Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion

When I was four, I was an angel in the school nativity play. I had wanted to be the angel Gabriel, but my teacher had gently informed me that Gabriel was a boy. Mary had already been cast, so the only parts left for other girls were generic angels. I was disappointed but then I realised, what did Mary do exactly? It seemed to my young mind that all she did was have a baby; it was the baby that everyone was interested in, and the baby was a boy. I soon learned that all the good parts to play in this story belonged to the boys, and with every passing school year and corresponding nativity play, I felt more and more put out. There were also other things about my C of E school that bothered me — when we prayed, we said ‘our father’, but there was no mention of a mother. There was a son, but no daughter. And when we learned Bible stories, female characters were almost non-existent.

I’m not sure whether that first nativity was the moment that sowed the seed for my atheism, but as I got older, and became a feminist when I was at high school, I found the existence of an all-powerful male supernatural entity impossible to believe, and I felt that those who expected me to believe it were insulting my intelligence. I had questioned the existence of God, and found no satisfactory answers; in the same sense, I had questioned patriarchy and found it similarly wanting. To me, religion and patriarchy were inextricably linked in their natures, and I decided both were a con. As an adult, I find reinforcement for this conclusion every day; however, as I’ve become more involved with feminism, I’ve seen less criticism of religion than I expected, given the wealth of evidence concerning its negative impact on women’s lives.

Should a rape victim be expected to marry her attacker, as long as he pays her father some money? According to the Old Testament’s book of Deuteronomy (Chapter 22, Verse 29), the creator of the universe thinks so. This charming verse is not an isolated piece of divinely inspired sexism; the holy books of the main monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) all contain shocking misogynist material, including many verses specifically instructing violence against women for the breach of harsh rules about sexual activity.

This fact has been commented on before, and it should be well known among feminists; rather than waste space quoting verses, I will direct you to the website ‘The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible’, which contains lists of the verses relating to women in the Koran, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. More about Islam can be found at the blog of Kafir Girl, whose article ‘Swimmin’ in Women’ is an irreverent and detailed analysis of the behaviour of Islam’s prophet Mohammed towards women and girls. While there is simply not enough space to fully analyse each religion’s treatment of women, there is some information about the inconsistency of the Hindu texts in relation to women’s rights here, an analysis of misogyny and Buddhism here, and this page shows that even the non-violent Jains apparently can’t handle a little bit of menstrual blood.

Religious ideas harm women and restrict their lives on a daily basis. The only reason that on-demand abortion is not available to women worldwide is the prevalence of religious (most notably Catholic) beliefs that a fertilised egg is a human being. The rise of unwanted pregnancies and STDs including Aids in many countries can be directly blamed on religiously-funded abstinence programmes which are based on beliefs that contraception and sex before marriage are evil. Strong beliefs about the sanctity of a girl’s virginity and the wickedness of female sexual behaviour lead to predictable, sometimes appalling and horrific results, such as girls being buried alive, lashed and stoned to death. Former Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes eloquently in her book ‘The Caged Virgin’ about how Islamic beliefs concerning sexual desire lead to women being restricted in what they wear and how much of a life they can lead outside the home, and blamed for sexual attacks (she has received death threats for her trouble). And even as women are being harmed by such religious beliefs, they are told that the originator of these ideas, God, loves them. I assume the same kind of love is behind the Church of England being exempt from the provisions of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, and the laws allowing faith schools to teach girls that abortion and contraception are sinful.

Feminists know all this, or at least they ought to – the surprise is that many tolerate or even seek to apologise for it. At the very least, there seems to be much less outspoken criticism of religion from feminists than one would reasonably expect. Last year, the US website Feministing asked the question: “Can you love God and feminism?” I thought it was a no-brainer, but several people commented about how their religious faith and their feminism coexist in harmony. The moderator of the site declared these confessionals “amazing”, even though she herself had admitted that she was not religious. Atheism was the minority view, and no such gushing praise was forthcoming for the unbeliever. A quick Google search reveals many websites dedicated to faith and feminism, but comparatively few taking the opposite stance.

It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion, but it is not alone in this. Religion has managed to carve itself a very nice niche in society whereby any questioning of religious faith is seen to be extremely bad form. Religion seems to have a monopoly on hurt feelings, entirely unfairly in my opinion. It seems to me that some feminists are afraid of a critical discussion about religious faith, because of the ever-looming label of ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, or, when it comes to any religion besides Christianity, ‘racist’. When in fact, there is a big difference between questioning an idea (in this case: faith in the existence of a specific supernatural entity in spite of a complete lack of evidence) and hating a person or group of people. Saying that critics of religion are prejudiced is as moronic as calling feminists ‘man-haters’.

I personally do not understand how anyone can be religious and a feminist; some of the verses I read in the various holy books while researching this article made me feel sick to my stomach, and I don’t know how any feminist wouldn’t want to run as fast as they could away from such hateful nonsense. But many feminists have apparently reconciled their feminism with a religious faith, and some of the arguments used to defend this decision can be roughly summarised thus: there are other verses/texts in the religion which actually promote equality and women’s rights; the holy texts have been misinterpreted by misogynists and if interpreted correctly they actually promote equality; the texts are irrelevant to the practice of the religion itself (this article is an example of some of the arguments used from a religious feminist’s perspective).

The first argument, that some verses are more egalitarian and cancel out the nasty stuff, doesn’t hold water. It means that the best you can say about the books is that they are inconsistent. Does feminism tolerate such inconsistency in other institutions? From contemporary figures and organisations? While Tory politician Theresa May champions Conservative policies as woman-friendly, the party’s voting record says otherwise, and Tory leader David Cameron was caught out this month regarding his party’s stance on women’s rights when he opined that the abortion time limit should be reduced to 20 or 22 weeks. No feminist would be taken in by this behaviour. Why can feminism see very plainly when a political party is merely paying lip service to women’s rights, but some feminists cannot see when centuries-old books are doing exactly the same thing, only not as well?

The second argument, that the holy texts have in fact been misinterpreted and so need reinterpreting, is also rather puzzling. If a person reinterprets a holy book to give it a meaning consistent with feminism, then that person is using their own sense of equality to decide on the new interpretation. They have not got their sense of equality from the book itself; if they had, they would not be able to reinterpret it. Which begs the question, what use is the book? Even if a person managed to so creatively interpret verses in the Bible (for example) that they could allow themselves to believe that when God said “If tokens of virginity [i.e. blood on the sheets] be not found for the damsel… then the men of the city shall stone her with stones that she die” (Deut 22:21), he actually meant the exact opposite, then this is indeed ingenious, but there is no way of proving which interpretation is what the writers intended in any case, as time machines have yet to be invented.

The third argument, that the texts are not necessary to practice the religion, is the most perplexing of all. I was under the impression that holy books are supposed to contain the exact words or at least the paraphrased opinions of their god – i.e. they are the product of a man or men having had a conversation with the supposed creator and writing this down as ‘proof’ for everyone else. Without the books, where are the religions? For example, Ibn Warraq, author of ‘Why I Am Not A Muslim’, writes that one of the central tenets of Islam is that the Koran is the word of Allah as dictated to Mohammed. Is he wrong?

Next usually comes the assertion that as many people derive ‘comfort’ from religion, it must therefore be a positive thing. But religion doesn’t comfort everyone. Sometimes religion offers people a confusing cocktail of comfort and harm; sometimes, it is outright damaging. Those who are comforted shouldn’t be able to silence those who are harmed. Secondly, I agree with AC Grayling when he says: “Would we tolerate the government telling us comforting lies about, say, an accident at a nuclear plant, or a spillage of deadly viruses form a laboratory? No? Then comforting lies have their limits.” I also feel that the ‘comforting’ aspects of religion are nothing more than a sweetener to keep people believing (and filling up the collection plate).

When Karl Marx called religions “the opiate of the masses” he was referring to the way a belief in an afterlife distracted the poor from their position in Earthly society and discouraged revolutionary action. The same sentiment can be applied to women (who are more likely to be poor, in any case). If religions were replaced by real opiates (whose comforting, pain-relieving qualities are not in any doubt), to encourage conformity and discourage questioning, would any feminist defend their use? Lastly, any feminist seeking to use the ‘comfort’ argument should remember that the status quo is always comforting for someone – you could argue that many people, largely men, derive much comfort from patriarchy.

Given all of the above, I anticipate in reaction: what business is it of yours what people believe? A person’s private religious faith is none of anyone’s business and you should tolerate it. You’ve got no right to tell people what to think! And so on. These are arguments atheists come across often. Indeed this seems to be the tack that many feminists take. It appears quite difficult to argue against, but here goes. First of all, as Sam Harris points out in his book ‘The End Of Faith’, belief almost always leads to action, therefore, beliefs are very rarely truly private. Believe that it’s going to rain, and you’ll take an umbrella out with you. Believe that a clump of cells is a sacred human life, and you will join a pro-life group and lobby the government to ban abortion; you may even be successful, in which case you will contribute to the suffering and even deaths of large numbers of women. As Harris says, “Some beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.” Indeed feminists do not tolerate every belief. We reject many commonly-held beliefs, most notably the belief that males are fundamentally different from, and superior to, females.

Also, people’s religious beliefs aren’t necessarily freely chosen. The vast majority of religious people are so because they have been brought up to be religious; it has been impressed upon them from an early age that there is a divine creator, and that he should be worshipped in the following ways, and so on. In this way, ‘telling people what to believe’ is really the preserve of religion. All atheists do, if anything, is ask people to question what they believe. If children were allowed to grow up without religious influence and then asked to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves as adults if there is a god, then it would be a different matter entirely. But this doesn’t happen.

Even in the light of all of the above, there are some who will still insist that merely believing in a loving god – having ignored or ‘reinterpreted’ all the misogynist trappings of their faith – is harmless. I don’t agree. This belief is still based on blind faith, not on evidence, and such a mindset, while promoted by religions as a virtue, is in fact damaging to society.

Just think for a moment about the patriarchal society feminists, including myself, are fighting against: what is it based on? Facts? Evidence? Reason? None of the above. Rather, it relies on faith, namely, faith that there are two distinct genders, with fundamental differences between them and that the male is the superior of the two. We are expected to believe this, even though there is no evidence for it. Actual evidence shows that there are intersex, androgynous and genderqueer people, and that the differences between the sexes are very small, with huge variation within groups (this subject is covered in depth by Deborah Cameron, in her book, ‘The Myth of Mars and Venus’). And our reason tells us that out of two human beings, one cannot be automatically superior; it tells us that if female children are showing intelligence and leaving school with excellent grades, then they ought to hold 50% of the positions of power and influence in the world. It also tells us that for the same work done, the same money ought to be paid. The continuation of patriarchy depends on the suppression of this type of evidence and reasoning, and the continued mythmaking of the media and the population. Some myths, such as those surrounding rape for example, can be very dangerous.

What is the difference between a person who simply ‘feels’ that there is a god, and a person who simply ‘feels’ that males are superior to females? Answer: nothing. Both ideas are uncontaminated by evidence. But the difference, for some feminists, seems to be that the latter view is to be fought against and the former to be tolerated and even praised. But belief in a god is a tacit approval for belief without evidence, and this mindset is frequently used in justifying prejudice and discrimination, and does nothing to combat stereotyping and harmful myths. A religious feminist might want to consider the question: how can you argue against a person who has faith in patriarchy, when you yourself cannot turn a critical eye on your own faith in a supernatural creator? And from what stance can a religious feminist argue against fellow members of the faithful who insist that God made the man the head of the family (nuclear and heterosexual, of course) and that his wife should serve him? Such a discussion would end up in a futile back-and-forth about what God thinks of women and could never be resolved (seeing as presumably, God would never actually step in and settle it himself).

Conversely, feminists can use reason to great effect when fighting against patriarchy. I’ve already mentioned above how evidence and reasoning are on our side. Learning a critical attitude, from the earliest possible age, is vital. Children naturally question things, but what is saddening is that this tendency is quashed by religious instruction that insists faith is a virtue. Laws in the UK still require ‘daily worship’ to take place in all schools; this means that the vast majority of children are learning at school (if not at home too) that there is a male creator of the universe and he had a supremely virtuous male representative on Earth – doesn’t this teach young children something damaging about gender? Doesn’t it teach developing minds to associate power with maleness, and inculcate them with the supposed virtue of ‘worshipping’? At the very least, religious instruction and assertions to ‘have faith’ discourage a questioning attitude, lessening the likelihood that children will question the many levels of unfairness in our society.

Feminists can all perhaps agree on one thing: that the status quo in the majority (if not all) of the world’s societies is harmful in many ways towards women and girls. A large part of the harm is done by religion, both directly by influencing laws, attitudes and behaviour, and indirectly by promoting the idea that faith is a virtue and thus discouraging the questioning attitude that is so vital for debunking sexism and promoting equality. It is time for feminism to be brave and have a discussion about the real effects of religious faith on women’s place in societies worldwide, not placing the blame on a few extremists but critically examining the whole institution. Religious feminists ought to be able to handle this and not rely on religion’s unfair taboo status as a defence; after all, it is about criticising ideas, not hating people. When we embrace reasoning we not only use the most effective tool, we also handily explode the irritating stereotype that women are ‘irrational’ and ‘emotional’. Perhaps one day all feminists will end up at the same conclusion I came to many years ago: it is not just that the emperor has no clothes, it is that there is no emperor at all.

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