God is not a prude: This is why religion remains so sex-obsessed, why we pretend Jesus was born of a virgin

Adulterous televangelists. Contraception-denying pro-lifers. Here's the science behind religion's fear of sex

Published February 7, 2016 3:30PM (EST)

A still from "Eyes Wide Shut"
A still from "Eyes Wide Shut"

Excerpted from "The Illusion of God's Presence"

Why does God want us to mutilate our genitals, and especially those of our children? Why does the creator of this infinitely vast universe care so much about what we do with our sexual organs as adults? Why is lust considered sinful? Why was Jesus born of a virgin, and, according to Catholics, his mother also? Why did the early Shakers not only practice celibacy, but also dance naked? Why do religious fundamentalists oppose not only abortion, but also the most effective means of pre­venting it, contraception? Why do televangelists rant about the evils of adultery, pornography, masturbation, fornication, and homosexuality, only to be caught with their pants down doing exactly those things? Why is religion so obsessed with sex?

My answer, of course, involves the evolutionary hack that conflates infan­tile, maternal, and sexual love. I have argued that an innate neural model of the mother primes a newborn to expect an unconditionally loving other. This model shares the same mechanism of affiliation and emotional commitment—what we commonly call love—that in adults is central to maternal caregiving and sexual pair-bonding. It also serves as a template for other social relationships and is a foundation for a special kind of learning essential to the formation of those relationships. These entanglements not only insure the per­sistence of the innate model into adulthood, but also cause interesting problems once adulthood arrives.

One of these is vulnerability to belief in deities that maximally excite the innate model under the right conditions, especially those of infantile helplessness and desperation. As the core of a believer’s religious love of God, the innate model colors religious experience with infantile emotions. The more intensely pious the believer becomes, however, the greater the risk that these emotions will spill over into other parts of the evolutionary hack. The sparks really fly when the infantile emotions of religious fervor breach the levee and pour into sexual territory. Like the suckling male infant with his prominent erection, the fundamentally infantile experience of God’s presence takes on an incongruously sexual quality, as in this famous description by Saint Teresa of Avila of her mys­tical ecstasy at the hands of an angelic visitor:

In his hands I saw a great golden spear, and at the iron tip there appeared to be a point of fire. This he plunged into my heart several times so that it penetrated my entrails. When he pulled it out, I felt that he took them with it, and left me utterly consumed by the great love of God. The pain was so severe that it made me utter several moans. The sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease, nor is one’s soul then content with any­thing but God. This is not a physical, but a spiritual pain—though the body has some share in it—even a considerable share.

Perhaps this is to be expected, considering that novitiates are told that their celibate life to come is the price paid for the privilege of being wedded to Christ. But celibate nuns are not the only ones whose image of God is painted in sexual hues. Consider this passage from Baptist preacher Lee Roy Shelton Sr.:

If He is my Beloved, then I AM HIS BELOVED. Because of His great love for me, He came down from heaven, took me by the hand, and asked me one day to be His; and He betrothed me to Himself . . . It was grace upon grace when I responded to Him saying, “Yes, yes, my Lord. I am Thine, and Thine forever.” Then our engagement was consummated and the bond of our union was sealed; and it is most precious and eternally binding upon each other . . . Then won’t it be grace upon grace when the marriage day dawns, and I come with all other saints to the marriage supper leaning upon His arm to ever be with Him as the bride is with the bridegroom, where there will be fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore!

Hardly an early advocate for same-sex marriage, Shelton was here merely expressing, with his characteristically unvarnished simplicity, the raw and unconscious sources of his religiosity. I have learned from his family, however, that his obsession with sex was no mere metaphor. I hope eventually to tell that story, but regrettably it is beyond the scope of this book. Of course most of his preaching on sex followed the conventional fundamentalist formula: fleshly desire is sin, forni­cation is filthy and evil, adultery is of Satan, and so on. Catholicism does the same, with the perceived sinfulness of sex being the main reason for the Immaculate Conception and the celibacy of priests and nuns. The two passages just quoted are unusual in that they embrace the emotional spillover into sexual territory. For the most part, religion condemns it, at least as a matter of doctrine. But why?

The big problem here is that, despite this intrusion of the sexual, religious emotion remains primarily infantile, with God normally in the role of a greatly exalted parent. Sexual feelings for this parental figure therefore activate the incest-avoidance system, an innate mechanism that generates feelings of disgust and revulsion at the prospect of sex with close kin. Because of the hacker’s careless shortcuts, the intensely pious tend to be flooded with love, lust, and revulsion— conflicting emotions of unconscious origin, generated by innate mechanisms selected for neonatal survival, adult sexual pair-bonding, and incest avoidance. The predictable result of this conflict is an obsession with controlling or prohib­iting sexual behavior, coupled with an almost irresistible drive to violate those prohibitions. How these people deal with this conflict—as individuals and as religious institutions—determines the variously entertaining or tragic manifestations of sexual obsession in religion.

If these ideas are right, then we should expect sexual misbehavior among the clergy to be significantly greater than in comparable secular professions, and several studies bear this out. Two surveys of predominantly male American Protestant ministers found that more than 12 percent of respondents admitted to having sexual intercourse with a member of their congregation other than their spouse. This is roughly double the incidence of sexual intercourse with clients committed by male clinical psychologists and physicians. The studies also hint at a more general problem of sexual conflict, guilt, and obsession. One of them found that 37 percent of Protestant ministers admit to the vague sin of “sexual behavior inappropriate for a minister.” Responses to other questions in the study suggest that at least some of these transgressions involve sexual fantasy, viewing pornography, and masturbating in private—acts of negligible consequence or moral weight in the broader society.

The pastors, however, see it differently. Their religiously warped view of human sexuality is especially evident in “The War Within,” an account of one Protestant pastor’s tormented struggle with lust, published anonymously in a journal for Protestant clergy. Although he was married and regularly had sex with his wife, the author tells a sad tale of his obsession with various aspects of sexuality off-limits to good Christians. Like Eve tasting the forbidden fruit, he saw himself perpetually tempted by Satan to indulge his sexual curiosity— visiting seedy strip joints, peep shows, and X-rated theaters; exploring porno­graphic magazines and videos; and fantasizing about women other than his wife. Although he never committed adultery, he felt that he had, and for years he prayed in vain for deliverance. He mentions only in passing a “repressed childhood” that may have contributed to his obsession with lust, but beyond that glimmer of insight he appears utterly blinded by his religious worldview to the essence of his problem: lust is healthy and normal, but a religious obsession with it is not. “The War Within” is only one piece of anecdotal evidence, but the editors of the journal note that it prompted more letters from readers, by far, than any other article before or since. Some of these condemned it for its explicit lewdness, most praised it for bravely addressing a common problem in the clergy, but all implic­itly support it as evidence of a struggle with love, lust, and revulsion among the most intensely religious.

That struggle takes a darker turn among Catholic clergy, who are disproportionately likely to sexually abuse vulnerable children and adolescents. Catholic apol­ogists deny this, often citing a study that found that only 4 percent of Catholic priests sexually abuse minors. They argue that this is the same as in the general male population, implicitly suggesting that there is no special relationship between Catholicism and the sexual abuse of children. There are, however, several problems with this rationalization. One is that other studies find higher rates of child sexual abuse in the Catholic clergy, over 5 percent, and even that is likely to be an underes­timate given the reluctance of victims to come forward and the intense effort by the Catholic hierarchy to protect offending priests and cover up the scandal. Another problem is the specious comparison to the general male population. The Catholic Church claims to be a high moral authority—God’s representative on Earth—and its clergy are supposedly transformed by God into a special state of sanctity. If this were true, we should expect exemplary behavior from Catholic priests, especially with respect to the sexual abuse of innocent children, one of the most odious crimes imaginable. If the Catholic Church really were what it claims to be, the incidence of child sexual abuse by priests should be zero.

The appropriate comparison, of course, is to non-Catholic Christian denominations. Although Protestant clergy outnumber Catholic priests and brothers in America by six to one, Catholic priests predominate in samples of clergy sexual offenders. Similar results come from studies that compared rates of child sexual abuse by Anglican and Catholic clergy in Australia, where the rate of such abuse was about seven times higher among Catholic Church personnel than among Anglican. There is also a striking qualitative difference that suggests possible explanations for the numerical disparity. In contrast to the victims of child sexual abuse in the general population, most of whom are prepubertal girls, the victims of predatory Catholic priests are mainly postpubertal adolescent boys.

The most obvious culprit here is the Catholic obsession with the sinfulness of sex for pleasure, especially homosexual sex, along with a peculiar sexual proscrip­tion for clergy: celibacy. Intentionally or not, the celibate priesthood specifically attracts applicants who are at best confused or conflicted about their sexuality, and at worst deliberately seek positions conducive to sexual exploitation of the vulnerable. Although Catholicism condemns homosexuality, priests appear to be disproportionately gay. The prevalence of homosexuality among priests has not yet been properly measured via random sampling, but when 101 American gay priests were asked to estimate this prevalence, most of them guessed 40 percent or more—a rate far higher than in the general population. A different study of a thousand priests found that 20 percent of them were in homosexual relationships, and another 20 percent were in stable relationships with women. Most of these were verified by interviewing the sexual partners. Aside from being an ineffec­tive sham, the doctrine of celibacy for the priesthood apparently attracts young Catholic homosexual men, either as a means of suppressing a sexual orientation they perceive as evil, or—in certain Catholic subcultures—as a safe venue for hooking up with other gays.

Among those who try to suppress their sexuality, the biological drive often wins out, and other aspects of Catholicism facilitate their sexual victimization of children and adolescents. In contrast to Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church has traditionally sponsored more youth-oriented institutions, such as boarding schools and orphanages, and these offer more opportunities for private time with potential victims. Also, the distinctly Catholic ritual of regular confession, beginning at age seven, is an especially effective mechanism for the selec­tion and grooming of sexually vulnerable children. Although similar sexual dynamics occur among celibate Catholic nuns, who may also sexually abuse children, predatory Catholic Church personnel, like sexual abusers of children in the general population, are predominantly male.

These insights suggest some obvious fixes for the problem of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy:

  • drop the requirement of celibacy;
  • allow women into the priesthood;
  • eliminate the ritual of confession for children and adolescents;
  • accept homosexuality as a natural dimension of human sexuality.

The obligatory conjunction of the first two alone would probably solve the problem completely: all positions in the Catholic hierarchy, from the Pope on down, should be open only to married women. As a side effect, one that Catho­lics should welcome, the shortage of priests would vanish. Resistance from an entrenched power structure could be circumvented by a grandfather clause, such that only newcomers must be married women, but even that would likely not be enough to make this fantasy real. The combined effects of love, lust, and revulsion are not that easily shaken off, and there is another biological force at work here, one that makes the subservience of women essential to most religions. But even with all of its faults, Catholicism turns out not to be the most sexually obsessed belief system.

The religious obsession with sex is most extreme in cults, although the manifestations differ greatly among them. The full spectrum was evident in three nineteenth-century cults in the state of New York: the Shakers, who ostensibly practiced absolute celibacy and segregation of the sexes for all members; the Mormons, who indulged the lust of their most favored males with polygyny; and the Oneida Community, who banned monogamy, encouraged sexual promiscuity, and pursued eugenics among the cream of their crop. More recent examples are no less bizarre. Rather like the Oneida Community, the UFO cult known as the Raëlian Movement discourages monogamy and advocates free love. Heaven’s Gate, another UFO cult, practiced celibacy like the Shakers but outdid them by encouraging castration among its males. At the direction of its sexually conflicted leader, the cult came to a sudden and tragic end by mass suicide in 1997. Perhaps the most despicable example, however, is the cult known as the Children of God, which for many years systematically subjected children and teens to sexual abuse and prostitution.

The great magnitude of sexual obsession, abuse, and humiliation in cults likely arises from the extreme degree of religious infantilism fostered among their followers, running amok because of the evolutionary hack at the core of these emotions. But the extraordinary power and control wielded by cult leaders are also essential elements, and these derive largely from the social root of religion.

Excerpted from "The Illusion of God's Presence" by John C. Wathey. Published by Prometheus Books. Copyright 2016 by John C. Wathey. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By John C. Wathey

John C. Wathey is a computational biologist whose research interests include evolutionary algorithms, protein folding, and the biology of nervous systems. From 1991 to 1995, he was a senior applications scientist at Biosym Technologies (now named Biovia), a company that develops molecular modeling software for the pharmaceutical industry. In 1996, he founded his own business, Wathey Research, and since that time most of his scientific research has been funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health. He is currently writing a follow-up work to The Illusion of God's Presence, which explores in detail the neurobiology of religious emotion and behavior.

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