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One of the most effective things a religion can do is appropriate a biological imperative. We humans like to think of ourselves as a pretty diverse bunch, but there are plenty of core motivations we all have in common. You’ve probably heard of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; it’s a basic description of how we prioritize our goals and desires. Before we can consider the more transcendent needs like love, self-actualization, or sports cars, we must first fulfill the most basic needs like food, water, sex and shelter.
In terms of evolution, it’s pretty easy to see why this is the case. Genetic combinations that encourage their own perpetuation are the most successful. Creatures that prioritize survival and reproduction will thrive. For humans, this means surviving until capable of reproducing, then protecting descendants; therefore preserving and passing on one’s own genes. We’re like a global Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Everything beyond that—success, happiness, cell phones, etc.—is a bonus. Take away one of our basic needs like clean water or a reliable source of food, and we’re no longer concerned about who has a guest appearance on 30 Rock.
By usurping any of these basic needs, religion can get in on the ground floor. Generally, a need for community is secondary and spirituality is tertiary at best. Once religion is tied in with our most fundamental drives, however, it becomes a primary concern.
The two easiest needs to usurp? Food and sex. Everybody gets hungry and horny. It’s a fact of life. Society can’t function if there are no restraints on what we eat and who we screw; measures need to be taken so food is as safe as possible and sex should always be consensual. Religion, however, makes rules about when and how it’s acceptable to satiate these needs that have nothing to do with E Coli or statutory rape.
With food, there are rules about what and when it is acceptable to eat. Many religions have annual fasts, such as Islam’s Ramadan or the Baha’I faith’s month of Ala. Adherents are expected to resist hunger for the required allotment of time—often dawn to dusk for days on end—in order to experience a deeper level of spirituality through obedience and self-deprivation. In equating starvation with salvation, food and faith are inextricably linked. Satiating hunger is only possible through faith, and faith will sustain a person in ways that food cannot. It becomes impossible to imagine filling that basic need for sustenance without the assistance of God. Giving thanks before each meal, as people do in many religions, only reinforces this link.
Many religions also dictate what can be eaten. With some, there are specific foods that are considered taboo. Others take it much further, requiring a strict adherence to a complex set of rules. Those who follow a strict kosher diet are required to keep their faith in mind any time they even think about eating. When your position in the afterlife is closely tied to something as basic as food, religion can never be far from your mind.
With sex, most religions pull out the big guns: shame. This is one of the most powerful weapons in religion’s arsenal. That’s not to say that shame doesn’t exist independently of religion, but it is yet another human tendency that religions have twisted to serve their own needs.
Children are taught from a young age that certain desires are wrong and even shameful. Of course, children aren’t terribly concerned with these desires. Sex doesn’t usually enter the equation until puberty. Religious leaders and parents have years to lay the foundations of what will later become the neurosis and obsessions that make people cling so desperately to their faith.
I’m going to come right out and say it: the way most of the major religions handle sex? It’s ingenious. Evil genius, don’t get me wrong, but the results they get are truly incredible. Lex Luthor and Dr. Horrible have nothing on these guys.
See, when you’re a kid, you’re not capable of much in the way of rationality or thoughtful consideration. That comes later in life. It’s not difficult to get kids to believe in God; as long as their parents tell them Jesus is watching or Allah will judge them or Santa double-checks that big old list, they’re going to accept it as fact. Sure, they know that there are rules to follow, especially if they want to get that eternal reward, but most of it goes over their heads. They know they’re supposed to listen to their parents, and that’s good enough for most of them. If they misbehave, they’ll get a time-out and move on with their lives.
Then puberty happens. This is the time that they start questioning authority. This new-found defiance is a legitimate threat to their religious beliefs. After all, they’re questioning everything else their parents ever told them, why not the existence of God? If it weren’t for raging hormones, the religious attrition rate of teenagers would be devastating. The reason it’s not is because of all that careful groundwork that’s been laid for over a decade. See, all that stuff about deadly sins and lusts of the flesh that didn’t seem to apply to them before? Suddenly it’s front and center. There’s boobs and boners everywhere, and for the first time in their lives, Hell seems like a real possibility. They spend years assuming that Hell is for other people, only to become one of those people themselves.
Everyone deals with this new reality differently. Some throw themselves into religion immediately, praying for the strength and guidance they never really needed before. Others give into temptation before the guilt and shame overwhelm them; for these people, religion is even more necessary because they have actual, physical sin to repent. Still others rebel for years, only to be reborn again with a fervor that defies all logic and expectation. Some people do manage to break away entirely, but it’s nearly impossible to overcome all those years of conditioning and brainwashing. The shame associated with sex is deeply ingrained long before the desire itself is present.
Interestingly enough, lust is pretty much the only sin where inspiring it is considered just as evil as experiencing it. Inspiring jealousy isn’t sinful. The biblical commandment says not to covet your neighbor’s ass; it doesn’t say anything about the neighbor’s responsibility to hide his ass under a bushel. Nobody stones rich people to death for having nice things—well, at least not for religious reasons.
Because religious societies are so hung up on sex and lust, women get harassed for breast feeding their babies in public. Rape victims get blamed for wearing short skirts. Earthquakes get blamed on cleavage. Women who have spent their entire lives swathed in fabric are beaten for accidentally showing an inch of skin. Fanatical fathers murder their daughters to keep her shame from besmirching the family’s honor.
Equating religion with basic survival needs makes people as desperate to protect it as they would water or air. Strangle a man, and he’ll kill you if that’s what it takes get his oxygen back. Starve him, and he’ll do whatever it takes to get food. What religion does is present itself as the only viable access to certain needs. Hunger seems impossible to assuage without having access to God as well as food. Sex is shameful and wrong unless achieved through the proper bonds of marriage. This means that getting between a man and his religion is, in his mind, tantamount to getting between him and his most basic needs, and that’s a dangerous place to be. It also means that most people would no sooner abandon their beliefs than they would go skydiving without a parachute.
Look, faith can’t feed you and lust isn’t evil. If you’re reading this on your own computer, chances are pretty good that the only thing between you and a full stomach is a trip to the grocery store. As for sex? It’s natural. It makes us feel good. It’s healthy. Yes, it spreads disease if we’re not careful, but so does riding the subway, and I don’t see God bitching about that. So eat, drink, and be merry however the hell you please, and if God doesn’t like it—well, too bad.
Johanna is a member of CVA. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Connecticut Valley Atheists or its individual members.