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Sexual freedom and the collapse of civilisation


WHY is Western civilisation collapsing? The answer depends on whom you ask: every group and ideology has its own response. If only there was a disinterested social scientist willing to thoroughly examine many different cultures to see if there were any common factors in their decline.

Step forward J D Unwin, an ethnologist and social anthropologist at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, who a century ago painstakingly studied 80 primitive tribes and six known civilisations through 5,000 years of history. Unwin described his 600+ page book Sex and Culture as a ‘summary’ of his decades of research; a full disclosure would require seven volumes.

Although his study was published nearly 90 years ago, in 1934, it is still relevant. Robert P George of Princeton, one of conservative Christianity’s leading intellectuals, uses Unwin in his teaching and argues that no one since has matched him in the thoroughness of his study of civilisations. Unwin had no axe to grind; he was not a believer and his work reads like that of a scientific rationalist who has nothing positive to say about Christianity.

Unwin studied the art, literature, politics, science, architecture, engineering and other cultural activities as well as the social structures of the 86 societies. He was looking for the effect they had on the social energy, stability and cohesion of the group, as well as its ability to compete with and defend itself against rival civilisations. He concluded that there is a positive correlation between the level of cultural achievement and survivability of a society and the level of sexual restraint expected within that society.

When a society practised sexual restraint it flourished and all aspects of cultural life prospered. However, as societies develop and become prosperous they become increasingly liberal with regard to sexual morality and as a result they lose cohesion, impetus and purpose. This accelerates social entropy and the reduction of its creative energy. Unwin concludes, ‘Any human society is free to choose either to display great energy or to enjoy sexual freedom; the evidence is that it cannot do both for more than one generation.’

The sexual tipping point when society starts a downward trajectory is not some wild perversion such as bestiality or necrophilia but pre-nuptial and extra-marital sex, which began to be normalised in the West in the 1970s and 80s.

Unwin argues that this downward process is irreversible: ‘The whole of human history does not contain a single instance of a group becoming civilised unless it has been absolutely monogamous, nor is there any example of a group retaining its culture after it has adopted less rigorous customs.’

Amongst Unwin’s findings in Sex and Culture were that increased sexual restraint always led to the flourishing of a culture, whilst increased sexual freedom always led to the collapse of the culture. The most powerful combination of factors leading to a culture flourishing was pre-nuptial chastity coupled with absolute monogamy. Rationalist cultures retaining this combination exceeded all other cultures in every area of endeavour, art, science, literature, engineering and agriculture.

Conversely when absolute sexual freedom was embraced that culture collapsed to the lowest level within three generations. Unwin described the lowest level as being ‘inert’, when the population became interested in little other than their own wants and needs. Upon reaching this level the culture is usually conquered or taken over by another culture with greater social energy.

What makes the work relevant today is that beginning in the 1960s the West underwent a sexual revolution where traditional Christian sexual ethics were abandoned, and today we can test the conclusions Unwin had arrived at 30 years earlier.  

He wrote of three indicators which become apparent when society starts a downward trajectory. The loss of a belief in a transcendent God or gods, rational thinking losing its importance, and lifelong monogamous marriage disintegrating. We cannot deny this describes the West today where atheism increases, therapeutic truth holds sway and rational thinking is suspect, and lifelong monogamy has been replaced by serial monogamy.

Argue for the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and against limitless sexual expression, and you are bound to be told that it is wrong for Christians to ‘impose’ their morality on others who do not share the Christian faith. Yet by arguing for the sexual moral restraint taught by biblical Christianity, you are arguing for the preservation of Western civilisation itself.

Unwin found that there were moral laws which appear to be designed to minimise human suffering and maximise human flourishing. He admitted that  he didn’t know why this should be. He didn’t give credit that these laws coincide with the Bible’s moral structure.

God’s moral laws are not simply a bunch of arbitrary rules given to restrict mankind’s freedom. The creation was designed to work in a certain way and when a culture, even unknowingly, follows God’s instructions it flourishes. The Bible is like a users’ manual giving us operating instructions designed to maximise our ability to flourish whilst sparing us from suffering. The moral laws we find in Christianity are the laws which enable civilisations to blossom, and their neglect causes them to decline and wither.

Unwin argues for a three-generation time-scale towards cultural collapse. While the length of a generation is notoriously difficult to define, it is common to use the ‘rule of thumb’ that males typically span three generations per century, making a generation roughly 33 years. If our sexual revolution began in the late 60s and early 70s, that means we still have roughly fifty years before becoming culturally inert.

Far from being depressing, this gives us a sliver of hope. We still have a window to reclaim our culture. Failing that, we have time to prepare for the results of cultural collapse.

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Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Dr Campbell Campbell-Jack
Campbell is a retired Presbyterian minister who lives in Stirlingshire. He blogs at A Grain of Sand.

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