How Religious Thinking Disregards Consent

Bloomingdale's recent ad debacle got me thinking about consent—both in the sexual sense and in the wider realm—and about the ways religious thinking may actually encourage a disregard for consent.

If you missed it, the ad in question (pictured right) came from Bloomingdale's holiday catalog. It shows a stylishly dressed man and woman with the caption: Spike your best friend's eggnog when they're not looking.

'Tis the season for holiday parties and drunken date rape?

The backlash was swift on social media and Bloomingdale's has since issued an apology for the ad, saying that they now realize it was "inappropriate and in poor taste."

In this ill-conceived Bloomingdale's ad, the suggestive copy and overt male gaze made many see it as promoting date rape and sexual predators. While it's possible to argue that rape was not the advertiser's intent, the ad absolutely promotes a violation of consent.

Let's set aside the date rape connotations and talk in more general terms about the ethics of "spiking" someone's drink—regardless of sexual or non-sexual motives.

Spiking someone's drink refers to adding alcohol or drugs to it. A drink can be spiked with or without consent. If the person consuming the drink knows it has been spiked, then there's no issue. They're choosing to consume the alcohol or drugs it contains.

But spiking someone's drink without their knowledge is very dangerous. From a health standpoint, you don't know if alcohol or drugs pose an increased medical risk for someone else. You don't know if the other person has a health condition, is taking other medication or is a recovering alcoholic/addict.

Beyond the physical risks, you don't know if they have other reasons to abstain. Maybe it goes against their personal beliefs. Maybe they just don't like the way it makes them feel.

It doesn't matter why a person chooses not to drink alcohol or take drugs. Their choice should be respected, without validation or explanation.

Putting anything in someone's drink without their consent is a violation. You are violating their trust and taking away their opportunity to choose what happens to their body.

Given that this is already a violation—even without the implication of date rape—why would anyone think that spiking someone's drink "when they're not looking" is funny, clever or in any way acceptable? And how might religious thinking be involved in that attitude?

1. Religious thinking promotes the idea that others "know better"

Alcohol and recreational drugs relax your inhibitions. They are often used as a way to "loosen up" and "have fun." Some people see spiking a drink without consent as a way to get someone else—someone they see as "stuffy" or "too serious"—to relax and let down their guard. They may even say they are doing that person a favor by helping them let go and unwind.

But what makes them think they have the right to decide how anyone else should feel or behave?

Many religions actually encourage this way of thinking. It begins with believing that god knows better. Despite your own experiences and observations, he knows better and he has a plan for you.

That thought extends to religious leadership. Believers are told to put their faith in those who lead their church. Priests, pastors, ministers, televangelists, prophets, the Pope. These leaders understand more about god's plan. They interpret god's rules. They know better.

Believers are then told that they themselves know better than those who do not share their beliefs. That it is their mission to spread the "good news" and minister to unbelievers. Because they know better.

All of this "knowing better" contributes to a general mistrust of our ability to judge right from wrong for ourselves. It contributes to the idea that we should always look to rules, authority figures or more experienced people for answers that we could actually find within ourselves.

In this way of thinking, those who think for themselves are suspicious, obstinate or too proud. They need to be humbled (perhaps with a spiked drink or other degradation?).

While there's something to be said for considering an outsider's observation, decisions about our lives and our bodies should ultimately be our own. Those who are not living in our skin or with our experiences cannot, and should not, be said to "know better" about what we need.

2. Religious thinking encourages submission

In religious thinking, one of the most important things you can do for yourself is to surrender to a higher power. Give up what you think you know and blindly follow god's plan.

Again, this is a way of thinking that trickles down through the religious hierarchy. From god to his representatives on earth, from church leaders to their devout followers. In some religions, this also translates to family roles, with wives submitting to their husbands, and children submitting to their parents.

Finding grace through subservience feeds the ideas of both external morality (following rules set by others) and external happiness (looking outside of oneself for fulfillment). It minimizes the importance of personal consent by extolling the "virtue" of submission.

In patriarchal religions, gender roles further diminish consent by putting men in a position of power over women. In some religions, it is considered impossible for a husband to rape his wife because she does not have the right to refuse him.

Placing this value on submission further blurs lines between who "knows better" in a given situation.

3. Religious thinking promotes repression

While this depends on the specific religion, major religions commonly practiced in this country are typically well known for their restrictions. Some of these rules, like not killing, are reasonable, while others are either outdated (not wearing blended fabrics) or outright harmful (denying gay rights).

Many religious rules and practices are based on repressing natural desires, particularly when it comes to sex and other forms of pleasure. This creates unnecessary guilt around normal urges and has been shown to have harmful psychological effects.

When repression builds up as guilt and resentment, it can push someone to act out in unhealthy ways or lash out against others. Spiking a drink without consent (or raping someone) may be a way to degrade someone else, giving the repressed person a feeling of release.

4. Religious thinking denies responsibility

Religions which are based on an external form of morality lessen their followers' sense of personal responsibility. In some religions, everything that is good comes from god. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, while people are sinners who cannot be saved without god's grace.

In this mindset, people cannot be expected to know right from wrong without god's intervention. That frees them to not question their baser instincts. It gives them a pass to delight in the misfortune of others. It lets them "sin" and ask forgiveness later.

Bringing alcohol or drugs into the mix only offers further deniability. They drank because they're sinners who make mistakes, the things they did while drunk were out of their control. They were unable to stop their sinful behavior because sin lives within them, or because the devil made them do it.

If religious thinking often leads to problems with respecting and understanding consent, how does non-religious thinking compare?

When there is no belief in a higher power, morality is internally driven. It is based on empathy and principles. It comes from our own experiences. It comes from our understanding of how our actions affect others and the world around us.

While I'm not suggesting that we abolish all religion, it may be wise to question how religious thinking may affect our society at large. Especially when it comes to matters of personal autonomy and respecting others' right to consent.


  1. It is unfortunately quite certain that, in this day and age and mental climate, it would be impossible to eradicate religion. Outlawing it would only send fervently held religious beliefs "underground". The need for secrecy would probably increase their popularity. Those who enjoy intrigue would love it, and those whose religious fear rules them, would find it impossible to give it up. IMHO, the only cure would be for everyone to be required to read their religious book, beginning to end, before being allowed to be a member of that religion. And any religious stance they came up with, such as Pro-Life, they would have to complete, such as adopting those children they are forcing to be born, on penalty of losing their voting privilege.

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