Does God hate women?
- Published: 15 May 2010
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Religion shields the oppression of women from criticism and many western liberals, leftists and feminists have remained largely silent on the subject.
Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom call for the rejection of a God who makes cruelty holy, sacred and pious and rally for a progressive politics that ends the barbaric treatment of women in the ‘Big Three’ monotheistic religions.
On 27 October 2008, a thousand spectators gathered in a stadium in Kismayu, Somalia to witness a 13-year-old girl being stoned to death by a group of more than fifty armed Islamist militiamen. Eyewitnesses stated that Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was forced into a hole, buried up to her neck, and then pelted with stones until she died.
Amnesty International reported that at one point during the stoning, nurses were instructed to check whether Aisha was still alive. They removed her from the ground, declared that she was, and replaced her in the hole for the stoning to continue.
Aisha was executed for `adultery', but her aunt told the BBC that the teenager had in fact been raped by three armed men and that she took Aisha to the police station to report it. A few days later, after two suspects had been arrested, she was asked to return to the station with her niece; to her surprise the girl was arrested.
`I tried to speak to the police but they said they were not talking,' she said. Three days later, after Aisha had been tried in an Islamist court, she was stoned to death.
`They said that the girl had chatted up these men and had confessed to adultery . . . I don't know what crime she committed other than being raped; and I was not even allowed to see her body,' she said.
A witness told the BBC's Today programme that the girl had been crying, pleading for her life, and had to be forced into a hole before the stoning.
`When she came out she said: ``What do you want from me?'' `They said: ``We will do what Allah has instructed us.'' She said: ``I'm not going, I'm not going. Don't kill me, don't kill me.''
`A few minutes later more than 50 men tried to stone her.' The witness said people crowding round to see the execution said it was `awful'.
Awful indeed. A 13-year-old child buried up to her neck, awake, crying, pleading, and fifty grown men throwing stones at her head so that she will die in pain and terror. It's beyond awful, it's unendurable. It bespeaks a malfunction or absence of normal feelings that is scalding to contemplate.
The men of the Islamist militia were not content simply to execute a young girl for being raped; they had to torture her to death, in front of an audience. They believed, or said they believed, that they were doing what Allah had instructed them to do ± so they believed in, worshipped, and submitted to a god who wants young girls to be tortured to death.
This is not a new thought, of course, and it is not confined to Islam. Religion has long been soaked in the blood of those it deems heretical or impure.
The Catholic Church specialized in religious brutality for a large part of its history, as Jean Calas, a French Calvinist who became a victim of a wave of anti-Protestantism, was shown in 1762. On the basis of no evidence, he was sentenced to death for the murder of his son, a crime putatively motivated by his desire to prevent his son from converting to Catholicism.
On 10 March of that year, he was strung up between two rings, and stretched until his four limbs came apart from their sockets. He did not die, and continued to protest his innocence, so he was subjected to the question extraordinaire, which involved water being poured into his mouth until his body swelled to twice its usual size.
His torturers, still unable to extract a confession, then bound him to a scaffold, smashed his dislocated limbs, and left him to die. Two hours later, finding that he was still alive, they took `pity' on him, and he was strangled until he was dead.
So much for another of the great religions of peace. So much for [former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife and lawyer] Cherie Booth's claim that all religions share profound ideas on the dignity and special worth of each individual'.
So much for Karen Armstrong's claim that `at the core of every single one of the world religions is the virtue of compassion'.
The painful truth is that the intimate and inescapable connection that contemporary liberal believers like to see between God and love, theism and compassion, is largely a modern invention. It's far from universal now and it was vanishingly rare in the past.
St Francis was an eccentric, not an exemplar. The Church placed Montaigne's Essays on the Index partly because he said, in `On Cruelty', that even in the case of Justice itself, anything beyond the straightforward death penalty seems pure cruelty, and especially in us Christians who ought to be concerned to dispatch men's souls in a good state, which cannot be so when we have driven them to distraction and despair by unbearable tortures.
The painful truth is that still, to this day, most people who believe in a god believe in a vindictive, punitive, even cruel god; a god who prefers some people to others and wants to see the others obliterated; a god who thinks women are greatly inferior to men and who thinks they should be harshly punished for the most trivial of reasons.
This god is variously thought to approve girls' being kept out of school and married off as children, murdered if they disobey, made pregnant before their bodies are ready, divorced at will, confined at home, deprived of resources, left destitute as widows, accused of being witches.
Most people who believe in a god believe in a god who authorizes all this, who in fact commands it. `We will do what Allah has instructed us,' the militia said in Kismayu. Judith Shklar has this to say about the tension between opposing cruelty and obeying a god:
To put cruelty first is to disregard the idea of sin as it is understood by revealed religion. Sins are transgressions of a divine rule and offenses against God . . . However, cruelty . . . is a wrong done entirely to another creature. When it is marked as the supreme evil it is judged so in and of itself, and not because it signifies a denial of God or any other higher norm.
There is a strong taboo on pointing out that there are no good reasons to believe in God, and an even stronger taboo on pointing out that the god of most religions is a cruel and unjust tyrant.
It is not popular to suggest that humans seem to have a lasting taste for a god of revenge which they merely label a god of mercy. It is taken to be a violation of norms of `respect' and `tolerance' to say bluntly that the existing conceptions of God are mostly ones that endorse inequality, reasonless hatred, and many forms of xenophobia.
It is true, of course, that sometimes good things are done in the name of religion. There were religious motivations for opposing the slave trade (although that required ignoring many instructions in the Bible, New Testament as well as Old), and no doubt people get something out of going to church once in a while (though if Will Herberg was right this is not so much about spiritual nourishment as fostering a sense of identity and belonging).
Nevertheless, religion remains the last great prop and stay of arbitrary injustices and the coercion that backs them up. This is why there is so much danger in the widespread view that religion should be beyond criticism and that part of what it means when we say we `respect' people is that we don't criticize their most cherished beliefs, especially or perhaps only if the beliefs are religious in nature.
Pragna Patel, of the secular feminist group Southall Black Sisters, noted in a 2008 article on religion and women's rights that ‘Following the Rushdie Affair, the mood in all the various minority communities has been one of growing intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power.’
This is the trap of religion. Religion doesn't necessarily originate ideas about female subordination and male authority, but it does justify them; it does lend them a penumbra of righteousness, and it does make them `sacred' and thus a matter for outrage if anyone disputes them.
It does enable and assist and flatter moods of intolerance for all those who seek to challenge cultural and religious values and religious abuse of power. It does turn reformers and challengers into enemies of God.
Used in this way religion is like a matrix, a nutrient, a super-vitamin. It doesn't necessarily invent, but it amplifies, and nourishes, and protects.
Religion is like the total body irradiation that destroys an immune system and lets an underlying infection take over. It's like a pesticide that destroys some insect species only to let others, freed from predators and competition, explode.
It's like an antibiotic that kills some strains of bacteria only to help resistant strains thrive and flourish.
It's also a kind of protective colouring. There is no very compelling reason left to treat particular groups of people as inferior. It used to be possible (just barely) to think that human groups were literally and essentially different in some way profound enough to justify inequality, but it isn't possible any longer.
All that's left is a literalist idea of God's will along with a conviction that God's will must not be disputed or disobeyed. Without that, a defence of unequal rights just looks like what it is - a frank defence of injustice.
This puts religion in the uncomfortable position of being that which puts lipstick on a pig. That is uncomfortable, but it is exactly the position religion is in.
Religion, in the hands of the literalist defenders of God's putative will, is in the business of dressing up what would otherwise obviously be tired old prejudices and hatreds and plain exploitation, and making them seem vaguely respectable.
Religion is the whited sepulchre, the warthog in a party dress, the dictator in a pink uniform plastered with medals, the executioner in white tie and tails.
It is possible to imagine a god who is a friend to the despised and downtrodden, a lover of fairness and equality and hope, a champion of rights and of our better natures.
But that's not the God we have.
It's a contingent fact but it is a fact that the God we have in the Big Three monotheisms is a god who originated in a period when male superiority was absolutely taken for granted.
This God could have changed as human ideas about male superiority and female inferiority changed - and to some extent and in some sects, this God has changed - but on the whole, and especially in the more conservative religions, it hasn't.
To a very large extent this is now what defines a religion as more or less conservative and/or fundamentalist. Unfortunately, indeed tragically, these religions are not the least popular ones in the world. They include most Catholicism, most Islam, Orthodox Judaism, and most Protestantism.
Liberal Anglicanism, Unitarianism, Quakerism, Reform Judaism and rebelliously liberal branches of Catholicism and Islam don't add up to a very sizable minority; furthermore the numbers in liberal denominations are declining while those in illiberal denominations are skyrocketing.
The rigid God may be secretly kind and sympathetic in the victims' hearts, and let us hope it is, but in terms of the rules and laws and expectations, that God holds women in contempt.
And that God, unfortunately, is the one who puts `his' imprimatur on all those tyrannical laws. That is the God who makes cruelty holy and sacred and pious.
That is the God who looks on approvingly when young girls are married off and raped, when women are whipped for showing a little hair, when men throw stones at a crying teenage girl until she is dead.
That God is a product of history but taken to be eternal, which is a bad combination.
That is the God who hates women.
That God has to go.
Ophelia Benson, Ophelia Benson is editor of www.butterfliesandwheels.com, deputy editor of The Philosophers' Magazine and co-author, with Jeremy Stangroom, of Why Truth Matters. She is also a frequent contributor to Free Inquiry.
Jeremy Stangroom, Jeremy Stangroom is co-editor, with Julian Baggini, of The Philosophers' Magazine and co-author of Do You Think What You Think You Think? (Granta, 2006), What Philosophers Think and Great Thinkers A-Z. He and Ophelia Benson are co-authors of Why Truth Matters and The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir, 2004).