What is a woman to do when she no longer finds any type of theism relevant to her, but as a human being still needs community, ritual and sense of the sacred that theistic religion inherently provides? The most vocal representatives of atheists are men, such as the voices of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I’m happy to have these voices, because they’re brilliant and well-spoken, but where are the women? My partner shares the same belief system as I do, but he does not feel the same need for community as I do. Is it gender? What ratio of women to men do you observe when you look at who is spending their time and energy making sure your local Catholic Church functions? In questioning if women are more spiritual than men, Caroline Kline observed that women outnumber men in religious observance. For the sake of argument, let’s accept for a moment that women are more inclined than men to seek community, ritual and a sense of the sacred. What is a nontheist woman to do?
I wanted to go through some articles posted on here before diving into this question, maybe I would find a satisfying answer and that would be the end of it. Carol Christ consistently poses the divine gender question, and admittedly I’ve been very drawn to a feminine manifestation of the divine. The idea of Mother resonates with me more than Father (a father whom many believe could only “save” humanity via human sacrifice). Part of my rejection of theism does indeed stem from this issue of gender. For many who find traditional theistic concepts unnerving, Christ’s reevaluation of the divine is gratifying and empowering. As empowering as this reevaluation is, however, the concept of any deity, male or female, still did not settle with me.
Amy Levin opened up about her own life and her need for sacred space in her article A Room of One’s Own: Sacred Woman Space. While I am sure she envisioned this concept of sacred space broadly, theistic religion very easily creates sacred space, in addition to community. Every person in that space is coming together for the same reason. What does the nontheist do? We become limited to creating space without community, at least not on the same level as religion. How do we do that? Where do we start? Does this concept of space even occur to everyone? My guess is no.
Brooke Nelson shared her reaction to witnessing a woman minister in Does My Faith Have A Gender? I am quite sure this is the reaction of many people, but a part of why I am taking steps to become a HUUmanist minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition. I love breaking social norms to begin with, but how many women would ultimately find gratification in seeing and relating to a female leader? Any woman who has had any type of “girl’s night” will understand how wonderful it is to gather with a group of women to vent, share joy, support each other, etc. Usually those experiences do not fall within the realm of one’s belief system (though I’m sure any female groups at churches function similarly), and what might happen if it did?
In Women Blogging Theology, Gina Messina Dysert framed this phenomenon as one of community building. Maybe this project will offer a sense of community for me. I’ve certainly felt community in my academic studies, as I recall geeky conversations about a particular text or a paper required for class (even geekier when booze was involved). I’m happy to have that community, but I also crave the same for my belief system. I want to have that same meaningful conversation about how someone else finds meaning in a life event, or how that person relates to the world without a personal deity (who may or may not intervene with human history), to share our experiences in feeling marginalized because while we still resonate with things spiritual in the sense that it’s a part of our mental health, the norm and structure for spirituality is based on theism (though I do love Native American spirituality). A line from Gina’s article about the theology of Carol Christ really speaks to me, “Christ argues that dimensions of women’s stories and experience that are explored are sacred “not so much because gods are commonly celebrated in them, but because [a woman’s] sense of self and world is created through them.” (Italics added for emphasis).
Ethnographers like Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner observed the roles of ritual, space, liminality and communitas in a person’s development. These concepts about human behavior are not limited to religion, though religion inherently provides that structure. Nontheists need ritual to introduce new life to the world, to celebrate coming of age, to celebrate the union of two people, to mourn and process death. Nontheists also need space that is sacred apart from space that is profane (in the Mircea Eliade sense). I have experienced a type of liminality in my own nontheism for years precisely because I lacked ritual, space and communitas. This is another reason why I intend on becoming a HUUmanist minister, to have those conversations with nontheists about these issues. Do these questions arise in the minds of my male nontheist counterparts? Do they arise for other female nontheists?
I’ll conclude with a slight tangent, going back to the question of redefining the divine. I think this exercise would be profoundly meaningful and impactful for many. While I’ve found this exercise to be a positive one in my own reflection, I’m still unsettled with the thought of the Wholly Other as separate from us and from nature. Even if one believes the divine *is* nature (say, in Pantheism for example), is that really theism?
Bridget Ludwa is a Religious Studies Graduate alum of John Carroll University. She has come to identify as a nontheist, and is no less fascinated with questions surrounding feminism in religion. Bridget intends to use her experiences to become a HUUmanist minister in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, serving other nontheists in need of community and empowerment. Stemming from her military upbringing and her own military service, she is also an advocate for veterans issues by serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at the University of Akron.
10 thoughts on “Feminism and Religion: Where Do Nontheists Fit? By Bridget Ludwa”
Bridget, I appreciate very much your very human sacred longing for community, rituals & your honesty in rejecting the over-personalized, demystified theism of religion. Many who have stayed within “theistic” traditions share your sentiments. Sitting in church listening to the way God is portrayed in such paternalistic terms, lately I just do not feel that this is the God I know. I have come to see God in more “panENtheistic” terms as the animating principle of creation; the whole encompassing & indwelling all things; transcendent, yet immanent; seen yet unseen, personal, yet more than personal; Unknowable, mysteriously knowable; a metaphysical, accompanying presence shrouding each little life with sacred mystery and connection with the larger Whole. Oh dear, that was a long sentence… I guess the point I wanted to make is that within all of the world’s faith traditions, I do believe there is something deeper than “theism” that is more true to the mystical essence of each tradition yet is often considered not “orthodox” (new age-y) by the guardians of mainstream religion. For some time now, I have been feeling alienated by my faith tradition for the very same reasons you are expressing, yet I sit in the pews and do my own internal re-interpretations of the trite “Father God” metaphors which seem to shrink and YHVH into a puppet up in the sky. I wonder do you find community/solidarity with the closet mystics who are rediscovering the ancient contemplative practices/dimensions of our faith traditions? It seems the ? you ended with is the quest for a panentheistic spirituality?… which is a more open, broad table than theistic religion which seems so hopelessly exclusivist and oppositional… which in my own body, heart, mind & lived experience feels like an unveiling of the Divine Feminine whose been right here all along while we have been looking up in the sky and in our bibles for Her… For whatever its worth, I find solidarity with your quest. namaste
Thank you for your response. I certainly resonate with your internal re-interpretation, as I went through the same process when I tried desperately to stay Roman Catholic. That is the tradition in which I was raised, and there is much about Catholicism that I appreciate (social justice stances and environmental stewardship to name a few). In the end, I just could not re-interpret central doctrinal issues.
I’m also glad you brought up panentheism (in contrast to the pantheism I mentioned). I’ve only recently become familiar with the wealth of names out there for various nuanced belief systems. I sat with panentheism for a time (and might still come back to it), but for a reason I can’t yet articulate, the divine as the *sum* of parts (something greater than the parts individually) wasn’t quite my cup of tea either…Again, I might come back to that end of the spectrum at some point. But I still wonder if to say that we’re all part of the vast universe, if that is theism? For me it isn’t, because I’m not sure that I would attribute something to the sum of the parts other than what those parts already form.
I do love reading the works of various mystics (Julian of Norwich, Thomas Merton, etc…). I feel a distant community, yes, but there’s still something powerful about physically being around a group of people. But I’m so thrilled to find you all here, even in digital space :) Thank you again, Peace
Bridget, thank you for opening up this interesting discussion. I have asked myself similar questions, and like Emily, see myself more inclined to conceive of the sacred in panentheist terms. Godddess / God, not an either or, rather an and/with filling all the spaces between dualities. Numinous and transcendental, available to those who seek the sacred in community and in meditative moments of reflection. When I need an anthropomorphic sense of divinity that informs me as a woman, I seek the image of Goddess. When I need the Lover-Beloved sense of divinity I have sought the image of a beloved male saint. However, the non-gender concept of That, Sat-Chit-Ananda or Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, from the so called “Hindu” spiritual tradition, offers the opportunity to envision a continuum between the embodied me to the universal I am, with and without attributes. That gives me plenty to weave with, to accept art and science interwoven, and to even consider systems thinking, and other “emerging” branches of western sciences, as an offshoot of Indian philosophies. As a woman born in the west, I have noticed that when westerners understand a foreign concept we tend to apprehend it and change its meaning to fit into our low context communication (Edward T. Hall). We have done it to the words karma, dharma, guru, avatar, etc. I hope that the abstract name of That or Divinity, does not enter US mainstream vocabulary. The political categories where the western God(s) have ended make him disgusting to many who like you care for community and seek a connection with the divine. If India (not its true name, its true name is Bharata) had not been defiled by colonial rule for 8 centuries, spirituality and civilization would have provided us a better foundation to adopt non-gender spirituality… Maybe there would be no need for the word atheist… the atheist denies not that s/he exists, the atheist denies not that s/he knows, the atheist denies not her/his joy and bliss. We may agree in principle, and still choose a different artistic expression to manifest That, It… Sat-Chit-Ananda. Namaste!
I’m with you on the need to anthropomorphize the divine, I think it’s human nature (it’s hard to relate during prayer or meditation to a formless mass I think?) and I too drift toward a feminine image. Despite having read and learned about lover-beloved aspects of divinity, it had never occurred to me to do so in my own practice. How interesting!
I agree with you on the need/lack thereof for the term atheist (and I’ve resorted to using the term nontheist very intentionally!), but I think the concept of anti-theism (more on the explicit rejection side of the atheist spectrum) would continue to be relevant for many people. I won’t speak for others, though :)
Thank for your thoughts and insights, Peace.
Bridget, thank you for showing your artwork Spark. Beautiful!
Bridget, thanks for a very provocative post (and great artwork). In their promotion of a panentheist view, Emily and Vrinda have said much of what I would have (and probably more eloquently). I know you understand the world as “sacrament,” and I think panentheism provides the philosophical grounds for a sacramental worldview. If you’re interested in exploring this area more, I’d recommend two authors, Meister Eckhart von Hochheim (XIII-XIV German Dominican “mystic”), and Nagarjuna (II-III CE Chinese Buddhist teacher- philosopher). Both are a challenge to read, but well worth the effort. The “Classics of Western Spirituality” volume (edited by Bernard McGinn et alia) provides the most accessible rendering of Eckhart’s work. There are a few good volumes on Nagarjuna (one of which I can see in my mind and can’t for the life of me remember the title, editor, etc. — sigh); maybe others can help on this. On a more personal note, I encourage you to take as a mantra “I am not alone.” As you have noted, your theistic sisters share many of the same concerns you raise. We stand with you, as does the Ineffable One whom no name can encompass.
(wasn’t sure if you wanted to stick with your alias, thought I’d error on the side of caution!) As always, thank you for your text recommendations, and our many conversations on the subject! I like that concept of viewing the world as sacrament; I hadn’t articulated it like that before.
I like mantras, and will have to start using that one :)
and thanks for the compliments regarding the art! I don’t consider myself an artist in the least bit (it’s why I picked up clarinet in 5th grade), but there’s a certain meditative quality in a glass of wine, paint, and canvass :)
This is such an important topic for discussion, yet is rarely formulated into words. As an atheist myself, the quest for a sense of community has always been through academia, as you mentioned. The experience women get from coming together especially, when they have the same beliefs gives me such a strong sense on camaraderie and companionship. Yet this is difficult to find, while women may come together for “girl’s night” or for political purposes or through academia, it is rare that we merge our nontheist beliefs together. In contrast, I can’t help but think about they ways in which religion has always played such a strong role in women’s lives and their ability to gain access to the public realm. To me, as an atheist my beliefs have become more private because of the ridicule you are likely to face as a woman who does not believe in the until patriarch, the “Father”. I think you bring up a valid point in that men are the face of atheism, yet men are also the foundation of religion as well. Women’s beliefs stem from their experiences, therefore in order to obtain some sense of community we must come together and discuss the experiences or events that have led to our nontheist beliefs. The masculine representation of atheism is something that must be altered. For some atheists, the patriarchal foundation of religion was enough to turn them off of religion entirely, therefore we cannot allow for atheism to be associated with solely men. If atheism became male-dominated then what direction or where would nontheist turn? In essence, nontheism or atheism should ideally be gender neutral in comparison to its religious counterpart. In general, Bridget I think you bring up a really important issue, where is the sense of belonging or community for nontheists? I think in order to create one, women must be represented and “come out” as nontheists or as atheists is order to disassemble the traditional association between men and atheism. Thank you for bringing this topic to light, I really enjoyed it.
As one of those male nontheists you mentioned, I’ll say a bit about my perspective (which isn’t all that sophisticated).
I see the religious impulse as a human characteristic, one related to all the others touching on our capacity for forming community, but distinct in that it address our sense that there is something more than the parts of the world we experience in our mundane day-by-day lives. So, to me, religion is not necessarily tied to theism (or any supernatural belief). But, and particularly in the West, religion is almost exclusively expressed within a theistic context.
As a nontheist, though, I don’t find the theistic context overly troubling because the *sense of* something more gives me the door I can open in religious community. Of course, it wasn’t until I came to a UU congregation that I found a key to that door, but I feel that was contingent on the details of the particular congregations I had previously encountered… rather than in some fundamental failing on either my part or the other congregations.
But I wouldn’t want to speculate too far on the differences between the male experience here and any particular woman’s (much less generalized ‘woman’s’) experience. I do, however, as a fellow who was raised-up Catholic, feel comfortable noting that it always seemed that that the committees involving in feeding people or taking care of the dead or shut-in were largely made up of women, and the committees involved in money or the parish buildings were largely made up of men. But that the choir was pretty evenly split.