I took a class on gender and sexuality in graduate school. I decided to analyze scholarly works on ways Christianity was used to limit women’s rights and roles in the nineteenth and early twentieth century in my final paper, a historiography. At some point in the semester, my professor told me that I needed to start my project over, looking instead at scholarly works on the ways in which women used Christianity to expand their rights and roles. I was already partway through my research and wasn’t at all happy about this request. Today, though, I am extremely grateful for the lesson this professor taught me. And before you ask, I don’t think it was an ideological thing—I don’t believe this professor was religious. I think she could just see that I’d gotten stuck in a rut and needed to step out and view the bigger picture.
That semester I learned that women have used religion to seize power in ways I had never realized. I realized then that while religion has too often been used to disempower women, that is only part of the story. Women have also, since time immemorial, used religion to empower themselves and expand their roles. This is why it is a shame Game of Thrones did not imbue Sansa’s storyline with more history—a medieval Sansa embracing the same level of piety that she did at King’s Landing would have been worshiped by the people as a saint, leaving Joffrey afraid to lay a hand to her. This is why Margaery’s embrace of the church was so realistic—during the Middle Ages, women frequently used religion to gain power, influence, and protection.
That class changed my perspective on religion to this day. Religion is a tool. It can be used for evil, and it can be used for good. Over the past few years as I’ve gained an increasing number of progressive Christian friends, I’ve been glad for the perspective that class gave me. Religion can be used to further oppression, yes, but it can also be used to push back against oppression—think of liberation theology, for instance.
My regulars know my backstory—I grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family, and my parents reacted very badly when, after I left for college, my beliefs shifted. My own children are growing up in a secular home. I’ve tried very hard not to prejudice my children against my parents, but it wasn’t long before my science-loving daughter was taken aback—my mother had told her that evolution was not real. Sally was aghast. And while I try to make sure she understands the nuance—for all their faults, my parents were loving, devoted parents—my daughter has pieced the story together. She knows about what happened between my parents and I.
I’ve been thinking, recently, about the importance of historically-grounded religious education—and I don’t mean Sunday school. I’ve been reading Sally various religions’ mythology for years now, but that alone is not enough. I’ve gotten books about children growing up in various religious traditions in various places in the world, and I’ve been reading them to her, trying to give her a sense of the place religion plays in people’s lives. This fall, we’ll be starting another semester of religious education at our local Unitarian Universalist church. Someday, maybe, we’ll visit various different houses of worship and read more about various faith traditions, their history and their diversity, and the various ways in which people have used religion.
When I first left religion, I went through a period when I was what is sometimes termed an “anti-theist.” I believed that getting rid of religion would solve many of the world’s problems. But today, I’m not so sure. I no longer identify as an anti-theist. For one thing, religion is often entertained with culture. Practices like female genital mutation are actually more cultural than religious. Getting rid of religion wouldn’t get rid of these practices. For another thing, marginalized populations have long used religion to gain agency, space, and power, like the women discussed above. I want Sally to grasp this nuance too.
I worry sometimes that we are too black and white, and I’ve found in the last few years that my alliances lay across religious lines, with those who support the same social justice causes I do. Perhaps someday I’ll have a chance to thank that professor for the assignment she gave me. I needed it.