Pride and prejudice: An atheist attends a seminar on Christian sexual ethics

By Andrew Boschert / For The Pitt News

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First, I would like to betray my normal sensibilities and discuss my religious affiliation. It’s not something I do often, as private beliefs can often unfairly shape one’s reputation. But here goes: I’m an atheist. 

If I’m in a church, it’s definitely for a wedding or funeral. I’m staunch in my atheism, and, literally short of a miracle, it’s unlikely you’ll catch me in the pews on Sunday. I say this not out of pride, but because I want to make known my biases and presuppositions. 

Therefore, it’s infrequent that I give much credence to particular religious philosophies. In some ways, I have thoroughly boxed myself into my beliefs. Having turned these problems over in my mind time and again, I’ve seen no reason to revisit.

That is, until I was walking along one day and saw a poster for a seminar hosted by the on-campus group Off the Hook. The title read: “One Body: Love, Sex and Christianity.” 

Philosophically, my strongest opposition to Christianity is its views on sexuality. It’s something I’m convinced the faith has gotten wrong — the “sinful” nature of our sexual desires, the opposition to contraception, the importance of marriage to sexual relationships. It irks my hedonistic, instant-gratification worldview.

My brain began to formulate ideas. I could be the fox in the henhouse, the fly on the wall, Nixon’s tape recorder. The inner circle of Christian dogma was open to me, and I intended to expose all of it.

I had the story written in my own head before I even attended the event. I left the event steeped in embarrassment.

Off the Hook held its event on Oct. 3 in the O’Hara Student Center. I felt extremely nervous — there were way more people than I anticipated. Besides, the intention to lampoon the group from behind a screen seemed cheap and dishonest. 

Jarred by this revelation, I set out anew to earnestly listen to what the speaker — Alexander R. Pruss of Baylor University — had to say. He did draw quite a crowd after all, and his Ivy League background in math and philosophy piqued my interest.

As Pruss took the podium and began to speak, I knew this wasn’t the fire-and-brimstone sermon for which I was secretly hoping. Pruss was a soft-spoken and gregarious man, with the thin wispy hair expected of academics. And he immediately said some surprising things.

“I just want you to know that this is not a dogmatic ideology,” Pruss said. “Christian sexual ethics offers a framework, not rules.”

In two sentences, he cooly destroyed the my preconceptions of Christian sexual beliefs as mandatory. Armed with the permission to disregard everything he said, I listened on.

“Christianity is a religion of love,” Pruss continued. “Love has three aspects and it needs all three: appreciation, good will and striving for union.”

I started to realize that this wasn’t a seminar about how Christian sexual ethics fits into the world. It was about how sex fits into the Christian idea of love. And honestly, I agree with most of his interpretations.

Although I didn’t agree with everything Pruss said, overall, Christian principles seem firmly grounded in common sense, and I found myself giving real consideration to the ideas presented. 

For instance, Christian beliefs stress the importance of real compatibility when choosing a partner, not just sexual attraction. The frank and encouraging nature of the advice struck me as being applicable to those of all faiths.

Without knowing it, Pruss had beaten me. His talk made me realize I was more prejudiced than most believers. He taught me an important Christian virtue: humility.

I don’t think he’ll ever win me over on the core of Christian sexual ethics. I firmly believe that sex means a lot of things to a lot of people. But in the same way I believe in birth control and free love, Christians have good reasons and strong convictions like anyone. And I respect it more now than ever.

We all should try to be more open. Philosophy will never be a science. Our lives will never come with a manual, though people will compete to interest you in one. With all these competing worldviews, we probably will find one that suits us best.

In my mind, this is only a start. Ideas have to evolve over time. Knowledge brings complexity. Some people will believe the same things for the same reasons for their whole lives. Don’t be one of them.

Talk to a Buddhist monk. Read the Qur’an. Hell, take a personality test at your local Church of Scientology (do not actually do this one). Strive to incorporate more information into whatever worldview you happen to have. 

I’ll promise if you promise. Maybe one day you’ll see me in the pews on Sunday.

Write to Andrew at amb306@pitt.edu

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