Religion is Not the Problem… Patriarchy Is

Conventional wisdom of many on the progressive side of politics and social change is that religion, particularly Christianity, is a key source of our culture’s problems if not evil in general. John Lennon’s classic song “Imagine” conjures a utopian world that would be free of this supposed source of division and strife. Many people more on the conservative side of things do not share that concern about the Christian faith and its practice, but see Islam in that same sort of negative light. My take is that neither (nor religion in general) is a source of hate, war and oppression, actually came into being to promote love and humanistic ideals, but have been manipulated as tools of a much older ideology of domination and “us and them” thinking that some would call “Patriarchy”.

Now I am no more or less a half-baked amateur religious historian than many others, but I come to this opinion after a fair amount of study and thought, including reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade and Sacred Pleasures, Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, The Battle for God and Holy War, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone’s Out of the Flames, plus other tracts on history and how it has interacted with religious theology. So take my theorem for what it’s worth and with a grain (or even a pillar…*g*) of salt of course, but here goes…

My working theory is based around the premise that the Axial Age (that thousand years between 800 BCE and 200 CE) as coined by 20th Century German philosopher Karl Jaspers, and described by him (per Wikipedia) as in fact “an interregnum between two ages of great empire, a pause for liberty, a deep breath bringing the most lucid consciousness”. Without any apparent connection or cross-pollenization, great philosophers emerged and their philosophies were codified in religious thought and practice that still play a key role in contemporary societies and cultures throughout the world. During this period we see the emergence of philosophers like Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Plato and an array of religions – Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism – that two millennia later have over a billion adherents.

Prior to this age, there is plenty of archeological and written historical evidence of domination, violence and hate reflected in archeological digs from that period along with other historical records. Most noted in standard ancient history textbooks are the various Babylonian, Assyrian and other empires that arose in the Fertile Crescent (in modern-day Iraq) and conquered neighboring areas plus similar militaristic practices by smaller and more nomadic tribes on the fringes of the more settled fertile valleys around the Mediterranean Sea. Eisler in particular (based on the archeological work of Marija Gimbutas and others) paints a scary picture of an age of unmitigated violence and domination, the various dominator cultures celebrating the strength of warlords (whether human or deity) and the destructive power of “the blade”.

But we humans are ever evolving, and maybe the great Golden Rule and “love thy fellow man” (if not women) thinkers of the Axial Age were the “progressive” activists of their own era trying to inspire the best in the human character rather than the worst, advocating codes of practice like the Ten Commandments or Confucian teaching, in an attempt to mitigate the prevailing hierarchical “command and control” by any means necessary prevailing conventional wisdom of the period. Certainly if one looks at the surviving tales of the actions and words of the Jewish prophets of this period, Jesus or Buddha, there is no hint of the “us and them” justification of violence or conversion at the point of a sword that characterized certainly the organized practice of the Christian religion with its Crusades and Inquisitions during the Middle Ages.

Focusing particularly on Western history (which I am more familiar with) it was an emperor like Constantine I who was not born a Christian but essentially adopted and molded the religion as a tool for building and maintaining his Roman/Byzantine empire. It was perhaps emblematic of the end of Jaspers’ Axial Age and the use of its progressive thought for a perhaps far less noble purpose of control and domination.

In 325 CE Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea, a gathering of Christian bishops within his empire charged with coming to consensus on a version of Christian thought that would become his state religion. One of the thorny questions they wrestled with was whether Jesus was born human or an aspect of God. This was more than an esoteric theological question. If Jesus were a human who achieved godhood then would not other people within Constantine’s control aspire to likewise challenge secular authority as the Gospels told that Jesus did? But if Jesus was born an aspect of God (the “son” of the “father, son and holy spirit”) then his perfection was unattainable by muggle humans who, in all things, needed to listen to their more enlightened authority figures.

Islam, though founded four centuries after the Axial Age, grew out the same innovative and humanistic ideas that spawned the other Abrahamic religions, repackaged in the Arabic language for the peoples of that region. In the early centuries of its spread and influence it encouraged great scientific thinking, while Christian Europe was plunged in its Dark Ages. Later the religion, like Christianity before it, would become be co-opted as a tool of secular empire building and control and would develop its own dysfunctional hierarchies to exercise control.

In the same vein, the Huns, Goth, Vandals and other militaristic tribes that invaded, conquered in settled in the areas that would eventually become modern Europe adopted Christianity and torqued its Golden Rule turning a loving Jesus into their metaphorical warlord justifying later Medieval massacres of Jews and repeated bloody Crusades against the equally infidel Muslims. Though still bearing its founder’s pseudonym (Christ-ianity) this was no longer any ethical or spiritual practice of “turn the other cheek” that that founder could possibly recognize or endorse.

In my take this was pure unadulterated Patriarchy, power-over domination and control being exercised by male warlords using this religion to give them supposed justification from the Father God in the sky for very unethical behavior. The warlord’s torque of the Golden Rule was to say that I do the bidding of the Father in the sky, so my serfs and vassals in turn must do mine. If the emerging infrastructure of Christianity had not been available, these tribal leaders would have just as easily built a justification for their absolute rule around the Olympian, Norse or other deities, anything that would give them the bonafides of themselves answering to a higher power.

Move the historical timeline forward to the Protestant Reformation that launched the Modern Era. A Papal hierarchy controlled Rome, the Roman Church, and its lucrative “franchising” of cardinals and bishops throughout Europe, using that funding source for wars and orgies and other very worldly indulgences of the rich and powerful. In my mind this was patriarchal hierarchy building, masquerading as the religion of Jesus and his disciples. This corruption was called out as anything but Christian by the monk Luther who perhaps naively thought this was still the “meek shall inherit the earth” ideology that the carpenter from Nazareth had originally called out.

This reinvigorated “reformed” Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, looks to have played a positive role in challenging dogmatic thinking generally and perhaps helping clear the path for a flowering of scientific and other more secular thought, an age of exploration, free enterprise and budding egalitarianism. The dark side of this new era was that exploration led to exploitation of the indigenous people seen as inferior and industrial enterprise led in many cases to turning autonomous individuals into interchangeable cogs in the mechanization of society. I see the whole Calvinist theological concept of “election” torqued by the industrial barons (the modern equivalents to the ancient and feudal warlords) into a religious justification for a return to secular domination and control.

Perhaps I am trying to paint with too epic a brush for an effective four-page essay. Getting back to what I started to try to say here, I think our progressive cause is poorly served by painting religion as the antagonist in our struggle for a more humanistic and caring society. I would put forward that our main antagonist instead is Patriarchy, the exaltation of the stern, controlling father figure and male-centric hierarchical thinking. This ancient worldview that held perhaps unmitigated sway before the Axial Age continues to be a path of least resistance for people who wield power, whether justified at the moment in religious or secular ideology.

Though I am not a believer in god myself (though I am comfortable around believers) and I try to rationalize deities as a metaphor for some deeper level of transcending mystery that we can not fully grasp. But I would not be surprised, like in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, if inspiration for progressive thought, action and evolution is yet to come from new or reinvigorated religious doctrines. This, as we continue to challenge what I see as the real culprit, this ancient ideology of power-over hierarchy, built around the stern father figure. Until we acknowledge that true source that stands in the way of our progressive principles and efforts, I believe we will be just tilting at windmills.

10 replies on “Religion is Not the Problem… Patriarchy Is”

  1. Thank you for your post. I have made the connection between monotheistic religion and patriarchy for some time now, and have been searching for articles just like yours, but they’re very hard to find. You can find articles on feminist perspectives on religion and feminist perspectives in patriarchy……but yours is the first that I’ve found (online anyway) that link the two.

    I have read and listened to the “new atheists” (Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc.) and have been struck by their absolute lack of patriarchal critique. I will be making a presentation to my local critical thinking club on this issue of patriarchy creating the ground upon which monotheistic religions walk, and will use your article as a reference point as well as the literature you site here.

    Thanks much!

  2. Jo… Sounds good. I would be happy for my piece to play a role in your discussion.

    My take is that patriarchy is much older than monotheism, and part of the development of these monotheistic religions in the Axial Age was to try and mitigate some of the worst effects (including arbitrary rule backed by random violence) in favor of some sort of “rule of law”, God’s law. These religions started out attempting to be progressive forces for humanistic change and got mostly hijacked along the way.

  3. It is very important that we establish beyond doubt, if possible, which is the older, Patriarchy or Religion. Goldberg says the present endocrinilogical make-up of the human species is the reason for Patriarchy. If Goldberg is right Patriarchy must have become established at or shortly after the full development of this make-up(which probably was evolutionary) as it is today. The oldest signs of religion date back to Neanderthal. Was the endocrinilogical make-up of the Neanderthal same as ours? But he was not our ancestor. So what now? Were we homo sapien before we were religious or after? As a supporter of the evolution hypothesis i would like to believe that P. came before R. and that P. then created R. in its own image(flying the flag of “LOVE”) and using it for purposes of male on male and male on female domination by means of superior physical force as enabled by his endocrinilogical make-up? All top gods throughout history have been male? Howzat?

  4. My take on history is that patriarchy came before at least “organized” religion. I believe it was patriarchal tribes that began attempting to “organize” and control multiple localities under one chieftain or warlord, building the initial city-states that expanded into empires based on successful military conquest.

    That said, people prior to organized religion addressed the spiritual and metaphysical “what is our existence all about?” side of life, but not with an organized bureaucratic institution with a whole stratified “priesthood” or whatever. I think “religion” as we know it today, emerged in the Axial Age, as a reaction to and an attempt to mitigate patriarchy with the Golden Rule. A mitigation that was not particularly successful with religion being co-opted as a tool of patriarchal power in the process, your whole domination thing.

    So what do you think… are we ready to be done with all that domination and move toward a circle of equals?

  5. Absolutely, but where do we start and how? First we have to bury Goldberg’s theory or find a way around it. Then I want to ask the question whether equity will get us to where we want to be. I think Feminism should change tack and campaign for parity instead of equality(but not in religion where office should be the exclusive domain of women)
    My statement is that male is not equal to female in the same sense that 2=2, in fact I am more and more starting to think that male and female are two different subspecies of homo sapiens sapiens and that is why the macho male is always complaining that he just can not understand women. when he can not get his way( which is usually the way to bed). If the female and the male did not need each other for breeding would they put up with each other?
    Why I like the idea of two sub species is because I feel that a matriarchal system or a 50%matriarchal-50%patriarchal system has a better chance of preventing a WMD conflagration than a pure patriarchal system. Sorry ladies, I am sure you are capable of being Top Gun, but for me a female soldier is an icongruety, a paradox, something that is not what women is about. In a true democracy I am hoping that parity is a better option than equality provided the number of female voters always equal the number of male voters(an excess on either side may not vote).
    The big problem is religion as used by the male and here we have to contend with the thee “great” Abrahamic male-monotheistic faiths. Again where do we start? In the “enlightened” West? For starters, what about a woman for Pope and then female cardinals and female priests by natural attrition. Most pedophiles are males and for some or other sub-conscious Freudian reason female pedophile priests do not bother me as much as the male ones but we can pre-empt this by abolishing celibacy(another perversely supid idea). Then we can start on Juda and Islam. Did you know that a eunuch may not be a rabbi? Weird.

  6. Goldberg’s theory, for other’s info, from Wikipedia…

    The Inevitability of Patriarchy is a book by Steven Goldberg published by William Morrow and Company in 1973. The theory proposed by Goldberg is that social institutions, that are characterised by male dominance, may be explained by biological differences between men and women (sexual dimorphism), suggesting male dominance (patriarchy) could be inevitable.

    Goldberg later refined articulation of the argument in Why Men Rule (1993).[1] The main difference between the books is a shift of emphasis from citing anthropological research across all societies, to citing evidence from the workforce in contemporary western societies.[2]
    This article summarises Goldberg’s argument as originally published in the United States (US), but revised in various places for release in the United Kingdom (UK, 1977). It also refers to some of the more notable essays in peer-reviewed academic debate about the book, which included one whole serial of the journal Society in 1989. Goldberg’s theory continues to be cited and his argument was further revised in his book Why Men Rule.

  7. Noek… So you see a separatist path for men and women as two perhaps hierarchical “sub-species” each sharing half the power within their sub.

    I’m still big on egalitarianism, thinking that the “circle of equals” is the natural human state, where power over others is not an issue. History tells me that we’ve been moving in that direction for 500 years, and tho it is certainly three steps forward two back, there feels to me to be a kind of evolutionary inevitability to it. As we evolve we relax into the full powers of our consciousness including the power of love much stronger than the power of fear.

    Male may not be equal to female, but that’s all biology IMO, and the real deal is that all consciousnesses are unique so all need to be at the table to contribute their spark of divinity.

  8. Some men have an insatiable lust for power.They have built power structures to further this aim. The major religions are predominately patriarchal or androcentric. Patriarchal religion blames human nature and life itself for the problems it creates. Patriarchy hi-hacked Christianity and introduced original sin. Only the Church can save you and you get pie in the sky=heaven.Islam says this life is simply a preparation for the afterlife, called paradise.The Koran says you only live after you die! Buddhism and many Hindu schools say human nature is fundamentally flawed. You have to abolish your human nature and be a detached consciousness.The promise is liberation, another pie in the sky concept.These religions deny the feminine and thus end in nihilism. They ignore social and political conditions.We have to bring back the feminine to restore the balance.

  9. Frank… I agree with what you say here about these religious institutions in today’s world. I would only replace “masculine” and “feminine”, which I don’t think are useful adjectives any more, with “directive” and “relational”, which call out the behavior rather than the source.

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