Evaluate the view that religion is oppressive (20 marks).
One argument that argues that religion is oppressive is made by Karen Armstrong, she argues that women hold no positions of power in religions. Religious organisations are mainly male dominated despite the fact that women often participate more than men in these organisations. For example, Orthodox Judaism and Catholicism forbid women to become priests or any high positions. Karen Armstrong sees exclusion from priesthood as evidence for women’s marginalisation in religions. However, she also argues that early religions often placed women at the center, for example fertility cults and female priesthood that were found throughout the Middle east around 6,000 years ago.
On the other hand of the argument Linda Woodhead critiques feminist explanations that simply equate religion with patriarchy and the oppression women face. As she accepts that traditional religion is patriarchal, she emphasizes that this isn’t true for all religions. She uses the example of Muslim women who wear hijabs or veils. While western feminists tend to see this a something oppressive, to the actual wearer it’s means of liberation. Some Muslim women wear the hijab to gain parental approval to get a job or enter higher education. Muslim women see the hijab as a symbol of liberation that enable them to go out into the public sphere whilst being modest. As Muslim women see this as a means of liberation, it contrasts from the view that religion is oppressive.
In Marx’s view, religion operates as an ideological weapon used by the ruling class to legitimate the suffering of the poor as something inevitable and God-given. Religion misleads the poor into believing that their suffering is virtuous, and they will be favoured in the afterlife, this therefore leads poor people to continue to be oppressed and exploited as they believe it’s something they cannot change. Similarly, Lenin’s view says that the ruling class use religion cynically to manipulate the masses and keep them from attempting to overthrow the ruling class by creating a ‘mystical fog’ which obscures reality, which is just essentially what religion creates to further oppress the working class. However, Marx ignores the positive functions of religion such as psychological adjustment to misfortune, Neo-Marxists see certain form of religion as assisting not hindering the development of people and their consciousness.
On the contrary, women may use religion to gain status and respect for their roles with their own private sphere of home and family. Elisabeth Brusco found in Colombia, that belonging to a Pentecostal group can be empowering for women. Even though groups like these have strong beliefs in gender roles, women are still able to influence and obtain power. For example, one strong value that they hold is that men must respect women, this gives women the power to manipulating men in insisting that they refrain from ‘macho’ behaviour. Similarly, women make use of the activities that their religion provides such as bible study groups, where they can share their experiences and gain support from other women. This is against the argument that religion can be oppressive as women can gain power and support from their religion.
Lastly, according to Simone de Beauvoir, religion is used by men to oppress women and to compensate for them for the second-class status. De Beauvoir argued that historically, men, who have traditionally controlled institutions in society and also control religion. It is men who control religion beliefs, and they use God to justify over their control of society. Religion deceives women into thinking that are equal to, or even better than men, despite their inferior status in actual society. For example, the role of mother is given a high status in most religions, and thus encourages women to accept the role of ‘mother’ in society. Religion also provides psychological rewards for women who content themselves with being ‘good mothers’, simply being a ‘good mother’ is ‘divine’, and this effectively carries its own psychological and status rewards for women who accept this role. This just reinforces the fact that women are manipulated to take roles they may not want or be shamed if they don’t take up the role of the ‘mother’. This just results in women not being seen as equal or good enough by other women or men if they don’t take up this role and therefore are oppressed in this sense.
While this may be true, liberal protestant organisations such as the Quakers or the unitarians are often committed to gender equality and the women playing the leading roles. For example, a third of unitarian ministers are female and the church of England, the official state church in England, has had female priests since 1992 and female bishops since 2015, over fifth of their priests are female. These are examples of women who are in high positions using religion.
In conclusion, religion can be oppressive to certain large groups. However, while religion maybe used to oppress women, Nawal El Saadawi argues that it is not the direct cause of subordination. Rather, this is the result of the patriarchal forms of society coming into existence in the last few thousands year. However, once in existence patriarchy began to influence and reshape religion, thus certain religions now contribute to women’s oppression.