Women Must Break Free from Religion’s Toxic, Sexist Status Quo

This is an article by Katilyn Pulcher, adapted from her book Status Quon’t: A Woman’s Perspective On How Christianity Was Never About God. It appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine, which is sold at Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million bookstores in the United States and at Chapters/Indigo bookstores in Canada. To find a store near you or to subscribe, go to atheists.org/magazine.

In any system of life, the status quo seeks to maintain itself until violently forced to change. We see this in economies, social groups, and even earthquakes. The very ground we stand on does not budge without a fuss. No matter how great the need for a new status quo, nor how grotesque or oppressive the current one is, its upheaval requires tremendous effort and mass buy-in. Even the change of a status quo as horrific as slavery required a bloody civil war.

Although challenging a status quo can be scary, with potentially severe ramifications, it always starts with something as simple as a probing question. For me, the question was, “Is everything I learned in church and in the Bible actually true, and if not, then what is the truth?” My book does not give a definitive answer to establish a new status quo because I don’t want people to blindly follow advice from me any more than I want them to blindly follow advice from the Bible. What I hope for is a status quon’t, a dynamic state of critical thought, authenticity, and personalized belief systems — the antithesis of groupthink.

Let’s start by understanding some things about Christianity. Most believers take for granted that the apostles were God’s ghostwriters, transcribing messages they were allegedly receiving in real time. In reality, the gospels were written one hundred years after the supposed death of Jesus. And churchgoers are typically given Cliff’s Notes of those gospels, rather than the entire text. An isolated verse or two can be interpreted any number of ways, but would lose all credibility if the rest of the chapter was read, or if verses with conflicting messages were read the following Sunday.

The scriptures were not inspired by a divine being. They were written exclusively by men to control the behavior of other people, women especially, using the number-one source of human motivation: fear. To produce this fear, they created an eternal, omnipresent threat (God) and preached obedience to him as the only way to avoid eternal punishment. It worked beautifully and still controls the lives of many Americans today, plaguing their choices of politicians and creating behavior that leads to self-oppression. As I became an adult, I realized that I couldn’t follow a leader who didn’t respect me and whom I didn’t trust — let alone one I couldn’t see or hear — so I had to fire God. In my opinion, all women should do the same. Along with the bad boss, his…

Outdated Employee Handbook Must Go

The first section that needs updating is the dress code. The original dress code began in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve sewing fig leaves together to cover their loins after eating the forbidden fruit. This story of the talking snake is used to blame Eve for something that Adam did of his own free will. She can present Adam with an airtight case full of reasons why he should eat the apple, but, at the end of the day, it’s his choice. Nonetheless, the culture of blaming women for controlling (or failing to control) grown men’s thoughts and choices began here. Eve was the first woman to be victim-blamed. How many of you have thought about the fact that God was actually the first one to say to a woman, “Yeah, but what were you wearing?”

I was raised in an extremely conservative church that enforced all sorts of rules governing women’s clothing. Our dress code was created to blame women for men’s sexual thoughts and actions, but similar logic was not applied to their alcohol consumption. However, we don’t shut down every bar in America so alcoholics aren’t tempted to drink. Instead, we set up twelve-step programs for them to find support and hold each other accountable for their consumption.

Similarly, we don’t evacuate non-Caucasians so racists feel more comfortable. Telling all women to cover themselves up so men aren’t tempted to grope, rape, or verbally abuse them is an equally ridiculous request, but it’s been granted for centuries. It is as impossible as it is unfair to try to change an environment to prevent all types of acting out. The urge to act out is what needs to be addressed. But hey, why would a country hold men accountable for their urges when…

Nobody’s Perfect, Not Even Their God

Christians believe in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God who never makes mistakes. But in order to explain the vastly different varieties of human existence, one has to admit that at least one of those adjectives does not accurately describe God. It is not possible for a perfect, loving God to have created and still co-exist with so much pain and suffering.

After testing into the gifted program in elementary school, I was told by my parents, “You are smarter than both of us put together. There is nothing you cannot do.” However, fearing my ego would inflate to unmanageable proportions, they refused to tell me my IQ score.

I remember being in church wondering why God put such a tremendously capable brain in my female body because during the service, the pastor read Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”

I was also familiar with 1 Timothy 2:11-12: “A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, and fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.”

This all made it very clear to me that God did not want me using this intelligent brain that he put in my head. So, at the age of seven, I was already wondering why God would give me a tool I wasn’t supposed to use. According to scripture, if I marry a developmentally impaired male who is incapable of making sound financial decisions and taking care of his health, I am, nonetheless, required to submit to him.

But, say I marry an intelligent man instead and develop a health problem in my reproductive system. Am I to submit to his decision about organs he doesn’t have, even though I’m the one who knows exactly where and how badly it hurts? The scripture says “submit to their husbands in everything,” so if I follow that rule, then I have to do what my husband says, even if it’s the wrong move. Even if I know it’s going to kill me, or ruin my chances of happiness, and that I would have made a better choice if I had thought and decided for myself, I have to do what he says. Using the Bible as a guide for living your life is a dangerous endeavor, especially if you’re female.

If you believe that God is perfect, then wouldn’t it make more sense for God to have put my brain in a man, where it could have been used? Did he make a mistake? Devout Christians will tell you that’s not possible because God is perfect. One could argue God simply put this brain in my body because he intended for me to never marry. I would counter and ask why he would give me a brain powerful enough to question his very existence and a will so strong it could disseminate my thoughts to a widespread audience via my book.

I may never marry; time will tell. However, I can tell you for sure that there are plenty of women who are married and capable of making better decisions than their husbands. To waste powerful brains merely because they are put in female bodies is hogwash.

My powerful childhood brain could also never find a comforting answer to the question…

When is Dad Coming Home, and When is God Coming Home?

Devout Christians prepare all their lives for “the second coming,” the day when Jesus is supposed to return to Earth, take all the good people to heaven, and cast all the bad people into hell. They will tell you that they very much look forward to this day because they are certain they will be in the group going to heaven. They are literally sitting around with bated breath, ready to jump at a moment’s notice to do whatever someone who abandoned them thousands of years ago wants them to do.

In the real world, however, the triumphant return of an earthly father after a prolonged absence is often not an event that is celebrated. It wasn’t until recently that I connected the dots between the story of the second coming and my strained relationship with my own father. He worked long hours (by choice), and as a result, one of the things he had in common with Jesus was that I never knew when either of them was coming home.

In my early years, I would try to stay up as late as I could in the hopes that I’d see him. Then I got used to him being gone and started to resent him, so I’d pretend to be asleep when he got home. I didn’t know how to express how abandoned and insignificant I felt. I also thought that expressing these feelings would be unfair because it would mean I was holding him to a higher standard than that to which I was told to hold Jesus himself. If Christians accept that Jesus isn’t here right now, then they certainly could accept that my father wasn’t, and so should I. As a result, my father became unaccountable to me. I now fully understand that the message I absorbed in childhood was that men need only be there when they want to be, and you better drop everything and come running when they are.

As I became an adult, I continued to accept crumbs of attention from my father. I’d get brief phone calls every month or so, and I’d see him a few times a year, but usually only if I travelled home. For nearly ten years, I’ve lived in a city that is a one-hour plane ride from his home. It wasn’t until I bought my own house and he refused to come see it without my estranged mother that everything clicked. He doesn’t feel the need to come see me for me to keep loving him and to maintain a “relationship” with him. Clearly, Jesus feels the same as my father does.

My first relationship with a man was with my father and, as a child, I believed my second to be with God. Therefore, what I had been conditioned to accept from both became what I accepted from all men. Looking at my relationship history, I see that I dated the type of men who were familiar to me: distant men. I dated workaholics, exercise addicts, and alcoholics, all of whom picked different poisons but shared the trait of absenteeism.

Just like I didn’t know how to hold my father to a higher standard than my God, I didn’t know how to hold my boyfriends to a higher standard than my own father. I didn’t feel I could expect a boyfriend to spend more time with me than my own father had. I also couldn’t get mad at him without feeling my suppressed rage at my father, and I didn’t want to go there.

When my dad finally chose not to come visit just after my thirtieth birthday, I was forced to face my rage. An important decision accompanied said rage. I decided that if I am going to respect myself in one relationship, I have to respect myself in all of them. I can’t make an exception for one person who treats me poorly but not the others. I could no longer be okay with my father not showing up for me if I was going to dump my boyfriend for the same reason. Both relationships had to end.

The issue is not the person, it’s the behavior of not showing up. Parental status does not exempt someone from being an asshole. To truly comprehend this lesson, I had to take myself outside the status quo of maintaining a relationship with my parents no matter what.

My father was capable of spending more time with me than he did when I was a child. He’s self-employed and sets his own hours. He has always had his own car and enough money to pay for gas or plane tickets. Hell, he could be here right now, sitting across from me on the couch as I write this. But he’s not — because he chooses not to be.

My father is human, not an omnipotent, all-powerful, and all-knowing being. If he is able to be in my company right now with all the restraints of space and time, Jesus could absolutely be here, too. If he really did revive himself from the grave, a quick trip back to Earth should be a piece of cake.

The lesson that my own father could be here for me but chooses not to is, admittedly, a very hard pill to swallow. It hurts because the status quo teaches us that parents always love and prioritize their children more than anyone and anything else. But we learn our definition of love from the way our parents treat us. As a kid trying to make sense of why my parents told me they loved me but still made me feel lonely and forgotten, I just decided love wasn’t supposed to make you feel good.

As I grew older, I met men who did show me love by making me feel good and making an effort to be around me consistently, but I pushed them away. I still needed to believe that my dad loved me more than these good men did. (If any of you are reading this, you know who you are, and I’m sorry. I literally had to be completely alone or surrounded by people who made me feel unimportant for my father’s love to be better in comparison to yours.)

Then came the phase of relationships with the only men who seemed legitimately less available than my dad: men in the military or men who lived in another city.

The time during which I needed my father around most has passed. My childhood is over, so I’m left with the decision of what to do if he finally chooses to come around and build a closer relationship with me. My brain has been crammed with religious agendas from childhood (honor thy father and mother) and societal agendas in adulthood (“they’re family” is supposed to excuse all manner of offenses). I’m expected to keep the proverbial door open to him for life and allow him to walk right back through when he decides to show up, no matter when or how infrequently. Christians are expected to do the same for Jesus. But regardless of what I’m expected to do, it will be me who decides whether to keep the door open for my father’s “second coming.”

I don’t believe everyone deserves unconditional love and forgiveness from everyone else, and that’s not a bad thing. There are over seven billion people in the world. If you’re born into a group of people, or you marry someone that humiliates and abuses you, I believe you need to leave and find other people whose conditions through which you need to love them are not unforgivable. And if we find ourselves attracted to the people we choose to surround ourselves with, we will inevitably be thinking about…

The “S” Word

When I started to lose my faith, I spent a lot of time browsing the internet to find out what the Bible actually says about all of those values I was taught. In my quest to learn what the Bible has to say about premarital sex, I stumbled upon Deuteronomy 22:20-21: “But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

The Bible was obviously written solely by men because no woman in her right mind would write or even believe something so damaging and potentially fatal. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that it says nothing about a man being stoned to death if he is not a virgin when he marries. It’s also no coincidence that African-Americans had nothing to do with drafting segregation laws. People do not write laws and rules to persecute themselves. This passage proves that “God’s love” is not unconditional. If he truly loved all of us unconditionally, he would not condone stoning any one of us to death.

1 Corinthians 7:8-9 also relates to premarital sex: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”

Just a few lines earlier is a passage condoning sex slavery within marriage:

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, a man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise, the husband does not have authority over his body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:1-5).

Slaves were bought and commanded to serve their owners’ desires, and brides were bought with a dowry to serve their husbands desires back in Biblical times. Do you see the similarity?

Other verses, like Exodus 22:16, talk about paying for sex: “If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.” Nothing is mentioned about the woman’s desire, or lack thereof, to marry the man in question.

This is why so many devout Christians are fearful of sex. Some are afraid that they will be cast into hell, others that they will have to marry someone just because they slept with them. On top of that, women are implicitly told that their desires for love and sexual satisfaction don’t matter at all. If someone marries a person with whom they have no sexual chemistry, these rules will make them miserable. They won’t look for satisfaction outside their marriage, and they won’t end their marriage because their God hates divorce, according to Malachi 2:16: “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” So these people sentence themselves to a life of unhappiness in an unfulfilling marriage and convince themselves that life is not meant to be enjoyed.

Churches often use the aforementioned verses to try to control women, yet they rarely mention the verses in Ephesians 5:5: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.” This verse preaches that the mere feeling of sexual desire (i.e. being covetous), even without action, dooms a man to hell. So, men are screwed, too.

Unsurprisingly, this verse never came up in my church. This further proves that the stories and rules in the Bible were simply made up by people attempting to judge and control others rather than by a loving, divine being.

With messages like these in their scriptures, it’s no wonder devout Christians often suffer crippling anxiety. You would, too, if you thought someone could both love you and want you murdered. Christians claim their religion to be full of love, acceptance, and hope, but if you dig into their creed, it’s full of judgment and death.

Looking to the Bible for guidance on when, how, and with whom to have sex, is a shaky endeavor. Despite what the status quo in your religious community may be, you are better off establishing a status quon’t that involves tuning in to your gut feelings and practicing safe sex rather than trying to be perfect and resisting all temptation. But in order to practice safe sex, we must keep at bay the…

Control of Birth Control

Bible verses are the primary arguments for why women should not have access to birth control or abortion, despite no verse in the Bible explicitly saying either. You will not find any verse that says, “Women should never have abortions,” or a verse that says, “Women should never try to prevent pregnancy.” What you will find is Psalm 127:3, a common verse of choice for the birth control debate: “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

Many conservative Christians are actually conflicted about killing. Some have gone as far as murdering abortion providers. “I can kill you, but you can’t kill anyone” is a message that’s both hypocritical and sickening. Even more absurd is that these people claimed to be “pro-life.” Such a label would seem to imply supporting all lives, not just those of unborn children. Curiously, many pro-lifers also oppose birth control. They want to prevent the senseless murder of fetuses, but they oppose the very pills and devices that can prevent such occurrences in the first place.

Pro-lifers seem to have been waiting a long time for an undeniable sign from God that abortion and birth control are okay, but I’m not sure what people think a sign from God looks like these days. I feel so strongly that birth control should be available to all that I’ll even argue from a faith-based standpoint to try to reach the religious folks. So here goes.

What if the mere presence of birth control is a message from God that you should use it? Imagine you are on a deserted island and a boat appears. As a Christian, you would almost certainly see the boat as God answering your prayers to save your life. Consider that we are already on a proverbial island, and the proverbial boat is birth control. Birth control can save lives. Over the years, far too many women have died in childbirth, and far too many unwanted children have been abandoned or killed, and birth control is the saving grace from more of that occurring. I hope we can agree to disagree on whether that saving grace came from a God or from scientists, but that we can all agree that regardless of where it came from, it’s here and should be used.

Interestingly, Christians do not seem to be waiting for a sign from God that the use of Viagra is permissible. Plenty of people who identify as pro-life view every woman’s pregnancy as God’s will but do not view a man being unable to get a woman pregnant as God’s will. This is a blatant double standard. To be clear, I am not arguing that Viagra be outlawed. I am arguing that the debate should end, and both should be available to all. It is unfair to promote a man’s ability to get someone pregnant but not a woman’s ability to not get pregnant.

Another argument against birth control is that if God allows a woman to become pregnant, then he wants that child to be born. The argument is another loose interpretation of Psalm 127:3. This belief leads many fanatically religious families to have a child every time conception occurs and to take no measures to prevent future pregnancies. They believe if it happens, no matter when and how often, God intended to give them that child.

A freethinking, logical person can see that it makes absolutely no sense for countless children to be born. If Christians truly believe that God is all-knowing, then they must believe that he knows some babies will wind up in incapable, sometimes downright abusive, hands. A truly loving and all-knowing God would, logically, want us to use mechanisms (like birth control) that ensure children are only conceived when they will be born into loving arms.

Due to the extensive brainwashing they’ve endured, many Christians may never agree with atheists on this. But the point of my book is not to get them to think like us, it’s to get them to think at all. They’re not currently thinking; they’re reciting the lines they memorized from the script(ure), just like actors. If they do begin to think for themselves, then there’s no way they won’t agree with some of our points of view. And when everyone’s critically thinking for themselves, that’s status quon’t.

Can’t Stop, Quon’t Stop

I believe the ability to search the Bible online is one of the reasons churches are rapidly losing followers today. When I was a kid, in the days before the internet, my family showed up at church every Sunday and simply trusted that the values preached to us came directly from the Bible. In Bible study, we didn’t start at the beginning and make our way through the book in its entirety. Instead, we always homed in on the same passages while others — entire books, even — were completely ignored. And there was never any order to the passages that we read. It wasn’t until I searched the Bible topically online and read the verses in context that I rejected the status quo. Given what I read and how it made me feel, I decided I had to fire God, just like I would any other employee who doesn’t respect women, polices what they wear, doesn’t reply to emails (prayers, in his case), and doesn’t show up to work.

There will always be certain aspects of a status quo that cannot sustain us. Since there will never be one idyllic status quo, our job as atheists is to get people comfortable with change. I can’t accept the current status quo until anyone — including God — who impedes women’s progress is fired from their role and removed from the payroll. I quon’t stop until it’s done. Will you join me?

(Image via Shutterstock)

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