sex and secularity


I’ve been thinking about sex a lot lately.

Not in that way. More in the way Alain De Botton argues we should in his recent book, How To Think More About Sex.

In particular, I’ve been dwelling on sex (as well as love, desire, and gender) because I’m giving a series of talks at La Trobe aimed at sparking conversation and thinking about this crucial topic.

And sex really is a crucial topic. As the French sociologist Henri Lefebvre suggests, it’s an “extra-social social act” — a kind of thumbnail sketch reflecting the issues and tensions bubbling away in society more generally.

From my perspective, this is certainly true of the whole ‘marriage equality’ thing going on in Australia right now.

While songs like Macklemore’s ‘Same Love’ pack an undeniable emotional punch, questions can be raised about the equation of the push for the recognition of same-sex marriage and the American civil rights movement.

More deeply, I’ve begun to detect some tensions between the call to legally recognise same-sex marriage as a basic civil — or even human — right and at least some versions of secularism.

Take the account Rowan Williams gives of what he calls ‘programmatic secularism’ in Faith In The Public Square (page 26):

This assumes … that any religious or ideological system demanding a hearing in the public sphere is aiming to seize control of the political realm and to override and nullify opposing convictions. It finds specific views of the human good outside a minimal account of material security and relative social stability unsettling, and concludes that they need to be relegated to the purely private sphere. It assumes that the public expression of specific conviction is automatically offensive to people of other (or no) conviction. Thus public support or subsidy directed towards any particular group is a collusion with elements that subvert the harmony of society overall.

If this is a fair reading of at least one strand within contemporary secularist discourse, then surely the push for marriage equality cuts across it — especially when couched in terms of a ‘right’ to access the institution of marriage.

For surely such a ‘right’ runs deeper than the “minimal account of material security and relative social stability” proper to such secularism.

Or have I misheard the case for marriage equality?


  1. Another perspective (which I’m posting only because you are doing talks at La Trobe; and not because I want to be provocative):
    How about Christians having their own word for “Christian Biblical marriage”. Christians do not have a monopoly on the word ‘marriage’. It is not even a religious word. It may have started as a religious word but subsequently has been embraced by the wider society. I do not understand why some Christians are so choosy about which sins they pursue (eg/ gay relationships as opposed to greed) especially outside the church. We are asked to not judge those outside the church (1Cor5:12). How do secular marriages effect Christian marriages?

  2. Hi Kate, I just wanted to reply to your comment as my thinking was/is similar to what you have stated. However, here is the rub (stated in a fake tongue-in-cheek news report which I wrote to a friend to illustrate the point):

    “Today, the Ecumenical Council of Australian Churches has decided to end the ongoing debate regarding same-sex marriage. Ammedment 2241.3 was carried defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman, or between those of the same sex. This agreement was struck once Regulation 5123.1 was ratified regarding the the term “unionage”. Unionage has been defined as the exclusive consenting relationship between a man and a women for the purposes of companionship, affection and procreation. To reflect this regulation, a recommendation was forwarded that services and liturgy should scrap the term marriage and use the word unionage. When the Homosexual Community for Equal Rights was contacted for comment, they replied that today should be seen as a victory but more work needed to be done. “Today is a great day for same-sex couples everywhere” Mr Fredricks said, “Marriage is no longer a term used to discriminate against homosexuals. However, there is still much more that needs to be done. Until the church comes to recognise that the term “Unionage” can applied equally to homosexual couples as it is to heterosexuals, we will not rest. This is discrimination! This is an issue of equal rights – Unionage should be available to all!””

    So what I think is happening in this debate is the politicisation of language. I actually don’t think those who want “marriage equality” will be content until our whole language is made inclusive or de-netured.

    This kind of thing is happening elsewhere – for example, there was a bill being considered in France which was trying to abolish the use of father and mother, but rather have Parent 1 and Parent 2 ( Now this is a worrying trend – not because words change meaning – but because the words changing reflect a society that is out of touch with itself. It is a symptom of society that will not tolerate intolerance.

    I may be wrong, but this might be touching on what Rowen Williams was saying.

    Just a couple of thoughts – sorry to blather on!



  3. Thanks for engaging, Al, Kate, and Piers!

    Al — I’ll check out that link; and, sorry, no brilliant ideas for readings (I definitely feel like I’m still kicking around in the shallows here).

    Kate — you raise some good points, especially about the weighting conservatie Christians can sometimes give sins of a sexual nature.

    It’s like we think Jesus cares about what happens in our bedrooms but not our politics (or our hip pockets). As it turns out, he cares about all of it! Perhaps because these are all places we’re susceptible to idolatry.

    What’s more, I actually think my personal issue isn’t talking about this stuff too much — just the opposite! And from what the students tell me about the reasons their friends cite for not being interested in Jesus, sex — and homosexuality in particular — seems to be THE big deal-breaker.

    And thanks, Piers — really interesting observations!

    I’m particularly exercised by the question you touch on of what those who are pushing for marriage equality really want. What’s driving them? What will they settle for? Will formal, legal recognition be enough?

    I think — and you seem to agree — that it won’t be enough. As you say, full inclusion is the ultimate goal. Or perhaps we could say, acceptance.

    And here’s where the Christian message gets really radical: That’s exactly what Jesus offers — as well as summons to a vision of human flourishing and wholeness that cuts across what most of us (heterosexual or otherwise) feel ‘hard-wired’ for! As in John 8, Jesus’ “Neither do I condemn you” is followed by “Go, and sin no more”…

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