Social Traditions versus Religious Traditions

I’ve been reading  Of Virgins and Martyrs which more-or-less explores the role of women in world culture. David Jacobson, the author, frames the discussion around religious traditions, which themselves generally arose in patriarchal societies. Religious conservatives world-wide often oppose expansions of womens’ rights. I think this often arises because many religious conservatives like to conflate social traditions with religious obligations. Neither Jesus nor Mohammed explicitly relegated women to a second class status (never mind what St. Paul had to say). 

However, both savior and prophet arose in a patriarchal society. It’s easy to portray both as patriarchal or even misogynistic by over-interpreting their social interactions.

I’m no expert in Islam – I’ve never even read a translation of the Q’uran. Most of what I say is based on reading books and articles by various scholars or other interested writers. For example, the book Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance draws a very different picture of how women in Islam use the veil, both in Middle Eastern societies and in the west, than a western liberal might consider. Another book, Reading Lolita in Tehran, draws yet another picture of women struggling for independent thought in the Mideast.

Jacobson’s book, Of Virgins and Martyrs, notes that classical Islam arose in the tribal culture of the Arabs. The areas dominated by Arab culture, primarily the Mideast and parts of north Africa, exhibit far less progress for women than other parts of the developing world. This includes non-Arab Islamic countries. Indonesia, the largest Islamic country, offers more opportunities for women than they find in Arab countries. The situation for women in Indonesia is similar to the rest of eastern Asia.

What About Christianity?

I’ve read a lot of the Bible, and attended a lot of Sunday School, as well as having read lots of commentaries on Christianity ancient and modern. I’m no scholar in the subject, but I know a thing or two.

First a digression: Back in the ancient era of 1975, the scholar David F. Noble (1945-2010) was at MIT and sharing an office with sociologist Sally Hacker. Noble was writing a history of electrical engineering. Hacker was studying the role of women in engineering, and pointedly asked Noble why relatively few women pursued careers in science. The eventual result was A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Culture of Western Science. Noble traced the women-free tradition back to the Catholic Church, the celibate male clergy, and its central role in the evolution of modern academia.

I often recommend Noble’s book to people who wonder how such a thing evolved. Noble answers the question by first asking why the celibate clergy evolved in the Christian church. He notes that there were in fact a lot of notable women in the early church, both in the age of Christ and in the earliest centuries of the church. It was only as the church became more “organized” that it also became more patriarchal.

Now, Catholics aren’t going to discard their patriarchal traditions, because patriarchy plays such a fundamental role. Catholic societies tend to be hierarchical and patriarchal in both the religious and governmental spheres. However, I would ask people to recognize that a lot of Christians don’t see patriarchy and hierarchy as part of Christ’s own teachings.

Patriarchy plays a central role in Arab culture, but Jacobson’s book argues that neither Arab government nor religion reflect the deep hierarchies arising from Rome and the Catholic church. Jacobson notes that the city of Baghdad was originally laid out in a giant circle, with the palace in the center. The layout reflected that everyone was equidistant from the ruler. Likewise in Islam, there is no elaborate hierarchy. Every member of the faithful has a personal relationship with Allah. There is no real notion of “priesthood” versus “laity.” Respected religious leaders do not mediate between Allah and the rest.

Marriage and Religion 

It’s interesting how people treat a relatively recent social phenomenon as a fundamental part of civilization. Yes, “marriage” is a recognized custom in every culture. However, modern US law merges the concept of marriage with that of household, and provides many household essentials exclusively through legal marriage. Think health care, pooled bank accounts, taxes, simplified inheritance, shared responsibilities for children, and so on.

John Boswell, the former chair of Yale’s history department, published the book Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe in the early 1990s. Boswell interprets materials from early Christianity as illustrating same-sex unions. Some decry this as politically-motivated revisionism, since Boswell was gay and died of AIDS. More recently, theologian Daniel Maguire posted a blog entry highlighting same-sex marriage in major world religions.

While such writings aren’t conclusive, they suggest that the world is indeed more complicated than we might want to believe. Many people, myself included, tend to be conservative simply because it makes things easier to think about.

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