Note: The Women in Secularism 2 was kind of a weird rollercoaster. The highs — and it was overwhelmingly highs — were very high indeed; the lows were seriously low, and of a variety that seeped poison into the highs and made them harder to appreciate. Many other people have been writing about some of the lows: I will probably weigh in on them at some point myself (although others have already said most of what I would want to say). But the speakers and panelists at WiS2 mostly seem to have cared deeply about making this conference incredible, and overwhelmingly brought their A-game. Lows aside, this was easily one of the best conferences I’ve attended. It’s hard to find the balance between not ignoring the awful but not letting it take over everything, and I’m not going to tell anyone else where that balance should be for them. Myself, I want to spend a couple of days writing about the awesome, before I decide what to say about the crap.
What does religion bring to the table?
Among the great awesomeness at the Women in Secularism 2 conference was Katha Pollitt. She’s a brilliant thinker; she’s an engaging and down-to-earth speaker who makes complicated ideas clear without talking down to her audience; and she is hi-fucking-larious. (I dearly wish Christopher Hitchens were alive, and had attended this conference, so he could see how funny women are.) And her talk about “Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?” has gotten the wheels of my brain spinning in about twenty different directions at once. The main one at the moment being: What does religion bring to the table?
The tl;dr of Pollitt’s talk (or at least, the main thing I got from it): In the simplest, most practical sense, yes, sexism can be untied from religion. Some religions do oppose sexism, and don’t have sexist teachings. Religion — and here’s the kicker, the part I’ve been ruminating on — is very adept at adapting to changing social mores, to the point where it will twist around and say the exact opposite of what it’s said for centuries, and will actually deny that it says what its teachings clearly say, or even that it ever said that. (“Of course when Paul said ‘I suffer not a woman to teach,’ he didn’t mean all women! He was just talking about one particular woman in one church! Or else he meant something else by ‘silence’ — he was trying to create a peaceful space for women to learn in! Or…”)
But the same social progress and rational, evidence-based thought processes that leads people to reject sexism also leads people to reject religion. Not in every individual case, obviously: but on the whole, as a general social trend. So while in a small sense, religion doesn’t have to be sexist and can be compatible with feminism, in the long run it’s not: the rope of inequity and irrationality that ties people to religion is the same one that ties people to sexism, and when the rope is loosened, both will eventually fall.
So. Ingrid and I were talking about this the other night. We were talking, specifically, about all the ways religion contorts and twists itself to fit changing social standards and evolving human ethics. We were talking about how it eventually catches up to the idea that witch-burning isn’t so great, and slavery isn’t so great, and racism isn’t so great, and homophobia isn’t so great, and so on. We were talking about how religion generally acts as a brake to these forms of social progress, since people do need to get over their belief that their god wants to them to burn witches and own slaves and whatnot. But eventually, people will reject their religion when their morality outpaces it, and religion has to twist itself around to catch up if it wants to stay relevant. And Ingrid, in one of her ranty rages (I love her when she’s ranty), asked this pertinent question:
“So what does religion bring to the table? If God never has anything to tell us about morality that we don’t figure out on our own, and if religion is always contorting itself to fit evolving morality… what the hell is the point?”
An excellent question.
The answer we pretty much came up with was, “Nothing. It brings nothing to the table.”
I mean, yes, religion obviously gives people some stuff they want. Among other things, religion lets people believe that the creator of the universe cares about them, and that they’re never going to die, and other pretty notions that aren’t true. And it’s an effective idea to organize around, since the requirement to believe ridiculous bullshit acts as a form of psychological hazing.
But when it comes to morality… it’s got nothing. The only thing it brings to the table is the illusion of a cosmic enforcer to whatever ethics a society has come up with on its own. When it comes to the actual ethics, it offers nothing. Nada. Zilch.