Religion: part 2

Content warning: This post contains mentions of sexual activity, sexual harm, and sexual discrimination. I hope that you’ll listen to your own inner wisdom when deciding whether or not to continue reading.

I lost my religion because of sex.

Imagine a girl of sixteen, raised in an extremely strict fundamentalist Christian household. Her parents recently separated, she’s given more freedom than she’s ever had. She goes to a public school for the first time. Boys pay attention to her. Her friends talk about and do things she’s never even considered before.

Her whole life she’s been told to guard her purity. “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (Song of Solomon, 8:4) is quoted at her frequently, as is the idiom “vroeg ryp, vroeg vrot” (translated as “early to ripen, early to rot”). She knows that God only approves of sex within marriage. But more than that, she knows that any unclean thoughts are sinful. She knows that even thinking about someone in a lustful way is tantamount to sexually abusing them, since they didn’t consent to playing a starring role in your fantasies. (Needless to say, she spends much of her early puberty apologising to God and to the souls of the hapless boys she had now sullied by thinking of them in a sexual way.) She knows that stoking lust – even by just kissing someone – is sin.

Her dad has told her, numerous times, that he will have failed in his task as a father if he one day hands her over to her husband no longer a virgin. At church and in youth meetings she is shown the image of two sticky paper hearts – this is your soul, and the soul of the person you’re romantically involved with, she is told. When you have sex, these two sticky hearts are glued together. When you then split up, the two hearts are torn apart. Heart now torn and tattered, you move on to the next partner, and pretty soon all that remains of your heart is a limp piece of paper with no ability to stick to anything anymore.

You have destroyed your own capacity for intimacy by having sex with people before marriage.

From about the age of 14 onwards, she is plagued by romantic and sexual worries. She doesn’t particularly want to be handed over to a man for marriage. On the other hand, even if she is, that could only happen in her early twenties or so. At 14, that means at least another 7 years of waiting before getting to have sex – a really long time if you’re batting away lustful thoughts every day, and guiltily reading the sexy bits in Reader’s Digest’s condensed books over and over again.

She can feel from the adults’ reactions that sex is really important. They talk about sex with a strange mixture of forced confidence and shame, making her suspect even then that they have some guilt over their own sexual conduct. Some adults testify in church about their sexual pasts, sharing how God saved them from their slutty behaviour and brought them into victorious second-hand purity. She knows that the hopes of her parents’ generations are pinned on her and her peers – that she will vindicate her parents with her own purity and, one day, with her successful marriage. She pledges to remain pure. She tries hard to push away all sexual thoughts. She feels gross when she masturbates.

Then at 16 she gets her first boyfriend. He can’t keep his hands off her. When they’re sitting together during school breaks or when watching a movie, his hands wander round her ribcage, over her stomach, lingering over the waistband of her underwear. When they walk somewhere he holds her around the waist, hand gradually drifting down to her bum. She likes it. She really, really likes it. Eventually their clandestine make-out sessions move from simply kissing to rather frantic heavy petting. She is awakening to the exquisite pleasure of discovering and being discovered for the first time.

She feels guilty and she also doesn’t. It’s as if she’s living two lives now – this aliveness, this exploration with her boyfriend is removed from the rest of her life. She is so consumed by all the new feelings happening inside her, that questions about right or wrong fall by the wayside. If you’re very very hungry, you don’t worry about the ethics of the food you’re eating. And she was ravenous.

They don’t have sex for a long time though – she holds out for five months before that happens. And then, one night, he climbs through her bedroom window and after hours of making out, just as dawn arrives, they finally do it. It doesn’t last very long (of course it doesn’t) and afterwards she is surprised at how non-earthshattering it felt. She’d actually liked some of the other stuff they’d done more. After all that fuss, all that resisting, the actual act of penetrative sex felt like just another fun thing in a repertoire of discoveries. Not really more intimate – and definitely no more pleasurable – than touching and being touched had been.

Nonetheless, this was It. They’d crossed the Rubicon. Made a soul tie. Become spiritually wedded. It was okay, she told herself, because she loved him.

I’m sure you know what happens next. Her mom finds out (fortunately her parents had already split up, because her dad quite seriously might have killed her, or put her in hospital). The church finds out. Amidst all the hysteria her boyfriend makes a run for it, his last words to her being that one day they could try again, when her mom “isn’t in the picture anymore”.

Her heart is broken – more, much more about her boyfriend breaking up with her than about the fact that she is now a fallen woman. But she’s also very sad about her mom, who can’t look her in the eyes anymore, who feels betrayed and disgusted by her behaviour, whose eyes are red-rimmed with grief for weeks. She agrees to burn her diary (in which she’s of course written all about her sexual experiences). She agrees to talk to the pastor and his wife, who insist that she be exorcised of the demon of lust (she manages to extricate herself from that one, although who knows, they probably still think of her as the demon-possessed girl who got away). She attends video lectures about sexual purity. Everybody knows.

Most of all, she spends hours on her bedroom floor praying and crying. “Show me,” she begs of God. “Show me why this was wrong. Put conviction into my heart, and then I will truly repent.” Because she knows in her heart of hearts that she is more sorry for hurting her mom than she is for actually having had sex. She searches the Bible, but it doesn’t say anything about soul ties. Jesus says stuff about not lusting after your neighbour’s wife, and the apostle Paul gets really cross about men having sex with their mothers in law, but other than that she finds only vague references to sexual purity. For every reference to sex, there are about fifty verses about helping the poor, about redemption, about bearing good fruits and even about having slaves and farming and how to raise children. Almost everything in the Bible is discussed in more detail than sex. Masturbation is never even directly mentioned. 

If the Bible is so little bothered with it, why is the church so obsessed with sex? Where do all these ideas about “soul ties” and “purity pledges” come from? The little seed of doubt inside her mind, long sprouted, starts growing vigorously.

But still, she tries really hard. With her next boyfriend, she even tries to refrain from making out. When their chaste kisses do veer into intensity, she demands that they pray afterwards (looking back, her boyfriend was either remarkably patient or remarkably horny to stick around for all that praying). They date for two years before, at the age of 19, they finally do have sex.

By then she’s well over it. She’s spent her first year after high school in an ultra-Christian college where she learned to make music, clown, mime, and do missionary work. Her leaders there had convinced her for a while to break up with her boyfriend (so as not to lose her focus on God, and of course because purity) but they’ve started dating again by then (in secret).

Everybody’s relationships at the college are policed to the extreme. Senior girls walk past her and pull her shirt down so a piece of her lower back won’t stick out and awaken sexual thoughts in men. Showing cleavage is an absolute no. The college is in favour of “courtship” instead of dating – an elaborate ritual wherein the father as well as the pastor’s permission must be gained first before a couple can start spending time together. (Many of these couples kiss for the first time on their wedding day). She feels more and more disaffected and sceptical. The church leadership’s over-involvement in everybody’s lives feels oppressive.

So she and her boyfriend eventually have sex, and she keeps it a secret, and she barely feels guilty, except about betraying her mom again. The next year she goes to university. Strangely enough, most of the girls she becomes friends with here are also really secretive and embarrassed about the fact that they’re having sex with their boyfriends, even though most of them didn’t grow up in the same oppressive purity culture she did. This was an Afrikaans university, and thus most of her friends came from the Dutch Reformed church, more staid and hands-off than evangelical, yet here too puritanism had stretched far and wide. Sex means shame. Sex means secrecy. If you have to have sex, you keep this non-ideal fact about yourself very quiet. You try to get birth control without your parents finding out.

Oddly, after a while she becomes the girl her friends talk to when they’re wondering about sex.

More than one friend comes to her with the metaphor of the torn sticky heart, which has apparently permeated their adolescences as well. Some of her friends have purity rings or have made purity vows which they then broke. They’re in tears. They’re scared their parents will find out. They wonder if their boyfriends will still respect them, now they gave away their most previous asset (“why would he buy the cow if he can get the milk for free?”).

She becomes angry. Incensed, even. The stigma around sex has made it impossible for her, and for most of her friends, to even find out about what they like. There can be no discussion about how the clit works, for instance, or about how to actually have an orgasm, when everybody is still stuck on whether or not sex is sin.

We don’t talk about pleasure. We don’t ask for what we like. Resigned, embarrassed, we hand over our sexual power to a bunch of boys who don’t know what to do with it, who brag amongst themselves about having the best “ride”. We expect them to lose respect for us, because we’ve been told we’re not worth respecting anymore. We’re sinful. Living in God’s disapproval, how can you even expect to feel good?

In my early twenties I start wondering: What even is sin?

I come up with many different ideas. Perhaps sin is not acting lovingly towards others. Perhaps sin is not serving God wholeheartedly. Perhaps sin is straying from God’s plan for your life. My definitions become wider and vaguer, but from the start I know one thing: Sin is not as simple as “having premarital sex”. Because I have done mean stuff in my life. I have harmed others. I have felt guilty and convicted and asked God for forgiveness for doing things; I know what true conviction feels like: like a leaden sadness inside my gut, like being profoundly sorry. I have never felt that way about having sex. If a system punishes an act which (when it’s consensual) is at worst awkward and at best absolute ecstasy, but it doesn’t make nearly as much of a fuss about malice and even abuse, then the system is fucked.

And eventually I realise that the concept of sin is completely arbitrary. It’s a word made up millennia ago by men who wanted to control entire populations, especially women. And its definitions have shifted and changed according to whomever held the reins at the time. The idea of sin is completely useless. Am I living wholeheartedly? Am I being kind? Am I being true to myself? Those questions are much more useful than wondering whether I’ve sinned.

(me at 22, saying ‘fuckit’)

And so I leave Christianity behind. (And, bit by bit, I start having shameless sex).

But I’m still very very angry. Because I can never have my first teenage sexual experiences again, and those are tainted with shame and fear. I had to choose between enjoying my own body and having God’s approval, and that is an evil and abusive choice to force upon anyone.

I am angry because it’s downright gross that other people get to have an opinion about my sex life. It’s invasive and creepy that my dad, and the pastor, and so many others, felt they had the right to know the most private facts about my own body. It’s abusive to be treated as if your body is not your own. It is damaging to be taught that your body is the hotseat of sin and shame.

Things could have gone much, much worse. Looking back, I am immensely grateful that my first sexual experiences were with sweet guys who took things at my pace, who practiced safer sex, and who didn’t harm me in any way. If they’d taken advantage of me in any way, there would have been nobody I could have spoken to, because my behaviour had already isolated me from my community entirely.

But the damage lingers, nonetheless.

And so many of my peers did not escape nearly as unscathed as I did. Imagine being a queer kid in this milieu, told that your sexual orientation is an “abomination unto God”. Or imagine being sexually abused in this milieu. Imagine the many, many ways in which a person’s psyche can be damaged by these invasive and creepy teachings. Imagine how hard it is to regain trust in your own truth, to break free of shame, to learn how to live without doubting yourself every step of the way, when this elemental distrust in yourself has been hammered into you from childhood.

There are many harmful institutions in our society. But in my own life (and in many others’), purity culture and evangelical Christianity as a whole has been the most obviously abusive; and it shocks and worries me that it goes largely unchallenged. This is a sick system. It is a shame-based system. It is permeated with oppressive patriarchy and body-shaming and slut-shaming and deeply harmful ideas.

Whatever good things can be found in evangelical Christianity (and I can’t think of many), those good things exist elsewhere too, and much more abundantly. There surely are well-intentioned people who subscribe to and even preach purity culture, but then they too are doing harm. And, to be clear: these are the same churches that look away tactfully when one of their members abuses his family. They preach vague prosperity teachings when their members go hungry. They crack down on “sexual sin” to a profoundly invasive degree, and refuse to intervene when people are actually in harm’s way.

There is so much more to say, and I intend to say a whole lot of it, so stick around if you want to hear. But for now: As Jesus said, “if a tree bears only bad fruit, then you cut it down”. And the fruits of evangelical Christianity are rotten to the core. It’s time we cut it down.

Everything is holy

We’re coming up on Easter. And I’ve been wanting to write about religion (specifically Christianity) for a long time now, so in honour of the occasion, here we go.

I cannot quantify the harm nor the value that religion has contributed to my life. I know that my existence has been shaped by Christianity; and some days I feel itchy about this, allergic to all things religious – and then, on other days, I feel immense gratitude. 

However, if I look at my country, and at the Afrikaans culture I come from, I feel that Christianity – Calvinism specifically – has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm. Generations upon generations of my ancestors lived lives steeped in suffering, silence, and oppression (both giving and receiving). The punitive approach of Calvinism created an artificial divide between body and spirit, between earth and heaven, between man and woman – fertile breeding ground for the kinds of injustices that have blighted South Africa for centuries. I believe that religion is largely to blame for Apartheid – both in obvious and less obvious ways. I believe that it is religion that has allowed people to forget about their connection to other humans and to the earth herself, leading to rampant capitalism, to exhaustion of our natural resources, to climate change.

But of course, religion is a man-made thing. In a sense, blaming religion itself for the ills of the world is a cop-out, because it too is only a symptom of an ill society, just like capitalism, or any of the other malfunctioning institutions we have created. They are symptoms of greed, of fear, of dogmatic thinking, of the need to control, of disconnectedness. They tell us something about who we can easily become as humans: how easily we grab onto anything that resonates for us and try to make a monument out of it. How easily we step out of flow and try to hammer truths into immobility, forcing a moment of transcendence into stagnation.

This can happen to anyone, with anything: One might become just as dogmatic about ideals like compassion, or equality, or respect for nature. In fact, Christianity was built on beautiful ideals. But somewhere along the way it lost its joy and became an institute built on crippling self-righteousness and shame.

Yeah, I’m not a fan.

And I will write about that. I’ll write an entire series about that.

But I also need to acknowledge that in many ways religion has been good to me.

The word “religion” of course encompasses many types of faith, and these have affected people in a variety of ways. What I write here applies to my experience, and to the brand of Christianity I was raised in: fundamentalist, charismatic yet Calvinist-influenced Christianity (think fire-and-brimstone meets happy-clappy coupled with a good dose of shame and suppression). Other people’s experiences may, and do, differ widely.

My parents met as ‘rebel’ Christians: Both had broken away from their Calvinist Dutch-Reformed roots, had been ‘born again’, and been baptised as adults (something of a scandal in 1980s Afrikaans culture, enough to get them kicked out of the Dutch Reformed church). They were hungry for something that felt real, for relationship with God instead of rote singing of hymns, for community and communion instead of weekly lip-service.

By the time they had me, however, their versions of faith had already deviated from each other’s. In my childhood, my dad’s religion did not appeal to me at all, even though I was convinced by it and correspondingly scared of God. His religion was fervour bordering on frenzy, a morass of condemnation, self-congratulation, isolation, and rampant rage. We joined a new church; we left it within weeks, my dad foaming at the mouth. We couldn’t listen to pop music, or celebrate Christmas, or play with Barbies. We were always told that we were different, pure and right in a world full of heathens, atheists, and fake Christians.

I don’t remember my mom openly disagreeing with my dad about religion. I think most of the time she didn’t, at least not consciously so. But her faith was…alive. She found comfort in God. He wasn’t the jealous God my dad was fond of citing, but rather one who invited debate:

Like David argued with and railed against God in Psalms, my mom told me, so too I could go to God with my questions and even with my anger. (Which I did, many times, especially in my teenage years).

To my parents, God spoke (though it seems he said different things to each of them). He spoke to them in Bible verses, in moments of clarity, through other people, during worship. If nothing else, my parents’ religion seemed very involved: Theirs was not a God of distance but of daily interaction. Every small event was a miracle. Every struggle was a test. Every sadness an opportunity to grow closer to God.

The combined push-pull of my parents’ Christianity worked very well on me, and I was a very religious child. Even though I am still unearthing the damaging ideas of God I then internalised, it wasn’t all negative. I was raised to believe that God could speak to me, and so he did. I was raised to believe that God cared about my life, and so I told him all about it. I developed the habit of thanking God for every beautiful thing I encountered, a practice which has carried me through many difficult times since. That feeling of having an intimate witness, a friend and protector who is always by my side – I sorely needed that as a child. In many ways, religion saved me.

(This picture has nothing to do with religion, but it’s a picture of me as a child, looking appropriately odd and vaguely angelic, so I thought it would do.)

One of the most beautiful things I gained from religion was the concept of grace. As a teenager I read Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about grace?’ and it changed my life. This concept of grace, of being welcomed into a life that places emphasis on abundance rather than performance, has remained with me ever since. Sure, there were some recesses of my mind that held (and perhaps still do) an idea of God as a punitive being, one who punishes pleasure and will tolerate no straying. But mainly, by the time I entered my pre-teens I had grown to love God on my own terms, as a figure who extends compassion to all.

Strangely, the more my dad forced his doomsday religion upon us, the more I doubled down on my own more compassionate brand of faith. It was like God and I would share a little knowing wink, a shared moment of “you and I know better, don’t we?” The very religion that was used to oppress me became my shelter.

I also really liked Jesus. He hung out with dodgy people and spoke movingly of inviting the drunkards and the homeless to a banquet fit for kings. He was patient with his disciples (mostly). He was kind to prostitutes. He condemned hypocrisy. He said “I have come that they may have life, and life in abundance.” (John 10:10)

To me the Bible was filled with poetry.

Even today, reading the first verses of the gospel of John inexplicably fills my eyes with tears: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The principles of Christianity that I cherished – grace, gratitude, faith, honesty, relationship, cultivating a spiritual practice – these I later discovered to be principles for life. I was able to take them with me into secular adulthood, but I doubt they would have formed such a foundational part of my life had I not already learned to live by them in my childhood.

And the last thing: growing up religious left me with a taste for the mysterious, for the inexplicable, for the divine. Try as I might, I have never been able to fully divorce myself from the concept of a higher power. When I’m driving in my car and the Stellenbosch mountains unfold before my eyes, and at that moment the perfect song starts playing on the radio, I signal a mental ‘thank you’ to god. And then I laugh, because I don’t even know what god is – but I’m okay with that. To me god is in the soul of trees, in the laughter of my friends, in the ache in my heart when I think about the collective pain of the world. To me god is in my garden. To me god is in my feet, in my palms, in my ability to see beauty. God rests in the intimately known, yet hovers also beyond what my mind can understand.

God no longer bears much resemblance to the religion I was raised in, yet I am grateful to religion for playing its part in teaching me this: everything is holy.