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Just a charter for misogynists?

06 October 2009

Naomi Starkey looksat an expression ofrage about religion


Does God Hate Women?
Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
Continuum £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

SUCH is the visceral horror of the opening pages of this book that you may find it hard to read further. Does God hate women? Well, as the authors pile up the evidence, it cer­tainly looks like it. In God’s name, women are buried alive, beaten to death, gang-raped, degraded, and tortured. We are not spared details.

The passion sustaining this book is not traditional left-of-centre hos­tility to religion, but white-hot rage at how religion and God are used to justify the unjustifiable.

Later chapters offer a rigorous critique of the way the language of “rights” is increasingly used to close down debate of religious custom and belief, blocking freedom of speech if it involves anything that sounds like criticism. The Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (1990), the papal encyclical Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), and the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Faith and Mission Statement” amendment (1998) are all sharply criticised for the ways they reinforce the subordination of women. This, the authors argue, opens the way for denial of basic rights and all man­ner of egregious practices — in the name of God.

They attack the muddled think­ing that tries to distinguish what is “cultural” (thus open to reasonable debate) and what is “religious” (thus beyond reproach), when such a sacred-secular divide is in reality almost impossible to pinpoint.

Pro­vocatively, they make a case for speaking out against injustice even if this has side-effects such as negative social attitudes towards adherents of a particular faith.

Self-respect, fairness, and equality, they point out, are worth morethan short-term happiness and a quiet life, as Civil Rights activists in 1950s America also believed.

Poignantly, the authors envisage “a god who is a friend to the des­pised and downtrodden, a lover of fairness and equality and hope, a champion of rights and of our bet­ter natures”. When they look at the three monotheistic faiths, especially in their more conservative forms, however, they see no evidence for such a God. In a moment of, I pre­sume, unintentional irony (as no Gospel verse is referenced), they refer to religion as “the whited sepulchre” . . .

We may want to react to the title of this book with a defensive “No, of course not.” It will be more use-ful to acknowledge the challenge posed by the authors’ refusal to avoid awk­ward questions. We should consider the extent to which the way, we think, we are presenting our faith matches what those out­side the Church actually perceive.

Naomi Starkey edits the BRF’s adult book list, New Daylight Bible notes, and Quiet Spaces journal.

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