Secularization in Christianity’s Opposition to Pornography?

Sociological Images (well worth following, by the way) has just posted this fascinating piece on changes in Christian discourse in opposition to pornography:

Sociologist Jeremy Thomas tested this proposition, looking at changes in how authors writing for the popular magazine Christianity Today frame their opposition to the use of pornography between 1956 and 2010 (articlesummary).  He compared three anti-pornography frames:

  • religious (e.g., against the bible, a sin),
  • harm to others (e.g., performers), and
  • harm to self (e.g., porn addiction, marital troubles).

Thomas found that the last frame — harm to self — had increasing come to dominate the discussion at Christianity Today.  This figure shows the proportion of paragraphs that make each argument.  The last frame clearly dominates.


Thomas calls this “outsourcing moral authority”: religious leaders are relying on other authorities to back up their points of view.  This suggests that even religion is undergoing secularization.

See the Sociological Images piece here. Read the original article here (if you are with an institution that gives you access).


About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in On the web, Sex and Sexuality, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Secularization in Christianity’s Opposition to Pornography?

  1. It’s Christianity Today. Of course they are outsourcing the basis for moral authority.

  2. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    It’s the same with homosexual activity. How many times have your heard that it is wrong because it spreads horrible diseases.

    • Andrew W says:

      I think there’s a distinction worth making between “wrong” (moral) and “bad” (undesirable consequences). Eating a rotten apple is bad (it has undesirable consequences). Killing someone is both wrong (immoral) and bad (hurts yourself and third parties). Unsurprisingly (given what we believe about God’s nature and purposes), “wrong” and “bad” are often strongly correlated.

      Both in the public sphere and the Church, there’s a place for arguments based on morality and on consequences. In the Church, we should expect moral arguments to be stronger with consequential arguments either supporting them or providing wisdom where moral arguments are unclear. In the public sphere, we cannot assume submission to moral truth, but we can still lobby for the good of our fellow man through consequential arguments. What we should not do is be ashamed that we believe godliness and good outcomes are strongly correlated.

      • An important point that was raised in discussing this on Twitter is that the shift may not be primarily from deontological to consequentialist ethics, but rather to virtue ethics.

      • Andrew W says:

        Can you elaborate on what you mean by “deontologoical”, “consequentialist” and “virtue” ethics? I understand the words in common English, but you seem to applying them in a technical sense, and I’m a bit lost.

      • The Man Who Was . . . says:

        What I think Alastair is saying is that the shift may be towards the harm pornography does to your character (virtue ethics), rather than the harm it does to your ability to get pleasure/subjective happiness out of life (consequentialism).

      • Yes, that is the distinction to which I was referring. Thanks.

  3. cookiejezz says:

    Good call, Alastair! I agree with The Man Who Was. Sin is sin because the Bible says so. We would normally expect the sinfulness of sin to be reflected in its negative physical and social consequences, and certainly we should point these out to both believers and unbelievers, but even if the consequences are unclear or remote, we cannot ignore what God has said.

    I have recently received a lot of flak (and also a considerable amount of support) for daring to suggest that this nation needs to get back to God. The church also needs to get back to biblical roots on morality and behaviour. Words such as “holiness” and “sanctification” are slipping out of our vocabulary as people focus on what makes them feel good or is socially acceptable.

  4. One thing that is worth asking when looking at the graph is whether the development within it reflects the development in the form of pornography’s production and consumption—from adult theatres to VHS to the Internet—and the particular moral concerns that come to the foreground at different stages of this development. The scale of porn addiction that we experience today, for instance, just wasn’t a thing before the Internet ‘weaponized’ pornography. Also, the emphasis upon the treatment of porn performers may be less pronounced as the porn ‘industry’ starts to take much more decentralized forms. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that recent years should see increasing reflection upon the porn user.

    That said, I think that concerns about an increasing dependence upon the authority of social science, neuroscience, and other such things over the less ‘respectable’ authority of Scripture are very important to raise here, as is concern about a subtle but determined shift in the direction of such things as moralistic therapeutic deism. On reflection, I suspect that there is more to the pattern than might immediately strike us.

  5. acilius says:

    I can see who the audience is supposed to be for appeals to religious tradition (religious traditionalists.) And I can see who the audience is supposed to be for appeals to the well-being of society and concern for pornographic performers (guilt-ridden progressives.) But I am mystified as to who is supposed to be moved by the “harm to self” narrative. Surely, if you’ve discarded religious tradition and dismissed concern for the well-being of society and of vulnerable people within it, you’re going to be too self-involved to care about some authority figure’s opinion as to what is best for you.

    • cookiejezz says:

      It isn’t without its merits. The prodigal son woke up in the pigsty and realised how badly off he was, and that motivated him to go back to his father. In that case it was his experience of things being bad that moved him, but when we as Christians both point out what is wrong AND point to the Savior who puts things right, our message should carry considerable authority.

      At the end of the day, gospel truth has to be accompanied by the conviction of the Holy Spirit – the moment of realisation that “this is true and applies to me!” – in order to be effective, but along the way it needs to address our relationship to God, our relationship to one another and the consequences of our actions. Where we get into error is in excessively emphasising certain elements at the expense of others.

  6. shevrae says:

    I think there is a strong desire to see God’s determination of sin as having a reasonable basis, rather than an arbitrary designation. Hence the interest in “proof” of negative consequences for the self. It is an attempt to show God’s rules as objective, rather than relative, truth. I don’t think it really works in the end, however, as “objective” science has a way of responding to social and political pressure.

  7. Matt J. says:

    Instead of just immediately assuming that this must mean Christians don’t read their bible anymore or care about God’s commands, I suspect the shift in language is mostly pragmatic. Biblical literacy among the general public is nearly rock bottom and so new converts, especially in parts of the country with very small church populations are necessarily going to require a different kind of discipleship and pastoral care. They may have heard and accepted the gospel and desire to follow Christ, but may not know what to do immediately with every passage in scripture. They won’t be as sold on it yet as someone who grew up as a 4th generation fundamentalist. And so drawing attention to the actual destructive power of pornography and using lots of real world examples – I can see why a pastor may feel he will get more mileage out of that than just reading Bible verses and addressing sin from a more abstract or theological perspective.

    Many pastors are spending a tremendous amount of time just trying to get the young men in their flock to quit jacking off. I think they’ve found that showing them how it directly damages the people they love has proven to be more effective lately, hence the shift in how it is discussed. Ultimately, we hope their belief in the holiness of God and the raw authority of scripture will grow too, but it could be a slow process. I think user shevrae is on the right track with that. In the meantime, we’d like them to desire to squash their most destructive behaviors.

  8. twistedmathproblems says:

    I am somewhat amused that the study is focused on CT, and what I think is being described is not a move away from religious arguments (which recapitulate all human concerns) but rather a move away from moralism and Biblicism, which (I think) are much more politics than they are religion.

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