Monday, July 12, 2010

The pill and Church attendance

In Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga books, a contrast is drawn between the very technologically advanced (and sexually free) Beta Colony and the technologically backward, highly socially controlled, Barrayar. On Beta, people have complete sexual freedom, though there is very strong social pressure to wear the appropriate ear-rings to signal one’s sexual and relationship status. There is, however, complete control over reproduction: people can only reproduce if they have a license to do so. Their technology allows them to separate control over ovaries from control over the body the ovaries are in.

Barrayar had previously suffered a drastic drop in its technology and so in its standard of living. The result was that they could only control reproduction by controlling the whole body, leading to a very restrictive set of sexual and gender mores familiar to us as “traditional social values”. In a poor society, women have an interest in making sure that they are not stuck with raising children on their own. Hence pressures to confine sex within marriage (or intention to marry) and for men to accept responsibility for the baby-results of their sexual activity.

One way for women to signal to men that sex involves sharing responsibility for child-rearing is to attend public gatherings where such sexual and gender mores are strongly endorsed. We call such places ‘churches’. (Or ‘synagogues’ or ‘mosques’.)

Then along comes the contraceptive pill. Suddenly, women have a high degree of unilateral control over their fertility. Technology has separated control over ovaries from control over the whole body.

Moreover, this is in societies of greatly increased prosperity: societies where upper body strength no longer had a general social premium (whether in providing protection, or in employment). Societies where the risks of dying in childbirth have massively decreased, so that the expected return on investing in educating women has increased. The combined result was that having a child became much less risky activity for one’s health and single parenthood became much less of a disaster for one’s income.

So the benefits to women of signalling one’s adherence to very controlled sexual and gender mores massively dropped. (The benefits to men of such signalling also dropped: indeed, largely disappeared.)

Worse than that, going to church involved listening to men preaching about how women should not control their own bodies in such a way.

In such a situation what would one predict?

A steep drop in Church attendance: particularly by younger women (and men).

As this review of a book on the pill notes, the contraceptive pill was a case of technology with unintended consequences.
But, viewed in this light, one feature of the pill becomes much more understandable:
In one of America and the Pill's most interesting chapters, May asks whether men would tolerate the sorts of side effects that women have regularly experienced. The prospect of a male pill has appeared on the horizon various times over the last 50 years, but the issue of side effects scuttled every effort. Scientists, May reports, "actually discovered an effective vaccine that completely stopped the production of sperm without interfering with sex drive." But it also made users' testicles shrink by a third, so the researchers abandoned it, concluding, "The psychological trauma of shrinking testes just cannot be overcome."
Of course not, because there is nothing to do with reproduction that offers men anywhere near the advantages that the pill offered women. As the review notes:
Yet for all this, as May demonstrates, the pill has been a tremendous boon for women, transforming sex and reproduction so thoroughly that it's hard for many to imagine what life was like before it. …
We have to be careful not to engage in too much technological triumphalism, however. This was technology in particular social contexts:
After all, the pill is widely available in Saudi Arabia, but it hasn't made a dent in that country's brutal patriarchy.
Technology is not magical, it remains embedded in human action, human institutions and human cultures. Its possibilities may shape human action, institutions and cultures but it can also be constrained and directed by those actions, institutions and cultures.

In Muslim societies and communities, enforcement of sexual and gender mores tends to be much more active—up to and including violence. Attending the mosque, wearing approved clothing, becomes a way of avoiding sanctions rather than signaling expectations. Hence much higher rates of mosque attendance continuing after the introduction of the pill.

Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree that the impact of the pill in Western cultures was one of:
… social maelstroms that made the pill so significant. The millions of women who … have used the pill to slip the bonds of biology, turning childbearing from an obligation into an option, have utterly reshaped our ideas about sex, marriage, and family.
Which was a major problem for Churches who saw themselves as uttering eternal verities, rather than manifesting evolved social mores anchored in social presumptions whose foundations had been transformed.

But which churches would we predict would handle the change best? Established monopolies (as in Europe) or churches used to religious competition (as in the US)? Clearly, those used to religious competition. Or which can only operate through it—for example, emerging churches such as Pentecostalism.

It is a dangerous foolishness, to infer from the failure of sluggish monopoly Churches of the Europe to deal with dramatic social change based on a new technology, particularly a technology that changed incentives for women—so Churches run by men (in the Catholic Church’s case, celibate unmarried childless men) were particularly likely to be “blindsided”—to some grand social theory about “inevitable tendencies” in social development. The religious impulse is a powerful one, and can find new vehicles to manifest. As, indeed, it is.

But we should always keep in mind the signaling role of norms and how changing what people want to signal will change those norms.

ADDENDA Mary Eberstadt's piece Christanity Lite pointing out that Churches which relax traditional Christian sexual strictures experience declining membership in effect looks at the issue the other way: lessening the signaling value of church attendance discourages church attendance—but that value that can be lessened from within as well as without. Another essay of hers connects secularisation to declining fertility.


  1. Hope you'll excuse this tad off-piste tibit. One of the most fascinating tutorials I had at uni was a first year history tute on the reaction of African-American males to the pill in the US in the early 1960s. There was a strong anti-pill movement because increasingly radicalized black men saw the pill as designed to wipe out black people. The historical documents and other texts on the battle between African American men and women on the issue at the time was a real eye-opener for this ingenue.

  2. Wow, what a great example of social effects and tensions.

  3. Of course the women won! :)

  4. Lorenzo

    I'll try and hunt down some of the articles we read. It was an absolute eye-popper for me. But then I was stunned to learn while living in the US of widespread, historical, and deeply nuanced racism among African-Americans themselves. I do not mean black people not liking white people. I mean intra-black. I'd lived a sheltered life.

  5. Oh yes, the whole skin-tone thing. I was vaguely aware of it, but the gay film Brother to Brother, because it was based in part on the Harlem Renaissance, touched on it.

  6. Good example of removing stress..................
    Health and Happiness Pill

  7. Lorenzo, this post has put me onto Lois McMaster Bujold. Thank you. I am one happy reader.

  8. Excellent! She is a joy.

    (When you get to it, Hallowed Hunt has the most disturbing villain I have come across. And some amusing theologial/legal reasoning.)

  9. Hallowed Hunt is awesome. I finished it late last week while laid up in bed with a tummy bug.

    I sourced the Chalion books first - still waiting for the Vorkosigan ones to arrive.

  10. The Curse of Chalion is loosely based on the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon.

    The Hallowed Hunt is loosely based on the Holy Roman Empire, prior to the Hapsburg ascendancy, with the great conqueror who brutally suppressed the pagans being Karl-lo-magne smashing the pagan Saxons.

  11. Lorenzo, my totally uninformed guess was that it was the Romans conquering the Celts - not far off. Still, that animal totemism just gets transferred to football teams. Go Tiges!

  12. The Chalion books are far too medieval to be the Romans conquering the Celts. (One of the things I like about them is they are so intelligently medieval.)

    The sporting manifestation of animal totemism is a striking phenomenon in its own right :)

  13. The sporting manifestation of animal totemism is a striking phenomenon in its own right :)

    I love that kind of stuff. The same societal themes come up over and over, expressed in different ways. Christianity may ban animal totemism, but then it comes up elsewhere.

    Did you know that I once wrote a university essay comparing the medieval poem Sir Orfeo with The X-Files? Aliens are the new Other World, the new sidhe.

  14. Yes, after all, Vulcans are elves -- long lived, pointed ears, strange powers, think differently.

  15. Good... Church can go to Hell. It hasn't done society any good for the last fifty years.

  16. You may well think so but I could not possibly comment :)