Equality not superiority

Sunday, 12 September 2010

It's always disappointing when spaces which should be characterized by tolerance and acceptance turn into exactly the opposite. This weekend I've been watching at first with interest and then with growing anger as drama has exploded in the comments of this post over at The F Word.

When I first read Laura's blog post on comments made by Church of England priest Miranda Threlfall-Holmes about women and the church it felt very timely. Just recently I've had to deal with some things that meant her reminders about Jesus's commitment to the marginalised, those who were 'different' and his disregard for societal convention in choosing friends were very reassuring to me.

I am a Christian feminist. A feminist Christian. I'm not quite sure which way sounds best. It's a phrase that doesn't sit well with a lot of people; the Christians who don't like feminism and the feminists who don't like Christianity. By and large I've always been able to use those two words together just fine. Talking and writing about the intersection of the two belief systems is something I've done a fair bit of and it's always good to see a piece on a major site like The F Word dealing with religion.

By writing the post about Threlfall-Holmes's comments, Laura hoped people would discuss the things she talked about - her worries that some people are still making the church an unfriendly place for women, that they are forgetting Jesus's radical treatment of women and the importance he accorded his female friends. It could have been good.

Unfortunately the discussion was derailed right from the start, the voices of religious women who may have wanted to contribute silenced - by those who felt that the issue of whether Jesus was actually a real person was more important. In the very first comment on the post, Amy Clare asked whether there was any evidence that Jesus existed. She closed her comment with the words:
"Repeat: there is *no evidence*. Sorry if that's inconvenient."
Next we heard from Zelda:
"Still, it's all fairytales... no substance, only speculation...Religion (esp organised religion) has done much more harm than good, especially for women. Why is she still in the C o E? Why hasn't she walked out in a rage..."
It's telling that many people commenting subsequently - Christians and atheists alike, felt the need to point out that actually, there's plenty of evidence that Jesus was a real person. Many of these people also commented that they weren't impressed by the sentiments expressed above. Said Ruth:
"As an historian by training, I find it two parts risible and eight parts offensive that you dismiss ("sorry if it's inconvenient") written records (and records are a lot more than official documents)."
In response, Amy Clare wrote:
"Do you really not care whether people you meet tell you the truth about things? Seriously? If you *do* care about truth from the standpoint of your everyday life, but don't care about it when it comes to religious texts, why the distinction?
...I'll always believe in gender equality and call myself a feminist but I just don't want to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don't matter."
Here's the part where I lay out how I feel about this. Let's start at the beginning. The purpose of Laura's post was NOT to discuss the evidence for and against the existence of Jesus and the truth of what his followers believe. It was NOT to discuss faith schools and what constitutes 'indoctrination' by parents. The purpose of the post was to discuss women in the church. Whether atheists like it or not, there are a lot of religious feminists out there. And guess what? We're all part of the same movement. As far as the aims of the movement go, their lack of religious belief does not make them any more important, enlightened or intelligent than our personal faith does for us.

Some people need to remember that. The fact that from the off, some people wanted the discussion to centre on disproving Christianity was dismissive and silencing. I have no doubt that it was off-putting to some women of faith who might have had very valid contributions to make, but may have felt marginalised and attacked by the way their beliefs were referred to.

There absolutely should be room for religious women - whatever their religion - within feminism. I have never met a religious feminist who thinks her religion should have the monopoly on the women's movement and that's because we should be working together for the good of ALL women, whatever they believe in.

My feminism supports and builds up and listens. My feminism does not belittle and attempt to claim intellectual superiority over matters of faith. Being obsessed at all costs with concrete evidence is flawed, as plenty of people commenting on the post pointed out. Repeatedly asking women to justify their religious beliefs in the face of insults and disrespect goes against what so many of us stand for and is NOT acceptable.

One point which came up a few times was the fact that Christianity (and other religions) have been used as a tool of oppression and hatred for centuries. This much is true, I can't deny it. But as someone said to me afterwards, it's important to realise that although things done in the name of Christianity are abhorrent and that others continue to feed poison into many peoples' lives, these are the works of people, not of God. God's truth is positive and freeing and a force for good.

Laura was right when she commented to say that the opportunity for decent discussion between Christian women on that post had been closed down immediately. What could have been incredibly interesting and enlightening was derailed in the worst way possible. I'm pleased that the collective plans to amend its charter and comment policy to reflect the fact that religious women should be free to discuss issues surrounding their faith without attack and ridicule.

For those who felt the need to derail and silence, what did you achieve? You left plenty of people very angry and disappointed that such intolerance should characterize what could have been a fascinating comment thread.

I think it continues to be a problem that some church groups paint feminism and feminists in a very negative light, one frequent accusation being that our aims are contrary to 'God's plan' (for those Christians who believe in male headship, patriarchy or even those letting it hinge on single issues like abortion rights). This is discouraging to a lot of people, not least burgeoning Christian feminists who might be unsure how they fit into the church or how they might fit into feminism itself because of their beliefs. When they see comments threads like this, I'm afraid it DOES show the movement in a negative light.

And the comment about not wanting to be part of a movement where truth and evidence don't matter? As I said before, atheists have not got and will never have a monopoly on the women's movement. If 'truth and evidence' no longer matter because respecting the faiths of all women does, because including ALL women whatever their culture and whatever their religion does, I'm happy to stay part of it. And if you can't deal with this necessity for tolerance and respect then maybe it isn't for you.

Earlier this year there was an interesting post by Renee Martin at Womanist Musings entitled Liberal Spaces and Christianity. The post dealt with the way individual Christians are often attacked by those who link their personal beliefs with the unpleasant actions of fundamentalists, of bigoted people who spout hatred in the name of Jesus and how this is problematic in feminist spaces - not least because it can also become a race issue. The post ends with a quote I felt it was important to post here.

"If you silence voices that would help you, then you are denying a valuable resource that could potentially be marshalled in the cause of justice. The next time you are thinking of saying why doesn’t someone speak out, remember that I do everyday and it is because I am a Christian."

Note: I will not be responding to any calls to justify or 'prove' my faith which may appear in the comments. It's just not what this post is about.


Anonymous said...

Honestly Hannah, I think finding you has been such an important thing in my life. You're such a huge inspiration and everytime I read your posts I think YES!
Although I've drifted pretty far from organised religion in the last 6 or 7 years, I still call myself a Christian and one of the most important aspects of this, to me, is the radical aspect of Jesus' teachings. It gives me hope when I feel like there isn't any left in the world and that I can't cope with all the hate, racism, sexism, ageism and everything else. x

DaveW said...

Great post. Thanks Hannah.

RedHead said...

I don't understand this need by bored athiests to mock people who have a little faith. That comment about whether Jesus existed or not was a cheap, irrelevant shot and completely devalued the whole discussion. It's like when you have an argument with your brother about who plays X character in X film and he responds with 'well, yeah, but you smell, so....' It doesn't make us, the ones who choose to believe, look stupid, it makes them look stupid for not being mature and intelligent enough to try and engage us in intelligent discussion, taking the easy way out by mocking. Oh it infuriates me, and I'm not even that devout.

sianandcrookedrib said...

great post. you know me, i'm an atheist for my own reasons but i was really hoping that debate would be about how you can have faith and be a feminist (of course you can!) and how we can see acts done in the name of religion do not reflect the teachings or heart of that religion. i want to hear views of religious feminists, just as i want to hear views of atheist feminists, because we are all working together to make the world better for women and men. it's fascinating to me how religion has been twisted by interpretation to be harmful or repressive of women, and i want to hear what women are doing (as the woman on the tv show) to combat this. particularly in light of the pope's move to stop women being ordained. i have always understood jesus to have been pro woman.

it was also personally annoying because i really disagree with one of the commenter's views on animal rights but i would NEVER dismiss or write off her views in the way she wrote of religious feminist views.

it should have been a good and interesting debate. instead it silenced women and meant even atheist women such as me had to get tied in to semantic knots to say why we should respect each other.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

It always infuriates me when I see a discussion, potentially a very fruitful discussion, commandeered by a handful of selfish commenters.

I've been on the receiving end of it-- my post was co-opted by a couple of men who wanted me to justify my feminism instead of writing respectfully about the specific topic-- and it got to the point where all I could do was sputter at the computer screen and turn off the comments.

Hannah Mudge said...

Tamsin, thank you so much :) I think it really is important that we emphasise the radical aspect of Jesus's teachings because for so many people, Christianity means bigoted, unpleasant people who just want to judge. Obviously this needs to change!

RedHead, yes it was definitely the 'easy way out' and pretty immature. It's always infuriating, particularly coming from people who probably pride themselves on being so liberal and enlightened :S

Totally agree Sian, I'm glad that at least some atheists are able to respect the fact that people might have religious beliefs and that shockingly enough, they're not stupid for having these beliefs.

Christina, that seems to happen a lot when feminism is discussed! I've had it happen to me a lot with discussions about religion and feminism. Critics: 'Being a feminist is un-Biblical. If you're a feminist you're not following God's word and therefore you're not being a proper Christian'. Me: 'That wasn't what this was about'. Critics: 'If you say you are a feminisat you go against the word of God. How can you do this?!?!' etc etc etc. SIGH.


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