Thursday, November 7, 2013

Sex and Religion

I stole the title of this post from an album by the world’s greatest guitarist, but the idea behind the post came from a recent essay on Minding the Campus, titled The Hyped Campus Rape that Wasn’t

At a Midwestern university, an alleged victim accused someone of rape.  The result was immediate judgment, “widespread outrage,” and condemnation of the accused by numerous individuals and groups around campus and the community.  However, the sex act was conducted in public, and soon after the accuser made the accusation, pictures, video clips, and even live eyewitnesses surfaced.  This evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the act was a consensual—albeit an inappropriately public—sexual encounter between two adults.

Amazingly, despite the evidence, public opinion was not swayed.  The accuser—clearly a voluntary participant—was still being praised for being “strong and brave” and demonstrating “incredible courage” in reporting the “crime.”

This bizarre reaction to evidence of innocence got me thinking.  Other than sexual assault allegations, there is at least one other area where humans form beliefs early on, hold those beliefs without evidence, and then continue to hold those beliefs in spite of evidence (and logic and reason) to the contrary.  That area is religion.

I can understand why people want to believe in religion without (and contrary to) evidence.  The alternative is scary: we simply don’t know what happens to “us” when we die.  (I put the word “us” in quotes to imply that there is more to us than the physical; otherwise, strict materialists would be quick to point out that I’ve answered my own question: when we die, we are dead.  An intelligent discussion of the topic can be found here.) 

But what explains the desire to believe certain types of accusations, e.g., sexual assault, without (or even in spite of) evidence?  Is it that the alternative in this scenario is also too scary?  Is it too tough for some of us to accept the possibility that we, too, could find ourselves falsely accused?  It does seem more palatable if I simply assume that all accusations are true, which then (rather circularly) leads to the comforting belief that a false accusation could never be made against me.  (And then, when contrary evidence like the Duke lacrosse case surfaces, my confirmation bias will allow me to ignore, dismiss, suppress, or in some way justify it.)

I don’t know if there is a connection between religion and sex, although it does (at least to my admittedly uneducated brain) seem to be the same phenomenon at work in two different contexts.  But maybe this is all just a natural byproduct of our highly imperfect evolution.  Maybe we commonly believe other things without evidence, even though the alternative of not believing those things is not at all scary.  (For example, many of us believe in ghosts, witches, and aliens, yet imagining a life without these things, while perhaps less interesting, certainly wouldn't be scary.)  

In any case, fortunately the accused college student in The Hyped Campus Rape that Wasn’t won’t have to worry about going in front of a believing jury.  The prosecutor tried but was unsuccessful in getting an indictment.  (College officials may still prosecute the alleged perpetrator for sexual assault under the school's "laws," however.)  Nevertheless, two things should scare the hell out of everyone.  First, that the prosecutor actually tried to get an indictment despite evidence of innocence.  And second, that if the two sex partners had the good taste to fornicate in private (instead of in public), there would be no pictures, video, or eyewitnesses, and the accused would almost certainly have been tried and convicted by a local jury.

Maybe my brain is wired differently, but that’s the alternative that’s too scary for me to handle.

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