Politics Magazine

Rise of Religions

Posted on the 08 February 2013 by Steveawiggins @stawiggins

mansdominion Imagine my surprise when, as a boy raised in a fundamentalist family, I arrived at a liberal seminary to find myself accused of sexism. Like most kids I had been taught not to question religious dictates. Majoring in Religious Studies, even in as conservative a college as Grove City in the 1980s, even there I learned that to be educated meant learning to question. I’d thrown off fundamentalism by the time I reached seminary—I supposed I was making great strides. I’d always been in favor of equal rights for all, just because it seemed right. I supported gender and racial equity, but I was obviously still guilty of something. It has taken me decades to realize it, but being male is sufficient grounds to be despised. Perhaps it’s not as bad as all that. Maybe it’s worse.

Sheila Jeffreys’ Man’s Dominion: The Rise of Religion and the Eclipse of Women’s Rights was nevertheless a sobering read. I supposed that it might be a historical introduction to the problem, but instead it is a bold declaration of some uncomfortable facts. All ancient religions, at least those that survive, had subordinated (and continue to subordinate) women. That’s not path down which a liberated religionist wants to stroll. I found myself resisting these assertions at first, but as Jeffreys keeps the examples coming, they are difficult to deny. Yes, religions have been founded by men and they favor men. Not that belief necessitates that, but history seems to. Even in religions where women’s leadership is allowed, it is because some men have decided it is okay. There’s no changing the historical trajectory to the past. Religions were invented by men. Given their druthers, they will, at best, treat women as somehow less important than men. The missing element here, however, is sincerity of belief.

I doubt that Jeffreys would claim that religions were devised by males in order to subordinate females. It’s hard to say whether that first inventor of religion really believed all the stories he told, but soon people came to do exactly that. And those stories grew into something more than myths, and became the basis by which lives were lived. They became literal. And women, who played only supporting or villainous roles, soon became the victims. I know that’s too simplistic. I also know there’s some truth in it. I went to seminary to learn more about religion. What I discovered was often an unwelcome reality. Although I never personally tried to oppress women, I participated actively in a club that did—the club of masculinity. It may be that religion itself will always lead to oppression of the other, for religions don’t form in perfect worlds. If you have any doubts about that all you have to do is ask half the human race.

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