Religious Indoctrination Irish Style (Part 1)

As someone who stopped practising my Catholic religion aged fourteen at a time when Mass attendance in Ireland was, er, mass and virtually unquestioned, I have a particular interest in the subject of religious indoctrination. It is a subject which  is now a hot topic, partly because there is a backlash against the Church going on among people of my generation who feel both taken in and let down by an institution that has lost a great deal of its moral authority due to the child abuse scandals. There is also the undoubted fact that as a result of joining the  EU, Ireland has changed with startling rapidity from being what amounted to the last theocracy in the Western world into a typically modern, liberal state that is now preoccupied with throwing off the remaining shackles of its religiously authoritarian past. Indeed the current backlash against the Church is, in many ways, as knee jerk as the former obedience was blind.

My own rejection of religion was partly due to a conviction that religious belief  is irrational, on a par with belief in Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and Easter bunny; it should, I felt,  be grown out of in similar fashion. When I announced my decision to stop attending Mass, my mother was appalled. My father however, who had given up his own practice in young adulthood, simply told me to make my case. He accepted my arguments and gave me his backing, which helped me withstand my mother’s disapproval. It wasn’t until years later, for reasons I will shortly explain, that I realised my Irish Catholic education had not succeeded in conveying to me the true flavour of Christianity and that my reasons for rejecting it were flawed.

Despite my youthful atheism however, the career I chose meant that religion would be an inescapable element of my work life. As a primary school teacher in the 80s and 90s I had no choice but to accept  the religion lesson as part of the school day.  I was not particularly happy about that, but the task proved to be more interesting and pleasant than I had expected. Post Vatican 2 Religious Education had undergone radical change from the rote learning of abstract dogmatic statements of faith which had constituted my own experience of R.E., to a new emphasis on the bible.  The focus of The Children of God programme was on the person and doings of Jesus of Nazareth and on his love ethic. I found that my young pupils loved the character and the beautifully illustrated stories that depicted him. This was my first meaningful encounter with Christianity as I have come to understand it, and unbeknownst to me at the time would propel me into a career change that my younger atheistic self would have baulked at.

After about a decade of teaching, I decided that the time was right for further study; it had always been my intention to do a master’s in education at some stage, but having been out of academia  for several years I decided it might be a good thing to take a preliminary part time course to ease myself back into study mode. I found an evening course in UCD in Religious Education which, among other things, would explain the rationale for the radical change in R.E. curricula that had occurred post Vatican 2.

On that first evening in UCD, mandatory bible in hand, I braced myself for boredom but found myself totally and unexpectedly hooked by the very first lecture which happened to be in moral theology, a subject I had never heard of. The course opened up for me a new world of whose existence, despite years of compulsory R.E.  both as pupil and teacher,  I was ignorant: the rich world of theology, and its various categories. Theology literally means talk about God or, more formally, faith seeking understanding. I had been under the mistaken impression that theology was nothing more than dogmatic formulations of faith and had never heard of speculative theology. All doctrinal formulations are the result of centuries of speculation and, contrary to common perceptions, are often open to interpretation and seldom set in stone. Systematic theology analyses and critiques  the development of foundational and important doctrines such as creation, the origin of evil, the divinity of Jesus and the triunity of the one God. Moral theology focuses on the Church’s moral teachings that are derived from theological reflection on the Bible and Church tradition.

It was biblical theology however that was the real eye opener for me. Reading the Gospels in particular acquainted me for the first time with the character of Jesus of Nazareth, a person I  thought I knew but with whom I now realised I had no more than a superficial acquaintance. The Jesus who emerges from the Gospels has a far more powerful impact than the one doled out in highly ritualised liturgical portions during the Mass. Reading the Gospels was, for me, an epiphany and I understood for the first time the meaning of the phrase ‘born again Christian’. The Jesus I encountered there is, to my mind, undoubtedly the greatest and most attractive character in history. His love of humanity was lavished particularly on those who were considered the outcasts of the time; these included prostitutes, tax collectors and people with physical and mental health problems; in that era the former were often considered to be either sinners or the descendants of sinners, while the latter were thought to be possessed by demons. Jesus was non-judgemental, and saw individuals, not their labels.  Unsurprisingly he attracted a strong following among women, many of whom travelled  around with him;  they were an eclectic group  who ranged from those he had cured of physical or mental illness such as Mary Magdalene (often confused with the prostitute who washed Jesus’s feet with her hair) to well off and high status women who supported him financially: “Soon afterwards, he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the  good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza and many others who provided for him out of their resources.” (Luke 8: 1-3). To say that Mary Magdalene was cured of seven demons is to say that she was completely cured of severe mental illness. Where women were concerned, Jesus did not apply any double standard; this, together with the fact that, as Irish theologian Gina Menzies has put it “Women were all over the ministry of Jesus” was yet another shock in the context of the all-male hierarchical Church to which I was accustomed.

Jesus was also a wonderful storyteller who used parables to convey the kinder, warmer,  more just world he termed the Kingdom of God. It was his mission to inaugurate this Kingdom, which  Christians believe is evolving over time. If the words and behaviour of Jesus are anything to go by, the Kingdom is/will also be a place devoid of hypocrisy and fake piety, characteristics he despised and called out wherever he found them,  particularly in the religious establishment of the day. Most shocking of all, perhaps, for someone brought up in the authoritarian form of  Catholic Christianity that predominated in Ireland until the recent past, was Jesus’s sheer unconventionality. He took enormous social risks in ignoring the more burdensome and petty requirements of Jewish Law and by consorting publicly with people deemed the outcasts and ‘sinners’ of the time. This behaviour, combined with his great popularity, brought him to the attention of the authorities and was instrumental in his downfall.

Ultimately my theological studies led me to jettison the idea of postgraduate study in education, and instead I chose to study first for a master’s and then a PhD in theology. Within eight years I had given up my career as a primary school teacher and moved to third level teaching in theology and R.E. I had also learned that whatever I had been indoctrinated in as a child, it was not Christianity.

 If you strongly associate Christianity with a  phalanx of men in clerical garb that represents various degrees of hierarchy, and/or a legalistic straitjacket of negative moral absolutes (thou shalt not..)  whether you are atheistic, agnostic, or a believer, you have been religiously indoctrinated. So what is religious indoctrination, and more specifically what is Irish religious indoctrination? Well here’s a hint: whenever my atheistic and somewhat anti-clerical father encountered a priest or a nun,  all he was short of doing was bending the knee and kissing his/ her hand, such was his attitude of obeisance.

 If you want to know more about religious indoctrination and its causes, read my next post.

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What We Can Learn From The Cologne Incident: Political Feminism Is Vindicated, and Religion is Highly Relevant to Culture

 

The mass sexual assaults in Cologne by North African migrants have elicited criticisms of the relatively muted reaction by feminists. The sound of silence in this case, however, is most likely the result of stunned shock as much as political correctness. Women who identify as feminists and are conscious of the various ways in which the patriarchy oppresses women naturally identify and empathise with other  oppressed groups. Hence feminists will generally lend their support to those who suffer from other forms of oppression, whether it be associated with race, religion or economic circumstances.

I believe, however, that in this instance feminist identified women (and men) must show moral courage and stand together in solidarity without fear  of the inevitable accusations of racism. This is because the Cologne assaults clearly demonstrate that multiculturalism is a deeply flawed doctrine and not for the most obvious reasons.

Firstly, this was not an event that can be blamed on either the race or nationality of the perpetrators, though it cannot be denied that there is a religious/cultural dimension to it. Religion, whether we realise it or not, significantly impacts on a culture even in the secular West where church and state have been pretty well separate since the revolutions of the eighteenth century. These influences can be both healthy and unhealthy; Irish people, for example, were indoctrinated to feel guilty about sex up until the 90s, and certainly any Irish person over 40 bears a fair share of the burden of that renowned phenomenon known as Catholic sexual guilt. So it is perhaps easier for us Irish than the people of other Western cultures to understand the cultural mentality that Islam fosters in its adherents since we lived until the 90s in a society that was as close to a theocracy as made no difference. In addition, of the three Abrahamic faiths, the two more junior religions – Christianity and Islam – are noted for particularly strict sexual mores. Judaism, from which the latter are derived, has a more positive attitude towards sexuality. Of the three, Islam has by far the strictest sexual mores and the most stringent norms where female modesty is concerned. Does this mean that the inevitable sexual frustration caused to men in a society where women are covered from head to toe and sex outside marriage is strictly forbidden can be held responsible for episodes such as the one in Cologne or the dreadful mob assault perpetrated on American reporter Lara Logan in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011? If this is the case, then the underlying cause of such behaviour is at least partly  religious/cultural. Let’s turn for a moment now to the mindset of the men who perpetrated the assault and try to understand that mindset.

I  argued above that race and nationality cannot be blamed for the assaults: now I am going to suggest something that at first glance might seem controversial. This is that, strictly speaking, these were not sexual assaults as commonly understood in the West though this is irrelevant to their heinousness. Why do I say this? Well, underlying the religious/cultural scenario is, I would suggest, simple sexism in the form of the double standard, which is best conceptualised in terms of the distinction between women who are professional prostitutes and the majority who bestow their sexual favours on a man or men they have chosen. Men who go into a brothel in search of sexual gratification will not treat the women they encounter there as they would treat female family members or prospective wives and girlfriends. They will feel free to eye up and touch what to them is the ‘merchandise’: these women are openly touting for sex. Just because a woman is not a professional prostitute, however, doesn’t mean she can’t be treated like one. Women have to run a social gauntlet, unknown to men, to avoid being typecast as ‘sluts’, which means to behave in a way perceived as whorish  even though you are not a professional prostitute. If a woman habitually dresses in a way considered overly revealing, or is considered ‘easy’, men may consider her suitable for sex or affairs, but not as a potential wife. Men, of course are exempt from having to walk this sexual tightrope since the longer their list of conquests, the more they will be admired and celebrated by their peers .  Until very recently in Ireland, women who had children out of wedlock could be stigmatised for life, and worse. It goes without saying that one of the main aims of political feminism in the West has been to challenge such stereotypes in order to ultimately destroy them. Political feminism in the West, which properly began with Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in the eighteenth century, has succeeded in gaining sufficient rights and freedoms for women to greatly dilute – if not fully defeat – the effects of the double standard, as we will shortly see.

Now consider the Muslim immigrants who have been conditioned to believe that Western women are decadent and immodest in comparison to ‘their’ women. To such men, the West must appear as one vast brothel, full of females who are dressed in ways and behave in ways that would be unimaginable in their societies; to them, Western women are, literally, asking to be groped, touched up, and treated in a lewd manner.  What we are actually seeing is sexist behaviour that is universal and occurs in all cultures only here writ large: this fact is both highlighted and confirmed by the police and media cover-up of the assaults, and the victim-blaming articulated by the female mayor of Cologne (shame) when she advised German women how to dress and behave in such a way as not to attract the attention of over-excitable migrants. Once again women are instructed to modify their behaviour in response to overt male sexual aggression and called to a higher level of behaviour than that which is expected of men. While it would be unthinkable for Western men to assault women  just because, relatively speaking, they have a great deal of freedom and can dress as they please, when sexism and fashionable, politically correct multiculturalism clashed in Cologne, women came out of it as the lesser humans who must make way for and adjust to the alien behaviour of strangers in their land; those women experienced a double dose of the double standard.

This clash of cultures does, however, have one very important lesson to teach us about the current state of our Judaeo-Christian Western civilisation, and indeed provides a snapshot of its progress: where the treatment of women is concerned, ours is the superior one, and this has implications for the doctrine of multiculturalism.  The general outrage sparked by the Cologne incident  was a reaction to the attitude of the perpetrators as much as to what they actually did. Ironically, those who protested most loudly against the attacks are the very kind of men who, in times past, would have disagreed with women getting the vote and all the other freedoms we have gained. They are also the kind of men who will now be the most likely to defend and protect ‘their’ women , which is something for which we should definitely be grateful. Yet even they can now see, in this clash of civilisations, that the Western one is the more civilised where the treatment of women is concerned. I believe that the Cologne incident will one day be considered  a watershed moment in Europe’s embrace of politically correct multiculturalism; it will be very difficult from now on to convince  the German electorate, for example, that all cultures are equally moral and civilised and can easily coexist with one another. A related implication is perhaps even more important for morality; if multiculturalism is false, so also is the doctrine of moral relativism. There are moral absolutes after all (as is held by all the major religions), and secular society needs to take note.

The superiority of  Western culture to Islamic culture in its attitudes towards and treatment of women begs an interesting question that relates to the religious component of culture as mentioned above: granted that the double standard in the West is generally described in terms of the biblical Madonna/whore divide ( see, for example, my article “Piers, Madonna, and the Double Standard” http://www.fsrinc.org/node/1673) and that Christianity in most of its forms has exacerbated it in terms of the sexual standards to which it holds women, but not men, is it possible to argue that Christianity has had a role in the undoubted fact that Western women’s lives are the freest and most progressive in the world? Before attempting an answer there’s no harm in pointing out that in feminist theory, religions are considered to be generally repressive in their treatment of women and indeed Christianity has produced its own versions of the Taliban down through the centuries. In order therefore to answer that question, it is necessary to go back to the sources, namely the sacred texts and the attitude of the founders towards women. These attitudes must, of course, be understood within the context of their respective eras. Within the context of his time, Islam’s prophet Muhammad is considered to have been notably enlightened towards women, though some of the texts (such as the ones where he gives husbands permission to lightly slap their wives and to have sexual relationships with their female slaves) strike us in the West as unacceptable to say the least. Yet it must be remembered that the great theologian and saint, Paul of Tarsus, approved of slavery and ordered women to obey their husbands, keep silent and cover their hair at mass. What is not in doubt, however, is the the fact that Jesus of Nazareth’s attitude towards women was not only revolutionary for his time and place, but remains radical way beyond anything we have yet achieved either culturally, politically or religiously (see, for example,”Mary Magdalene: The Most Misunderstood Woman in History?”, http://www.middleton14.com). The theologian Rene Laurentin, in his seminal article “Jesus and Women: an Underestimated Revolution” (http://www.bijbel.net/concilium/?b=25361) argues that the revolutionary attitude to women shown by Jesus led, among other things, to the participation of women on an equal footing with men in the fledgling religion’s liturgical services. In other religions women and men tend to be segregated during the liturgy, and this is notably the case in Islam. For Laurentin, this was the beginning of and catalyst for the emancipation of Western women. My years of research in the fields of theology, religious studies and philosophy, together with my gut instinct, convince me that  Laurentin is correct; for similar reasons I am also convinced that the emergence of democracy as a viable political system in the West has its roots in  the Christian assertion that everyone is equal in the eyes of God.

One way or another, a strong argument can now be made that multiculturalism is a deeply misguided doctrine, and that we should be both proud and protective of our two thousand year old Judaeo-Christian culture. This will have implications for future European immigration policies and for the development of suitable strategies to encourage the integration of refugees who have already arrived into their new cultural environment. Right now, post-Cologne, German women are being encouraged by the authorities to adjust their behaviour to suit Islamic norms when it should be the other way round; this appeasement must stop, or we will soon find ourselves in a situation where women in the West will start down the slippery slope to losing the freedoms they have gained at such great cost. This is why Western women must stand together in solidarity to protect those hard-earned freedoms; in this instance  the ongoing battle against sexism and the double standard must take precedence over fears of being thought of as  or criticised for being racist. It is up to the new arrivals to integrate into our culture, and not vice versa. This does not mean that we have to abandon our humanity where refugees in dire straits are concerned; what it does mean is that there can be no pussyfooting around or walking on eggshells with regard to protecting and defending our culture; there are, after all, very good reasons why the refugee traffic is flowing in our direction rather than vice versa.  The current situation may, in fact, be a golden opportunity both to influence Islamic cultures for the better and also to make yet more progress in our own Western feminist politics.

The Swiss performance artiste Milo Moire seized the moment when she protested nude outside the cathedral in Cologne (scene of the assaults) making the point that even a naked woman is not fair game for male sexual overtures and that there is nothing disrespectful about a tasteful display of nudity in such hallowed environs. Moire’s protest had the effect of celebrating the beauty of the female form and showing that it has value in and of itself. Such an in-your-face demonstration of female bodily integrity was probably a step too far for many Western men, in particular – and predictably – those who would be most critical of the Muslim attacks. In the circumstances, however, it may just have given them pause for thought and even moved them forward a jot where their prejudices against women are concerned. In this way, Moire was simultaneously shocking and educating both Muslim and Western men albeit that the latter have certainly made a quantum cultural leap where women’s autonomy and freedom is concerned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Confessions of a Politically Incorrect Feminist Theologian (1)

 

Faith and Feminism Can Make Strange Bedfellows

 Published in On Religion Magazine Issue 12, Autumn 2015 

http://www.OnlineReligion.co.uk

Twitter: @OnReligionMag

 

As someone who was once an atheistic feminist but became something of a ‘born-again’ Christian in my late thirties, I now understand all too well why pioneering feminist theologians like Mary Daly gave up on patriarchal religion altogether. In my youth I believed that all religion was composed of myths and fairy-tales that stereotype women in one way or another, and that institutional religion in particular is simply another means of social control of women. I agreed with the Marxist view that religion is a tool of oppression wielded by elites, and that we’d all be better off without it. I could never understand why women of Daly’s intellectual calibre would seriously engage with religious doctrines and beliefs.

Fast forward twenty years or so, and I found myself teaching Theology and Religious Studies at university level in a denominational institution. How and why that happened is a whole other story, though a typically ‘born-again’ one. A consequence of my late conversion was that I would never again be able to look down my nose at women like Daly who had chosen to engage intellectually with Christianity; I also had to learn the hard way why so many had tried and finally given up. I was far from having lost my feminist principles, and the collision of a somewhat evangelical Christian faith with political feminism led to a situation that was – and continues to be – extremely uncomfortable for me at times. For, in addition to working in such an authoritarian male environment, I have had to confront the inescapable fact that no matter how attractive and unconventional a character Jesus was, no matter how remarkable the way he, a first century Palestinian Jew, related to women, he was male and he referred to God as Father. Feminists generally have serious problems with the idea of a male God almighty (whether Allah, Yahweh, or God the Father) since this God is all too often invoked by men to justify war, tyranny and persecution.

How have I dealt with the latter difficulties? Well, dealing with them is an ongoing theological task. It is helpful that, theologically speaking, God does not have gender; God is neither male nor female, nor some combination of both. The most we can say is that we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that God seems to have some female and some male characteristics. Reading the work of pioneering feminist theologians such as Daly and Elizabeth Johnson also helped. Johnson’s “She Who Is” (International Journal of Orthodox Theology: Issue 1: 2 (2010), with its scholarly highlighting of the many female images and metaphors of God in the Old Testament, has been particularly comforting and enlightening as have the three principles she articulates that must form the basis of all attempts at understanding the nature of God: the incomprehensibility of God, the non-literal nature of religious language, and the need for many divine names. Johnson presents a myriad of biblical texts that depict the ‘Father’ God as female, of which the most striking to me are those that depict God as a woman in labour (see, for example, Isaiah 42:14: Thus says God, the Lord…… “For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labour, I will gasp and pant.”)

What, however, can be said about the incontrovertible maleness of Jesus? Plenty, as it turns out. Interestingly, the Trinitarian, creedal depiction of Jesus as ‘begotten’ of the Father is – as the well-known chauvinist St. Augustine pointed out – analogous to the female generation of a child from his or her mother’s womb; Augustine sees it as an intellectual/spiritual version of the physical birth process. Added to this is the fact that according to tradition, Jesus was brought into the world by his mother Mary without any contribution from a human male ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit’; the third person of the Trinity is closely associated with the Old Testament concept of Sophia or God’s Wisdom, a personalised, female figure. So, while Jesus himself may be male, his eternal and human generations are accomplished in a way that is feminine on multiple levels and without any analogous male role. As we understand it in human terms, Jesus actually doesn’t have a ‘Father’. So in using the biblical concept of the Father God it must be remembered that we are using limited human language to describe a God who transcends our limited notions of gender. Yet imaging the divine in a female/feminine way is, in my opinion, one of the two most important tasks for feminist theology today; the other is to present scriptural, theological and pastoral justification for female ministry and authority in all Christian denominations, especially the largest one, Roman Catholicism.

“Imagine…..no religion” sang John Lennon back in the day; but can you imagine a world in which our concepts of the divine have been broadened out to encompass the feminine, one in which conventional images of a stern, authoritarian father figure God have been expanded to include non-hierarchical female behaviours; a world where women exercise religious authority equally with men and in accordance with their female gifts? Ecclesial Christianity in the third millennium may well evolve into a place in which men and women can fully express themselves, with men being able to display their capacity for empathy and compassion, and women allowed to fulfill their administrative and leadership abilities. I don’t believe I’m being over optimistic in my hope that the clash between political feminism and patriarchal religion which gave rise to feminist theology may yet be the defining event of the twenty-first century for religion and, by example, politics.