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Nudism and Naturism

Religious Aspects

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Ancient Christianity:

Nudity is referred to or implied in many Biblical passages.

With the exception of St. Paul, followers of Christ during the first two decades after his execution did not appear to be particularly concerned about sex or the human body:

  • The earliest known Christian writings (the Gospel of Q) did not refer to either; its passages concentrated on an individual's relationship with God and with fellow humans.

  • The first mention of masturbation in Christian writings is found in sixth century CE penitentials. These were books containing a set of church rules concerning the sacrament of penance. More info.

  • Another indicator was that in the early Church, baptisms were conducted with both the person being baptized and the person performing the baptism being naked, and in the presence of others of both genders. 1 This was the custom for those baptized as adults in the Church for many centuries.

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Influence of St. Paul, and of Pagan and Gnostic philosophy:

Gradually, the Christian movement picked up a profoundly anti-body philosophy from a variety of sources which were largely unrelated to the teachings of Jesus:
bullet One of the earliest movements within Christianity, Gnosticism, was particularly opposed to the human body and its pleasures. They believed that one's soul is trapped within the body. Believers felt that excess pleasure during life may imprison the soul so completely that it may not find its way back to God after death. Many Gnostics taught abstention from sexual activity, marriage, meat and wine.

bullet Pre-Christian Greek and Roman Pagan beliefs contributed greatly to Christianity's anti-sexual beliefs:
bullet Pythagoras (6th century BCE) taught that sexual intercourse was harmful to one's health.

bullet Hippocrates (4th century BCE) taught that excessive loss of semen could lead to a man's death.

bullet Plutarch (46 - 120 CE) praised individuals who had restricted their sexual activity to intercourse only with their wife.

bullet The Stoics (circa 350 BCE - 250 CE) rejected all forms of pleasure and valued celibacy. 2

bullet St. Paul wrote extensively on sexual misconduct and valued celibacy over marriage for those who could handle it. Of course, his beliefs were probably influenced by his expectation that the end of the world would occur during his lifetime. He perceived marriage as reducing a believer's ability to concentrate on spiritual matters as Jesus' second coming approached. Jesus is recorded as also anticipating the end of the world as they knew it. Both were wrong.

bullet Some in the church emphasized Jesus' teachings in Matthew 5:28 that for a man to lust after a woman who is not their spouse is equivalent to engaging in adultery. The Christian Church in the Middle Ages even took this verse to an extreme by condemning a man lusting after his wife as equivalent to prostitution. Unfortunately, the biblical passage has been poorly translated. A more accurate English translation would be for a man to be obsessed with lust towards a woman. "Ordinary" lust would not count as equal to adultery.

bullet Later church philosophers continued to place a premium on celibacy and eventually considered all sexual activity (even with one's spouse for the purpose of procreation) to be sinful.

bullet In recent centuries, there has been a softening and reversal of this viewpoint. 

This dscomfort with the human body and of sexual activities affected many areas of life, including people's beliefs about nudity.

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Modern-day Christianity:

Author Georg Feuerstein wrote: 

"When we inspect the Christian view of sex more closely, we find at its bottom a stubborn denial or denigration of bodily existence. The body - or the flesh - is regarded as the enemy of the spirit...According to the classical Christian model, the body is innately impure and thus is inimical to religious or spiritual life." 3

Many of the attitudes of Christians towards the human body are related to the creation story in the first few chapters of the book of Genesis -- the story of Adam and Eve and the snake. However, different wings of Christianity interpret this story very differently:

bullet Some churches teach that nudity is inherently immoral because the human body is inherently evil. This teaching is directly related to the story of the eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is commonly interpreted by conservative and many mainline Christian denominations as evidence of the fall of humanity into sin. This is a very important belief, because without the fall of humanity, there would have been no massive gulf between God and humans. There would have been no need for humanity to be saved through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

bullet Many liberal Christians interpret the creation story in the first few chapters of Genesis to be a myth -- i.e. it is a story that is factually untrue because it describes events that never happened. But it is simultaneously a legend of immense spiritual significance. They note that in Genesis 1:31, God called Adam's naked body (and the rest of creation) to be good. They interpret the eating of the fruit as symbolizing the rise of humanity from proto-human (lacking a moral sense) to full human status (having a moral sense).

Many Christians have not had the opportunity to attend a naturist resort, and assume that sexual arousal is a common phenomenon there. They condemn naturism because they feel that it must lead naturally to feelings of lust. In reality, there is much more sexual stimulation in looking at a partly clad person on a textile beach and imagining them naked, than there is in seeing them nude at a naturist resort. This phenomenon becomes clear to most people only after they actually visit a naturist resort.

Because of the Christian church's extensive teachings on sex and nudity, today's conflicts between conservative Christianity and secular standards of morality appear to be mostly related to matters of human sexuality: abortion access, birth control, bisexuality, breast-feeding in public, condom availability, erotic material, female ordination, free (nudist) beaches, homosexuality, male/female roles in society, married clergy, pornographic material, portrayal of sexual behavior and sexual orientation in the media and movies, power distribution between spouses, premarital sex, same-sex marriage, sex-education in the public schools, topless sunbathing for women -- and probably other topics.

In fact, the conflicts are frequently not so much about sexually-related behavior itself then about choice in sexual behavior. Many conservative Christians advocate criminalizing, banning or preventing some behaviors, so that people's options are restricted or eliminated. The goal seems to be to prevent others from placing themselves in an environment where they might be tempted to what conservative Christians consider to be sin.

Author and Roman Catholic theologian John Wijngaards wrote:

"Nudism also celebrates our human freedom. Discarding clothes is highly symbolic of liberating one self from conventions, unwarranted restraints and anxieties. "For freedom Christ has made us free!" (Galatians 5,1).

"We know from the Gospels that Jesus himself and the Apostles felt no false shame in laying off their dress (see for instance John 21,7). Jesus and his followers must have washed themselves in the Jordan or other ponds, undressing as they did so. Also, people were baptised naked." 4

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Neo-pagans and followers of other religions:

Of the hundreds of thousands of Neo-Pagans in North America, many conduct their rituals skyclad (clad only by the sky; i.e. naked). Wiccans usually celebrate either skyclad or wearing only a simple robe. Some Jainist monks also practice ritual nudity. Such practices, if done away from public view, may be protected in the United States under the First Amendment which guarantees freedom of religious expression. It also might be protected under various Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. These laws severely limited state and municipal government interference with religious practices. (The federal RFRA act has been declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but state laws may still be valid). The courts may eventually rule that discrete ritual nudity may not be restricted by local anti-nudity ordinances. To our knowledge, no lawsuits have been initiated on this matter.

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References:

  1. St. Hippolytus, "Apostolic Constitutions"
  2. Uta Ranke-Heimeman, "Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church", Doubleday, New York NY (1990)
  3. G. Feuerstein, "Sacred Sexuality: Living the Vision of the Erotic Spirit", Tarcher/Perigee, New York NY (1993), P. 15
  4. John Wijngaards, "Naturism / Nudism - may Catholics join?,"  The Body is Sacred, at: http://www.thebodyissacred.org/

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Copyright © 1996 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2011-DEC-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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