Taboos are a major part of religious practice, across a very wide range of religious traditions. Taboos about what people can eat, wear, act, associate with, believe; the entire range of human behaviour. Religious taboos are nicely defined as:
a vehement prohibition of an action based on the belief that such behavior is either too sacred or too accursed for ordinary individuals to undertake, under threat of supernatural punishment.
Such taboos both signal one’s membership of a particular religious community and one’s acceptance of the authority at the centre of that religious community.
The Old Testament is full of taboos. Such as Deuteronomy 13‘s taboo about worshipping other gods. Or Deuteronomy 22:5‘s taboo against cross-dressing. Leviticus is a book of taboos mixed in with more common legal prohibitions (critical scholarship identifies a subset of Leviticus as the Holiness Code); and if folk pick and choose among the provisions in Leviticus, then their authority is not Leviticus but whatever they are using to pick and choose. The punishment for breaking these taboos is, at the minimum, shunning and, at the worst, death. Indeed, Deuteronomy 13 requires siblings to kill their brother or sister if they become apostates.
Taboos work on what social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels the sanctity/degradation moral foundation, which he describes as being:
shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).
Haidt has a useful website on research on disgust. But taboos also manifest, in their social operation, what Haidt calls the authority/subversion foundation;
shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
Taboos extend the alleged ambit of morality from constraining our behaviour towards each other (both in the sense of not trespassing and in the sense of actively helping or cooperating) to much wider realms of behaviour and identity. One of the reasons squick is such a useful word is it breaks that connection between disgust and moral claims.
There is a long tradition of social scientists attempting to rationalise taboos. But taboos are so many and varied, that rationalising their content is likely to be often a pointless exercise. Their social role, however, is probably highly rational. Both in the aforementioned signaling role–yes, I am a member of our community; yes I accept the authority that binds us together; yes, you can have certain expectations about me–and in their role as an exercise of authority.
The easiest path to power and authority for priests and clerics is as gatekeepers of righteousness. In monotheism, that means offering and withholding God. Offering God as the loving universal Parent and path to salvation and withholding Him from those who do not walk the designated “path of righteousness”.
Taboos are enormously useful for setting out the requirements of righteousness. Their very contingency, their very arbitrariness, makes them that much more distinctive and distinguishing, and so effective as social signals. But their contingency, their arbitrariness also makes them more effective as vehicles of priestly and clerical power; the people who can tell you what is righteous, and what is not.
If God just wants us to be nice to each other, that is something any of us can work out, either singly or together. But if God has a whole list of very specific injunctions, those a priest or cleric has to tell you about. Moral simplicity is empowering to people in general, moral complexity to those with specialised knowledge and “understanding”. (A point that applies more generally: unions and employer organisations loved the rule-complexity of Australia’s arbitration systems as the more complex the rules, the more workers and employers needed agents–unions and employer organisations–to manage the complexity of the system for them.)
Morality v taboos
This tension between morality and taboos runs through the Bible. In the Old Testament, it is the tension between the very Priestly Leviticus and Deuteronomy–with their prohibitions and concern for ritual and priestly authority–and the charismatic prophets with their overriding moral concerns and direction connection to God. The Jeremiah who denounces the “lying pens of scribes” expresses this prophetic and charismatic anticlericalism with particular intensity.
The Christ who spends so much time denouncing misuse of religious authority, advocating concern for the spirit not the letter of the law, and defines His teaching as love God and love thy neighbour as thyself is very much on the Jeremiah end of the spectrum. The conjunction of Christ’s two principles can be reasonably summarised as you are not allowed to use God against your fellow children of God (epitomised in “let he who is without sin cast the first stone“). Even the Temple riot which precipitated Jesus’s trial and execution was a revolt against profiteering from the priestly monopoly of ritual access to God.
Mostly, the New Testament is on the morality-not-taboos side. The abandonment of the notion of uncleanliness–by Jesus and in the vision of Peter–very much fits in with this. Where the New Testament most fatefully manifests concerns for taboos is in the Epistles of St Paul and his adaptation of Philo of Alexandria‘s natural law reading of Scripture. Sex and gender taboos were very much part of Paul’s thinking–women not speaking in church, covering their hair (unlike men, who are in the image of God), same-sex activity as unnatural (including the only denunciation of female-female sex in Scripture).
Genesis 19 became a touchstone passage for this tension between universal morality and differentiating taboos. This was particularly so in the development of Christianity, given the extensive abandonment of other Judaic taboos; an abandonment which, of course, signaled separation from Judaism and Jews. Though signaling difference from pagans remained important; something for which sex and gender taboos were very useful, given that animism and polytheism have very different visions from monotheism of the connection between sex and the divine.
When one actually reads Genesis 19, particularly in conjunction with Genesis 18 and Judges 19, it is clearly about moral concerns. The men of Sodom threaten to rape the messengers of God (who have come to warn Lot that God has already decided to destroy the cities) and then attempt to rape Lot’s daughters (at which point there is divine intervention to save the daughters). It is a pack-rape scene, where rape is an act of ruthless power indifferent to the sex of those to be violated. God destroys the cities of the plain because, as communities, they were oppressive to the weak and vulnerable; particularly outsiders. By applying natural law theory to the story, Philo turned it into a warning about God’s taboos, shifting it from the prophetic concern with restraining behaviour towards the weak and vulnerable into a dire warning about obedience to priestly taboos. Specifically, priestly taboos about the mechanics of sex.
To say that Philo’s reinterpretation changes the dynamics of the story is putting it mildly. In a real sense, Philo’s reinterpretation came to reverse the underlying moral lesson. From a warning to not abuse the weak and vulnerable, it became the justification for murderous pursuit of the weak and vulnerable, since failure to attempt to root out “sodomy” risked God’s wrath descending on entire communities and there are few more vulnerable groups than queers growing up as isolated individuals in overwhelming straight families and social milieus.The natural law re-interpretation (which, by the way, became the reading of Lot/Lut’s story in the Quran) does not enjoin us to be decent to outsiders, it creates moral outsiders.
What passes itself off as heightened moral concern becomes its opposite. For centuries, people who transgressed against these taboos regarding the mechanics of sex were burnt alive, hung, flogged, imprisoned, mutilated, tortured. In 1741, Jan Jansz aged 17, was convicted in Amsterdam of sodomy. As a result of the authorities performing their Christian duty he spent the rest of his life–fifty-seven years–in solitary confinement in his cell.(The Myth of the Modern Homosexual, p.64.) Or this description of what happened off the coast of Western Australia in 1727:
two young sailors, Adriaen Spoor and Pieter Engels, were caught by their crewmen in “the abominable and god-forsaken deeds of Sodom and Gomorrah” and sentenced to death. They were abandoned on separate rocky islands and left to starve while the others escaped in their patchwork ship.
And what motivated this endless brutality? Treason against the purposes of God and concern for “human flourishing”, according to natural law theory. Through the natural law reinterpretation of Genesis 19, a story which had fitted in with the Exodus 22:21 injunction not to oppress the alien, became the opposite; an injunction to separate out people within communities as moral aliens.
You have to be profoundly indifferent to the experience of others to accept such righteous brutality as “concern for human flourishing”. But, of course, in the typical natural law “no true Scotsman” way of excluding evidence that does not conform to the conclusion, having non-heterosexuals live safe and fulfilled lives as non-heterosexuals is not “true” human flourishing. Instead, they should be alienated from their own sexuality, with all the utterly unnecessary human misery that comes from that.
But promoting such moral indifference (or worse) towards others, such moral exclusion, picking on vulnerable minorities, is terribly useful for priestly and clerical authority. The point is to discount the misery, suffering and aspirations of others if they fail to be “Godly”. If offering and withholding God is the easy path to power and authority, then having a vulnerable minority to pick on as those “willfully” separating themselves from God–those from whom God is withheld–provides an excellent “object lesson”. One that requires people not to empathise with those excluded. Such use of taboos subverts morality, they do not instatiate it.
Islam which, unlike Christianity, has no underlying tension between inclusory morality and exclusory taboos (given that the Medinan suras override the Meccan ones, though some Sufi traditions–with their notion of religions-as-masks over deeper truths–seek to liberate themselves from the confinements of Islam’s taboos), demonstrates the use of taboos to enforce clerical authority quite intensely. For example, non-Muslim Iranians in the West can be quite distressed about social space being granted to Sharia and halal, as they are the vehicles of their moral exclusion and social repression back in Iran. Thus, non-Muslim Iranians were not permitted to touch food they wished to buy since their touch made the food “unclean” and so unfit for Muslims.
Such use of taboos also allows priests and clerics to sell effortless virtue. It takes no effort for a man not to be a woman; for someone born and raised Muslim not to be a Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian; for a heterosexual not to be homosexual. Both taboos which take effort–and so both celebrate and induce commitment–and taboos which promote effortless virtue–so provide a so-easy sense of status and superiority–are useful for the purposes of buttressing clerical and priestly authority.
We can see use of active and of effortless taboos, of taboos as signaling and authority, operating in the classic monotheist dichotomy about women, well expressed in a famous book title Damned Whores and God’s Police. In monotheism, procreative sex is the only way sex connects us to the divine, and women are the vehicles of procreation. This is celebrated and women who police sexual ethics have status and some sense of control from that, as well as a vindication of their own sacrifices: they are God’s police. At the most brutal end of the spectrum, many shame killings involve the collusion of female family members acting as God’s police (or, at least, as God’s special constables).
Conversely, female sexuality has to be controlled (and acceptance of control signaled by dress, action and demeanour) while those who fail to keep to such strictures are damned whores. In the honour cultures which produce shame killings, women can not gain honour, they can only lose it–by failing to put their fertility at the service of their lineage, or even merely failing to signal sufficiently they will do so. (Hence the violent antipathy to daughters becoming “too Western” in their dress and demeanour.)
The taboo against female priests and clerics both feeds into these patterns and reinforces them. For it means that the perspective of women is excluded from religious decisions (and thinking that that does not matter, that it has no adverse consequences, is itself a devaluation of women’s perspectives). It is also naturally leads to the devaluation of being female, since clearly there has to be something cognitively deficient about women that they are not fit to have religious authority. Islam runs with the logic of this by discounting female witness testimony compared to male witness testimony. The more intense the form of Islam, the more this logic of the cognitive discounting of women is typically followed through on.
One of the signs that this monotheist-misogyny complex matters is that, while shame killings occur among Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus in South Asia, among migrant communities in the West, it is overwhelmingly concentrated among Muslims.
The importance of the exclusion of perspectives can be seen in the Catholic Church’s travails over clerical sexual abuse. The real problem for the Church has not been that a small minority of priests were abusers but that, in jurisdictions with problems, a majority of the hierarchy was involved in cover-ups and facilitation (through transfers and avoidance of punishment) of such abuse. While this was the Church acting in accordance with its dominant decision-principle–the maintenance of priestly authority–it also came from the hierarchy being childless celibates, so lacking the visceral parental “that could be MY child” response that largely protected the Protestant Churches from similar problems, just as said response fueled much of the outrage of the laity when things came out.
Having someone vulnerable to kick around
Since both Christianity and Islam appropriate the Judaic prophetic tradition, the failure of the possessors of that tradition–Jews–to go along with such appropriations generates a bit of a problem. Both Muhammad and Martin Luther thought they had completed the Jewish prophetic tradition and were murderously outraged with the Jews failed to agree with this self-ascription. The Christian tradition of Jews-as-Deicides expresses with particular intensity the bad faith anger at Jews for not accepting that they, the Chosen People, had produced the Messiah, who they, as the Chosen People, should have followed. Clearly, failing to do so was their fault and showed their grievous flaws. Other people’s failure to follow your theory becomes their fault.
Christian clerics have the particular problem that Jesus spent so much time preaching against misuse of religious authority. The “solution” is to claim that, while His message is universal, the critique of religious authority only applied to Jewish religious authority. The inconsistency is obvious, but persecuting and excoriating Jews and Judaism is a great cover.
A cover enthusiastically engaged in. Ever tighter legal restrictions on Jews and pagans (and women) was a feature of the Christianisation of Roman Empire. After the collapse of the Western Empire, the new, largely Germanic, warlords were generally uninterested in persecuting law-abiding Jews whose trading activities were useful additions to their coffers. But the Catholic Church maintained relentless pressure and preaching and, particularly after the collapse of the Carolingian dynasty, got its way.
The unrelenting hostility to Jews of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches whenever those Churches had any social power was an enduring feature from the C4th to the C20th, when the Holocaust just made it far too embarrassing. (Even the Jesuits gave up their membership requirement of five generations with no Jewish ancestry in 1946.)
That the founders of Christianity were Jews, and that the Church was more than happy to accept Jewish converts, put some limits on how far the Church would go in its Jew-hatred. Though, after the waves of compulsory conversions during the Reconquista, it gave in to local pressure, and accepted the Iberian purity of the blood laws (hence the Jesuits’s membership rule) which preserved various offices and other benefits to “Old Christians”.
Whenever events put the Catholic Church under pressure, the Jews would cop another round of persecution as the object lessons in failing to be “Godly” (i.e. follow priestly authority). So, the Counter-Reformation Papacy was more restrictive than the medieval Papacy had been. Similarly, the pressures of modernity in the C19th and early C20th led to Vatican promotion of anti-Semitism. (In one particularly egregious example, a Czech Archbishop who was a Jewish convert–and so had a Jewish name–was asked to resign, since having a Jewish archbishop was getting in the way of selling Jew-hatred.)
While the queers performed a similar role as differentiating examples of Godlessness–with the extra advantage of being “hidden amongst us”, so able to be exposed as periodic “object lessons”–their greater vulnerability and lack of obvious protective examples in exemplary religious figures meant public humiliation, punishment and death was their preferred official treatment. Society was “purified” by having such corrupting elements eliminated. Which was just following in the path of God, who had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because Sexual Taboos Were So Terribly Important.
William Beckford’s question, provoked by a 1816 hanging of a “sodomite”:
I should like to know what kind of deity they fancy they are placating with these shocking human sacrifices (The Myth of the Modern Homosexual, p.275)
was very much to the point. But such exclusions and “purifications” are a moveable feast. Hitler claimed that:
by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.
He applied to Jews the purifying rhetoric (and ultimate implications thereof) that the Church had invoked against queers century after century. The Shoah–which was a great big, bureaucratically organised and technologically advanced pogrom–was about moving Jews into the category that queers had occupied for so long of people you killed to purify society and show faith with God. (Which was pogroms did.)
Just as the aftermath of the Holocaust pushed the Jews out of the category of “vulnerable minority it was Godly to kick around” (at least in the Christian West; the export of Western anti-Semitism to Islam led to an intensification of such treatment of Jews by Muslims and Arab nationalists, hence Jews overwhelmingly fled to Israel or the West), so the de-Christianisation of law in matters of sex and gender moved queers out of the “kill-to-protect-and-purify-society” category and into the “vulnerable minority it was Godly to kick around” category.
In other words, queers now fulfilled the role the Jews previously had. (Since, in violation of centuries of Christian tradition–and centuries of Hebraic tradition before that–no-one moved into the queers’s previous category of people-you-killed-to-purify-society-and-show-faith-with-God, this represented moral progress.) The queers taking over of the role previously held by Jews included the replication of all the accusations formerly made against the Jews now being made against queers.
The same-sex attracted are no more likely to be paedophiles than heterosexuals, but man-to-boy paedophilia performs the same role against queers that the blood libel has against the Jews; categorising them as vile threat to children. Similarly, homosexuals are engaged in a conspiracy to destroy Christianity according to the Catholic Bishop of Morwell, recognition of same-sex marriage is a threat to world peace according to Pope Benedict, homosexuals are destroying the US according to Oklahoma state legislator Sally Kern. The queers, like the Jews before them, will allegedly corrupt everything they touch. So, in the words of one Vatican document:
when homosexual activity is consequently condoned, or when civil legislation is introduced to protect behaviour to which no one has any conceivable right, neither the Church nor society at large should be surprised when other distorted notions and practices gain ground, and irrational and violent reactions increase.
These are all reprises of accusations made against the Jews. Sometimes in much the same language. In a 1999 Age article Cardinal Pell wrote of:
those who work to win recruits for homosexual practice … a deep homosexual orientation often brings suffering, but acting this out generally brings greater suffering, particularly when accompanied by adult seduction
the danger that the Jews will seduce and pervert those who rent from them or peasants who depend on them.
The future Pope Pius XI, wrote of the Jews in Poland that:
One of the most evil and strongest influences that is felt here, perhaps and the strongest and most evil, is that of the Jews
while the final report of his mission to Poland stated that:
It is certain that the Jews constitute a major weakness in the Polish state … [they believe that] … Poland is a mixed country where Poles and Jews should live with equal rights and without either part pretending to have the right to impose its own national character or to become predominant.
(The above quotes all from The Popes Against the Jews.) Here is the Cardinal-Archbishop of Boston reporting in 1979:
There is a widespread homosexual culture especially, although not exclusively, among young people. … homosexuals band together to assert: (1) the open fact of their homosexuality. (2) the fact that this is of no consequence to anyone except themselves — thus to be homosexual differs from having a heterosexual orientation as being right handed differs from being left handed and (3) the strong effort to secure their civil rights and human rights. …
… It is my belief that the very act of banding together in such groups for social and religious purposes usually includes the recognition and even the fostering of homosexual activity.
(Report reproduced in Betrayal.) If you want to understand C18th, C19th and C20th arguments against the legal and social emancipation of Jews, just think of present arguments over the legal and social emancipation of queers and then swap the categories, and the patterns simply replicate. Including the same line-up of social groups, with the Catholic (and Orthodox) Churches playing the same roles. Both Churches having bitterly opposed every single step in the process of the legal and social emancipation of both Jews and queers.
Even geographical patterns of difference are replicated. In the nineteenth century, the Anglosphere (particularly the United States) was “betraying” Christian civilisation by giving legal equality to the Christ-killer Jews; the Russian Empire “understood” what a dire threat Jews were and continental Europe was the battleground for Jewish emancipation. Nowadays, Europe is “betraying” Christian civilisation by giving legal equality to the intrinsically disordered queers; Africans “understand” what a dire threat homosexuals are and the Anglosphere (particularly the United States) is the battleground for queer emancipation.
Now it doesn’t have the Jews to kick around any more, the Catholic Church needs the queers. What will it do when it doesn’t have them to kick around anymore either? The evidence suggests that, if Christian clerics are not selling taboos which signal commitment and sell effortless virtue, they have trouble selling their product. There is now evidence that selling such taboos of exclusion has become, at least among young Westerners (even in the US [pdf]), a negative as well. A serious dilemma.
By contrast, Islam has no such difficulty. Controlling women, abusing Jews and killing queers; its clerical gatekeepers of righteousness are generally up for the entire kit-and-caboodle. (The whole jihadi enterprise is all about killing people to purify society and show faith with God.) So, we get to have these arguments and struggles all over again. What fun.