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 right now. 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).
(Update: More than three years later, Loftus STILL has not responded substantively to this series, though he has responded triflingly, more than once. Loftus also recently 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 will take five posts, then I will post responses to criticism. This first post is introductory, and explains what I plan to argue and how.
In Part II, I tell my personal story, as it relates to this issue.
Parts III and IV gives the meat of my argument. In Part III, I show that, based on objective research, the status of women tends to be consistently higher in societies deeply influenced by Christianity than in other socities.
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 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 directly and specifically touching on the status or happiness of women (plus a few others), to show why all this influence was not a fluke, nor should it be credited mainly to, say, the Enlightenment.
(Update: more than three years later, the series continues, and is likely to evolve into a book. Click the "Christianity and Women" tab below to pick and choose which episodes in this fascinating 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 we can't see that. 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 obvious and tangible.
B. Background 1: the Biome
Voltaire was surprised when fossil fish were found in the mountains, 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?" Our first question, too, must be, "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, more likeable than most. Males sometimes have been seen giving mates a break from child-rearing, so they 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, 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. But under the influence of Confucianism, the role of women became increasingly domestic, even while society in general grew a bit gentler. By the Song Dynasty, 1500 years after Confucius, the practice of crushing and binding girls' feet to make their walk more sexy, became fashionable. Similiar 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.
So "progress" is not automatic. Often, new ideologies, and new canons, seem to justify and regularize new patterns of oppression, whether or women, or, say, of outcastes, unbelievers, or Jews.
The status of women seems to have been relatively high in parts of Europe before the birth of Christ. Still, Romans saw the husband as a family dictator. Girls were usually married at young ages. Abortions, which were very 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, though.
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 inquistions of their own, several atheists refused to admit that those inquisitions had anything at all 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.
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.
How do we know if A caused 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 were general before it came into the world. 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 footbinding in China, the case that it did so is stronger if we find that Jesus or the apostles helped women in similiar 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 has its own customs and ways of thinking 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 flourish with which the Aztecs developed the age-old Mesoamerican 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, at least 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 an explanation.
E. My Procedure
(III) 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.
(IV) But correlation by itself may not prove causation. Nor is the influence of a religion always limitted to that religious community. So I will then try to show how committed Christians improved life for women, not only in "Christian" countries, but on all inhabited continents.
(V) 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 last post will give that evidence in detail, focusing on Jesus' life, teaching, and actions, in the four gospels.
Let me begin, briefly, with my own story.