I have been asked why I put so much time and thought into my critique of WomanChrist. As one friend put it, at least the book suggests a more feminist christianity, so why do I not like it more? As I noted to the friend (in a very enjoyable and thoughtful discussion over lunch), I have deep ideological issues with two concepts here, and they’re both interfering with my enjoyment of, and any agreement with, the book.
Nothing to lose but our chains
First, I intensely dislike rigged contests, and androcentric religion is the biggest rigger of all in the contest of life. It’s tough enough to do well in a system set up to cut you down. Why then would anyone want to fight and scrabble for the crumbs dropped from the table of the privileged? That’s what the book ended up feeling like to me: a way for women to try to claim they deserved bigger crumbs. It’s a religiously loaded euphemism, but I’m one of those who would rather reign in hell than grovel in heaven.
Second, any religion which supposedly purports to be for everyone — but which then carefully teaches that over half of the human race is somehow inferior to the other part, and only the supposed “superior” part is trustworthy enough to lead the religion — is just whacked. If I had a job in a corporation run along those lines, I would so sue them for sexual harassment.
This is not to say, faced with such a situation, that my reaction to the book is the only logical or feasible one. If I’ve learned anything over my life, it’s that we’re all living our own stories, and creating our own internal truths. I know there are women and men who deeply and passionately believe in, say, the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. In such a situation I find I must applaud any attempt to change all the major religions back to more divinely egalitarian forms. At the same time, the very need for such effort within patrifocally based religions make me both angry and sad — angry that women have to struggle so for any recognition as human beings on a par with the male of the species, and sad that this struggle is still on-going.
Tolerating the alien
After writing the WomanChrist review, I got asked a related and fascinating over-arching question by Paka, one of my readers: “What conceivable ‘good’ does christianity offer a woman?” It’s a question I’ve been struggling with for a while now, especially since it can be expanded logically to “Why do women in particular, and people in general, sometimes passionately support ideologies which actually harm them?”
Over the years I’ve slowly come to believe this is not a straightforwardly answerable question. We cannot accurately say, for example, “they” are all foolish sheep, or brainwashed, or whatever. I feel, in fact, that such dismissive answers run the risk of becoming reductio ad absurdum arguments — which, I think, also shows the issue has not been given enough thought.
So, in no particular order, here are some of the possible reasons I’ve come up with or been told of, which might explain why people support ideologies which are harmful to them. If you can think of any I’ve missed, I’d be interested to hear them. For lack of a better term, I’m using “they” to signify those who hold these ideologies.
- They truly believe.
There are probably many Americans (myself among them) who forget there is any “logical” worldview past their own, which is stringently secular. To them religion is not a rational means of understanding the workings of the world; it is a social system, or a cultural artifact. With such a mindset it’s hard to remember there are people for whom their religion is an integral and eminently rational interwoven part of their lives. I may not be able to see the signs of the hands of the deities in daily life, but they can and do.
This is interesting for a number of reasons since, like any other belief system, there are both good and bad parts to it. True, secularists are usually free of damaging religious superstition and dogma… but it seems to me we’ve lost something in reducing the world to so much mechanically integrated systems. We have no reverence for the little things any more; we have intellectually castrated our instinctive empathy with the natural world. Why pause in the accumulation of money and power to consider the sexual organs of specific perennial biota? Maybe simply because roses smell good, and make us happy?
- They are apathetic and possibly angry.
From what I’ve seen, this is a potential result of rampantly belittling argumentation. I am not referring here to thoughtful and considered discussion, but rather that argument style where mean-spirited mockery and disdain are an important part of making the arguers of one side of the issue feel superior to the other(s). Any internet troll will provide an example of this style of argumentation. You can also see my unhappy review of Religulous for a more slick and expensive example of this unpleasantness. Being an argument style, it is not limited by subject; I’ve seen it used to argue for secularization of the government, for atheism as a superior thought form, against gun control as a power-producing crutch for intellectual hypocrites, against someone protesting the painful and needless death of an individual who supported legalization of marijuana, and to deride the phrase “think of the children!” as a meaningless bit of emotional propaganda designed to whip up brainless hysteria.
I have seen no good results of this style of argumentation, although I’ve seen these techniques backfire dramatically. They seem to make people feel smugly self-righteous if they’re the belittling mockers, as if they’ve ‘won’ something — although I’ve no idea what they feel they’ve won, since I’ve never seen them successfully change anyone’s mind. If the participants are on the receiving end of this pointless cruelty, they seem to end up angry and feeling emotionally besieged. In such a situation, I’ve noticed they either cling ever more tenaciously and rigidly to their beliefs — which is a big loss to rationality, in my admittedly prejudiced viewpoint — or, tragically, they fall back on apathy and cynicism, losing all interest in any part of the issue in question.
Please note I did not say they switch sides on the issue. According to the ever-helpful Rhymezone, apathy is “the trait of lacking enthusiasm for or interest in things generally; an absence of emotion or enthusiasm.” I consider this a bad thing; passion and playfulness are some of the wonderful traits that make us human, as far as I’m concerned. It distresses me immensely to see someone’s thought processes so needlessly mocked that they actually refuse to think any more on an issue which used to passionately interest them.
I always wanted to shake argumentative trolls, to ask them if they’d respond with agreement to being made to feel a fool with such an argument. I was still laboring under the delusion that they wanted to convince others of their rightness; it’s taken me years to realize they don’t care about that at all. What they appear to want is to tear down someone else in order to feel better about themselves. I cannot respect that. However, on the outside chance that one of my readers finds Religulous to be a well-presented argument, I have to ask: if someone was that derisive to you on a subject about which you felt passionately… would you be pleased at being so mocked? Or might a less patronizing form of argumentation be more likely to change your mind?
- They suffer from fear, guilt, and/or anomie.
Also from Rhymezone, anomie is defined as: “lack of moral standards in a society; personal state of isolation and anxiety resulting from a lack of social control and regulation.” I think this is the basis of the “brainwashed” argument, although I feel that’s a somewhat… overly simple way to put it. More thoughtfully (I hope), I consider it to be the reaction of those who do not know what is right, and are afraid to try something new for fear it too will be wrong.
Is this a case where they feel it is better to hide safely among the anonymous masses while clinging to the belief that the Emperor is clothed, than to stand scarily and helplessly alone while proclaiming him nude? I’m not sure; I’ve talked to two or three people who have stated they feel this way, but getting their own thoughts is extremely hard — they’d much rather parrot mine back to me. Since I tend to get impatient and accidentally scare them before I realize they need gentler handling, I’m still working on understanding this one too.
- They believe they are somehow special or different.
This is what I’ve heard referred to as the ‘best leper in the colony’ syndrome. It is both the hardest one for me to comprehend, and the one which I see most often. I am not sure how its practitioners self-justify believing they are somehow above the standards they wish to impose on others. As example, in this category fall clergy who teach poverty as religiously significant, impoverishing their followers in order to live richly; celebrities who espouse gun control whilst owning an illegal weapon — just for their own protection, of course, as if only the wealthy deserve to be safe; and senators who repeatedly hire male prostitutes even as they pass laws criminalizing homosexual behavior.
Perhaps the most confusing to me, in this category, are women who call on wives to submit utterly to their husbands, as the will of their god. Do these spokeswomen somehow believe they are above those strictures? Do they not realize the choke-chain they’re fitting around the neck of other women goes just as snugly about their own? Or do they somehow believe all men really do have women’s best interests at heart? I do not yet understand this particular form of cognitive dissonance; I’m going to have to research it further.