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.

The major texts present a farrago of misogyny: menstrual taboos; double standards of sexuality of which religiously sanctioned polygyny is only the most obvious; a deep concern with controlling women’s sexuality, expressed as an obsession with prostitutes, virginity, wifely fidelity, women’s “modesty,” and false charges of rape; and much, much more. Even Jesus, who is one of the more woman-friendly religious leaders, forbade divorce except when a wife—not a husband, a wife—had been unfaithful. That is interesting when you remember that Joseph had considered sending Mary back to her parents when she was found to be pregnant by another.

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding no: misogyny not only pervades the major faiths, it’s baked in. I’d go further and suggest that the subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion—the original rulebook for patriarchy. To the extent that religion has become more woman-friendly, it’s because the larger society has become so. Thus, many if not most priests and rabbis and imams today tend to speak in the softer language of complementarity: men and women are equal . . . just different and—surprise!—different in ways that justify giving men power over women and barring women from exercising power in many realms of human activity. Go back a few hundred years, though, and nobody bothered about separate-but-equal spheres. Women were inferior and subordinate, and that was how it was: men’s job was to control women’s wanton, lascivious ways and low cunning, to resist their seductions as Adam should have resisted Eve. Women’s sexuality was not just different; it was dangerous and potentially polluting and therefore had to be confined and channeled in a way that men’s sexuality did not. Yet today, you would have a hard time, for example, finding a rabbi who would say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is that menstruation is unclean. No, no, the ritual bath is a way of regulating sexual intercourse that empowers and honors women. Oh, please! Similarly, when American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab or other covering, they tend to talk about it as a symbol of religious identity, not as a portable purdah that keeps male strangers from being inflamed with lust. In the United States, at least, it is hard to find a young Muslim woman who wears the hijab who will grant that there is anything sexist or demeaning or controlling about it. I discovered this after September 11, 2001, when some very well-meaning leftists suggested that non-Muslim women wear the head scarf to show solidarity with Muslim women, who were being harassed on the streets—along the lines of the Danes, who under German occupation wore the yellow star to protect their nation’s Jews. My suggestion that maybe men should wear the head scarf did not go over well.


Today there is a whole industry of feminist and progressive-minded theologians of both sexes who apply their tremendous scholarly skills to reinterpreting the Bible and the Qur’an in more egalitarian ways. The atheist in me finds this school of revisionism rather irritating. It seems like cheating. After almost two thousand years in which it was perfectly clear that St. Paul meant women should be silent in church, suddenly it seems he didn’t really mean that: he meant that women should behave a bit more circumspectly in church and maybe only in that one congregation in Corinth that he was addressing in that particular letter, where maybe there was some problem with women gone completely wild—and maybe, indeed, he didn’t even write that letter. You can take this kind of exegesis very far, historicizing and reinterpreting away pretty much anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. To give one example, some scholars see as a major obstacle to the modernization of Islam the belief that the Qur’an was given directly from God to Muhammad. It&rsquo
;s just the one text, after all, not an edited conglomeration of texts from different times and places like the Bible. I’ve met Muslim feminists who don’t see that as a problem. They simply argue that everything objectionable in the Qur’an relates only to Muhammad’s own time and is not binding in our own, while everything good and inspiring in it is eternal truth. Very simple! The same thing has been going on in Christianity and Judaism for a hundred years and more.

It’s left to skeptics and atheists to ask why God gave his Word in such a way that up until the day before yesterday, he was believed to have been saying one thing pretty clearly—in a way that everybody understood, from schoolchildren up to the most sophisticated religious leaders—so clearly, indeed, that it was hardly questioned at all, but now it is seen as just a historical curiosity or a misreading. The Bible is supposed to be divinely inspired, after all, and the Qur’an is supposed to be the direct word of God that Muhammad was only transcribing. If it turns out that so much in these texts that generations have taken as divine truth is really just a narrow comment on something contemporary to the time of their writing—or a misinterpretation, a mistake, or even a typo—why do we think the other bits are so divine or full of wisdom? Why are these books the ones we should look to for guidance on everything from workers’ rights to what to have for dinner?

To the atheist in me, all this reinterpretation might be great fun as literary criticism—to every age its own version of scriptures and myths, just as every age has its own Hamlet or Othello. But to take today’s interpretation seriously as though it is what was always in the text seems like changing the rules late in the game. Shakespeare, after all, could write only like an Elizabethan: he only knew what was then known. But God is all-powerful and omniscient. He could have had his stable of authors say anything. He could have given the Ten Commandments to Miriam instead of Moses and made one of them “Thou shalt have no inequality between men and women.” Instead, he not only spent four of the ten commandments stressing the importance of worshipping himself exclusively, he addressed the commandments explicitly to men: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”—no gender-neutral language there—and mentioned said wife in the same breath as farm animals and real estate. God did not need to do that; he didn’t have to talk like some cranky old Hebrew patriarch. He’s God!

Yet for some strange reasons, he mysteriously chose to speak exactly as if he belonged to the society in which his books were written—as if he were no less ignorant, prejudiced, superstitious, or sexist than anyone else of that time.

What this means is that feminist theologians have their work cut out for them. They must pare away the thick layers of misogyny in their faiths while simultaneously demonstrating that these layers can be carted off like the detritus of an archaeological dig, leaving only what is pure and essential and original—which just happens to coincide with the things enlightened liberals believe today. The cranky old Hebrew patriarch turns out to be a wise old McGovernik after all.

Some of this research is undeniably fascinating. For instance, scholarly work on the position of women in the early Christian church shows that they had far more ecclesiastical responsibility than has been generally believed and that later generations altered texts that showed this: the apostle Junias, for example, mentioned by St. Paul, was actually Junia, a female. Junia the female apostle? Medieval scholars just knew that had to be a typo!

People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That is partly why The Da Vinci Code was such a huge success: we like the idea that the original church was a wonderful egalitarian place, that Jesus was married or at least had a girlfriend, and that this original wonderfulness was erased from history by evil, sexist, celibate men.

But there is only so far you can go with this kind of historical revisionism. You can use all the inclusive language you want and refer to God as “Our Parent,” “He/She,” or even use no pronoun at all but simply repeat “God” instead, awkward and ugly as that is. You can beef up the role of the women in the Bible, a practice as old as Christianity itself, because in the actual texts Mary is only a moderately important character and hardly the quasi-divine figure who is so central to Catholicism. You can add Miriam’s cup to the items on the seder table. But at the end of the day, Miriam is no Moses, God is still a Father not a Mother, and Jesus is still a man and not a woman. The New Testament is still the old familiar story of the hero born of a male god and a human woman who is sacrificed for human sins and it’s all our fault. It’s still male sky/female earth, immortal/mortal, superior/inferior, mind/body, active/passive—the old dichotomies that have always exalted the male over the female. Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and sexual self-denial that has been so harmful to women in particular: hostility toward sex was part of its original Roman-Empire brand. You can’t really derive our contemporary gender-egalitarian gay-friendly relaxed sexual mores from it—at least, not if you are honest. And yet, some Christian theologians do exactly that.


But wait. There’s another way to look at this question of sexism and religion. We atheists get mad when it looks to us as if the goalposts are constantly moving. (Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants—that wasn’t what you said when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.) But haven’t the goalposts always been moving? Hasn’t religion changed and adapted and split and reorganized itself constantly throughout its history? Judaism after the destruction of the Temple became a whole different thing. Islam in Indonesia is not Islam in Saudi Arabia. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the church underwrote monarchical rule as part of God’s plan, and Jesus himself was described as the king of kings. Today you’d look crazy to invoke the Bible against democratic government; the Founding Fathers read the Bible as an endorsement of the American Revolution.

What we see as the intellectually disreputable moving of goalposts can be described in another way: religion changes when society changes—well, maybe fifty years after society changes. That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed texts and rules and traditions, which is how many atheists tend to see it. But you can also see religion sociologically, and seen in that light religion is not really about the proper analyzing of texts and traditions. It is a social practice that reflects the larger society. Religious practices are a way that a community reaffirms and reasserts its common project, its oneness. As society changes, people naturally sift through the immense grab-bag of religious texts and traditions and pick out the bits that make their world make sense, that make it seem as if everything is the way it’s supposed to be—or alternatively, that make it seem as if everything is all wrong but could be made right with the proper religious understanding. Religions themselves don’t put it like that, of course. They have to maintain that there’s a direct line going back to the beginning; that, for example, St. Peter was a pope in the same sense that Pope Francis is one. Never mind that this could not possibly be true, given that Christianity was not a codified religion in the first century CE and had no formal hierarchy and, according to Garry Wills, no priests. This constant rewriting of
history—while never admitting that that’s what’s happening—is part of the process by which religions claim a moral weight and power that transcends time while actually being totally enmeshed in the present. As anthropologist Roy Rapaport put it, “to invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” That need for seeming necessity explains why religious liberals and reactionaries both look to the past for justification—to some imaginary earlier day when their own values held sway. Thus Judaism is inherently socialist, Jesus was a pacifist, Muhammad was a feminist, and we must get back to that original vision. Or Jesus came not to bring peace but a sword, God gave the West Bank to the Jewish people forever, and cutting off the hands of thieves is fine because that’s what they did in seventh-century Arabia—and that’s the original vision we need to recoup.

Where does all this leave our knot? Can it be untied? Well, in theory, sure: as society changes, religion eventually accommodates it, however grudgingly and belatedly. The Bible used to be cited as justification for slavery: a whole new denomination, the Southern Baptists, was formed to defend it. But nobody looks at the Bible now and says, “You know, we should really bring back slavery, that’s truly the biblical way to live.” Similarly, for centuries Christianity justified burning women as witches. And the book of Exodus does say “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” But nobody, at least in the West, pays much attention to that now, because we don’t believe in witchcraft; the whole concept of witches and witch-burning has long since been discarded.

So far I’ve talked about religion as though believers are being dragged along by feminism and liberalism into modifying its former harshnesses, even as believers resist openly acknowledging that process as we atheists would like them to. (This is what the modernization theory would predict: as society progresses, people abandon religion, or alternatively religion becomes a pale reasonable shadow of its former extravagantly irrational self). But obviously, that happy if somewhat self-deceptive process of liberalization is not the only thing going on in the world of religion. Right now, reactionary religious movements are gaining strength and doing so while ferociously resisting modern roles for women: we see this in many different faiths around the world. Does the rise of fundamentalism prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it show us that not only can the knot not be untied but that large numbers of people think the knot needs to be tied even tighter? I have to say I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see fundamentalist revivals as a testament to the lack of modernity—to the unequal sharing of its benefits, to new risks and insecurities and injustices that are bound up with nationalism, a lack of democracy, and of course the natural desire of those on top (priests, sheikhs, men) to preserve their hereditary privileges.

And here I want to complicate what seems to me a perhaps too-blithe assumption that religion is the main thing holding back women’s equality. Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dumped religion they would become feminists. The French Revolution was carried out by men of the Enlightenment who were ferociously anticlerical, but their world-shaking transformation of France did nothing for women’s rights. The Soviet Union and Communist China both liberated women from all sorts of traditional restrictions but only insofar as it suited the state, which remained firmly in the hands of men. Lenin made abortion legal, but Stalin (who wanted to raise the birthrate) made it a crime, and when it was legalized again it was without provision for birth control, subjecting women to repeated brutal operations because so what, they were just women and the state had more important things to produce in its mighty factories than contraceptives. You can be good without God, and you can also be sexist without God. In our own time, we’ve seen any number of pseudoscientific justifications for women’s subordination—popularizations of evolutionary psychology, for example.


So, to sum up: When the happy day comes that women’s equality is a given that underlies and pervades society, the knot will be untied. Miraculously, the Bible will be seen to have always promoted it. Eve will no longer be the weak-minded temptress; she’ll be the far-seeing feminist who chose knowledge over obedience and got us out of that boring old garden. Each religion will be reframed, the nasty bits explained away or forgotten. It won’t be an entirely honest project, to my way of thinking at least, but for those who want to believe in God and be part of a congregation it will be good enough.

This has already happened, to a certain extent. As barriers fall in the secular world and women take on occupations and responsibilities once barred to them, religious restrictions stick out more. It just looks very strange to say that a woman can do anything a man can do except be a Catholic priest.


There is the other side. Not everyone is persuaded. The more feminist and progressive the mainline denominations become, the smaller they get. This is often explained by, for example, Ross Douthat of The New York Times, as the result of those denominations elevating namby-pamby liberal platitudes over genuine spirituality and hard religious truths. I have a different interpretation: these denominations draw on well-educated urban middle-class or higher folk who are becoming less and less religious and eventually fall away completely. For booming congregations and real enthusiasm, the energy lies within conservative denominations—especially the born-again Christians. For these people, religion is a bulwark against too-rapid social change, especially in gender and family relations. They get too much from their church or synagogue to give it up: practical help with very real problems, a social network, a sense of belonging and mattering—Rebecca Goldstein’s wonderful concept—to others and to God, the ultimate friend. The ongoing drama of sin and redemption in daily life is probably very exciting. Suddenly every action, every thought, is part of a great drama in which Jesus and Satan are fighting—over you!

For women, that church we deride as sexist and reactionary may be an arena in which they get to take on a public role denied them in the rest of life. If you live in a thoroughly sexist culture, as much of America still is, calling yourself a helpmeet who cheerfully submits may not feel as discordant as it does to us, especially if the alternative is social isolation. So you reframe it: “I submit to my husband, but in return he has to love me and be a good father and come home at night instead of drinking with his friends.” For some women it’s not such a bad bargain. After all, Nietzsche famously described Christianity as the religion of women and slaves, a clever way in which the weak got the strong to give up their power. When the weak become strong, the dynamic changes.

So I guess what I am giving is a somewhat paradoxical answer to the question of the knot of sexism and religion: it can be untied to the precise extent that religion becomes less important and less necessary. By the time religion has thoroughly purged itself of male dominance and misogyny, few will care.

Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt’s award-winning column “Subject to Debate,” in which she writes about the media, foreign policy, human rights, and other topics, appears in The Nation bimonthly. Her books include collections of her essays and poetry. She is currently a Puffin Foundation Writing Fellow at The Nation Institute.

Can currently existing religion be disentangled from the misogyny of its texts, its traditions, and its practices?

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