Christianity’s War Against Women

Why do women stay in the church?
How do you walk away from a group that promises eternal life as a membership perk? “Your body may die, but you don’t have to, if you believe what we tell you to believe.” The resulting emotional investment commonly blocks rational thought, especially if mom and dad got you to join the group as a kid.

But what if that same group teaches that you are an inferior form of humanity? Being a woman, for example. You’re free to join—to retain your membership—just don’t forget your subservient role. That promise of eternal life overrides everything: you can put up with a lot. And, of course, the bureaucracy has worked hard to explain that your inferior status is divinely ordained.

What happens when people disagree? For example, there are devout Catholic women who know for sure, based on their own intense spiritual experiences, that God wants them to be priests. Indeed, you couldn’t ask for more fervent Catholics: Some of them gone rogue and found priests willing to ordain them…off the books. The male bureaucracy won’t hear of it, confident that the spiritual certainties of these women are bogus. Fake faith. How’s that for irony, that some devout Catholics (men) know that other devout Catholics (women) have it all wrong. As far as spiritual intuition is concerned—being seriously deceived—these women might as well be Mormons or Southern Baptists. Could it be that no one, after all, has a hotline to God?

The even deeper irony, however—the huge puzzlement—is that women accept being Christians. How can this be? On the Catholic side of the equation, the bureaucracy is proudly, arrogantly, aggressively misogynistic, and pursues policies worldwide—based on holy doctrine—that harm and degrade women. The Protestant side of the story is more nuanced, but the misogyny is entrenched nonetheless. Adding to the irony, of course, is that the women don’t usually see it—enough to walk away, that is. The pull of the eternal life gimmick is hard to resist. So, commonly, “church ladies” settle into their roles.

But still, in a rational world, how can that be? It remains the pattern because, for centuries, women have bought the propaganda; but now, facing so much stubborn, destructive misogyny, they should pay attention to reality checks provided by women who know better.

The treatment of women is one the reasons John Loftus called his 2014 anthology, Christianity Is Not Great: How Faith Fails. It includes an essay by Annie Laurie Gaylor, “Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee? Christianity’s War Against Women.” This is a solid piece of homework for putting women in their place—namely, as far away from Christianity as they can get.

One good place to start, in making the case to flee, is the Bible, the holy book that evangelicals now want kids to carry to school. “I was truly shocked,” Gaylor points out, “at what I discovered when I read the Bible cover to cover in my early twenties. ‘Sexism’ is too breezy a term for the pathological sexual hatred to be found within the covers of a book touted as ‘holy.’ Like Nietzsche, after reading the Bible I felt the need to wash my hands.” (p. 343)

“Between the books of Genesis, which begins the Bible, and Revelation, which concludes it, there are approximately three hundred Bible verses or stories that explicitly mandate women’s inequality, inferiority, or subservience…One does not need to be a prophet to predict how poorly women fare in the biblical scheme of justice.” (p. 345)

Gaylor devotes eight pages of her essay to a survey of the nasty things the Bible has to say about women, and she notes that this is a summary drawn from her book, Woe to Women: The Bible, Female Sexuality and the Law: The Bible Tells Me So.

“One of the most repellent of the antiwoman biblical themes is its refrain that women are ‘unclean.’ Women are depicted as once-a-month outcasts who menace society and must do penance for those natural functions of their bodies that ensure the continuation of the species.” (p. 346)

A menstruating woman “is unclean, the bed is unclean, the furniture is unclean. After their periods are over, women must, absurdly, offer a ‘sin atonement.’ The Bible specifies that a ‘burnt offering’ of two turtledoves or two young pigeons must be taken to the priest, who begs ‘an atonement for her before the Lord for the issue of her uncleanness.’” (p. 346) (See Leviticus 15)

Thus it is the Lord himself who is offended by menstruation; that is, the male deity as imagined—and represented—by the patriarchy. This text sets the tone for the drumbeat of three hundred damaging texts.

Chances are, of course, that the contemporary hierarchy in conservative Christianity especially, knows these texts well and won’t be shaken from them. Maybe not the specifics about menstruation, but certainly about the positioning of women, i.e., their fundamental inequality—and no amount of idealization of the Virgin Mary can change that. The Bible is their go-to authority.

Who among the laity read the strident Old Testament precepts? Leviticus doesn’t get much traffic. Yet the Bible remains the charter document of the Christian faith; it is an icon in most churches—on the altar, and in every home. As befits the Word of God, the Gideons have given away more than a billion copies.

How come women haven’t tuned in to how dreadful the Bible is for their cause? Historically even they have embraced it as a holy book—as the charter document—despite minimal acquaintance with its content. John Wathey has identified the patriarchal formula for success; when cherishing holy books, he points out: “…it does not matter what they say. As long as they are perceived as imparting divinely inspired instruction and wisdom, they will evoke in readers the infantile solace and comforting emotions of a small child receiving help and instruction from a parent—the less comprehensible, the better.” (p. 133, The Illusion of God’s Presence: The Biological Origins of Spiritual Longing)

Women: read the Bible. Men, read the Bible: discover “the pathological sexual hatred.” It’s there, in that revered book on the altar.

Especially of interest in Gaylor’s essay is the story of her mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor. It would be difficult to imagine a greater profile in courage. “As a weekly newspaper editor, my mother had been galvanized into action after writing the first editorial in support of abortion rights in our heavily Catholic state of Wisconsin in 1968. Her editorial created shockwaves. It also brought her to the attention of desperate women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies.” (p. 354)

“I saw firsthand that the opposition to abortion rights and women’s rights was irrational, emotional, and nearly always couched in Christian terms.” (p. 354) And now we’re back to irony: “I learned that the Bible says absolutely nothing at all about abortion. The word ‘abortion’ does not appear in any translation of the Bible.” (p. 356) I’m not so sure about that. Some of the evangelical-inspired Bible paraphrases (passed off as translations) might have snuck the word in!

But Gaylor notes that the word “abortion” doesn’t have to be there. The Bible “…does provide a biblical basis for the real motivation behind the anti-abortion crusade: hatred and control of women.” (p. 356) Conservative Christians may scream wildly that this charge is unfair. They don’t hate women at all! They love their wives, daughters, sisters. But it’s a strange kind of love that—shall we say, paraphrasing the apostle Paul—insists on it’s own way in exercising male power over female bodies.

“…desperate women seeking to end unwanted pregnancies.” It’s a pretty good bet that most women with unwanted pregnancies have husbands or boyfriend who hadn’t wanted the pregnancies either. Neither person wanted to make a baby—and in fact did not do that; they created a zygote, on the way to becoming an embryo. Chances are, it’s only the theologians and their gullible followers who want the pregnancy. Gaylor observes “…when bills on abortion and contraception were under consideration, the capitol would be filled with nuns and priests and bused-in parochial-school children in uniforms. Their testimony always began, ‘But the Bible says…’ or ‘God says abortion is murder…’” (p. 356)

We want to look these folks squarely in the eye, with a fierce message: “That is your theology, not mine. Theologies are a dime a dozen. Other citizens disagree with your theology. It cannot be enforced as public policy.”

Gaylor is blunt:

“We do not have or want a mythological god on our side. We have humanity, we have right, we have progress, we have the Enlightenment, we have reason on our side. We don’t need to imagine a patriarch in the sky who rains down bribes of an imaginary hereafter or threats of eternal damnation in order to do good.” (p. 358)

“It is absolutely vital for women’s advancement, for equality, for women’s personal safety, and women’s right to full ownership of our own bodies, to keep dogma out of law, to secularize government, to divorce state and religion.” (p.358)

“The harm, the uncertainty, the panic, the denial of a constitutional right that the Roman Catholic Church and Protestant fundamentalists and their legislative spoke-persons have caused women, in just this one area of civil rights, is incalculable.” (p. 355)

Anne Nicol Gaylor was a co-founder of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. “My mother felt there were many feminist groups working to free women, but none was getting at the root on women’s oppression: religious control of our laws and culture.” (p. 357) There was in fact a prior tradition of women resisting the church. In 1885, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, said in a speech,

“You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded women…Man, of himself, could not do this; but when he declares, ‘Thus saith the lord,’ of course he can do it. So long as ministers stand up and tell us that as Christ is the head of the church, so is man the head of the woman, how are we to break the chains which have held women down through the ages? We want to help roll from the soul of woman the terrible superstitions that have so long repressed and crushed her.” (pp. 357-358)

And in 1890, Matilda Joslyn Gage wrote: “In order to help preserve the very life of the republic, it is imperative that women should unite on a platform of opposition to the teachings and aim of that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom—the Church.” (p. 358)

The carefully groomed (and false) image of savior Jesus is one root of “the terrible superstitions that have so long repressed and crushed her,” and misogynistic theologians have done their part to create “that ever most unscrupulous enemy of freedom—the Church.” But is anything worth putting up with, to get in on the grand prize, eternal life? It would seem so. From the inside, it’s hard to recognize magical thinking, especially as learned from preachers and parents. Hence we see women doing their darndness to become priests. Given the history of the church and its charter documents, go figure.

Let’s get back to Jesus for a moment. The title of Gaylor’s essay is actually a Jesus quote, sort of. The text is John 2:4, when Jesus is with his mother at the Cana wedding feast; she tells him that the wine has run out. He responds ,“Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?” That’s the King James Version, and it sounds rude. But it’s a tough line to render into English; the Greek reads, literally, “And says to her Jesus what to me and to you woman.” The New RSV reads, “And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” No surprise, to tone down the rudeness, the paraphrase version, The Message Bible, reads, “Jesus said, “Is that any of our business, Mother—yours or mine?” Woman becomes mother.

But the blunt King James Version that Gaylor used for her title does reflect basic Bible attitudes: “Woman, What Have I to Do with Thee?” This is a putdown. The men of the Bible—and the men who push Bible authority relentlessly—have endorsed the “pathological sexual hatred.” Both the women and the men of the world can do without it now.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was reissued last year by Tellectual Press with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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