Religion as the root of sexism – Barbara G. Walker

The central premise of Christianity is that human beings are to be allowed into heaven, only because God demanded, and got, a blood sacrifice of his allegedly beloved son, to bring about redemption from their original sin, after God had formerly left all of them unsaved. The blood sacrifice was essential. The bible says that all things are purged by blood, and “without shedding of blood is no remission” (Heb. 9:22).

St. Augustine and other church fathers insisted that only this blood sacrifice could have atoned for Woman’s original sin of disobedient apple-eating, which brought death into the world, and with which all generations were infected simply by the passage of every child through a female body. God laid his curse on Eve: “In sorrow shalt thou bear children, and thy husband shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16), which was interpreted as a punishment deserved by all “daughters of Eve” forever. All three major patriarchal religions still use this same text.

The early Christian Tertullian told Everywoman that she is another Eve, the “devil’s gateway,” and on account of her “even the Son of God had to die.” So Woman, rather than God, was made responsible for the death of Jesus and even for the existence of death itself. Jesus’ death as atonement for original sin seems especially pointless today, when even the Catholic Church is willing to admit that the story of Eden is just a myth.

Still, ever anxious to absolve God of the murder of his son, early Christians often blamed the Jews along with Woman, calling them “Christ killers.” Throughout the centuries, churchmen pointed to the passage in Matt. 27:25, where the Jews declare their responsibility through all generations: “His blood be on us, and on our children.” But this was a misinterpretation of what was actually a ritual formula repeated at all sacrificial ceremonies where a god-surrogate, human or animal, was killed. It meant that all present, and their descendants, would be “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” so to speak, and redeemed. 

In ancient Rome at the Taurobolium, for example, celebrants stood under a grating where the sacrificial bull was killed, and literally bathed in the divine blood, and were said to be “born again for eternity.” Jesus was by no means the only human savior-god whose death was thought to redeem his followers. There were literally dozens of similar, earlier, virgin-born, miracle-working “sons of God” in the ancient world. All their myths contributed to the Judeo-Christian synthesis.

But none of the others were so replete with sexism. Clement of Alexandria said every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman, and quoted Jesus’ words from the Gospel According to the Egyptians: “I have come to destroy the works of the female.” St. Peter’s remark in the Gospel of Thomas was that “women are not worthy of life.” St. Odo of Cluny said that a woman is nothing more than “a sack of dung.” Andrew the Chaplain said woman is by nature inconstant, fickle, disobedient, and prone to every evil. John Scotus Erigena taught that the sinless part of humankind is embodied in man, the sinful part in woman.

St. Thomas Aquinas claimed that every female is a birth defective, imperfect male, begotten only because her father was ill or in a state of sin. In the 19th century, Anglican churchmen declared women “intrinsically inferior in excellence, imbecile by sex and nature, inconstant in mind, and imperfect and infirm in character.”

Even today, the Catholic Encyclopedia says “The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote: “There is nothing more pathetic in all history than the hopeless resignation of woman to the outrages she has been taught to believe are ordained of God.”

Wife-beating and enslavement have been so prominent in Western culture that a standard symbol of “marriage” on Alsatian New Year’s decorations was a toy man beating a toy wife. From the pulpit, men were ordered to beat their wives, and wives to kiss the stick that beat them. An ecclesiastical “Rules of Marriage” text from the 15th century said that a husband must bully and terrify his wife, and if that didn’t work, he must “beat her soundly, for it is better to punish the body and correct the soul.”

A man’s home was said to be his castle, and his wife’s prison. Up to the middle of the 20th century, American law upheld the “doctrine of immunity,” which meant that the sanctity of the home could not be invaded to arrest a husband for assaulting his wife, because this would “destroy the peace of the home.”  Only in 1962 did a judge rule that there was a certain lack of peace in the home of a wife-beater. Even so, most churches still retained the bride’s marriage promise to “obey.”

Churches now try to deemphasize the holocaust perpetrated against women under the Inquisition and other European witch hunts, but it is clear that many millions were arbitrarily tortured and murdered during the 500 years of inquisitorial domination, simply because clergymen taught that women were evil.

The Inquisition persisted for centuries because it was a highly profitable extortion racket, developed for the economic benefit of the Church. Immediate confiscation of the property of accused persons was its raison d’etre. The popes publicly praised the rule and noted that “the business of defending the faith languished lamentably” when confiscation was not promptly carried out. There was no need to wait for a confession, though the use of torture made confession almost inevitable in any case. It is estimated that about 85 percent of the Inquisition’s victims were women, who committed none of the crimes of which they were accused, such as consorting with devils, raising storms, causing illnesses by magic, or keeping familiar spirits in the form of dogs, cats and other animals.

Islam’s abuses of women

Restrictions on and abuses of married women, similar to those of traditional Christian culture, are still evident in Islam. The “great theologian” Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, whom the Encyclopedia of Islam calls the most influential authority after Mohammed himself, agreed with Jews and Christians that Eve was the original source of all sin. Because of Eve’s offense, Allah ruled that every woman must be punished in various ways in addition to bearing the “sorrow” of childbirth.   

She must be separated from her parents and married to a stranger, which can be accomplished when still a child. She cannot divorce her husband, though he may divorce her and turn her out of his home any time, just by saying “I divorce you.” He keeps the children and may also have up to four wives. She must never leave his house unless accompanied by an adult male relative. She must keep her head covered, even at home. She can have no control over her own person.

Under Sharia law, women have a lesser share in inheritance, and cannot serve as judges or rulers. They have no recourse if their husbands choose to beat, starve, rape or mutilate them, or even kill them for the sake of “honor.”  A majority of Muslim women have little or no formal education and know nothing of any religion other than Islam.

Religions perpetrate a great many lies. Some are harmless enough, even rather charming, like fairy tales. But two lies are the vilest and most destructive of all human concepts.

The first is the lie that “our” way of believing is the One Truth, and that all other ways are false and of the devil. It’s only a short step from this to fanatical aggression and “holy war” against all those who doubt “our” doctrines or call “our” god into question. The Truthers are terrified of any doubt or scholarly examination of their beliefs, and their terror can make them collectively homicidal lunatics.

The second most destructive lie is the denigration of woman as the source of all evil — the lie that has blackened all three major patriarchal religions throughout history. It still clings to credence in many parts of the world. Until this particular lie has been fully disproved and abandoned, no religion deserves a hearing.

We may talk of mutual tolerance and freedom of religion as good, humane goals, but there is no freedom where women, the mothers of the race, are suppressed or abused. The myth of Eve’s guilt may be the vilest lie ever perpetrated. It deserves not tolerance but blame.

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her 20 other books, published by Harper & Row, include The Skeptical Feminist. An atheist, she has also specialized in debunking New Age assertions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation