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Lucas_CranachAbrahamic faiths have never been very big on celebrating the human body. While some religions revel in our inherent sensuality, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam each in their turn have taught us not to feel completely at home in our own physical selves.

It all started, you see, with a fig leaf.

Well, not really. That’s just a story they tell…but they all three tell it. All three monotheistic religions begin their grand narrative with the story of an original couple walking through a garden…buck…naked.

Ironically, this state of affairs was just fine, according to the stories they all tell. Being naked was fine by God, evidently, right up until the moment humans got smarter. Once they became self-aware, everything changed. “Their eyes were opened,” it says, and suddenly they felt shame.  Same story in all three religions. Same pathology (eating from a tree), same solution:  They took some leaves and covered up their naughty bits.

I don’t believe I could envision a more apt metaphor for religion than that right there.

In this story, people were living well, happy, going about their business without the slightest regret toward their own physicality. But then something came along…something which they weren’t supposed to consume but presumably was placed there anyway by their creator (who else in this story can make trees?) and it made them feel ashamed of who they were. Before, there was no shame. Now, suddenly, they are mortified.*

Their solution to this new state was to weave together for themselves a covering…something which would hide parts of their bodies so that they would no longer feel bad about who they were.  I cannot tell you how perfect an analogy that is for everything else which follows.

For all three of these faiths, there is something inherently shameful now about who we are in our physical selves, and nowhere can that be seen more obviously than in the area of our sexuality.

World Religions and the Human Body

Like I said, some world religions revel in it. Many ancient faiths weave sexual experience into their worship traditions. You can travel to India and see depictions of sexual acts carved into the walls of their houses of worship. Hindus even have an entire holy book devoted to enumerating as many sex positions as they could possibly imagine (and believe me, some of those can only be accomplished in your imagination).

But not the Abrahamic faiths. No sir. In fact, Abrahamic religion made its global debut by declaring that the male genitals are not the shape that God prefers. In our day, Christians love to argue that human beings were intelligently designed, but evidently that did not apply to the male foreskin. God does not like the foreskin. One time he even tried to kill Moses because his son still had one, but Zipporah intervened and got rid of it in a hurry, just in time to appease the angry deity. To this very day, if you want to become a member of that religion, and you happen to be male, you will have to do something about the shape of your member. It is apparently very important to Yahweh.

In Christianity, this subtle disdain for the body grew to become even more pronounced. The apostle Paul even turned the word “fleshly” into a criticism, as if fully inhabiting your own physical self were somehow base and wicked. He spoke of his own body as a tent, a reluctant temporary dwelling from which he would one day be saved:

Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. (emphasis mine)

Clothed = good. Naked = bad.  Got it?  From this point forward, the Christian view of sex will be developed almost entirely by unmarried men. Give you three guesses how well that turned out!

Islam developed last among these three religions, and I believe it’s safe to say they eventually took the idea of covering up the human body to its most logical extreme…especially the female body.  In some countries you can’t even see their eyes. They must cover themselves from head to toe. No part of the female form must be visible to anyone except the man who marries her.

What, in fact, is the burka if not a fig leaf taken to its ultimate expression?

Historically, nonreligious cultures have been bothered far less by the human form. To this day, primitive cultures in warmer climates leave most of their bodies uncovered (much to the enjoyment of National Geographic readers). The ancient Greeks particularly loved capturing its beauty in works of art, and that aesthetic enjoyed a resurgence many years later during the Renaissance.

But then a funny thing happened.

The Fig Leaf Campaign

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church tried many things to restore the public image of the priesthood. Evidently they had become known far and wide for corruption and immorality (where have I heard that before?), so they set out to show those rebellious Protestants that the Church could undertake its own “counter-reformation” without their heretical help.

Their solution? Criss-cross Europe carrying buckets of plaster to cover every naked statue in Christendom with…you guessed it…a fig leaf. I kid you not. It started in December of 1563 and historians call it “The Fig Leaf Campaign” (You can view an excellent, hour-long documentary on that here, although I wouldn’t recommend watching it if you’re offended by the recurring sight of marble genitalia). To be precise, sometimes it was more like an entire branch, or the corner of a tree, or even a conveniently draped cloth added to these works of art. The means mattered far less than the end: The naughty bits must not be seen. If they cannot be covered well enough, they must simply be chopped off entirely, and they often were.

Christ the Redeemer, by Michelangelo

In one hilarious instance, a naked statue of Jesus was carved by none other than Michelangelo himself to show the King of Kings in all his glory (remember he would have been naked at his crucifixion since the soldiers gambled for his underwear). Of course, this horrified the church leaders, who immediately covered the midsection of Christ the Redeemer with a skirt. This evidently did nothing to deter the curious nuns who kept sneaking into the sanctuary at night for a peek at the Savior’s family jewels. Seeing that nothing would stop this carnal fixation, the priest ultimately took a chisel to this priceless work of art and made a eunuch out of Jesus. They decided it was better for his genitals to be completely cut off than for them to cause another to sin.

To this day you can go around Europe and see these statues and paintings which the Catholic Church found abhorrent, and you can see what they did in order to preserve their own sense of propriety. Clearly this fixation with covering up our sexuality remains deeply woven into the fabric of the Christian religion even after all these centuries.

And it’s not just ancient history. In fact, just this morning the city of Rome made international headlines when the staff of the Capitoline Museum covered all of their classical nude sculptures with plywood so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of the visiting president of Iran, who flew in yesterday to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The local Italians ridiculed this move, but it only echoes the censorial sensibilities of every other Abrahamic faith, including that of the Pope, who himself isn’t permitted to have sex, ever.

We haven’t even touched on the present state of evangelical Protestantism, with its lingering fascination toward courtship and “kissing dating goodbye.” Among evangelicals today, you could earn a beating from your parents for holding another person’s hand before you exchange your wedding vows (true story), and the objectification of women continues in so many subtle and insidious ways that one could start an entire blog devoted to the concept and not run out of fresh material for many years.

Say…that’s not a bad idea, come to think of it!

The Purpose of This Blog

Those of us who will be contributing to this blog have plenty to say about the deleterious impact of religion on our sexuality. Each of us has shouldered the burden of guilt and shame placed on us by our religious upbringings. Each of us has had to “remove the fig leaf” in our own way, and perhaps we will never be completely done with that process.  When you are taught to be ashamed of your humanity during your formative years, the baggage stays with you for the rest of your life.

But it does get better. Each of us has worked through these issues to some level of personal satisfaction (heh), and this digital space has been created to talk about how we’ve progressed. We will use this blog platform to unpack our own religious hangups around our sexuality, picking apart those ideas which shackled our own enjoyment of ourselves and of others. Just about anything related to sexuality is fair game, since it’s all connected, although the focus of this blog will be on the intersection of faith, skepticism, humanism, and sexuality. In that sense Removing the Fig Leaf will be unique among the blogs at Patheos.

Rules of Engagement

The comment policy for this blog will be posted soon, but the most important rule of all will be respect.  We will not tolerate shaming, threats, or trolling on this page. There are plenty of other places online where you can project your personal insecurities at other people’s expense. This will not be one of them. Stay tuned and watch this space, because you know it’s gonna be fun.  

[Image Sources: WikimediaThe Guardian]

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*Interesting derivation, that word “mortified.” Like the word “human,” it says so much about how closely we link our humanity with shame, so much so that a word that means “made mortal” has come to connote humiliation. This association is problematic, and I think it signals how much work we have left to do in exorcising our religious demons from our vocabulary of self-description.

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...