Richard Price

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Nov 9, 2012

The Fetishization of Sex as a Growth Strategy for Religions

I have often wondered why so many religions seem to fetishize sex. Sex doesn’t seem to fit into the main functions of religion. Two of those functions seem to me to be:

  • Knowledge: providing a physical and metaphysical framework for the world: explaining the history of the universe, and explaining why it was created.
  • Ethics: providing an ethical framework for how you should interact with other human beings, and making suggestions along the lines of ‘be considerate towards the welfare of others’ etc.

The fundamental moral principles of religions like Christianity, and also many others, are things like: everyone is born with equal rights; treat others as you would treat yourself; try to alleviate the suffering of others. 

These principles don’t really seem to have any relevance to sexual acts that occur between consenting adults. If two people consent to engage parts of their bodies in various ways, that doesn’t seem to raise any ethical issues of its own. There seem to be no more moral issues raised about a sexual act than there are raised about some other physical act between two consenting adults, such as shaking hands, or giving someone a piggy-back. 

So why is there a huge moral emphasis in many religions about what kinds of sexual acts are moral, and what kinds are immoral? Why do religions care about how consenting adults interact with their sexual organs, any more than they care about how consenting adults shake hands, or give one another piggy-backs?

One possibility is that the fetishization of sex is a growth and engagement strategy for a religion. Most religions deal with topics that are quite dry, and that people don’t think about very much, such as the history of the universe, and the reason the universe exists, and the broader purpose of one’s life. 

These are questions that occur periodically to people, but not multiple times a day. If, however, a religion can attach itself to things that one thinks about every day, such as sex, then the religion will have a much greater chance of avoiding irrelevance and being forgotten.

It may be that the successful religions that are around today are the ones that managed to attach their infrequently thought-about metaphysical and ethical framework to  topics that are thought about many times a day, such as sex. Similar points may apply to the fetishization of food, another topic that is thought about regularly. 

If you think about religion many times a day, it will be at the top of your mind, and the religion will be more viral. There will be more opportunities in conversation with others for your religion to have something relevant to say - e.g. when the conversation veers towards food or sex. 

By contrast, religions that only deal with questions that people don’t often think about, e.g. the meaning of life, and the history of the universe, are more liable to be at the backs of people’s minds, and there will be fewer conversational opportunities where your religion will have something relevant to contribute. 

It may not have been an intentional strategy on behalf of the world’s largest religions to fetishize sex as a growth strategy.  There may not have been an explicit discussion about growth amongst Jesus and the twelve disciples. There may have been other reasons that sex was fetishized, and viewed as a morally significant form of physical interaction. Nevertheless, the successful religions may owe their enormous growth in part to their fetishization of sex, and other regularly-thought about topics.

One naturally wonders whether other basic desires and needs have been harnessed as growth drivers for religions - e.g. the need for shelter and the need for clothing. I can’t bring to mind religions that have fetishized these two basic needs to their advantage, but it may well have happened. 

I’d be interested to hear what others think. How plausible is it that the fetishization of sex was one of the major growth drivers of the world’s religions?