Why do so many religions encourage celibacy as an aid for attaining spiritual enlightenment?
An Overview of Singleness and Celibacy in Religion
Before we tackle that question, let’s take a quick glance at celibacy and the unmarried status in some of the world’s major religions.
- The ancient religions of Judaism and Islam discourage total celibacy.
- Hindu monks and nuns are single and celibate, but priests may marry.
- Catholicism requires monks and nuns, as well as most clergy to be single and celibate.
- Though it varies in modern day, traditional Buddhism requires monks and nuns to be single and celibate.
Though many Protestant Christian sects encourage traditional (and often large) families among clergy, the religion’s foundational texts appreciate singleness and celibacy. The Apostle Paul openly says he wishes all to be single like him, and only accepts marriage as an alternative to unchecked lust.
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
1 Corinthians, 7:1-2
So why do so many religions, both originally and in modern day, encourage this single/celibate lifestyle among their monks, nuns, and even clergy?
Spiritual Awakening vs. Religious Practice and Beliefs
At this point, it’s important to talk about the difference between people who are followers of a particular religion and those who are trying to attain spiritual enlightenment through that religion. Monks and nuns of various religions devote themselves to a deeper, more meaningful understanding of their higher power than lay people following their same religion.
With few exceptions (the Shakers, for example), religions don’t typically require that level of devotion from all members. That’s why one can be a practicing Buddhist or Catholic without being single and celibate. So with that knowledge we can ask, how do singleness and celibacy contribute to a more profound connection to the divine?
Maybe we should start by looking at how romantic/sexual relationships can detract from that connection.
The Psychological and Emotional Drain of Relationships
There’s no doubt about it: being in a relationship takes a lot of mental and emotional energy. Myiam Batik stated in a Youtube video that one of the reasons she personally couldn’t imagine being in an open relationship was that a relationship with just one partner takes an incredible amount effort.
“I get exhausted dating one person and trying to carve out times for my kids’ needs and my own self care. How does adding another person get managed?”
– Mayim Bialik
(see also Myiam’s follow-up video: I Was Wrong About Open Relationships)
The Dalai Lama has also referenced the psychological labor involved in relationships. When asked if he ever felt tempted, he replied, “Oh yes, sometimes [I] see people. But then [I’m] thinking, it’s a real job. Too much problem.”
If one is in a happy relationship, the benefits may outweigh the high emotional cost. But for one seeking a spiritual awakening, diverting so much energy can make progress slow.
Beyond the emotional stamina required, having a partner simply takes a lot of time out of one’s day. And often, one’s partner is going to take precedence over one’s spiritual growth.
Imagine trying to have a deep conversation with a friend when a child continually interrupts you. You have to turn your attention away from your friend each time and tend to the needs of the child. This constant distraction makes having any lengthy or meaningful interaction with your friend impossible. That’s what it’s like trying to attain a state of deep connection with your higher power when you’re in a relationship with another person. If that other person is your priority, it’s fine. But if your goal is to achieve enlightenment, that’s going to hold you back.
Singleness, Solitude, and Spiritual Freedom
Considering all this, the relationship between singleness (and/or celibacy) and spirituality is clear. Monks, nuns, and others seeking spiritual enlightenment avoid romantic relationships because they’re draining and distracting. This is also why monasteries often include hermitages, and monks’ cells are solitary.
So, to answer the question we started with, why do so many religions encourage celibacy as an aid for attaining spiritual enlightenment? Because pure, genuine solitude allows the spiritual student to focus all of their energy on their connection to the divine.
The crossroads of singleness, celibacy, and spirituality provide so much more material for discussion. This one blog post has only scratched the surface. Are you interested in further discussion on this topic? Let me know in the comments.
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