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Notes on Sex and Gender in Religion From Antiquity to the Present
How close is the modern narrative to the reality of the past?
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This article covers the evolution of religious groups from small, polytheistic tribes into larger syncretic faiths that span nations. Religious frameworks throughout history have mediated, and sometimes constrained, how groups of people think and behave. Religion, in its healthier iterations, can be a source of team-building and reflection. But in its more troublesome moments, religion becomes a vehicle for dogmatic certitude and an excessive thirst to expand. By studying the evolution of faith over time, I hope to show how the trials of religion throughout history leave their imprint on the present. This should draw us a roadmap of modern cultural battles in context, in the hopes that we can understand the choices in front of us and pick a path that is wise.
Definitions of religion vary, but they tend to have most of the following five elements.
Deity: Just the One, a pantheon, or central figures
Idols: Holy books, documents, stories, temples, statues, and figures
Creed: A set of sacred beliefs or rules
Ritual: Ceremonies with a traditional set of actions
Community: A web of morality, with transactional or dutiful relationships and enforcement mechanisms, that aspires to protect common interests and a sense of fellowship
Some modern scholars, including Tom Harpur and Joseph Campbell, have argued that the word religion hails from the word ‘religare’, which means to bind once more. Anthropologists theorize that religion explains the unknowable, provides psychosocial structure, and binds communities. Also, because of the importance of child-rearing and surviving across generations, many religions pay special attention to the topics of procreative sex (baby-making, including dimorphous bodies that produce the two different gametes) and gender (roles, inscribed by society and what some might call spiritualism). Furthermore, religion often encourages individuals to contribute to a family unit. A family can be metaphorically expanded into a group of people that share a belief. This device is largely the foundation of the tribe.
Age 1: Polytheism and Tribe
In the Age of Polytheism, people believed in a pantheon of gods. Many towns had a Tutelary, or patron god, perhaps with a temple built in their honor. This kind of god is a guardian or protector of a place, and sometimes inspired pilgrimage. Patron gods embodied local land, weather, or commerce, and were given credit for unexplainable or extreme local events. A pantheon could form when a scribe or storyteller visited a variety of towns and added each patron god to a list.
The divisions between faiths in this time period were not as hardened as they are now. Greek gods and Egyptian gods had some overlap and reinterpretations. Buddhists idols and Hindu gods were melded into something called Newar Buddhism. Geography itself was often the main division between people and a potential god.
One benefit of patron gods was the ability to extend a sense of familiarity beyond kin. Promoting a familiar symbol could be a quick way to form and keep an alliance. Often tribes named themselves something synonymous with ‘people,’ calling into question how they saw outsiders. Worse, killing an outsider was not usually considered murder in the same sense as killing a fellow tribesperson.
Rituals sprung up around sex, including coming of age ceremonies and marriage. Religions encouraged passing on certain origin myths and fables to future generations—stories about how aspects of the world came to be, often with guidance embedded within, in the hopes that wisdom would carry on.
Polytheism and the Sacred Woman
In many faiths throughout time, sex was seen as sacred. This highlighted both the difference between men and women and the ‘magic’ of conception when they are melded. One aspect of pantheons is that goddesses (and gods) can be created to symbolically represent this sacredness, as well as represent the traits that make a “good” or archetypical man or woman in society. Long before people understood the details of genetics, they understood that traits run in the family. Sacredness around sex often evokes a kind of ancestral inheritance.
Popular invocations of a womanly spiritual gender include symbols of agriculture and water. Parallels are drawn between a human growing a baby inside her, and the Earth growing crops. Furthermore, crops and water sustain the lifeblood of a society—early cities were built along rivers. The symbolism positions women as nurturers (and the queens of food) needed for survival and growth.
Ancient Goddesses of Sex
Age 2: Monotheism and Empire
Not everyone liked the idea of sharing gods.
Judaism was one of the most influential monotheistic religions of old. In the story of Moses, he told his followers to wait for him to return with the tablets containing the ten Commandments. Moses caught a band of people disobeying and worshipping a golden calf. God punished the heresy with a plague of vengeance. The message was clear: you cannot collect deities and idols into a pantheon; there is one true God. Christianity extends (or splits) this one God into a Holy Trinity that includes the father (creator), the son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost (a bit of God’s spirit in all believers).
In 313 AD, with the Edict of Milan, Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of Rome. Unlike Judaism, which tended towards isolation, Christianity had a streak of proselytism: a directive to convince every person of the one true path and in some interpretations, become a sliver of the one true God. In Transubstantiation, Jesus’s body manifests in bread and his blood is present in wine. Christians eat the bread and drink the wine, taking a bit of God’s grace into themselves.
Monotheism didn’t have an enforcement mechanism before the age of empires: there was no way to stop polytheism in a world full of patron gods. Constantine turned this on its head. Not only did he have the military might to enforce monotheism, but as emperor, he had a motive. Christianity united the empire into something more cohesive and encouraged the spread of the empire.
Christianity’s Bargain for Women
Christianity has been a mixed bag for women. Church Fathers preached stories like the original sin of Eve (who picked a fruit she wasn’t supposed to and shared it with Adam because Satan manipulated her). Some use this story to foist collective blame onto the entire female sex. Lesbians lacked support, which was a far-cry from having a patron god of same-sex love (like Apollo). Women were often relegated to their relation to men. That said, the claim that Christianity is uniquely negative towards women is misleading. For starters, many faiths preach some negative views of womanhood (like Hinduism believing menstruation is ‘impure’). Some women even welcomed Christianity, because it treated monogamy as a virtue. Apostle Paul praised women expanding their roles as teachers and healers, claiming that minimizing social differences between men and women mimicked the kingdom of God. Christianity paved the way for patron figures like Mary, Joan of Arc, and Mother Theresa.
When foisting Christianity on people, the exchange of customs was almost always a two-way street, with Christmas incorporating Pagan elements of the winter solstice like the evergreen tree. Pagan harvest festivals and ghost-busting rituals hitched themselves to the Eve of All Saints Day, in what eventually became Halloween. Stories of patron saints often blended the old myths with new.
Age 3: Dualities and Crusades
While monotheism may unite people around God, it’s often easier to unite people around an enemy. Such was the case when empires clashed. Zoroastrianism is an example of a dualistic religion that saw the universe as a cosmic battle of good and evil. Monotheistic religions borrow from the likes of it when they pit God against the devil. (These religions are then left to explain why their omnipotent God allows a weaker enemy to tangle with mixed success in this battle.)
Good vs Evil
In antiquity, people may have noticed someone posed a risk to the group and dealt with them. But they could (and often would) describe an issue without introducing an idea like a galactic evil.
Evil evokes a notion of possession; of heretics or sinners who conspire or are puppets in a grand cosmic theater. Certainly, there are myths of witchcraft from all over the globe, but these myths weren’t weaponized to their most paranoid extent until entire countries were taught to hate each other.
Once two empires are at each other’s doorsteps, it’s not always enough to say they need to be converted: it can be more effective to batch adversaries into an evil category that makes them dirty; a kind of high-priority threat you wouldn’t want to associate with.
Mind vs Body (Perception vs Essence)
Philosophers like Plato and Descartes sometimes made distinctions between perception and underlying forms. Plato postulated that most people only see a shadow of what is really there. Descartes questioned if perceptions are real, if his thoughts reflected any underlying reality at all. He was known for the phrase, “I think, therefore, I am.”
Gnosticism splits the Abrahamic God into a good (hidden) God and a bad (material) God. The bad God is often described as a kind of Demiurge, who hammers the physical universe into place. The Demiurge crafts our bodies as prisons for our souls. All material in the universe--as well as the social world around us--can be seen as parts of his prison. Gnostics believed that spiritual knowledge (and sometimes, a kind of transformation to a higher plane of existence) became the key to liberation from this material prison.
Age 4: Protestants and Books
In 1436, Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. This precipitated an information explosion: a drastic uptick in the ability of laypeople to quickly spread their ideas (especially criticisms) through pamphlets, books, and papers. For example, Martin Luther tacked his 95 grievances with his religious leaders onto the door of his church, but also spread pamphlets around the town so his words about the church’s corruption would not be lost. Scientists had more resources to get the word out, and in the 1600s Galileo published the Starry Messenger with his observations. The Church eventually cracked down on him for refusing to renounce his belief that the Earth revolves around the sun.
For better or for worse, the Information Explosion fractured Christianity into several variations of Catholicism and a variety of Protestant sects. It also opened the door for rationalists who were fed up with the dark ages, and championed an enlightenment era featuring scientific progress, new inventions, and eventually, civil rights. Charlatans crept in, taking advantage of the new way to get the word out. Authorities felt compelled to try to control the rising print mediums, with the Spanish Inquisition and Catholic Reformation serving as prime examples.
Part of the appeal of leaving Europe for colonies like the Americas was freedom from the persecution of European authoritarians. That said, while some groups in the Americas were more open and liberal (such as the Quakers and early Baptists), some religious sects protested their British counterparts because they didn’t think British churches were sufficiently fundamentalist (such as Puritans). Thus, the makeup of the colonies was high in viewpoint diversity, but low in consensus and cohesion.
Protesting over Sex
Many of the points of debate between Catholics and Protestants were sexual in nature.
King Henry VIII switched the state religion of Britain from Catholicism to Anglican so he could get a divorce, which Catholics forbid.
Martin Luther called into question whether the chastity vows taken by priests and nuns were helpful or necessary. He also questioned monogamy.
Women leaders such as Jeanne d'Albret and Elisabeth of Brandenburg helped along the Protestant Reformation because of beliefs in humanism and liberty.
Despite taboos surrounding homosexuality, some people were willing to risk a gay or lesbian relationship. In the 1500s, Francoise de l’Estage and Catherine de la Maniére were prosecuted for “corrupting each other” but were let off due to insufficient evidence.
Regardless of which national religion a European kingdom endorsed, some subjects opted to flee to the colonies to escape its orthodoxy. Many women believed they would have a better chance at upward mobility in a place like Virginia, where rumor had it you could work your way up from servant to merchant.
Narrative Versus Reality
Throughout human history, religious intuitions and moral frameworks have evolved in tandem with technologies and societies. Special attention was paid to sex, which explained how to bring more people into the world. If a philosophy worked well enough to survive, it was passed down in unison. Many of these ideas contributed to the notion of gender—ideas on ways that men and women could behave to navigate social and bodily differences. Civil rights and individualism called into question which gendered expectations were outdated and could be set aside in favor of more rights and freedoms. And yet through all of this, rather than leaving religions in the past, the threads of these belief systems were stitched into modern culture—even if people did not realize it.
As people favored patron gods in the Age of Polytheism, modern people idolize sports teams and heroes. Bumper stickers and social media profiles are littered with symbolism. This can be a foothold for tribal loyalties.
As many Christians and Muslims viewed the physical world as a landscape of potential converts, some modern people see the online world as a landscape of potential converts.
As Zorastrianism promoted ideas of cosmic evil to harden loyalties and simplify us-versus-them dynamics, modern people tend to isolate themselves among like-minded people.
As Gnosticism treats your body (and all of material reality) as a constructed captivity, so too do postmodernists treat society, norms, and power structures as a prison to escape.
As Protestants branched out in many directions with the dawn of the Printing Press, modern people can explore rabbit holes online involving almost any belief system imaginable.
Cyberspace can be seen as a version of the higher plane of spiritual existence that many esoteric religions promise.
Whether developing tribes and then empires, or inventing writing and then the Printing Press–it was the environment available that shaped what was in vogue, moreso than a moral progression marching towards a rational enlightenment, secularism, or some kind of spiritualism ascension. People are stubbornly still the same animal we’ve been for many millennia. This opens the door to a kind of riddle: how do you create a system that bottles the wisdom of history, without that system being at risk of corruption, logical pitfalls, presentism, or stifling stagnation?
Religion can be seen as a mechanism of cultural formation and preservation that taps into our team-forming tendencies. Perhaps people have religious impulses lying in wait as a kind of evolutionary option to outsource aspects of one’s mind to a hive. This would explain why no matter how far we get into the future, people seem to always find a way to mirror the past.
In my view, the question of atheism versus theism sidesteps the larger struggle of history: certitude versus inquiry. The United States rejected a national theocracy that punishes heretics. But we are hardly better off state-sponsoring “safe spaces'' that protect ideas from scrutiny. The postmodernist irony is that rather than escape the shackles of material reality, its teachings entrap normal people into accepting lies. Rather than help anyone reach a higher plane of existence, the cancel mob scares people into conceding that confused silence is safe. Instead of pooling our knowledge and using the internet to make bonds, most internet-prone people feel more isolated and self-conscious than ever before.
If we are to answer the riddle posed over the course of history, we need to be able to question not just beliefs, but the subtle rules of modern life that go unsaid. For instance, what kinds of things do modern people call a community, and how do they gel? If there is anything to the idea that we all have slivers of the divine—or at least, slivers of wisdom—we can only find and catalogue that wisdom if communication streams are healthy and people summon the bravery to speak, listen, and perhaps most importantly, to weigh possibilities. This is the key to history becoming our guide—and not our undoing.
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