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Religion and Pornography

There's an interesting article at the WSJ site by philosopher Alain de Botton called "Why Most Men Aren’t Man Enough to Handle Web Porn". It's a teaser for his new book — no doubt an excerpt from it. 

I get interested in items like this because I'm sure the ready availability of pornography by way of the Internet is having a profound effect on people — and society and culture — but I'm not sure quite what. 

I was never really drawn into it. I've seen some — and yes, it can be powerfully seductive — but I also saw a fair amount of it (in my earlier days of checking out the old "alt" newsgroups) that was frankly repulsive — it seemed to be about degradation and humiliation. Also, pornographic sites were sleazy and dishonest — it was clear they were after my money and were just sure they had something for which I'd pay. And, they were wrong about that. So, I don't want you to think I'm immune — far from it. I'm just saying that the porno thing on the net struck me as a sick and sleazy scam. And, I've stayed away from those sites as much as possible (it's a little easier now than it used to be, since now they are less likely to randomly appear in search results).

But, I'm sure it's a powerful thing into which people get drawn.

So, the article was interesting to me. Here are some quotes I pulled from it.

It is perhaps only people who haven’t felt the full power of sex over their logical selves who can remain uncensorious and liberally “modern” on the subject. Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don’t have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.

However, anyone who has experienced the power of sex in general and internet pornography in particular to reroute our priorities is unlikely to be so sanguine about liberty. Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly. In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Our anxious moods are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so they need to be listened to and patiently interpreted – which is unlikely to happen when we have to hand one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented. The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, it is a deliverer of constant excitement which we have no innate capacity to resist, a system which leads us down paths many of which have nothing to do with our real needs. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.

Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities. Only religions see sex as potentially dangerous and something we need to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what religions would wish us to focus on instead of sex, we may not like the way they censor, but they do recognize that sexual images can indeed overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease.

Here's the thing: the Internet was set up to be a means for sharing information. That's still what it does best. As a money-making method it's had much more mixed results. In fact, for a long time it was only the Internet pornographers who were making any money at it. To a very large extent the Internet we have today is the result of the financial success of Internet pornographers. But, if it's about anything, it's about having free access to information. 

I guess Alain de Botton is arguing for restrictions and regulation — maybe even for the dismantling of the Internet — but that seems to me like a hopeless cause. I know very little of this man. He’s a philosopher. He wrote a book entitled 
Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (2012). This isn't the first time he has written about sexuality and/or religion. But, his reflections on religion, while appreciative, are nonetheless an outsider's perspective. 

I agree with him that religion has always recognized the seductive and even potentially destructive power of the sex drive — seeking to direct it into socially productive paths. Christianity certainly has a a demanding sexual ethic. 

But, it's because people are important. The reproductive drive is powerful, but people are created in the image of God — and they can never be simply the means to an end. A person cannot be a thing. 

This is what the Christian religion teaches. We are either created in the Image of God or we are not — and, if not — if we are the sad, pitiful accidents of a merciless and meaningless nature, then so what if we burn ourselves out in the indulgence of our own drives.

What de Botton seems to see is that religion respects the power of the sex and seeks to restrict it. Yes. But, anyone can think in terms of restriction — and especially in the case of sex, such restrictions, in and of themselves, are unlikely to work. No, not if there is money to be made or pleasure to be had. As I see it, religion — well, Christianity anyway, that's the only one I know much about — can never be reduced to a list of "do nots," however appropriate. 

Christianity is primarily a story of love — the love of God for us, the love we are inspired to show to others. It is a story into which we are drawn. By faith, the Bible becomes for us more than a story of long ago and far away. It is part of us and we are part of it. We are living it's new chapters. 

By faith, we experience the presence and power of God's Spirit:
"... and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." (Romans 5:4-5 NRSV.) The power of such an experience is never so much the restrictions it places upon us as the new perspective it gives us. It never makes a person sex-drive-impervious, it fills the heart with love. 

That's what Christian faith has to offer to an Internet culture awash in pornography. 

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