Celibacy is the state of remaining unmarried and abstaining from sex for religious reasons. In some religions living in a state of celibacy is considered the way of perfection and the state appropriate to its leaders or its most dedicated practitioners. Examples of religious celibates are priests and MONKS AND NUNS of ROMAN CATHOLICISM; bishops, monks, and nuns in E ASTERN ORTHODOX CHRISTIANITY; Buddhist monks and nuns; Taoist monks; and Hindu sadhus or “holy men.” Other religions, such as CONFUCIANISM, JUDAISM, ISLAM, and PROTESTANTISM in CHRISTIANITY have (with a few exceptions) taught marriage as a virtual obligation, or at least a state that in no way diminishes religious virtue and should be open to all regardless of religious role.

At the same time, what might be called “spontaneous” celibacy has occurred even in those faiths, in the case of persons so immersed in a religious life that marriage was quietly dismissed as a personal option. Examples have been (according to some scholars) Jews of the ancient Essene or Qumran communities, certain Muslim Sufi mystics, and Protestants such as the Shakers or John Chapman (“Johnny Appleseed”), or many dedicated female Protestant missionaries and deaconesses. Sometimes deeply religious persons of homosexual tendency have found celibacy the best way of life for them. Sometimes celibacy is entered as a temporary state, as in the case of young men in some Theravada Buddhist countries, who become monks for a year or so before marrying and establishing themselves in the world. Sometimes celibacy is a kind of SACRIFICE or offering to GOD.

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Advocates of the value of celibacy say that it allows one to channel sexual energy into spiritual advancement, that it frees one to practice spirituality and serve others selfl essly without having to allow for family obligations, and that it is a way of attaining egolessness because it is a form of self-denial that can also support holy poverty and obedience. It sets an example of a way of life that is above the passions and obligations of the world and ordinary human nature. The celibate ideally can live as a completely free person, free from self and from entanglements, completely offered to God or the spiritual quest, and can reach enlightenment or serve God without hindrance.

Yet celibacy is not easy and is not desirable for all. Controversies have arisen over the extent to which it should be required in such institutions as the Roman Catholic Church. Some forms of BUDDHISM, especially among the Japanese, now permit priests and monks to be married. The ideals of celibacy and modern attitudes toward sexuality and marriage fi nd themselves deeply challenging to each other.