Issue #4: Q and A… and W?March 18th, 2012 by Claire
Q and A… and W?
I had a rather difficult date with this guy– Let’s call him ‘The Inquisition’. I entered into it thinking that it would just be a platonic dinner between acquaintances. I know, I know… I can be a bit naïve that way. But as soon as we sat down, I wanted to slap myself on the forehead. I’m being grilled, twenty-questions style, before I even get a finger near the menu.
“What do you do?
“What’s your sign?”
“How many kids to you want?”
“What are your views on religion?”
“Drugs and alcohol?”
“I love bowling… do you love bowling?”
“Got any siblings?”
“What’s your favorite food?”
“Favorite color? Why?”
“Democrat or Republican?”
“Would you ever date a smoker?”
“What kind of music do you like?”
“What are your hobbies and passions?”
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Are you kidding? It’s the first date, and our food hasn’t even arrived. Who is this guy? It’s going to be a long night. Fortunately, I’m not squeamish to awkward situations; I find them hilarious. I want to laugh, but I can’t. Sipping on my water is all I can do to keep from giggling at all these poor, misfired questions.
“Have you been in relationships with many people? What do you think about sex and intimacy in relationships? What do you think about people who are gay or bisexual?”
Couldn’t you have just sent me a written copy of this exam before hand? I don’t mind answering everything you’re slinging, here, but I spent the last week staying up until four in the morning working on donations for a charity fund. I’m exhausted. I was rather hoping to have a nice, relaxing night, doing something other than rattling off essays to open-ended questions.
“How many guys have you been with?”
Oh, I knew it. Fine.
I give this guy what I call the ‘three-stutters personal-choice’ response, and it goes about like this:
“Actually, I’ve never slept with anyone.”
“Are you LDS?”
“Huh? Oh– No, I…”
“No, I just…”
“You’re not religious?”
“It’s a personal choice.”
Happens all the time.
Then there’s this odd, calculating silence. I usually wait a moment, because most people, when presented with a scenario they don’t understand, are compelled to ask ‘why’. And believe you me, this guy has had no trouble with the ‘why’ question. But this time he resorts to a simple clarifier:
“You’ve really never had sex?”
“No. I haven’t.”
And that’s the end. Suddenly, I’ve somehow created a bottomless conversation chasm. Apparently there’s just no way for my date to cross this thing, so he changes the subject.
Wait! You’re brave enough to ask me what I think about religion in schools, bisexual relationships, and have me write a dissertation on my favorite color, but you’re not going to grill me on my virginity? Minus ten points for inconsistency, dude– and making me take the oral SATs on my day off.
The truth is, I’m rarely asked the ‘why’ question point-blank when it comes to saving sex for marriage. Once people learn that religion is not applicable to my decision, the topic becomes… well, I don’t know, exactly. Does it become scary?
What is it? Why is the ‘why’ question mysteriously skipped? Because there can be no other answer to ‘why wait?’ than religion? I know I’m not the only one out there that feels this way. I know that if I’d have said, “Yes, I am LDS,” I would have received, “Oh, okay! Yeah, that makes sense, I have a friend who’s LDS… etc, etc…”
What is the deal with believing in morals apart from organized religion? Is it scary? Is it scary that someone sans religious affiliation would choose to uphold ethical values and instinctual restraints that are so often associated with a God-fearing community? After all, there’s no need for confession, no slap on wrist if they don’t. Is it frightening that someone could choose to abstain from certain physical pleasures even though there’s no written code, ultimate command, or higher power compelling them to forgo?
I’m firmly agnostic, but I have nothing against faith. One of my college majors was religious studies and my final thesis centered on the Reformation. I have a lot of respect and admiration for many religious facets. In fact, if I believed in one, my life would probably be a hell of a lot easier.
But if choosing sexual abstinence isn’t the result of a religious upbringing… is there even any point? It’s not a remnant of my Christian upbringing, because I was never raised in a Christian household. But still, I volunteer at Loaves and Fishes and Habitat for Humanity. I don’t drink or smoke or sleep around. Why not? There’s no celestial report card in my mind. I’m not in it for a good standing after death.
What’s the point?
My date wants to ask, but he doesn’t. It’s going to be a long night.
I have been told before that humans are incapable of formulating moral codes on their own– that they require divine inspiration, because ethics are all relative– what one person perceives as ‘good’ and ‘just’ may well differ from another’s point of view. I have been told that we require a universal list of what is good and what is bad handed down to us by a higher power, because if we make that list ourselves, we’re liable to corrupt it with our own selfish interests. So, can I have morals? Do I have a right to ethics? Am I allowed to hold my choices and opinions without believing in scripture and higher powers?
I think that I do. I believe that the best course of action I can take in a situation is the one that will bring peace and happiness to the greatest amount of people. I believe in altruism– that’s caring for the welfare of others besides ones own self– and I don’t think it’s a characteristic unique to the religiously inclined. As always, everything I write here is just my opinion… but I think the nature and origins of altruism can be viewed in both secular and religious connotations.
A couple of neuroscientists at NIH published some evidence for innate altruistic tendencies in 2006– the first evidence of its kind. When volunteers in this study received pure monetary rewards as well as charitable donations, a primitive part of the brain (usually associated with self-interests– food and sex) lit up. When these volunteers instead placed the interests of others ahead of their own by making donations themselves, a very different region lit up– a region intimately associated with bonding and social attachment. Instead of being a superior faculty instilled through teachings and the suppression of selfish urges, the experiment rather suggested that the nature of altruism was fundamental to the brain, wired into our being– a true piece of who and what we are.
In a later study, participants were given MRI scans when they won money, and again when they chose to donate money. Researchers expected to see brain activity suggesting that people perform acts of good will because it makes them feel good about themselves… but instead, another piece of the brain was involved. The temporal cortex came into play– a region sensitive to the difference between acting for personal gain and acting to further the gain of someone else.
All you really need to be able to do in order to place the condition of another above your own, is empathize. Healthy people don’t enjoy witnessing another in suffering– many of us will go out of our way to help those who sincerely ask for it. And the history of humanity is dappled with martyrs and sacrifice, both religious and secular. Sacrifice goes against the concept of survival. A lot of the things we as people feel compelled to do for one another goes against our basic, primitive instincts.
Isn’t that what morality is? A set of standards or practices that don’t necessarily benefit our own personal physical condition in one way or another? In other words, morality tends to throw a hitch in the great, Struggle For Existence, sometimes by turning back and extending a helping hand to another, even in the face of risk. Acting with courtesy and respect toward your rivals… aiding others rather than just yourself… Temperance and self-restraint… these are all hindrances to the nature of survival. And they’ve all been known to exist outside the lines of religion… and now, quite possibly within our biological make-up.
A lot of people out there seem to be looking for a way to clamber to the top, a way to snatch up everything they can in an attempt to be the best and the brightest, but I’m just looking for substance. I’m looking for a way to live that makes the journey worthwhile. I’ll save sex until I have a lasting relationship that will make it meaningful– something to be shared with and given to one other, rather than taken and had for my own purposes.
Living for ourselves, taking all that we desire and giving nothing back feels empty and meaningless at the end of the day– religion or no. Is sheer, meaningless pleasure enough to satisfy one hundred years of living and breathing? Is that what it’s all about? Or is it rather up to humanity to bring warmth and meaning to a world of harsh boundaries and survival? Living one’s life in an ethical context, if for nothing else, can provide a bright contrast to the oftentimes raw, callous natural world around us– especially when disease and disaster run rampant from continent to continent.
Religion may give morality a reason, but it doesn’t have to give morality its existence.
Whether or not you hold to a particular faith, the idea that there is an intrinsic benevolence to mankind is a reassuring thought– especially when we live in a world that doesn’t always make sense.
Oh… And for those who are wondering, there was no second date!