Whenever a religious believer wants to criticize an atheist, it seems like they always resort to the same accusations, a prominent one is that without religion we all will be sheep-shaggers, pig porkers, or horse fetishists…. but there is a deeper meaning.
Of course, given the popularity of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” maybe bestiality is ok…? But I digress….
Anyway, it just happened again, some religious type, attempting to demean an atheist instead of upholding the presumptions of his own illogical beliefs, resorts to insinuating that without the restraint of religion, and laws based on religion, all the world’s atheists would be running around doing terrible things, including having sex with animals. I don’t really ever get agitated by such accusations, but I do find it strangely curious that this is such a consistent and repeated contention. And it comes from people of many major religions, as I’ve heard it from Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and Jews. Why?
I suppose if they claimed we would all be murderers, we could counter that if atheists felt like killing people they would just join the military, or the police if you happen to live in the US or Brazil. The job of executioner is also open in many countries, although principally in China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. ISIS/ISIL also has some openings for headsmen, as does Boko Haram in Nigeria and Abu Sayef in the Philippines. And of course there are always the more lucrative narcotics crime syndicates
But bestiality? I couldn’t find a reference to the first time it was outlawed in history. It doesn’t seem to be covered in the Code of Hammurabi, but then we are missing part of the text. Whenever you see a law prohibiting something, you have to assume that such a law was passed in response to people undertaking the prohibited action. Doesn’t that make you wonder? Maybe certain cultures participated in sheep and goat sex to such an extent that the people (perhaps the ones in the urban areas, who felt they were not getting their fair share) felt they needed a law against it?
It’s actually a hard subject to come to grips with, as it’s not a legal issue that has much history or research dedicated to it. There does not appear to be a law journal dedicated to “Zoophilia”, “bestiality” or “the law of prostituting sheep.” There is, however, quite a bit on laws against cruelty to animals, and most countries use these to prosecute people who have sex with animals outside their own species. Most countries do not have laws specifically prohibiting humans from having anal sex with hamsters, for example.
Maybe another reason for the lack of good references is that it’s a very infrequent crime. That is not to say it doesn’t happen infrequently, it’s just that it doesn’t get prosecuted very often. Probably because the victims can’t exactly dial “911” or give testimony in court or to the police.
There have been instances, from time to time, of cultures accepting or even promoting sex with animals, often as some part of a ritual and often only in symbolic form. Sex with animals for pleasure as an accepted cultural feature is very rare (check out this alleged instance in Columbia1, supposedly practiced at present). Many cultures joke about it, especially in societies where sheep are an important part of the agricultural economy, such as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. But, jokes side, it’s never been an overtly accepted practice.
So why has it become the rotten egg of choice to hurl at atheists (as well as proponents of gay marriage)? Maybe because of some deep-seated longing for animal intercourse on the part of the religious? No, I doubt that, although there does seem to be a tendency for some of the most vocal male homophobes (pastor and politician alike) to be getting a bit of gay action on the sly2. So, perhaps some of the more vocal and emphatic critics are indeed overly fond of their canine companions….
Atheists are used to the contention that they are libertines extraordinaire. And in some ways we are, as the Marquis de Sade was persecuted for his irreverent politics and attitude towards the Catholic church as much as for his perceived immoralities (which appear to have been predominantly imaginary). Apparently, according to some believers, if atheists were in charge, everyone would be high on marijuana or LSD, having constant sex, and breaking wind in the halls of the mighty3. Actually, that all sounds pretty good to me, especially the prospect of farting on any available monarch4.
But what is really going on here, like the contention that only religion and the fear of eternal damnation or reincarnation as a dung beetle keep humans from slaughtering each other, is a profound lack of understanding of morality as anything consciously selected, rather than externally imposed. Many people truly lack an understanding of choice without commandment. The idea of declining an opportunity to shag a sheep, when there is no reward for such forbearance nor penalty for the commission of the act (assuming the perpetrator is not allergic to wool…) is difficult for some believers to comprehend. It’s not that they secretly relish the idea of having intercourse with stallions (unless of course they are doing research on Catherine the Great5).
When believers claim that atheists would run amok6 and commit crimes that pass the border of universal civilized conduct (pedophilia, bestiality, murder, etc), it is not so much a condemnation of atheism so much as it is an admission that they lack even a basic understanding of philosophy or personal morality. Schooled all their lives to obey authority without question, they make perfect subjects or citizens, their understanding of human actions is premised on a simple “reward / punishment” foundation. Every choice they make in life is constrained by this simple maxim: will I be rewarded, or will I be punished. And god/gods/karma are ever present. They are there when you’re looking at porn on the internet, daydreaming about the guy in history class, considering shoplifting, fighting in a war, struggling to feed your family, or looking at a sheep with longing…
So, in a world that is a strait jacket of carrot and stick, of divine munificence and abject torment, of grace and perdition, they live a life without personal justification. Indeed, thinking for yourself may be a sin or lead to sin on its own. Many of them genuinely do not know how they would live outside of this duality of consciousness.
This understanding of the source of the criticism leads to a different way to counter the accusation. It’s not about bestiality, it about personal choice. I can choose, without supernatural consequence, how to lead my life. What actions I take are dictated by my level of compassion and understanding of others, or its antithesis should I so choose7. I choose, I am not told. And as part of a society, I take part in a collective choice of morality to be applied through laws and custom. I choose, not god. I am a beast, indeed. Wild, free and master of my own choices. I placate no angels, I fear no devils, for I am free.
3 Which is a line I heard somewhere before, but I can’t remember where, so I can’t make a proper attribution. It might have been Black Adder IV?
4 I fell monarchy to be one of the worst blights on human dignity. See http://www.atheistrepublic.com/blog/deandrasek/royalty-another-facet-rel...
5 She got a bad rap for her reputation for having many lovers, and perhaps also partly for being an ethnic German who ruled over Russia.
6 Which is a rather neat word borrowed in English from Malay, and which refers to the manner in which British colonialist were sometimes greeted by the natives.
7 Being atheist does not mean you are compassionate or that you won’t bugger the nearest goat, if you fancy it. It means that your morality come from within – which for many people, even atheists, can be scary. See http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/100/is-it-true-about-catherine-...