Recently, TV host Salwa al Mutairi came up with an interesting suggestion for how Muslim men could be protected from the temptation to commit adultery. According to Mutairi, who once ran for parliament in Kuwait, they should be allowed to purchase women and keep them as sex slaves. Under her interpretation of Islamic law, this is close enough to marriage that it wouldn’t constitute adultery. Apparently adultery is forbidden, but buying another person to be your sex slave is just fine. It seems that this completely misses the point of what laws are, and the purpose they’re meant to serve. It’s an error that appears especially often in religious doctrine.
For instance, under some interpretations of Islam, an unaccompanied woman is forbidden to be in the presence of unrelated men. To make things easier for women who often have to work around men, a fatwa was issued declaring that they could simply breastfeed their male colleagues. This would mean that they’d now be considered family, so the prohibition would no longer apply. A particularly controversial feature of Shi’a Islam is the practice of temporary marriages. A man who wishes to sleep with a woman can marry her for a fixed period of time – even as short as an hour – after which the marriage is dissolved. If they were to have sex outside of marriage, this would be forbidden, but as long as they’re married, it’s okay.
In certain sects of Judaism, operating electrical devices is prohibited on the day of rest. The control of electric current is believed to violate the law against lighting a fire, because it could create a spark. To get around this restriction, a number of devices have been invented which don’t explicitly involve controlling electricity. The Shabbat lamp is turned on before the day of rest, and features a special lampshade that can be moved to cover or expose its light. The Shabbat elevator constantly makes automatic stops at every floor, so nobody has to press any buttons. And there’s always the option of finding someone who isn’t Jewish to take care of everything you’re not allowed to do.
Within Christianity, interpretations of biblical law are often followed to the point of absurdity. Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church claims that women with abusive husbands are not allowed to leave them, because divorce is only permissible in the case of adultery or abandonment – although he “wishes” the Bible said differently. Theologian Douglas Wilson penned a lengthy defense of American slavery, believing that if biblical support for slavery was rejected, then so would the biblical condemnation of homosexuality. He was thus forced to conclude that homosexuality is wrong, but slavery is okay, just as the Bible says.
What do all these beliefs have in common? They stem from a mindset where the law is regarded as greater than any human concerns, and it naturally follows that obedience to the law is treated as an end in itself. Under this principle, the law does not exist to serve the people – the people exist to serve the law. It’s obvious that they haven’t given much thought to what laws are for. If keeping someone as a sex slave is okay because it’s “not adultery”, the immediate question is: why is it so important for it not to be adultery? Why must adultery be prohibited?
But the religious approach does not allow for any honest questioning here – certainly nothing that could lead to the conclusion that the law as it is might actually be wrong. This possibility is precluded from the outset. Instead, the law simply is, standing as an unimpeachable divine command that everyone is bound to obey. The law itself comes first; rationalizations for it are secondary, and technically not even necessary.
This is quite the opposite of how the law has come to be conceptualized in nations under free and democratic rule. Nowadays, laws have been recognized as something that’s meant to serve a certain purpose. They’re no longer taken as axioms. They can be created, challenged, rewritten, and repealed as necessary in order to further the interests of society. If something is illegal, there has to be a reason for it. No law is exempted from critical analysis and honest consideration, so there’s no longer any need to develop elaborate and bizarre circumventions of divine laws. We can choose to adopt the laws that work for us, and reject the ones that don’t.
In this context, buying a sex slave to avoid adultery is not only horrible, but pointless. We can just legalize adultery – and ban slavery, while we’re at it. We can decide that it’s better for adultery to be allowed than for people to be kept in sexual slavery. Such decisions are simply not possible under an unwavering adherence to divine law, which necessarily has no regard for human well-being and no capacity for reflection or adaptation. This notion of law is not only reckless, but fundamentally hostile to self-government. People aren’t free to decide what’s best for their society when they’re subject to unquestionable laws. And without the choice to rule ourselves, humanity is no better off than slaves.