Faith In Feminism

Are atheists ‘truer’ feminists?

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Francesca Stavrakopoulou is Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter. Francesca is an atheist and believes atheism is a better foundation for feminism than religion. She chatted to me about why.

[To the reader: A quick reiteration –  the aim of the Faith In Feminism project is simply to represent the many diverse expressions of feminism that exist. For every interview representing one perspective, a counter perspective will follow in a future interview. The views we publish are those of our contributors and in publishing them we are in no way affirming nor rejecting their viewpoint, simply showcasing them.]

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VB: You study theology and religion in great depth – you’re already a Professor at a young age. Having researched many of the world’s religions, do you feel their overall bias is toward, or away from, feminism?

FS: A number of the world’s religions today do privilege men over women – mainly (but not solely) because many religions are inherently hierarchical, both in terms of their construction of the relationship between gods and people, and in terms of the relationships within and among the worshippers themselves.

VB: And those hierarchies tend to be male dominated?

FS: Yes. Given that religions are social and cultural constructs, the gendered hierarchies inherent within society tend to be reflected in the religion that society creates and promotes. So if men tend to be valued over women in terms of social, economic and sexual empowerment, they will be in religions, too. That’s why Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the major monotheistic religions of the world, have a deity distinctively imaged as male. It’s no joke to claim that man made God in his own image.

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou

// Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou

VB: From your research into ancient societies, have there been religions in the past that bucked this trend?

FS: There’s a romantic idea that some polytheistic religions and pre-monotheistic religions, which boast male, female and ‘hybrid’ deities, offer a more harmonious balance between men and women. In the ancient world, this wasn’t the case at all. But some New Religious Movements today, such as Neo-Paganism in the West, do try to promote a greater sense of equality between women and men – often in direct response to the patriarchal nature of Christianity.

VB: In Christianity do you think the Bible and Church history mesh with feminism or stand against it?

FS: I respect, but despair of, those Christians who claim both the Bible and the Church promote a message of equality between men and women. The biblical texts are the products of ancient societies in which the notion of gender equality was unknown. Despite claims at various points in the Bible that women, men and children are all valued by God, men and women are consistently portrayed differently – and unequally – in their perceived value as religious and social beings.

VB: Do you think Jesus or Paul could be said to be ‘radical’ in their treatement of women, when seen in the context of their era?

FS: The Bible occasionally suggests that both Jesus and Paul challenged traditional social divisions, but both are also presented more frequently as upholding the conventional privileging of men over women. Whilst women played important roles in the religious practices of the home in early Judaism and Christianity, these roles were accorded a lesser status compared to the roles of men in the temples, synagogues and churches of these religions.

VB: What about the women in Scripture who are often used as examples that women do play a key role in Christian history?

FS: There are a handful of female characters in the Bible, and female religious specialists in the Church, who are valorised or celebrated, but they stand in bleak contrast to the overwhelming male-centredness of Christianity. Despite hints that some of the earliest Christian groups allowed a handful of women more prominent roles, the near-programmatic downgrading and degrading of women is one of the most shameful aspects of the history of Christianity.

VB: In Islam do you see a message of liberation and freedom for women, or not so much?

FS: Islam has inherited the male-centredness of the ancient religions and cultures from which it emerged. Like Judaism and Christianity, at its centre is a deity constructed as male, who nominated as his mouthpiece a male mediator. It also shares in common with Judaism and Christianity an attempt to define its god as a god without gender. But this strikes me as a theological construct designed to liberate the deity from the constraints of human comparison and worldly categories, rather than a ‘softening’ device recasting the god of Islam as a divine paradigm of equality and oneness.

VB: Aren’t there elements within the Muslim faith that promote women’s freedom?

FS: One of the commonly praised distinctive features of Islam is its explicit instruction that women are to be educated, accorded a notable degree of financial independence, and granted a certain degree of autonomy. These are social values celebrated today as essential platforms on which women’s empowerment must be built. But in Islam, these values sit alongside a pervasive religious preference not only to treat men and women differently, but to distance and segregate women from men: they are (usually) to pray separately, and they are to dress differently. For some Muslim women, segregation and veiling offer liberation from the voyeuristic male gaze, and a distinctive social space in which women can worship. But this rather suggests the problem lies with the men and their deity, rather than the women.

VB: Do you have any thoughts on the covering of the female body within Islam?

FS: In public discourse, much is made of the veiling or covering of Muslim women, but it’s important to remember that these continue to be features of some forms of Judaism and Christianity, too. In all three religions, the imbalance of body-covering between men and women reflects an ancient and deep-rooted cultural ‘othering’ of the bodies of women. Women’s bodies were deemed problematically different – too different – from those of men. And in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, they continue to be: whether the issue is veiling, male circumcision, segregated worship or women bishops, all three religions attest to the on-going problematizing of women’s bodies.

VB: Would you say that atheism and humanism are the only way for true feminists to go, if they want to be true to their passion for liberation and equality?

FS: Some New Religious Movements offer feminists and others committed to social equality a better chance of fulfilling a need for religious activities and experiences. So atheism isn’t necessarily the only alternative in that sense. And some older forms of humanism were not considered incompatible, in philosophical terms, with religious belief. But I find it hard to see how mainstream Judaism, Christianity and Islam can ever offer feminists and their allies a coherent religious framework in which social equality is both fundamental and attainable.

VB: Is there any way of being a feminist and following one of the Abrahamic faiths?

FS: The only way devotees of these religions can serve the cause for equality is by renouncing those aspects which undermine equality in all its forms. This is what some Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers almost seem to do – downplaying or distorting certain aspects; over-emphasizing or transforming others – but it demands an approach to their religious texts, traditions and practices which is so selective that the end result might as well be the formation of a spin-off sect. Ultimately, religious beliefs and practices are human, social constructions. For the religiously-inclined, it would be better to rip up the old blueprints and start again.

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You can follow Francesca on Twitter here and find out more about her academic career and research here.

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About The Author

Vicky Beeching is a theologian, writer and broadcaster who focuses on the areas of religion, feminism and technology. She is a regular on TV and radio discussing her areas of interest. Vicky is currently doing PhD research on the ethics of the Internet, exploring how online technology is shaping society. She lives in central London.

16 Comments

  1. Mark August 18, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    Interesting! It would be good for you to get some women who were atheistic feminists and then converted to Christianity and came to opposite conclusions.

  2. Cameron August 19, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Thank you! I looooove Francesca Stavrakopoulou 🙂 I’m guessing this inspiration for this interview was your appearance together on “The Big Questions?” I loved seeing Francesca take that sexist rabbi down a peg or two 🙂

  3. Frederic Heath-Renn August 19, 2013 at 10:58 am

    Minor pedantry:

    “whether the issue is veiling, male circumcision, segregated worship or women bishops, all three religions attest to the on-going problematizing of women’s bodies…”

    Should that be “female circumcision” or am I misunderstanding something?

  4. Mark August 19, 2013 at 2:50 pm

    Those last two paragraphs were pretty much in-your-face telling it like it is, and a powerful summing up.
    That’s how I’ve always felt about things like this, including homosexual believers, who have to explain their following of the religions in such a way, that it always sounds to me like they are being a bit of an acrobat in avoiding what seems obvious to me.

  5. karen August 19, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    In her argument about religion, I have to say Francesca is very persuasive… Its a bit depressing really. However as a Christian I still believe that a good chunk of our religion is God made rather than man made, and in those parts I see true equality. Still, she highlights the very real difficulties for women of faith in a patriarchal system.

  6. Kim Rippere August 19, 2013 at 8:28 pm

    As an atheist feminist leader, I find the pairing of any of the major religions and feminist impossible to understand. One of Christianity’s main principles is that women are less. How can you be both less and equal? What if you do not conform to traditional gender roles?

    • Adrian B August 22, 2013 at 1:23 pm

      Can you tell me where in Christ’s teaching (i.e. the source for the “main principles of Christianity) you get the teaching that women are less?

      • Grainger August 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm

        Genesis 3:16
        1 Corinthians 11:3
        1 Corinthians 14:34-36
        Ephesians 5:22-24
        Colossians 3:18
        1 Timothy 2:11-15
        Titus 2:4-5
        1 Peter 3:1

  7. David Lamb August 19, 2013 at 10:19 pm

    Francesca makes some great points. I agree with much of what she says here, but let’s not downplay the radical nature of Genesis 1. Men and women made in the image of God. Women are god-like. (Men are too, but most already think that.) You don’t find that anywhere in antiquity. Not even in much of the modern world. In the Old Testament, Israel essentially had a female president and pope in Deborah (judge and prophet). While the UK’s had a female PM in the 20th century, in the US we have yet to have a female president. In this regard the OT is much more progression than our culture.

  8. Lisa August 19, 2013 at 10:57 pm

    I completely disagree with her last two responses. They require me to have a literalist view of scripture (which I do not), and that my faith can’t offer me a framework where social equality is fundamental. As for “attainable” – atheists and believers both have done a great job being sexist, racist, classist etc… (as a Christian I call that sin).
    I do not, and would never, say that an atheist cannot be a true feminist, but Dr. Stavrakopoulou seems quite content to tell me that I am not a “good” feminist because I am a Christian. But I do not accept this. I refer to one of my heroes, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that no one can make me feel inferior without my consent. I do not consent or accept her judgment regarding my feminism. In fact, I would argue this is exactly what the patriarchy wants – for us to be judging each other about the definition and requirements for feminism, rather than fighting the patriarchy. Agreed, there are strains of all the faiths that are just awful towards those who aren’t white males, but not all, and certainly not the Christian denomination in which I am ordained.

    • Maaly August 20, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Holding a faith does not make a person a good or not a good feminist, their definition of women rights does. It’s a fact that, influenced by a religion, many people view women rights in a way that is not consitent at all with the global definition of human rights, yet they claim they are feminists. This is why when discussing women rights with a person who consider themselves religious and femmnist, one have to make sure what ‘women rights’ they are talking about.

  9. Rev Peter Ratcliff August 20, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Biblical womanhood and family is far better than the elusive feminist idealism that destroys the beautiful God created order for blessing. Men and women are made for one another, not to compete. Feminism assumes singleness is the norm.

  10. Julian Skidmore August 20, 2013 at 11:27 am

    @Peter Ratcliff.

    “Men and women are made for one another, not to compete.” Surely, this doesn’t make sense. If Feminism is understood to be about gender equality, then it cannot mean that men and women are made to compete – because competing implies an attempt to dominate: to demonstrate one is better than the other.

    -cheers from Julz

  11. Hoylus August 20, 2013 at 11:59 am

    Would have loved Francesca to have been pushed to give some examples of Jesus more often than not conforming to social norms.

    And yes, as some have said – the bible says male and female are made in God’s image, not just men.

    Been doing a little reading into Genesis 3 recently and the ‘dominion of men’ in the OT is part of the curse following the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which is overturned in Jesus, in whom there is ‘no male and female’. (as it says in Galatians.)

  12. Kim Rippere August 21, 2013 at 2:43 am

    Your faith is one thing. The teachings and dogma of your religion are another.

    If you are of X religion you subscribe to the teachings; that is what is meant when someone says they are a Catholic (or whatever). If you don’t subscribe to the teachings you aren’t of that religion; you are something else.

  13. Adrian B August 22, 2013 at 11:53 am

    As someone who “is respected and despaired of” by Francesca, and someone who knows her well, she wont mind me saying that she misunderstands how Christians approach the bible. For Christians (unlike the other world faiths), we have Jesus has the starting point, centre point and end point for our understanding of scripture. So his message, his motives and his methods are normative and is the lens by which all other NT texts (and OT for that matter) have to be interpretted. This is not selective, this just happens to be our faith.

    His clear message is that God’s gracious love goes to all people, and he demonstrates that equality by accepting people from all backgrounds, men and women, Jew and Samaritan, religious and “tax-collectors/prostitutes/sinners”, and having women as key players in his group. This radical welcome and table fellowship was such a scandal it got him killed.

    When Christianity began, women occupied key leadership roles (FS is right that how this role was downgraded by future generations was shameful), and a Christian church was the only place where men and women, young and old, slave and free, and rich and poor worshipped together. Come to think of it, it is still the only social organisation where this happens week in week out.

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