Friday, January 13, 2006

Women Have Always Been More Religious

The theme of how the effeminacy of religion keeps driving men away from church is a wheel that keeps on getting reinvented. Leon Podles got a book out of it (review here, article-length summary here), as did David Morrow (review here, article-length summary here, whole web-site [!] here), and just recently both Tony Esolen and the iMonk have written good posts about different aspects of the issue. And the Bayly brothers have made this a focal point of their message to their churches and the larger church (check out the "archives by subject" under patriarchy, feminism, etc., here). Adair T. Lummis on the other hand, after confirming the trends in the Episcopal church, basically says, "So what? We don't need the jocks, and they don't need us."

I agree with a lot of what all of these authors say (except the last), but I just have to "but" into the conversation. My "but" here has to do with the historical narrative that is often attached to this topic. In it, the natural state of Christian bodies (or religions in general) is assumed to be an even sex-ratio of men and women. One then looks for a bad guy or practice that by over-sentimentalizing or over-feminizing Christianity drove out the men, and created the current "feminized" church. It might be Bernard of Clairvaux (Podles's bad guy), altar girls (Tony Esolen's focus), or prissy behavior codes (what the iMonk criticizes). One then reasserts the manliness of Christ, of the Old Testament, of God the Father, of the apostles and martyrs, and voila! a complete narrative of declension.

Historically I just don't think this works. Here's a few counter-examples:

1) Ever notice how many unattached women believers are specifically mentioned as being church pillars in the New Testament? Like Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16), the prominent Greek women in Berea (Acts 17:12), and Damaris in Athens (Acts 17:34), not to mention the women in Christ's band of followers. Now given the general tendency of Greco-Roman writings to subsume women under men, I think that if women and men are roughly equally represented in the sources, then women are likely rather over-represented in real life. Rodney Stark's fascinating study of the sociology of early Christianity concludes the same: the legendary New Testament church that conquered the Roman Empire was numerically a woman-dominated one.

2) William of Rubruck was a famous (well, at least famous in the circles I move in) missionary to the Mongol empire (expensive annotated version here; accessible paperback here) in the thirteenth century. Several of Genghis Khan's sons had married women from Christian peoples on the Mongol steppe (Kereyids especially) and several of his grandchildren had been raised by such Christian mothers. But what he found was that few if any of the Mongol men would identify with Christianity or be baptized, but that many of the empresses and princesses did.

3) And outside of Christianity altogether, the Greco-Roman geographer Strabo notices the same thing. He's discussing various opinions on certain verses of Homer's Iliad, book xii:1-6, in which Zeus turns away from the battles before Troy to Thrace (modern Bulgaria) and the nomads beyond:

When Zeus had driven against the [Achaian or Greek] ships the Trojans and Hector,
He left them besides these to endure the hard work and sorrow
Of fighting without respite, and himself turned his eyes shining
Far away, looking over the land of the Thracian riders
And the Mysians who fight at close quarters, and the proud Hippomolgoi
Eaters of curds [Galactophagoi], and the Abii ["resourceless ones"], most righteous of all men.

Strabo approves of those who say the Abii as "bereft" or "resourceless ones" were naturally most righteous, since it is only money, and economic development generally, that causes injustice. Central Eurasian nomads who live on mares and curds far from the ocean and the commerce that comes with it are thus naturally primitive and just. (It's a bit of a digression, but I can't help but cite him at some length, since it points up the oft-ignored anti-civilization strain in Greek thought, that is remarkably similar to much modern radical thought)

As for the term "Abii," one might interpret it as meaning those who are "without hearths" and "live on wagons" quite as well as those who are "bereft"; for since, in general, injustices arise only in connection with contracts and a two high regard for property, so it is reasonable that those who, like the Abii, live cheaply, on slight resources, should have been called "most just." In fact, the philosophers who put justice next to self-restraint strive above all things for frugality and personal independence; and consequently extreme self-restraint diverts some of them to the Cynical mode of life. . . .

Now wherein is it to be wondered at that, because of the widespread injustice connected with contracts in our country, Homer called "most just" and "proud" those who by no means spend their lives on contracts and money-getting but actually possess all things in common except sword and drinking-cup, and above all things have their wives and children in common, in the Platonic way? [The tragedian] Aeschylus, too, is clearly pleading the cause of the poet when he says about the Scythians: "But the Scythians, law-abiding, eaters of cheese made of mare’s milk." And this assumption even now still persists among the Greeks: for we regard the Scythians as the most straightforward of men and the least prone to mischief, as also far more frugal and independent of others than we are. And yet our mode of life has spread its change for the worse to almost all peoples, introducing among them luxury and sensual pleasures, and to satisfy these vices, base artifices that lead to innumerable acts of greed. So then, much wickedness of this sort has fallen on the barbarian peoples also, on the nomads as well as the rest; for as the result of taking up a seafaring way of life they not only have become morally worse, indulging in the practice of piracy and of slaying strangers, but also, because of their intercourse with many peoples, have partaken of the luxury and the peddling habits of those peoples. But though these things seem to conduce strongly to gentleness of manner, they corrupt morals and introduce cunning instead of the straightforwardness which I just now mentioned.

Far from being some new innovation of the left, the feeling that commerce and development is basically a bad thing, and that "we" (developed and civilized people) are the primary spreaders of this bad thing around the world, is deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

Anyway, back to our topic . . .

Strabo also mentions the view of Posidonius who says that Homer's Abioi ("bereft" or "resourceless folk") means specifically bereft of women. He also says these people in Homer were particularly religious, which draws Strabo's indignant reply:

. . . To regard as "both god-fearing and smoke-treaders [from the smoke of their many sacrifices]" those who are without women is very much opposed to the common notions on that subject; for all agree regarding the women as the chief founders of religion, and it is the women who provoke the men to the more attentive worship of the gods, to festivals, and to supplications, and it is a rare thing for a man who lives by himself to be found addicted to these things. See again what the same poet [Menander, the third century BC comic playwright] says when he introduces as speaker the man who is vexed by the money spent by the women in connection with the sacrifices: "The gods are the undoing of us, especially us married men, for we must always be celebrating some festival"; and again when he introduces the Woman-hater, who complains about these very things: "we used to sacrifice five times a day, and seven female attendants would beat the cymbals all round us, while others would cry out to the gods."

Based on a broad range of historical data and contemporary survey research, Rodney Stark and other researchers have concluded (summary here) that women are generally more religious than straight men. More controversially they also suggest that homosexual men act like women in this respect and homosexual women like men. In other words, any religious body has a natural tendency, if not checked by some other force, to be dominated by women and gay men.

What's the conclusion? Certainly those of us who believe that the Christian religion is about salvation, and that everyone, including high-testosterone jocks, need it, should be more inspired than ever to prevent the Gospel from being captured by the natural inclinations of the fallen heart, to make of it something that simply appeals to the feminine side of our sin-distorted natures. But on the other hand, where church attendance is voluntary, and not enforced by social custom or law, a certain predominance of women is not in itself a sign of spiritual ill-health.

Historically, what has often prevented religion from becoming a pink-color ghetto is the link of religion to the state and ethnicity. To the degree that a given church dominates a state or ethnic group, it then becomes compulsory (by law or social custom) for all, thus masking the tendency for greater feminine interest and participation. It is interesting that Eastern Orthodoxy and Judaism are more masculine in support than western Christianity, at least in the United States. He explained that by saying that they were uninfluenced by Bernard of Clairvaux's feminine spirituality. I wonder rather if the reason that in the United States, these two religious bodies are basically ethnic. If natural religion is strongly linked to the feminine, ethnic and national pride seem to be more masculine traits.

In William of Rubruck's report, he noted that the Mongol men did not wish to be called Christian precisely because they saw "Christian" as the name of an ethnic group:

Before we took our leave of Sartach [Sartaq, a great grandson of Genghis Khan, ruling in the Crimea], the aforesaid Coiac [a Syriac or "Nestorian" priest serving at Sartaq's court] together with many other scribes of the court said to us, "Do not say that our master [Sartaq] is a Christian [although rumor said he had been baptized], for he is not a Christian, but a Mongol." This is because the word Christianity appears to be the name of a race, and they are proud to such a degree that although perhaps they believe something of Christ, nevertheless they are unwilling to be called Christians, wanting their own name, that is, Mongol, to be exalted above every other name [chapter xvi].

If we are going to make religion purely voluntary and divorced from ethnicity or the state, then I think we are going to have to accept that masculine interest is going to be somewhat harder to sustain.