Association of West Michigan
Meeting Minutes for January 22, 2003; #131
Women & Religion
no changes to our calendar of upcoming topic presentations. The
listing given in the last minutes abides. You may also check our
website for further information: www.freethoughtassociation.org.
quarter financial statement for FAoWM was presented on our calendar
sheet with a breakdown of expenses and revenue shown. As a reminder,
we are wholly funded by the generous donations (tax deductible)
of our membership.
It was noted
that with the increased attendance at our meetings, parking has
been a little tight. Since the Yankee Clipper Library where we
meet is closed at the time of our meetings, we have the entire
parking area available to us and we may, additionally, utilize
Plan on attending
the next meeting on February 12, where Skeptic Magazine's Religion
Editor, Tim Callahan, will present "Secret Origins of the
Bible." He is the author of a book with the same title as
well as Bible Prophesy: Failure or Fulfillment? This promises
to be a very enlightening presentation.
for this meeting was "Women & Religion" presented
by Rockford High School student and FAoWM member, Heidi Stenson.
She is involved in the local NOW chapter and a member of Young
Feminists and is a religious skeptic, so her presentation (incidentally,
delivered on the 30th anniversary of Roe v Wade) regarding the
treatment of women in religion, was one near to her heart.
presentation focused on the major monotheistic religions in her
presentation and, in particular, the depiction of women in the
Old and New Testaments of the Bible. It was shown, however, that
the Christian, Jewish and Islamic holy texts all share a strikingly
misogynist similarity. All are patriarchal, have a male, all-powerful
God and contain stories that are male-centered. Touching on earlier
pagan and tribal religious beliefs, she noted that they often
featured female deities. It was more natural for them to see a
female creator "giving birth" to, and nurturing, life.
A relationship between the menstrual cycle of women and the lunar
one in the heavens was observed and viewed as a significant connection
for these people. As with the pagan holiday celebrations (related
to natural phenomena; solstice events, springtime fecundity, etc.),
the female centered religions gave way to the male dominated ones
and mortal women lost status in concert with the etiolation of
the divine goddesses.
Ruth H. Green
in her book The Born Again Skeptic's Guide to the Bible mentions
how a woman reading the "Good Book" may be prompted
to pinch herself to make sure she still exists since so little
of the text gives any reference to the female sex. And where women
do get any ink, it is generally in a negative connotation. Heidi
gave an extensive run-down of how the Holy writings of the major
monotheistic religions characterize women. This record of the
meeting will give a mere sampling from her well-researched presentation.
Woman begins as an after thought, an extension of the man, who
is seen as the glory of God while she is to glorify the man or
at most be his "helpmeet." Her main claim to fame however
is to be the cause of the Downfall of Man and first deserter of
Divine Law. She bestowed upon humankind Original Sin that all
future wretches for all time are born into, necessitating a male
Savior to "redeem" us so as to live with a male God
we are to give praise to for all eternity.
the Gate to Hell, deceitful, weak, conniving, the booty and prize
for God-commanded conquest, the virgins to be raped or the sullied
to be slain. Her belly is to be ripped open, if pregnant, or her
infant's head dashed to pieces if having given birth and being
a member of the selected tribe God commanded the utter destruction
of. She is depicted as not being fully human and not likely to
possess a soul. As with the religious assessment of the African
slave-similarly regarded as beast or subhuman- she was assigned
to the status of all other "lower" animals as something
to have dominion over. Her worth was devalued and her life was
insignificant. Again, as with the African slave's treatment, her
lot in life and the mistreatment she was subjected to was seen
as part of God's curse upon her kind. The Black was biblically
destined to be a hewer of wood and bearer of water, in keeping
with the curse of the children of Ham. For womankind, it is Eve's
curse that justified the calamities that befell her. The pain
of childbirth was biblically decreed, therefore alleviating such
suffering is seen by the devout fundamentalist as counter to God's
will. What was once a source of awe toward the female and her
power: childbirth, became a thing of shame. She was unclean and
to be kept separate from clean and virtuous men at this time.
Further, if her issue was male, this was greeted as a blessing
but if the baby was a girl this was conversely deemed a tragedy.
Where and when infanticide has been practiced, it is most often
the female sex that is deemed disposable.
and symbolic language what is evil, weak or inferior is associated
with the female. Heidi mentioned, among other symbols, the Yin-Yang
one with Yin containing the "bad" elements, including
femininity, whereas Yang had "good" things ascribed
to it, including masculinity. Similarly "left" is in
most cultures is considered inferior and we derive "sinister"
from the term for left. The French gave us "gauche"
meaning left as a foil to all that is "right" or adroit…womankind
is invariably on the list that contains "left" whereas
masculine qualities are always allied with "right" and
all that is worthy.
the Suffrage Movement and the struggle for basic rights and equality
and how these have been countered at every turn by religious thinking.
The ancient Sacred writings prescribed that a woman should not
inherit as much as a man, could be abandoned on the whim of a
man, beaten at the man's discretion, and that her account of what
she witnessed was worth only half that of a man's. Her travel
was severely restricted and her dress utterly controlled. For
offenses where a man would suffer little if any penalty, the woman
would likely be stoned to death. Woman was no more than a man's
chattel. Even the Ten Commandments present the woman as man's
property with the offense of being kidnapped or violated not being
on account of the woman being victimized but due to it being a
man's possession being stolen.
religions have an infallible almighty law- giver. To question
or critically examine the concepts, then, is to commit blasphemy
against the Creator of all. Therefore, the misogynist, patriarchal
stories of the ancient religions are not seen as mythic or looked
at in temporal or cultural contexts. They are seen as the timeless
Word of God and must be dogmatically adhered to by the true- believer.
Such belief has impeded human progress in virtually all endeavors
and curtailed full human expression, including of course, equality
for women. The ERA opposed the God- approved "natural"
subjugation of women. The idea of women making choices over their
own bodies was unthinkable when it was a supreme scandal and outrage
for a woman to even speak before men. The right to vote was unnecessary
and bizarre for the female, seen as a mere appendage or child
to the "Father Knows Best" man. And there are still
hurdles to overcome for women in ordination to the clergy of some
religious denominations. It is perhaps telling that it will most
likely be a career in religion that will be the last vocation
women are barred from, should all other areas of work become fully
egalitarian in procurement.
ended her presentation with the discussion topic of why it is
that women are so much more involved in the church (though not
usually in positions of authority) when it is and has been historically
a source of subjugation for them. A great and varied response
was generated from this query. It was noted that religion provides
comfort to people with its changeless message, traditional rituals
and everyone knowing his or her place in the church and larger
life. Subjugated people of both sexes have found hope and derived
balm from the very teachings that have caused their devaluation.
Women have historically been the ones given to pass on traditions
and stories; myths and fairy tales. We learn the basics of our
religion at our mother's knee, even as it is the male in the pulpit
who exhorts blind obedience to the vengeful and jealous God. Women
are implicitly instructed to find strength and guidance and be
dependent on a source from without. They are taught to be submissive
and be more obedient to authority in general. It was noted that
girls are given to look up to their fathers for strength and guidance
and have a special bond with them, whereas it is okay for boys
to rebel and be independent in thought and deed and boldly strike
out on their own accord. Perhaps the "Heavenly Father"-the
ultimate stern rule giver and enforcer who nonetheless supposedly
loves His "children" is a sort of an extension for the
Earthly relationship. While men were encouraged to have ideas
that shake convention and chart new courses in thinking, women
have, until recent times in modernity, been excluded from participating
in endeavors beyond constricting, traditionally defined roles
and were not even allowed access to the ideas of others or to
communicate their own thoughts to others. Women were to learn
all they needed to from their husbands, who had primary access
to discourse and concepts. Men were allowed to debate and critically
examine revolutionary thoughts. So there was simply no way for
most women to develop outside of their narrow roles and societal
It was mentioned
that since women are prevalent in the church, that they are in
a unique position to affect change from within the institution
if they set their minds to it. This led us to talk of training
children in critical, independent thought and the sad lack of
such institutions in early development. The church holds sway
and even in scouting and camp experiences there is a religious
thread woven through them. Camp Quest was brought up as an exception.
We also talked about the need for freethought centers that provide
for the needs that churches address-such as childcare, nurseries,
Sunday school, youth group activities-only from a secular perspective.
The social aspect of peripheral elements to the church are important
for a lot of women and are not as well addressed well by non-theistic
groups. One member mentioned that many women end up dragging their
families to church but that secularists do not likewise drag their
families to freethought meetings. This in turn caused us to look
to the future and potential growth of our own group toward filling
those same social, emotional, childcare, youth development and
activity venues that religious institutions now fill.
about issues of power and control from an evolutionary standpoint
and religion's co- opting of innate tendencies. The desire by
men to control reproduction was just one of the areas mentioned
where the church exerts its will on issues of divorce, marriage,
multiple childbirths, adultery, contraception and so on…where,
in our closely related primate "cousins," reproductive
control was more a matter of size and strength dominance in males,
and through social organizing and affiliation in females.
spoke of how sticking people in narrow religiously directed niches
and roles is a detriment to male liberty as well as for women.
There was also talk of how early religious writers' own illnesses,
issues and discomfort in interacting with women resulted in writings
that fueled distrust and other problems in male-female relationships
in later adherents of their writings.
Ms Stenson called
our attention to several fine books, both older and contemporary
on the theme of women and religion, including ones by Elizabeth
Cady Stanton, Rosemary R. Ruether and Annie Laurie Gaylor.