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Notes from the Portland Feminist Meetup – October Edition

October 28, 2012

The first Sunday of every month, a group of feminists meets in the In Other Words space to discuss current issues through a feminist lens. The topic for Sunday, October 7th was “Feminism and Religion”. IOW volunteer Susan was kind enough to take notes at the meeting.

Please note that this discussion is the result of an independent group, and the opinions expressed do not reflect those of In Other Words. If you’re interested in joining in on these talks, the Feminist Discussion Group meets the first Sunday of each month at In Other Words; the next meeting will be Sunday, November 4th. You can join the facebook group for more information.

Feminism and Religion

The latest issue of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture (Fall 2012, “The Elemental Issue”) includes an interview with an artist who claims that feminism isn’t compatible with religion. Do you agree with this? Is feminism like a religion? Can it replace religion?

“I don’t have the hostility toward religious tradition that one seems to need to be a feminist, so I don’t identify as one. I’m not interested in the label. I’m interested in the issues (Issue #56, Fall 2012).”

It’s possible that some people label feminism with certain things, or might equate it with something that others don’t. People make assumptions, simplifications, and generalizations about concepts and things they don’t understand.

Feminists have plenty of reason to be hostile or suspicious of religion, certainly. In religion, women are often demonized. For exzample, the Bible contains the parable  “The Deception of Isaac“. In this story, Rebecca is married to Isaac and has twin sons, Jacob and Esau. She favors Jacob while her husband favors the other son, Esau. According to prophecy, one son is to  rule while the other is meant to serve. Through lies and illusion, Rebecca tricks Isaac in to giving the blessing of leadership to Jacob. In modern sermons this tale is often used to imply that women are bad, deceptive people.

Even Hinduism, despite its vast superhero pantheon that includes many goddesses, has a lot of overtly misogynistic and patriarchal attitudes.

In religion there are lots of people who talk the talk, but do they walk the walk? (For instance, are you just taking a label or do you practice feminist activism? Or does some crazy dude rampaging around with a gun point it at people and ask them if they’re Christian—that’s talking but not walking.) Are you actively out there sharing your knowledge? People who brag about being Christians and jam their religion down other’s throats are not practicing genuine spirituality.

bell hooks describes feminism as being something of a religion. She talks about feminism being taken on as an identity: “I am a feminist” rather than arguing as feminism as a movement, as action. I don’t think feminism should just be a religion—it should be actions. It’s like a religion in that it’s a set of ideas that people live up to or strive to live up to; it’s also like a religion in that it’s practiced (kind of like how a Buddhist, Jain, Hindu, etc. practices meditation).


Maybe we should go back to defining religion. It’s trying to find meaning, putting faith in something bigger than yourself, to re-focus on what’s important in your life. The online Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition includes “a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith.” One person said she’s not going to a church because she believes in god but because she’s looking for inspiration and revisiting it.

We put labels on things (“I’m a Wiccan, I’m a Socialist,” etc.) instead of saying something like, “I believe in ending oppression.” Labels create divisions, and people start saying, “I believe in that, but I don’t believe in that.” Also, people who have a very different attitude and/or who don’t understand what “feminist” or “socialist” (for instance) means will attack you for saying that you’re a feminist or socialist. Identifying with a specific religion instead of saying, “I’m a spiritual person,” is accepting a label.

There are a lot of gross generalizations about people who are members of a certain group. Ignoramuses accuse all feminists of being man-hating lesbians who don’t shave their legs or bathe frequently. Generalizations like “I believe in doing good for others” and “I believe in ending oppression” are less likely to get people to judge you and misrepresent you than taking on these labels. Sometimes, when you label something it creates opposition to it—such as when the word “homosexual” came along in the nineteenth century. There’s a lot of power in words. However, labels like “homosexual” or “feminist” can also create identity and community and a way of reaching out to other people who have taken on that label.

People have weird ideas about all feminists. A lot of people don’t understand what feminism is. You’re at the mercy of what people have been taught. In certain places, you know what you’ve been told; for years and years you’ve been taught that the world is square.

What feminism means to me: It goes against the entire structure that we have today, the corporate structure; it’s about ending all forms of oppression. Equal rights for everyone, and not enforcing stereotypical gender roles. Stopping oppression for all marginalized groups; “feminine” values such as nurturing and emotions are devalued under patriarchy, and that needs to change. It’s a movement that actually exists in this reality, rather than just something that’s abstract. Feminism is also where my belief system came from. Someone could claim that it should be called humanism rather than feminism; maybe that means you’re over-thinking the definition. If you appreciate what feminists have done, then why not just call yourself that? Feminists have made our lives different from what it might have been. Feminism helps to shape ideals, regardless of what the definition is.

Beliefs/ Lifestyle

In its pure sense, religion is meant to guide you through life and help you personally. How can I be better, etc. Feminism goes against many traditional religions by opposing their patriarchal structure; a lot of churches and religious organizations operate under a patriarchal and misogynist umbrella. No feminist would disagree if you said that spirituality is important. (I’m a radical feminist who enjoys reading up on mythology, especially goddess & heroine mythology, and who meditates.)

Adherence to tradition can be interpreted as resistance to reason. Feminism is in the reason category. Liberalism and enlightenment go together. People believe we can use the rational to improve society. Religion is the opposite divide; it says reason has limits and that people can’t improve with just reason.  Don’t ask questions—just have faith.

Is feminism a religion in that it gives meaning to people? They’re similar in that sense.

When I first got into Buddhism (insight meditation and loving-kindness meditation, which in Asian terms are practiced by Theravada Buddhists), I wasn’t aware of some of the overtly patriarchal practices in the religion, such as how in Thailand women aren’t even allowed to become fully ordained and will be arrested if seen dressed as nuns. Little boys in Thailand are sent to monasteries for an education, while their sisters are sent to brothels. In theory, Buddhism is egalitarian and originally it was very progressive; the historic Buddha said that anyone can become enlightened regardless of gender or caste. But Buddhism has always existed in a patriarchal world and is therefore warped by patriarchy. (This will hopefully not always be the case, as the book Buddhism After Patriarchy by Rita M. Gross points out.) My meditation practice is not with a patriarchal sangha such as those in Thailand; I meditate at home and with a sangha that is run by a female practitioner; my personal version of Buddhism is outside of patriarchy.

Adhering to one particular religion may make it easier to understand things; or you can take pieces from various religions that suit you (as a Unitarian Universalist, my brother does that, and to an extent so do I, as a Pagan and Buddhist). You can be passionate about your beliefs, including if they’re your individual belief system. The American system expects you to identify with certain labels—you’re put into a box with one specific religion and that’s who you are allegedly. It takes away from you the ability to disagree with certain aspects of a religion; you should be free to pick and choose which parts of a religion work for you.

Zeitgeist is a documentary about all religions, connecting and comparing them.

Any religion that has survived for a long time has to be compatible with a stable society. Creation stories help to explain the unexplainable. Religion brings a society together. Greek deities were created to explain what they couldn’t explain (Zeus is the cause of thunderstorms, for instance). Religion is used to explain the unexplainable, but it can also used to control. A group of men decided the fates of countries and decided to control women (and continue to try doing so). Patriarchal religion is about society control.

Religion and Science

It takes faith to believe in science. They take a bunch of clues and use them to believe something scientific. Science does involve proven facts and the method—scientists should only state things that can be proven. Gravity has been proven. We don’t always know the why behind things—this has been proven but we don’t know why, it just is. (Actually, in some situations, white male scientists have biased assumptions and use “science” to prove them, such as the neurosexism described in the book Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine. Even science can be warped by patriarchy, as are religion and society).

I consider all deities, with no exception, to be metaphors and role models. For some people religion has to be literal rather than metaphorical. This attitude is part of the reason why people fight over religion and bully people who don’t share their beliefs.

Mainstream media is a major reason why people have a false sense of what women’s empowerment is, and it has created a lot of anti-feminist propaganda that has given people whacked ideas about feminism, such as the assumption that feminism is anti-religion.

A creepy church talked about in the same issue of Bitch, in the article “Life on Mars [Hill]” by Alison Sargent, claims that women have become too strong and men should be domineering and oppressive and take over, and women should be pretty much domestic servants for their power-tripping husbands. This church has a hip and up-beat presentation accompanied by this extremely patriarchal, misogynist, and backlash attitude. The founder and his followers exhibit fear that women have emasculated men.


I pointed out that in sharp contrast with the statement that feminism isn’t compatible with religion, Neopaganism (which consists primarily of Wicca and Goddess Spirituality) is totally compatible with feminism. Just look at the book The Great Cosmic Mother and other goddess books. The original religion worldwide was centered around a mother goddess. There are various theories why this changed and why patriarchy came along; one theory is that the men weren’t participating in religion and got jealous of the women for monopolizing it, rather the way men monopolize most religion today.

It makes sense that a feminist might be uncomfortable with going to a church where a patriarchal male priest is preaching from an androcentric, patriarchal perspective. So many religious texts were written by men or a man and it’s from a power-tripping male perspective. But it’s an odd assumption to claim that feminism and religion are completely incompatible; this is overlooking the fact that most of the religion we’ve had exposure to is patriarchal and misogynistic, even though it doesn’t have to be so. If you have religion or spirituality without the patriarchal and misogynistic crap, and without brainwashing or any form of oppression, then feminism has no problem with religion. If religion is really about spirituality, then it doesn’t conflict with feminism.


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