10 November, 2011,
Jane was debating in the negative team for the topic 'That Atheists are Wrong' for the Intelligence Squared series on ABC.
Atheists, like the religious, are wrong about many things, but they are not wrong about God. And the prima facie evidence that all current Gods are man made is of course, their treatment of women.
The idea that women are fully human is something that man-made religions seem to struggle with. I love the paradise that is offered to Islamic jihad warriors. Apparently, as martyrs for Allah they will receive their reward in heaven by disporting themselves with innumerable virgins. As one wit put it, imagine all those obedient, god-fearing Muslim women who keep themselves pure behind all encompassing clothing out of their devout worship of their God, only to find, that when they die, their reward for all that virginal vigilance is to end up as a whore for terrorists. My own response when I heard about this extraordinarily male-centric view of the eternal reward was to wonder what appalling sin those poor virgins must have committed to require such punishment. In other words, the terrorist’s heaven was clearly the virgin’s hell.
This fantasy of heaven, by the way, illustrates religion’s use of a classic advertising trick – they create fear of damnation in the powerless; women, slaves and the poor – then offer them hope of salvation – but only after they are dead. Religion has been used this way to keep all sorts of people in their place, but in my 9 minutes, I will concentrate on their effect on women.
Conveniently for the blokes who invented them, Gods of all kinds are entirely happy to see one half of humanity held in subjection to the other half. According to many of their earthly messengers, they have approved of and even commanded that women be beaten, raped – at least in marriage, and sold as property, either to husbands or masters. Gods have stated that a woman’s testimony and word is worth less than a mans, that she is not to be permitted to speak in public, take part in public life, take “headship” over a man, preach religion, or, in extreme cases, even appear in public. It was religious belief that drove what may be the longest and bloodiest pogrom in recorded human history; the persecution and execution of (in the vast majority of cases) vulnerable women accused of witchcraft across Europe between the 14th and 17th centuries.
In some parts of the world, in theocracies, we still watch Gods deny women and girls the right to work, travel, drive, get access to healthcare, or even walk the streets unaccompanied. In 2002, 14 schoolgirls died in a fire in Mecca, after being forced back into a burning building by religious police, because they were not properly covered.
Women’s lives only began to improve in the West when feminism emerged thanks to the secular Enlightenment. Mary Wollstonecraft, author of “Vindication of the Rights of Women”, could not provide a greater contrast to that first Mary, the so-called mother of God. No virgin, she was a vulnerable and suffering human being. Blessed (if you will excuse the term) with a shining intellect and the clear-eyed courage it took to see through millennia of male hypocrisy, she was despised and vilified in her own time – most often by the religious.
But her words took hold, and in the 300 years since she first put pen to paper, the lives of women and girls, at least in the developed world, have changed unarguably for the better. By almost any objective measure, women in the secular west are better off than they ever have been before. In terms of longevity, mental, physical, reproductive and emotional health, economic independence and human rights, today’s woman leaves her female ancestors for dead. Unfortunately, however, at almost every step representatives of God have resisted women’s progress.
The religious have variously opposed higher education for women, higher status employment for women, their right to vote, their right to enter parliament, their right to their own earnings, income and property, their right to their own children after divorce or separation, their right to resist domestic violence, their right to learn about their own bodies, their right to refuse sexual intercourse in marriage, or agree to it outside marriage, and their right to contraception, abortion and sexual information. Less than a century or so ago, if a woman was so badly damaged by successive child-bearing that doctors advised against further pregnancy, churches resisted her right to use (or even know about) contraception and she had to rely on the good will and restraint of her husband to avoid further catastrophic damage or even death. Only last year a nun was excommunicated for allowing the US hospital she ran to give an abortion to a woman who would have died without it.
When chloroform was invented in the 19th century, doctors immediately heralded it as a boon for birthing women. Church leaders condemned it because they believed women’s suffering in labour was ordained by God as punishment for Eve’s original sin. Fortunately for labouring women the then head of the Church of England was herself a birthing mother. Queen Victoria ignored her spiritual advisors as she gave birth to her nine children and grabbed chloroform with both hands, immediately making pain relief in childbirth acceptable.
To be fair, as women have made gains in the secular and developed world, many religious believers and leaders have changed their opinions and been persuaded about the universal benefit of female equality and opportunity. Many religious feminists argue passionately that there is nothing necessarily godly about the oppression of women, but –if as the Bible says – by their fruits shall ye judge them, even today they are on shaky ground.
It is no co-incidence that societies where women enjoy high levels of personal freedom are the richest and most stable in the world. We now understand that when you educate women and girls the benefits accrue to the entire family, rather than simply to the individual. There is even research to indicate that in societies with more women in positions of power and influence men have longer life expectancy. Can it also be a co-incidence that these societies are also among the most secular and, apart from the US, are often cited as those where belief in a God is dying most rapidly? Looked at from that perspective, it is almost as if God and women’s rights are diametrically opposed to one another. As one rises, the other falls. The fact that Gods and women appear to be so firmly in opposite corners is yet another indication to me that God’s are all about men.
It is impossible in 9 minutes to do justice to the fearful price women have paid as a result of man-made religion. I have not time to mention the fearful decimation of women by HIV in Africa, helped along by the wicked and paranoid misinformation about the permeability of condoms promoted by the Catholic Church. Suffice to say, four out of ten girls in Kenya are now HIV positive – many god-fearing virgins infected on their wedding night. For me, however, it is not just the gross history of religion’s treatment of women that informs my atheism. It is the simple fact of the one-eyed nature of all the world’s religions that finally convinces me that all Gods are man-made. Yes, even Buddhism, that last refuge of the fashionable western mystic. After all, why hasn’t the Dalai Lama ever been re-incarnated as a girl?