Feminism, Religion, and ‘Mattering’

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

I’ve probably agonized over this essay more than any other in my career. The source of my agony is this: Do I, for the first time in my life, publicly address the gender issue?

My method has always been to behave as if my being a female doesn’t matter. I try to behave as if the world is the way I know that it isn’t, hoping that if enough of us marginalized sorts—women, people of color, LGBTs—power through, then the biases against us will eventually be shown for the hollow falsehoods that they are. I try to cultivate a pose of gender-obliviousness, if only so that my energy isn’t dissipated in frustration.

But the truth is that I haven’t been oblivious. How could I be? My engagement in both the tough world of professional philosophy and the even-tougher world of literary fiction has afforded me an ideal vantage point for viewing the many subtle ways in which gender biases undermine women. These biases have, in our more enlightened spheres, retreated largely to an unconscious level, yet they are all the more powerful for that, making women hesitant to enter the fray and increasing the likelihood that, when they do, their temerity will be rewarded by their being dismissed, sidelined, sloppily and mockingly misconstrued, or—the most elegant of all obliterations—entirely ignored. It’s all so civilly done that you’re never sure that it isn’t your own shortcomings being justly evaluated.

Psychologists call these small but relentless I’m-not-even-sure-if-I’m-imagining-it-perhaps-I’m-being-too-sensitive interactions “micro-aggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women as well as other marginalized groups, these micro-aggressions take more of a psychological toll than overt, hate-filled attacks. The psychologist Derald Wing Sue writes in Microaggresions in Everyday Life: “It is easier for people of color and women to deal with the overt and deliberate forms of bigotry than the subtle and unintentional forms, because no guesswork is involved. It is the unconscious and unintentional forms of biases that create the overwhelming problems for marginalized groups in our society.” I know this sounds incredible to people who have never consistently experienced marginalization, which is why they really should consult the marginalized about it. On this topic at least, they must accept that they are not the authorities.

In coming to address, if somewhat belatedly, these issues of gender-bias as they continue to play out in the most enlightened spheres of our most-enlightened society—even among my pro-reason, pro-science compatriots—I’ve come to link these gender issues to what I consider another failure of recognition common in our secular community. So I’m going to switch gears for a moment and talk about this other issue, then circle back to the dreaded gender issue.

As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the ways in which religious mythologies recklessly abuse what William James called the “will to believe.” We’ve valiantly tried to rein in this wild will with sound epistemology and explanatorily satisfying science, which is all to the good. I don’t advocate stinting on sound epistemology and explanatorily satisfying science. But there is another irrepressible will active in religion that we’ve largely ignored. I’m talking about the will to matter.

I was first led to this notion of the will to matter by one of my fictional characters, a young woman named Renee Feuer, who was a protagonist in my first novel, The Mind-Body Problem. I would never have come up with the idea on my own. I thought of myself back in those days as a rigorous philosopher of science, and these ideas about mattering weren’t rigorous. They were soft and unquantifiable. But my editor for that book remarked, “I don’t really understand Renee. She’s so bright and attractive, and yet she’s so unhappy, always on the verge of despair. Why?” I thought about my editor’s question, or rather I had Renee Feuer think about it. And because Renee was not as rigorous a philosopher as I was—in fact, that was a large part of her problem: she was a graduate student in a rigorous philosophy department, and she, unlike me, couldn’t hack it—she came up with these complicated ideas about mattering. Renee turned out to be quite the theoretician of mattering.

So I’m going to let her explain it:

To matter, not to be as naught. Is there any human will deeper than that? It’s not just unqualified will, as Schopenhauer would have it, that makes us what we are; nor is it the will to power, as Nietzsche had theorized, but something deeper, of which the will to power is merely a manifestation. We want power because we want to matter. . . . And the will to create? To procreate? These too are expressions of the will to matter. Deeper even than the will to survive. We don’t want to live when we become convinced that we don’t, can’t, will never matter. . . . We no sooner discover that we are than we desperately want that which we are to matter.

That was one of Renee’s ideas, the will to matter. And then there was her idea of “the mattering map.” Again, I’ll let Renee explain it:

People occupy the mattering map. . . . The map is a projection of its inhabitants’ perceptions. A person’s location on the mattering map is determined by what matters to him, matters overwhelmingly, the kind of mattering that produces his perceptions of people, of himself and of others; of who are the nobodies and who the somebodies, who the deprived and who the gifted, who the better-never-to-have-been-born and who the heroes. Everyone loves a hero. What we differ on is the question of who the heroes are, because we differ over what matters. Who matters is a function of what matters. Here where I am, what matters is intelligence, the people who matter are the intelligent, and the people who matter the most, the heroes, are the geniuses.

Renee answered my editor’s question about her own despair by way of her theory of mattering. She inhabited a region of the mattering map in which she felt her own mattering to be seriously in doubt. She sees this as one of the fundamental ways in which a human life can go wrong. Renee convinced me that ideas about mattering have rich implications, both psychological and normative. And apparently she convinced some others as well.

A few years ago, a psychologist named Ellyn Kaschak got in touch with me to tell me of the award-winning work she has done on mattering maps and informing me of something I hadn’t known, which is that the idea of the mattering maps has become a working theoretical construct in certain branches of psychology. It intrigued me that my fictional character’s idea had been incorporated into actual theoretical work. So I Googled “mattering maps” and was astonished to get tens of thousands of hits—far more hits than if you Google me! One of the first hits was an article in the Harvard Business Review coauthored by George Loewenstein, one of the founders of behavioral economics, and Karl Moene. The article was titled “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior,” and it used the idea of mattering maps to demonstrate the inadequacy of the standard model of rational-choice theory. And sure enough, it’s my fictional character’s ideas that this article quoted: “We discuss the social dependence of preferences and its implications for economics by pursu
ing the idea that in different social settings, different things are valued. . . . The concept of ‘mattering maps’ captures this insight. As Rebecca Goldstein expresses it in the novel from which we adopt both the idea and the terms. . . .” From there, the article goes on to quote some of Renee’s ruminations on mattering maps.


On the whole, I was pleased that my character’s ideas had been enjoying such an active theoretical life independent of her, not to mention independent of me. But in fact I, too, have been thinking a great deal about the concept of mattering in the thirty-odd years since a fictional character first suggested its importance to me. I’ve thought about mattering in relation to problems in moral philosophy, most particularly the reputed gap between “is” and “ought.” And increasingly, I’ve been thinking about mattering in relation to the difficulties we secularists face in trying to understand the tenacity of religion. What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so far-fetched that they can be described, if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology, as crazy-ass shit?

Archaeologists say that beliefs in the supernatural—animistic spirits of nature lodged in animals, wind, trees, rivers, sun, moon—extend back at least thirty thousand years to Cro-Magnon man, whose cave paintings, requiring gaining access to tortuously inaccessible places, are interpreted as expressions of supernatural beliefs. Why else go to all that inconvenience? But the religions that still matter, that still resonate with huge swaths of our contemporaries—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Confucianism, Zoroastrianism, and of course, the Abrahamic religions in all their teeming variations—were originally forged during the period that the philosopher Karl Jaspers dubbed the “Axial Age,” roughly 800 to 200 BCE. Jaspers also pointed out that this very same period saw the emergence in Greece of secular philosophy and tragic drama. He called it the Axial Age because these normative and spiritual frameworks extend out into our own day like the spokes of a wheel. And what connects them all—and here I’m superimposing my own views over Jaspers’s—is a preoccupation with issues of mattering. These traditions present divergent visions of how people should live their lives in order to achieve lives that matter.

Why did such a preoccupation with mattering erupt over wide reaches of the globe—China, India, Persia, all around the Mediterranean, Judea, and into Europe— at precisely this time? This is too large a topic for this space, but I’ll float some general ideas.

The first thing that one notices is that all the affected regions saw the emergence of large societal institutions organized around urban centers. These polities introduced a level of anonymity and impersonality into human life, so different from tribal village life where all relations had been determinately personal. Could this depersonalization have been a nudge in the direction of existential pondering?

Some social scientists, most notably David Graeber, have pointed out that the core period of Jaspers’s Axial Age corresponds almost exactly to the period and places in which coinage materialized, with minting overseen by governments who then used the wealth for military ventures that often resulted in large captures of people converted into slave labor—many times sent to mine the ore that would be turned into more coins. He calls this the “military-coinage-slavery complex.” Here, too, the changes are in the direction of depersonalization. Perhaps the introduction of markets and of money—providing an impersonal measure of worth—intensified the depersonalization inherent in the emergence of the large polities, again coaxing existential ponderings.

Another line of approach, recently put forth by Nicolas Baumard and Pascal Boyer, derives from data demonstrating that all the regions affected by the Axial Age’s normative ferment were unusually well-fed: in other words, once the basic material supports for life have been established, a person is free to start wondering what makes it worth it.

Fortunately, sorting all this out isn’t my problem to solve here. The point I’d like to make is simply that what happened in the Greek city-states, resulting in both philosophy and science, was part of something larger, a confrontation with existential dilemmas that involves a certain abstraction from the daily grind of life. What erupts quite forcefully in the Axial Age, over large reaches of the globe, is the sense that some lives achieve mattering and others don’t, raising the possibility that perhaps there is something a person can do that will make the difference as regards his or her own mattering. The thought that there might be a chance of achieving a life that matters and that you might personally blow it—meaning that you might as well not have bothered to show up for your existence at all, for all the difference it makes—creates the special conditions that coaxed forth normative responses that still resonate today.


What is remarkable about the Greeks is that, despite the fact that religious rituals saturated their lives—their gods and goddesses were everywhere and had to be propitiated or something terrible would happen—when it came to the question of what is it that makes an individual human life matter, they didn’t look to their gods but rather tried to answer the question in human terms. Their approaching the question of human mattering in human terms is the singularity that created the preconditions for philosophy and its secular morality.

The Greeks developed an attitude I call the “Ethos of the Extraordinary.” This is an ethos that predates the development of philosophy by several centuries. The crux of this ethos is that a perfectly average life, with nothing to distinguish it from the masses of others, is not worth living. When such a life is over, it will be as if it had never been, leaving as little trace of itself behind as some poor bloke who disappears beneath the ocean’s waves—an image that called forth an intensity of terror for the seafaring Greeks. Greek religion offered little help in palliating this terror. There’s no existential help forthcoming from those untrustworthy toffs with the Olympian address. You’re better off not even attracting the gods’ attention, unless you want to get yourself raped or worse. No, what you want is the attention of your fellow mortals. That’s all the redemptive distinction we mortals are going to get. So what you must do is to live so that others will hear of you, speak of you, replicate your being on their own lips. Live a song-worthy life. As Pindar sang it:

 And two things only— tend life’s sweetest moment: when in the flower of wealth a man enjoys both triumph and good fame. Seek not to become Zeus. All is yours If the allotment of these two gifts Has fallen to you. Mortal thoughts Befit a mortal man.

The Ethos of the Extraordinary reaches back to the Homeric Age. Just think of the heroes, Achilles first and foremost, definitely a song-worthy sort. (The Iliad’s alternative title is Song of Achilles.) Achilles is miffed when Agamemnon takes the girl who was his lawfully won Trojan booty and, like some entitled teenager sulking in his room when his driving privileges are revoked, nurses his grievance for fully twenty books of the Iliad, while the blood of his comrades-in-arms soaks the Trojan soil. And yet Achilles was esteemed, even into the classical age, as the greatest of the Greek heroes. Why? His heroism certainly wasn’t a matter of his giving any consideration to the question
of how his actions would affect anyone other than himself. No Bentham-like utilitarian calculations as to what would conduce to the greatest good of the greatest number ever creased the beautiful brow of Achilles.Nor was his singular value a matter simply of his prowess in war, or his metaphysically mixed parentage, or his godlike beauty, though of course these characteristics all mark him as eminently song-worthy. But the item on Achilles’s CV that puts him over the top is the choice he made: he was given the option, by his goddess mother, of a long but ordinary life or a short and extraordinary life, and he opted for the short but extraordinary life. That’s telling.

Telling also is Socrates’s comparing himself to Achilles in the version of his trial that Plato gives us in the Apology. Socrates, charged with the capital crime of impiety and of corrupting the young, says that he will not bargain with his 501 Athenian jurors for his life but rather make the choice of Achilles. Of course, Socrates was already seventy years old, so it was a bit late to achieve a short but extraordinary life, but still the statement indicates how much the Socrates-Plato team—who, of course, brought us philosophy as we know it—still bought into the general Greek attitude of the Ethos of the Extraordinary, while also modifying it in line with their view that it’s reason, and only reason, that can confer mattering on human life. They refined the more vulgar credo that the unexceptional life is not worth living to read: the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s the pursuit of reason that provides the only kind of extraordinary that matters. And with this significant modification, the project of applying self-correcting reason to the task of figuring out how best to live one’s life was off and running. Eventually, self-correcting reason would even question the presumption adapted from the Ethos of the Extraordinary that had slipped, unexamined, into Greek moral reasoning.

Think about that. What an achievement! The progress to be made in philosophy is often a matter of discovering presumptions that slip unexamined into reasoning, so why not the unexamined presumption that got the whole process started?


Right across the Mediterranean from the philosophical Greeks lived the still-obscure tribe that called themselves the Ivrim, the Hebrews, who were approaching the problem of how to matter by formulating a theism that eventually involved a one and only god, the source not only of the physical world without but of the moral world within. Because he made us “in his image,” we matter to him (divine narcissism?), and therefore (therefore?) matter. Our normative culture is still a very uneasy mix of these two disparate approaches to human mattering pursued by these two Mediterranean peoples, the Greeks and the Hebrews—the one group approaching the question of human mattering in human terms, the other approaching human mattering in divine terms.

All of the spokes that extend out from the so-called Axial Age, not just the religious and spiritual mythologies but what the Greeks devised as well—which is the normative valuation of self-critical reason—were prompted by preoccupations with human mattering. But of all the visions addressing human mattering that emerged during that normatively fertile period, only one has substantively changed, has evolved, has made progress—has even, through its tortuously self-critical methods (to which we commit ourselves when we commit ourselves to reason) corrected its own false presuppositions and intuitions, which tend to favor our own personal mattering and those who are like us over those whose lives we have trouble imagining our way into—and that, of course, is secular moral reason.

It is by this means that we’ve come to know that every person matters,* or rather, what we know is the conditional that if any of us is entitled to a life of mattering (and we do tend to think quite passionately that we are), then all of us are so entitled. The will to matter, together with its mattering maps structuring so much of our lives, including our economic behavior, also anchors us in the realm of value. It’s where we should look in closing the gap between “is” and “ought.”

There is grandeur in this mattering view of life, together with the grandeur of the scientific view of life, the two joined in the progress we’ve made along that reason-seeking radial that reaches back to the Greeks, the implications of which, both scientific and moral, we’re still in the process of unfolding.

The will to matter is some powerful stuff. It spawned the religions of the Axial Age that still claim the allegiance of the many who can’t imagine their lives mattering were they deprived of their mythological scaffolding. But the will to matter spawned, too, the tradition of secular reason, to which we are the heirs, the secular reason that has progressively corrected the mistakes to which our species is prone, including mistakes about the facts of mattering. Ethical behavior is behavior that does justice, in ways both large and small, to the will to matter in all of us—which is why we can’t pursue the goals of secularism without simultaneously pursuing the goals of social justice.

And what is it that micro-aggressions do? They undermine a person’s sense that she matters—which is all the worse when the people doing the undermining are those who matter to her, who share her region of the mattering map, and so can’t be as easily dismissed as the ranting bigots and wild-eyed misogynists.

Mattering matters. Without sensitivity to the will to matter, not only can’t we understand the continuing force of religion in the lives of the many who otherwise feel they don’t matter, their lives subject to the same depersonalization and devaluation that gave rise to the religious visions of the Axial Age in the first place, but we also fail to understand the secular moral progress to which we are the heirs and upon which we wage an assault, whether macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

* In asserting that every person matters, I am emphatically not asserting that only people matter, excluding the mattering of other species. But I would be prepared to argue that we humans matter in a different way.

Further Reading

Baumard, Nicolas, and Pascal Boyer. “Explaining Moral Religions.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17, No. 6, 2013.

Goldstein, Rebecca. The Mind-Body Problem. New York: Random House, 1983.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2011.


Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. She has written ten books, including Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won’t Go Away (Pantheon, 2014). She has won numerous awards for her fiction and scholarship, including a MacArthur fellowship. In 2015, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama. Goldstein is a laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a project of the Council for Secular Humanism, and an Honorary Director of the Center for Inquiry.