Taboos in a Religious Context

Sexual, Food, Menstruation Taboos and More

Kosher deli
Rachel Hinman/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

A taboo is something a culture considers forbidden. Every culture has them, and they certainly do not need to be religious in nature.

Some taboos are so offensive that they are also illegal. For example, in America (and many other places) pedophilia is so taboo that the act is illegal, and even thinking about sexually desiring children is deeply offensive. Speaking about such thoughts is absolutely taboo is most social circles.

Other taboos are more benign. For example, many Americans consider talking about religion and politics among casual acquaintances to be a social taboo. In previous decades, publicly acknowledging someone as a homosexual was also taboo, even if everyone already knew it.

Religious Taboos

Religions have their own set of taboos. Offending the gods or God is the most obvious, but there are also a variety of taboos that impact daily activities.

Sexual Taboos

Some religions (as well as cultures in general) consider various sexual practices taboo. Homosexuality, incest, and bestiality are inherently taboo for those literally following the Christian Bible. Among Catholics, sex of any kind is taboo for clergy - priests, nuns, and monks - but not for general believers. In Biblical times, Jewish high priests were not allowed to marry certain types of women.

Food Taboos

Jews and Muslims consider certain foods such as pork and shellfish to be unclean.

Thus, the eating of them is spiritually polluting and taboo. These rules and other define what is Jewish kosher and Islamic halal eating.

Hindus have taboos against eating beef because it is a sacred animal. To eat it is to profane it. Hindus of higher castes also face increasingly limited types of clean food.

Those of high caste are considered more spiritually refined and closer to escape from the cycle of reincarnation. As such, it is easier for them to become spiritually polluted.

In these examples, different groups have a common taboo (not to eat certain foods) but the reasons are quite different.

Association Taboos

Certain religions consider it taboos to associate with certain other groups of people. Hindus traditionally don't associate with or even acknowledge the caste known as the untouchables. Again, it becomes spiritually polluting.

Menstruation Taboos

While the birth of a child is an important and celebrated event in most cultures, the act itself is sometimes seen as highly spiritually polluting, as is menstruation. Menstruating women might be sequestered in another bedroom or even in another building and might be barred from religious ritual. A purification ritual might be required afterward to formally remove all traces of pollution.

Medieval Christians often performed a ritual called churching in which a woman who has recently given birth is blessed and welcomed back into the church after her confinement. The church today describes it entirely as a blessing, but many see purification elements to it, particularly as it was sometimes practiced in the Middle Ages.

In addition, it draws from Torah passages that explicitly do call for purification of new mothers after a period of uncleanliness.

Deliberate Breaking of Taboo

Most often, people attempt to avoid breaking their culture's taboos because of the stigma involved with challenging social or religious expectations. However, some people deliberately break taboos. The breaking of taboos is a defining element of Left-Hand Path spirituality. The term originated in Tantric practices in Asia, but it has been embraced by various Western groups, including Satanists.

For western members of the Left-Hand Path, breaking taboos is liberating and reinforces one's individuality rather than being confined by social conformity. This is generally not so much about seeking taboos to break (although some do) but in being comfortable breaking taboos as desired.

In Tantra, Left-Hand Path practices are embraced because they are seen as a quicker way to spiritual goals. These include sexual rituals, use of intoxicants, and animal sacrifice. But they are also considered more spiritually dangerous and more easily exploitable.