present age might be someone else: the Marquis DeSade.

In the popular mind, DeSade is associated with the idea of achieving sexual gratification through inflicting pain on another. Yet that notion rests upon a more sophisticated understanding of sex and personhood.  DeSade’s specific sexual predilections assumed the notion of sex simply as one more consumer commodity in the marketplace and upon the idea of other people as merely instrumental to the achievement of personal sexual pleasure. DeSade turned the sexual relationship into an economic relationship of exchange aimed at the satisfaction of the individual consumer.  He was truly a prophet born out of time and, like all such, doomed to be decried in his own day as a madman.

DeSade’s ideal world is that to which we appear to be heading.   Like him, we deny any intrinsic moral significance to sexual activity whatsoever and thus see it as something which is of no more ethical importance than buying a cup of coffee or eating a sandwich. In such a world, the celibate and the monogamous are increasingly counted as freaks, representatives of a defective, repressive cultural vision. Thus, the social pressure to be promiscuous becomes an integral part of the culture and the withholding of consent comes to be increasingly difficult, the act of social schismatics, freaks, and (to use the favored clichés of the day) the inauthentic, those who do not wish to flourish.

That is the world Dreher describes in his article and this is the world which pornography, Tinder and other personal pimping programs promote. Of course, the underlying assumption of consent is presumably still assumed by Tinder users. Rape is still rape, at least in theory. Yet if sex is evacuated of any intrinsic ethical significance, and the culture turns against celibacy and monogamy, the notion of consent itself may eventually become as morally meaningless as the orgasms it is supposed to legitimate.  Indeed, one could even see a case eventually being made in DeSade world for the withholding of sex being considered an act of oppression, like the withholding of a wedding cake or a photo-shoot.  It will never happen, you say.  Well, more than any other history, that of sexuality and the laws surrounding it indicates that one should never say never.

Yet there is another force at play today which seems to be in conflict with the above: The belief that our sexual desires determine who we are at the deepest level.  This is somewhat ironic: The age which denies any real significance to sex also wants to argue that sexual desires are of paramount importance to personal identity and fulfillment.  Squaring that particular circle will no doubt generate a whole textbook full of neuroses in the coming years.

This age thus embodies a twofold sadism. It is sadistic because it turns people into nothing more than objects for the achievement of the sexual desires of others. And it is sadistic because it tells people their sexual desires are of the utmost importance to who they are while simultaneously denying that these desires point to anything of any real intrinsic importance whatsoever. That is cruelty of a peculiarly pernicious and nihilistic kind. Freud and Nietzsche may have played their part in making today’s world. But the success of Tinder indicates that the victor’s laurels should probably go to DeSade.

By Carl R. Trueman and originally published in First Things on August 13, 2015 and can be found here.

Liberalism After Liberalism

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I just came across one in First Things, which is a journal (print and online) published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.  This article explores the limits of Western post-modern “liberalism.”  Be edified.

“Liberalism After Liberalism” is one of three addresses given to a symposium on “After Liberalism,” put on in late February with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company. Yuval Levin and James Rogers responded to this paper. The other two addresses and the responses will appear in the June/July and August/September issues.

Like other key words of American political and cultural discourse, the term liberalism suffers from a frustrating, even maddening, degree of ambiguity and imprecision in the way it is used. It can provoke heated arguments in which the disputants seem agreed in embracing liberalism, according it high and even talismanic qualities—but then go on to use it in such manifestly divergent ways that the ensuing discussion hardly rises to the level of a coherent disagreement. Something of the same confusion occurs among those who start out arm-in-arm as staunch opponents of liberalism but soon find it hard to agree on exactly what it is they are opposing, let alone what they are for, and even harder to ferret out the extent to which they may be presuming liberal tenets even in the act of challenging them.

One can complain about this incorrigible untidiness of our discourse, but the untidiness reflects the nature of political speech in a democracy, which even at its best combines a boisterous and unregulated vitality with a curious but persistent preoccupation with abstract words. We cannot do without such abstractions, since they are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations. But inspiring words may also deceive, and the use of these words—such as change or hope or promise or fairness, not to say freedom and social justice—plays an essential role in the acts of cultural sleight-of-hand to which democracies are so notoriously prone.

Before discussing liberalism more fully, however, I have to say a few words about the term after. Even that simple preposition can be tricky. When we speak in terms of before and after, we invoke a very different set of considerations from those that obtain when we speak of for and against. The two sets of binary opposites may be compatible but they are not always the same, and sometimes they point in highly divergent directions. By introducing the medium of historical time, the former set of opposites allows for certain discriminations, and certain ambiguities.

Let me offer a specific example to help flesh out what I mean. One can argue that many European societies have entered a post-Christian era, without necessarily viewing that development as anything to celebrate or deplore. One can also make the more subtle observation that being a post-Christian society is a different matter from being a pagan one, or even an anti-Christian one, a fact that points to something important about the term after. To come after something else may well imply that the successor has defeated the predecessor, that the anti has triumphed over the pro. But not necessarily. Coming after may point to the overwhelming success of the thing that came before, at least to the extent that it has left an indelible mark upon all possibilities available to its successors.

A society, even a totalitarian one, can only unremember so much. It cannot help but carry the past in its bones and sinews, or wrap it in customs and mores whose initial promptings and pretexts have been forgotten, or deposit it in public memorials and street names and literary allusions and other pockets of memory that persist even when conscious memory fails. There is such a thing as momentum in a culture. The deeply rooted residual features of a society’s having been Christian, including systems of law, structures of sensibility, and reflexes of conscience, will disappear only very slowly, if ever.

So before and after can accommodate a fair amount of ambiguity. Imagining a world “after liberalism” could mean several distinct things. It could mean that liberalism may have had its day and is now a spent force, or at any rate an unsustainable or problematic or incoherent one. Or it could mean that in the years to come liberalism will cease to have any lingering influence, will suffer instead complete erasure or reversal, and will see all its most worthy aspects thrown out along with the bathwater of its many follies and excrescences. Or put the distinction another way. There is a difference between saying, on the one hand, that liberalism is and was utterly false, an error from start to finish, and saying on the other hand that it is exhausted, or that it has done its historical duty, or that it has become pernicious and needs to be overturned, or simply that it is ripe to be superseded by something better. I would argue against the first proposition, but not necessarily against any of the others.

Speaking very broadly, there are two basic ways we can understand liberalism. The first, and older, emphasizes the protection and empowerment of individuals and institutions over against encroachment and invasion by the sovereign political power. In that sense, it should be seen as a healthy response to the threat of absolutism. It is a modern view, coeval with the emergence of ideas of constitutionally limited government, natural rights, a free-market economy, private property, civil liberties, and, above all, with a robust sense of individualism, in both its political and metaphysical meanings.

Liberalism in this sense is above all a doctrine upholding the independence and supreme value of the individual person as a free agent who bears fundamental rights that exist prior to and independently of government. Hence it regards the ultimate source of authority for all legitimate forms of government as the consent of the governed, as expressed in and through representative institutions. For what other source could possibly be compatible with the equality and free agency attributed to each individual person?

This understanding of liberalism may also extend to encompass a high degree of social tolerance, religious disestablishment, pluralism, individualism, and the like, along with an Enlightenment optimism about the possibility of steady and certain progress in the world, given the proven capacity of human ingenuity to ameliorate the hard conditions of life. This is the liberalism we associate with John Locke, the American Founders, and the John Stuart Mill of On Liberty (1859). It well reflects the concept of “negative” liberty made famous by Isaiah Berlin—a form of liberty that seeks above all else to protect the individual from coercion and to minimize the incursion of others into the zone of individual privacy.

That first kind of liberalism proved insufficient in the eyes of visionary and committed social reformers, who proposed to replace it with a far more sweeping and ambitious formulation. They offered a new liberalism that saw the achievement of a high degree of equality as the essential precondition for the exercise of any meaningful political liberty and that was severely critical of individualism as an atomizing force that underwrites social selfishness, wasteful inefficiency, and inattention to the common good. The older liberalism’s commitment to the primacy of formal rights rendered it blind to the substantive difficulty faced by those who had to exercise their rights under conditions of persistent social and economic disadvantage. They did not intend to be bound by any such formalism.

The goal of liberalism, they believed, was still ultimately about the establishment of a society of free and equal citizens. But the means of achieving that goal were changing dramatically. Thus began the transformation of what had been a philosophy of limited government into a philosophy of expansive and activist government, though undertaken still in the name of liberalism, still with the same intention of preserving the same goods.

Modern democratic liberalism thus understood itself as emerging out of the desire not to repeal the older liberalism but to amend and update its nineteenth-century version, seeking to temper liberal commitments to property rights and laissez-faire economics and thereby to uphold the necessary principle of equality, in response to the unprecedented inequities of wealth and power generated by modern industrial capitalism. It hoped to use the power of the state to empower the individual, not to diminish him. The classic expression of this shift in American political thought was Herbert Croly’s sweeping historical analysis in The Promise of American Life (1909), with its central thesis that under modern conditions it was imperative for liberalism to adopt the “Hamiltonian means” of an activist state in order to further the “Jeffersonian ends” of individual liberty. The same argument has been presented in strikingly unchanged form a century later, in Paul Starr’s liberal manifesto Freedom’s Power: The True Force of Liberalism (2007).

Despite its being so semantically miscast for the part, this statist form of liberalism is the form most likely to go under that name today. It points to the political thought of the Progressive movement and of much of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the mainstream of today’s Democratic party. It understands itself as “positive” liberty, the liberty of the individual who has been empowered to act fully and freely in the world and can fulfill his human potential.

Of course, means that are pursued relentlessly have a way of turning into ends, and by standing much of the older liberalism on its head in the name of favoring “substantive” outcomes over the maintenance of merely “formal” or “procedural” rights, the newer liberalism has been becoming illiberal in all but name. This is why, in the end, Berlin himself chose negative liberty over positive liberty as the less dangerous alternative. And notwithstanding the verbal ingenuity of the Crolyan formulation, the historical record suggests that it is not really possible to reconcile Hamiltonian means with Jeffersonian ends. Big government is not merely the continuation of small government by other means.

Instead, it seems that the expansion of state power results not chiefly in greater individual liberty but in the creation of a vast web of clients dependent upon that power and in the sacrifice of a relatively free flow of enterprising energy in a vibrant civil society to a stultifying and inefficient regime of unelected bureaucracies, agency heads, and judges. As easy as it is to tick off the inequities to which laissez-faire economics can give rise, there is an equivalent obligation to speak seriously of the inequities and trade-offs and opportunity costs involved in the steady extension and intrusion of government into all facets of life. But that obligation is rarely met. Statist liberalism has thrived by encouraging the comparison of real-world apples with idealized oranges. A more balanced and honest assessment would acknowledge that the alternative to private-sector inequality generally is not the vaunted achievement of “democracy” but the gray reign of public bureaucracies, whose “equality” is administered and enforced by unaccountable officials, with exemptions paid out to the politically connected and the ideologically favored.

But even this bleak formulation understates the pathologies of present-day liberalism, because in many respects it is a hybrid of the two understandings, combining many of the worst features of each. The earlier liberalism, far from being entirely vanquished, has survived in the form not only of a highly competitive, restlessly aspirant, insecure, and jealously emulative culture but in a more fundamental commitment to the ideal of the autonomous self, boundless in its desires, and the self-legitimating creator of its own values. Or in the immortal words of Justice Anthony Kennedy, “the heart of liberty” is now understood as “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” Such an inward commitment to emotivism has grown more extreme and entrenched, even as the “outer” economic and social worlds have become ever more organized, interconnected, and interdependent and therefore more likely to be submitted to bureaucratic management and regulation.

This seeming paradox has become more and more central to the way we live. As I once expressed it in these pages, we live increasingly in a world populated by hipsters and organization men, and in many ways they are the same people. David Brooks’ conception of the bourgeois bohemian, or “bobo,” pointed to the same conjunction. It is a world in which you are likely to hear snatches of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” piped in over the sound system while you prowl the neatly ordered aisles at your gleaming supermarket, carefully checking the fat content of your FDA-inspected meats, picking your produce from the “local” and “organic” bins, and dutifully observing the signs prohibiting smoking and exhorting you to think globally while eating locally. Take a walk on the wild side, indeed.

How is such a logic-defying hybrid possible? The analysis offered by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) surely captured no small part of the answer. The modern world, in his view, has insisted upon a kind of split-mindedness, demanding the sacrifice of a “conception of the whole human life” characteristic of traditional social orders, in favor of a segmenting of the world into separate spheres of activity.

MacIntyre sees not merely a fragmented world but a “bifurcated” one, split between a “realm of the organizational” and a “realm of the personal,” which operate as nonoverlapping magisteria, each ruled over by a distinct calculus. In the former realm, “ends are taken to be given, and are not available for rational scrutiny”; in the latter, judgments about “values” are regarded simply as incontestable emotivist assertions, disconnected from any consideration of historical data or practices of moral reasoning that would make for rational deliberation. The clerk at the Department of Motor Vehicles will tell you “That’s not my department” for all nonroutine requests, even if the request is obviously justified; and he will tell you “That’s none of your business” if you ask him, after hours, to explain his understanding of the good life for human beings.

There are constant debates in these bifurcated societies about a “supposed opposition between individualism and collectivism,” but that opposition is only an illusion and a sham. In fact the two are more partners than antagonists.

“It is,” wrote MacIntyre, “in the cultural climate of this bureaucratic individualism that the emotivist self is naturally at home.” The orgman and the hipster, the bourgeois and the bohemian, only appear to be opposites; in fact, they are mutually defined and mutually enabling. There is a realm of rational efficiency in which “ends are taken to be given,” and there is a realm of desire in which to each his own taste is the only law. There is still a great deal of individualism on offer, but it is an individualism of private enjoyment, a free-floating Saturday-and-Sunday individualism whose perpetual rebellion against the weekday is actually a form of loyal opposition rather than an individualism that takes pleasure in responsibility, and responsibility in pleasure. This makes the conduct of an integrated and morally serious life far more difficult for those who seek one.

Such a bifurcation, a feature of our culture as a whole, has had a terrible effect on our common life. There is surely by now ample reason to believe that our growing culture of government entitlements supported by an ever-enlarging national state engenders not the positive sense of freedom and self-mastery that would enable active participation and republican citizenship but a culture of sullen and suspicious dependency, of bitter ingratitude and crippling moral nihilism. In the years of public austerity that likely lie ahead, this will probably only get worse, as the cultivation of resentment is hailed as a form of raised consciousness, and all appeals to general sacrifice are seen as forms of betrayal, cheating us of what we are “owed” while failing to demand enough from others. This we see, perhaps, in the rhetoric of the Occupy movement. The idea that there should be some connection between one’s own exertions and one’s own rewards not only will have been sundered but rendered outmoded and meaningless.

And that development, itself a quintessential product of the compassionate second liberalism, may become fatal to liberalism itself, once it is widely and generally accepted. For a thoroughgoing disconnection of exertions and rewards robs individual acts of purposefulness or meaning and recasts the human condition as the mere passive effect of random anterior causes. Under such circumstances, liberalism cannot endure, since it relies upon an understanding of human personhood and moral freedom it desperately needs but can no longer itself generate or support or sustain.

Yet despite this fairly harsh view of contemporary liberalism, it is still vital to consider whether there are elements in it that we should preserve. José Ortega y Gasset observed in The Revolt of the Masses (1930) that liberalism as originally understood had many attractive qualities and asked a great deal of its adherents. Far from being undemanding and self-serving, it was, he contended, “the supreme form of generosity.” Indeed it was, Ortega said, “incredible that the human species should have arrived at so noble an attitude, so paradoxical, so refined, so acrobatic, so antinatural.” Hence, he concluded, “it is not to be wondered at that this same humanity should soon appear anxious to get rid of it. [Liberalism] is a discipline too difficult and complex to take firm root on earth.”

Liberalism considered as an ideal has many of the noble and generous qualities Ortega attributed to it, and offers something that approaches, albeit in secular political terms, the Judeo-Christian understanding of the high dignity of the individual human person. For a Christian, of course, Ortega’s calling liberalism the “supreme” form of generosity goes much too far. No one would say, “Greater love hath no man than that he tolerate the errant politics of his weaker neighbor.” But even his comments about the difficulty of sustaining liberalism “on earth” suggest something of the transcendental and self-overcoming stretch that a certain strain of liberalism, rightly understood and conscientiously practiced, would ask of us. There is a kind of ascetic spiritual discipline, or the beginnings of one, implicit here.

Yet there is one aspect of our practiced liberalism in which one can clearly see the generosity of which Ortega spoke. It is a superlative gift of liberalism that should not go unmentioned in this context, not least because—as we have been seeing unfolding before our eyes in recent days, both at home and abroad—there are malignant elements in contemporary liberalism that have placed its future in increasing jeopardy. And that is the concept of religious liberty.

This is a claim that, to be made properly, must be hedged about with some qualifications. No one can deny that there have been in history many instances of nations recognizing religious freedom that are not attributable to liberalism. And it is an interesting and important question whether liberalism is in practice as neutral with regard to specific religious practices as it claims to be, or whether the doctrine of religious toleration does not in effect require religions to edit or soften their most interdictory and exclusivist claims.

Still, the wide, though far from universal, acceptance of religious freedom as one of the most fundamental human liberties, as enshrined in the American Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other places, owes much to the impetus of liberal political thought, which in providing grounds for mediating and overcoming the wars of religion at the dawn of modernity also, perhaps surprisingly, provided tools for the development and deepening of religious practice.

When James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785), argued against the use of tax monies to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion,” on the grounds that such practices would constitute an unacceptable coercion of conscience, he made a political argument that also had profound religious implications and repercussions. Every man, he claimed, has a “duty” to render sincere and uncoerced homage to the Creator, and this obligation exists prior (“both in order of time and in degree of obligation”) to the claims of civil society. In so doing, Madison wisely adduced an argument grounded in something deeper than mere liberalism, or than the merely political. The effective practice of religious liberty derives energy and support from liberalism, a doctrine that also affirms individual dignity, but in the end it must be rooted in something deeper: the nature of God and man’s relation to him.

In 2006, I was honored to be invited by the State Department to give lectures in Turkey on the American understanding of the separation of church and state. I spoke around the country in a wide variety of venues and met dozens of political and religious leaders. It was an unforgettable ten days, mostly for the experience of encountering raptly engaged Turkish audiences who were, partly because of the peculiarities of Turkey’s blend of Islamic character and Kemalist secularism, fascinated by the American approach to religion in the public square and wondering whether there could be any value in adopting such an approach in their own society. I gave a talk, with variations, on the origins of church—state separation in American history, grounding it in the particularities of American history and making frequent reference to the riskiness of generalizing the American example to include other places and religious cultures. But my audiences almost always would ignore my disclaimers and ask me, usually in the first question or two, whether I thought this or that American practice would work in Turkey, questions I was singularly ill equipped to answer.

One encounter lingers in my mind. It occurred at an Islamic center for advanced study, located on the Asian side of Istanbul, where I was received with both endearing warmth and exquisite kindness by an impressive audience of dedicated Muslim scholars. I gave them a longer and more elaborate presentation, in light of their greater sophistication, and then opened the floor to questions, which went on for an unusually long time and were unusually probing. One woman in particular was especially interested in exploring the concept of religious toleration, and cut right to the heart of the matter. Didn’t I accept the Christian view of the primacy of love? Yes, I said, I did. (I had said nothing about being a Christian, but everywhere I spoke, it was simply presumed.) Well, she continued in a gently questioning voice, how can it be love, for you or me or anyone, to permit another person, someone we love, to believe something that we know to be false?

Immediately a murmur of approbation moved through the audience, and I realized that she had given voice to the very question that, in one form or another, was on everyone’s mind. She then sat down, but her implications were clear. How could any insistence upon toleration be anything other than an illegitimate trespass of the merely political onto the sacred ground of the religious? How could toleration be a fulfillment of one’s faith rather than a dilution of it? Why was this not tantamount to apostasy?

I was not really ready for such a question, particularly since I was clearly being asked to answer it as a representative of Christianity rather than as a scholar. But there was no place to hide, and I could not dodge it without being rude to my gentle hosts. So I answered in terms meant to show that the liberal practice of toleration ultimately was best understood as something grounded in theology and in an understanding of God’s nature and of man’s relationship to God.

In this view, God desires our love, but he wants us to come to him freely and willingly—not by fiat, not by manipulation, and certainly not by coercion. So he leaves us free, not only to believe but also to err and stray. In fact, the possession of this freedom—the freedom to give or withhold our love, or our faith, even from our Creator—could be thought of as an essential part of what it means to be made in the image of God. The story of the fall of man, I added, could be understood as a powerful expression of God’s love for us, since he loved us enough to permit us the freedom to disobey and reject him.

So yes, I concluded, that is “how it can be love,” as we understand love, to tolerate error in others. Not because we are postmodern liberals who believe that all truth is pragmatic and subjective, and that no one can be sure of anything at all, so that we must all therefore live in a state of complete epistemic suspension, lest we become fanatics who cruelly impose our subjective beliefs on others. Not because we are Millian liberals who believe in the free marketplace of ideas as the only place where truths can be warranted. Not because we are people of feeble faith who confuse what is politically or socially convenient with what is required of us by God. But instead because the commitment to noncoercion flows from a theologically grounded commitment to the fundamental and intrinsic dignity of each individual person and thus to the necessity of letting that person come to God freely, in a disposition of love, in the manner of God’s desiring.

Liberalism contributed in crucial ways to the establishment of this liberty but in ways that, like so much of liberalism, will not be sustainable unless other, better grounds can be found for them. Religious liberty itself will cease to be meaningful, and will in fact become trivialized, if religious faith comes to be regarded as merely another expression of subjective individualism, an individual act protected by the right to expressive freedom or to privacy rather than as a public expression of a moral community constituted by and embodied in a settled community of faith. Pope Benedict XVI was alluding to this very problem recently when he spoke to American bishops about “a worrying tendency to reduce religious freedom to mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.” To protect “freedom of worship” on such terms is to protect the exercise of a rigorously private right, and no more than that.

Genuine religious liberty has, of course, an individual dimension. But it also is, and has to be, a corporate and associative liberty with a public dimension precisely because it makes ultimate claims about the order of creation and our place and purpose in it—something quite distinct from the to each his own taste of atomistic private individuals. In having this dual aspect, religious liberty is a dramatically different kind of liberty, and a different kind of right, from all the others. And its preservation, if we can hang on to it, as we must, will be the key to any general renewal of our culture.

In other words, there are liberal ideas that deserve to survive, but they can do so only if they can find confirmation in deeper and more enduring sources. In this regard, the task after liberalism is the very one that John Paul II pursued so energetically, of trying to “save modernity from itself,” by regrounding the concept of liberty upon the only foundation capable of sustaining “a culture of freedom.” It also resembles the task undertaken by John Courtney Murray, who sought, in We Hold These Truths (1960), to affirm the work of the American Founders by situating their achievement on a foundation that was older and more stable than their own vulnerable Enlightenment premises.

Liberalism’s recognition and elevation of the individual was salutary so long as it could presume a moral order that preceded it, an order it had not itself produced. But now, untethered to any such order, but tightly bound instead to emotivism as its sole moral calculus, it has become more and more chaotic and impossibly compromised, and Ortega’s gloomy prophecy looms larger. The question before us, then, is less one of liberalism’s future than of what kind of “after” we will seek for it.

By: Wilfred M. McClay He is the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and a member of First Things’ advisory council. This paper was given to First Things’ “After Liberalism” symposium, produced with the support of the Simon/Hertog Fund for Policy Analysis and of Fieldstead and Company.

This article can be found on the First Things website here.

Against Heterosexuality

Every now and again I come across a fantastic article the warrants posting here; I just came across one in First Things, which is a journal (print and online) published by the Institute on Religion and Public Life.  It is a scholarly and rather academic publication which has many well respected contributors.  I have been a commentator on the changes of sexual culture in the West and its abandonment of traditional sexual ethics and mores (see here for an example).  It should not be a shock to anyone who knows me or reads my material that I think these changes are and/or will be a disaster to our culture, children, families, and marriages.  This article challenges the post-modern dogma that the various strains of “sexual orientation” are actual categories of people as opposed to merely cultural labels on chosen behavior with a very short history.  Be edified.


Alasdair MacIntyre once quipped that “facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention.” Something similar can be said about sexual orientation: Heterosexuals, like typewriters and urinals (also, obviously, for gentlemen), were an invention of the 1860s. Contrary to our cultural preconceptions and the lies of what has come to be called “orientation essentialism,” “straight” and “gay” are not ageless absolutes. Sexual orientation is a conceptual scheme with a history, and a dark one at that. It is a history that began far more recently than most people know, and it is one that will likely end much sooner than most people think.

Over the course of several centuries, the West had progressively abandoned Christianity’s marital architecture for human sexuality. Then, about one hundred and fifty years ago, it began to replace that longstanding teleological tradition with a brand new creation: the absolutist but absurd taxonomy of sexual orientations. Heterosexuality was made to serve as this fanciful framework’s regulating ideal, preserving the social prohibitions against sodomy and other sexual debaucheries without requiring recourse to the procreative nature of human sexuality.

On this novel account, same-sex sex acts were wrong not because they spurn the rational-animal purpose of sex—namely the family—but rather because the desire for these actions allegedly arises from a distasteful psychological disorder. As queer theorist Hanne Blank recounts, “This new concept [of heterosexuality], gussied up in a mangled mix of impressive-sounding dead languages, gave old orthodoxies a new and vibrant lease on life by suggesting, in authoritative tones, that science had effectively pronounced them natural, inevitable, and innate.”

Sexual orientation has not provided the dependable underpinning for virtue that its inventors hoped it would, especially lately. Nevertheless, many conservative-minded Christians today feel that we should continue to enshrine the gay–straight divide and the heterosexual ideal in our popular catechesis, since that still seems to them the best way to make our moral maxims appear reasonable and attractive.

These Christian compatriots of mine are wrong to cling so tightly to sexual orientation, confusing our unprecedented and unsuccessful apologia for chastity with its eternal foundation. We do not need “heteronormativity” to defend against debauchery. On the contrary, it is just getting in our way.

Michel Foucault, an unexpected ally, details the pedigree of sexual orientation in his History of Sexuality. Whereas “sodomy” had long identified a class of actions, suddenly for the first time, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the term “homosexual” appeared alongside it. This European neologism was used in a way that would have struck previous generations as a plain category mistake, designating not actions, but people—and so also with its counterpart and foil “heterosexual.”

Psychiatrists and legislators of the mid- to late-1800s, Foucault recounts, rejected the classical convention in which the “perpetrator” of sodomitical acts was “nothing more than the juridical subject of them.” With secular society rendering classical religious beliefs publicly illegitimate, pseudoscience stepped in and replaced religion as the moral foundation for venereal norms. To achieve secular sexual social stability, the medical experts crafted what Foucault describes as “a natural order of disorder.”

“The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage,” “a type of life,” “a morphology,” Foucault writes. This perverted psychiatric identity, elevated to the status of a mutant “life form” in order to safeguard polite society against its disgusting depravities, swallowed up the entire character of the afflicted: “Nothing that went into [the homosexual’s] total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle.”

The imprudent aristocrats encouraging these medical innovations changed the measure of public morality, substituting religiously colored human nature with the secularly safer option of individual passion. In doing so, they were forced also to trade the robust natural law tradition for the recently constructed standard of “psychiatric normality,” with “heterosexuality” serving as the new normal for human sexuality. Such a vague standard of normality, unsurprisingly, offered far flimsier support for sexual ethics than did the classical natural law tradition.

But emphasizing this new standard did succeed in cementing these categories of hetero- and homosexuality in the popular imagination. “Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality,” Foucault writes, “when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphrodism of the soul. The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.” Sexual orientation, then, is nothing more than a fragile social construct, and one constructed terribly recently.

While our popular culture has not caught up— yet—the queer theorists increasingly calling the shots at the elite level already agree with Foucault on this point. Such thinkers echo Gore Vidal’s LGBT-heretical line: “Actually, there is no such thing as a homosexual person, any more than there is such a thing as a heterosexual person.” True, the firm natural division between the two identities has proven useful to the “gay rights” activists on the ground, and not least of all for the civil-rights-era ethos such power dynamics conjure up. But most queer theorists—and, for that matter, most academics throughout the humanities and the social/behavioral disciplines today—will readily concede that such distinctions are fledgling constructs and not much more. Many in this camp aim to expose the counterfeit credentials of sexual orientation and, taking a page from Nietzsche, to genealogically explain it away once and for all.

Jonathan Ned Katz, a historian of sexuality on the radical left who has previously taught at both Yale and New York University, nicely captures the contemporary queer-theory consensus in The Invention of Heterosexuality , where he explains, “I speak of heterosexuality’s historical invention to contest head-on our usual assumption of an eternal heterosexuality, to suggest the unstable, relative, and historical status of an idea and a sexuality we usually assume were carved long ago in stone.” As he goes on to argue, “Contrary to today’s bio-belief, the heterosexual/homosexual binary is not in nature, but is socially constructed, therefore deconstructable.”

My own prediction is that we will see this binary thoroughly deconstructed within our lifetimes. But in my view, we proponents of Christian chastity should see the impending doom of the gay–straight divide not as a tragedy, but as an opportunity. More than that, I want to suggest that we should do our best to encourage the dissolution of orientation within our own subcultural spheres wherever possible.

Of course, given our immersion in a culture for which these categories seem as connatural as the English language, uprooting them from our vocabulary and worldview will not be anything like a simple task. So why bother? As long as we do not succumb to sinful acts, why does it matter if people—even we Christians—continue to identify as homosexuals or heterosexuals?

First of all, within orientation essentialism, the distinction between heterosexuality and homosexuality is a construct that is dishonest about its identity as a construct. These classifications masquerade as natural categories, applicable to all people in all times and places according to the typical objects of their sexual desires (albeit with perhaps a few more options on offer for the more politically correct categorizers). Claiming to be not simply an accidental nineteenth-century invention but a timeless truth about human sexual nature, this framework puts on airs, deceiving those who adopt its labels into believing that such distinctions are worth far more than they really are.

A second reason to doubt whether this schema is one that we Christians should readily use is that its introduction into our sexual discourse has not noticeably increased the virtues—intellectual or moral—of those who employ its concepts. On the contrary, it has bred both intellectual obscurity and moral disarray.

As to the former, orientation essentialism has made ethical philosophy in this realm all but impossible: It has displaced the old marital-procreative principles of chastity without offering any alternative that is not entirely arbitrary. The older teleological view measured morality against man’s rational-animal nature; in the sexual realm, this meant evaluating sex acts by reference to the common good of marriage, which integrated spousal union and the bearing and rearing of children. The newer heteronormative system, on the other hand, cannot account for the wickedness of same-sex sodomy by reference to anything but a conditioned and unprincipled gag reflex, and one which, left unjustified, has weakened considerably over time.

As to the latter result, moral disarray, the orientation takeover has counterproductively shifted our everyday attention from objective purposes to subjective passions. Young people, for instance, now regularly find themselves agonizing over their sexual identity, navel-gazing in an attempt to discern their place in this allegedly natural Venn diagram of orientations. Such obsessions generate far more heat than light, and focus already sexually excited adolescents on discerning extraneous dimensions of their own sexual makeup. This self-searching becomes even more needlessly distressing for those who discern in themselves a “homosexual orientation,” as they adopt an identity distinguished essentially by a set of sexual desires that cannot morally be fulfilled.

There is a third reason this categorization should be disposed of, this one theological: It is at odds with the freedom for which Christ set us free. My future prior in religious life, Fr. Hugh Barbour of the Norbertine Fathers, has expanded on this idea in an essay in Chronicles Magazine , entitled “Do Homosexuals Exist? Or, Where Do We Go from Here?” As Fr. Prior argues, “Traditional moral theology evaluated acts, and did not generalize so unsatisfyingly about the tendencies that lead to these acts. That was left to the casuistry of occasions of sin, and to spiritual direction. If the sin is theft, then is the standard of evaluation kleptomania? If drunkenness, alcoholism? If sloth, clinical depression?” Even orthodox Christians, he writes,

have given in to the custom of treating sexual inclinations as identities. Pastorally, we are meant to preach the freedom whereby Christ has made us free. In treating the sin of sodomy as a prima facie proof of an identity, are we not, in the guise of compassion and sensitivity, helping bind the sinner to his sinful inclination, and so laying on him a burden that is too great to bear without perhaps moving a finger to lift it?

Self-describing as a “homosexual” tends to multiply occasions of sin for those who adopt the label—provoking, in Prior’s words, an unnecessary “dramatization of the temptation.” Whereas the infusion of the theological virtues sets the Christian free, identifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”

There are a handful of laudable counterexamples to this discouraging pattern, self-identified “gay Christians” who are both virtuous and faithful to the teachings of the Church. But given the inherent tension between the classical Christian narrative and the modern sexual-orientation account, it should come as no surprise that the praiseworthy outliers who try to combine these two inconsonant traditions are the exception rather than the rule.

Baptizing the homosexual identity is fraught with preventable perils. And yet, when it comes to the gravest evil effected by the sexual-orientation binary, homosexuality is not the culprit. Heterosexuality is—not, of course, as though we can have one without the other. The most pernicious aspect of the orientation-identity system is that it tends to exempt heterosexuals from moral evaluation. If homosexuality binds us to sin, heterosexuality blinds us to sin.

There is no question that some morally self-aware “heterosexuals” exist. Nevertheless, as a general rule, identifying as a heterosexual person today amounts to declaring oneself a member of the “normal group,” against which all deviant sexual desires and attractions and temptations are to be measured. Such hetero-identification thus ushers in a pathetically uncritical and—hopefully it goes without saying—unmerited self-assurance, not to mention an inaccurate measure for evaluating temptation.

Of course, we do have a model norm for the evaluation of sexual deviancy. But that model is not heterosexuality. It is Christ Jesus himself, the God-man who both perfected human nature and perfectly exemplified its perfection, “one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” For the self-declared heterosexual to displace our Lord in this position is the height of folly.

It is true that homosexuality may be distinguished by an inappropriate despair, accepting sinful inclinations as identity-constituting and thereby implicitly rejecting the freedom bought for us by the blood of Christ. But heterosexuality, in its pretensions to act as the norm for assessing our sexual customs, is marked by something even worse: pride, which St. Thomas Aquinas classifies as the queen of all vices.

There are practical reasons to be wary of heterosexuality as well. Because our post-Freudian world associates all physical attraction and interpersonal affection with genital erotic desire, intimate same-sex friendship and a chaste appreciation for the beauty of one’s own sex have become all but impossible to achieve. (Freud, by the way, was one of the most influential architects of the vicious orientation-essentialist myth.)

For “heterosexuals” in particular, getting close to a friend of the same sex ends up seeming perverse, and being moved by his or her beauty feels queer. To avoid being mistaken for gay, these days many self-proclaimed straight people—men especially—settle for superficial associations with their comrades and reserve the sort of costly intimacy that once characterized such chaste same-sex relationships for their romantic partners alone. Their ostensibly normal sexual orientation cheats them out of an essential aspect of human flourishing: deep friendship.

The earliest usages of the term “heterosexuality” give further reason to doubt whether we should celebrate the idea too enthusiastically. It is true that even in the late nineteenth century, sometimes the label was employed merely to denote “normal-sex.” This is, of course, how we still tend to use “heterosexual” today, which I am arguing is tragically confused.

But another prominent meaning of the term around the time of its invention, including its first recorded usage in English in 1892, continues to inform our warped conception of human sexuality, even though this secondary definition has since fallen out of fashion. In its alternative definition, the word designated not “normal-sex,” but rather a different brand of deviant sex, like its homosexual counterpart in its disregard for procreation but made distinct by the typical object of its lustful inclinations.

The unfortunate history of “heterosexual” we have chosen to forget is that this word came into the English language as a label for a perverted sexual disorder that delighted in sterile sex acts. Usually such desires were for those of the opposite sex, but even that line was blurry, because as it turned out, once the generative purpose of sex had been severed, it often mattered very little who the heterosexual’s mutual masturbatory partner was.

Our Christian forebears would be shocked at our complacency with sexual orientation. The only reason that this whole program fails to alarm us as it would them is that we have been systematically indoctrinated into it from childhood, especially the young adults among us. But to take an analogue that we do not have such familiarity with, let’s consider how we would react if a different sort of category worked its way into our cultural vocabulary.

Slate recently ran an article entitled “Is Polyamory a Choice?” which argued that, in addition to inclinations toward men or women, there may also be innate and immutable fidelity- and infidelity-constituted sexual orientations. Dan Savage must be so proud.

Imagine if those people who anticipated being most romantically satisfied by committed sexual exclusivity began identifying as “faithfuls,” while those who were usually most excited by the prospect of unbounded sexual promiscuity started identifying as “unfaithfuls.” Would we not find that troubling, especially when Christian men and women began adopting the latter label for themselves, and even offering the fact that they are “unfaithfuls” as a reason not to marry, since they would not be sufficiently fulfilled by the sexual life to which they would be committing themselves via the marital vows?

“Unfaithfulness” is obviously playing the role of homosexuality in this analogy. But whether we are considering the number of one’s sexual partners or their gender, how can it not shock us when our Christian brethren adopt an identity for themselves that is essentially distinguished from its foil by nothing but a particular brand of temptation to sin? That is the opposite of Christian freedom. Of course, all of us are fallen and tempted and in need of divine assistance. But while we continue to struggle against these sinful temptations, what has been given to us in Christ Jesus is liberation from the shackles of sin that claims us as its own.

We do not belong to our transgressions any longer. So why create identities for ourselves using sin as the standard? I do not care how attractive promiscuity happens to be to you. You are emphatically not “an unfaithful.” Sure, we could socially construct categories that would make speaking that way appear obvious and connatural. But for the Christian to do so, or for him to participate willingly in such a framework once it has been constructed around him, would be severely mistaken.

I am not my sin. I am not my temptation to sin. By the blood of Jesus Christ, I have been liberated from this bondage. I will have all sorts of identities, to be sure, especially in our crazily over-psychoanalytic age. But at the very least, none of these identities should be essentially defined by my attraction to that which separates me from God.

The other side of this Slate-inspired hypothetical brings to light the characteristic evils of heterosexuality. Our justified disapproval of Christians despairingly identifying as “unfaithfuls” notwithstanding, would there not be something even more absurd and vicious in their vaingloriously self-identifying as “faithfuls”? Put it this way: Does the fact that my erotic desires tend to take a single person for their object rather than a vast collective necessarily signify some inherent moral quality on my part? For that matter, does it even signal that my desires are virtuous, or—I think more probably—does it simply indicate that I happen not to be strongly tempted to one of many potential lustful abuses? Like so-called “faithful” folks, “heterosexual” individuals are not paragons of chastity just because they avoid the unchaste pitfall du jour.

However, despite the illogic of it all, “straight people” still tend to receive more societal advantages from their appellation, and thus the dismantling of the orientation schema threatens them far more than it does their “gay” and “lesbian” counterparts. As Jenell Williams Paris of Messiah College writes in her book The End of Sexual Identity, “Grounding sexual ethics in our humanity more than in contemporary sexual identity categories . . . comes at a cost to heterosexuals,” because “it puts them in the game as players instead of umpires.” For that very reason, though, it is self-proclaimed heterosexuals who may prove most effective in leading our chaste charge against sexual orientation, sacrificing their unchristian security blanket of “straightness” for the sake of caritas in veritate.

Yet whether we Christians choose to join the campaign or not, over time, sexual orientation will inevitably fall out of fashion—our choice is simply whether we want to fall out with it. One obvious reason for its unavoidable demise is that feeling is considerably more fickle than those early psychosexual movers and shakers believed. The empirical evidence shows their hard-and-fast categories turn out to be radically insufficient.

A second factor in the inevitable downfall of sexual orientation is that these hetero/homo categories cannot logically ground the sexual norms they were made to support anyway. The original orientation essentialists could not even offer a principled reason to prefer heterosexuality over homosexuality, the linchpin of their position. Left with nothing but inherited sensibilities and arbitrary fiat, their heteronormative measure failed where its procreative predecessor had succeeded for centuries, in offering sound reasons for rules.

Philosophical failure has damned the orientation enterprise throughout its existence. Because the inadequate heteronormative standard left opposite-sex instances of lust entirely untouched, sins previously considered mortal—such as masturbation, pornography, fornication, contraception, and male-female sodomy—were progressively tolerated. Yet with all those injunctions lifted, understandably, it began seeming inconsistent and thus prejudiced to keep insisting on same-sex sodomitical proscriptions. The orientation-essentialist structure, which was meant to be a surefire defense against homosexual debauchery, thereby became the strongest weapon in its arsenal.

Which brings us to the final, perhaps most surprising, reason that sexual orientation will fall: It has nearly exhausted its political utility, which always had an expiration date. The nineteenth-century moral conservatives’ plan for orientation backfired, of course, when what were supposed to be normatively unequal psychiatric conditions evolved into morally indistinguishable psychological identities.

Yet neither does liberalism have much left to glean from it, since, between Romer and Lawrence and Windsor and ENDA, very few “gay rights” issues remain to be settled. Orientation might have a few years’ worth of political capital still, but many progressives already boast that they could discard the absurd natural-categories myth and be just fine, having now initiated an irresistible liberalizing trend that will continue apace with or without it. Sooner or later, the queer theorists’ ivory-tower pronouncements will become cultural orthodoxy as well.

Although I expect many conservative Christian thinkers will find Foucault a strange bedfellow, I want to suggest that our endorsement of the radical left on this subject should be an enthusiastic one, although it must also be carefully circumscribed. In essence, we should happily join our voices to those of the poststructuralist queer theorists in their vigorous critiques of the naive orientation essentialists, who mistakenly think “straight” and “gay” are natural, neutral, and timeless classifications.

Their disillusioned historicism makes these sexual genealogists uniquely positioned to see through the deceptions of sexual orientation, and while we Christians do not need them in some essential sense, nevertheless, in an accidental way, they may prove a great asset to us at present. Ironically, these radical leftists may be the only ones who can heal the blindness we have foolishly inflicted upon ourselves of late by uncritically adopting the language of hetero- and homosexuality.

However, while we can and should recommend the queer theorists’ diagnosis of the absurdity plaguing our popular sexual categories today, nevertheless we cannot sign on to their plan of treatment. Jonathan Ned Katz, Hanne Blank, and contemporary queer theorists generally, aim to genealogically explain away the rigid orientation schema precisely because they believe this will give them the freedom and the power to make, unmake, and remake their sexuality as they see fit.

They want to tear down these failed social constructs not so that something better can be constructed in their place—or, perhaps, rediscovered amid the rubble—but because they hope to achieve an even greater degree of sexual libertinism than we have today, even if it comes at the cost of endorsing a wretched sort of sexual nihilism. To riff on Dostoevsky, these radicals would like to believe that if orientation does not exist, then all things are permissible.

The Christian cannot follow them down this miserific road, of course. But neither, I believe, can the Christian remain content in today’s deceptive, doomed orientation taxonomy. Mark my words: The queer theorists will have their way in dismantling the thing before long. Even our popular culture is beginning to show signs of stress here. The ever-increasing laundry list of orientations demonstrates the insufficiency of those neat and discrete categories. And the now familiar concept of the “hasbian” suggests that these identities are far less static than we were initially led to believe. (Think, for example, of our new ex-homosexual first lady of New York City.)

The question is, once this sexual-orientation structure collapses, what will come to replace it: the queer theorists’ nihilistic anything-goes ethic, or the classical Christian view from which all of this is a departure, the view that takes the marital-procreative as its end and organizing principle, evaluating passions against nature rather than vice versa?

The role of the champion of Christian chastity today, I argue, is to dissociate the Church from the false absolutism of identity based upon erotic tendency, and to rediscover our own anthropological foundation for traditional moral maxims. If we do not wish to be swept away with modernity’s orientation essentialists, then we need to remind the world that our sexual ethics was never really at home in the modern framework anyway, and thus that our forsaking the framework need not lead to postmodern nihilistic libertinism. There is firmer ground to stand on in the classical Christian tradition. Indeed, it seems to me the only place left to stand.

The Bible never called homosexuality an abomination. Nor could it have, for as we have seen, Leviticus predates any conception of sexual orientation by a couple of millennia at least. What the Scriptures condemn is sodomy, regardless of who commits it or why. And yet, as I have argued throughout, in our own day homosexuality deserves the abominable label, and heterosexuality does too.

As regards sexual morality, we have reached a point at which it is no longer sufficient for us to criticize modernity’s poor answers. Like our Lord in the gospel narratives, we must also correct its terribly impoverished questions. Rather than struggling to articulate how to live as a “homosexual Christian”—or, for that matter, the even more problematic question of how to live as a “heterosexual Christian”—we should be teaching our Christian brethren, especially those in their most formative adolescent years, that these categories are not worth employing.

They are recent inventions that are utterly foreign to our faith, inadequate for justifying sexual norms, and antithetical to true philosophical anthropology. The time has come for us to eradicate sexual orientation from our worldview as systemically as we can manage—with all due prudence as to complicated particular cases, of course.

If Pope Francis is right that contextualizing our moral discourse is a necessary prerequisite to being found convincing—or even intelligible—by our interlocutors, then abandoning heteronormativity and resurrecting our own tradition of familial-teleological chastity is the only way to adequately explain Christian sexual ethics.

By: Michael W. Hannon (who is preparing to enter religious life with the Norbertines of St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California); originally published in March 2014 in First Things and can be found here.

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