I grew up in a comparatively legalistic religious tradition that preached a lot of rules, many of which I chaffed against. In my youth, I held the notion that religion had one overarching goal: to prevent me from having any fun whatsoever.
Probably because of that, when as an adult I became a Christian myself, I embraced a much freer vision of spirituality, one that concentrates on the belief that God grants us his favor based on his own love and mercy rather than on our adherence to a set of religious laws.
Over the years, however, I've slowly, reluctantly come to see the wisdom behind a lot of the prohibitions I earlier resisted. Maybe that's because I've grown older and wiser. Or maybe, being older, I'm simply less tempted.
Whatever the case, I now view many traditional teachings less as neurotic fun-spoilers than as common-sense guidelines that, to the extent we follow them, protect and liberate us.
I no longer think God and the church are out to deny us our fair share of pleasure. I think many of their rules were designed to make us happier and safer. There's a lot to be said for clean living — for working consistently, telling the truth and saving money.
Here are a few other examples.
Sobriety. Although the Old Testament praises the benefits of the fruit of the vine, and we see Jesus himself imbibing to such an extent that his critics accused him of being a drunkard, the churches in which I was brought up were death on the subject of drinking alcohol — any alcohol.
Even our Communion wine was just Welch's grape juice.
I'm still not against anyone, myself included, enjoying a beer with his pizza, but I have seen up close, again and again, the ravages booze can wreak. In comparison with party animals, those teetotalers who trained me come away looking pretty smart.
Depending on whose statistics you choose, 12.1 million to 17.6 million Americans are alcoholics. One rule of thumb says a typical alcoholic will mistreat four or five people close to him or her, such as family members, while drunk. That means as many as 88 million of us have suffered directly from alcohol's worst effects.
In addition, every year several hundred thousand people are injured or killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents.
According to the federal government, in 2002 (the last year for which I can find official numbers), the economic cost of alcoholism and other drug abuse was $180.9 billion. Another, non-governmental source puts the annual cost today of alcohol abuse alone at $200 billion-plus.
Yet another estimate says 73 percent of felonies are alcohol-related, including 67 percent of child-beating cases, 41 percent of forcible rapes, 80 percent of spousal assaults, 72 percent of stabbings and 83 percent of homicides.
Sexual restraint. Nothing made less sense to me when I was an adolescent than the idea that you should confine yourself for life to one sexual partner, and then only within the confines of marriage. I thought, "You've got to be kidding. No one can do that."
Well, we'd all be better off if we did.
Consider the prevalence today of sexually transmitted diseases, which primarily are spread through relations with multiple partners.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate there are 19 million new STD infections each year, which cost the U. S. health care system $16.4 billion annually and can result in everything from infertility to cancers to warts to kidney disease to death. By the way, almost half those new infections are among people ages 15 to 24.
You can add to STDs the emotional, economic and spiritual damages often wrought by promiscuity, such as unplanned, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, self-loathing and ruined marriages.
The sanctity of marriage. I realize there are myriad and often unavoidable reasons why people divorce. I judge no one. Many of the people I love most are divorced.
Still, the old ideal that we ought to get married and stay that way turns out to be sound advice.
Statistically, married women are less likely than unmarried women to fall into poverty, are less likely to be victims of violence, are less likely to attempt suicide, are at decreased risk of drug and alcohol abuse, are healthier physically and have better relationships with their children.
Men's Health magazine cites various studies showing that married men earn 22 percent more than their similarly experienced but single colleagues, receive higher performance ratings and faster promotions than bachelors, are nearly four times less likely than single men to be victims of violent crime, have more sex than single men (in all 38 countries surveyed) and are less likely to die after being diagnosed with cancer.
The boon to children born from stable marriages is just as dramatic. Compared with other kids, those from intact families tend to be healthier, better-adjusted, higher achievers academically and less at risk for every ill from sexual abuse to drug use to poverty to STDs to teen pregnancies.
Dancing. When I was young, the people most adamant about the evils of dancing were the middle-age white men who ran our congregations. Today, I can say this with great assurance: They were right. Middle-aged white men should never, ever dance.