I was raised in a conservative Christian home and was a leader in the Christian homeschool speech and debate world.
Contrary to many people’s expectations, I “rebelled,” in the sense that my upbringing lead me to the sort of activism many conservative Christians fear most. But life is not linear and I am not a stereotype. My rebellion may have led me to fight for marginalized groups, but it didn’t lead me towards anti-Christianity, let alone militant atheism.
That’s not a comment on the value of Christianity or the value of atheism. It’s simply descriptive. I left the Religious Right, but I don’t exactly feel at home anywhere else either.
One reason for this is that, as I’ve tried to find a new home, I’ve found that the problems that caused me to forsake the culture of my youth are just as present in other cultures. The fight against sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, for example, transcends sectarian lines. More importantly, the problems of sexism, homophobia, and transphobia themselves also transcend sectarian lines.
Part of dismantling the fundamentalism of my youth was realizing — just as one example — how horrifyingly cruel the Christian Church has treated women throughout the ages.
Saul “Paul” of Tarsus (c. 5-67):
Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission.
Saint Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215):
Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.
Tertullian (c. 160-225):
Woman is a temple built over a sewer.
Augustine (c. 354 – 430)
What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman… I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.
Martin Luther (c. 1483-1546):
The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.
John Wesley (c. 1703-1791):
Wife: Be content to be insignificant. What loss would it be to God or man had you never been born.
Mark Driscoll (c. 1970-present):
Women will be saved by going back to that role that God has chosen for them. Ladies, if the hair on the back of your neck stands up it is because you are fighting your role in the scripture.
I am ashamed and disgusted by this heritage.
I am angry that no one bothered to talk about this when I was raised to respect such people. I am dismayed that, through its continual silence about this history of sexism and misogyny, the Christian Church refuses to own its past.
This is exactly why I left my culture.
Yet I cannot run with open arms into the embrace of other cultures. Take atheism, for example. The history of atheism is similarly riddled with sexism and misogyny.
Denis Diderot (c. 1713-84) on the woman’s uterus, “Sur les Femmes”:
Woman carries inside herself an organ that is susceptible to terrible spasms, determining and arousing in her imagination phantoms of every kind. It is in this hysterical delirium that she revisits her past, rushes forward into the future, confuses all time into the present. It is from this organ, unique to her gender that all sorts of extraordinary ideas emanate. ~ Denis Diderot (c. 1713-84)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (c. 1712-1778), “On the Origin of Inequality”:
Woman are to be “the sex that ought to obey.”
Concerning patriarchy, Rousseau sets forth the following according to John T. Scott in The Social Contract: “[Patriarchy is] assumed to exist according to the dictates of nature. Emile is advised that ‘the patriarchical rural life’ is ‘the most natural’ for men, and the young Sophie is correspondingly told that when Emile becomes her husband, ‘It is the will of nature’ that she should obey him as her master.”
According to Scott, Rousseau justifies the patriarchical dominion of man over woman in his Discourse on Political Economy in the following way: “There must be a single, final authority within the family to decide issues on which opinion is divided. Second, since women are sometimes, however infrequently, incapacitated by their reproductive functions, this single authority must belong to the male.”
Arthur Schopenhauer (c. 1788-1860), from “On Women”:
One needs only to see the way she is built to realize that woman is not intended for great mental or for great physical labor… Women are suited to being the nurses and teachers of our earliest childhood precisely because they themselves are childish, silly and short-sighted, in a word big children, their whole lives long: a kind of intermediate stage between the child and the man, who is the actual human being, ‘man.’
Auguste Comte (c. 1798-1857), in letters of correspondence to John Stuart Mill:
[Comte] returned to his comparison between woman and children, calling women ill-formed children, and added that his conception of domestic life was “definition,” empirically drawn from an experience of over twenty years. He became blunt, spoke of women’s “inborn inferiority,” of their being unfit for abstraction and intellectual concentration; he accused them of being unable to overcome passion, of yielding to feelings… Comte concluded that education and training cannot alter the basic inferiority of women… Comte refused to even discuss the merits or potential of an appropriate education… For Comte, the primary function of women remained what it had been traditionally: that of motherhood.
Friedrich Nietzsche (c. 1844-1900), “Ecce Homo”:
Has my answer been heard to the question of how one cures a woman—“redeems” her? One gives her a child. Woman needs children.
Nietzsche, “Beyond Good and Evil”:
Here and there they even want to turn women into freethinkers and scribblers—as if a woman without piety would not seem utterly obnoxious and ridiculous to a profound and godless man.
Nietzsche, “Thus Spake Zarathustra”:
Women are still cats and birds. Or at best cows.
Ayn Rand (c. 1905-1982), writing for her hero protagonist Hank Reardon in Atlas Shrugged, who is reflecting on his wife:
She seemed to be a woman who expected and deserved a pedestal; this made him want to drag her down to his bed. To drag her down, were the words in his mind; they gave him a dark pleasure, the sense of a victory worth winning … He felt – a profound pride at the thought of granting to a woman the title of his wife … almost as if he felt that he wished to honor a woman by the act of possessing her.
Richard Dawkins (c. 1941-present), attempting to downplay the sexual harassment of American women by joking about violence against Muslim women:
Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.
Sexism and misogyny are universal problems.
I don’t say that to minimize the problems. I don’t say that to deflect with a “Hey, you’re a misogynistic asshole too!” I say that simply as a personal explanation of why I am reticent to join a new community — whether Christian, atheist, Buddhist, or whatever.
I want to surround myself by people who take the struggle against oppression and marginalization seriously. That means I won’t surround myself simply with Christians or simply with atheists. I will welcome anyone and everyone who takes the struggle seriously, regardless of their opinions about whether a magical old white guy lives in the sky.
And sometimes the hardest thing to communicate is the first and foremost thing we all need to recognize in the struggle: the history of sexism and misogyny belongs to all of us.
We need to own this together.