Why Are Religions Misogynist?

19 Jun

Besides the obvious/superficial answer “religions were invented by premodern men”, take a look at this conversation over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog that explains it a bit better:

P.Z. Myers:

Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.

David Sloan Wilson can argue all he wants that religion helped promote group survival in our evolutionary history, or that his group selectionist models somehow explain its origins, but it doesn’t matter. Here and now, everywhere, those with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.

Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?

David Sloan Wilson:

Myers the ideologue thinks that he can demonstrate the harmful effects of religion on human welfare with a single word — WOMEN. Here’s how a scientist would set about studying women in relation to men. The first step would be to ask what evolutionary theory predicts about male-female relationships and how the predictions are borne out in nonhuman species. That inquiry would show that sexual conflict is common in the animal world and that the kind of sexual equality that has become a virtue in contemporary western society evolves by genetic evolution only under special circumstances. Among the great apes, gibbons are monogamous, bonobos form female coalitions that resist domination by males, and males boss females around in all of the other species (and most other primate species). None of this variation can be explained by religion.

The second step would be to see if variation in male-female relations within the human species can be explained by the same evolutionary dynamics that explain cross-species variation. For example, it is likely that in both cases, the ability of males to control resources needed by females will result in sexual inequality. This is one reason why agricultural societies are more patriarchal than hunter-gatherer societies — regardless of their religions.

To measure the effect of a given religion on sexual inequality, that religion should be compared to the other cultural forms (religious and otherwise) that existed at the same time and place, such as early Christianity vs. Roman pagan society, early Islam vs. the many Arabic cultures of the region, or Christianity vs. scientific views about sexual equality in Britain during the Victorian era. I won’t try to second-guess the result of such an inquiry, but I do know this — it isn’t self-evident.

So why are religions misogynist? Because religions are a product of evolution, and evolution is “misogynist”.

As far as evolution is concerned — at least, what would be the most successful reproductive strategy based on the design and function of the sexes — women are valuable and men are expendable. Something that is valuable has to be kept safe and hidden away, lest you lose it. Something that is expendable is free to go out and get killed. This is built into our biology to make sure the species maximizes reproductive success.

That’s why I put “misogynist” in scare quotes.

If a man and a woman were both trapped in a building on fire, and the firefighters could only save one person before the building collapsed, who is the instinctual person most people would save? The woman. This makes sense from an evolutionary framework. If there were some apocalypse that reduced us to the stone age, the society with 100 women and 1 man (i.e. the society that kept women repressed and men maximally expendable) will outbreed the society that has 1 woman and 100 men. That’s why polygyny is the most common form of relationships in human history. That’s why we “slut shame”: Slut shaming — where men can sleep with as many women as they want while women are shamed for doing the same — assumes polygyny, since that’s the only arrangement where a man can sleep with a lot of women while women only sleep with one or very few men.

Thus, any religion that doesn’t reflect this evolutionary instincts to “value” women (that is a tricky word since I’m talking about reproductive value and not humanistic value, i.e. feminism) would not have the same reproductive success as a religion that did “value” women.

On the other hand, in societies that don’t care about reproductive success they will tend towards equality between the sexes. This has empirical verification; the most feminist societies generally also have the lowest rates of childbirth. The most religious societies/communities have the highest (cue the Duggars). That’s because it is in men’s benefit to make sure that women have very little reproductive rights; anti-abortion sentiment is a hard-wired male desire to have as many kids by as many different women as possible. This strategy maximizes the reproductive success of the species… “mother nature” — evolution — is actually a man.

Yet, ironically, evolution still wins in a sense; the individual men in those societies who reflect the sexist nature of nature (i.e. religion) will have the most “reproductive” success. Which might be one reason for the paradox that women are more religious than men.

Basically, the misogyny of religion is proof that religions are a product of evolution. Not a hand-me-down from some god (at least no god other than a truly alien god).


Posted by on June 19, 2012 in Evolution


3 responses to “Why Are Religions Misogynist?

  1. mikespeir

    June 21, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    Take care lest you be accused of "evo psych" and consequently be dismissed out of hand.

  2. Timothy

    June 28, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    Interesting stuff.I'm not sure how daft DS Wilson is when it comes to atheism, or whether he's wrong about group selection, but I largely agree with him in the bit that you quoted. Male control of females and female sexuality is common in primates, and amenable to evolutionary explanation. Given this understanding, it becomes somehwat obvious that religions simply evolved within that framework of inequality, and men (who had the power) enshrined their biases into the dictums of the religions they created.The problem I think comes from not establishing what our definition of "religion" is (and too few atheists do this). If you define religion as "dogma associated with the supernatural," then Myers is mostly right, but also wrong. Many religions are misogynist, but not all. I would say it's more important to consider that there are misogynistic human tendencies, given certain circumstances, and that having a tradition of misogyny or written codes only makes those tendencies worse.

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