What’s God Got to Do with Monogamy?
What role does religion play in our sexually exclusive relationships?
If you describe yourself as an agnostic or an atheist, you may wish to skip this chapter. However, you would be incorrect in assuming that because you have rejected religion, it has no relevance to your intimate relationships. Marriage, sex, adultery and love are all topics covered in the holy books of the world’s major religions and have been the most significant influence on modern morality. In western nations, our laws and social norms around monogamy and sexuality more broadly are directly descended from the relationship role model of Adam and Eve. Whether you like it or not, your beliefs and behaviours in coupledom have been shaped by what we have been told are the righteous rules of God.
What is interesting, though, is while humanity has invested an enormous amount of effort to replace the myth of Eden with the science of evolution, we have not applied the same rigour to determining how ‘right’ the righteous relationship arrangements are.
The purpose of this chapter is to reflect on what we are told God expects from our adult relationships and whether these calm or compound the dilemmas that monogamy presents. It is delivered with the proviso that just as I am not a psychoanalyst or anthropologist, I am also neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar. My views are informed only by my personal experience of being raised and educated in Catholic institutions and my superficial understanding of religious doctrines. In this chapter, I will only address Christianity, given that it is the sole religion I have been intimately exposed to. I would hate to insult those of other faiths with my ignorance.
And before there is any inkling that I may use this chapter as a devious form of religious vilification, I would like to openly acknowledge the profound and life-affirming role that religion plays in the life of many people. I saw firsthand the strength and hope my Mother received from her Catholic faith. Her rosary beads were always beside her bed, and through her prayers, she found peace. And while I no longer subscribe to organised religion, I keep my Mum’s rosary beads close. Mother Mary is also an image I hold dear and turn to regularly for solace and support. I deeply respect any symbol that provides a sense of security, serenity, sanity and stability in this complex and crazy world.
How do we know God?
Before we dive into the relevant doctrines, I would like to take some time to review how we have come to know God’s instructions concerning intimate relationships. Through what source have we come to know God’s wishes? Ultimately, we have come to know God through the prophets. These prophets told their people that God had spoken to them, and their people believed them. A prophet, then, is a person that has enough political clout to be held credible. Many more people may also have discussions with divinities but, without suitable sponsorship, are merely deemed to be deranged. It seems there is a fine line between being a prophet and a psycho.
These prophets, the ensuing disciples, and scribes were all men who lived thousands of years ago and in lands far from our own. The Torah and books of the Bible were written between 1500 BC to 95AD, with the scriptures spanning various cultural contexts.
What would have been common across them all, though, is that they were written in a time and place when men were seen as superior and where the patriarchy wielded power. Marriages were not a product of love but a pragmatic arrangement to unite families and share resources. Likely, marriages would have been arranged by the fathers, with women transitioning from a possession of the Father to then being owned by the husband. Unsurprisingly, one of the first things we are told is that man was made in God’s likeness, so obviously, God is a man. This would have been an appropriate depiction of the time and place in which the scriptures were written.
However, it is also difficult to ascertain the motives with which the authors of the Bible penned their parables. People cite evidence of specific characters and events. Still, we all know that history can be rewritten to serve the purpose of the powers of the day. For this reason, it is hard to know if the versions of God we are presented with are the best accounts or politically motivated portrayals. It is easy to imagine the teachings have, even subconsciously, been skewed towards preserving the privilege and power of the person penning them. In this way, it becomes very difficult to divorce the teachings’ true intentions from the teacher’s hidden agendas.
However, if we are to believe what we read in the Old Testament, what becomes clear is that God is a grumpy old man. He has a proclivity towards wrath, especially where other deities are involved. God is violent and vengeful, known for smiting, slaying, and sending pestilence to punish his enemies. He hands down rules written on rocks and enforces them with fire and fury. We are told to fear God, yet there can be no love where there is fear.
Perhaps this is why Jesus was sent. We are told that Jesus was love personified. He preached compassion, selflessness, humility and care for the less fortunate. It appears that Jesus was sent to clean up God’s merciless mess and to put a relatable face to a religion previously founded on fear. Jesus was the caring balance to his Father’s fearsomeness and presented a tangible transition in religious tenets towards tenderness.
One commonality between God and Jesus, though, is pertinent. Neither of these deities wrote anything themselves. We have no texts attributed to the Almighty and no notes jotted down by Jesus himself. We rely fully on other people’s descriptions of what they believed was important for a good life. In this way, faith plays a huge role in religion to bring hope for an eternity in heaven and discourage doubt in the dogma. We are told to believe in the teachings of the Bible even though we have no personal connection to the authors and no ability to validate the stories told. We must have faith that the prophets’ doctrines represent not only God’s will but also the right way to live to secure our eternal happiness.
While faith is extremely effective at dispelling doubt, it cannot eliminate ignorance. If we have not done our due diligence and read the fine print on the resume for the God we follow, then we only have ourselves to blame if our prayers are not answered. You wouldn’t hire an employee without reference checks, so why would you do so for a deity to which you will dedicate your life?
A more important point is whether we can truly know God at all. We understand that he is “perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness” , but this level of enlightenment and excellence is beyond our mortal comprehension. If God exists as described in the Bible, we would have only witnessed a microscopic view of his power. There is no way that any language or literary form can accurately portray the limitless and luminous existence of a divine being. We can only ever view it through our frail human form and incomplete intelligence.
How do we perceive the principles?
Not only is the perspective of the author crucial to consider, but so is how we view the teachings they have provided to us. For example, biblical literalists believe what is written are laws handed down from God. The teachings in the Bible are a set of uncompromising and unchangeable rules for life. Coveting others is a character flaw that must be rectified through the mercy of God and punished through prayer and penance. Non-monogamy is evidence of the sinfulness that plagues humankind.
In contrast, others may see the Bible as general principles for a good life captured in proverbs and parables. They would take the view that religious teachings are not a set of black-and-white laws but more like respectful recommendations.
“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” -Hector Barbossa (Pirates of the Caribbean.
This is where religion intersects with morality. As we have seen in Chapter 5, those who believe these teachings are the will of God will be more likely to live to the letter of the law and prioritise the values of authority and loyalty. In comparison, those who view the doctrines more flexibly would be more likely to lean towards the values of care and liberty.
The increasing liberalisation of society may be one of the key reasons why religion is losing its relevance. For example, in 1971, almost 90% of Australians declared themselves Christians. Fifty years later, in 2021, those associated with Christianity fell to just over 40%. During the same period, people claiming no religious affiliation rose from less than 10% to 40%. The more people are pushed to pursue individual freedom, the less they will cling to communal canons and lose the ability to be affected by authority or lured into loyalty. Rules are watered down to recommendations, making repentance unnecessary. And with no mandates to maintain, the institutions formerly in charge of enforcing commandments and forgiving sins are no longer necessary.
Pursuing science and providing answers to how the world works has also made religion redundant. We no longer need to turn to deities for our daily needs. We have replaced magic, myth and mystery with materialism. People no longer attend church on Sundays. They go shopping instead. And who needs to align with an all-knowing God when you have Google?
Given my liberal leanings, it is probably no surprise that I believe religious teachings are not a set of black-and-white laws but more like lessons from life thousands of years ago. While some of these messages and morals are still relevant today, others require revision or reframing to help us better integrate the dichotomy and complexity of our modern lives. If the role of religion is to help us lead good lives, then it needs to address the reality of life today, not be stuck reminiscing about the relative simplicity of times past.
What did God and Jesus do?
Given these limitations, what messages can be construed from the Bible as to what makes for a righteous relationship?
The Ten Commandments are among the most famous teachings on the behaviours that please God. They are instructions handed by God to Moses on two stone tablets and became the backbone of Judaism and later Christianity. The Commandments have two rules when it comes to sexual relationships. These are:
- Though shalt not commit adultery
- Though shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thy neighbour’s wife or his slaves, or his animals, or anything of thy neighbour.
The first commandment is pretty clear — do not have sex with anyone else outside of marriage. Note that this applies to both men and women. The second reflects the role of wives as possessions and (very kindly) affords them the same consideration as slaves and donkeys — not to be desired. The role of these rules was to prevent anyone from acting out on their envy and disrupting the concord that marriages created in the community. They were intended to remind people that there was something more important than their selfish yearnings: society’s integrity, peace and stability.
What is not often discussed, though, is that there appears to be an acknowledgement that the stipulation of sexual exclusivity is not always easy to follow. For example, in the Old Testament, we are told Sarah could not bear children and asked her husband, Abraham, to have sex with his slave Hagar in order to build a family (Genesis 16). In this case, procreation took precedence over fidelity. God did not disdain this act and, in fact, appeared to condone it. He sent angels to protect Hagar and her son Ishmael from the wrath of Sarah when her previously judicious act turned to jealousy.
Jesus followed in his Father’s footsteps, protecting and pardoning women taken in adultery. In doing so, he allegedly uttered the famous words:
“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
These simple words hold enormous significance. With this statement, Jesus made it clear that, yes, in the Christian religion, adultery is a sin. But more importantly, we are all guilty of some sin and potentially of the same desire that led this woman to be punished. He recognised the societal value of monogamy was important. But he also recognised the complexity of the human condition and that desire was innate and inevitable.
Additionally, while others saw prostitutes as the devil’s hand-maidens, dragging men into the den of earthly desire, Jesus saw them as mere humans like the rest of us. He did not push them away, repelled by their lowly status, but allowed them to wash his feet and praised them for their honesty and humility. He had more regard for prostitutes who were open and sincere about their predicament than he did for the priests who tarnished the temple with commercialist corruption.
Because remember, there is another commandment we still need to cover that must also be considered. That is number nine:
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
This commandment cuts deep because it suggests that in a monogamous union, partners must be honest about their willingness to be or remain monogamous and about any deviance from the vow of fidelity. This first requires a high level of self-awareness and self-sincerity before we can share our truth with others. Certainly, Jesus appeared to commend courage, open-heartedness and authenticity more than he celebrated compliance with the commandments.
These examples clarify that Jesus placed primacy on the moral foundations of care and liberty over the more rigid rules-based foundations of loyalty and authority. These actions indicate that honesty, kindness and regard for the individual spirit were more important than the rigid application of rules and religious dogmas. Love was more important than the law. Jesus could see how being human brings so many competing desires and disturbing dualities. His response was not to strangle people with strictures but to use compassion to bring understanding, reconciliation and peace.
Over the centuries after his death, though, the benevolence shown by Jesus to the sexual nature of humanity was replaced with the raging insecurity of the church forefathers. Desire and sexual pleasure were believed to bring out the worst in people, so they required censorship and tight boundaries to maintain safe communities and communion with their deities. Through this approach, they unwittingly indicated their understanding of the sometimes distressing nature of human desires. However, instead of considering the Jesus route, they chose the path of suppression.
This view is best reflected in the writings of Paul the Apostle. In 1 Corinthians (1–7), he states:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
In this way, monogamy has been enforced as it is seen as essential to save humanity from our inherent lack of sexual self-restraint. Thanks to Adam and Eve, we are seen as inherently sinful creatures who cannot be trusted with our sexuality. Our instincts must be curbed and constrained for the convenience of the community and the peace of the powers that rule it.
While Jesus had compassion for our human frailty, the fathers of the church that followed appeared to be far less flexible. The liberty and care approach presented by the Son of God became mangled through the corridors of power and transformed into archaic dogma and dominance. As with any organisation, the larger it gets, the more formalisation is required to maintain order. In this way, individuality became secondary to the rules of the institution and the preservation of its power.
This means to a spiritual end then, over several more centuries, became hard-coded into the religious doctrine and the laws of the western nations founded on this faith. While the state has separated from the church on divorce, adultery and homosexuality, polygamy is still viewed as unnatural, spiritually harmful and socially dangerous.
The Golden Rule
They say you should never talk about religion and politics. I’m afraid I have to disagree. Both topics are enriching entrees to understanding the complexity of the human condition. They reveal the goals that govern the speaker’s lives and indicate what moral foundations they have decided to neglect or reject. Get someone talking about religion and politics, and you are handed an intimate and invaluable insight into the simple rules they have chosen to paint over the ambiguous, volatile and uncertain world they live in.
The problem is not the different teachings about living our lives but how differences are received and perceived. As soon as a judgement of right or wrong is applied, there is the potential for disconnect and division. Instead of being used to facilitate an expansive understanding and appreciation of others, the need for ascendency (driven by insecurity) destroys openness and affiliation. This is the heart of the issue with monotheistic religions. For if there can only be one God, then the one I follow must be it. Conceding claims to any other god or religion would have me looking like a fool. Religion is a god’s presence here on earth, so if there can only be one God, there can only be one religion.
In this way, religion instigates righteousness, a dogmatic view of right and wrong. It creates strict moral guidelines that are used not only to enforce what is believed to be the will of God but to prevent contamination by corrupt idols, the dilution of identity or the confusion of the community. While Jesus’ actions attest to his desire to unite people through understanding and compassion, religion has created a morality that divides people through differences.
And yet, as proposed by John Stuart Mill, religion (viewed as a collection of morals) can be used to stimulate conversations about what we would like to have in common, which creates the potential for broader, more inclusive communities . From a purely practical perspective, focusing on common beliefs would also allow us to hedge our bets. If we were wrong and the other God is ‘it’, then at least we would have fulfilled some of their rules and had a chance at an attractive afterlife.
And the exciting thing is this is possible. Because across every religion, there is one common commandment called The Golden Rule:
“Do not do to others what you would not have done to you.”
This single teaching is expressed across the vast variety of creeds and cultures as follows:
‘Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them. This is the meaning of the Law of Moses and the teaching of the Prophets.’-Christianity, The Bible, Matthew 7:12
‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbour; that is the whole Torah; all the rest of it is commentary.’-Judaism, Talmud, Shabbat 31a
‘Not one of you is a believer until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself.’-Islam, Hadith of an-Nawawi 13
‘Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.’-Confucianism, Analects, XV.24
‘Regard your neighbour’s gain as your gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your loss.’-Taoism, T’ai Shang Kan Ying P’ien.
‘For a state that is not pleasant or delightful to me must also be to him; and a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?’-Buddhism, Samyutta Nikaya v.353
‘That nature alone is good which refrains from doing to another whatsoever is not good for itself.’-Zoroastrianism, Dadisten-i-dinik, 94.5
‘Lay not on any soul a load that you would not wish to be laid upon you, and desire not for anyone the things that you would not desire for yourself.’ Baha’i, Baha’u’llah Gleanings
‘This is the s um of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.’ Hinduism, Mahabharata 5c1517
‘One should treat all creatures in the world as one would like to be treated.’ Jainism, Mahavira, Sutrakiritanga
Interestingly, in Judaism, The Golden Rule is the fundamental moral code, with everything else documented seen as mere commentary.
The Golden Rule is a crucial and clarifying perspective on what God, any or all gods, want for our intimate relationships. There is a cacophony around what is right and just concerning sexual unions. And yet, none of the commentary or criticism has enabled us to reduce the rate of adultery and divorce and the trauma that follows it. Certainly, strict tenets of faith are becoming less relevant as people unsubscribe to organised religions and the cancel culture runs rampant on the commandments. Then perhaps what is most important is to get back to the core, the heart of what being a good person means. After all, isn’t that where all religions began — as a way to guide people to live a good life?
The Golden Rule in Relationships
Could it be possible that to move forward with monogamous relationships, we can simply apply The Golden Rule? How would this look? Well, before entering a sexually exclusive relationship, if monogamy were an important value to me, I would hope that my partner
- Listens kindly to my views
- Respects how important sexual exclusivity is for me
- Is honest about whether they share the same value
- Enters any agreement with an open heart
- Feels safe to come to me with any conflicts they feel.
If my partner breaks the vow, then I hope that they would
· Be honest about what has occurred
· Be willing to work through what this means for the relationship.
If, however, I do not feel monogamy is the right decision for me, I would hope that my partner also:
- Listens kindly to my views
- Respects my beliefs that sexual exclusivity is not for me at this time
- Enters any relationship with an open heart
- Feels safe to come to me with any conflicts they feel.
And if I do stray from any vows I have chosen to make, I would hope that my partner:
· Does not throw stones
· Listens with kindness
· Withholds judgement
· Seeks to understand
· Acts with compassion.
“Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” Luke 6:27–37
While religious teachings and moral standards may morph to suit the context, it appears that The Golden Rule is enduring and the one teaching that would bring respect, integrity and honesty to relationships, regardless of sexual terms.
Because there is great value in getting clear about what is truly important to us. Is our priority:
- dogmatic commands or deep understanding
- insensitive judgement or explorative empathy
- righteous rules or sincere respect
- vitriol against vice or values-based virtue
- repression of reality or awakened authenticity?
We all want the latter options for ourselves, so we must be willing to give them to others.
Perhaps the next evolution of marriage vows could remove rigid expectations around obedience and forsaking of all others. Instead, they could promise to “love you as I also wish to be loved.” This promise would spur critical conversations for a couple about what this looks like for each of them. It would also provide a simple statute to help them navigate the dilemmas that will inevitably arise in their sexually exclusive arrangement.
A religion of one’s own
Thomas Moore advocates for using religious teachings as a base for creating a religion of one’s own. This approach is akin to the experimental life suggested by John Stuart Mill, in which morals are tried, tested and adapted to the unique context of each individual. Moore believes that we ascend through awareness and authenticity and that true virtue comes from validity:
“Real virtue can’t be bought with repression; real virtue is the rare innocence that comes from taking life on and owning your passions.”
In our relationships, we face difficult daily decisions that call us to balance the expectations of others with our passions, beliefs and dreams. The only way through, as suggested by Moore, is to be true to what is uniquely you, seek to understand what is true in others, and shower all with compassion. When you create a space of unconditional regard for who you are, you also construct a space for the acceptance of others. When you are true to yourself, you build a foundation of honest relationships. While adultery is seen as a sin, so is bearing false witness about who we are and what is important to us.
It may seem strange then or even sacrilegious. Still, whenever I worry about which path to take, I do not consider what is consecrated in the commandments or enshrined in the sacraments but instead ask myself:
“What would Jesus do?”
 god. (2023). In The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/god
Mill, J., & Benitez, P. (2017). On Liberty John Stuart Mill. Van Haren Publishing.