Christianity has had a bit of a sexism problem since it began; with all of the apologetics surrounding the issue, I believe that the problem starts with the opening narrative of man being created in God’s image and the woman a lesser copy, made in the image of man. Even in the most favorable of contexts, the Bible cannot be seen as a guide for any individual who values egalitarianism — it’s rife with issues of financial, gender, and racial inequality. While many churches reject the most extreme strictures of gender stereotyping, embodied perhaps, in the infamous Quiverfull movement, the ideology of men and women having certain “callings” or “spiritual gifts” fall across gender lines. Men’s spiritual gifts, as taught by the church I grew up in, consisted of things like “leadership” and “organization,” while women were typically granted with “listening” and “nurturing.”
(Here’s a link to a frackin’ huge manual on how to discern your spiritual gift and how to put it to use. Bear in mind, though, that this is the Evangelical Lutheran denomination and they are known to be a bit more progressive about women’s roles in the church. In the church I grew up in, women were restricted to leading the praise and worship (though never alone), teaching children’s Sunday school and children’s church, and sharing an occasional testimony or musical piece.)
Issues of sexism, much like anti-intellectualism, homophobia, and racism, tend to be pervasive, systemic. You can hack off an offending bit, but it’s an exercise in futility, knowing that the rest of it is rotted through as well. The trick, then, is to convince people that it’s not actually rotten, or maybe that rot is good for you, or maybe that it’s been this way for years, so why bother?
One of the most convincing lines, though, is the one that tells us “it’s fixed!” or “problem solved!” It’s a pretty common line that gets trotted out by theist and atheist, skeptic and non-skeptic alike; when atheists tell us that feminism is irrelevant, or when non-minorities tell us that racism is a thing of the past, it makes it that much harder for the feminist and the anti-racist to be heard. No one likes a whiner — especially someone whining about a problem that people don’t believe exists.
And there’s the rub: sexism and racism and all of the other –isms are still very much alive and well in this country. It took us forty-four presidents before a black man won the office (and there were virtually no viable female candidates this time around). Up until recently, anti-choice activists played a key role in the leadership of the Komen Foundation. A 16-year-old female is subject to objectification within the atheist community.
But, unlike our theist counterparts, we have no need for the reliance on dogma and rhetoric; if we want to, we can employ a healthy dose of skepticism to the problems we see around us, hopefully generating human-oriented solutions to human-created problems. It’s daunting, no doubt about that, but the tools of critical thinking and skeptical inquiry are our best bet at confronting inequality. Our community needs sober eyes and empathetic hearts.
Unfortunately, theism — Christianity in particular — is forced to recycle the same old dogmas into the mill, hoping and (literally) praying for something revelatory to be excreted. At the end of the day, you’re ultimately confined to the boundaries of the holy book you insist on following; if unhappiness results, it’s because you failed to follow the formula, not because the formula is crap to begin with.
Take this song, for instance. Lecrae is a Christian rapper, and while I haven’t been immersed in Christian music for several years, it seems that he embodies their favorite “ghetto redemption” narrative. These lyrics were posted on Facebook by a theist friend, explaining that the song is an interpretation of Proverbs 5:1-14, a passage written as a warning against the evils of adultery. As I read through the lyrics, my heart just sank… as with much of Christian culture, it reeks of sexism, impossible expectations, and endless guilt. Check them out:
“Walking to my grave letting evilness enslave me
Evil looks so lovely covered in her lace of lies
And the silky smooth seduction just manipulates my mind
Her fabrical fabrication is fueling my fascination
While I’m intoxicated she starts her assassination
I’m losing all my honor and my years to the merciless
Giving all my life away but I’m just so immersed in this (killa)”
And this one:
“Her feet go down to DEATH, so don’t let her consume you
Even though her heart is black, her exterior’s beautiful
She’ll take your life away, strip away your joy
Pretends that she gon build you up but she’s just gon destroy you”
In Christian culture, femininity is a dangerous downward spiral into immorality. The difference between “wholesome” and “seductress” is an exceptionally thin line that varies wildly from group to group; sometimes it’s hemlines, sometimes it’s haircuts. Despite the fact that a woman can unknowingly step into the “seductress” category, Lecrae’s seductress is purposeful in her intent, complete with the idea that she is “manipulating” him and “assassinating” him, like the “merciless,” cruel, sexy bitch that she is. Consequently, you get the idea that any woman who is behaving in a way that you interpret as “seductive” is doing so with knowledge and intent.
I can’t think of a more permanent set of shackles than that given to Christian youth by being told that their bodies are the source of their immorality, that bodies are something to be thoroughly covered up, forgotten, out of sight, out of mind. If you fail to do so completely, if you leave a bit too much skin uncovered, or wear a shirt that’s a little too tight, the assumption is that you are inviting depravity and sin into your life and you know it. I have to wonder how many of my adolescent and teen years I wasted, intentionally distancing myself from my male peers who could have been my friends in the name of purity/fear (I can never remember which…) or patting myself on the back and reassuring myself of the supposed superiority my purity gave me (“It’s so sad and empty to live a life trying to impress all the boys when you could have a greater purpose in life, like me”). There is never enough that a girl can do to secure her purity — it’s in what she wears (every piece), how she walks, how she stands, how she does her hair and makeup, how much eye contact she makes… in a self-selecting survey about modesty, men from a variety of ages answered questions about what constitutes modesty. Check out the results of the agree/disagree statement “the way a girl walks can be a stumbling block”:
And some of the written commentary:
And I can’t even speak to what the boys go through. The other side of the coin that women’s bodies are responsible for these sexual indiscretions (which could be as small as thinking about another person in a sexual manner) is that men are made to believe that women are sins to commit, rather than individuals with agency. Remember a couple weeks back, when Andrew bravely shared his story about his grisly excommunication from Mars Hill? Remember how his fiancé and fellow fornicator was faced with the same excruciating treatment and ostracism?
No? Neither do I!
It, too, falls into the same gendered crap where women are seen as “weaker vessels” that succumb to their own wicked desires while men are the strong leaders responsible for their redemption. Andrew, you see, was not a strong or leader-y enough of a man (according to Mars Hill standards) to resist the temptations of the flesh; it was his fault and his problem that he had had a “physical” relationship with his fiancé and it was his fault for succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, not that he had broken the trust he had established with his fiancé.
The Christian model of gender roles leaves one side voiceless and the other overburdened with unearned responsibility. Neither position is enviable.
The takeaway here is that we can do gender so much better. As non-theists and as skeptics, we need to understand the pervasiveness of the inequity that surrounds us (in whatever form it takes) and to be honest about our own personal investment in these stereotypes. The atheist and skeptical community may not have the toxic written dogma of religious institutions, but I think we should hold off on the cake and the streamers until we understand how closely we are knit to our long-held beliefs.