Religion and Women

A while back P. Z. Myers posted an essay entitled, “You Want Evidence That Religions is Bad for the Species? OPEN YOUR EYES.” Myers was replying to an earlier essay by David Sloan Wilson. Here's an excerpt from Myers:

Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.

David Sloan Wilson can argue all he wants that religion helped promote group survival in our evolutionary history, or that his group selectionist models somehow explain its origins, but it doesn’t matter. Here and now, everywhere, those with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.

Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?

Sounds right to me! But Wilson was not amused. He has posted a reply to P. Z. We pick up the action in the second paragraph. Wilson writes:

Imagine Myers teaching a class on his academic specialty -- evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo) -- and telling his students that all they must do to understand the topic is to open their eyes. This would be absurd. The whole point of science is to understand topics that are too complex to be self-evident.

For the sake of clarity we should note that Myers did not say that all you have to do understand religion is to open your eyes. Actually he merely recommended opening your eyes if you wanted to obtain evidence that religion is harmful.

Wilson next charges that Myers is an ideologue, and that he is not behaving as a scientist in arguing that religion is mostly harmful, especially towards women. Wilson then goes on to describe how a scientist would approach this terribly difficult and complex question. Forgive the long excerpt, but this needs to be quoted in full.

Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word -- WOMEN. Here's how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances. Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). None of this variation can be explained by religion.

The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies -- regardless of their religions.

To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won't try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this -- it isn't self-evident.

Goodness! Suddenly I'm embarrassed for scientists.

It would never have occurred to me, in trying to assess whether religion hurts women, to inquire into the mating habits of bonobos or the basis for patriarchy in agricultural societies. I think I'd be more inclined to look around the world and notice that the societies that are the most monstrous in their treatment of women are also the most religious. The Muslim countries of the Middle East and the Catholic theocracies in Latin America come immediately to mind. Then I would contrast this with the state of affairs in the most secular countries in the world, where women fare much better.

I would go on to note that we have not only a very strong correlation between a society's degree of religiosity and its treatment of women, but also a good reason for expecting the former to be causally related to the latter. As Myers notes, the world's dominant religions specifically teach that women are inferior to men. Whenever representatives of these religions have been granted power, they have always used it to demean and denigrate women.

We could further note that right here, today, in America, we have a major political party engaging in a war on women. Anything that makes it easier for women to be equal members of the work force, like reproductive rights, access to contraception, and equal pay laws, are vigorously opposed by the Republicans. Remind me, are they the party that defends the separation of church and state (at least on paper)? Or are they the party that is completely beholden to evangelical religious extremists?

Somehow that all seems more relevant to me than anything Wilson was going on about.

There is nothing complicated about the question of whether the world's dominant religions are bad for women. Their teachings are explicitly misogynistic, and the most theocratic societies are precisely the ones with the worst records on women's rights. Case closed. By all means extol the virtues of nuance and complexity, but you will never bathe yourself in glory by denying the obvious.


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I have noticed that it is not uncommon for those who most strongly air their convictions suffer from some sort of internal conflict with the same issues. Take, for instance, the number of outspoken homophobic politicians who are later outed as having homosexual tendencies.

It is this context that I find it extremely curios why a scientist would make such statements about women's rights, except that the inequality in his own profession where women are still subordinate. It further interests me because if one really cared about inequality, they'd be fighting to change it in a more tangible way (e.g., hiring committees versus changing a whole religion). This may be the case, but my and others have experienced so little of it in academia, that it is safe to assume otherwise.

I have heard arguments about "why" women still (i) are not proportionally represented in scientific research, (ii) do not proportionally receive funding, (iii) are not FAIRLY accommodated for their biological differences (namely, having children) in academia (meaning, tenure and hiring committees and the like generally do not take into consideration maternity and still want to see "production"), and (iv) are socially treated as subordinates. I don't care about the process ("why"), as those are largely excuses that allow the inequality to exist; but rather, it is the pattern or phenomenon of inequality that should be the points of conversation and action.

In any case, I just think that before casting critical stones at the religious patriarchy (I am by no means condoning that either), scientists should examine their own glass houses.

By Christopher Moore (not verified) on 12 Jun 2012 #permalink