My response to Reverend Neal

In a previous post I called out Reverend Gregory Neal, a Methodist minister, for his pernicious views about premarital sex. He responded in the comments, and I asked him a few clarifying questions about his position. His answers did not sit well with me. Here is my response.


Dear Reverend Neal,

Thank you for responding to my follow-up questions regarding your views on premarital sex. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I found your position any more reasonable or commendable after reading your answers. Overall, I see you advocating a view that is false and demeaning towards a great number of people. Let me start at the beginning.

When the girl/woman named Jennifer asks you in your Q&A if premarital sex is wrong, you prepare her for the answer she doesn’t want to hear. “Since you have asked this question I must assume that you are willing to receive an honest answer, even if it differs somewhat from what your question indicates you wish to receive.” You avoid ever using the word “wrong” or “immoral” in your answer, but nonetheless you make your meaning quite clear. Premarital sex is harmful, you claim. To oppose it is the “correct and appropriate” stance. At the end of your answer you push marriage on Jennifer, as if you were a salesperson. Why not get married, if you and your boyfriend are truly married? Well? It is as if you cannot accept people having sex if they are not married.

In my blog entry discussing your Q&A, I point out that humans do not need a contract to be good to each other, to have sex that is wonderful and valid and not deserving of your disapproval. It is at this point that you attempt to modify your response. You stress your point about premarital sex being less than “ideal,” as if this somehow made your response more reasonable, when really what it says is, “premarital sex is okay; marital sex is just better.” You deny your attempt to sell Jennifer on marriage by explaining that you simply “couldn’t understand” why she would not seek marriage with her boyfriend. This explanation provides all the reassurance of statements such as, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with homosexual sex, I just don’t understand why a man wouldn’t want to have sex with a woman”, or “I think women should be free to join the workforce if they want to, I just don’t understand why they wouldn’t rather stay at home.” This is an insidious way to undermine someone’s position while claiming to support it.

You say that casual, uncommitted sex is bad because in it, a person is “used as a thing, a toy, an object, and not known, experienced, or appreciated as the whole person they are.” No, a person (let’s say she is female) who has a conversation with her partner about what type of sex to have and what it will mean, and engages in something that she and her partner find enjoyable is not “being used.” She is having sex because she wants to. To further insist that someone who is completely aware of what they are doing is “being used” is to show a lack of respect for their freedom and ability to make their own choices.

In a comment so incredible that I find it hard to know what to make of it, you state that sex outside of a marriage-like covenant is frequently rape. As an example of the possible harm of premarital sex, you cite “instances of date-rape that have occurred among youth I know.” Let me be very clear, Reverend Neal: Sex is consensual. Rape is not. Rape is a vile, disgusting attack in which you force yourself on someone – it has nothing to do with consensual sex. How dare you conflate the two in an attempt to villainize sex outside of marriage.

Lastly, in your argument that you and the UMC do not condemn premarital sex, you provide the exact evidence which shows that you do – you compare your stance on sex to the UMC’s stance on homosexuality. I agree that they are quite comparable, as the UMC’s position on homosexuality is bigoted and dehumanizing. The UMC denies marriage to homosexuals, prohibits the use of UMC funds to promote their acceptance[1], and defrocks homosexual ministers in their ranks. They proclaim that being gay is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” a statement that has only one meaning – being gay is wrong.

Similar, Reverend Neal, is your attitude toward premarital sex. You do condemn it. You admit that premarital sex is not intrinsically harmful, and yet at every step you act like it is. You constantly put people down who have sex outside of marriage by saying that what they are doing is less than “ideal.” You push marriage on people who have sex without it, saying that this is the “proper course” for them. You make ludicrous characterizations of premarital sex as rape. These are not the actions of a person who approves of premarital sex; they are the actions of a person who disapproves but refuses to admit it.

You’re wrong to find fault with sex without a contract, instead of finding fault with the specific mistakes, attitudes, and interactional styles that comprise the real danger to good relationships. One sentence you wrote to me comes close to a view that I would respect:

[In circumstances where two people are unable to enter into marriage,] I recognize that the marriage-like quality of their relationship is what is important… not a legal document or even a religious ceremony.

It is the quality of the relationship that is important in all circumstances. People’s freedom, health, and happiness are what matters. Adherence to an ancient code does not, and if that code restricts the extent to which people can be healthy, free, and happy, it should be thrown away without a second look.

Tim Martin

1. “[The General Council on Finance and Administration] shall be responsible for ensuring that no board, agency, committee, commission, or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The United Methodist Church “not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends ” (¶ 161.F).” The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church – Administrative Order ¶806.9.



Filed under Homosexuality, Marriage, Relationships, Religion, Sex

10 responses to “My response to Reverend Neal

  1. Thank you for your response. I will give your words further thought but, on first reading, I seriously disagree with much of your interpretation (“spin”) regarding my statements. In several instances you have taken my words and taken them to mean things that I manifestly did not intend. I am used to this from Fundamentalists; I’m not as used to it from people on the other side of the equation.

    It is not my practice to condemn people with whom I disagree or who practice a lifestyle which I do not espouse. I understand, and accept, that you disagree with my position. Nevertheless, I wish you well.

  2. Hi, I am not so qualified to evaluate the arguments supporting the psychological or emotional benefits of pre-marital sex or abstinence, but I am interested in their moral quality (which has to do with rightness and wrongness) as you make the interesting following claim: “people don’t need his ceremony, or his god, to be good to each other. If they want it, that’s their prerogative.” When you say we don’t need god to be good or evil, right or wrong, do you believe that those moral values are objective (valid and binding whether anybody believes them or not) or are they subjective, that is, purely relative to cultures and individuals? It seems to me that if they are objective and transcend individuals and cultures then they must be grounded in God who sits above cultures and secures objective moral values and duties (and in which case we evidently ought to try to figure out what this God’s design for sex is), but if on the other hand they are purely subjective, and God does not exist, then you are quite correct that premarital sex is not really (objectively) wrong, but does it not become a triviality, as in this case, no action ever is objectively wrong? So which view of moral values do you hold? Subjectives, or objectives?

    • Moral prescriptions are not objective – how could they be? Objective rules are binding. Regardless of whether you believe in gravity or not, or whether you want to fall or not, gravity is going to make you fall. That’s reality. The same cannot be said of the prescription against murder. Despite the “rule,” it’s still possible to kill someone. The laws of nature do not stop you, as they do stop you from flying off the Earth. Also note that if a god existed who enforced moral rules on us, the rules would still not be objective in the way that natural laws like gravity are, because it would still be possible to break them. All it would mean is that there’s an all-powerful parent who will reward or punish us for doing certain things. And if this were the case, it raises the question that one can ask of any parent – are this person’s rules any good?

      Evidence has shown that human feelings about right and wrong are evolved emotional responses. We evolved them because they make social interaction work. They are subjective, as you say, but I wouldn’t say they are “purely relative” to cultures and individuals. People of all cultures, religions, races, and backgrounds show tremendous agreement in their beliefs on basic moral principles, such as it’s wrong to steal, and it’s wrong to cause harm for no reason whatsoever. This would have to be the case if these responses were evolved, and their function were to make social interaction possible. Of course, there are many factors that influence what a person’s specific moral feelings about various acts will be, and that’s how we get disagreement between individuals and cultures.

      And there is a lot of discussion these days on what to do about that disagreement. You’ll notice that all basic moral prescriptions have to do with “not causing harm” in one way or another (e.g. don’t rape, steal, kill, etc.) Now obviously humans care about harm not coming to themselves, but we have also evolved to care, to a certain extent, about harm coming to others. So regardless of the fact that there is no objective “wrong,” it seems to work about best for everyone if we structure our societies in a way that makes everyone as happy, healthy, and free as possible. And to go back to the original point of this entry, premarital sex doesn’t cause harm, but it is harmful and demeaning to disparage people for engaging in it.

  3. Thanks for your response. By defending a non objective view of moral values and asserting there is no objective wrong, two questions are raised: 1. Is it true?, and 2. Are your moral condemnations of religious fundamentalists consistent with this belief?
    With respect to question 1, you argue that there are no objective moral values, because we have the ability to break moral laws. This misunderstands what an objective moral value is. To say that rape is objectively wrong is not at all to say that it is impossible to rape even if you tried, but rather that when someone does it, it is wrong, even though the rapist believes it is alright. In that sense, if God exists, moral laws are objective in the same sense as natural laws are objective: an item in a gravity field is subjected to a force proportional to its mass whether the ignorant physicist believes it or not, and a person who commits a rape is doing something wrong whether the psychopath believes it or not. Your misconception about moral values notwithstanding, I invite you to find good reasons to think that moral values are not objective, aside from a question-begging starting point that God does not exist.
    But turning to question 2, you demonstrate on the contrary, that everything about your moral experience supports the objectivity of moral values. If all moral values are subjective, then your claim that religious views on sexuality are morally wrong, or that “doing harm” to other is wrong, are mere subjective expressions of personal taste void of objective truth, like “mcdonalds tastes better than burger king” or “blondes look better than brunettes”. Seeing this and fearing the abhorrent moral relativism that ensues, you try to find comfort in the fact that many moral values are shared by a majority. That’s quite true, but that does nothing to rescue their objective truth, since truth is never determined by majority opinions. In this subjective understanding of morality, you are left believing that if the nazis had won world war 2 and succeeded in killing those who disagreed with them, then their being a majority on the earth would render the holocaust morally good. This reductio ad absurdum should invite you to reconsider the objectivity of moral values. But of course, as they entail the existence of God, they’re a pricey topic on which to change your mind. Hope I helped in providing food for thoughts.

    • First, the non-existence of the supernatural is not a “question-begging starting point.” It is a fact that there is no evidence for the supernatural. By many definitions, “the supernatural” isn’t even a coherent concept.

      If all moral values are subjective, then your claim that religious views on sexuality are morally wrong, or that “doing harm” to other is wrong, are mere subjective expressions of personal taste void of objective truth…

      You aren’t reading very carefully. I did not make the claim that religious views on sexuality are morally wrong. Religious views on sexuality are false and harmful, as I stated.

      …truth is never determined by majority opinions.

      Correct. Which is why this…

      In this subjective understanding of morality, you are left believing that if the nazis had won world war 2 and succeeded in killing those who disagreed with them, then their being a majority on the earth would render the holocaust morally good.

      …is false. Popular vote doesn’t determine truth, and there’s no such thing as “morally good.” Humans are just biological creatures who have very strong feelings about certain stimuli, and so we call things “wrong” even though what this just means is that we are averse to or disgusted by them. There is no coherent meaning of “moral” (that does all the things you want it to) other than this. You demonstrate this quite effectively in your tautological definition above (paraphrased as): To say that rape is wrong is to say that when someone does it, it is wrong.

      But all of this is a little off-topic, isn’t it? You sound like you believe in a god. What do you think about premarital sex?

      • I maintain the charge of circular reasoning of my previous post. Since we agree that in the absence of God there are no objective moral values, and disagree on whether objective moral values exist, to assert that objective moral values do not exist because God does not exist is question begging, until you give me a sound argument for your presupposition that God does not exist. Evidently, no such argument has been offered in your presentation.
        You take issue with my lending you the language of “moral wrong”, and I apologize for making the charitable assumption that you were comfortable with saying that at least some things in life are wrong regardless of your emptying the meaning of “wrong” by denying objectivity, but I welcome your consistency of coming out clean and clarifying that you don’t believe anything in life (raping of children by priests, religious prohibitions on sex, the inquisition) is really wrong, rather that they are just harmful, or not to your taste.
        So the most you claim is that there are things in life for which you have disgust, but of course on your view, if a child molester does not find disgust in them, he is no more mistaken about it than if you and him were to disagree on the merits of vanilla vs chocolate ice cream. There’s nothing really wrong with raping children, it’s all a subjective matter of taste. Now, this is consistent with atheism, but as I hope is getting clear to your readers, this is an absurd view of ethics, as most philosophers who work in this field recognize (thank goodness, moral relativism remains a minority view even among secular philosophers)
        And of course aside from being false, this view that there is no right and wrong is unlivable, as you demonstrate by your ardent defense of the virtues of sexual promiscuity, saying that the law of premarital abstinence “should” be thrown away without a second look. This is not the language of a moral relativist.
        Now what about your critique of my view? You malign my alleged “definition” of what the word “wrong” means for being tautological, but I never offered any such definition! You extracted the sentence I wrote to teach you what “objective” means and to correct your misunderstanding about objectivity for moral laws, then you cropped out the one word I was actually explaining (“objective”) and conclude that my definition of “wrong” is a truism. This rather creative handling of my words may not be objectively evil, but it surely is not to my subjective taste ;-)
        You say that my claim about the nazis is false because truth is not determined by majority opinions. But read the argument again, this is the very point I am arguing against your view: I showed that your moral relativism leads to a conclusion that is absurd (to demonstrate by reductio ad absurdum that your view is false,) and you respond by saying “the conclusion is absurd”. -Amen!
        So what becomes of the initial topic, and what about my personal convictions? Well, I believe in a personal God who created the universe, whose essentially good nature is the foundation of objective moral values and duties, and who has revealed himself in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. I believe that premarital sex is objectively wrong for being a departure of the way things ought to be in God’s design for sex and marriage, but of course our preliminary debate above was right on topic, as I can hardly show that sexual promiscuity in particular is morally wrong, if you maintain in general that nothing in life is wrong anyway. Your troubling inability to recognize as wrong even the sometimes abominable departures from the way things ought to be, follows admirably logically from your denial of the existence of God as a designer for the way things ought to be, but for those of us who do not start with the assumption that there is no such designer, it seems rather rational to hold that at least some actions in life are objectively wrong, from which the existence of God follows.

      • You’re not reading carefully again – I’m not sure how long I’m going to be interested in continuing this discussion if you can’t read more carefully.

        Losing the cheerfully condescending attitude (“I admire how logically consistent your wrongness is!”) would help, as well.

        First, you are blatantly disregarding my statements to say, again, that I “presuppose” that god (which one would you be referring to?) does not exist. As I stated front and center in my last reply, there is no evidence for any gods.

        Second, your example of the nazis has nothing to do with my argument, because I do not believe that truth is a matter of popular vote, and no where did I say I do. Read more carefully.

        Now let’s talk about your understanding of “wrong.” You keep saying that wrong things are wrong even if you don’t believe they’re wrong. Yes, well that isn’t very useful. What does it mean for something to be wrong? That your god says “you mustn’t do that”? You’re welcome to believe that and follow those rules if you want to. But you don’t have to, as we’ve already agreed, and I prefer to make my own decisions about what constitutes a good idea versus a bad.

        God says that I’m not to have sex without a contract, but I say it’s an enjoyable, enriching, and healthy experience which doesn’t harm anyone. On the other hand, God sometimes orders genocide, to which I say no, that’s awful. I care about other humans’ lives and I could never support the murder of innocent people. Like I said, you’re welcome to do what you think God says if you want to, just keep in mind that that sometimes involves genocide, or cutting infants’ genitals, or flying planes into buildings.

        …I welcome your consistency of coming out clean and clarifying that you don’t believe anything in life (raping of children by priests, religious prohibitions on sex, the inquisition) is really wrong…

        Again, by “wrong” you mean what – that God doesn’t want you to do it? If that’s the worst thing you can say about child rape, that’s pretty weak. I don’t give a crap if there’s some magical guy who doesn’t want me to rape children. What I care about is the fact that it’s extremely physically and psychologically harmful to violate anyone – and especially a child – in that way. My heart goes out to anyone who’s been the victim of rape. And a person who does something like that – what else are they capable of? Who else might they be a danger to? There are ample rational reasons to build a society where children don’t get raped, and where people who do commit rape are dealt with so they cannot harm others again. Saying “God says so” doesn’t provide any of that.

  4. Shalestra

    What I found interesting was the implication that there is no rape in marriage, and that in all marital sex the partner is not, “used as a thing, a toy, an object, and not known, experienced, or appreciated as the whole person they are.”.

    A marriage is a ceremony (and sometimes also a legal process), however to imply that it automatically confers consent on all marital sex is a ridiculous and offensive position. Rape can and does occur within marriage, and the implication that it does not is incredibly offensive.

    Likewise the assumption that all marital sex is loving and does not objectify either partner is similarly ridiculous.

    To imply that pre-marital sex is inferior to marital sex on these grounds is moronic, particularly given the existence of religious teaching that stresses the necessity for women to be submissive, such as, “Wives, submit to your husbands”.

    • Indeed! Do you know how many times I heard from my mother, as I was growing up, not to have sex before marriage? Lots. Do you know how many times I heard her say “make sure you don’t objectify, or coerce, or use”? Zero.

      All this talk about premarital sex causing harm is just an excuse to continue following wrongheaded religious rules. You’ll never hear religious authorities bothering married people about the quality of their sex as much as they bother unmarried people about the fact that they’re having it.

      And speaking of religious teachings about wives submitting to husbands, Reverend Neal seems to be a fan. The argument seems to go that as long as a husband treats his wife “well” and doesn’t violate the boundaries of the marriage convenant, it’s perfectly alright for him to be the one in charge!

  5. Alrighty, I’ll leave you the last word of the debate, I may not have read very carefully.

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