Weekly Link Roundup
• Witchcraft is now a recognized profession in Romania, subjecting its practitioners to income tax. Witches who are unhappy about this are responding pretty much like you'd expect.
• A female activist in Israel faces prison time for praying at the Wailing Wall. The telling quote:
"The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme," Mrs Hoffman said. "Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society."
• A 10-year-old girl in Canada becomes the youngest amateur astronomer ever to discover a supernova. (If you want to help, did you know that astronomers are enlisting citizen volunteers to classify photos of galaxies?)
• Swami Nithyananda, a popular Hindu guru, admits that he paid a blackmailer 1.4 million pounds to not release a sex tape of him and an Indian actress.
• High-ranking ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis is writing a tell-all book.
• The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Milwaukee files for chapter 11 bankruptcy as a result of settlements for victims of pedophile priests. Too bad the whole organization isn't being liquidated and sold off to pay its creditors.
• The British Medical Journal concludes that Andrew Wakefield's paper linking vaccination to autism, which single-handedly gave rise to the anti-vaccination movement, was "an elaborate fraud" based on falsified data.
The Dimension of Divinity
I just finished reading The Happiness Hypothesis, a book by Jonathan Haidt, who's a professor in the new science of "positive psychology" at the University of Virginia. Most of the book is a straightforward distillation of scientific research on what truly brings happiness and contentment in life, illustrated with quotes and references to famous philosophers and sages of the past who taught similar lessons. There's nothing to object to about this - I think it's a laudable thing for science to study what makes people happy and helps them flourish, rather than focusing solely on disease and dysfunction. And I even learned a few interesting tidbits - the chapter on moral hypocrisy, and why we have a much easier time noticing it in others than in ourselves, was particularly good, as was the chapter on ways that advertisers and proselytizers influence us and trick us into doing what they want, rather than what genuinely makes us happy. That's the kind of information that should be much more widely disseminated.
However, near the end of the book, the argument took a surprising turn. Haidt himself states that he's an atheist, and is careful to note that secular people as well as religious people can experience feelings of transcendent awe and wonder (he calls it "elevation"). But in the last few chapters, he has some unexpected praise for the importance of religion and the allegedly vital role it plays in human community:
...my research on the moral emotions has led me to conclude that the human mind simply does perceive divinity and sacredness, whether or not God exists. In reaching this conclusion, I lost the smug contempt for religion that I felt in my twenties.
This chapter is about the ancient truth that devoutly religious people grasp, and that secular thinkers often do not: that by our actions and our thoughts, we move up and down on a vertical dimension... An implication of this truth is that we are impoverished as human beings when we lose sight of this dimension and let our world collapse into two dimensions. [p.184]
If the third dimension and perceptions of sacredness are an important part of human nature, then the scientific community should accept religiosity as a normal and healthy aspect of human nature... If religious people are right in believing that religion is the source of their greatest happiness, then maybe the rest of us who are looking for happiness and meaning can learn something from them, whether or not we believe in God. [p.211]
I wasn't sure what to make of this, until I read past the end to the acknowledgements:
I am deeply grateful to Sir John Templeton, the John Templeton Foundation, and its executive vice president, Arthur Schwartz, for supporting my research on moral elevation and for giving me a semester of sabbatical leave to begin the research for this book.
That explained a lot. (If you didn't know, the Templeton Foundation is a group founded by a billionaire evangelical Christian whose major purpose is to pay scientists to say nice things about religion. See Jerry Coyne or Sean Carroll for more.)
In these chapters, Haidt speaks of the "ethic of divinity", which he says is tied to human concepts of sacredness and holiness and which runs along a continuum from purity to disgust. As an example, he discusses his research in the Indian city of Bhubaneswar, where Hindu priests from the Brahmin caste have an elaborate system of rules, similar to orthodox Jewish laws, to maintain the purity of their temples: when to pray, what to eat, what to wear, how to touch others, who is allowed to enter which rooms, and so on. He contrasts this with the Western "ethic of autonomy", that people should be free to do whatever they want as long as it harms no one.
Though Haidt recognizes the value of autonomy in a modern, melting-pot society, he has some praise for this ritualistic ethic of purity and contamination as well:
When people use the ethic of divinity, their goal is to protect from degradation the divinity that exists within each person, and they value living in a pure and holy way, free from moral pollutants such as lust, greed, and hatred. [p.188]
Haidt further explains that the goal of this system is not just to follow arbitrary rules, but that these practices have "a deeper relationship to virtue and morality... If you know that you have divinity in you, you will act accordingly: You will treat people well, and you will treat your body as a temple. In so doing, you will accumulate good karma" [p.190].
It all sounds very noble and elevating. But there's another, darker side to the ethic of divinity, one which Haidt mentions only in passing. Lost in all the pious rhetoric about maintaining the purity of one's body and accumulating good karma is this: In every society which has that vertical dimension of divinity, it's possible to move down as well as up. When an entire society is structured around the distinction between clean and unclean, holy and unholy, these ritualistic rules inevitably end up labeling not just actions as unclean, but people.
India, after all, still has its Untouchables. It still has its widows who, by tradition and custom, are confined to a lifetime of silence and isolation - even child widows who never met their arranged husband before his death. In medieval Europe, the ethic of divinity and Christian concerns about blood purity led to vicious anti-Jewish persecution - the inquisitors called it limpieza de sangre - and Hitler's racial-purity-obsessed Final Solution was the last and most bitter fruit of that evil tree. In America, it led to slavery and segregation, and still fuels opposition to marriage equality, still motivates Catholic priests who wield the Eucharist as a political weapon. In the Torah, the uncleanness of the Canaanites is invoked as a motivation for genocide by the conquering Israelite army. Ultra-Orthodox Jews assault outsiders who enter their neighborhoods and women whom they believe aren't dressed properly in public. Islam, of course, has its own purity concerns which perpetuate the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation, which suffocate women under veils and burqas, and which imprison them at home and prevent them from getting an education or visiting a doctor.
At the beginning of the chapter, Haidt quotes this line, allegedly spoken by Mohammed:
God created the angels from intellect without sensuality, the beasts from sensuality without intellect, and humanity from both intellect and sensuality. So when a person's intellect overcomes his sensuality, he is better than the angels, but when his sensuality overcomes his intellect, he is worse than the beasts.
But he fails to notice the implication - that people who follow the dictates of "sensuality" are worse than animals - and, presumably, can be treated accordingly. And the long and bloody history of religion offers all too many examples of exactly that.
Haidt may wax rhapsodic about purity laws, but if the choice is between the ethic of autonomy and the ethic of divinity, it should be more than obvious to any thinking person which one to keep and which one to jettison. No one was ever murdered, enslaved, or tyrannized in the name of autonomy. We can get by without superstitious concerns about divinity, but a society that lost its concern for autonomy would soon be plunged into a new Dark Age - as, indeed, many modern theocracies are. And he may claim that us smug, contemptuous secular thinkers have a lot to learn from the religious about purity and sacredness, but I'd turn that formula around: Before they deserve to be listened to, religious fundamentalists ought to come to us and learn from our teachings about why they need to respect the autonomy and human rights of others. Only once they've absorbed that lesson and put it into action in their own cultures do they deserve to be granted any consideration about what they might have to say to the rest of us.
People in Western societies often believe that Eastern religions are more peaceful, less fundamentalist, than Judaism, Christianity or Islam have historically been. And it may well be true that the fluid, polytheistic nature of Hinduism and Buddhism makes them more tolerant, more willing to accommodate differing beliefs, than the fiercely monotheistic religions whose gods are unable to abide any competition.
Nevertheless, every religion has its violent, fundamentalist wing, and Eastern religions like Hinduism are no exception. In India, the problem is mainly in the form of a right-wing, ultra-nationalist movement that calls itself Hindutva, which wants its version of Hindu religious law imposed on the world's largest democracy. Among other things, proponents of Hindutva are virulently anti-Muslim as a rule - some have called for the expulsion of all Muslims from India (there are over 100 million Indian Muslims, so this would be by far the largest forced migration in human history) and the annexation of the disputed territory Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have come to the brink of open war several times. Other Hindutva members have been linked to bombings and other terrorist acts aimed at Muslims.
Hindutva extremists have also targeted their fellow Hindu believers for not being sufficiently strict about religious observances and rules - especially those having to do with sex. In 2009, for example, a mob of youths from a right-wing Hindu group Sri Ram Sena attacked partygoers at a club in Mangalore, beating several people so severely they required hospitalization. The Sri Ram Sena has also warned local businesses not to celebrate Valentine's Day and couples not to show affection in public - although Indian feminists, showing some spirit of their own, have fought back by pledging to bombard the group with pink underwear.
Like most religious extremists, Hindu fundamentalists are also opposed to much of mainstream science and history. In 2006, for example, a Hindu nationalist group filed a lawsuit in California over the content of several world history textbooks which they claimed were discriminatory against Hinduism. In reality, most of the changes they were seeking were to whitewash history to cast their beliefs in a better light - they wanted to soften or delete references to polytheism, sexism against women, and the caste system in ancient India. Although the lawsuit was dismissed, it showed that Hindu groups are not above attempting to rewrite history to serve apologetic ends. (source; see also)
Hindus, like Christians, also have their own creationists who deny evolution and mainstream theories about the age of the earth and humanity - although, in this case, the Vedic creationists believe that humanity is far older than mainstream geology and the theory of evolution say. See this article for more (HT: Sensuous Curmudgeon).
Although these fundamentalists don't have quite as much influence in India as the Christian right does in America or the Muslim right does in most of the Islamic world, it's striking how similar their goals are. It implies that fundamentalism is the same kind of evil, no matter where it springs up; it's only the outward trappings used to justify these actions that differ from one culture to another.
An Incident in the Senate
The U.S. Senate traditionally opens each day's session with a prayer, and today's was a first: the invocation was given by Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest who was invited by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This was the first time a representative of Hinduism has ever been invited to do this.
However, there was an ugly incident that disrupted the occasion. As Zed began to speak, he was interrupted by three Christians in the visitors' gallery shouting at the top of their lungs, calling Zed's prayer "wicked" and an "abomination". (They were promptly arrested and removed.) The Christian right group "Operation Save America" took credit for the incident, issuing a press release praising the three loudmouthed bigots for protesting the Senate's decision to "plac[e] the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the One True God, Jesus Christ".
Robert Green Ingersoll confronted similar prejudice in 1890 and laid bare its hypocrisy with cutting wit:
These gentlemen are in great fear for the future of our most holy and perfectly authenticated religion... They have informed Congress that "all classes of Chinamen worship idols;"... that this heathen god has "huge jaws, a big red tongue, large white teeth, a half-dozen arms, and big, fiery eyeballs."
...No wonder that these members of the committee were shocked at such an image of God, knowing as they did that the only true God was correctly described by the inspired lunatic of Patmos in the following words:
"And there sat in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle. His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire; and his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp, two-edged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength."
"Operation Save America" also claimed that this invocation "would never have been allowed by our Founding Fathers". Benjamin Franklin might have had something to say about that, as he did here in describing the building of a nondenominational chapel:
Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.
And likewise Thomas Jefferson, our third president and author of the Declaration of Independence:
It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.... It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion, and whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men, governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? Difference of opinion is advantageous to religion.
It was Senator Reid's actions, not those of his enemies, that are truly in line with American values. The Christian right does not own this country, though some of them seem to think otherwise. But since the actual evidence of history does not support their theocratic aims, they simply try to invent a new history that does, lying and deceiving wherever it is expedient to advance their political aims. It's impossible to tell whether today's protestors are willing parties to that deception or whether, like many lay churchgoers, they sincerely believe the falsehoods handed down by their leaders. In either case, however, their actions are un-American in the truest sense of the word. They are welcome to practice their own faith to their heart's content; they are not free to interfere with others' equal right to do the same. By their overwhelming arrogance and reeking self-superiority, they have shown that they do not deserve to be part of our national compact. If they are so unappreciative of the wonderful freedoms granted to every citizen of this country by the Bill of Rights, they are hereby invited to leave, and take their bullying, monarchical notions with them.
I don't think these Christians should be imprisoned - it would only feed their self-congratulatory delusions of martyrdom - and in all likelihood, they won't be. Instead, I have a much better idea, one that will put these theocratic bigots in their place and is also a proud upholding of America's tradition of official government neutrality towards religion.
We are a nation of many faiths, and if the Senate session absolutely must be opened with prayer, let us invite representatives of as many different religions as possible, on a rotating basis - the more, the merrier. Jews and Christians should get their fair turn, but let's also bring in Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha'is, Native American religions, Taoists, Sikhs, Rastafarians, Wiccans, and anyone else who cares to apply. And let's not overlook one group in particular - the 15% or more of Americans who are not religious, a far larger number than any non-Christian church and most Christian denominations. Let's invite an atheist to open the session with a secular benediction expressing hope that reason and human conscience will guide the decisions of our elected officials.
A rotating, non-preferential prayer schedule would serve many valuable purposes. It would be a powerful symbolic reminder that America has no official religion, and that all citizens are equal under the law regardless of their choice of faith. It would reaffirm the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution and show that we are all represented by the government that our votes put into power. And last but not least, it would be a stinging rebuke to the Christian right, and that can only be a good thing. Their impotent, whining temper tantrums make it exceedingly clear that they think they have the god-given right to lord it over everyone else, and the more obvious that is to the American people, the more we can expect people to turn away from their agenda of theocracy and intolerance.
Religion's Harm to Women
In our society, it is still widely considered rude to criticize opinions and practices that arise from religious belief, no matter how evil or abhorrent they are. Even when it comes to the murderous fanatics who kill in the name of Islam, politicians and other public figures who criticize them often take pains to label their actions as arising from a twisted or self-serving interpretation, as though it would be impossible for a legitimate and sincere interpretation of any religion to inspire believers to commit evil acts.
However, the reality is that sincere religious beliefs and legitimate interpretations of scripture can, and very often do, cause immense evil and harm. And when a more enlightened future age arrives to tote up the harms done by religion, I am certain that the systematic oppression and denial of basic rights to one-half of the human race will rank near the top. Back in March, I wrote "That Monstrous Regiment" about the extreme denigration of women in the Christian tradition, but there is more to be said. This net can be cast wider, and it is time to do so.
Every major world religion - without exception - is intensely patriarchal. Every one of them engages in the systematic devaluation of women, in the systematic exclusion of women from positions of authority, and in the systematic oppression and even enslavement of women. I have yet to find a single major religion that bucks this trend. Considering how little many of these religions have in common otherwise, this is a truly remarkable pattern. A few denominations, influenced by the feminist movement and other moral advances, are only now beginning to redress this glaring inequity, but for the most part progress has been extremely slow and the vast majority of religions still treat women as less than human.
Despite its having been housebroken by the Enlightenment, Christianity is one of the worst offenders. Although some Christian denominations have taken faltering steps towards women's equality, all those denominations still believe in and endorse the Bible, which is without a doubt one of the most misogynistic books in existence.
In the book of Genesis, for example, the very existence of women is depicted as a divine afterthought, and the fall of the human race out of original Paradise into a world of toil and death is unambiguously depicted as a woman's fault. The text makes it clear from the very first that women are expected to be obedient and submissive to men:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
The Ten Commandments proclaim wives to be their husband's property, listing them together with livestock and servants as "thing[s] that [are] thy neighbor's" (Exodus 20:17). The Torah states that women who give birth to daughters are "unclean" for twice as long as women who give birth to sons (Leviticus 12) and values women's lives at half the value of men's lives (Leviticus 27:3-7). It rules that women who are raped in cities and do not cry out are to be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:22-24), while those are raped in the countryside are merely required to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
The New Testament joins in the denigration of women as well. It endorses the Old Testament's subjugation of them to men, saying that "the head of the woman is the man" (1 Corinthians 11:3). It also commands women to remain silent in church, saying that it is "a shame" for women to speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), and adds that women must "learn in silence with all subjection" and must never be allowed to teach or hold authority over men (1 Timothy 2:11-15).
And then there is one of the most subtly and pervasively sexist ideas in Christian thinking: the Trinity. The early Christians had three gods to choose from and made every one of them male. I often wondered, when I was a child, why the set of three contained Father, Son and Holy Ghost and not Father, Son and Mother. That seemed like the logical arrangement to me, but I did not grasp then, as I do now, that this doctrine was invented by an exclusively male and misogynist church hierarchy that sought to deny the female gender any role in creation or in the divine. (Indeed, a recent Harris poll found that over one-third of Jews and Christians believe God is male, while only 1% believe God is female. What would it even mean for God to have a gender?)
Many modern denominations have followed these anti-woman verses to the letter. The Catholic church, one of the worst offenders in this regard, still denies women the ability to join the priesthood, even despite a crippling lack of trained clergy to fill many available posts. The Southern Baptists have likewise declared that women should be submissive and obedient to their husbands, as though it was exclusively the man's job to command and a woman's job to follow. The Russian Orthodox church has stepped into the act as well, with a prominent bishop's recent claim that the idea of equality between the sexes is "destructive" to families (source). It is astonishing to me that Christians who claim to be "pro-family" go out of their way to disparage the gender that makes the existence of families possible.
The offshoots of Christianity have followed a similar path. Most notable is the Mormon church, which from its beginning endorsed polygamous marriage - for men only, of course; it was considered an unspeakable sin for a woman to attempt to take multiple husbands. The institution of polygamy in Mormonism reduced women to little more than property, intimidating them into being obedient and submissive lest their husband decide to take additional wives as punishment, or worse, lest they be damned, for Mormon doctrine originally held that women who opposed the doctrine of polygamy would be condemned to Hell. Mormon belief also holds that a woman cannot access Heaven alone, and that only through marriage can a woman be saved - by her husband, who will "pull her through" to the other side upon her death (source). (One wonders what happens to women who die before their husbands.) Though the Mormons were forced by external pressure to disavow polygamy, many of their other sexist beliefs and practices remain in effect.
These abstract beliefs have had a concrete and devastating effect on women's rights in the real world. As Jon Krakauer writes in Under the Banner of Heaven:
...perhaps the greatest rift between Mormon general authorities and advocates for women's rights occurred when the LDS Church actively and very effectively mobilized Mormons to vote as a bloc against ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (despite a fact that a poll published in the church-owned Deseret News in 1974 showed that 63 percent of Utahans approved of the ERA). Most political analysts believe that had the LDS Church not taken such an aggressive position against the ERA, it would easily have been ratified by the required thirty-eight states, and would now be part of the U.S. Constitution.
Religious sexism occurs in Judaism as well, especially the conservative sects. Orthodox (male) Jews are taught to pray to God in thankfulness every day that they were not born as women, and some ultra-Orthodox sects refuse to send their children to school when the school buses are driven by women. In accordance with Biblical law, Orthodox women having their menstrual periods or who have recently given birth are considered unclean and forbidden to have any physical contact with a man. Orthodox women are often strongly discouraged from taking any public role in a position of leadership, or from acquiring an education beyond the most basic aspects of religious observance and homemaking.
Islam, too, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to women's rights. Consider the following verses from the Qur'an, which, like the Bible, considers women as less valuable than and inferior to men. It states that men are to control women, while good women are obedient to men, and it explicitly gives men permission to beat disobedient women:
"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other... So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge them."
The Qur'an also states that a woman's testimony is worth only half as much as a man's, and her inheritance likewise is only half that of a man:
"And call two witness from among your men, two witnesses. And if two men be not at hand, then a man and two women..."
"Allah chargeth you concerning (the provision for) your children: to the male the equivalent of the portion of two females..."
And when fundamentalist Muslims gain political power, the repercussions are far too obvious. Despite the overthrow of the Taliban, there are still many Islamic countries that implement the evil and barbaric law code known as sharia, which has many cruel effects on men as well but degrades women by far the most, reducing them to slaves and nonpersons. The sharia code denies women their right to an education, to medical care, or to go out in public unaccompanied by a male relative, in addition to many other inhumanities, and punishes transgressions with barbaric acts such as flogging and stoning. In many Muslim countries, the practice of "honor killing" - murdering female relatives who have been raped, as a way to cleanse the shame they have brought on their family by being the victim of such a crime - still occurs. And then there is the best-known manifestation of Islam's inhumanity to women: the suffocating shrouds of black cloth designed to strip them of their individuality and to make them faceless, invisible and less than human.
Even the supposedly more enlightened Eastern religions are not much better when it comes to treating women as equals and as human beings. In Hinduism, the most infamous example is probably the practice of sati, in which widowed women were expected to burn themselves to death on their husband's funeral pyre. Although this was allegedly a voluntary act, in practice it was often involuntary, with women drugged, bound or otherwise restrained before being committed alive to the flames. As recently as 2002, incidents of this nature have been reported in India (source). Other Hindu traditions, less violent but still terrible, enforce seclusion and isolation on widows in the belief that some sin of the woman caused her husband's death, and expect her to atone by spending the rest of her life in silence and destitution. This rule, which I mentioned in a post from June titled "Why Do We Care?" and dramatized by the filmmaker Deepa Mehta in her 2005 film Water, was applied even if the widow was a young child in an arranged marriage who had not even met her husband prior to his death.
Buddhism, as well, despite its reputation as a socially progressive faith, has its share of discriminatory teachings about the role of women. In one passage from the Theravada Buddhist tradition, the Buddha's own aunt, Prajapati, shaves her hair and walks barefoot for many miles to meet with the Buddha and entreat him to permit women to join the sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. The Buddha at first refuses her plea outright, and only relents when his disciple Ananda persuades him to change his mind; however, he imposes a set of eight rules upon nuns that are stricter than those demanded of monks, and in some variants, warns that the sangha will only last for five hundred years due to the presence of women, when it would otherwise have lasted for a thousand. (See here, here and here for some retellings of this story.) In modern Buddhism, Thailand in particular has shown strong patriarchal tendencies, refusing to allow women to be ordained.
It is tragic, but understandable, why so many men throughout history have supported these sexist and patriarchal belief systems. More incredible is how many women have willingly taken part in their own subjugation by joining and participating in religions that have done their utmost to deny them the full equality and equal rights which they deserve. Many, perhaps, have fallen prey to the ancient and transparently obvious deceit that by doing so, they will gain access to an eternity in Heaven. (Although, given that most religions straightforwardly extend their earthly conceptions of hierarchy to the afterlife and picture Heaven as an eternity of male dominance and female submission, one wonders just how appealing that promise could be.)
Not all women have been taken in by this con, however, and there have been and are many women who work for reform and equality within their own religious tradition while continuing to believe in it. This is a noble effort, but I believe it is ultimately misguided. Religion in general, especially the large, institutional, male-run churches like Catholicism, is too dogmatic and too oligarchical for any progress to be made soon enough to help the millions of women who are still suffering under sexist yokes. And as long as people continue to believe in books and traditions that contain these sexist injunctions, the seed of bigotry will always lie dormant, waiting to be rediscovered and reborn. There is only one realistic way to end religion's harm to women, and that is to cut it off at the source: every feminist should be an atheist.