Violence in Religion: Barbara G. Walker

By Barbara Walker

Anthropologists and archaeologists have ascertained some general trends in pre-patriarchal societies, worldwide, that show decided contrasts with our own civilization. Dr. James DeMeo sums them up in his book, Saharasia: The 4000 B.C.E. Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World, pointing out that pre-patriarchal or “matrist” cultures are indulgent toward children, giving them much physical affection and little punishment, tending also to be permissive in various forms of pleasure and sexuality. There are no homosexuality taboos, no concubinage, no prostitution. Women control their own fertility and choice of mates. The sexes have equal social status, though the family usually is matrilocal and matrilineal–that is, married people live in the wife’s home, the property is hers, and descent is reckoned primarily through mothers: exclusively so, among peoples that have not yet understood biological fatherhood. There is a democratic division of labor, no caste system, no full-time military. Religion is some variant of nature worship without strict codes, a Mother Goddess being primary and her consorts secondary. Shamans are both female and male. Sexuality and love between the sexes may be considered a part of religious feeling. Such cultures were generally nonviolent, and valued spontaneity, humor, and sensual enjoyments.

By contrast, the characteristics of the fully developed “patrist” society are given as follows: children are severely treated, with harsh physical punishments, restriction of movement, and painful initiations, including genital mutilation. Sexual attitudes are highly restrictive, ascetic, and fearful. Women’s freedoms are limited and their status inferior. Marriages are arranged by others, are patrilocal and patrilineal, and frequently imply sexual and reproductive slavery for wives and/or concubines. Heavy taboos surround menstruation, childbirth, abortion, birth control, widowhood, and women’s access to spiritual matters. There are full-time male clergies and military organizations, with a mono-theistic father god often depicted as rigidly authoritarian, demanding, and cruel: pain-seeking asceticism and renunciation of sexuality tend to please him. There are tight caste systems and strict codes with sadistic punishments, which may be used as spectacles of public entertainment. Men own property, women, and children, and may regard war as their most honorable calling. Slavery and torture are permitted and freely discussed, whereas physical pleasures and sensuality are viewed with puritanical anxiety and may incur verbal taboos.

Given these typical characteristics at the two extremes of observed human cultures, past and present, one might better understand how it happens that monotheistic, father-worshiping cultures can become distinctly violent and warlike. Experiments with monkeys have shown that individuals raised by gentle, nurturing adults will mature in the same way, while young monkeys deprived of maternal affection grow up with violent tendencies, sexual dysfunctions, and lack of empathy for others.

DeMeo writes: “Early social institutions, which nurtured children emotionally, which venerated heterosexual love and allowed much freedom in sexual matters . . . once persisted across all of Europe, Asia, Africa, and India. In all cases, the arrival of militant armored nomad groups from Central Asia and Arabia initiated cultural transitions which destroyed the male-female and maternal-infant bond, and placed all family matters, including choice of marriage partner, in the hands of dominant males. The early peaceful peoples were either exterminated. . . or they were enslaved, losing their own cultural identity and legal controls over their land, property, and their very lives. . . . Increasingly stratified political hierarchy and despotism were accompanied by changes in family structure toward an increased male dominance over basic life decisions of females and children. Sadistic abuses within the family, in society at large, and in the military appear to have increased in direct proportion to these changes.

“The archaeological and historical survey . . . confirms the past presence of a ubiquitously higher status for women, greater autonomy for children and adolescents, and a much more fluid and pleasure-oriented social fabric. Males had a solid role in the family as help-mates, lovers and partners, but did not dominate the basic life decisions of either the wife or children. . . . Destructive human aggression and sadism in its worst forms, which include despotism, warfare, ritual murder, and the brutal subjugation of females and children for sexual purposes, are a relatively recent development in human history, of less than 6000 years’ duration.”1

Mesopotamia before 4000 B.C.E. was largely matrist and peaceful. The Mother Goddess religion prevailed, and women had high-status positions as priestesses, scribes, diviners, healers, judges, and acknowledged masters of various crafts: fiber arts, weaving, pottery, food preparation, and agriculture. In Crete and pre-Hellenic Greece also, the primary deity was the Great Goddess, whose temples were tended by women, and gender equality was the rule.

Few societies are 100% either matrist or patrist, since human culture is always a continuum of overlapping eddies in the stream of general trends, but we can perceive the stream through archaeological and anthropological studies.

Judaism was one of the most patristic religions of the early middle east, after having won its territories by warfare and having made many rules that subordinated women and children to male control, under a god who claim-ed sole power over everything in the universe. Though this god was supposed to have said, “Thou shalt not kill,” he ordered massive slaughters again and again of various “infidel” peoples, and even commanded the faithful to kill their own family members, neighbors, or friends who did not share their one-and-only religion: 

“Neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: but thou shalt surely kill him” (Deuteronomy 13:5—9). And there is that commandment in Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,” which was directly responsible for twelve centuries of the most hideous persecutions, tortures, and legal murders of an estimated nine million women–and this is said to be a low estimate.2

Christianity became even more patristic than its Judaic forerunner, spending its first eight centuries forcing conversions by the sword or else exterminating Europe’s heathen agriculturalists (the Latin word for a farmer was pagan). After 385 C.E., the church rigorously enforced the death penalty for nonbelievers. New canon laws also took away women’s property rights, subjected children to the absolute rule of fathers with the power of life and death, encouraged frequent beatings of offspring and wives through exhortations from the pulpit, and insisted on the inherent sinfulness of sexual activities, including even marital relations. St. Jerome said a Christian must “regard everything as poison which bears within it the seed of sensual pleasure.” St. Augustine maintained that original sin is transmitted through all generations by means of sex, and the handbooks of the Inquisition explained that the devil governs every sexual act “because of its natural nastiness.”3

The innocent sensuality of children was to be severely repressed with various physical torments, according to church fathers like St. John Chrys-ostom, who also advised terrifying them with stories of child-devouring demons, to keep them still “when they want food or play or anything else unreasonable.” A new holiday was devised, called Childermass, or Holy Innocents Day, when all children were to be whipped to make them remember the story of King Herod.4

In view of the contrasting attitudes of matrist societies toward children and sexuality, it is no surprise to read the disapproving remarks of Father Bourien, a missionary to the Malay Peninsula, where, he said, “a long sojourn among erratic tribes has taught me that from among carnal sins they only exclude one, that is, rape.”5 Naturally, the good father was disinclined to notice the prevalence of this particular sin in his own culture; but the many strictures against natural sexual expressions led to cruelty in this regard, as in many others, among Christian believers.

During Europe’s many wars, crusades, and persecutions, as Susan Brownmiller demonstrated in her book, Against Our Will, rape was considered a rightful reward of the warrior. Old Testament soldiers were told by their god to seize the young daughters of their slain enemies and make them into sex slaves (concubines); see Numbers 16, 21, and 31 in particular. Medieval clergymen claimed a similar privilege. “The Inquisition kept prison harems of young women, who were incarcerated purely because of their good looks; they were subject to repeated prison-rape by inquisitors and other strangers with connections to the Holy See, who threatened them with grotesque tortures if they failed to submit. . . . The Christian Church also engaged in temple prostitution, and kept brothels of young girls who would service only Christian men. The girls were required to say prayers, however. Church coffers overflowed with monies from brothel and &lsqou;sin rent’ payments, which were allowed in lieu of more painful forms of penitence.”6

In such ways, sex was poisoned by patristic inequality between men and women, within a church whose founders called all women “daughters of Satan,” “sacks of dung,” “insatiable beasts,” “unworthy of life,” “imperfect animals,” and many similar epithets.7 When women are so put down as to be forbidden any part in defining the moral code, it seems that violence soon becomes institutionalized. Christian nations were intensely warlike, and during their periods of colonization massacred native populations on all continents, in order to teach the heathen to love the correct god.

The Holy Inquisition was perhaps the most heinous extortion system ever devised; it served as a foundation for the church’s immense wealth, since all whom it accused had their property confiscated at once. Conviction was essentially inevitable, due to the unrestricted use of torture. Each victim was forced by torture to supply the names of many alleged “accomplices,” so that whole villages could be wiped out by a visit from the Hounds of God (Domini canes, the Dominicans), and the church could take over lands and other assets virtually without limit.

Relatives of the accused even had to pay for the ropes, chains, whips, stakes and other materials of execution, and had to contribute food and clothing for the sufferers in inquisitorial dungeons, as acts (so it was written) of “Christian charity.” Property could be taken away from the legal heirs of the dead who were accused of heresy post-mortem. If a victim was forewarned, and committed suicide through fear of the torturers, his or her property was taken anyway, and suicide was declared a mortal sin, consigning the victim to hell forever.

Canon law thus established the rule of property seizure for suicides, which remained in force throughout Europe until the late 19th century, and still contributes to today’s prejudices against euthanasia or suicide even for a sufferer of unbearable pain; yet self-sacrificial suicidal feats in a war situation are commonly viewed as heroic.8

Anthropologists and psychologists have wrestled with the problem of human violence. Some have attributed the problem to basic biology, saying that among social mammals the females generally spend their lives nurturing and teaching the young, whereas the males spend their lives fighting one another for access to females. Therefore, they say, battle is the natural testosterone-induced male role in life, while caring for others is the estrogen-induced female role.

But this view is far too simplistic for anything as complex as human culture. It is evident that both women and men partake of either matrist or patrist values when raised in an environment of one or the other. The picture is never uniform. Whatever the prevailing codes, there are always individuals or smaller groups who resist them and evolve other alternatives.

Still, in our patriarchal culture the conditioning toward violence is seen in sports and entertainment, with overtones of battle, rivalry, and desensitizing spectacles like modern “action” movies and video games aimed at the young. A major enforcer of the values of violence has always been a monotheistic patriarchal religion that condemns alternate beliefs as heresy or devil worship–even when the mainstream religion may have shamelessly taken over formerly “pagan” beliefs and converted them to its own uses. Since the underlying principle of monotheism is that only one god is right, and all others are wrong, every dissenting belief becomes defined as evil, and its practitioners become candidates for extermination, which is called “doing God’s work.” This is what happened during Christianity’s early conquests; the holy wars against pagans, Gnostics, Arians, Paulicians, and 30 or 40 other Christian heresies; the Crusades; the tortures and burnings of the Inquisition; the witch hunts; the pogroms, the ghettoizations, and the 20th century Holocaust–all manifestations of religion-based violence.9

The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved–Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are patriarchal–God is the omnipotent father–hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his male delegates. The sky-god is jealous. He requires total obedience. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed. Totalitarian-ism is the only poultice that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose.10

Adrienne Rich points out that “It is not from God the Father that we derive the idea of paternal authority; it is out of the struggle for paternal control of the family that God the Father is created.”11 As a consequence, “The absence of respect for women’s lives is written into the heart of male theological doctrine, into the structure of the patriarchal family, and into the very language of patriarchal ethics.”12

Socialization of males in our culture, from their earliest boyhood, involves so much orientation toward violence that it is hardly surprising to see it acted out in adulthood by far too many men. “In 1991, 90% of those arrested for murder were men, who tend to murder for more trivial things than women. Women arrested for murder most often killed their husbands or boyfriends after long-term physical abuse.”13

In the United States, television and movies have largely replaced other conduits of socialization such as parents and other elders in the community. Multicolored screens exert their magnetism of excitement and fantasy, with desensitization and violence-training lurking behind their scenes like fishhooks inside the bait. Even the film “Thelma and Louise” could hardly be understood as a successful feminist statement, since the women paid with their lives for stepping out of line in a patrist society, and for daring to defend themselves with violence against male violence. A posse of men in effect demanded their execution, and got it. The lesson of this film for women was the same old line: fight back, and you will be killed.

We all want a peaceful, warless world but we haven’t the faintest idea of how to achieve it. . . . We don’t approve of killing, yet we train millions to kill, and if one kills sufficiently he becomes a national hero, and we are proud of him. We are proud of our armies and navies, never realizing that if we were civilized there would be no such things. We are proud of the size and efficiency of our police force when this is due only to the number of criminals in our society. We are proud only because we haven’t sense enough to be ashamed.

We would rid the world of religious bigotry and prejudice, then passionately defend their source, religion. This, we’ve been told, is the one great binding force, when it is the most divisive force in the world–Catholic against Protestant, Arab against Israeli, Mohammedan against Hindu. Thus instead of binding us together it makes killers of us. Throughout its history it has caused the death of untold millions.14

In his song “Imagine,” John Lennon proposed the idea that there will never be true peace on earth until there is “no religion,” no heaven or hell, no preachers persuading their followers that they alone know the right way, while others are wrong and deserve only conversion or death. In view of the effects that religions have had on human history, Lennon’s idea has much to recommend it.

Concern for life in the here and now is a major point of difference between the old pagan female-oriented religions and patriarchal religions. The latter frequently denigrate or even despise life in the here and now, in favor of life in the hereafter. Christianity has always been death-centered; its central figure is a man dying in agony. Christian civilization has had a history of almost unremitting violence. For the past 2,000 years it has had hardly a single decade free of war, and hardly a day–not even a single hour–universally free of male violence.

Until violence affects them personally, many women seem relatively unaware of its ubiquity in modern culture. They may avoid watching the bloodier forms of entertainment, or believe that male violence is genetically or hormonally predetermined. Anthropologists have found that matrist societies were quite capable of training men to be nonviolent, without casting any unwarranted aspersions on their masculinity. This indicates that the violence pervading our society is not innate but learned.

Imagine a world where any woman or child could walk alone on any street, lonely road, back alley, or path at any hour of the day or night, and meet a strange man or group of men without any sense of threat. That would be a civilized world. Our world has come to such a pass that all men must be routinely suspected of criminal, sadistic, or homicidal tendencies. It isn’t fair to women; neither is it fair to those men who have no such tendencies and mean no harm to anyone.

Each year in our country, thousands of young girls and children disappear. Whether they are voluntary runaways or abductees, most of them end up in terrible circumstances created by men. Some are even tortured or killed for the entertainment of men. The idea that females are fair game, born to be victimized because they are somewhat less than fully human, is an outgrowth of sexist theology.

Early Christianity was deeply influenced by Zoroastrianism, which insisted that the only women who might escape eternal torture in hell were those who lived lives of abject obedience to men. Psychologically, however, the abjectly obedient do not escape persecution. The pose of a victim only encourages abuse by the bully. As a rule, a bully is a coward who prefers to torment only those who seem incapable of fighting back.

The real demons that we need to exorcise from our world are not the traditional horned devils or fork-tailed imps that theology postulated. They are the human-made demons of violence, exploitation, rape, bullying, and ignorance: the demons that make it impossible for all women and children to live safely, and impossible for all men to be trusted. We need to exorcise war, hatred, bigotry, and the kind of entertainment that presents senseless cruelty as somebody’s fun. We need to understand and exorcise men’s sexual fears, and the social blocks against women’s true power, set up by patriarchal religion.

Then, perhaps, we may look forward to a truly civilized world.


1. DeMeo, James. Saharasia: The 4000 BCE Origins of Child Abuse, Sex-Repression, Warfare and Social Violence in the Deserts of the Old World. Greensprings, OR: Orgone Biophysical Research Lab., 1998, pp. 367-368
2. Ibid., p. 312
3. Walker, Barbara G. The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. HarperSanFrancisco, 1983, pp. 910-911
4. DeMeo, op. cit., pp. 275, 306
5. Briffault, Robert. The Mothers: A Study of the Origins of Sentiments and Institutions (3 vols). New York: Macmillan, 1927, v. 2, p. 48
6. DeMeo, op. cit., p. 311
7. Walker, op. cit., pp. 921-922
8. Smith, Homer W. Man and His Gods. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1952, p. 418
9. See Carroll, James. Constantine’s Sword. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001
10. Warraq, Ibn. Why I Am Not A Muslim. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995, p. 116
11. Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1976, p. 67
12. Ibid., p. 270
13. Stephenson, June. Men Are Not Cost-Effective: Male Crime in America. New York: HarperCollins 1995, p. 33
14. Graham, Lloyd M. Deceptions and Myths of the Bible. Carol Publishing Group, 1999, pp. 420-421

Barbara G. Walker is author of the monumental feminist/freethought sourcebook The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets (1983). Her many 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