by Neil Carter
I love sex. And I mean I really, really love it.
Not everyone gets as into it as I do, and frankly sex isn’t even for everyone. For some, it holds little appeal at all. For some, in fact, it’s a completely dispensable part of life. Some are asexual, while others only need it once in a blue moon, then they’re content until the next one rolls around. Maybe just enough to make sure all the parts are still in working order, checking to make sure the plumbing still works, I suppose.
Some once loved it as I do, when they were younger, but time, illness, and life experience have simply moved them on to other things. They find joy and meaning and happiness in alternative pleasures, and many of them don’t miss the awkward messiness that inevitably accompanied those younger diversions.
I’m not there yet. For me in my current stage of life, sex is still one of my favorite things in the world. It has been for nearly as long as I can remember. It is central to my personal happiness; I’ve come to realize that’s just how I’m wired. For me, it’s a reason to get up in the morning.
You would probably judge me if you knew how much of my daily life either directly or indirectly is oriented around getting myself in the right condition to get the most out of sex. The diet, the exercise, the things I read, the relationships I nurture…everything in some way touches on sexuality, even down to the kinds of friends I make and keep up with.
Sex for me is the closest thing to spirituality that I have left, now that I no longer believe in gods and demons and life-after-death. Sex for me is like a religion. It is something I am passionate about.
The Spirituality of Godless Sex
This month, Patheos is hosting a cross-channel discussion about the spirituality of sex, asking people from each religious tradition to weigh in on what their faith has to say about the subject. What kinds of rules does each tradition establish to manage and guide our sensual and romantic experiences? Are there any definitive texts that spell out expectations and limitations? What is the meaning and purpose of sex according to each tradition?
Many atheists chafe at the notion of “spirituality,” relegating it to the trash heap along with crystals, voodoo, Reiki, and praying to invisible beings not already inclined to give us what we need. Some positively asphyxiate on the word, insisting it has no place in the vocabulary of a non-theist.
Honestly, I can’t say that I blame them. I have issues with the word myself since I don’t think spirits are real things. To my mind “spiritual” things would connote a dimension of existence that it took me nearly 40 years to decide probably isn’t there. Or if it is, it’s so undetectable that for all practical purposes it might as well not be there at all, despite the millions standing ready to tell you all about it.
But humans are still complex beings with hopes and dreams and psychological needs constantly pushing us beyond what we see right in front of us. We are hungry, restless beings, ever reaching forward for the next new discovery, the next exciting experience, the next achievable goal. It’s just how we’re wired, intelligent designer or no. We atheists believe time, biology, and evolutionary pressures have made us into the dreaming “creatures” that we are today. A lack of intentional direction doesn’t necessarily preclude that the things we do (like sex) could have meaning and purpose.
Most Christians seem convinced that atheists have no purpose, no meaning in their lives, and no source of joy or enduring happiness. They’re wrong about that. It’s not that we think life has no purpose; it’s just that we believe that we ourselves get to create that purpose. We ourselves get to generate that meaning, and we often find deep fulfillment in doing that, thank you very much.
Which means that sex becomes for us exactly what we make of it. It can be light and fun, playful and exciting, or it can be deep and passionate, meaningful and intimate. It can be regular and predictable, or it can be spontaneous and surprising. It can be with someone you love very deeply and know very well, it can be with someone with whom you are “just friends,” or it can be with someone you’ve virtually just met. Each one of those kinds of sex can be fantastic, can be fulfilling, and can help make life a little bit more enjoyable despite the relentless challenges that we face from day to neverending day.
Maybe we need to have something that lifts us out of the rat race, something, dare I say, transcendent? I believe that sex can be exactly that. It is something that pulls you out of your normal nose-to-the-grindstone routine and connects you to another person, a person who by their intimate actions is telling you without any words that you are someone whose presence they enjoy so thoroughly that they will not be content to let clothing stand between you.
I can think of few other compliments I would rather receive than for another person to want to be with me, naked, vulnerable, and touching skin-to-skin. What an incredible gesture of trust and acceptance!
Sex is wordless praise. Who doesn’t need more of that in their life?
Sex also makes us forget everything else, training our focus on just being where we are, alive in our own bodies, and being with another person (or persons). It is a way of practicing presence, of taking pleasure in fully inhabiting ourselves in the moment in which we live. In the thrall of romantic passion, the rest of the world fades away, leaving only you and this other person. For a few fleeting minutes or hours, nothing else exists but you and them. That in itself can be breathtakingly beautiful. Such beauty can help make life worth living.
I tend to see life as a series of moments we create in order to build our own life’s story, collecting memories throughout the course of our lives. We are the curators of our own mental museum, and with each passing year we add to our collection, amassing a lifetime’s worth of memorable pictures, words and sounds, tastes and textures to savor again and again, even years down the road. The older we get, the more of these memories we accumulate, so that in time we find we can at times just sit and listen to a song that takes us back and reminds us how much we’ve enjoyed being fully alive, despite the harder times. In retrospect, the better times grow even sweeter, eclipsing the ones that brought us loss and pain.
Life, someone said, isn’t measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. Collecting those moments makes life worth living, and sex is a central part of that for me. Given the flexibility of human language, I figure that makes sex “spiritual.” It is at once both larger than life, yet fully grounded within it.
Removing Our Fig Leaves
Those of us who were once religious have baggage to unpack from our devout days, and that complicates our approach to this controversial topic. From the vantage point of sociology, the many rules and limitations placed on sexuality by religion serve to delineate the boundaries of the social tribe. They help to differentiate between one-of-us and not-one-of us, marking the in-group/out-group distinctions on which every kind of social structure depends.
Early on, we learned to look down on people who engage in those kinds of sexual activity…you know which kinds I mean. For each group, the list may be different, but the list is still there. It helps to control the members of the tribe, and those rules have to be enforced or else the group boundaries begin to fade. People start to drift in and out, taking the resources of the group and spreading them out until the survival of the group itself is at stake.
This is why the Church has worked so hard for so many centuries to dictate how people use their privates. If you can control what people do in the bedroom, you can control what they do everywhere else.
People like me are done with that phase of our lives. As apostates from our respective religious traditions, those of us who are not only “nones” but also “dones” are finished being told how and when and with whom we are permitted to enjoy sexual pleasure. For us, exploring this side of ourselves is an exercise in self-actualization. It’s an adventure in discovering what we are capable of, and how much joy and life can be claimed here and now instead of in an afterlife that we believe doesn’t even exist.
We believe in life before death, and for us, sex is an integral part of living that life to the fullest. I never feel so alive as I do when I am touching another person and being touched in return. The sounds, the scents, the sensations of another person enjoying me…just me. Few things in life make me feel so happy to be alive.
That, to me, is like a kind of spirituality. It’s a practice that brings me joy, brings me life, and makes me feel connected to something larger than myself. Sex puts us in contact with the very activity from which all life springs. At times it even creates life. All life begins with sex (well, unless you’re a bacterium or a spore or whatever). How can this not make sex among the most meaningful things we do?
The problem for many of us is that sex has been so heavily overburdened with meaning that it becomes almost suffocating. At one point in time I was taught that sex symbolically re-enacts the mystical union between Christ and the Church, and my wedding ceremony at the ripe old age of 22 reflected that belief. Christian tradition teaches that most kinds of sex are strictly forbidden, with only a handful of kinds of sex falling into the “kosher” category, as if some template dictates how we are allowed to enjoy this richly diverse realm of experience.
For that tradition, you have to be committed to each other for life, contractually bound and permanently exclusive. And no one else can share in this enjoyment; to do so would be a violation of the laws of the universe. Some even believe that within the consecrated marriage bed, there are types of sexual contact which give God the willies and should therefore be avoided at all cost. Self-love is outright forbidden, and sharing your spouse with another is wicked and depraved, even if it’s just in your (or their) imagination.
Needless to say, when one leaves behind that mindset, it can be both frightening and exhilarating to discover how much more sex there is to be enjoyed. All those warnings about how sex binds you to another person, taking away pieces of your soul every time you share yourself with another person, turned out to be bunk.
They lied to us folks. I don’t know any other way to put it. It turns out they really didn’t know what they were talking about. All our sex advice came from people who went their entire lives committed to being with only one person (which is fine if that’s what you really want), but who talk as if they know everything there is to know about categories of sexual experience which they themselves have never had. Surely I’m not the only one who sees the problem with this scenario.
Those of us who have left our religion (or who have never been a part of one) can enjoy being free from these unnecessary limitations. And it’s not that we don’t have our own, because we do.
For the secular humanist, sex must always be self-affirming and life enhancing, and it must not bring harm to another person. It should never be exploitative, and it should always be between consenting adults (read: sexually mature). It should never abuse power, and it should never take away from a person’s sense of agency and self-ownership. We may not have a rule book for sex, but we do have our own rules. For humanist sexuality, consent is king. In the end, for us, sex should do no harm.
The Here-and-Now Benefits of a Healthy Sex Life
With the space that remains, I want to pass along a list of about a dozen reasons why friends have said sex can be seen as “spiritual” in the broadest semantic sense. These joy-giving, life-enhancing benefits of sexual intimacy are ours for the taking, if only we can allow ourselves the freedom to enjoy them. Then I’ll leave you with a few comments left by those who shared sentiments that to me encapsulate my own feelings on the subject as well as I ever could.
- It creates moments of breathtaking beauty that keep you company well into old age.
- It’s a sign of trust indicating that another person is willing to be vulnerable with you, trusting you to value and protect the sides of themselves no one else will see.
- It signals your own desirability, teaching you that another person who could be with anyone else has chosen to be with you. Nothing beats being wanted.
- The sheer sensuality of it brings joy and pleasure, grounding you in your physical being like few other things can. It teaches you to feel at home in your own skin.
- It connects you with something larger than yourself: the cycle of birth and death in which we all find ourselves. There’s something transcendent, almost mystical about that.
- It brings what one friend calls “a blessed relief from your own frontal lobe.” We do indeed live far too much inside our own heads, and sex brings us out of that and back into fully inhabiting our own bodies.
- The rush of dopamine and oxytocin are fantastic. And it really doesn’t diminish the enjoyment of it to know that chemicals in our brain are making this happen. Bring it on.
- Speaking personally, my desire for better sex helps to keep me healthy. I make better choices for my own health and well-being because I want to enjoy sex to the fullest. Living as I do with a family history of heart disease, this is a very good thing.
- Sex has turned out to be an invaluable litmus test for religious beliefs. So many of us grew up being told untrue things about our own sexuality, and life experience has enabled us to see that they didn’t really know what they were talking about. Sex is like a testing lab for beliefs about human nature, and our religions came up wanting in that department. For some apostates, sex was a huge part of helping us figure out what’s real and what’s not.
- Sex brings bonding, love, and acceptance in physical form. Yes, please. More of that.
- The self-acceptance that a healthy sexuality can instill in us is spiritual if anything in life is. I may wish for a different word choice as well, but as long as we’re talking about what enhances human life, this should most definitely be in that list.
What about you? Is sex something that you would call a “spiritual” experience? Are you able to look past the usual religious baggage that accompanies that word and describe how it functions in your life to serve a larger purpose? Or is the wording just too much? Weigh in below!
Favorite quotes from friends I asked about the spirituality of sex:
- “I’m not sure there’s any definition of spiritual that means much to me, but I’d say no to that. It’s blessed (ha) relief from the tyranny of my frontal lobe and some kind of animalistic reassurance that I’m still alive and someone still wants to see me naked. I definitely dig the almost-psychic connection that pops up sometimes. I was only ever barely religious, but I think it’s more of a compliment when someone chooses to be faithful even though there’s no religious pressure. I need a certain amount of carnal stuff in a day to combat my tendency to get extremely neurotic”
- “Sex is better with an intimate, familiar partner that one is in love with. Think of it a a moveable feast with all of your favorite goodies on board. But sometimes one just wants a big old, artery-clogging double Whopper with cheese. That’s what sex with a not-intimate, transient partner can be like. Call it eating nasty–but sometimes a little grease is just the thing.
- I have been married for 29 years–but there have been a few touch-and-go moments where we’ve seen other people, with the other’s knowledge. We’re older and more settled now–that and my sex drive left with the beginning of my Cymbalta prescription and peri-menopause.”
- “Sure, it’s spiritual. It’s the only time I say oh god!”
- “For me, sex became so much better once I realized nobody’s watching. It set me free from so many taboos. It allowed me to become more at home in my own skin.”
- “I’d say that my humanism informs my approach in as simple (but profound and imperative) a way as to always make sure I’m both caring for myself and my partner. There’s no longer an expectation that either of us “belong” to one another or “owe” each other anything short of respect. It also makes me stop and evaluate, before and after, alone and with a partner, what sex means to us at this point in time. It’s opened up communication in ways I didn’t realize were lacking.”
Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a writer, a speaker, a father of five, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals living in the midst of a highly religious subculture.