Do All Religions Teach Love and Justice? Or Do Some Religions Teach Domination? by Carol P. Christ


Recently at a discussion of Goddess and God in the World, Judith Plaskow and I were asked if the dialogue across religious difference we embody and advocate in our book is a “liberal thing.” Can it, the questioner wondered, occur with those who do not have a liberal view of religion and religious meaning?

I answered that Judith and I identified two principles that made our dialogue possible. The first and most important is that we share the conviction that individuals and communities always interpret their texts and traditions from particular standpoints, deciding with aspects of text or tradition they will make central and which they will criticize or ignore.

For example, those who advocate Lev. 18:22’s injunction that “you shall not lie with a male as with a woman” (NRSV) generally expand its meaning to include female as well as male homosexuality. They ignore the fact that extending this text to a prohibition of lesbianism is an “interpretation” not found in the original Hebrew. At the same time, they ignore other provisions in the text–including that it condones slavery under certain conditions as the notorious letter to Dr. Laura “Why Can’t I Own a Canadian?” attests.

In conclusion, I said that interfaith dialogue with those who believe that they have access to a revealed truth given by God and not subject to interpretation would be extremely difficult.

In the intervening days, I have been asking myself if the particular beliefs of religious fundamentalists are the main problem with their worldviews or if the main problem is the authoritarian mindset that leads them to deny the principle that all texts and traditions are interpreted from standpoints.

This led me to the insight that the beliefs of religious fundamentalists that religious liberals find abhorrent—including the idea that homosexuality is wrong or the idea that women must submit to their husbands—are part and parcel of the authoritarian mindset. In other words, once we get beyond generalities (which themselves are interpretations), we might find that in fact authoritarian versions of religions have very little in common with their liberal counterparts.

The authoritarian understanding of religion holds that certain texts and traditions are divinely revealed and therefore not subject to questioning. Questioning itself is often prohibited. Change within tradition is also prohibited. The original revelation is held to be once and for all: the final revelation.

The texts and traditions of the so-called major or great religions—Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam—were shaped by patriarchy. Opposition to the idea of interpretation and to the notion that religions change over time ensures that the original patriarchal versions of these religions will remain intact.

I reflected further that the authoritarian attitude within religion is a product of patriarchy: it assumes that God is a dominating other who rules from above and dictates the truth to subordinates and/or that religious leaders and the elites who interpret their teachings are dominating others and everyone else is a follower.

I concluded that it is not surprising that the authoritarian mindset within religions correlates with the domination of some group or groups, usually male, over others.

Finally, I wondered whether the idea that all religions teach ideas love and justice is itself a fantasy of the liberal imagination. It may (or may not) be true that liberal versions the so-called major religions teach love and justice. But is it true that authoritarian versions of these same traditions teach the same message? Or is the central message of authoritarian religions domination: the domination of God over man, religious leaders over followers, and some groups over others? It is very hard to engage in dialogue when the goal of the other is to insist on revealed truth–in other words to dominate.

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a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverGoddess and God in the World final cover design

Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is  Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology.

FAR Press recently released A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess.

Join Carol  on the life-transforming and mind-blowing Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete. Space available on the fall tour. Early bird special until June 15.

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Categories: Abuse of Power, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General

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18 replies

  1. Thank you for this, Carol–well said! Wish I could “like” it a thousand times.

    Also wish I could have this lettered in gold on parchment:

    “The texts and traditions of the so-called major or great religions—Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam—were shaped by patriarchy.”

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  2. Thanks Carol, in answer to your title, your question. There are contemporary spiritual paths that are not centered on male domination, but rather follow the way of nature, along with a great love for preserving the natural environment, for example Spiritual Ecology. And that’s important not only as regards liberation, but also the need for strenuous protection and the cleaning up of our environment. The following is a quote from the Wikipedia.org section on SPIRITUAL ECOLOGY — “Some in Spiritual Ecology argue that a pervasive patriarchal world-view, and a monotheistic religious orientation towards a transcendent divinity, is largely responsible for destructive attitudes about the earth, body, and the sacred nature of creation.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Reza Aslan, author and Muslim (among other things), said in response to the question he often gets asked–“Is Islam inherently violent?”: “Islam doesn’t promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, or your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, and the way they see themselves.”

    Liked by 5 people

  4. I do think people are violent or peaceable as you suggest Esther, and that these folks bring these positions to whatever religion they may embrace.

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  5. Stop Male Violence! A Memorial Day Reflection

    I believe that there is a collective need on the part of women and men to stop supporting those who have served in the military, men who have killed and maimed millions of human beings, men, and now some women, who always fight on foreign soil killing innocent people and calling these acts of unspeakable violence “collateral damage.” Men who are then lauded as our country’s “Heroes.”

    It is important to note that in our very Patriarchal culture, war is still the ultimate solution to the world’s problems. Might is right, and we Americans worship the dynamic of “power over” and the “mighty economy” at the cost of countless human lives.

    The idea that war has been obsolete since the creation of the atomic bomb almost a century ago is deliberately and blindly ignored. We continue to strengthen our military at a huge financial cost to every American citizen. We talk peace and create wars. Or we participate in “conflicts” in the name of “democracy” a form of imperialism. We have become a nation of warmongers.

    Every spring, during the beautiful month of May we come around to May Memorial Day Weekend when most families celebrate the death of millions with picnics, parties and camping trips.

    Many also genuinely grieve deeply the loss of their sons, daughters, nephews, uncles, fathers and grandfathers, and surely some of them wonder if sacrificing their often adolescent children to war in the name of “patriotism” was really worth it after all.

    These are the people my heart aches for. For I too have lost family members to warfare, and find it impossible to dismiss these tragic deaths as necessary in order to save our country from “enemies,” who are human beings, just like us. We project evil onto other races, religions etc., while closing our eyes to our own. We refuse to examine our individual or collective capacity for human evil.

    We don’t see many older men racing to the nearest recruiting station to volunteer to become a part of the military. We sacrifice our young people instead. On Memorial Day weekend we sentimentalize those who died “in service to their country” modeling this sacrificial behavior to adolescents who are idealistic and whose brains are not fully developed and thus and not yet capable of distinguishing the various shades of gray from black and white thinking. Many young people are recruited in high school because they do not know what direction to take in their lives or because someone has inculcated in the adults around them the idea that serving their country “will make a man (woman?) out of them” or keep them off the street or away from drugs. We romanticize war through all forms of media. We wave flags frantically trying to out do one another, to prove what? That our dead are more important than those we kill?

    We should be ashamed of ourselves and our collective behavior.

    Wars are not inevitable.

    Unfortunately in the United States (as well as elsewhere) men and women are both inculcated into patriarchy, a position that automatically privileges men over women at home, in the workplace, in politics, and in the religious practices of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Men are not born into power and control over others; they are taught to be this way, either by their caregivers, wives/partners, community, religious practices, government, or by the culture as a whole. Just as women are taught subservience.

    Patriarchy supports an unequal power structure between men and women that can lead to physical mental emotional, and spiritual abuse. And we know that abuse of women is at an all time high. It is not by accident that 52 percent of American women voted for a president who is a misogynist. How else do these women justify how powerless they feel, or how much they hate themselves or other women?

    Healthy women (and men) can help stop male violence at many levels. We can refuse to support those who are warmongers, we can refuse to stay in unhealthy relationships, we can refuse to allow our sons and daughters to be sacrificed to the military. We can stop sentimentalizing our losses by refusing to participate in Memorial Day activities.

    At the risk of being called sexist I believe that women in particular are in a position to mediate the culture’s -either or – kill or be killed, – thinking about the inevitability of war. It is scientifically factual to state that women are better able to see both sides of an issue because women have the capacity to use both sides of their brains at the same time. Men as a group have a tendency to see an issue in absolutes – as in seeing a truth as right or wrong.

    We need healthy, independent women to speak out against the atrocities of war in spite of being called ‘radical’ or ‘feminist’ or crazy. Women are in a position to be able to see beyond the cultural belief in “the inevitability of war” more clearly than men can because of the way they think.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hi Sara —

      In general, I agree with you. But it’s a little more complicated than your statement. It’s really a problem that those men and women who sign up for the armed forces are by and large from the lower classes, and have much less choice when it comes to making a living. So they are the ones who end up fighting American wars. It’s also true that those who fought in the Viet Nam War (many of whom were from the lower classes) were shunned by anti-war protesters when they returned to the U.S., didn’t have enough access to help for PTSD, etc., and many ended up homeless and destitute. Neither of these things is right either. These experiences have made it much harder for me to be absolute in my condemnations of war and the military. I try to remember that most of us try to do the right thing, but many are ignorant or have few choices. I certainly don’t call these folks “heroes,” but I would rather point the finger of “warmongering” towards those in positions of power, rather than those who have become cannon fodder.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I agree – this is a complex issue and it wasn’t possible to cover all the exceptions – I am simply saying that war is not the answer for many reasons include the ones you mention. Thanks!

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      • During the draft young men did not have the choices they do today. I teach high school and some who join do so because sadly they seem to think killing people they see as an enemy is what they want to do. One of my former students was killed in combat in Afghanistan. Those who join intellectually know this might occur but think it won’t be them.

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    • I agree with you for the most part, although, as Nancy says, it’s complicated. I do *support* those people in the military who thought they were doing the right thing, but I definitely don’t set them up as heroes etc. I do support helping them reintegrate peacefully into society. The war culture is abhorrent; unfortunately, most of our historical timelines are set around battles and wars. Terry Tempest Williams writes about how vastly different it is for one to be willing to kill for one’s country versus being willing to live and die and make other sacrifices for one’s country in the cause of peace. I’m the latter, needless to say. Your post is a vital part of the conversation, but the topic extremely difficult to address since most listeners turn “off” immediately to the different perspective. Thank you and blessings to you.

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  6. I think the best word I can use is humility….

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    • When I read the title my immediate response was: “both”! That’s why I believe that out of respect, the Scriptures must be taken seriously, but not fundamentally literal. Some things are “general”, beliefs of the time like a flat earth and creation in 6 days with god needing a rest on the 7th, or the dominance of males over all others and a hierarchical vision of society and creation. And some things are “particular” – like it really means ‘love your neighbour and even your enemy, bless instead of cursing, don’t be greedy and build treasures for self while a sister or brother is without necessities, etc”. Of course, that is my “liberal” take on interpretation formed through study of good teachers – who of course agree with what is in my heart and mind.

      It is all certainly a conundrum! I agree with the word Alma used: “humility”. No one of us knows everything, but if we communicate instead of fighting, we’ll all be more knowledgeable.

      And Sara Wright I join you in grieving “Memorial Day” and the heroics of war, etc. I don’t share as instructed, all those “thank you for your service” messages on Facebook. I wish I had the guts to share your whole message above. I’ll have to give that more thought.

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  7. Carol, I believe that your question of which is foundational, the religious tenets of fundamentalists or their authoritarian mind-set, is a chicken-and-egg question. Fundamentalists tenets reinforce authoritarianism, and authoritarianism leads to fundamentalist tenets, i.e. they mutually reinforce each other. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. Your conclusion remains: that “fundamentalist/authoritarian versions of religions have very little in common with their liberal counterparts.” This, of course, makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for us who espouse liberal values to engage in interfaith interactions with them.

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  8. Excellent, as usual. I guess reminding people that “patriarchy” is temporary and was constructed STILL confounds them since these major religions were ‘formed’ while patriarchy was taken for granted as universal and necessary. Thing is, when we let go of the domination, we truly transform in marvellous ways. Let Go, Let God/dess. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Very insightful and thought provoking piece. It seems quite a few of us are in alignment on this particular topic. Not long ago I had an indepth discussion with a family member regarding the type of “mindset” that shapes violent expressions of religion, and we arrived at a similar conclusion. The problem is not “religion” in and of itself, but rather the mindset and motivations operating behind it.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. The difference with Hinduism is that there is no “core” per se, no real “canon” and many, many interpretations. The main difference between Hinduism and the other noted religions is that Hinduism also has Shaktism, which solely focuses on women and Devi (Goddess) in her many forms. The texts are the complete opposite of patriarchal. Women are revered in them as embodiments of the Goddess.

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  11. Of course. 5,000 years ago world wide the Patriarchal mind set overthrew the Goddess, earth centered Divine Feminine, woman worshiping religions. It is all about patriarchal control and domination of women and the earth. HInduism retained a strong Feminine Shakti balance but Patriarchal traditional, culture and traditions have overthrown that. The Goddess disappeared slowly but never fully from pagan worshippers, and there are Matriarchal strong cultures in small groups that have survived, in Mexico, India and Australia. Most notably Vietnam has a very strong Matriarchal histiry, just learned. The Divine Feminine energy is returning with the re-awakening from the late 70’s with you Carol as well as a hostess of Feminist writers and activists. Blessed Be,

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  12. All religions developed simply as a way to consolidate power of larger and larger groups of people.

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