As a Woman, I Want No Religion: Heather Berg

By Heather Berg


Heather Berg

Living without religion does not mean living in a moral vacuum.

Virginia Woolf wrote, “as a woman, I want no country.” I second her sentiment, and add: as a woman, I want no religion. Just as the nation state has been an instrument of patriarchal oppression, so too is religion. My feminist rejection of religion is two-tiered–religion has no place in my private life, and I also believe that citizens of the world would be better served without religion’s influence on law and society. Contrary to the warnings of the pious, living without religion does not mean living in a moral vacuum. I live by the codes of feminism, pacifism, reason, and compassion that I find in direct opposition to the doctrines of organized religion and the actions of many of its followers. I believe in people’s rights to self-determination, the necessity of an equitable social structure, and in questioning power, all of which can only take place in the absence of organized religion, which serves as a powerful method of social control.

The ability of organized religion to control people’s lives and minds is dangerous. Like chauvinism and patriotism, it claims a monopoly on virtue, leaving no room for diversity. The political doctrine of the neo-conservative Christian right in this country is a particularly striking example of this dangerous hate-mongering. In the name of their savior, people are taught who to hate–liberals, the LGBTQ community, women who take charge of their bodies and lives, people with different cultural and religious backgrounds, and a slew of other people and groups who do not fit into a rigid standard of godliness. This intellectual and cultural fascism is particularly ironic because it lacks ideological consistency. The same individuals who claim to be “pro-life” in the name of god have no qualms about destroying the lives of post-fetal individuals all over the world. Many of the same “believers” support the death penalty and war, and oppose social measures that would drastically improve the quality of life of people both domestically and worldwide. These same people oppose providing accurate sex education and contraception that would not only save lives but also reduce the number of abortions. These inconsistencies are only possible when people’s ability to think critically has been destroyed.

Historically, the most destructive actions have been taken in the name of religion. The genocidal campaigns waged against indigenous peoples, Jews and other individuals targeted by Nazi Germany, the millions in Kosovo and in Sudan have all taken place in full or part in the name of religion. The Crusades, slavery, centuries of colonial exploitation and murder, and the neo-colonialism so popular today, have all been perpetrated in the name of the cultural superiority that comes with believing that the almighty has deigned some with his blessing and condemned others to eternal damnation. Most current regional disputes are rooted in religious disputes–the decades-old conflict between India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel, and in Sudan are some examples. The United States’ war on Iraq could never have been sold to citizens without the rhetorical use of ideas of both religious and cultural superiority.

The frontiers of the mind are as vulnerable to religious hijacking as the frontiers of the globe. An ideological war against science has been waged in the name of the lord. Ranging from total disregard for scientific fact to abject lies and pseudo-science, the Christian right has pitted itself against the scientific community and its supporters. The religious right has made it clear that its doctrine cannot coexist with scientific fact. Among other things, they have attempted to impose their refusal to understand evolution on school children, manipulated statistics in order to support ineffective “abstinence only education,” used false information in anti-choice and anti-contraceptive campaigns, and ignored the natural occurrence of homosexuality not only throughout human history but also in the animal world. In the past, the same contempt for science caused a refusal to acknowledge the roundness of the earth and the discovery of fossils as well as to fabricate evidence for the inherent mental and physical inferiority of women and non-Europeans.

As a woman who is unwilling to compromise my right of control over my body and sexuality, I reject any religion that teaches that women are somehow unequipped to make personal choices. Most major organized religions share similar foundational bases for the devaluation of women, their minds, bodies, and spirits. The Christian bible is especially rife with stories of women whose purpose it is to either serve men or to test them–the basis for the Madonna/whore complex that remains powerful today. Additionally, the bible presents a dismal picture of women’s rights. While I understand that biblical stories are reflective of their historical context, the women’s rights abuses that are ignored or sanctioned by god (and that continue to be by the religious) are alarming.

Given that the religion upon which western society is founded began with the non-consensual impregnation of a 14-year-old girl, it is no surprise that women remain held back today. Though these observations are particular to Christianity in most organized religions, we see the evidence of centuries of exclusively male leadership, legitimized, of course, by the idea that men are somehow closer to god than women. With this privileging of men has come the privileging of characteristics that have been deemed masculine. Religion situates believers in a place where militarism, aggression, and judgment are intertwined with visions of the almighty.

The personal is indeed political. And what could be more personal (and therefore more political) than spirituality? Given this, I don’t take my decisions about either spirituality or politics lightly. My commitment to feminist, pacifist, internationalist social justice is the basis for my rejection of religion–which continues to be an instrument of and an excuse for patriarchical, racist, colonial oppression. My love for people ensures that I will never ally myself with an ideology that claims the superiority of some over others. Religion and patriarchy, instruments of social control that enable each other, are responsible for the centuries of suffering of the marginalized. The hierarchical power structures that continue to ensure unequal access to basic human rights are direct products of the arrogance and chauvinism of patriarchical religion. As a scholar, I am angered and saddened by the outright dismissal of basic scientific fact and historical reality that allow organized religion to maintain power over people’s minds. And finally, as I attempt to make my life choices the product of thoughtful analysis and critical thinking, there is no place for the ideological constraints on individual thought which allow organized religion to dictate everything from believers’ sexuality to their understanding of history.

History as well as current events show us the power of fear–rendering people vulnerable, desperate, and impressionable. Religion capitalizes on this weakness and hijacks people’s critical thinking ability; religious leaders become sources of information that trump reason, experience, and compassion. In addition to the many reasons for my personal and political rejection of religion mentioned above, I refuse it because I refuse to allow my actions and choices to be guided by fear.

“I am a student at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study majoring in international social justice with a focus on violence against women. I hope to continue my studies with a degree in international human rights law or a related field. My interests include community organization and coalition building among feminist, pacifist, and socialist movements for change.”

Heather Berg, who is from California, received $500 for her third-place essay.

Freedom From Religion Foundation