Religion and cruelty

Today’s Observer carried an opinion piece by the co-author of a book called Does God Hate Women?, to be published by Continuum this week, which gives a brief list of the worst things religious people have done in the past century or so. (The book probably has quite a few more examples.) The article left me wondering how a respectable liberal Sunday broadsheet can print such a shoddy article containing such obvious generalisations and faulty logic, but then, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s ramblings a few weeks ago left me feeling the same way.

The opening paragraph sets the scene:

There is plenty to criticise in Islam’s view of women. Last year, the Observer told the story of a man in Basra who stamped on, suffocated and then stabbed to death his 17-year-old daughter for becoming infatuated with a British soldier. The relationship apparently amounted to a few conversations, but her father learnt she had been seen in public talking to the soldier. When the Observer talked to Abdel-Qader Ali two weeks later, he said: “Death was the least she deserved. I don’t regret it. I had the support of all my friends who are fathers, like me, and know what she did was unacceptable to any Muslim that honours his religion.”

Does anyone notice the leap? From the mention of “Islam’s view of women” to an example of an honour killing, which is forbidden in Islam and which goes on in some Muslim countries and not others, and which also goes on in non-Muslim regions such as India. Islam does not give men the right to kill relatives who “bring shame on them”, full stop. She is using the worst examples of the behaviour of some Muslims and using it as if it was typical.

Benson gives a few other examples of religious beastliness towards women, such as the anti-abortion law in Nicaragua and the Jewish seminaries in Jerusalem who tell women to stay out of their neighbourhood if they’re not properly covered. She then offers her opinion as to why religion remains popular with women:

So why is it so often women who fill the pews? Is it a form of Stockholm syndrome? Religions do a good job of training people to be obedient and loyal to the authorities and women in particular are raised to be both devout and submissive. Religions are sticky: they are hard to abandon and that is doubly true for women, given that subordination and unshakable fidelity are their chief duties.

The fact that women are defined as different from men (“complementary” is the religious euphemism) and confined to narrower, more monotonous lives as a result, means that they have more need of the excitements and passions of religion. For women, religion often is the heart of a heartless world. All they have to give up in exchange is their right to shape their own lives; as long as they behave themselves, all will go swimmingly.

I can think of more obvious reasons why women are more likely to be devout: because they are likely to be older (as women tend to live longer than men), or because they want to give the children a religious upbringing, perhaps for the moral values, perhaps for the educational advantage being part of a church community brings in some places, even though neither parent feels inclined to practise for its own sake. The older women often have outlived the need to be obedient or submissive to anyone; they may well be the most senior person in the family, and may also have had plenty of people, particularly children, obeying and submitting to them during their lives. Benson also conveniently overlooks the fact that many women simply do not want to work, at least not full time, and that life in many places is difficult and dangerous for everyone and not just women. If religion is only there to provide excitement and passion in a heartless existence, it is likely to fulfil that role for men as well.

Benson then brings the Irish child abuse scandal in, quoting the testimony of one female veteran of a notorious Irish industrial school regarding children screaming endlessly for years. It is ironic that she uses this particular scandal as evidence of religion’s bias against women, as boys were brutalised as well, and took the brunt of the sexual abuse which went on. The belief was not the problem: the problem was a society which turned in on itself after gaining independence from a United Kingdom which was hostile to Catholics, in which the Church dominated by celibates gained too much power.

However, cruelty is a general part of the human condition, and plenty of institutions have dealt it out, some of them not specifically religious and many anti-religious. The many crimes of the Chinese communists, both under Mao and after, and of communists in Russia and elsewhere, are an obvious example, as are the eugenic policies pursued in northern Europe and the USA during the 20th century, which were in fact opposed in the Catholic world. It is foolish to assume that child abuse or the oppression of women or other forms of cruelty will go away, for women or children, or indeed anyone, when religion fades in any given community.

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