Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Not Doing What Comes Naturally

YouGov has surveyed attitudes on polygamy, to see if there is a direction of travel for further 'liberalisation' in the definition of marriage. (I put 'liberalisation' in quotation marks because the word has a positive suggestion of freedom. It's like using the word 'decay' to describe change, it's not a neutral term).

39% of Brits think humans are not monogamous by nature, but at the same time only 18% think that polygamy is morally acceptable. Even though only 42% (!) think we're naturally monogamous, nearly 3/4 think that monogamous relationships can be successful if people work at it hard enough.

So for some of us at least, we don't think the law around marriage, sexuality and relationships should be based on what comes naturally to us. I'd have liked to see a follow up question to those who thought having multiple partners was natural but immoral: why? Or to the 47% who believe that, even if everyone involved gives their consent, having multiple relationships at the same time is wrong. Why?

YouGov, from what I can see, hasn't started tracking these results over time, so there's no way of telling if attitudes are changing, and by how much. Much of our education and culture around sex is based on informed consent: if you want to do it, and they want to do it, then what's the problem. There's also a presumption of freedom: do what you want to do, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone.

There's a sizeable chunk of Brits (I'm one) which doesn't believe that 'natural' is a reliable guide to 'moral' or 'legal'. If it was, we wouldn't need so many laws: but many of us find it 'natural' to hit people, cheat, speed, steal, fiddle taxes, lie, be greedy etc. Deferred gratification is one of the key skills learned early in life, to learn to say 'no' to what we want RIGHT NOW. Self control, in other words. The idea of self control when it comes to sex has become counter-cultural in the space of 3 generations. We've also been very nervous about promoting monogamy and its benefits (look at the recent fight around the token recognition of marriage in the tax system) because that's seen as stigmatising lone parents or being nanny state about people's sexual choices.

We may one day arrive at the right balance of nature and choice on one hand, and morality and self-control on the other. But leaving it all to the individual to make their own mistakes and find their own way is cruel. We're surrounded by the wreckage. There is an accumulated wisdom about marriage and relationships from many generations, and from Christian teaching, but we've been too nervous in talking about it because we don't want to be seen as lecturing people about sex and their own personal choices.

Christian teaching about sin is clear: doing what comes naturally isn't the same as doing what is good. Judging by the survey results, a lot of people get that, but talking about 'sin' will get us nowhere in a post-Christian society. How do we talk about God's gift of sex in a way that holds on to the wisdom, but still gets heard?


  1. Thanks for this, David.

    Tim Chesterton

  2. Interesting that some, not all of those who believe in multiple relationships, think that they are immoral.

    In many ways, we're the victims of our upbringing and the morality given (or imposed) on us by our parents, through our schooling, through social interactions with our peers and in major ways in the condemnation of sin as fatal to our eternal happiness (a Catholic upbringing in the 1950's gave me that).

    Among these factors will be both the good and the bad. Catholic teaching is strongly focused on right and wrong with no middle ground. It takes it as read that everyone has a conscience (although medical evidence now points us towards the fact that some will have no intellectual or emotional or mental capacity to understand the concept). I happen to believe that we do have a conscience, even if our capacity to understand it is limited. Most of us know that stealing or physical or sexual violence is wrong, but some do it deliberately all the same. However, in consensual relationships, right or wrong is a grey area? Some would say that if nature - gives us the capacity and mechanism to do something - than is must be right, even if it's wrong in the moral code of the society in which we live. That's called freedom or free will, which was a gift from God and our choice on how we use it is the moral code that we live by.

    There is a huge amount of teaching on Christian Ethics and how to live our lives as disciples in 'imitation of Christ' but if we stuck to his lifestyle, humanity would have died out centuries ago - celibacy equals obscurity and obsolescence.

    I happen to believe in one person to one person relationships, lived out in love and faithfulness, whether or not it's lived in the framework of a Christian marriage or just in what used to be called 'common-law' marriage. It's love and mutual sharing that defines these relationships, and I can't get my head around the concept of multiple-relationships of any type. Perhaps my nature is failing somewhere - or perhaps I believe in self-control and resisting sin as my Catholic upbringing still defines me.

    I am self aware enough to accept that temptation is there, but that I have the strength to resist it. Perhaps it's self control or restraint that we need to be teaching (by example) alongside the other elements or our moral codes or Christian ethics.

  3. Polygamy ... mmm, like it, says CofE, will go nicely with birth control, divorce, abortion and same-sex marriage ... have we got to human sacrifice to the Old Gods yet.

  4. It would be good to go back to closing on Sunday. I have worked Sunday as a dispenser of medicine for one hour to help people obtain emergency scripts. I didn't mind this as it's an essential service. People will shop in the hours provided, so Sunday trading is not necessary. We all need a day out to calm our minds and retain our sanity, if that's at all possible,