Can You Be Religious and Feminist?

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I’ve avoided writing specifically about feminism and religion, partly because religion is such a complicated, and a touchy, subject. Not all religions are created equal. Some have millions of adherents, some only a few. Some have played central roles in historical events, some have remained obscure. And nearly all have had some impact on the way women are treated in society.

It is a common perception that feminism and religion just don’t mix, that it is impossible to be religious and a feminist. The fact that most religions follow a patriarchal pattern (probably because they spring out of patriarchal societies and are designed to perpetuate them) makes them natural adversaries for feminists.  But if you examine the major religions, you’ll see that the religions themselves are not the real culprits. It is the men who interpret the religions who twist their teachings on women into misogynistic nightmares.

This means that the religious woman must realize who her real enemies are: not the gods, but the males who attempt to shape them into their own image. I realize that this sounds like male-bashing, but in fact, it’s common sense. If women had the power to call the shots, would they have instituted some of the rules and traditions or perpetuated the attitudes that make them “second-class” citizens?

So what is a feminist to do? Does she have to give up her religious beliefs? The problem with that is, people have spiritual needs that no amount of political or philosophical posturing can erase. Although some belief systems may seem to be almost religious in their zeal, if they are not addressing the possibility of the existence of God, they are not religions. (By this definition, atheism is a religious belief and feminism isn’t.)

However, non-religious belief systems like communism or feminism can seem like religions. They become world-views through which their adherents come to understand human nature, and even, at times, God.  It is important to keep religious beliefs separate from political or sociological ones. For example, being a Christian doesn’t require that you be a capitalist any more than the reverse is true.

At the same time, if you are religious and hold non-religious views about human nature, you are going to have to reconcile them at some point. Or at least attempt to do so. It’s not intellectually or spiritually honest to say that you’re religious and a feminist without attempting to determine how the one affects the other. In most cases you will find that they’re not incompatible.

That doesn’t mean that there aren’t sticky questions that need to be resolved. More often than not you’ll find the answers in a study of the religion itself. How and when were its scriptures written? What were the backgrounds of its eminent leaders? What was the historical context within which the religion was shaped? What was the psychological makeup of its key proponents?

I’m not trying to say that the scriptures themselves are erroneous or misleading. What I am trying to say is that the way the scriptures are interpreted and codified are inevitably filtered through the experiences of the men who control it. It’s important to separate the words of your God from the words of men. Dare, even, to come up with your own interpretations, not to make up your own version of your religion, but to help you to understand it better.

Men are not gods (contrary to some people’s beliefs). They should be listening to their God, not expounding their own views on how to treat half of His creation. Women have as much right to examine and interpret scripture and establish religious traditions as men do. But they also have as much responsibility to do it fairly. Arguing about God’s intentions is as fruitless as ants arguing about humans’ intentions. We need to find our place in relation to God, not His in relation to ours.

And that’s how you can be religious and feminist. By not putting your human beliefs above your belief in God, yes, but also by using what God has given you to understand them in the context of your religion.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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