January 28, 2009
Bogus exaltation of women
I was on a panel recently that sought to clarify any misconceptions that people might have about the various religious beliefs, or the lack of them. I was the atheist, and the other panelists consisted of people having backgrounds in Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Scientology, Catholicism, and Protestantism.
Each of us were asked to begin the session by speaking for a few minutes about what we felt were the biggest misconceptions. I said that when it comes to beliefs, it should be easy for everyone to understand what atheism is all about because everyone is an atheist. After all, religious people are atheistic about all gods other than their own, while those who call themselves atheists merely add one more god to that vast list of disbelieved gods, making a clean sweep of it. The reason we do so is for the same reason that religious people disbelieve other gods.
Atheists live by a very simple and commonsensical principle: There is no sense believing in something for which there is absolutely no evidence. Atheists disbelieve in the existence of any and all gods for the same reason we disbelieve in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy or the Loch Ness monster or unicorns.
During the question period, one student asked whether it was the case that some religions treat women as second class. The response of the religion panelists was, "Of course not!" It is a sign of progress that nowadays no one can openly and explicitly declare the superiority of one gender ort race or ethnicity over others. If they do believe such a thing, they have to practice a quiet hypocrisy.
The awkward fact is, of course, that many religions do not allow women to do many things that they allow men to do. I am not even talking the cruel, absurd, and rigid prohibitions that women face in some Islamic countries. Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, mainstream Islam, and Mormons all have restrictions on the role of women, especially in their religious rituals and even extending to their dress.
So how to reconcile this with the assertion that women are equal to men? The panelists gave various reasons and took an interesting tack. Some argued that the dress rules that highly restrict what women can wear in some religions arise out of general modesty rules that apply to both men and women. They also argued that women were biologically different, that they had a childbearing capacity denied to men and that as a result, their religions highly valued women because of the immense importance of the role of childbearing and motherhood in the life of any society. Hence, according to them, women actually enjoyed an exalted, not inferior, status in their religions. Because of the special and important role only they could play, women were encouraged to devote their full attention and energies to their superior biological role and leave the other supposedly minor stuff to men. In other words, all the restrictions imposed on them were not restrictions at all but should be taken as signs of how much women were valued. The rules had been created to allow them to play their superior role unencumbered by having to worry about other mundane things.
This is typical of the absurd logical knots that religions tie themselves into trying to incorporate universally accepted standards of equality in their fundamentally unequal doctrines. Their argument was so manifestly self-serving rubbish that it could have been demolished by even a middle-school level debater. Its advocacy by religious people shows the extent to which these religions are being squeezed as their outdated doctrines confront a modern world and modern values.
These religious people were trying to glide past the uncomfortable fact that the women in their religions had no choice whatsoever about their roles and were being forcedto accept their position based on ancient books written and interpreted by men.
There is nothing wrong with a woman choosing to dress extremely modestly by covering herself from head to toe, or to stay at home and devote her life to bearing and raising children, or to not want to become a priest or similar religious leader. But there is a world of difference between making such a choice freely and being told that they have to do so, otherwise they will be expelled form their religious group or suffer an even worse fate.
Can anyone be expected to take seriously the suggestion that women in Saudi Arabia are exalted because they are forbidden freedoms that women elsewhere routinely have access to? We see where this kind of absurd religious thinking leads to when a Muslim cleric recently said that women should wear a veil that reveals only one eye because " showing both eyes encouraged women to use eye make-up to look seductive." The article goes on "The question of how much of her face a woman should cover is a controversial topic in many Muslim societies." (my italics). Really? The only thing that should be controversial is the fact that this is even a question or a topic for discussion at all. It clearly shows the inferior status of women, because that kind of decision should be left solely to each individual woman to make freely without any pressure or coercion.
Any religion or society that does not allow women equal access to every single aspect of life that men have is a religion or society that treats women as second class. There is no denying that even if there are women in that religion or society who find their situation acceptable or even desirable and even become advocates of such restrictions being imposed on their fellow women.
I hope that bogus exaltations of women such as those offered by the religious panelists will be increasingly seen as the laughably ridiculous arguments they are.
POST SCRIPT: Who does god really talk to?
Turns out it is to Stephen Colbert.