Barbara G. Walker, an author and past recipient of the American Humanist Association’s “Humanist Heroine Award,” has written quite a bit about the intersection of feminism and religion. And her latest collection of essays, Belief & Unbelief (Humanist Press, 2015), holds little back, dismantling many of the defenses we frequently hear about religion.
But is it really true that religion makes people more kindly, generous or loving? History tends to disprove this. The worst wars, the most vicious Inquisitions, the cruelest pogroms and persecutions were both fomented and supported by religion. Soldiers and crusaders have always been taught that the enemy consists of people who lack the true faith, and so deserve to be massacred. The biblical God who supposedly said “Thou shalt not kill” ordered hundreds of genocidal slaughters and summary executions (including the blood sacrifice of his allegedly beloved son). Wars are seldom perpetrated without the support of religious authorities. Chaplains are even made handy to the battlefield, to assure soldiers that God says they shalt kill as many of the enemy as possible.
As a means of motivating people to be cruel or inhumane, there is no more potent force than religion. Men of patriarchal cultures have been committing heinous acts in the name of their God ever since they created a god for themselves. It seems that the earlier, Goddess-oriented, nature-centered religions were far less cruel.
From the slaughters recorded in the Bible, early Christians’ butchery of European pagans, the “holy” Crusades, and later European Christians’ genocide of New World natives, to the twentieth-century holocaust in Nazi Germany, religion has been a major rationale for every kind of inhumanity. It has been the cause of the monstrous two-millennium abuse of women on the specious ground of a mythic original sin committed by Eve, and of preposterous witch hunts of the Inquisition. Though estimates of the death toll vary widely, there is no denying that much killing can be done by an organization that lasted over 500 years and covered much of Europe, with legal confiscation of the victims’ property as its primary encouragement.
Since St. Augustine announced that Eve — and hence collective woman — was responsible for original sin, rabid sexism has been a major pillar of patriarchal religious tradition. Clement of Alexandria said every woman should be ashamed of being female. According to the Gospel of Thomas, Saint Peter said that women are not worthy of life. St. Thomas Aquinas said every woman is born defective, lower than a slave, only meant by God to be “in subjection” to her husband. A nineteenth-century Anglican churchman wrote that a woman is “intrinsically inferior in excellence, imbecile by sex and nature, weak in body, inconstant in mind, and imperfect and infirm in character.” In the 1890s the president of a leading theological seminary noted that the Bible commands “the subjection of women forever.” Orestes Brownson said a woman must be under male control, otherwise she is “out of her element and a social anomaly, sometimes a hideous monster, which men seldom are, excepting through a woman’s influence.” The holy father John Scotus Erigena wrote that when the heavens finally open in glory, women will be eliminated, because God embodied the sinless part of humanity in men and the sinful part in women. According to the official handbook of the Inquisition, the Malleus Maleficarum (A Hammer for Witches), “all wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.” Even the twentieth-century Catholic Encyclopedia asserts that the female sex is inferior to the male sex in both body and soul.
Marriage to a woman was not recommended by early Christian fathers. St. Ambrose called marriage a crime against God. Tatian called marriage “a polluted and foul way of life.” According to Origen, matrimony is impure and unholy; and according to St. Jerome, the purpose of every godly man should be “to cut down with the ax of Virginity the wood of Marriage.” Tertullian called marriage a moral crime, “more dreadful than any punishment or any death.” St. Bernard opined that it is easier to bring the dead back to life than for a man to live with a woman without endangering his own soul. For the first half of the Christian era, marriage was a civil ceremony only, having nothing to do with religion. It was not until the Council of Trent in 1538 that a Christian ceremony was considered essential to a valid marriage. “Nothing is further from the truth than the contention of modern divines that the Church from the first patronized and sanctified an institution which was in reality only imposed on her… Nothing is more remarkable than the tardiness with which liturgical forms for the marriage ceremony were evolved in the Church.” Eventually, it seems, the church realized that there was an additional source of income to be exploited.
Marriage finally became acceptable to the churches when laws were established that could make it a means of depriving women of incomes and property, and making wives the equivalent of slaves. Some of the eastern churches made it a wedding custom for a bride to kneel and place her bridegroom’s foot on her head, and accept a stroke from a fancy ceremonial whip. Wife-beating was so routine in Christian countries that the Alsatian decorative symbol for “marriage” was a toy man beating a toy wife. Martin Luther thought himself a very lenient husband because he didn’t beat his wife with a stick, but only punched her in the head to prevent her from “getting saucy.” In Victorian times, Blackstone’s legal “rule of thumb” decreed that a man could beat his wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than his thumb, “in order to enforce the salutary restraints of domestic discipline.” Up to the nineteenth century, British law allowed acts of assault to be legally innocent if committed by a husband against a wife. Apparently, however, beatings with clubs thicker than the thumb had been shown to result in broken bones that tended to interfere with wives’ get- ting their work done. Only in the last century did most Christian countries finally get around to declaring wife-beating a crime, though it is still acceptable under Islam.
A slave may be defined as a person who is forced to work, but receives no payment other than food, shelter and clothing; who is expected to be obedient, and may be beaten or otherwise abused at the discretion of the master; who is legally immobilized and considered to be property. Under patriarchal religion, this definition applied equally to a wife. In addition, female slaves were freely used as sexual objects by their masters and forced to bear the master’s offspring. This equally applies to wives under a religious system that denies them access to birth control or abortion.
Religion not only taught men that they may enslave women with God’s blessing; it also taught many people to believe that they are God’s chosen ones, greatly superior to those of other colors or other beliefs; therefore the latter may be enslaved or slaughtered, also with God’s blessing. Again and again the biblical God recom- mends huge slaughters of such people; and “thine eye shall have no pity on them” (Deut. 7:16). Prejudicial traces of such ideas are still common today. Religion does not necessarily promote love for humanity in general.
If we’ve gotten any better about women’s rights and minority rights, it’s despite what the Bible says, not because of it.
Belief & Unbelief is available on Amazon beginning today.