We can begin where most Americans really begin to learn about sex, i.e. on the typical American campus of the past few decades. To live it is to see up close and personal that Dostoevsky’s mantra — when God is gone, everything is permitted — is not some lame old literary prophesy, but a vibrating social fact. Of course by saying “everything” is permitted on campus I don’t literally mean everything, after all; these upper middle-class children, some still wearing braces and nearly all still depending on their doting parents for every library fine, have for the most part proved unlikely to take up mass murder or grand theft auto. But the part of “everything” that involves everybody’s favorite something, i.e. risk-and-supposedly-consequence-free sex (or at least the promise thereof), has been different.
Looking back to my own years in the university, I’d say that if the place had had to choose a motto in English, likely the Fittest would have been “Let copulation thrive!” If You know what I mean (and I bet You do!). And the connection between all this furtive fun behind doors and the absence of any public religiosity was quite obvious, at least to this former Christian. It wasn’t just the deity who’d taken a hike off the quad, of course; authority in practically any form had disappeared along with the Loser. But there’s no doubt that god above all just wasn’t done. In four years, I met one student who openly attended church, and the subsequent number I have uncovered were doing so more or less samizdat. That’s what I’m trying to explain about this. The place was as pure as any atheist’s dream, as deity-free as the Bravo Channel on Sunday morn (or any other time!).
Now why is any of this a problem for the atheist side? Duh. First, the fact of what’s been happening on campus all these years means that we Brights can’t very well go around like the communists always tried to, and say that the problem with our vision is that it “hasn’t really been tried.” No, secularism/atheism when it comes to sexual mores anyway has
been tried, is
being tried, and the empirical Fact is that what’s happening on campuses is what sex and “romance” look like when we Brights get our way and dispose of all those silly religious rules — two, three, many Charlotte Simmonses.
And if the campuses don’t do it for you, take a look at what secular sex is doing in post-Christian Western Europe! Pornography is everywhere, over-the-counter medicines for STDs are front and center in every convenience store, red-light districts showcase poorer and younger people (mostly from the East) being paid for every possible combination of sex by richer and older people (mostly from the West), the age of consent keeps getting pushed lower — and marriage and children and families are disappearing.
Please don’t misunderstand me here — I’m not saying it isn’t all fantastic! I’m just saying something none of You mentioned when you talked about sex, which is that this is what things look like when We atheists get our way.
See? That’s secularism for you; that’s what it does. You can stand on your hind feet like a proud biped and applaud it; you can pretend it is something other than what it is; you can say with a straight face that you’re happy to send your own daughters into that kind of world, that you don’t care how many men or women or even what species she sleeps with — or what her partner devours for hours on end in the computer when she’s asleep, say — as long as they are all somehow “responsible” about it; but that’s pretty much the limit of what the Facts will allow us to do.
What You can’t do, any more than I could back in my Christian days, is to pretend that this atmosphere on campus, anymore than the sterility of Western Europe today, was somehow accidental to the absence of religious practice. Of course the two are glued together. Secularism is as secularism does.
The second point I’d urge You all to consider — and again, it’s not the kind of thing Guys of your age might know if you’ll pardon my saying so — is that when we atheists say with a straight face that deep-sixing the old sex rules will make everybody happy, we’re dissing the experience of most people who have passed through college since the Godless Generation. I mean to say, that’s pretty much everyone under the age of 50. The Gen-Xers on down have all seen firsthand the same things this former Christian did — that all this rutting and strutting and getting free contraceptives and living for the moment was not exactly the way atheists all paint it in their books, i.e. as some fantastic liberation from the sexually repressive hand of the doddering Church.
Oh snap! In fact and to the contrary, throwing out all the rules has actually been making a lot of people very miserable indeed — to say nothing of how miserable plenty of them were making other people. Maybe You somehow weren’t around for all the hangovers and de-toxing, the panicked trips to the shrinks and the clinics, the door slammings and crying jags and suicide threats that so many of us think about when we think about college; but some of the rest of Us saw enough to get pretty sick of all that, and tempted to think that a rule or two about how some members of the Species ought to treat others might not be all bad. It was mostly worse for the women than for the men, I’m thinking — which reminds me of something else that’s the subject of a later Letter: You all do know some women, don’t you? — but it wasn’t so great for plenty of the guys, either.