Renunciation came as the next step in religious evolution; fasting was a common practice. Soon it became the custom to forgo many forms of physical pleasure, especially of a sexual nature. The ritual of the fast was deeply rooted in many ancient religions and has been handed down to practically all modern theologic systems of thought.
Just about the time barbarian man was recovering from the wasteful practice of burning and burying property with the dead, just as the economic structure of the races was beginning to take shape, this new religious doctrine of renunciation appeared, and tens of thousands of earnest souls began to court poverty. Property was regarded as a spiritual handicap. These notions of the spiritual dangers of material possession were widespreadly entertained in the times of Philo and Paul, and they have markedly influenced European philosophy ever since.
Poverty was just a part of the ritual of the mortification of the flesh which, unfortunately, became incorporated into the writings and teachings of many religions, notably Christianity. Penance is the negative form of this ofttimes foolish ritual of renunciation. But all this taught the savage self-control, and that was a worth-while advancement in social evolution. Self-denial and self-control were two of the greatest social gains from early evolutionary religion. Self-control gave man a new philosophy of life; it taught him the art of augmenting life’s fraction by lowering the denominator of personal demands instead of always attempting to increase the numerator of selfish gratification.
These olden ideas of self-discipline embraced flogging and all sorts of physical torture. The priests of the mother cult were especially active in teaching the virtue of physical suffering, setting the example by submitting themselves to castration. The Hebrews, Hindus, and Buddhists were earnest devotees of this doctrine of physical humiliation.
All through the olden times men sought in these ways for extra credits on the self-denial ledgers of their gods. It was once customary, when under some emotional stress, to make vows of self-denial and self-torture. In time these vows assumed the form of contracts with the gods and, in that sense, represented true evolutionary progress in that the gods were supposed to do something definite in return for this self-torture and mortification of the flesh. Vows were both negative and positive. Pledges of this harmful and extreme nature are best observed today among certain groups in India.
It was only natural that the cult of renunciation and humiliation should have paid attention to sexual gratification. The continence cult originated as a ritual among soldiers prior to engaging in battle; in later days it became the practice of “saints.” This cult tolerated marriage only as an evil lesser than fornication. Many of the world’s great religions have been adversely influenced by this ancient cult, but none more markedly than Christianity. The Apostle Paul was a devotee of this cult, and his personal views are reflected in the teachings which he fastened onto Christian theology: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” “I would that all men were even as I myself.” “I say, therefore, to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them to abide even as I.” Paul well knew that such teachings were not a part of Jesus’ gospel, and his acknowledgment of this is illustrated by his statement, “I speak this by permission and not by commandment.” But this cult led Paul to look down upon women. And the pity of it all is that his personal opinions have long influenced the teachings of a great world religion. If the advice of the tentmaker-teacher were to be literally and universally obeyed, then would the human race come to a sudden and inglorious end. Furthermore, the involvement of a religion with the ancient continence cult leads directly to a war against marriage and the home, society’s veritable foundation and the basic institution of human progress. And it is not to be wondered at that all such beliefs fostered the formation of celibate priesthoods in the many religions of various peoples.
Someday man should learn how to enjoy liberty without license, nourishment without gluttony, and pleasure without debauchery. Self-control is a better human policy of behavior regulation than is extreme self-denial. Nor did Jesus ever teach these unreasonable views to his followers.