Thursday, August 06, 2009

Sex and the Single Baha'i

Christianity Today has an interview with one of the authors of the recently published Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church.

As I've said before, Baha'is have much in common with evangelical Christians and some of the comments made in this interview sound just like what I hear among single Baha'is. Check it out:

What prompted you and Bonnie to write Singled Out?

The two of us have been friends since college. As we went on with our lives and earned degrees, we had long conversations about our frustrations of being single in the evangelical church. So we started to look for good advice for older singles, because much discussion about abstinence [is for] high schoolers and college age people. But once you're out of college, once you are working, there really wasn't much of a discussion.

Much of the discussion around singleness is, "Just have enough faith, and God will provide a spouse." And we started to worry about what that says about God. This idea of, wait a second, God hasn't provided a spouse. What does that mean? Does that mean I'm not a good Christian? Does that mean God is not faithful? When you start going there, that's dangerous. So we started to look for a better discussion.

What are the sociological factors leading to so many Christians, particularly women, remaining single?

One factor is that we just have more singles in the U.S. The most recent statistic is from 2006, which says 46 percent of Americans are single. There's just not the assumption that you will marry, you will marry young, and you will stay in that one marriage for life. But many churches have reacted to this by focusing on the nuclear family, and because of that, a lot of singles are uncomfortable in the church.

There have also been discussions about the feminization of Christianity, and how men don't feel comfortable in the church. So when you have those factors working together, from our experiences and our friends' experiences, single women in churches look around and are not finding anyone. The other dilemma is "marrying down" — what does it mean to marry someone who isn't as spiritually mature? That is a dilemma for many single Christian women.

I don't want it to sound like we are ragging on all the single men in the church. Yes, there's a problem of immaturity in the church, for men and women, but a lot of writers say, "It's the men's fault, and if they would step up and do their job, we wouldn't have this problem." And it's far more complex than that. I feel for men in the church who say, "I also have reasons why I'm single, and it's not because I stay home and play video games all the time."

Might part of the problem be that Christians are being too picky?

I'd phrase it this way: We have learned the importance of thinking before getting married. We've seen a lot of broken marriages. We've seen people jump into marriage and realize "oops," in both the Christian and secular worlds. So a lot of Christian singles are pausing to say, "Maybe I shouldn't just jump into marriage, because I want it to be a lifelong commitment and I recognize how serious that is." (You can read the rest of the interview here. You can read a review of the book here).

There is a lot here worth discussing but I'd like to focus on the celibacy issue first. In the Baha'i Writings, celibacy is the option for those who remain unmarried into adulthood,"...Of course, under normal circumstances, every person should consider it his moral duty to marry. And this is what Bahá'u'lláh has encouraged the believers to do. But marriage is by no means an obligation. In the last resort it is for the individual to decide whether he wishes to lead a family life or live in a state of celibacy." (From letter of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 3, 1936).

My experience is that for many Americans, celibacy (like chastity) is a four letter word. The notion that any sane person would or could live without sex is beyond comprehension. I was recently talking with someone about the nature of divine law and said that such laws are not only statements on what we should do, but what we can do. Any standard set by God implies that a human being can actually meet that standard, otherwise it would be unjust to be held accountable by God for failing to meet it. Thus it is in fact possible for a human being to live without sex. Not only that but a person could actually live a happy celibate life! This sounds very simple but in the context of a society where the importance of physical love is "over-exaggerated" it is a radical notion, "The world today is submerged, amongst other things, in an over- exaggeration of the importance of physical love, and a dearth of spiritual values. In as far as possible the believers should try to realize this and rise above the level of their fellow-men who are, typical of all decadent periods in history, placing so much over-emphasis on the purely physical side of mating" (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 360). What if we looked at Baha'is who are living a celibate life style as heroic, counter-cultural revolutionaries rather than walking tragedies for having "failed" to marry? What if we saw them as living proof of what is possible for humanity?


  1. Hi Phillipe,
    Thank you so much for calling attention to this, I wish we would discuss this more in the Baha'i community. I have often felt that we have much in common with Catholics and also other Christians in regards to chastity, and it is interesting to see us all struggling with similar issues.
    Interestingly enough, as Baha'is we are not only called upon to transform our own lives- our attitudes and behavior, but we are also called upon to transform our environment and to improve society itself!
    I would love to see discussion on how not only we can face these issues ourselves, but modify society as well. I suppose one way is by trying to serve as an example, as you mention, of another way to live. Perhaps we should also not shy away from discussion on these topics. We have much in common with other communities of Faith, perhaps this is another area for dialogue.

  2. Anne well said, I believe one way Baha'is can contribute to social transformation regarding this and similar issues is to offer alternative ways of thinking and talking about them. As you've mentioned, there are other religious folks who are already doing that and we need to participate in the discourse. This would include looking at how our own attitudes and behaviors as Baha'is may reflect some of the problematic aspects of the culture around us and beginning to change that. This is part of what I'm hoping to do with this blog.

    What do other people think?

  3. What a beautiful post and blog. I often wonder if when God carved in stone, "Do not commit adultery" he was saying do not have sex outside of marriage. This certainly would end sexually transmitted diseases, and spiritually transmitted diseases.

  4. Anonymous6:42 PM

    Another fantastic blog. @love I think you are right. When I was younger I struggled to see the real point in the teachings on chastity. I never made sense from the individual perspective but when I looked at the bigger picture and considered the effect in the world of chastity being commonplace I had a bit of a "eureka" moment. This teaching will really revolutionize our society.


  5. Anonymous7:00 PM

    Pauline. I beg to differ on the individual perspective. When I was younger I went to see a therapist for depression and the first thing he asked me is 'Do you masturbate'? Having studied Freud and psychoanalyis lately I can see why the therapist asked this question, since Freud made the idea that sex was THE force driving human behaviour. As Bahais we believe that the force driving human behaviour is the Spirit and that sex is simply a secondary force relating to our animal natures. So from an indivdual perspective it is important to remember this and realize that sex IS NOT NECESSARY for a healthy life. I was confused on this issue for a long time and it wasn't until a dream I had during the fast that it all became clear to me.

  6. Thank you for writing this! I too wish that this topic was discussed more in our communities. It is an important part of life and putting it in the proper context is vital, especially for Baha'i youth.

    Also, you should tell your single Baha'i friends about Baha'i Doves!

  7. Anonymous5:04 PM

    This is an extremely important conversation, Philippe. Thank you for starting it.

    Some of my unmarried Baha'i friends who are in their late 20's and 30's have said that almost none of their Baha'i friends in similar circumstances seem able to uphold the standard in this area. There is an air of fatalism/inevitability in this that I find very unsettling. I wonder how someone struggling with this feels if they think everyone else is "doing it".

    I've seen some of these friends through extremely painful breakups when it became clear that despite having a physical relationship with their boyfriend/girlfriend, it is never going to lead to the relationship they want which would be in conformity with the Writings (marriage and starting a family). I don't see much awareness that it could well have been the breaking of laws that led to such pain, and that the teachings on marriage, family, sexuality, etc. are intended for our protection and happiness, not our misery and deprivation.

  8. phillipe copeland8:34 PM

    Anonymous, thanks for weighing in, I've known people who've faced similar challenges. I think that people need practical guidance on how to navigate the waters of chaste and holy courtships in a culture that frankly does little to support them. This guidance has to be based in compassion and understanding of how difficult this particular issue is for many people. Those who are striving to live according to this standard however imperfectly are truly heroic and I think need to hear that as often as possible. People also need support in finding marriage partners which is something the Baha'i community is learning to do better.

  9. Hi Phillipe,
    Regarding your comment: "People also need support in finding marriage partners ".
    How do you think we can do this? Any suggestions from your readers?
    ...asking with self interest in mind of course! :-)

  10. Anonymous1:11 PM

    A dear unmarried friend said something funny recently. "Its like we have been given a drive and then told don't drive" lol. I am also single and this is such a significant issue the Bahai approach sometimes seems to be polar opposite to that in the world at large. When getting to know people who are not Bahai this has been my experience anyway. If we develop more positive ideals and an understanding that our life is meant for service I cant help but think these issues become a little easier. None the less there is no simple answer so its a great topic for open discussion and positive action. We need to develop a robust understanding and a healthy culture towards these issues.

  11. Anonymous4:14 PM

    I agree with virtually all the posts so far, however I must say that although I will always remain chaste until I have found a wife, my mind has been coping in a negative way. I live in London and everyone seems to think its so normal to be "sexually active" and that you must find out if you are "sexually compatible" before you commit, personally my coping mechanism even though I know it is wrong, has been to completely hate these kinds of people which means society at large I have coped with it by seeing them as dirty and filthy excuses for human beings with hardly any principles or morals. I believe that it is VITAL for Bahais to discuss this, especially us Bahais that live in the west and in the cities because we are smothered by the media bombarding us with images and Tv adverts and trying to shove pre-marital sex and all forms of moral laxity down our throats. I would be very very grateful if one of you were to tell me what I should do as the first step to combating this problem because I will be 100% in support of it and give it my total commitment.


  12. Anonymous10:26 PM

    This issue was very difficult for me when I was younger. I resented the fact that it was so difficult for an African American women to find a husband, as so many of our men are marginalized in this society and therefore find it much harder than white men to be able to support a family, and that if by some miracle they were able to find the hole in the wall and become financially stable, a Black woman was the last thing in the world they wanted. It further infuriated me that I would hear stories of how so and so was able to get married without first having pre-marital sex, but that just seemed not to be a possibility for me. It was always an issue with every guy I dated. It seemed that no one could accept a Black woman being celibate. Now that I'm older and past menopause I don't really care any more, and have settled happily into my single life. I thank God that my hormones have finally settled down, and I hope and pray that as society develops spiritually, this will be less of an issue for my younger sisters in the Faith. Baha'u'llah has shown us a way to live that can keep us safe, happy and secure. We just have to be smart enough to realize it. Hang in there ladies! And you guys get your heads together and keep it zipped!!

  13. Anonymous2:27 AM

    I'd caution against downplaying the spiritual power and profound emotional connection enabled through sexual intimacy between husband and wife, or outside of the Baha'i context even genuine lovers. As a young single Baha'i I'm often annoyed by the conversation on this subject inevitably tending to emphasize how exaggerated the sex instinct is culturally during this decadent age. While this observation made by the guardian is obviously true the tone, in Baha'i discourse, often seems to downplay the enormously profound nature of sex, when had properly a spiritual act of deepening individually, and between the couple, in itself. This isn't to say that celibacy is unreasonable or even unadvisable for people who are so inclined, but the sexually disinterested or asexual-they shouldn't be discouraged. And by the same token writing off the sex issue for single baha'is as a trivial consequence of rabid cultural hypersexuality isn't in keeping with Baha'u'llah's teachings either.