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12.09.2007

So Much for the Notion That Atheists Are Just As Moral As Anyone

Richard Dawkins, atheist "saint":

Returning to the original topic of sex outside marriage, I want to raise another question that interests me. Why are we so obsessed with monogamous fidelity in the first place? Agony Aunt columns ring with the cries of those who have detected -- or fear -- that their man/woman (who may or may not be married to them) is "cheating on them". "Cheating" really is the word that occurs most readily to these people. The underlying presumption -- that a human being has some kind of property rights over another human being's body -- is unspoken because it is assumed to be obvious. But with what justification?

In one of the most disgusting stories to hit the British newspapers last year, the wife of a well-known television personality, Chris Tarrant, hired a private detective to spy on him. The detective reported evidence of adultery and Tarrant's wife divorced him, in unusually vicious style. But what shocked me was the way public opinion sided with Tarrant's horrible wife. Far from despising, as I do, anybody who would stoop so low as to hire a detective for such a purpose, large numbers of people, including even Mr. Tarrant himself, seemed to think she was fully justified. Far from concluding, as I would, that he was well rid of her, he was covered with contrition and his unfortunate mistress was ejected, covered with odium. The explanation of all these anomalous behavior patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy. It is manifest all the way from Othello to the French "crime passionnel" law, down to the "love rat" language of tabloid newspapers.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favored males who guarded their mates for fear of squandering economic resources on other men's children. On the female side, it is harder to make a Darwinian case for the sort of vindictive jealousy displayed by Mrs. Tarrant. No doubt hindsight could do it, but I want to make a different point. Sexual jealousy may in some Darwinian sense accord with nature, but "Nature, Mr. Allnutt, is what we are put in this world to rise above." Just as we rise above nature when we spend time writing a book or a symphony rather than devoting our time to sowing our selfish genes and fighting our rivals, so mightn't we rise above nature when tempted by the vice of sexual jealousy?

I, for one, feel drawn to the idea that there is something noble and virtuous in rising above nature in this way. I admit that I have, at times in my life, been jealous, but it is one of the things I now regret. Assuming that such practical matters as sexually transmitted diseases and the paternity of children can be sorted out (and nowadays DNA testing will clinch that for you if you are sufficiently suspicious, which I am not), what, actually, is wrong with loving more than one person? Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined? The British writer Julie Burchill is not somebody I usually quote (imagine a sort of intelligent Ann Coulter speaking with a British accent in a voice like Minnie Mouse) but I was struck by one of her remarks. I can't find the exact quote, but it was to the effect that, however much you love your mate (of either sex in the case of the bisexual Burchill) sex with a stranger is almost always more exciting, purely because it is a stranger. An exaggeration, no doubt, but the same grain of truth lurks in Woody Allen's "Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it's one of the best."

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can't love more than one person? We seem to manage it with parental love (parents are reproached if they don't at least pretend to love all their children equally), love of books, of food, of wine (love of Chateau Margaux does not preclude love of a fine Hock, and we don't feel unfaithful to the red when we dally with the white), love of composers, poets, holiday beaches, friends . . . why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it? Why can a woman not love two men at the same time, in their different ways? And why should the two – or their wives -- begrudge her this? If we are being Darwinian, it might be easier to make the case the other way, for a man sincerely and deeply loving more than one woman. But I don't want to pursue the details here.

I'm not denying the power of sexual jealousy. It is ubiquitous if not universal. I'm just wondering aloud why we all accept it so readily, without even thinking about it. And why don't we all admire – as I increasingly do -- those rare free spirits confident enough to rise above jealousy, stop fretting about who is "cheating on" whom, and tell the green-eyed monster to go jump in the lake?


If there is a Mrs Dawkins, she likely isn't amused.

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