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Mainstream social taboos

10 August 2009

While reading a recent post on the always excellent Friendly Atheist blog, I was interested to see a guest blogger writing about the polyamory lifestyle. The article opens as follows:

As atheists, many of us have faced some level of negative reaction from those around us, on account of our deviation from our culture’s expected norms. I’ve found that atheists, in general, tend to support GLBT rights and other civil rights issues despite opposition by an offended religious majority. After all, atheists have no religious inhibitions that lead them to view certain deviations from the norm as anything immoral or harmful to society. Atheists know what it’s like to be demonized and hated by those who fear us for our differences. I’d like to call your attention to another group of people — a group even deeper in the “closet” than atheists — who could use your support: polyamorists.

The rest of the article can be found here: In Defense of Polyamory

Part of what interested me about this article was that I was unaware polyamory was a lifestyle movement outside religion (e.g. Muslims or Mormons) and hedonistic stereotypes (bored marriages, bohemian students or artists, etc). Another interesting point was the author’s comments about deviations from cultural and social norms, which I suspect is most likely the crux of religious and conservative problems with those who don’t fit into the God-fearing, husband & wife, missionary position, change-is-bad, tradition-is-to-be-trusted, meat & 2 veg pigeonhole.

It seems that most old law-giving religions were borne from tribal groups where certain laws and behaviours were established to keep the (relatively small) tribe fit and healthy, with transgression being met with brutal punishment as the survival of the tribe was at stake. (We still do the same thing: consider the penalty for treason in your country). Hence, non-procreative sexual activity was distrusted and, when it let to same-sex relationships, the tribe had lost two potentially viable sources of children and mates for two other people. No more children means no more tribe, and we recognise that concept today in our perfectly correct “children are our future” mindset. It doesn’t matter that the argument is a false dichotomy.

It’s not inconceivable that the tribal prohibition against same-sex relationships could have, as the law gradually became more conservative over time, been extended to include other relationships outside the “proven to work” formula (choose a mate or have one chosen, betrothal and binding, breeding and offspring; rinse and repeat). This simple linear progression has worked since Prehistory but, when enshrined in law or even cultural expectation, it doesn’t allow for what engineers call a corner case: people who don’t fit into the expected behaviours. We see this in both animals and humans, so it’s not people just “choosing to be different.”

However, what struck me the most about the article was that although I have reassessed my opinion on homosexuality — which has naturally expanded to include the LGBT umbrella — polyamory and polygamy are two concepts that I had not yet reassessed. By reassess I mean the thoughts and opinions that we all gather over time, initially as children through young adulthood and into mental and emotional maturity. Some people are constantly re-evaluating their perspective on things as they encounter them, some reach old age without adjusting many opinions formed in childhood, and I suspect the majority fall somewhere in between — perhaps leaning one way or the other based upon our liberalism and conservatism. But especially pronounced if we are religious.

As I’ve blogged about previously, I had minimal formal religious instruction (though various notable influences) until I was 17, then a few years of intensive fundagelicalism during which everything I knew about just about anything was re-forged and realigned into a specific way of thinking — a kind of mental aquaduct designed to funnel everything along a certain route to a certain outcome. When I was eventually spat out of that homogenous situation, every opinion I had was filtered through that lens and my rational self knew almost none of it could be trusted. These opinions were not mine and they had not been formed through critical analysis; they had been overlaid to match the party line. Deconstructing one’s own mind is no trivial undertaking.

So this article has got me thinking about two aspects of life that I haven’t had cause to reassess in 17 years or more. That’s not to say that I will automatically find a way to accomodate acceptance of it, as that is not the application of critical thinking. The way I have managed the deconstruction of my mind is to treat just about every contentious topic as a blank canvas — I have no opinion on many things, allowing me to consider and think about them properly before forming my own opinions.

Those opinions may turn out to be wrong, but they’re mine. From there it’s relatively straightforward and clear sailing…

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