Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

Katha Pollitt

Can currently existing religion be disentangled from the misogyny of its texts, its traditions, and its practices? That was a que stion to which I had no ready answer, so I asked a random selection of people what they thought. Cousin Wendy, who fasts on Yom Kippur, gave an emphatic no. So did Cousin Penny, whose family is Greek Orthodox. So did my daughter, who has been a militant atheist practically since kindergarten. “Not as long as God is ‘the Father,’” tweeted the literary critic Daniel Mendelsohn. That was pretty much how it went, even down to the Dublin taxi driver who told me that he thought people could get along fine without religion and probably would be doing so before too long.

We all know that the world’s major religions are deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas about women’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world: Mormon men may have to practice monogamy in this life, but after death they will have many wives, while a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her there by her secret name. Plus, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife in order to produce people to populate her husband’s planet. Not exactly my idea of heaven! In the Islamic afterlife, men get a bevy of beautiful maidens, and in some versions their wives get to be part of their husband’s entourage, and in other versions get . . . oh, something wonderful, but no one knows what it is. But other religions, Christianity for example, preach that men and women are equal before God—equal spiritually, that is, whatever that means. In Galatians 3:28, for example, St. Paul famously wrote that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus, you’ll remember, said that after the resurrection there would be no marriage. And presumably no pregnancy either, you’ll be relieved to know.

The guidelines laid out for human society here on Earth were quite a different story. After all, St. Paul also famously wrote “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church” (New American Standard Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34–35). Whether you look at Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism, wherever a distinction of sex is made, it is to the advantage of men. If you think of religions as if they were novels, the authors are men, and so are the major characters: there is no daughter of God such as Jesus, no female prophet such as Isaiah or Muhammad, no female lawgiver equal to Moses, no female founder of a major new faith such as the Buddha, and very few female religious leaders with independent power. Catholicism has many female saints and charismatic women, but the most insignificant parish priest has powers denied the genius St. Teresa of Avila: only a man can officiate at Mass and only a man can give absolution for sins. Even polytheistic religions such as Hinduism (or, for that matter, ancient Greek and Roman religions) assign goddesses a lesser role. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, to mother-goddess cults about which we know little and that in any case cannot be proven to have reflected or shaped a matriarchal society in which women were powerful and independent social actors (though it would be nice to think that they did so). Men are quite capable of worshipping a female, whether Lakshmi or Athena or the Virgin Mary, while vigorously repressing actual human women.

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