“Why is religion important to ecofeminism?” A student, in the Master’s course I teach at Charles University, asked this as we began the class session dedicated to the topic. Given the overwhelming presence of atheism in the Czech Republic, I wasn’t too surprised by the inquiry. Nonetheless, the idea has been at the back of my mind ever since: what does religion have to do with ending patriarchy and bolstering the health of the planet? While I may take the connection as obvious, it is clearly not for many feminists out there. Here is how I understand it.
First, it is true: many of our inherited religious traditions have been and still are considerably patriarchal. Because of that, some feminists outright reject religion. In fact, some feminists even consider religion dangerous and threatening, as it is often utilized to contradict many feminist aims. Yet, there are many, many feminists who find, within their given or chosen tradition, non-patriarchal elements that can be recovered, remembered and/or (re)created. Religious feminists work tirelessly to transform religions in life-sustaining and post-patriarchal ways not just for themselves but also for those women and men who belong to the same communities.
Second, it is critical to recognize the ways in which these patriarchal religions support, complicitly or actively, the use and abuse of the earth. Some sacred texts declare humans to be in charge of the earth. Others suggest the earth was built for humanity’s use. Most of the religious traditions that uphold these understandings of nature conclude that the earth is not our true home, but only temporary. The better life comes after this one. Many religious traditions also support hierarchical dualistic thinking. All of these ideas separate humanity from the materiality of our existence. They also harm the planet by valuing humans above nature and animals, the next life above this one and some humans above other humans.
Third, patriarchal, religious tenants underlie much of Western society. In other words, religious standpoints are part and parcel of Western political philosophy and praxis, capitalism, societal structures, racism, sexism, class differences, attempts to control and define sexuality as well as much more. For example, they have supported the slave trade, denied women voices as well as leadership roles, questioned whether indigenous peoples had souls, murdered countless who refused to convert, crowned kings and rulers and advanced the prosperity gospel, which considers success, wealth and material goods proof of the person’s goodness and the Divine’s favor. Therefore addressing religion is an essential component of feminism in general.
So, there is a direct association between patriarchy, its religious manifestations and the health of the environment. But, why is religion so important? There are many reasons.
First, religion, for many people, makes sense of the world as well as their place within it. This understanding has a direct impact on humanity’s willingness to protect and care for the environment. If we believe a better life awaits us after we die, what reason(s) do we have to care for those aspects of life that support our existence now?
Second, religious traditions provide adherents with understandings of who they are and their role(s) within humanity. These notions shape proper relationships between human beings. If we believe the divine created womanhood from the rib of a man and describes this woman’s role as helper, what reason(s) do we have for equality between humans?
Finally, many religions are based on belief, trust and concepts of truth. For some religions, these are essential truisms even when they contradict generally held knowledge – scientific or otherwise. If we were created as distinct beings after the creation of animals, what reason(s) do we have to consider their plight?
Without a feminist and ecologically-minded critique of patriarchal religious traditions and their manifestations in society, we have little chance of ridding the world of patriarchy once and for all. For in as much as patriarchy has external factors, patriarchy is also internalized. Religion is intricately connected to this internalization for Western society.
We only have one planet. Our lives depend on it for our continued existence. Religious traditions have colluded with patriarchy for its destruction. This is why ecofeminism must address religion. This is why feminism must address religion and ecology. If we do not, we have little hope of a future.