There are no perfect rules for sexual behavior, but the conservative elements of society often try to enforce traditional rules and understandings. Sometimes when these rules are based upon mistaken ideas, they generate more problems than they solve. - "Shattering Sacred Myths," The Academy of Evolutionary Metaphysics, 2005.Religion can be defined in many ways. For the purposes of this discussion, I'm defining it as a set of beliefs about what life means, and how it ought to be lived. I'm going to focus on how religion in 1890s London influenced the way that men thought they ought to be living their sexual lives.
Religion was different in the early-Victorian era from what it became after Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859. In the late-Victorian era, people were not so much moving away from religion as they were moving away from literal interpretations of the Bible. This is the time when people started to feel "more spiritual than religious," which I still hear people saying today.
Contrary to what American Creationists claim, Darwin didn't turn very many people away from religion. The Presbyterian Church of England was founded in 1876. Jehovah's Witnesses evolved out of the Bible Student Movement of the 1870s, which also gave rise to the Watch Tower Society. New Churches began forming around the world at a rate not seen since the Protestant Reformation, and this continued into the early-twentieth century.
The Salvation Army was founded in 1865, in the throws of the Darwinian Revolution, and represents the kind of change that was happening. Still riddled with ethical problems, the Salvation Army has always been something of an activist church that has maintained a vision of Christianity in action. It has, since its founding, promoted the idea that the ideal expression of one's faith is through good works, especially helping those less fortunate.
"It was an era of religion and faith, and intellectual change." - Nina Auerbach
"Priestess of Delphi," by John Collier (1891).
If one doesn't feel guilty about wanting something that is generally frowned upon by others, one might be inclined to find ways of justify wanting it. In this was a time of intellectual and spiritual change, new religions offered many ways to justify some sexual desires. For example, the religious utopian community of Oneida NY reorganized the Victorian concept of marriage and supported a system of 'free love,' which elevated the status of women, while making them vulnerable to the sexual desires of higher ranking Oneida men.
|Although the Oneida Community was founded before the publication of|
the Origin of Species, they began selective breeding programs in the 1870s.
It was important and still is to people, like Wilde, to find historical precedents for how they needed to live their lives and express themselves sexually because religion was being used as an extension of (some may say the root of) Victorian morality, a concept they used to condemn the things they didn't like, including sex, women, foreigners, poverty, and disease. The intellectual and artistic quest to better understand humanity and our internal struggles gets painted as the antidote to foolish religious beliefs. This is in no small way because of the comfort knowledge can bring to one, who has long suffered from unnecessary religious guilt.
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