Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster—A Response

The article "Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster" was published by Professor Richard Dawkins on the internet. Professor Dawkins is a zoologist and atheist, who feels the frequent need to loudly opine on subjects other than zoology. He has a troupe of devoted admirers whose slavish devotion to his every word is slightly disturbing. He's a particularly active promoter of Humanism, which I can only describe as a sort of religion for atheists. Abandoning the supernatural, Humanists cling to the group-think and tub-thumping self-righteousness of the religious. Without even some fun holidays or an after-life. Worst of both worlds. As someone who believes that atheism exempts us from being dictated to, by Professor Dawkins, the secular humanists or anyone else, I feel that a response to "Banishing the Green-Eyed Monster" is as good a place to begin as any.

"Is sex outside of marriage a sin? Is it a public matter? Is it forgivable?"

No, of course sex outside marriage is not a public matter, and yes, of course it is forgivable.

So here we hit the nail on the head right away. There's no "of course" about it. And if Dawkins really thought there were, he wouldn't devote a whole article to trying to convince us. It also seems rather odd to claim that sex outside marriage is "not a public matter" and then claim that it is "forgivable". "Forgivable" by whom? You are not directly involved in someone else's affair, so your feelings are not directly hurt. Therefore, you are claiming that you, the public, can forgive, whether directly involved or not. You're taking the decision of whether or not it's forgivable into your own hands, regardless of the people involved. In other words, you're claiming that it is a public matter—something that the public can "forgive".

Only a person infected by the sort of sanctimonious self-righteousness that religion uniquely inspires would apply the meaningless word 'sin' to private sexual behaviour.

Yes. The word "sin" is usually only used by the religious. The first definition of "sin" in Collins English Dictionary on-line is an "action or type of behaviour which is believed to break the laws of God". Therefore, probably only religious people would use that word. Personally, I know I wouldn't, because I'm not religious. But other words are available to people who don't want to use religious jargon. Like good plain "wrong".

It is the mark of the religious mind that it cares more about private than public morality.

Not just "a" mark. "The" mark, if you please. Actually, scientific studies of the brains of religious and non-religious people have shown that religious people have higher average levels of empathy, stronger average theory of mind and less average ability to imagine visual images than atheists. Also, that the parts of the brain associated with memory tend to be smaller in those with "born again" experiences than those without. This is just a quick whizz through pages and pages of research, the nuances and implications of which are still unclear. But I couldn't find anything about caring more about private than public morality as a mark of the religious mind.

Also, where does the distinction between "private" and "public" morality come from? Isn't morality morality? A liar is a liar. A man doesn't become a whole different person when he walks into his office in the morning and transform again when he leaves at five 'o' clock. A man who would lie to his wife's face would lie to anyone.

As the bumper sticker slogan put it, "When Clinton lied, nobody died."

Is lying only bad when people die as a result?

Officially, Bill Clinton was impeached not for sexual misconduct but for lying about it. But he was entitled to lie about his private life: one could even make a case that he had a positive duty to do so.

And yet Dawkins doesn't go on to make this "case" he believes he can make. He goes straight on to something else.

Tony Blair should have been impeached for lying to the House of Commons about alleged evidence for weapons of mass destruction, because his lies persuaded Members to vote for a war when they otherwise would not.

To describe Tony Blair as scum would be insulting to scum. He has tarnished the Labour Party's reputation and rendered it possibly permanently unelectable. But Dawkins is just jumping onto another topic. Rather than arguing a point about Bill Clinton, he starts talking about Tony Blair. And I'm not disagreeing with his point about Blair. I just don't see what it has to do with Clinton.

Lying to Congress by saying, "I did not have sex with that woman" should not be an impeachable offense, because where a man puts his penis is none of Congress's damn business.

We live in a democracy. The bare minimum that the public is entitled to is elected representatives that tell it the truth. Don't seek public office if you don't want the public eye.

Nor is it any journalist's damn business whether a politician once took drugs at university. Or whether he is gay.

We have something in this country called the free press. What the press is not allowed to publish is libel. Libel is untrue defamation. If the press publishes the truth, it's within its rights to publish.

And please don't say the right answer to an impertinent question about your private life is "No comment", because we all know how that would be interpreted. Telling a lie is often the only way to convey an effective "No comment."

A censorious culture in which public figures are forced to answer impertinent questions about their past, or their private affairs, would lead to open season on everybody.

"Open season on everybody" sounds all right by me.

Who, if challenged with a point blank question, could honestly deny some secret from the past that they know society would condemn?

Now I feel that Dawkins is just projecting. He may have dirty secret skeletons buried in his cupboard—after three divorces it wouldn't surprise me—and I suspect he's just trying to paint everybody the same way. Remember: people who always assume the worst about other people are accidently revealing a great deal about the way their own mind works.

What is more, the revolting hue and cry that our religiously inspired society habitually raises over private sexual 'morality' serves as a dangerous distraction away from important matters of public morality such as the Blair/Bush lies about Iraq's weapons.

Not necessarily. Two thinks can be true at once. It's possible to condemn the Iraq War and condemn issues of "private sexual 'morality'". Also, Dawkins hasn't proven yet that this "hue and cry" is "religiously-inspired". Actually, he's hardly talked about religion yet.

Now, here's a more difficult case. How about public figures lying about their religious affiliations? Shouldn't we refrain from prying into a politician's private religious views, just as we should refrain from prying into their private sexual behavior? Shouldn't public figures be entitled to lie about their religious affiliations (just like the many atheists that the laws of probability tell us must be there in Congress)?

Is that what the laws of probability tell us? Maybe religious people are more likely to stand for Congress. Maybe they're more likely to be successfully elected. Why are you assuming that a certain demographic is represented in Congress in the same proportion as in the general population?

Not always. The reason is that religious views, even if they seem private in themselves, can become public in their implications. John F. Kennedy asked voters to believe that he would not take orders from the Vatican when formulating policy, and in his case they probably were right to do so. But George Bush has publicly boasted that God told him to invade Iraq, and his religious faith obviously inspired his irrational stances on stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo case and many others.

A lot can hide behind the word "obviously", including "I can't be bothered to explain", "I can't explain" and "I'm not actually sure about this".

To push to an extreme, who would deny Congress's right to ask whether a candidate for Secretary of Health is a Christian Scientist or a Jehovah's Witness? Or take a Christian sect that fervently desires the Second Coming of Christ, and believes the key Revelation prophecies cannot be fulfilled without a Middle East Armageddon. Would you wish the nuclear button to be made available to a follower of such a creed?

No, I certainly wouldn't wish it, but I'm finding all this somewhat off-topic. Dawkins announced his attention to talk about banishing the green-eyed monster. Instead, he starts talking about the Iraq War and the relation of the Biblical Revelation to terrestrial nuclear war. How does this contribute to his argument about the green-eyed monster?

So much is obvious. However, following an excellent Slate article by Christopher Hitchens, I would go further. Mitt Romney, as a self-confessed Mormon, has stated his beliefs about the Second Coming as follows: "Christ appears in Jerusalem, splits the Mount of Olives and stops that war to kill the Jews. We also believe that over the 1,000 years that follow, the millennium, he will reign from two places: that the law will come from one place, Missouri; the other will be in Jerusalem." The thing about Missouri, you see, is that it is the site (I'm not joking) of the Garden of Eden. Mitt Romney apparently believes that the Book of Mormon is the dictated word of God. The fact that Joseph Smith wrote it in 16th century pseudo-biblical English although he was a 19th century man marks him out — along with much else - as a charlatan, yet Mitt Romney apparently is gullible enough to be taken in by the scam. After Smith "translated" them, the gold tablets containing God's words conveniently shot off to Heaven before anybody else could examine them. If a man is gullible enough to believe that, would you trust him to negotiate on your country's behalf in the tough chancelleries of the world?

Again, I don't disagree with any of this. I just don't see how it relates to the stated topic of the article.

Smith's book instructs Mormons to hold beliefs about human racial origins and about the history of America from 600 BC that are at worst racist and at best frankly bonkers. Are voters entitled to ask Mr Romney questions about his religious beliefs? Surely yes, if they affect his policies, for example over race relations: the Mormon Church banned black people from its equivalent of a priesthood until as late as 1978 (when Mormon Elders conveniently had a "revelation" . But going beyond direct influences on policies, would you wish to be governed by a man who has such a cock-eyed view of reality that he thinks the Garden of Eden was in Missouri, even if he keeps that cock-eyed view private?

And in this last sentence we come to the clinch. If the public don't trust a man because of a religious belief that he keeps private and doesn't affect public policy, then the public is within its rights. But if the public doesn't trust a man because it's been proven that he's dishonest because he cheats on his wife, then somehow the public's objection to being governed by an emotionally shallow, manipulative pathological liar is unreasonable.

Returning to the original topic of sex outside marriage

Finally. It's been long enough.

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?

No, I don't believe your spouse has "property rights" over you. What I do believe is that you owe them fidelity because you said you would be faithful. It's that simple. You promised this person that you would love her and cherish her, til death you do part. If you didn't intend to do it, why did you say you would? If you don't intend to be faithful to someone, why get married? You didn't have to. It was your decision. You entered into that commitment freely. There is no way that you can now break that vow and remain an honest, trustworthy, honourable person of integrity.

As for the claim that this person's significant other "may not be married to them", if you have pre-marital sex with someone, and that person expects you to remain faithful and trusts you to do so, you're still breaking their trust by having sex with someone else.

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.

Are you sure that it's that unusual?

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.

The way to for a man to be trusted by his wife is to be worthy of trust. An honourable man's wife doesn't feel the need to spy on him. People don't hire a private detective to spy on their adulterous husbands unless they already have a suspicion. So don't be the man whose wife is suspicious. There's something deeply childish about a man who chose to behave in a certain way and who now acts like a victim when faced with the consequences of his actions.

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 behaviour patterns is the ingrained assumption of the deep rightness and appropriateness of sexual jealousy.

Firstly, I don't see what's "anomalous" about this behaviour. "Anomalous" means outside the usual rule or trend or pattern. So there's nothing "anomalous" about this behaviour. Secondly, I don't think people "assume" that sexual jealousy is right or appropriate. An assumption is something taken for granted. And in the current cultural climate it's very difficult to take anything to do with sex for granted. If you consider sexual jealousy to be right or appropriate, you have to have reasons for that.

It is manifest all the way from Othello to the French "crime passionnel" law, down to the "love rat" language of tabloid newspapers.

Othello's unfounded jealousy is treated in the play as a tragedy. Othello is one of the most brutal, bleak and realistic depictions of the horror of sexual jealousy ever placed on stage. That's why it's a gripping and emotional play. That's why it's a great and famous tragedy.

From a Darwinian perspective, sexual jealousy is easily understood. Natural selection of our wild ancestors plausibly favoured 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.

I know nothing about the Tarrant case specifically because I have no interest in the endless round of celebrity divorce cases. In general terms, however, one doesn't have to be an expert in Darwinian biology to guess that a woman might object to raising a man's children, tending to his house-hold, devoting the best years of her life to him, sharing everything with him, baring her soul to him, and then being tossed aside for a newer model. It's really not a difficult concept to understand.

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."

Yes, it is. And that means rising above the impulse to cheat in the first place.

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?

We can rise above our impulse to cheat in the first place. But this never seems to occur to Professor Dawkins. Also, Dawkins being an academic, surely he's not such an innocent in the world of academia as to imagine that writing a book or a symphony can't be a way of fighting a rival?

And what are literally thousands of books and a good many symphonies written about? Jealousy, of course. For jealousy is one of the strong, consuming emotions which gives rise to the art Dawkins speaks so highly of.

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?

Dawkins is constantly shifting exactly what he's talking about. First, he was talking very explicitly about cheating, about adultery. Now, he's asking vaguely what's "wrong with loving more than one person". Is this still about adultery? Because if that's what he thinks adultery is, it's a rather euphemistic description. I really think adultery is exactly the opposite. It shows you to be totally emotionally shallow, hedonistic, self-centred and incapable of truly, selflessly loving anyone.

Why should you deny your loved one the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, if he or she is that way inclined?

I'm sure the obvious response from many women is: if he wants the others, let him go with the others and do without her. Far from being denied the pleasure of sexual encounters with others, her husband can have all the pleasure he wants. After their divorce. When he has the time after cleaning his own house, cooking his own meals and doing his own laundry, because his unpaid maid just quit and filed an alimony claim.

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.

Julie Burchill should seek couple therapy. Clearly, she is in a deeply unhealthy relationship.

She can say that. She can say that all the live-long day. It doesn't make it true.

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."

If you've already admitted it's an empty experience, what more needs to be said? How good can an empty experience really be? That's just a meaningless phrase that's intended to sound clever and doesn't.

Even sticking to the higher plane of love, is it so very obvious that you can't love more than one person?

Dawkins asks this question, but he doesn't actually talk about love. He just talks about adultery. For an article which claims to be about love, why so little talk about love?

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 . . .

People aren't things. Ninety percent of adult human beings can grasp this fact. People are not books, food, wine or any other inanimate object. They are human beings with their own feelings, their own opinions and their own thoughts about what they want from a relationship.

Why is erotic love the one exception that everybody instantly acknowledges without even thinking about it?

Again, they don't. Dawkins may think that he is staking out an unpopular position, embattled and alone, but really is assertions are ever nearer the status quo.

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?

Because they have too much self-respect to devote themselves to a woman who won't show them the same devotion in return. And even a man has no objection to his wife sleeping with another man, if that other man is married his wife, who never agreed to this arrangement, has every right to object. Marital vows are mutual. I'm genuinely not sure what I have to say to explain that, because I don't understand why it's so hard to understand.

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.

Why not? Maybe these details are what's needed for me to finally take you seriously (although I'm not holding my breath). If you have details, wheel them out for us. Pursue all day long. I have all the time in the world.

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.

Again, we don't. Sex is one of the biggest topics of interest to human beings. And as I said, nothing can be "readily accepted" about sex these days. If you want to take any view, or thought, or position about sex or marriage, you have to prepared to think 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?

"Confident" and "free spirit" is one description. "Selfish", "reckless", "hedonistic", "childish" are other descriptions.

Again, we've abandoned any pretence of talking about love. We're back at the cheating, and making excuses for cheating.

This article is available on a web-site run by The Rational Response Squad, which claims to be "a place for activist atheists to unite". This is puzzling, because I don't see what Dawkins' article has to do with religion or atheism. The only time he really talked about religion was when he complained about Mitt Romney being a Mormon, a digression whose relationship to the argument of this article is still unclear. He claims that society's "hue and cry" over sexual morality is "religiously-inspired", but he offers no evidence of this and doesn't discuss where this inspiration comes from, the logic behind it or even any statistics proving that this "hue and cry" is more common among religious than non-religious people.

If anything, Dawkins has proven that you can't unite atheists. Uniting people around what they don't believe is impossible, just as uniting people who don't collect stamps is impossible.

There are people who have reasons for not believing in God other than to make dishonesty excusable and hedonism respectable. One of the most popular—and irritating—stereotypes of atheists is that we're hedonists with no consideration for others. When I try to argue that this isn't true, it isn't made any easier by the fact that so many vocal atheists are like this.

I don't believe in God. I believe in man. His strength. His wisdom. His possibilities. His capacity, despite what both God's original sin brigade and the purveyors of mindless hedonism preach, for nobility. Not in selfishness, irresponsibility, greed, dishonesty and crude hedonism.