Monday, June 20, 2011
"Resolved: That the Gospel of Jesus has done more to help more women than any other teaching in the history of Planet Earth.
"I challenge you, John."
John, unfortunately, said he doesn't have time for this debate at the time. Several of his followers, however, insisted I defend my claim (on-line -- like John, I've written about the effect of religion on the status of women in previous books, especially Jesus and the Religions of Man).
Three years later, Loftus STILL had not responded substantively to this series, though he responded triflingly, more than once. Loftus also edited a book called Christianity is Not Great, which perpetuates these falsehoods -- see my review of Annie Gaylor's wretched chapter.)
Three books and a dissertation await attention, also unweeded vegies and a dog wanting to run . . . But this is a vital topic, often raised by skeptics, and worth attention. So here goes: I hope this will prove a helpful resource on this vital issue.
My initial argument took five posts, then I responded to criticism. This post is introductory, and explains what I plan to argue and how.
In Part II, I tell my personal story, as it relates to the Gospel and the treatment of women.
Parts III and IV gives the meat of my argument. In Part III, I show that based on objective research, sponsored by the United Nations, the status of women tends to be consistently higher in societies deeply influenced by Christianity than in other societies.
In Part IV, beginning with the life of Jesus, I then show how people inspired by the Gospel have in fact FREED billions (yes, that's a b) of women down through the centuries, from dungeons of various makes and models -- including in many non-Christian countries. I argue that the Gospel not only explains the UN data given in Part III, but that evidence UNDERSTATES the positive influence of the Gospel on women throughout human history, and around the world.
In Part V, I trace this influence in detail to the gospels. I describe all major passages in the gospels which directly and specifically touch on the status or happiness of women (plus some less-important passages), to show why all this history was not a fluke, why correlation does denote causation in this case, which it would be wrong to credit to, say, the Enlightenment.
(Seven years later, the series continues, and the upcoming book is beginning to reveal its essential outlines, at least to me. Click here to pick and choose which episodes in this ongoing saga you would like to peruse.)
A. What I mean.
By "Gospel," I mean the teachings and actions of Jesus, as described in the New Testament.
By "help" I limit my argument to worldly effects: how the Gospel has led to women living healthier, more fulfilled, happier, and especially longer lives. I'm not going to talk about how the Gospel brings women (or men) into heaven, since that is, from our perspective, unverifiable. Nor am I going to talk about the moral benefits of, say, chastity or sexual faithfulness, since atheists often fail to recognize those benefits, unfortunately. I'll limit our argument here to benefits that are tangible and obvious to almost everyone.
B. Background 1: the Biome
Voltaire was surprised when fossil fish were discovered in mountains rocks, knowing that fish live in the ocean. How did they get there? Of course! Pilgrims and crusaders often trek in the mountains! He suggested, "Rotten fish were thrown away by a traveler and were petrified thereafter."
When you find something in an unexpected place, it is natural ask, "Where did it come from?" So let us begin by asking, "Where does sexuality begin, au naturale?"
Justice and equality are not obvious characteristics of how plants and animals relate to one another, including when it comes to sexuality. Some spiders eat their mates. Male lions or bears sometimes kill cubs born to their mates by other fathers.
In most advanced species, females seem to sacrifice more for their young than males. The male emperor penguin, though, tends to his wife's egg for months at a time without eating, while she goes fishing.
Wolves are, in their family habits, generally more considerate than most animals. Males sometimes have been seen giving mates a break from child-rearing, so the bitches can go hunting. But as with most species, there is a general distinction of labor between sexes. One finds little trace of pure equality in the natural world: like the perfect circles Platonists thought the planets revolved in, equality is a philosophical ideal, not an empirical reality.
So looking at animal life in general, it would be surprising to find perfect equality of status AND function among humans. Nor does one.
C. Background 2: Human Society
Great variety in the relationship between the sexes can also be found among early tribes. In some tribes, women seemed to enjoy a reasonably high status. In others, like the Yanomamo in Amazonia and the Yali in New Guinea, women were treated as property, or unabashedly raped when opportunity presented itself. (See, for instance, Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomamo, or Mark Ritchie, Spirit of the Rainforest.)
In graves by Paleolithic campsites in North America, men and women have been buried with tools they used in their lifetimes. The tools tend to be gender-specific, but both sexes are about equally well-furnished for the afterlife.
As people settled along rivers and began to build up advanced civilization, society became more stratified, with the chief, a king, or a class of aristocrats being increasingly treated as superior, even divine, compared to commoners or low caste tribes. The status of women varied from culture to culture, and could change. Women led troops in battle during the Shang Dynasty in China -- in other ways an oppressive and cruel era. (Retainer sacrifice was normal, so the skeletons of a king's leading officials are found in the grave with the king, and sometimes the skeletons of his enemies with their heads gone.) But under the influence of Confucianism, the role of women became increasingly domestic, even while society in general grew a bit gentler. From the Song Dynasty, 1500 years after Confucius, the practice of crushing and binding girls' feet to make their walk more sexy, became fashionable. Similar trends in India led to the practice of sati, or burning (especially upper-caste) widows after their husbands died, to tend them in the next world. Women had some freedom before the time of Christ in India, but increasingly lost it over subsequent centuries. While Mohammed married a career woman, Muslim doctrine likewise made it increasingly difficult for women to participate in public life in most Muslim countries.
We shall cover some of these cultures in more detail later.
So "progress" is not automatic. Often new ideologies and new canons seem to justify and regularize new patterns of oppression, whether or women, or, of outcasts, unbelievers, or Jews.
The status of women seems to have been relatively high in parts of Europe before the birth of Christ. (Perhaps highest in Sparta, where they owned perhaps 40% of the land.) Still, Romans saw the husband as a family dictator. Girls were usually married young, 44% by the age of 14. (Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 107). Marriage and childbirth of course spelled the end of education, and the latter involved great danger for young women. Abortions, which were also highly dangerous, were usually decreed by the husband. But upper-class women could live comfortably, and with a fair degree of freedom. The examples of India, China, and Islam show that things often get worse for women over time as a civilization matures, as we shall see.
D. How can we demonstrate historical causation?
One skeptic asked me for "some way of reliably tracking the historical impact of doctrines in a comparative fashion."
A generally fair-minded atheist named Neil warned me not to use a double standard when it comes to the effect of Christianity:
"Of course, most apologists will still blame the religiously inspired wars, holocausts, bigotry, oppression and tyranny that may have occurred on simple 'human nature,' no matter how obvious the religious justifications. Funny how that works in the apologist brain...all great achievements require religion, and human nature is not enough, whereas all the wars and abuses are not the fault of religion, just human nature- even when the directives come straight from the pulpit or the 'word of god' itself.
"So what about it David?...are you at least honest enough to take some of the bad with all the good?"
There warnings came in ironic contexts: (1) Following a rant by Iranian Marxist Maryam Namazie, against religious inquisitions. When I pointed out that Marxists have carried out far more nasty inquisitions of their own, several atheists refused to admit that those inquisitions had anything to do with atheism, even while blaming Christianity for the Medieval inquisition. So the warning about "taking the bad with the good" seemed a bit misdirected, in the original conversation. (2) PZ Myer had also just claimed that religion inhibits creativity. This in the face of the obvious fact that religion has inspired much of the world's great architecture, music and painting.
Which only goes to show that Neil's warning is worth heading. It IS easy, for all of us, to play the game of, "Mine is mine, and yours is negotiable" when it comes to influence. But this sword can cut more than one way.
So how do we know if A really did cause B? Let's start with four simple rules:
First, A must precede B. This may seem obvious, but it is remarkable how often the principle seems to be forgotten. In this case, what it means is that Christianity cannot be blamed or credited for a state of affairs that was general before its birth. For instance, Christians did not invent marriage, since people were getting married long before Christ was born. Christianity may conceivably have made monogamy more popular, though, since polygamy was accepted in most societies around the world when Jesus was born.
This is why I began with a few remarks about sexuality in general. We need to know where the fish started, before asking how it got to the top of a mountain.
Second, immediate influences seem more likely than distant influences. A book can change how people treat one another across long gaps in time: you might read the Discources of the Stoic Epictetus after work today, be moved by the 2nd Century Roman's noble teachings, and mend your life accordingly. But more often, we are influenced by teachings that we see lived out around us. Even when a teaching is codified in a text, what moves us more is how people in a community of faith with which we come into contact, interpret that text. This is a well-known principle of sociology.
Third, something in the alleged cause should explain its supposed effect. If Islam is blamed for encouraging prepubescent marriages, one should find something in the life of Mohammed or Quranic teaching that encourages or allows men to marry young girls. (Such as his consummating marriage to the 9-year old Aisha.) If Christianity is credited for saving girls from foot-binding in China, the case that it did so will be seen as stronger if we find that Jesus or the apostles helped women in similar ways in the New Testament (as we do).
Of course, we should not be simplistic about causation, especially with so overwhelming and important a phenomena as sex. We begin with universal, "basic instincts" for mating, dominating, and caring for young. Culturally, each society possesses time-honored customs and ways of thinking about sex before Christianity arrived. Human beings are also creative. There is no simple, deterministic calculus by which we can easily weigh all the variables. Often, the unexpected occurs -- practically the definition of the word "romance." One cannot predict the plot of Romeo and Juliet. Nor could one predict a priori that foot-binding would arise in China, or the enthusiastic flourish with which the Aztecs would develop age-old Meso-american rituals of human sacrifice.
But fourth, causation is also clearer if the change moves "uphill against human nature." Why would any man want to have sex with more than one woman? The answer is too obvious, to men, to need stating. Lust and philandering need no explanation, nor do rape, polygamy, or the enslavement of the weak. But loving those who belong to out-groups is contrary to our strongest instincts, and therefore requires more of an explanation.
So a religious explanation for a social change is stronger if the teaching precedes the social change, especially closely, if there is in that teaching a clear justification for the change, and especially if that teaching and the change it seems to work against our strongest instincts.
E. My Procedure
One fairly objective (though imperfect) measure of the status of women was a survey taken in 1988 by the United Nations in 99 countries. I'll use that survey to roughly measure the influence of religions on the status of women around the world in two upcoming articles.
But correlation by itself may not prove causation. Nor is the influence of a religion always limited to those who follow it: powerful ideas, like communist class warfare, Hindu reincarnation, and the Christian influence on compassion for the poor and outcast, have spilled beyond the boundaries of the original faith community. So in the fourth article in this series, I shall try to show how committed Christians improved life for women not only in "Christian" countries, but on all inhabited continents.
One can then look for evidence in the example and teaching of a religious founder, and in its sacred books, to explain how the fish got to the mountain-top. My fifth post in this initial series will give that evidence in detail, focusing on Jesus' life, teaching, and actions, in the four gospels.
After having made my initial case for how the Gospel has liberated women around the world, I will follow this first series with two more: (2) responding to some of the best or most interesting of the hundreds of critical answers that skeptics have made to my arguments, over the past several years; (3) compare the Gospel record to the record of other faith traditions in more detail/
Let me begin, briefly, with my own story.