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(From A C Grayling Meditations for the Humanist – 2002)


Oh Lord, it is not the sins I have committed that I regret but those which I have had no opportunity to commit.   – GHALIB

    In its efforts to control life-threatening practices whose effects are a degenerative progression from weakness and nervous exhaustion through blindness to madness and death, the medical profession once prescribed chloral hydrate, potassium bromide and opium for onset cases, and for more serious cases digitalis, strychnine ('which may be safer when mixed with small doses of arsenic,' said one helpful practitioner) and orally administered hydrochloric acid. If this did not work, the next resort was the application of leeches to the thighs, blistering or scalding of the peritoneum or genitals, and application of elec­tric currents to those organs. When all else failed, surgical intervention in the form of infibulations of the prepuce, circumcision, castration or clitoridectomy was indicated. To ensure that the practice in question would not begin at all, parents were advised to stitch the sleeves of their children's nightgowns to the bedcovers, or tie their ankles to opposite sides of the crib, or make them wear a thick towel or nappy.

The practice, of course, was masturbation, regarded with horror and dread by moralists and medical men from the eight­eenth to the early twentieth century. In some circles the belief that masturbation is enfeebling and causes a variety of nervous and sexual disorders persists. The origin of this lunacy was religious, and principally Christian, dread of sex and sexual feelings, which in the medieval and Renaissance world focused on melancholia, leprosy, syphilis and plague as divine punishments for sin and especially sexual sin, and in modern times (that is, from the seventeenth century onwards) expressed itself in theories about the medical dangers of any form of excess, 'perversion' or 'self-abuse'. A rather simple conceptual shift was at work: ideas of 'uncleanness' and 'pollution' in the moral sense became medicalized into physical forms, as infection, degeneration and corruption of the body and mind. The Catholic Church taught that masturbation is worse than rape because at least the latter might result in conception. The same moral premise is at work in the Catholic claim that contraception is bad for health (although, illogically, Catholics do not see celibacy as likewise unhealthy).

Christian moralizing is tragically blameable for a vast degree of suffering caused by its absurd attitudes to sex. Leave aside the psychological tortures of frustration, anxiety and guilt, distorted or truncated sexuality, and the harm done by damming the natural outlets of sexual expression, and consider a single example: the treatment of those who fell victim to syphilis when it appeared in Europe in the early sixteenth century.

The 'pox' spread rapidly, afflicting victims with painful and foully suppurating sores that ate away flesh and bone, eroding lips, noses and palates to give sufferers a hideous appearance. Many died at the first onset of the disease in this form; for those who survived, longer-term horrors awaited in the form of bone deformations and insanity before death released them.

    The church's response was to say that the disease is God's punishment for lust, and since the sufferers had brought the punishment on themselves they must be shunned. To help its victims was to foil God's purpose in afflicting their bodies to save their souls. To help people avoid the disease with information or protective devices like condoms was to condone and encourage lust. So the church opposed prevention, and when people contracted the disease, it opposed treatment. As it hap­pened, their opposition to treatment was almost a kindness, for what doctors offered sufferers was worse than the disease - cauterization of their sores with white-hot pokers, steaming in toxic mercury vapour, and trepanning (drilling a hole in the head) to relieve the disease's fearsome headaches.


The response to the AIDS epidemic in contemporary America repeats the medieval response to sex-related disease almost exactly. Leaders of the religious Right call it God's punishment on wickedness, and regard it as self-inflicted. They therefore say that those with AIDS deserve condemnation, not sympathy. In the first two crucial decades of the outbreak, information and measures to prevent its spread were opposed on the grounds that they would promote promiscuity. This recurrence of the same old patterns inevitably produced the same results: moral outrage inhibited and disrupted the search for treatments and the provision of help, thus increasing suffering. To put it in hard practical terms: the religious Right in America is responsible for tens of thousands of AIDS deaths that could have been delayed, or eased, or prevented altogether, because of their influence on the Reagan White House and public support for health measures. This is a dispiriting tale, but although it is not a new one, it reminds us that of all the diseases that afflict humankind, religious moralities are among the worst.

'Sin', remember, means 'disobedience'. If a god ordered you to cut your son's throat (as Yahweh once ordered Abraham) and you refused, you would be a sinner. If you complied, you would count as a good person. Fundamentalists of various kinds murder those whom they see as infidels and apostates, and think of themselves as very good people therefore, because they see what they do as absolute obedience to the will of their deity.

This is the central concept of Islam - the very word means 'submission to God' - but it is a commonplace of fundamentalism in every religion. If the votaries of submission themselves die in the process of obeying their god, they thereby attain the holy status of martyrs, which is why so many seek that end.

Famously, humanity's first sin was quintessential, according to the Book of Genesis, in being an act of disobedience. Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge in defiance of a divine proscription against doing so, and as a result the whole of mankind has since been punished by work and death. The justice of this arrangement does not seem to have been much questioned in the theological schools, whose energies have gone, instead, into justifying it.

A C Grayling is a Philosophy professor at the University of London and Oxford -  and a first rate contemporary philosopher, writer and thinker. He has a personal web site at http://www.acgrayling.com

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