A younger friend recently told me she knows a number of guy friends who don’t care much for female artists. “Any female artists?” I asked her. “Any,” she replied, as if there’s something fundamental to being female that makes one less capable of making good art. I found this difficult to absorb. How could anyone believe that?
Thinking back through the list of those authors, singers, speakers, and general opinion sharers from whom I’ve personally benefited over the years while I was unpacking my religious baggage, I see way more women than men. Of course, I don’t mean there weren’t men who had big enough platforms to lay the groundwork for the secular humanist movement, but I am quite certain that for me personally it’s been almost all women.
Maybe that’s because I take advice better from women than from men. Maybe I feel like they understand my emotions better than most guys and all the important revelations in my life have required an uptick in emotional intelligence. The words that stick with me the longest seem to come from women.
But I don’t think my friend’s feeling is uncommon. I think there are tons of younger guys out there—and maybe some older ones who can afford to speak without a filter—who sincerely believe that a person without testicles cannot contribute meaningful thought to society. But I still find this all quite difficult to accept. I wonder why I keep forgetting, especially after seeing so much evidence that this prejudice is still a thing?
Why Beliefs Survive
I’m beginning to develop a theory. Whoops, I mean a hypothesis—theories are much more substantial things, at least in scientific nomenclature. I’ll admit I’m no expert in gender studies or sociology, but my undergrad degree was in psychology, and that’s got to count for something, right? Anyway, I’m beginning to formulate a hypothesis about the varieties of misogyny and the part that religion plays in sustaining them.
I feel like the kind of misogyny my younger friend witnesses stems from something other than religion. There once was a time I believed that patriarchy and male chauvinism were primarily the products of religion, as if there couldn’t be larger cultural and historical causes for guys to believe they are better than women at everything except for those tasks they don’t respect enough to do themselves.
Self-described atheists are really bad about this, by the way. Movement-minded skeptics like to perpetuate the notion that if we could only erase religion from the planet, most of our social ills would go away. Would that it were so simple.
What they don’t understand is that religion serves a function for people—actually quite a few functions, meeting several layers of personal and social needs—and that without something to offer them that does a better job of meeting all of those needs as well as they feel their faith does, you are wasting your time trying to make people stop believing in their religions.
As it turns out, durable communities can be built around religion. Many different kinds of them, in fact. Atheism per se cannot provide such a scalable framework because it is not in fact a “worldview” at all. It is only an answer to one question: Do you believe gods are real things? I call myself an atheist because my answer is no, but that only tells you what I don’t believe. It says nothing at all about what I do believe.
And I don’t think the beliefs themselves are what matters most when it comes to sustainability. The main reason beliefs endure seems to be that the groups who preserve those beliefs endure, and that means they must have found some kind of authority structure to sustain communities and traditions which survived the test of time. Maybe this is why hierarchical religions last so long? I don’t think it’s the ideas they preserve, I think it’s the social structures they institutionalize.
A Divine Sausage Party
It seems to me that enforcing a prescribed family structure is central to the survival of the largest religions in the world. That’s why over the course of my lifetime something as random as sexual orientation has become central to Christianity for millions of people around the world. I don’t recall Jesus bringing it up once, but to hear my neighbors talk, it just may be the main reason he came to earth. It’s certainly why the church is here, judging by the things that get them the most worked up.
Like the other hierarchical religions of the world, Christianity remains a preservative for patriarchal culture despite the sincerest efforts of those across the denominational spectrum who are trying to normalize women pastors and priests in their traditions. They always end up starting their own separate thing because they can’t ultimately change the fact that their primary religious text was largely written at a time when women were still viewed as property to be bought and sold whenever they reach the right age for it.
Did you know that early Judaism featured a female counterpart, a wife of Yahweh/El named Asherah? You may recall the name from tirades in the Old Testament about God’s people disobeying his orders not to carve Asherah poles out of trees, talking nonsense about God having a wife. Clearly, Yahweh was single, and talk of anything else would be pure blasphemy.
Just think of how empowering a female counterpart to God would be for women. Think of what that would do to a patriarchal social structure! It would be disastrous. So I guess it’s a really good thing Jesus never even had a girlfriend. Think of how different things would have been if he ever had taken on an actual wife—and I don’t mean a metaphorical one made out of millions of strangers not yet even born. I mean an actual, real one to stand there visibly by his side in front of everyone. Isn’t it fascinating that the counterpart to the visible, express image of God still has to be an abstraction?
Remember what percentage of the original twelve apostles were women? I believe it was zero, and I’m pretty sure the leading men in Jerusalem did nothing to reverse that trend before the Jewish church as a whole was run out of the region upon the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 AD.
It’s no wonder Mary became what she ultimately did for the Catholic Church. They inherited a divine sausage party. What else could they do? Unfortunately, male-centeredness seems woven into the DNA of the faith in which I was raised.
But guess what? You encounter the same kinds of misogyny in the secularist movement as well. There’s something cultural here that goes deeper than theology or ecclesiology. I’m pretty sure my friend’s compadres weren’t all that religious, either. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear their kind of chauvinism is much harsher than the kind in which I grew up. It’s the same disdain for an entire sex, but maybe without the sugary coating.
Not God’s Fault
I think theology follows culture, not the other way around. Religion is the monkey riding the elephant, but the underlying culture is the elephant. Guess who wins when they’re at odds with each other?
I was taught the opposite was the case, of course. During my seminary days, when the culture wars that are currently tearing my country apart were still just an academic subject, we were taught to believe theology shaped culture rather than vice versa.
We were called by God, not just to get people saved and into heaven, but to transform the surrounding culture with the values that we believed a country who wanted God’s blessing would have to exhibit. The presidency of Donald Trump is what that ultimately produced, by the way, now hailed an unlikely hero of the faith by those who consider themselves the moral guardians of the nation. At moments like this, I wish there were a God to help us.
But that’s beside the point to which I am trying to get. I think underlying social, political, and economic factors have always fashioned the theology we inherit from our forebears. Religion is just a form of culture, right? Our gods are merely expressions of our most important values, for better or for worse. It is we who create them, not the other way around.
Read that last sentence again, please. The gods we nonreligious folk have come to despise (because of the hypocritical behavior they seem to produce in their followers) are only avatars of their worshipers’ best and worst traits, which means the gods themselves aren’t the problem. The problem is that the human race still feels it needs them, and frankly we haven’t come up with a whole lot of viable alternatives for them just yet.
Maybe that’s why we’re all so eager to find intelligent life on other planets. We desperately hope some other species got further along than we did and can show us a thing or two about how to build society around something less maniacally obsessed with what you do with your genitals.
Patriarchal cultures create patriarchal religions, which means that eliminating those religions will only make way for something new to take its place. Right this minute, I wouldn’t be completely shocked if QAnon factored into the next odd turn for the evangelical Christian faith. That’s how rudderless they’ve become absent of any truly vertebrate leadership. The silence from the evangelical pulpit about Trump in particular has become deafening.
But they’re not the only ones unable to explain why anything he does or says is wrong. Many of my fellow atheists seem to have flocked to the “red pill” camp, and their particular flavor of misogyny is much more pungent than anything I’ve seen in the church. Which leads me to a disturbing thought I’d like for you to lose sleep over as much as I do.
A Disturbing Thought
What if something we completely made up—like religion—helps a lot of people live happier lives even though it’s not real?
Have you ever seriously considered that? I keep returning to it over and over again. I know people who have made it through serious life trauma relatively unscathed because they were so convinced Someone Else was looking out for them. As a former believer myself, I have to admit that’s one of the things I miss from those days. Like someone once said, I no longer believe in God, but I miss him.
Related: “What I Lost When I Lost My Faith“
This isn’t to say others don’t walk through the same fiery furnaces but without an Invisible Companion, it’s just that some do seem to need one. Like I’ve said so many times before, some people really do need Jesus.
Maybe the same thing goes for misogynists. What if all those jerkwad men in the church who are drunk on patriarchy would be even worse if there weren’t also some kind of expectation put onto them that they are supposed to nurture and care for the women and children they love so poorly?
My church had a lot to say about the responsibilities of fathers and husbands to care for those beneath them in the family hierarchy. In retrospect, it was cringeworthy more often than not. But they were trying. At some level this faith attempts to serve as guide rails for male behavior, and while they may be seriously off-center, at least there are rails. I wonder what many of them would be like without them?
Far from being a shaper of character, I think religion works more like an accelerant. If it works for you, it must empower who you already are in some way that makes you even more that way, for better or for worse. If you’re naturally a creep, you’ll eventually find your religious beliefs validate that quite easily. If you’re naturally self-disciplined, that will be the spiritual gift, the fruit of the spirit for which you must give God alone credit. And so on.
Faith works for people. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance it never worked for you. Or maybe it did for a while until you outgrew it. That’s what happened for me. For a long time, it gave meaning and purpose to my daily life, and I loved Jesus for it. And that’s what I wish others outside of faiths like evangelical Christianity could understand.
Religion serves a function—many functions in fact—and until we acknowledge and understand that, we will never know how to deal with it from the outside looking in. That’s the main thing I want people to see: This mess isn’t really God’s fault, it is ours, and simply getting rid of religion won’t make that neediness go away.
I don’t think religion is going away. It may be woven into who we have evolved to be. Until we’ve got something robust, scalable, and broad enough to offer a framework that could sustain generations of subcultures, those of us who identify with the secularist/atheist/agnostic label are going to have to learn to work with this mortal enemy rather than try to destroy it.
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