Friday, 8 March 2019

Feminism: the New Religion?

As International Women's Day rolls around again, I wonder if feminism has become the new religion of the western world? At first glance, the answer would be no. Even up here in Trudeau's Canada. The relationship between feminism and religion has been complicated at times, but usually icy and ambivalent at best.

Feminists have criticized, generally accurately, the propensity for religions to relegate women to 2nd class roles. Male dominance in religion is claimed to be either implied or directly mandated by the following:
  • God reveals himself as masculine, not feminine. Ditto for the angels, for most the history of their representation leastwise.
  • God mandates strict gender roles as part of the divine order. 
  • The husband/father as head and absolute ruler of the household.
  • This patriarchal rule carrying over into the church: positions of authority in the ecclesiastical hierarchy (and it is, of course, a hierarchy) being occupied exclusively by men. 
  • The woman Eve being the first sinner in the Garden of Eden, and subsequently tempting Adam, the first man, to sin.
  • Women being expected to adhere to strict rules of chastity and modesty, lest they "tempt" men into sexual sin. 
  • Sexual strictness, going as far as to claim that a man who looks at women with "lust in his heart" is already guilty of adultery. Women's vulnerability to the same sin is never mentioned.
This list is not exhaustive, and the list of sexist practices in the church throughout its history is long. 

To be fair, there is an opposed point of view. This view claims that Jesus was as free and open (and quite naturally sinless) in his relationships with women as with men, that he frowned upon any sort of dominance of one gender over the other and his stance of relative leniency towards a woman accused of adultery (let he who is without sin cast the first stone), among other things. And St. Paul carries on this tradition, claiming that, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ".[Galatians 3:28] As such, some denominations have liberalized, allowing for the ordination of women and so on. 

Moreover, even those who adopt a religiously patriarchal stance maintain that it's not about men lording power over women, but of having responsibility for both the physical and spiritual well being of his family.

I have here confined my analysis to Christianity. Is the plight of women better in other faiths? Based on what we've seen in Iran since 1979, what we're seeing in Saudi Arabia and what we saw in Afghanistan under the Taliban, I'd say that Islam would be an "out of the frying pan and into the fire" kind of deal for women. The occasional Linda Sarsour claiming otherwise notwithstanding. I can't speak for Hinduism, Buddhism and others.

On the surface, the rationale for this is quite simple: most religions mandate a subordinate place for women vis-a-vis men, and feminism is quite naturally and rationally opposed to this. Fine so far. But is there a deeper reason? Could it also be that claims to absolute truth are naturally mutually exclusive? Strict ideological systems tend to view other belief systems as competitors. They may ally with one another out of convenience or against a common foe, but never as a matter of principle. 

Why do I suggest this? Because it seems to me as though feminism has grown to be quite alike a religion in more recent times. At least in some regards. Feminism makes no claims about the supernatural or truly transcendent, except occasionally suggesting that God be a woman, or something such. Funny that the devil is never likewise possibly a woman. In any event, religion isn't just about supernatural entities. It's also about philosophical concepts that are bigger than the lives of individual people. Gods obviously fit the bill. So too can philosophies or social systems.

Despite very obvious doctrinal differences, these kinds of belief systems inevitably end up sharing a lot of meta-political characteristics. Let's look then at the similarities between current year intersectional feminism and historical Christianity in the west:

Man exists in a fallen state: Original sin in Christianity vs white male privilege and complicity in historical atrocities such as colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave trade for feminists.

Manichean World View: This means that history is seen in terms of a sweeping and epic conflict of good against evil. In Christianity, it is the Church's ongoing struggle against Satanic infiltration and rule over worldly affairs. In feminism, it is the movement's ongoing struggle against patriarchy, racism and other forms of oppression. 

Claims of Ideational Exceptionalism: This means that each either implies or states directly that its own world view is the one and only truth, and must be accepted on faith. Claims of papal infallibility, scriptural inerrancy and church magisterium in Christianity vs feminist standpoint theory: the belief in the philosophical superiority of the world views of marginalized people, or their self appointed representatives.

Belief in pervasive evil outside the faith: There is no salvation outside the church, and some variations of Christianity take this to the extent of total depravity, meaning that man cannot consciously choose good and therefore requires divine grace for salvation. Feminists tend to view everything outside feminist theory as being creations of a patriarchal society, and therefore rooted to some extent or another in the oppression of marginalized peoples, if only subconsciously.

On the plus side, both have a tendency to champion the oppressed, the poor and the marginalized. At least in theory. The last shall be first in both feminism and Christianity. This can be a two edged sword, though. Both can also define who is and isn't poor and oppressed in self serving ways, placing themselves squarely in the oppressed camp even when that's clearly not the case. When victimhood becomes a virtue and a badge of entitlement, it also becomes a sought after commodity.

A darker side to the above is a proneness to antinomianism. This means that the elect are not bound by moral law. The elect are saved by grace no matter what sinful or evil acts they do. Likewise, the oppressed and marginalized are incapable of being racist, sexist, oppressive, etc.

Both have an antagonistic relationship with science and the enlightenment. At least on occasion. The Christian church's standoff with the theory of evolution is well known and perhaps the best example. Less well known is feminist academia's contention with biological sex differences, sometimes going as far to claim that science and reason are "masculine" and therefore oppressive ways of knowing. Some on both sides have bemoaned the enlightenment, worrying that loss of religion will lead to widespread social chaos, devaluation of human life and the loss of European indigenous culture (in Christianity) vs propensity to oppress and impose white western values and cultural norms on non-European indigenous cultures (in feminism).

What initially tipped me off to feminism and Christianity's common philosophical roots is a mutual tendency to sexual puritanism. The alliances formed between the religious right and feminists to combat pornography are the most obvious examples. One can't help but see the influence of Christ's claim, "But I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28) in current feminist obsessions with sexualization and objectification.

In more extreme cases, a tendency to live in community and shun outsiders. This can be physical, in the case of Christian cults or the feminist Womyn's lands. Both seemed to have strong counter-cultural movements emerging from the socially turbulent times of the 1960s and 70s. Both can be very stifling environments for free thinkers. Questioning the leadership and straying from strict codes of personal conduct can result in shunning and excommunication from the stricter and more doctrinaire groups of feminists and Christians alike.

Widespread institutional study and a large body of apocryphal work: Feminism and Christianity alike present themselves as complex doctrines and both have produced large volumes of self-referencing devotional literature. Christianity has its numerous seminary schools and monasteries, feminism has institutionalized itself in the women's studies departments of colleges the world over.

Ritual observances: One thing that atheist critiques of religion do not often account for is the need for ritual and mythology in the lives of many people. Christianity has its liturgical calendar, feasts in honor of the Saints, lent and advent. Feminists celebrate international women's day, black history month and gay pride week, among others. Likewise common to both is a faith based vocabulary - words commonly used by the faithful to signal belief. To outsiders, this means a lot of buzzwords, slogans and jargon. Both feminists and Christians understand, at least subconsciously, that belief is very much a social thing and reinforced through regular communion with other believers.

Emphasis on victimhood and oppression: Christ tells his followers that they will be hated for his namesake (Matthew 10:22) and the bible is replete with warnings that Christians will face persecution, especially in the end times. This carries over into the present day, when conservative Christians claim that they are being persecuted by a liberal political and cultural establishment.  Likewise, feminists have become notorious for their claims of widespread rape, violence against women, objectification in the media, opposition from right wing political and media figures, among other things. In some cases, activists on both sides conduct themselves in so obnoxious a way that you can't help but wonder if they're not intentionally visiting criticism on themselves, to legitimize claims of oppression.

Propensity to censorship and drives to control media content: Both have activists concerned with media content. Concerns that video games drive youth to violent tendencies appear on both sides, notably Jack Thompson (conservative Christian) and Anita Sarkeesian (feminist). Both have criticized heavy rock music, rap music and have sought, with varying degrees of success, to influence film, television and comic book content. Both have an antagonistic relationship with "geek culture." Both Christians and feminists are adept at organizing to achieve these goals, but they occasionally backfire and galvanize backlashes against them - think GamerGate or punk, metal and rap musicians pushing back against the Parent's Music Resource Center. 

Whence come these similarities between belief systems otherwise so different in their emphasis and goals? Some possibilities:
  • Feminism and social justice's roots in Christianity. This seems strange at first, given Christianity's above listed patriarchal characteristics. But issues of concern among early feminists tended to involve reining in immoral and unchristian conduct among their men: curbing alcohol use, gambling and so on, as well as the aforementioned sexual purity issues. The social purity movement exemplifies this. Social justice was originally a Christian concept. 
  • Feminism stepping in to fill the void left by declining religion. Kind of like how communism and fascism played a similar role in the early 20th centuries, replacing a declining Church. This seems plausible. Some people, at least, seem to need what religion provides, and if religion has been discredited, a surrogate ideology can fill the same role.
  • A certain type of person, be it the authoritarian personality or the true believer, craves systems of thought that profess absolute truth, and gravitate towards such systems.
  • People naturally gravitate towards that which is successful and capable. Organized belief systems give otherwise disparate people a common identity and a common purpose. This in turn leads to group cohesion and a propensity to organize and strategize to achieve specific goals. Even neutral bystanders conclude that they're doing something right, and decide to be a part of it.
  • Both profess to champion the marginalized and downtrodden. How effectively or sincerely is another matter.
  • There are only so many tools at the disposal of individuals or movements seeking to create a morally homogeneous society, thus explaining why ideologically divergent religious and political movements end up creating doctrines and societies with similar characteristics. 
  • Success copies success. If the Moral Majority can achieve political success by adopting certain methods, why can't the Feminist Majority?
Of course, they are frequently enemies in the political and cultural sphere. Religion, when it becomes political in the western world today is usually conservative and allied with the Republican party. Likewise feminism skews liberal and towards the Democrats. There have been exceptions, of course. The issue of abortion will forever bitterly divide the two.

But this division reminds me of the division between fascism and Bolshevism in early 20th century Europe. So different in some ways, so similar in others.

For more relevant content, view The True Believer, Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, on Samizdat Broadcasts!
Read Intersectionality is Itself a System of Power at the Alternative Left.
Read The False Promise of a Return to Religion and Tradition at the Alternative Left.

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