(Essay) This Disease Cannot Be Excised: Countering Patriarchal Religion by Hearth Moon Rising

Painting of Virgin Mary

It is clear to many feminists that the most important and challenging avenues for pursuing women’s liberation in the twenty-first century are elimination of poverty and freedom from violence. Violence and poverty are heavily gendered, with men the overwhelming perpetrators in these areas and both women and men the victims. As access to government has been achieved in Western countries while male violence and feminized poverty remain, the advancement of women’s rights has stalled and stagnated. A multi-pronged approach is rightly seen as the only way to break through millennia of patriarchal oppression.

The women’s movement has pursued yet another path of liberation, the integral importance of which is hazily understood even by those who pursue this path. This is the path of matrifocal religion, the re-counting and re-purposing of religion as a source of nourishment rather than a vehicle for patriarchal control. Religious conflicts around the world are, at core, conflicts over how to control women. Right wing Christians in the United States, ignoring Christ’s edict to serve the poor, push for policies that increase feminized poverty in order to control women through marriage. Radical Muslims pursue violence against Westernized elements within their own societies while prescribing a system of tight control of women as the alternative. I don’t mean to single out Christianity and Islam: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, and Paganism all seek to enforce male dominance.

The crimes of patriarchal religions are not completely directed toward the female sex, and it was in recognition of the role of religion in enforcing class dominance that Marxists declared religion an enemy of the people. The Manifesto of the Communist Party was published in 1848, the same year as the Seneca Falls Convention, and both early communists and early feminists had a huge beef with religion. Karl Marx made two erroneous assumptions in his analysis, however, which led him to advocate for the abolition of religion altogether. He assumed that the present condition of the powerful exploiting the weak was an age-old problem in existence since the dawn of time, and he saw time as a linear progression toward self-contained evolutionary as well as revolutionary outcomes. Nineteenth century American feminists, in contact with egalitarian indigenous societies, did not make these assumptions, and instead envisioned religious environments that worked for women rather than against them. They looked to history for inspiration as well as clues to what went wrong, and they did not view patriarchy as an inevitable condition. For this reason, feminist criticism of Christianity has always been more pointed and trenchant than Marxist criticism, which has been too dismissive of religion to engage in effective critique.

statue of Guanyin
Guanyin, 15th century. Source: Walters Art Museum

Since the start of the second wave of feminism, there has been a tension between spiritual feminists and socialist feminists, the Mary Daly versus the Andrea Dworkin versions of radical feminism, despite the considerable overlap between the two camps in views on specific issues. Socialist feminists see theological criticisms, much less visions of religious utopias, as a waste of time. Why not just abolish the offensive concept, like cutting away a cancerous tumor? Others acknowledge that this is an unrealistic stance, at least for the present. Spiritual feminists argue that this goal is undesirable as well as unrealistic, with worship being, like sex, a basic human need. There are, of course, people who can quite contentedly live their entire lifespan without sex, but these people are in the minority, and propagation of the species does depend upon sex, the existence of resource-intensive reproductive technologies within the medical industrial complex notwithstanding.

It may be hard for those who have not embarked on a spiritual path to understand this, but continuation of the species also depends upon worship. Worship is an essential part of who we are, collectively. I have often noticed that the feminist witch who writes odes to the menstruating Goddess is more sanguine than the dyed-in-the-wool socialist feminist who can cite the author (and sometimes the work) that her political analysis is based on. I am creating a false dichotomy here, since a feminist can be both, and even the atheistic socialist feminist and the spiritual feminist who never heard of Dworkin agree that the Abrahamic religions have been bad news for women. Yet the atheist-socialist, so focused on material rather than spiritual conditions, does not always grasp the pervasiveness of religious oppression and, to pick up on the earlier metaphor about the tumor, how metastasized it is.

Feminists within the humanist-agnostic movements quickly discover how male framed and driven the definition of secularism is. Such women are barraged by invectives from males within their own ranks, sometimes even driven offline. This is not to say that feminists (and I’m specifically talking about female feminists here, not sexist atheistic men who have appropriated the label) do not belong in atheist movements. The point is that in a patriarchal society both religion and freedom-from-religion are male dominant and male defined. The disease of patriarchal religion cannot be neatly excised; it can only be countered.

The greatest criticism Marx had of religion was the tendency of the religious person to endure hardships and weather adversity with optimism and equanimity. He saw religion as an anodyne for oppression which discouraged class struggle. Religion was “the opium of the people”– a necessary balm, perhaps, but at best a temporary and unproductive one. This is an attitude that places Marx as a product of Judeo-Christian worldview, a framework which places a positive value on suffering and views it as productive. Daly had a great deal to say about Christian elevation of suffering, and it may be that the penchant of patriarchal religious and anti-religious frameworks to extol suffering is the root of the problem.

Statue of LibertyMany critics of religion draw a distinction between spirituality and religion by defining spirituality as an individual, personal relationship with God and/or nature. It is something to keep private, or perhaps express quietly with close intimates, but at any rate a thing of a highly individualized nature. This circumvents the institutionalized oppression of religion while placating the anti-religious by silencing all expression of religious view – as male atheists and male Christians define religious view – in the public sphere. Christians understandably chafe at this abrogation of their expression of free speech and association, although Christians themselves have swelled the ranks of atheists through invasive proselytizing and attempts to control others via the democratic process. Patriarchal religion and patriarchal atheism have become two male heads of the same coin.

The bigger problem for feminists in defining spirituality as a private thing is that feminism is a collective and shared movement, operating in opposition to Western values which idealize the individual and take a fanciful view of the individual’s power to choose beliefs independent of environment. Feminism is about women together, not men apart. A feminist spirituality must necessarily be a spirituality of “we,” not “me.”

A crucial ingredient of liberation from patriarchal religion is the establishment of women-only religions, conceived and expressed by women, for women, without men. This is not separatism, by the way. It does not mean that women live in isolation from men, or even that they abjure any contact with men within a religious context. It means that women have something of their own, to discover, develop, and define for themselves.

It is doubtful that a women’s religion will overshadow or overtake the monotheistic patriarchal religions, although these have to change. They will not change, however, as long as women have no alternatives. Similar to the abusive husband who will not curb his dominance as long as he knows his wife is powerless to leave him, patriarchal religions will not change until women are able to leave and men recognize that women have other, perhaps better, places to go.

(Meet Mago Contributor) Hearth Moon Rising. 

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Thank you.

Mago Work

Harriet Ann Ellenberger says on August 27, 2017

I really appreciate the clarification you’re making here.