A conference in Newcastle this week has posed the question “Is religion responsible for keeping women in their place?”. Daphne Hampson, Professor of Divinity at the University of St Andrews argues that religion has proven to be hugely damaging to the equal rights of women. Last week Cheri Blair argued that over the years modern religion has fallen foul of fallible, masculine interpretation of key texts. However, Hampson argues that it is not simple a question of reinterpreting masculine versions of faith, but religion itself that is the problem. A transcendent, male divinity and a gendered hierarchy reflect all that is wrong with the patriarchal ideologies presented by the Abrahamic faiths. In her view religion has been central to modern day culture and has legitimized patriarchy.
Hampson’s arguments rest on several key points - the notion that culture and religion can be separated; a view of God that is entirely transcendent; she also appears to hold that people can gain nothing from religious texts now that we have an awareness of equal rights for women.
However, in a recent Radio 4 debate on Womans hour, Beattie (Reader in Christian Theology, Roehampton University) responded by stating that it is impossible to separate culture and religion in the way that Hampson suggests. Beattie argues that we ‘inhabit cultural narratives and live out the cultures that we are in as part of an expression of our identity’. She also points out that we should not understand religious texts as historical documents, but as something that shapes the world that we live in. It is vitally important that women pay new attention to these texts to ensure that there is potential for growth and equality throughout. “Too much credit is given to the old men in authority”. It is important that women recognize that the texts may have been written in a patriarchal society and have been interpreted for millenia by men, however that no longer needs to continue.
The idea of a masculine, transcendent God is one that has its roots in Greek Philosophy rather than Christianity per se. Modern Christians would argue that God is not solely transcendent but is also clearly a God with which they are in a relationship. They might point to Jesus as being an example of a personal God, rather than a transcendent one.
Beattie finishes the debate by highlighting the importance of education for women as being the root to empowerment. Surely religion is no more to blame for inequality than any cultural or social construct. Women will be downtrodden, as will the poor, social minorities, the young and many other groups, if they are not given the education and awareness to change their situation.
Overall, through the debate on Womans Hour, Hampsons assertion that religion is bad for women comes across as arrogant and outdated.
click here for the link to hear the Womans Hour debate in full.