Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.

 

In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”

 

Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.

 

The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.

 

In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.

 

There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.

Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

A Quick Thought on Teasing

I have never been very great at playful teasing. I have never been teased too much, though in high school, like everyone I’m sure, I was the butt of plenty of jokes and suffered a little bit of teasing that did not make me happy. Teasing exists on the same sliding scale as bulling and is generally a more safe version (in my mind) than outright bullying. It can go too far, however, teasing can have an important role in our relationships and can be a positive as opposed to just a negative.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write, “To tease is to provoke a small amount of suffering in a playful manner, often accompanied by laughter.” We joke with each other and playfully tease each other as a way to show that we are close. Giving someone a hard time about a particular personality trait, about a goofy thing that they did, or slightly bothering them in one way or another can be an opportunity for both people to show that they do care about the other and are close friends.

 

The authors continue, “Teasing is good-natured when it provokes only light suffering, and when the offense is offset by enough warmth and affinity that the person being teased generally feels more loved than ridiculed. The fact that it’s hard to tease strangers-because there’s no preexisting warmth to help mitigate the offense-means that the people we tease are necessarily close to us.”

 

We can only tease those who are close to us. We can only tease people who know we are their ally, and we can only  tease in small degrees that allow us to be close and compassionate while still messing with the other person. If we don’t surround our teasing with enough warmth and care, then we are just bullying the other person. This can be a challenge because the level of warmth and affection that each person is going to need to offset each individual act of teasing will vary. At the very least however, we can remember that if we are going to playfully tease someone, we should make sure first that we are close enough with them to joke about personal things, and that we surround the teasing with enough niceness and signals of friendship to offset the suffering of the teasing act.

Thinking About Our Friendships

I am always saddened by how challenging adult friendships can be. Once you begin working 40 hours a week, have to deal with a commute, and have a household to look over, keeping up with friends and getting out to do things with friends becomes nearly impossible. I enjoy being able to own a home, but unfortunately, like many suburban residents I have a lengthy commute to work, get home and park in my garage, and generally don’t see a lot of friends or even neighbors during the week. I try not to be on my phone at work, and when I get home I start cooking and generally don’t message or call anyone.

 

In this busy work-life world, it can become easy to start seeing friends the way we see our impersonal relationships with ATM machines, paddle boards, and the grocery store. If it is convenient and if I get something in return from our friendship, I’ll reach out and try to schedule something for the weekend. If you can help me and if being friends with you is likely to pay off, then we can say hi to each other and maybe hangout for a BBQ sometime.

 

Trying to cram friendship into our suburban lifestyle in this way, however, doesn’t work and we won’t be satisfied with our friendships if we approach friendship with this type of utility maximization. Friendship and deep relationships are about more than just convenience or borrowing a leaf blower. Seneca writes, “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.” Many of our friendships end-up being just cordial relationships when times are easy.

 

This can leave us without support when we face real challenges and emergencies. It can leave us feeling isolated and depressed and provide us with fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with people in a meaningful way. I truly think this is one of the greatest challenges we face and I see even small things, like starting a club or community group, as a huge step toward changing the relationships we have. We need to see people not as friendship ATMs,  but as real individuals who have the same challenges, fears, and capacity for enjoyment and interest in the world as we do. By seeing a little more of ourselves in others we can start to see the importance of having meaningful connections with people and we can start working to better connect with the people around us.

Thoughtful Friendships

Last week I listened to an interview with The Minimalists on the Kevin Rose Show. The Minimalists have been in my orbit for quite a while and generally focus on an approach the world based on what is necessary and what adds true value to our lives as opposed to chasing every little thing that we think we want. When we step back and look critically at the things in our life and ask ourselves why we have certain things and if we truly need them, we can begin to do more with less and remove stressful clutter.

 

One area that was briefly mentioned in the podcast was friendship and how we can bring a type of minimalist approach to our friendships. The idea was not that we should have a bare minimum number of friends in our lives, but rather that we should be thoughtful about who we spend our time with. We should look at the friends around us and ask if our friendship is beneficial for us or for our friend, ask what type of benefit and value we receive from our friendship, and ultimately we should consider whether our friendship makes us but better and happier people. This means we avoid trying to befriend people who are popular, powerful, and wealthy but generally don’t live in a way that would help us be the best versions of ourselves. We should let go of poisonous relationships that lead us to do things we don’t really want to do or lead us to become people that we don’t like.

 

Seneca wrote about this in Letters From a Stoic almost 2,000 years ago, “Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart.” Seneca is also encouraging us to be thoughtful with our friends and to be choosy with the people we spend our time with. Rather than using friendship to try to move up a career or financial ladder, and rather than using friendship to try to look more popular, our friendships should be with people who help us think more deeply about the world, help us engage with the world in a meaningful way, and can be loyal people that we can open up with about our challenges in a way that is healthy for both of us. Once again, this doesn’t mean that we should not have any friends, but that we should work to cultivate meaningful and close friendships.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.

Overly Reliant on Outside Influences

One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.

One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”

Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

All Options Policy

What I really liked about Colin Wright’s book Some Thoughts About Relationships is that he focused on more than just romantic relationships. Wright examines how humans interact with each other within all types of relationships from romantic relationships with an intimate partner, to business relationships, to cordial but surface level relationships with the mail man. With so many possible relationships out there, Wright developed a framework for thinking about the multitude of ways that humans can relate to each other. He calls it the “All Options Policy”.

 

About the policy, he writes, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships. There are as many valid relationship types as there are people, and it’s up to each of us to figure out what unique, specific shape ours will take.”

 

I really like this policy and wish we did more to apply this policy to our relationships and to build similar policies across our lives. I grew up watching too much TV, and I developed certain expectations about life, work, and relationships. These expectations were narrow in scope because they were based on what I saw on TV and were unrealistic because they were less about me and more about a performance for someone else. The way I grew up assumed there was a right way to act, behave, relate to others, and generally live. My mindset was the opposite of the “All Options Policy.” What’s more, this worldview was formed by scripted 30 minute tv segments, where reality, nuance, and true emotions were replaced by spectacle and overblown emotional reactions.

 

When we fail to recognize the variety in human life and experience we begin to force people into set boxes. We make assumptions and we try to live within a narrow range. Expanding that scope the way that Wright does with the All Options Policy allows for more creative and authentic human experience. We all have unique views and perspectives of the world, and we should expect that we will all have the capacity for developing our own ways of relating to the world and to other people. When we allow this to be the case, we can think deeply about what we want, expect, and need from our relationships with others, think about what other people want, need, and expect from us, and find a way to develop relationships with the people in (or potentially in) our lives. If we try to force relationships to be something that we think society, TV shows, or other people want our relationships to be, then we will never experience the rich complexity and individuality of human existence that the All Options Policy reflects.

Completeness

Relationships are complicated and can be approached from many different directions. No matter how you approach a relationship, however, you will be more successful and authentic if you can be a complete version of who you are. I previously wrote about Colin Wright’s views of “The One,” the perfect person who exists for you and exists someplace else in this world for the sole purpose of completing you. Wright explains that this idea is dangerous because it implies that somehow we cannot be happy, complete, and lead fulfilling lives unless we magically find another other person who is a perfect fit for us.

 

Wright closes out his chapter on “The One” with the following, “You are the one. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness.” Continuing, “You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with in between.”

 

If we wait for the right person to come along to improve our life, open new doors for us, and make us happy, we will constantly be unfulfilled. Each person we meet will be judged along impossible dimensions of how well we think that person completes us. We won’t allow them to be complete versions of themselves, and we won’t be happy with the person that they are unless they somehow manage to meet every preconceived expectation we have for a partner who will fill all shortcomings.

 

To recognize that we are complete requires that we become aware of the pressures we put on ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about what matters and what does not, and the motivations behind our goals and desires. Completeness requires that we be honest about how we spend our time and the choices we make. Without honest self reflection we cannot recognize what in our lives contributes to a sense of wholeness, and what distracts us from achieving what we would like to achieve to feel complete. Building in habits of self-reflection and awareness will help us to be a more authentic version of ourselves, and then we can better connect with others in our lives to have more meaningful and honest relationships where we can both be complete versions of ourselves.