Social organization refers to the way that a society organizes relationships between people. One of the things that religion does in many societies, but not all, is to explain social relationships and reinforce the sanctions that preserve them. In many societies, religion has often been used to explain things such as social inequality (some families have been chosen by God to rule; some people were chosen by God to be slaves) and the social superiority of men.
In his book The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why It Endures, Nicholas Wade writes:
“Religions are powerful creators of social fact. And it’s not merely facts they create, but a binding emotional knowledge that these facts are sacred truths.”
Thus, in many societies, religious teachings emphasize the “naturalness” and “sacred nature” of the patriarchy in which men are viewed as superior to women; men are more important than women; men are to be “breadwinners” while women are supposed to be mothers, “housewives,” and breeding machines. The social roles of men and women, according to religious teachings, are not only sacred truths but many people believe that they are scientific facts. Many religions emphasize or reinforce the idea of patriarchy as natural, as given to humans by a deity, and therefore women are to be subject to rule, domination, and ownership by men.
In some Christian traditions, women are seen as inherently sinful, as tempting men to disobey their god. Thus, in some Christian sects, women are not allowed to conduct religious ceremonies. The great Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas once taught that females developed from a defective seed. Many believe that women are, of course, incomplete unless controlled by a man.
During the nineteenth century in the United States and in some European countries, women began to be vocal about their subordinate legal, economic, social, and political states. Women began to question if patriarchy was really “natural” and “god-given.” As women in the United States began to organize to obtain more rights, including the right to vote, there were a few who began to question the religious underpinnings of patriarchy which were used to suppress women’s rights.
In 1895, Elizabeth Cady Stanton published her book The Woman’s Bible and argued against the biblically based arguments which call for the subordination of women. She wrote:
“The real difficulty in woman’s case is that the whole foundation of the Christian religion rests on her temptation and man’s fall.”
Stanton embraced the theory of evolution as put forth by Charles Darwin as an argument against the subordination of women. She wrote:
“If, however, we accept the Darwinian theory, that the race has been a gradual growth from the lower to a higher form of life, and the story of the fall is a myth, we can exonerate the snake, emancipate the woman, and reconstruct a more rational religion for the nineteenth century.”
More recently, writing for Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Secular Humanism, columnist Katha Politt has suggested that:
“the subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion—the original rulebook for patriarchy.”
Patriarchy refers to a society in which men tend to exert a great deal of control over women and the ideology of a male god is often used to make the economic and political subordination of women seem legitimate, sacred, and somehow natural.
When the first English-speaking colonists began their invasion of North America, they described Native Americans as “living by the hunt” in spite of the fact Native Americans were farmers whose surplus agricultural products fed the first English colonists. The problem was that Indian women were the farmers and owned the fields and the produce. To those who viewed the world through patriarchal eyes, the work of women didn’t count and hence it was important to create the hunting myth to reinforce men’s economic contributions.
Under the patriarchy, men control women’s bodies. Thus the first Europeans were shocked by the fact that Indian women controlled their own bodies and could freely express their sexuality.
Under the patriarchy, men owned their wives and the children they produced. This was expressed—and continues to be expressed—in having the wives and their children use the man’s surname. The Europeans had a difficult time understanding that in many American Indian cultures, women could freely divorce their husbands, that they could have more than one husband at a time, and that their children belonged to the mother’s family rather than to the father’s family.
Rather than see the numerous American Indian examples which surrounded them as evidence that patriarchy wasn’t “natural,” the Europeans simply forced patriarchy and Christianity upon the Indians.
Many writers have commented on the sexism and patriarchy of today’s major religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism—which places women in secondary roles in both religion and in daily life. A number of scholars who have explored the foundational history of these religions, however, have pointed out that initially these major religions tended to be egalitarian and that patriarchy came later. With regard to Islam, Karen Armstrong, in her book Islam: A Short History, writes:
“The women of the first ummah in Medina took full part in its public life, and some, according to Arab custom, fought alongside the men in battle. They did not seem to have experienced Islam as an oppressive religion, though later, as happened in Christianity, men would hijack the faith and bring it into line with the prevailing patriarchy.”
Within many religions, fundamentalism seeks a return to an idealized past which is often strongly patriarchal. Karen Armstrong writes:
“Because the emancipation of women has been one of the hallmarks of modern culture, fundamentalists tend to emphasize conventional, agrarian gender roles, putting women back into veils and into the home.”
In the twentieth century, many women began the search for possible women-centered religions which would reinforce their ideals of feminism. Katha Politt writes:
“To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back into prehistory, to mother-goddess cults about which we know little and that in any case cannot be proven to have reflected or shaped a matriarchal society in which women were powerful and independent social actors (though it would be nice to think that they did so).”
In her book When God Was a Woman, Merlin Stone writes:
“In prehistoric and historic periods of human development, religions existed in which people revered their supreme creator as female. The Great Goddess—the Divine Ancestress—had been worshiped from the beginnings of the Neolithic periods of 7000 BC until the closing of the last Goddess temples, about AD 500.”
Merlin Stone also writes:
“Archaeological, mythological and historical evidence all reveal that the female religion, far from naturally fading away, was the victim of centuries of continual persecution and suppression by the advocates of the newer religions which held male deities as supreme.”
In seeking spiritual and religious alternatives to the traditional patriarchal religions, the ancient pre-Christian European religious traditions have inspired new religions which are often grouped as Neo-Pagan by scholars. In her book Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshipers, & Other Pagans in America Today, Margot Adler writes:
“It is not surprising that spiritual feminists, in their explorations of the hidden and distorted history of women, have been attracted by the idea of a universal age of goddess worship or a universal stage of matriarchy. These women have been reexamining those philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and psychologists who have argued that women in the ancient world held a position of relative power.”
The best-known of these Neo-Pagan religions is Wicca, a designation that includes many diverse religious traditions which tend to be experiential rather than dogmatic.