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Imagine No Religion?

madamab's picture

This week is Holy Week for both Jooz and Christians; the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, and the week of Passover. People go to their holy places and sing, or listen to music, or eat, or don't eat, and contemplate the mysteries of the universe, or check out the cute guy three pews ahead and to the left.

As for me, I'm getting more like my Communist grandfather (and my atheist mother) all the time. Suddenly the word "Socialist" is starting to sound better than the word "liberal." (Liberal Socialist? Hmmmm....) Out on the street with my sign on Saturday, I ran into a blogger called "The Unrepentant Marxist," who was thrilled to see me and my fellow travelers protesting in the streets. I kind of felt a little thrill myself.

Don't worry, folks. I can't go all the way, because I'm just not constructed to believe in any "ism" - nothing is absolute in this world, and no set of beliefs covers every contingency. But then again, that's why I don't think religion is all bad.

Wait, MadamaB, I hear you say. Isn't all religion rooted in patriarchy? Well, except for Wicca (which is the one religion I might be able to belong to with a full heart) and possibly some other belief systems I know nothing about, I have to say, yes it is. The radical feminist Mary Daly did an interview in which she was questioned about the Buddha, and she had this to say:

WIE: ...In the Pali Canon [principle Buddhist scriptures], the Buddha is reported to have said: "Ananda, if women had not obtained the Going Forth from the house life into homelessness in the Law and Discipline declared by the Perfect One [acceptance into the Buddha's monastic order], the Holy Life would have lasted long, the Holy Life would have lasted a thousand years. But now, since women have obtained it, the Holy Life will last only five hundred years. Just as when the blight called gray mildew falls on a field of ripening rice, that field of ripening rice does not last long—so too in the Law and Discipline in which women obtain the Going Forth, the Holy Life does not last long."

MD: It's just the same old song in a different language: "Women pollute."

WIE: My question is: How do you think that Gautama the Buddha could have come to such an extreme position about half of the human race? What would you say to a Western Buddhist woman wrestling with the apparent incongruity of such an enlightened being holding such a woman-negative view?

MD: As I wrote in Gyn/Ecology: all patriarchal religions are patriarchal—right? They take different forms. What would I think? There's nothing to think about. It has taken another form—seductive, probably, because christianity is so overtly warlike and abusive. And furthermore, I don't know what "enlightened" means. It's not a word that's in my vocabulary. This is like a christian woman being upset over something that Paul said, instead of seeing that of course he's an asshole. He's one more very macho asshole described as a saint and as enlightened, and once you get over that, you get over it. You see it for what it is and you don't worry about why he would say such a thing. Of course he would say such a thing. That's what he is. It's really extremely simple. Stop wrestling with it; it's not interesting. Get out of it. That would be my approach to it. Misogynists! Hateful! All of them! I studied them. And finally I just didn't try to reason with it anymore. Boston College was most enlightening to me. The experience of being fired for writing The Church and the Second Sex introduced me to the idea that it's not going to change. That's the way it is—leave it.

Although I feel that Mary Daly had some indisputable points, I do think that religion can move past its patriarchal roots and become a force for good and positive social change. The Reform Movement in Judaism has led to the formation of some very accepting and loving communities, including the one in which I sing. Episcopalian churches have begun to embrace their LGBT congregants and confirm gay bishops. And yet, the Catholic Church, which has not had a true reform movement in decades, has been covering up yet another horrible sex scandal. Patriarchy hurts everyone: men, women and children are all its victims.

Nothing is simple; no "ism" is absolute. So I say, I don't want to imagine there's no religion. I think people will always look for a spiritual connection to something that is larger than themselves, and that urge is, in the main, a good thing. Where I hope we will evolve, is to take the message of love that is the heart of humanity, and to spread it until there is no more hatred.

Happy Easter, Good Yontiv, Wonderful Wicca.

(Oh, and I double-dog-dare you not to get chills when you listen to this piece. Bainton must have been channelling something divine.)

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Submitted by Lex on

There's a reason for females being further from enlightenment than males (though it may be just a prop of the patriarchy). The point is to exit all of the dualities that make up earthly life; the end goal being to not participate in the cycle of birth and death. Women, by grace of biology, are a necessary factor in birth...and hence the cycle of illusion.

Add to this that in real Buddhism (i.e. not pop-Buddhism for Westerners) the time scale is incredibly long. You won't find a man who's going to reach enlightenment in this particular lifetime, or generally the next, or the one after that. And while the Pali cannon is the earliest, it was supplanted by Mahayana doctrine as Buddhism moved out of India. Mahayana is much more subtle. Where the Pali cannon is concerned mostly with how one reaches nirvana for her/himself, Mahayana doctrine focuses on how all sentient beings reach nirvana. In the Mahayana there are no Buddhas after Gautama, all those on the cusp take the Bodhisattva vow to not enter full nirvana until all sentient beings are enlightened.

That is, for the Pali/Hinayana, your being a woman and being a few steps behind on the road to enlightenment is not my problem. In the Mahayana, all problems are everyone's problems.

In Christianity, we can rightly say that the Church is a patriarchal institution. However, looking into the history of the religion that was brutally suppressed by the Church can give us a very different picture. Below is something i wrote about the Gnostic creation myth which puts a very different spin on the role of the feminine and the motives of God the Patriarch.

None of this should be construed as a defense of religion or a subtle, "shut up, woman". I agree completely that organized religion as we know it is anti-feminine. You might be interested in Joe Campbell's writing on primitive myth, where he argues that men established what we think of as religion in response to the natural, and all powerful, magic that women possess.


madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

thanks for the nuance on Buddhism.

Nothing is simple when it comes to religion. That's the only truth out there, I think.

Submitted by Lex on

that most of the Buddhism brought to the West has been so terribly popularized. It's a fascinating "religion"...quotes because in its essence it is less a religion and more a philosophy. But its subtleties aren't easily described or digested, so they often just get glossed over.

And i've rarely seen Buddhism for Western consumption that even deals with the prime directive: destroy the ego. That's tough business, but essential to the sort of release that Buddhism aims for, which is to be neither happy nor sad...totally outside the interplay of binary opposites, where black and white cease to exist.

Though it should be said that pure Buddhism hasn't existed for a very long time anywhere. It doesn't supplant religions, it absorbs them. Hence Tibetan Buddhism is at least as much the old Tibetan animist beliefs as it is Buddhism.

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Submitted by Aeryl on

Wicca isn't rooted in patriarchy, per se, but it has definitely been guilty of perpetuating patriarchal stereotypes. I've attended feast circles where men didn't feel it was their responsibility to cook, and where women didn't want to help haul firewood.

Wicca is wonderful in that it actually draws attention to the divinity of the female, where too many religions focus only on the divinity of male, but it can lead to an even deeper embrace of "traditional" gender roles. I mean, a religion that recognizes the power in being capable of giving birth, and blesses and embraces it as something sacred, is great, but believing that is the only path to greater wisdom for women, isn't very enlightened at all.

I'll also add that I don't actually consider myself a Wiccan at all, though that is where I got my feet wet, so to speak. Wicca, to me, became just as restrictive and traditionalist as other religions. Now, I just consider myself a fun-lovin' easy-goin' nature/Goddess worshipping pagan, with witchy tendencies.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

I'm already a lot more informed about non-traditional Western religion than I was a few hours ago!

Thanks, Aeryl, for your perspective. Wiccans I have read and spoken with do not generally bring up the points you did, but all the more reason for them to be heard.

Aeryl's picture
Submitted by Aeryl on

Wicca is great in that it puts the divinity of men and women on an equal footing, and that definitely leads to a more eglitarian outlook.

At the same time, Wicca is just a susceptible as any religion, to the fact that the people who claim to adhere to it, find what they want to find in it. If someone is looking to validate their existing viewpoints on any number of issues, like gender roles, they'll find that validation in the Wiccan religion, as easy as in the Christian one. I will say that Wicca attracts people who are probably more likely to be equality minded in the first place, but fundamentalists are everywhere.

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Submitted by madamab on

but you can't say that in America. You have to "respect" their beliefs or you are discriminating against them.

It's they who are trying to institutionalize discrimination, yet the fundies claim victimization constantly. "Why can't we put religious symbols in government buildings! Why can't we make prayer in schools a requirement? Why can't we teach creationism in science classes? Why can't we declare fetuses people? Why can't we teach abstinence-only education in schools? You're quashing our freedom of expression!"

It's all just so ridiculous - no one is stopping them from doing whatever they want IN PRIVATE, it's just that we don't want our public moneys being spent to promote their religion - but we Americans seem to be very susceptible to this type of emotional blackmail. Maybe it's because when people emigrated to America way back when, it was often for religious reasons. We have never quite been able to shake our fundie backgrounds and embrace tolerance and peace.

Submitted by Lex on

(Side note, i took my degree in Comparative Religion...strange since my family walked away from Catholicism before i was born and i never even got baptized much less went to church.)

Used to say that religion exists on two planes: spiritual and temporal. In general, the believer operates in the spiritual, but the Church (whichever church) operates in the temporal. A church (or any organization of spirituality) is in effect a social power structure.

Now, there becomes a problem when the temporal becomes ingrained and mistaken for the spiritual...which happens to benefit the church. This is where fundamentalism comes in. And this is also where we see what's been described as "nursery psychology" at play in religion. The spiritual is left completely aside, though its trappings remain, and the temporal church takes on what can only be described as a patriarchal role. It asks nothing of the believer except obedience.

Joe Campbell often tied this into his phrase, "mistaking the metaphor for the truth which it describes." The church can only work in metaphors, because the Truth can only be experienced directly. Trouble begins when the believer stops seeking the Truth and accepts the metaphor. That there is fundamentalism.

Herein is one of the neatest aspects of Buddhism (and gave rise to an amazing school of philosophy): enlightenment cannot be described positively, you can only say what it is not. That leaves the believer to necessarily find out what it is for her/himself.

Oh, and the prof was an ex-Jesuit, still practicing Catholic who married an ex-Carmelite and became a developmental psychologist before teaching religion...he also had a sort of spirit guide from meditation who went by the name of Uncle God-Momma and was/is a very large black woman.

TreeHugger's picture
Submitted by TreeHugger on

Not my cuppa, but I relate strongly to anyone who finds even a smidgen of trancendence when listening to sacred music. After all the years of all my own quest for a spiritual home I have found only this: the music.

Fortunately the local Episcopal cathedral with its outstanding Rosales organ and a well trained choir offers a bounty of marvelous listening through various concerts and organ recitals. The discography of sacred music is huge and one of my favorite programs Sunday mornings on our outstanding non-profit is Robert Aubrey Davis' Millenium of Music, which focuses on early sacred choral works.

madamab's picture
Submitted by madamab on

I absolutely adore early music - I've sung a ton of it myself, but my voice is really too operatic for the purists here in NYC. They always want one to sound like a little boy.

I could fake it when I was in my early 20's - I used to sing the Allegri "Miserere" straight tone (yes, straight tone high C's) - but once your voice matures, it's much harder to make that sound, and it's really not worth it.

I've only experienced that spiritual transcendent feeling in the presence of beautiful music, or Nature. I joked a few weeks ago that maybe I'm an Art-ist.