Monday, June 20, 2011

How Jesus has Liberated Women III: A UN Survey

Modern Overview

I.  Overview of the Status of Women   Having seen how the Christian faith might influence the mind of a young believer on missions, let us now step back several orders of geographical amplification, and take an overview of the status of women around the world.  Our tool for doing so will be the United Nation's 1988 Population Briefing Paper: 'Country Rankings of the Status of Women: Poor, Powerless and Pregnant.'

The subtitle, which seems to put pregnancy on a par with poverty, helps indicate where the paper's authors are coming from.  Some of the criteria by which they analyze the status of women seem to reflect a western feminist bias.  However, one has to start somewhere, and this paper gives a good snapshot of the general state of affairs by 1988. While this is a few decades ago now, that's a fine time to start, since various religions had, by that time, had plenty of time to work their magic, or mischief, in the civilizations which they influenced.  The authors did NOT seem to mainly interpret these findings in terms of religion, but in terms of poverty, as the subtitle also indicates.  (And that is how the newspaper article reporting the study, which I read while living in Taiwan, interpreted matters.)  It is helpful, in a sense, that the study's authors do not appear to come to the issue with a religious bias.  While perhaps biased towards certain secular ideologies, in choosing among religions, the study is thus reasonably objective. (Though we will later also see how a Muslim scholar reworks the same body of data.)

One bias the authors may hold, that may warp some findings, is they seem to too sanguinely accept communist figures, which probably deserve skepticism.  Also, they omit questions of great importance to many women, such as, "Is your husband a raging drunk?"  That would no doubt have pushed Soviet figures lower.  "How likely are you and your husband to get divorced?"  That question is not entirely ignored, but should perhaps be more central, and would push US figures lower.  It is also hard to evaluate fairly, since divorce might be a sign that women can free themselves from oppressive husbands, or that husbands can free themselves from inconvenient wives: the virtues of freedom and commitment create a complex nexus of goods and ills which is not easily evaluated.  

I'll first show which countries come out on top in four of the five categories.  (I'm missing figures for the fifth category, "social equality.")  I'll list countries by religious background.  It should be remembered, however, that some of these countries have been influenced by a given religion for millennia (India, China, Taiwan, South Korea, European countries, Israel, Japan, Thailand), while others have only been influenced for one to three generations (most African "Christian" countries.  Latin American countries are harder to generalize about: some countries are largely native American (Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru), while others are mostly immigrants from Europe (Argentina, Uruguay) or Africa (especially Haiti).  Anyway, Latin American countries seldom figure prominently at either extreme in the poll.) 

After that, I'll list 12 countries that have the highest and lowest scores overall, and draw conclusions.

In the following post, I'll show how we got from there to here, and how Christianity has helped women not only in the "best" and most "Christian" countries, but in societies around the world.  Then we'll look more closely at the gospels. 


Of the top 17 countries when it comes to employment, Mozambique is a mix of Muslim (18% in 2007), Christian (56%, but this would have been lower two decades earlier), and animist (7%, but this would have been higher).  The other countries all have a Christian background.  The authors point out that a lot of men have emigrated from Mozambique for work, which may skew that country's rating: women being left behind, the workforce would have become more feminine.   

Of the bottom 20 countries, Lesotho, a poor land-locked country in southern Africa, is now 90% Christian, from an animist background.  (Though this number has probably increased since 1988, since Christianity grew rapidly in Africa over the 20th Century.) 

The other nineteen countries at the bottom in this category are all strongly Muslim.  India, the world's largest Hindu country, stands 25th from the bottom. 

Buddhist countries mostly stand somewhere in the middle (as perhaps appropriate for followers of the Middle Path): Thailand, Taiwan, China, with Japan a bit higher than middle.  So is the Hindu nation of Nepal. 


The top 12 countries in this category all had Christian backgrounds.  Number 13, Israel, was predominantly Jewish. 

The country at the bottom in this category was Benin, an African country on the Atlantic coast which has 54 living languages and the world's lowest literary rate.  No religion had a majority in the country, though Christians are now listed as its largest minority (43%), also with large minorities of Muslims, animists, and followers of Voodoo.  The Hindu country of Nepal came second from the bottom.  Liberia was seventh.  The next 13 were Muslim countries, after which came India, then China about eight notches up.

Again, Buddhist countries tended towards the middle: Thailand a bit lower, Japan marginally higher. (Yet surprisingly low, considering its economic development and high level of general education.)

Marriage and Children

One of the criteria in this category seems a little strange: the authors of the survey seem to assume that women are better off having fewer babies.  Surely that depends on whether women (and their husbands) WANT the babies.  Read Cheaper by the Dozen on the beautiful possibilities of large families.

Nine of the top ten countries were influenced by strongly Christian, mostly Protestant, traditions.  The exception was Taiwan, at number #4.  China was at #11, its highest ranking -- perhaps because of its one-child policy, an advantage which is grossly unfair to women who have been forced to have abortions!  (In Heart for Freedom, Chai Ling, one of the leaders of the Democracy Movement just the year after this survey, tell her own story of rape and abortion, and her work for All Girls Allowed which attempts to offset the Chinese tendency to abort female babies!)  In general, the survey seems to give communist countries too much credit, partly perhaps because its authors share some of their values, partly because they took official statistics (on the eve of the Velvet Revolution) far too seriously. 

Still, it is worth noting that the bottom ten countries in this category were all Muslim, with an extremely wealthy country, Saudi Arabia, occupying the very bottom spot.  Hindu Nepal and India were also fairly low, while largely Buddhist (and wealthy) Japan, Singapore, and Hong Kong were a bit above the middle. 


The top 22 countries in this category all had a Christian background.  This included Chile, which while richer than most Latin countries was not very wealth in 1988, and Poland, which was still quite poor. 

The four bottom countries are were Muslim, including Afghanistan, dead last.  Next came Nigeria, about evenly mixed between Christian and Muslim, with some animists.  Nigeria, Africa's largest country, grew from about 36% Christian in 1963, to about half presently.  So the percentage in 1988 was likely in the low 40s, with more Muslims, and a significant indigenous African presence still.  After that came Nepal, which is Hindu, Mozambique, mixed, and Malawi and Rwanda, Christian, but only for a couple generations.   

Social Equality

Specific data is missing for this category, though it is factored into the overall data, below. 

Overall Ranking for Status of Women (Color-coding: red for Christian background, green for Muslim background, purple for Hindu, pink for Buddhist, black for Marxist or atheist.) 

Top 20


East Germany
USSR (in its last full year of existence)
New Zealand
West Germany
Great Britain . . .  21st
Japan . . . 34th

Bottom 20 (from worst)

North Yemen
Saudi Arabia
India . . . 23rd worst
China . . . just below the middle

Provisional Conclusions

If Christianity has locked women in a dungeon, it seems to have been an uncommonly sloppy jailer, and seems to have to outsourced the jail-keeping duties to other cultures.  In fact, the data strongly suggests just the opposite: that where the Bible has been influential, for whatever reason, women enjoy better health, more education, better working conditions, and more control of their families than in the rest of the world.  The contrast with Islam is starkest, with ancient Hindu countries also stark, but also noticeable with Buddhist countries.  Nor can this be blamed purely on economics: rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya, Kuwait and (to a much lesser extent) Japan tend to do surprisingly poorly. 

The only exceptions are a few African countries that have only recently become Christian, or were still only just partially Christian by 1988. 

Countries which were still communist (and largely atheist) in 1988 appear at first glance to do pretty well, many appearing at or near the "top of the charts."  This data should be interpreted from three perspectives: (1) Most communist countries listed were also post-Christian, or still partially Christian, and therefore their cultures were historically influenced by biblical teachings.  (This is reflected by the black-and-red mix of letters in their names, above.)  (2) Communism did emphasize women's rights, which led to greater female literacy and participation in politics, along with reforms such as attempting to end prostitution.  This was even true in non-Christian countries: as a young man Mao Zedong, for instance, wrote movingly about a girl who had been forced to commit suicide rather than marry against her will.  (He later acquired a large harem, however.)  (3)  Communist statistics were unreliable and misleading, however.  Women in the Soviet Union may have "enjoyed" an advantage over men because they drunk less, maybe, but that only placed a larger burden on mothers and wives.  (When I worked on a Soviet ship, the only women on board seemed to be cooks, none ate in the officer's mess with me.)  In China, the survey actually gives an "advantage" to women because of low birth rate: but what that meant in practice, was that women were forced to have abortions against their will, and usually ended up aborting girls at a far higher rate than boys.

How can we explain the dramatically higher status which this survey seems to show for women in Christian or post-Christian countries?  The simplest explanation is that Christianity (and possibly Judaism) have consistently elevated the status of women, while Islam and Hinduism have lowered it, and Buddhism has had a more mixed effect.  But perhaps one shouldn't jump to this conclusion too quickly.  One possible alternate explanation is that the Enlightenment freed women in Europe first, and then, by  extension, those countries influenced most deeply by European colonialism, which also happen to be those that were "Christianized." 

But as I will now show, Christianity in fact began liberating women (how many, I will also give a rough estimate in each historical era) long before the Enlightenment.  And then I will demonstrate the source of that influence: the teachings and example of Jesus.


cactusren said...

The thing you seem to be missing in this socioeconomic analysis is the economic part. The countries that have better status of women scores are all better developed economically than those with poor scores. I'd like to see the actual numbers here, or a principal components analysis, which might tell us which factor (economics or religion) is better correlated with the status of women.

Also, 1988? Are there really no more recent statistics out there on this subject?

David B Marshall said...

Cactus: That's how the authors of the study interpreted it, and even more, the press. But in fact some rich countries did quite poorly, like Saudi Arabia and (to a much lesser extent) Japan.

Beliefs influence a culture's basic assumptions over many centuries: it's not a quick thing. So I think it's more reasonable to compare countries that have had established beliefs for a long period of time.

This also means that 23 years is a flash in the pan, in historical terms. Things probably have changed since then: there may be better statistics from formerly communist countries, true.

Also, please read Part IV and V, where I show the causation that underlies this particular correlation, and extends it to non-Christian countries.

Anonymous said...

With the recent escalation of radical feminism within the atheist/skeptical community(pass the popcorn! "FreeThought" Blogs provides endless entertainment) I got to thinking.
The Reformation set the status of women in Christianity by stripping the Holy Mother of her unique status and ubiquitous presence in Christian culture. The practice of sainthood, recognized the value of individual females within the faith. Nuns were in essence, the first feminists. Rather than assume the traditional role of motherhood, these women formed independent organiztions, headed by women. By establishing schools, hospitals, orphanages, and countless other charitable institutions, women did not merely reap the benefits of Christian doctrine, they exemplified it. For a largely illiterate world, Scripture had limited influence on society. But demonstrating the love and mercy of Christ through action, gained traction.
The Reformation was absolutely vital to maintaining Christianity, by rescuing it from corruption. It paradoxically reformed Catholicism. But many of the benefits, particularly for women, were sacrificed. At a cursory assessment of the Catholic Church, one can easily conclude that women have little status since they are not eligible for the clergy. Christ is the central focal point from an interior designer standpoint. But you'll find that Mary (a female)is honored for her ultimate obedience to God, self sacrifice, and goodness in humanity.

David B Marshall said...

Anon (?): Thanks for your interesting thoughts, there may be some validity to them. But I think the statistics in this part of the series, and the history in the next part, plus the gospel analysis in the final part, show that Scripture in fact had quite a bit of impact, if not always as much as one might wish.

Honestly, I just don't understand the common conflation of status of women with elligibility for the priesthood. This is an issue that affects only a tiny minority of women. Given dramatic abuses like foot-binding and sati, and such larger issues like education, the structure of the family, and health care, whether or not one in ten thousand women are allowed to do a certain job, seems pretty trivial to me.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Dave, You keep employing the phrase, "countries with a Christian background," without noting how vague and nebulous a phrase that is, nor noting what else many modern industrialized nations have in common besides their "Christian backgrounds."

Many European countries and international corporations that hire female workers place them in largely secular environments today.

And the scientific, technological, economic, and educational revolutions as well as agricultural revolutions that allow western nations to prosper and travel to other nations and teach and aid them, and gift them with help, are not all of indubitably "Christian" origin.

Natural human curiosity after the invention of glass lenses that showed us the stars and microbes, catalyzed human curiosity, leading to revolution after revolution in science and technology. But Christianity for over a thousand years taught that curiosity was a sin and the thing that brilliant minds should be most interested in was obtaining salvation for themselves and others, including specifying how important this Christian doctrine and practice over others, with subsequent endless bickering, ill will, competition, even war between Christians.

Lastly, once women do become devout members of various churches many of them begin to question the male domination of such institutions, including not only their church's misogyny, but the relationships of men to women in marriage as taught by churches:

On the subject of having loads of children, one might read the book, NO LONGER QUIVERING, about one woman's exit from the quivering movement.

Conversely, one might look at the way some societies seem geared toward cycles of overpopulation and resulting famine like Chinese history teaches us happened time and again, even before Mao.

The global population is also something one might take notice of as ground water keeps being depleted due to overuse, and we keep turning more and more of the planet into things humans use and discard, including whole rain forests and non-human species that continue to vanish.

Without taking responsibility for the numbers of our own species we are no better than bacteria which God also commanded to "be fruitful and multiply" like us, with no command to ever stop multiplying or filling the earth.

David B Marshall said...

Ed: You can't just ignore centuries of Christian influence on a culture. It would be absurd to pretend that has no effect, even a generation or two after secularization has taken hold. Read carefully the quotes from atheists and agnostics in Phil Zuckerman's Society Without God, about how Christianity has influenced Denmark and Swedish societies. The Cambridge History of Scandinavia provides evidence that they were right when they credited Christianity with providing values for Vikings. (See also my How Jesus Passes the Outsider Test.)

No, Christianity did not "teach that curiosity is a sin." Don't be ridiculous.

What caused massive death in China was usually war and floods and sometimes government policies. Given more stable societies, and better health and tech, most modern families don't feel the need to have so many children.

America, founded by Puritans and the most intensely Christian nation on earth, probably, hasn't suffered a serious famine for almost 400 years, as far as I know.

By the way, I noticed (quickly) that you posted on Richard Carrier's hysterical review of my new book, Jesus is No Myth. Please note that almost nothing he said about that book is true: I counted a whopping 120 errors in that one review, perhaps a world record. He even got the main point of the book completely wrong. Perhaps the worst single piece of writing I have seen by a credentialed scholar in my life.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Christians were interested in assuring their eternal salvation via prayers and church going. For every copy of ancient Greek or Latin works found preserved in a monastery there were endless copies of prayer books and works of the church fathers. The monks even wrote over the bleached out words on pages of Greek and Latin classics in order to produce more prayer books.

Have you read

"Did the Monks Preserve the Latin Classics?" by William Birney [It raises some interesting points from an angle not seen in Christian apologetic works.]


"Were Medieval Universities Catholic?: The question is easier to ask than to answer." by a Catholic scholar

You think the world's population is going to level out with more technology? No teaching in birth control or access to more methods of birth control or tough questions of family planning needed? It would take several earths with their natural resources, not just one earth, for every individual on earth today to enjoy the same lifestyles of abundance and healthy air and water enjoyed by modern day Americans. It takes four times as much water in factories to make those little plastic water bottles we drink from than the amount of water inside each bottle. China has denuded forests around the world (both legally and illegally) to allow her to continue to produce the wood products she currently sells around the world, and China's air and water is so polluted that cancer rates and breathing-related illnesses continue to rise and winds bring her pollutants around the world and her Mongolian desert continues to widen.

No famines in the U.S.? I dunno about complete famine, but there were the dust bowl years during the Great Depression, and today's increasing droughts and wildfires throughout the U.S.

There was also the Civil War in our country, during which more soldiers died than in both World Wars and the Koran conflict and Vietnam and Gulf Wars Prior to the Civil War was a time of great evangelization, including the development of tracts and Sunday Schools and more churches were being built than ever before, with more Americans attending them than ever before. However, ministers shouted loudly in the press and in the pulpit on BOTH SIDES of the Civil War's crucial issues since the Bible alone did not speak clearly and distinctly enough. Three major denominations in the South split from their northern brethren just prior to the War itself, a spiritual division preceding a political secession. How blessed the U.S. was.

America was founded by Puritans? Does it matter whose toes first touched the North American shores? Spanish toes touched the Floridian shores early on. But the main fact is that far more people than just Puritans soon began founding the earliest cities and colonies in the U.S. Soon the Puritans were in a minority not a majority, and were becoming absorbed by the large majority in burgeoning cities, i.e., rather than maintaining their distinctive forms of government and small town Puritanical ways. In short, Puritan utopias are short-lived, from the Geneva of Calvin and his Consistory to Salem, Mass. Within two hundred years of Calvin's demise the college he founded was being run by a deistically inclined president, and Geneva was publishing the works of Voltaire who had a home on Lake Geneva.

I believe some Puritan leaders also disliked in no uncertain terms the idea of a democracy.

What the world needs is primarily more education, not more religion, as admitted even by Christians like Norman Borlaugh, a father of the green revolution that has helped feed billions, and as admitted by non-Christians like Hilleman whose vaccines have saved billions of children's lives.

David B Marshall said...

Ed: I don't see anything in that America article that undermines anything I have ever claimed.

You spoke of famine in China; now you change the subject to ecology. Please stay on topic.

The Bible spoke clearly enough that the abolitionists were largely religious fanatics, and Uncle Tom's Cabin an explicitly Christian story. Of course southerner's justified their sins as best they could: that's human nature. But the MOTIVE was religious on the one side, economic on the other.

I don't know about famines in the US, either. Again, don't change the subject.

The world has plenty of education. The Nazis and Communists were both huge on education. Technology without purpose is dangerous.