What Does Religion Bring to the Table? Katha Pollitt’s Talk at Women in Secularism 2

Women In Secularism 2 logo

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?

Katha PollittAmong 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.



  1. says

    That’s been one of my positions for a while now. A good moral position can be supported by argument and doesn’t need religion. A bad moral argument can only be propped up by something with the empty authority of religion.

  2. navigator says

    Most of the religious people I know rely on religion for two things: life after death (if you can make the cut) or for socialization. Their churches are a great way to get to know people. And they have potlucks.

  3. llewelly says

    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.)

    Sadly, I suspect he’d still be in denial. His time at _The Nation_ overlapped Katha Pollitt’s ; he knew her (see http://www.thenation.com/blog/165222/regarding-christopher ), and still wrote that ass-headed piece. Of course that was after their fight over the US invasion of Iraq, but nonetheless.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    “Organized religion” does provide a structure through which significant amounts of charity work/money flow, including a lot of intra-congregational off-the-books mutual aid.

    And the continual harping on social obligations such as giving, justice, etc, while obviously doing little or nothing to stop predators (and much to enable them), may in fact prompt a few Babbitts to perform good deeds – while others are watching – that might otherwise never happen.

    I would argue that this does not balance out the harm that churches (mosques, etc) inflict, but we go too far if we claim there is nothing at all on that side of the scale.

  5. jonlynnharvey says

    When religion reinvents itself to adjust to a shifting climate, it should certainly !*admit*! that it is reinventing itself!!! This is what heavily dogma-laden religions are rather poor at, notably Roman Catholicism. If you can just say Well, I just thing Paul or Krishna was wrong about that, then OK, but reinventing your own past should never have any credibility.

  6. says

    Growing up, seeing churches resist moral progress, reading about it in history class, and actually reading the horrors of the Bible is what got me on the road to atheism. At first, I rationalized that corrupt people put their own edits into the Bible since “obviously” god wouldn’t say or do those things. I started to wonder why no one seemed to want to get rid of the promotions of slavery, genocide, violence, and so on, aside from historical preservation. The liberal Christianity I was raised in simply didn’t square with the barbarism of the Bible.

    Cherrypicking was the common practice as well as the common accusation to use against fundie Christians. I just wanted my church to take that cherrypicking to its logical extreme and produce a “restored” Bible with all the bad stuff removed or rewritten. Eventually, however, I read enough to realize how slim the pickings would be for decent people like me and declared it a lost cause to save Christianity. After a vague spiritualist phase, including an atheist spiritualist phase, I stumbled on the skeptical/atheist community and swallowed the then-bitter pill of monism.

    I can imagine separating sexism from religion, but as long as the texts remain idolized and full of bigotry, bigots will use religion and priests will use bigotry.

  7. says

    Damn, I didn’t even know about this conference in advance, and couldn’t have attended if I had, and when all the Lindsey nonsense started showing up online it made me wonder about it, but the more I read about the actual speakers, the more I really wish I could have sat in the back and shut up and listened. (Not intended as a jab; it sounds like there’s nothing I could say which would have been worth saying, so that’s all I would want to do.) It all sounds wonderful. :)

Leave a Reply