Over the years, I have heard various people arguing about the morality of social nudity, and read various articles on the subject. Occasionally, the experience has been interesting and enlightening. Often, it fails to get past the "Nudity is wrong because I say so" on the one side and "Nudity is right because it feels so good" on the other.
I generally don't feel I have a lot to contribute to these debates. For a long time, it seemed to me that if I took my morality from the Bible, then there was no distinctive moral issue relating to nudity - in other words, the moral issues that did exist were the same ones that relate to every aspect of our lives, such as the need to show love to the people we meet: the issues are the same ones we face when deciding whether to eat another bar of chocolate, or whether to travel by bus or car.
Eventually, I found a distinctive moral question concerning private nudity: is it right to heat your house so you can be naked at home? Is not the morally responsible act to put on more clothes and lower the thermostat? When asked to comment on the moral issues, I wrote this up as an article called "The Real Moral Issue" and thought I could lay the subject to rest.
More recently, there has been a nagging feeling that there really is a moral question concerning public nudity that I have been ignoring over the years, and this is what I want to explore here.
As always, I write with the hope and expectation of a response from the readers: if you can see where I have made a mistake, please let me know. I will update this article as quickly as possible with any corrections.
In most of the mainstream naturist press, you will constantly read statements by naturists saying they accept that nudity should be restricted to certain locations because people have the right not to be offended by the sight of naked bodies.
But do they?
What gives people the right not to be offended? And, more specifically, what gives them the right not to be offended by what they see?
In general, I am very sceptical about all the talk I hear about peoples' rights. We talk glibly about 'human rights' and 'the rights of the child' while ignoring massive difficulties with the concepts. I find it much more constructive to talk about responsibilities.
For example, while I agree with the sentiment, I struggle with the claim that 'children have the right not to be abused'. It seems much more helpful to say that adults have an obligation not to abuse children, and to protect children from abuse.
Similarly, I really don't know what it would mean to claim that you have a right not to be offended. Somehow, the universe should order itself in a way that conforms to your standards and expectations? I don't think so.
Turning it around, I can at least understand the claim that I have an obligation not to offend you. But let's think about that for a bit.
It seems to me that the moral principle that I should not offend other people is a relative principle, not an absolute one. It is more like good advice than a command: given the option, try not to offend other people. It is certainly not represented to us in the Bible with the same unambiguous clarity as 'Thou shalt not kill', for example.
And this makes sense. In social settings, particularly where there is a clash of cultures, it is often impossible not to offend some people. Try answering the question: do women have the right to abortion on demand? Whatever your answer, however tactful you may be, you will offend many people. And, sometimes, not answering the question is simply not an option.
It is not clear how I can avoid offending everyone - or, indeed, how I can avoid offending anyone. With moral issues, it is clear: I can avoid telling lies, and can avoid committing adultery, I can avoid murdering people. All these are things I can choose to do or not do, choices I can make. But when I offend you, the problem is not simply with what I do: it is with how you respond to what I do. And how can I know how you will respond?
This is not a problem most of the time for one simple reason: culture. Our culture tells us how to behave: it tells us what is expected, and what is unacceptable; what is normal, and what is offensive.
But there are many different, conflicting cultures in the world today. The way children speak to their parents, the way wives are expected to obey their husbands, the way newspapers pry into politicians' private lives - these and many other details vary greatly from one culture to the next.
And this is the core of our problem: you offend someone when you go against their cultural norms and expectations. But cultural norms are not moral principles: it is not sinful to dress a baby boy in pink, but (in my culture) it is certainly not normal, not acceptable.
And the situation gets worse: some cultural norms are, within a Biblical moral framework, simply wrong. Take the practice of forced marriage, or of killing unmarried pregnant girls. Just because it is culturally acceptable, within a certain society, does not make it right.
(The day after writing the paragraph above, I read an article by Tracy Chevalier in the Sunday Times magazine, 11 September 2005. The quote at the top of the article says, in part: "I am told that, unlike in other African countries, people in Burundi don't show emotion. That may be one reason why rape flourishes here: it is easy to hide it when everything else is hidden too." Culture really does matter.)
And, let's be honest, some people seem to be determined to be offended, whatever other people do: listen to the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland talking about each other.
So "Thou shalt not offend people" cannot be a moral principle. "Try not to offend people" is a sensible piece of advice, particularly when it applies to people you live with or see a lot of. But it is only that: sensible advice, which will often be helpful. It does not help you distinguish between right and wrong.
Which leads us to the conclusion that nobody has the moral right that they should not be offended by the sight of a naked person. The naked person may not be acting wisely, or helpfully, but we cannot say they are acting wrongly simply from the fact that they are giving offence.
Can we argue that they are acting wrongly on any other basis?
Another line of argument which is sometimes applied is this: it is wrong to force your beliefs upon someone else. You may believe that public nudity is fine, natural, healthy, appropriate and good. But that does not mean you have the right to force your beliefs upon someone who believes it to be dirty, disgusting, disturbing, offensive, ugly and immoral.
It doesn't take a genius to spot the error in this argument. Yes, it is wrong to force someone else to accept your beliefs, but simply showing someone a naked body does not force them to believe that nudity is okay.
I happen to find a common Christian practice, infant baptism, offensive. More than that - I believe that God finds it offensive. Yet I have friends who believe and practice this ritual, and every now and then I find myself present at a service of infant baptism. I behave myself, and do nothing to indicate my feelings on the subject, apart from this: I do not participate in the parts of the service that I believe to be wrong.
If a friend invites me to one of these services, I will accept. I know they do not intend to offend me, and I know that refusing to accept the invitation would hurt them, as they really do not understand my beliefs or appreciate the depth of my feelings on the subject.
In asking me to be present at a service of infant baptism, my friend is not forcing his beliefs upon me - only asking me to accept him with his beliefs. I believe the act, and some of the words spoken are wrong, that they pervert the gospel, blaspheme the nature of God and deny His love and grace. But I also know that my friend intends it as a portrayal of God's love. We disagree on the theology involved, but we are called to love one another despite our disagreements.
I should also point out that exactly the same principles work the other way round when I invite my infant-baptising friends to a service of believers' baptism, if the believer concerned was baptised as a baby. They believe the service to be wrong, but accept that it is not my intention to cause offence.
When I invite my infant-baptising friends to a service of believers' baptism, I am not forcing my beliefs upon them. When they witness the baptism, they are not being forced to believe anything.
In the same way, you may believe that nudity is wrong, but simply by being shown a naked body you are not being forced - or even asked - to change your beliefs. You are simply being asked to recognise that other people sometimes have different beliefs to you. Surely, this is not difficult?
Just as I do not participate in the infant baptism service, even if I am present, so if someone believes that nudity is wrong, I would not expect or require them to be naked themselves. I would not force people to participate in something they disagree with, but seeing someone else is not the same as taking part.
Occasionally, people use the argument that they consider the human body to be ugly, and they should not be made to look at it. This hardly needs answering. They may consider some buildings, or some people to be ugly, but they would not expect that this opinion of theirs should be sufficient grounds for pulling down the building or for forcing the individual to stay at home.
The obvious answer is: if you don't like the look of something, or someone, then look somewhere else.
The final argument I have come across is no more substantial than the others. It boils down to this: lust is a sin; the sight of naked bodies causes me to lust, therefore nudity causes me to sin, therefore nudity is wrong.
This argument is, in my experience, only used by Christians, although presumably people from other faiths also use it.
This raises a number of deep issues, which I don't intend to go into at this point. A number of my Christan articles deal with the nature of sin and how to avoid it.
For the sake of this argument, it is sufficient to note a few simple points.
Firstly, sexual arousal is not the same as lust, and is not sinful. In the Bible, lust is described as 'committing adultery in your mind'. A sight, or a smell, or a memory may cause you to be sexually aroused, and there is no sin involved. The key question is: what is going on in your mind? And that is under your control.
Secondly, you can be sexually aroused by the sight of an attractive girl or boy walking down the street. You would not use this obvious fact to argue that attractive people should not be allowed out in public. If you are tempted to lust by the sight of a naked body, then just do whatever you normally do when you are tempted to lust by a clothed body.
Thirdly, when you get used to it, nudity ceases to be sexually stimulating. After a while - and, for most people, this happens surprisingly quickly - nudity starts to feel normal (after all, it is normal!), and being with a naked person is no more sexually stimulating than being with a clothed one. Other things being equal, a body in a swimming costume is far more sexually stimulating than a naked body: you naturally fantasise about what you cannot see. What you can see, you just accept.
And, finally, another obvious point: if the sight of an attractive naked body is causing you some difficulty - then don't look. If eating chocolate makes you fat, then don't eat it. But, equally well, don't use your particular problem or hangup to stop people from selling chocolate. Just because it causes you a problem, that should not prevent other people from enjoying it in a wholesome way.
Much to my surprise, I am forced to the conclusion that there is no moral reason to prevent people from being naked in public if they wish.
Of course, the law in some places may prevent public nudity. In many other places, the weather makes it impractical for much of the year. Many other factors and considerations may apply. But, in terms of simple, ordinary morality, there really does not seem to be any issue.
I said at the start that I have come to believe that there is a real moral question concerning public nudity. It is this: it seems that most naturists believe that public nudity (nudity outside an explicitly naturist environment) is wrong. If my reasoning is correct, then they are wrong in their belief.