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April 19, 2008

Errant Thought

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Somebody -- I feel badly I can't remember who -- observed that in the first millenium BCE religion went through a shift in attitude towards sex. Religions that had arisen before the mid-first millenium, such as Greek religion, Judaism, and Hinduism, were pretty matter of fact about sex. Whereas religions that arose after the shift, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, find sex to be a much more questionable topic.

Just noodling with this idea, I came up with a possible (or possibly goofy) explanation. It seems to me that the pre-shift religions derived from pastoralist cultures, and the post-shift religions derived from agricultural-trading cultures. The pastoralists, who lived in large part by breeding animals, would have found sexual fecundity an unambiguous and wholly natural good thing. The agricultural-trading cultures would have found sexual fecundity a mixed bag, as those societies would have been faced with a constant tendency to outgrow their arable land or the trading capital.

I just toss this out there to stimulate discussion. Interested to hear your thoughts.



posted by Friedrich at April 19, 2008


I think it too much to say that "Greek religion, Judaism, and Hinduism, were pretty matter of fact about sex." All those religions wove a web of regulations around the sex act. Fornication and adultery could be punished by death. They may very well have seen sex within marriage as perfectly natural, even good, but sex outside it, especially with unmarried women, was verboten.

Posted by: Dennis Mangan on April 19, 2008 12:20 PM

Earlier religions could take man's integration in the local web of life and community more for granted, so they could leave more undecided or anyway unstated. Later religions arose in a more cosmopolitan setting. Less could be assumed and errant impulses could go their own way more, so they had to provide more of a definite framework.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on April 19, 2008 1:27 PM

Dennis, in Torah Judaism sex with an unmarried woman is fine -- you just effectively marry her by the act. Keep in mind that polygamy is also fine in that context. Adultery in that context is sex between a married woman and a man who is not her husband. It is indeed punishable by the death of both parties.

The Talmud and later medieval modifications to the oral law changed some of this, at least in Ashkenazi tradition.

Posted by: Boris on April 19, 2008 1:32 PM

What difference is their really between Islam and Judaism's attitude towards the topic? Or Hinduism and Buddhism for that matter?

Posted by: bdr on April 19, 2008 1:52 PM

Interesting enough, but it strikes me as just a wee bit too bi-cameral to be really worthwhile.

Posted by: vanderleun on April 19, 2008 8:10 PM

An interesting thought.. but a lot of variables.

Pagan societies, whether in Rome or Celtic Europe, definitely had their fertility rites and gods; sexuality was a big part of this, from Roman cults to rustic solstice bacchanalia- procreation was seen as part of nature, and a positive.

I could be wrong, but I do believe monotheistic Judaism (and its offshoot, Christianity) were distinctive for their disdain for pagan sexuality in the ancient world- the Jews for well, a long time, but for Christians much later. I think it was St. Paul who introduced the concept of the Guilt Trip, lol, in these matters.
Again, taking after Jewish tradition, the early Christians sought to separate themselves from pagans, and sexual behavior was part of this.

(I'm riffing here, remembering a long essay by Gore Vidal on St. Paul. Vidal rather miffed at him for being the killjoy at the Roman party, lol. He made an interesting case for the idea that Paul was the author of a great deal of Church orthodoxy, social mores edition, years after Christ.)

I'm a bit unclear on your division betweeen "pastoralist" cultures and "post-shift" agricultural -trading cultures. Wouldn't one have bled into the other? Breeding animals AND agricultural trade? Unless we're going completely Neolithic here, they would've gone hand in hand in many rural eras in Europe by 1 AD. In Ireland (Hibernia) say, the "post-shift", and the fall of Rome for that matter, would be a tree falling in a distant forest.
Just for example, Ireland was pagan til the 5th century iirc, (and some would say still today at heart).

And I'm sure that the pagan festivals -sexuality included- continued well into the medieval period. Co-existent with Christianity there. Paganism never really went away- ask Camille Paglia, lol.

Thanks for the food for thought, intriguing to think about. Just musing aloud..

Posted by: Arundel on April 20, 2008 8:43 PM

To all: Thanks for your comments. I should have clarified that when I called pre-shift religions "matter of fact" about sexuality, I didn't mean that anything went in those cultures by any means; I just meant that restrictions on sexuality and a certain negativity or at least ambiguity toward it weren't exactly central to their world view.

Obviously, my whole notion can't be anything other than a gross (over?)simplification of complex matters, so please take everything I say with a grain of salt.


I wasn't aware of the Jews in antiquity being offended at pagan sexuality, per se; that is, as opposed to Jews being offended more or less by everything pagan. The disdain for pagan sexuality you refer to might easily be part of the general Jewish desire to distance themselves from the gentiles and maintain their in-group identity, along the lines of dietary rules. In fact, based on the stories of David and Solomon, to say nothing of Samson, one might think that any disdain for pagan sexuality based on promiscuity must have been a phenomenon of the post-shift world.

(I wondered if such an attitude was a result of the Babylonian Exile c. 605 BCE to c.537 BCE, which resulted in the importation of a good many Zoroastrian beliefs into Judaism, but based on a little Googling this seems unlikely, as it appears that Zoroastrianism was likewise not very pre-occupied with sexuality. Apparently the most ancient scriptures of the Zoroastrian religion don't make any mention of sexuality at all, thus making it part of the pre-shift club in terms of content as well as timing.)

The division between pastoralism on the one hand, and agricultural-trading societies is, indeed, rather more vague than I'd like it to be. But I made the distinction because the examples of pre-shift religions that came to mind (Greek, Hindu and Judaism) all seem to have started out, culturally, as religions of pastoralists who did a little farming on the side. Buddhism on the contrary, seems to have been associated with commercial trading communities from a very early point in its evolution (apparently virtually every Buddhist monastery was surrounded by trading and light manufacturing activity). Christianity was, in its origins, a largely urban phenomena, which would imply trading, commerce and manufacture to me. And Islam developed amongst pastoralist traders, which might suggest why it is both rather restrictive of sexuality in many situations but seems to have an ultimately more positive view of sexuality than, say, Christianity or Buddhism. So maybe my error was to bring in agriculture, and not just focus on trading as the distinctive element.

An interesting test of this theory would be pre-shift Egyptian and Sumerian attitudes toward sex, which I should obviously check out! Anybody have good information on the attitudes of these religious traditions towards sex?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 21, 2008 4:19 AM

I was just reading on the weekend the religion column with someone writing in asking for the biblical references against pre-marital sex (so that she could quote them to her daughter). While her pastor had assured her that they were there, she hadn't been able to find them.

In a slightly embarrassed fashion, the columnist had to explain that the New Testament didn't really spend much time on sexuality, and the Old Testament's stories on the matter weren't exactly useful for guidance on that topic :-).

Apparently what God demands of our sexuality is rather different from what the church and society demands.

Posted by: Tom West on April 21, 2008 9:32 AM

Tom West: Consider the word 'fornication', and what it means.

Then, consider what Scripture says regarding fornication.

It should be fairly apparent, by now, from the foregoing, that Scripture takes a dim view of fornication, based on the context of all those references, no? Now, given that fornication refers to consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other, by the very definition, this includes pre-marital sex. (It also covers a lot more, too, some of which is singled-out more specifically for condemnation, but that's another discussion.)

So, just because that particular pastor had a bad memory and doesn't know how to use the internet to look things up, doesn't mean it's not there - I've given you 35 references you can read for yourself.

Now, what was that again, about God's demands on sexuality being different from the Church's? Wrong! The Church is staying true to its sacred texts. Whether or not you agree with their stance, is your business. But you can't fault them for hypocrisy here! On the contrary, a fair-minded person would commend them for trying to be true to what they say they believe in, the Bible as the revealed Word of God.

Posted by: Will S. on April 21, 2008 11:48 PM

Maybe the variable to look at is monasticism -- which was high among Christians and Buddhists. It serves as a relief valve for the Malthusian Trap by taking a fraction of the population out of the marriage market.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on April 22, 2008 5:45 PM

Friedrich: Christianity can be said to have a negative view of sexuality only in the same sense that it can be said to have a negative view of everything; that is, Christianity holds that everything God created was good, but Original Sin corrupted everything, including sex. And that because of that, there are rules, for the purpose of guidance in correct behaviour.

Steve Sailer: Interesting to bring monks into consideration; not only in terms of their celibacy, but in terms of how that ties in with their economic activity. Can they be said to fall under Friedrich's pastoralist or agricultural/trading classifications, or does that not apply very well in their case? Monks often grow food, largely for themselves, but sometimes for trade; some of them brew beer or make liqueurs, which they then sell. And how does that connect with their celibacy? After all, the Old Order Anabaptist sects are similar in many ways - they, too, are religious communities, which often isolate themselves physically, and are largely agricultural, yet also engage in some trade - but, unlike monks, marry and have kids. They also don't have to recruit new members, whereas monks must, of necessity, obviously!

Posted by: Will S. on April 22, 2008 8:28 PM

What about contemporary religions like mormonism or scientology?

Posted by: j on April 27, 2008 2:52 AM

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