Wednesday, October 22, 2008

3. Our Father Who Art In Heaven

This is the third post in my series about the simple reasons why I became a feminist and why feminism is still needed. The first one was about the right to go out and the second one about the invisibility of women as human beings. This one is about religion. About gods. About guy gods.

First the first required statement: There are female-centered religions, such as some forms of Wicca, and there are goddesses in many other religions, too, most notably Hinduism. But Christianity is a guy religion. Islam is a guy religion. Judaism is a guy religion. Even Buddhism is less than equal in its treatment of women and Taoism has branches which explicitly interpret the yin energy (or the "female" energy) as inferior to the yang energy (or the "male" energy). And the boss god in Hinduism is male. Most women in this world worship male gods.

Then the second required statement: Yes, the treatment of women in some of those guy religions has greatly improved. We can now have female ministers in Christianity (though not in Catholicism) and female rabbis in Judaism (though not in most Orthodox synagogues). As far as I know there are no female mullahs in Islam.

And yes, many modern believers don't view their god as male any longer. But most of the holy writings of Christianity, Islam and Judaism do.

Then the third required statement: All I write about religion in this post is based on a sociological view of religion, or the idea that "man created God in his own image." I'm not going to present my theological views here (though you may notice that I myself am the goddess of snakes, so there).

Remember the alien from outer space I pretend to be for the purposes of this series? Suppose that I have just arrived on earth and am eager to learn about the human religions. A kind earthling has given me the names of the possible members of a nuclear family: father, mother, daughter and son, and one such nuclear family takes me to their church on a lovely autumn Sunday. While in that church I learn that the family worships the Father and the Son. I also learn that it does not worship the mother or the daughter. This I, the alien, find rather informative and shocking.

But my nuclear family hosts don't see any of this. For them the idea of a patriarchal religion is natural and normal. Even the word "priestess" must refer to some ancient magical superstition, something that all good believers have forsaken.

This example is taken from Christianity, but similar examples apply to all the major guy religions. As Rita Mae Brown once stated: "If God is He then "he" is God."

Why would any of this matter for a feminist? Aren't we (in this country, at least) free to choose our religion or to have none at all? Why not just dance wildly in a Wiccan circle for the goddess and let other people believe what they will?

That would be very nice. But reality has the unfortunate effect of forcing other people's religious beliefs on us, beginning from the day we are born. A girl born into a fundamentalist Christian, Jewish or Muslim family will not be brought up to Wiccan beliefs. She will be brought up to believe that her role is to submit.

And being born into a non-fundamentalist family is not going to keep a woman safe from the patriarchal religious beliefs. Those beliefs fuel much warfare, they fuel the traditional cultures of many countries. They fuel the killings of women who dare to go out in Afghanistan. They fuel some political movements in this country. They fuel.

For all these reasons our inquiring alien wants to learn more about patriarchal religions. What it finds is that not only are gods mostly male but that the organizations which worship them are also mostly male. It is as if women can worship only from a great distance, only through intermediaries. It is as if contact with women can pollute the gods themselves. (Well, the alien is a fanciful one and likes poetic terms.)

It also finds that most holy writings contain scattered statements about the inferiority of women, presumably straight out of the mouth of a guy god, and separate sets of rules for women, over and above the rules that are given for "everyone." These rules, astonishingly, tend not to be about the women's relation to the god but about the women's relations to men. In that sense they are not religious rules but political or sociological rules, guaranteed to keep women in submission not to god but to men.

Finally, our visiting alien (being a brave one) goes out to debate religion with a bunch of fundamentalists from different religions. Poor, poor alien. It finds out what happens to anyone who starts debating religion with a fundamentalist: This cannot be done, because a literal fundamentalist believes that everything written in his or her holy book has come straight from the mouth of a living god. To debate anything in those books is blasphemy, because you are debating God.

Poor alien. It is stuck in this theological trap. Stuck like a fly in flypaper. But notice how cleverly this trap works against anything feminist? If God Himself has decreed that women should submit to men who are lowly women to say otherwise?
For a much shorter summary of this post, just reverse the situation and imagine an earth where almost every important deity is female, where all the major monotheistic religions worship the Mother and where the Christians also pay homage to the Daughter. How would all that look, sound, smell and feel to male human beings?