an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

bonobos, religion and feminism

leave a comment »

bonobos, promoting the common good

Yuval Noah Harari argues in Homo Deus that religion has lost, or is losing, its political clout, and is largely a force of the past with little impact on the future. This is largely true, but more so in WEIRD countries. Catholicism still has a firm grip on many South American and African countries, and I don’t see any Islamic nations Enlightenment in the offing – but you never know.

During the ‘New Atheism’ fervency of a decade and more ago, I became quite engaged in the issues. I’ve never believed in any gods, but I’d avoided really thinking about Christianity’s ascendancy in the UK and Australia (I have dual nationality). The decline of the religion even before New Atheism had made it all quite easy to ignore, but the new polemics excited me enough to read the new texts – The God Delusion, God is Not Great, Breaking the Spell and assorted others. Perhaps more importantly, I actually read the Bible, and, through my blog, wrote my own exegesis of the gospels and other New Testament writings, compared Jesus to Socrates, and other fun things. It passed the time. And I’m sure the movement hastened the drift away from religion in the WEIRD world.

For these essays, though, I’m thinking of how religions have impacted on the females of our species. Catholicism, Islam and Hinduism, in particular, have had a congealing affect on male and female social roles, especially, it seems, among the poorer classes in the cultures those religions dominate.

There’s a lot that I could say about religions, but in a nutshell they grew, initially, out of a desire to understand and control the world as humans saw it. That’s why, in my view, they’re in competition with science, which grew out of exactly the same desire, but which has turned out to be phenomenally more successful in fulfilling that desire. So religions are in wholesale retreat, especially in the WEIRD world.

Let me elaborate. The world to early human apes was full of mysteries, as it is to bonobos, chimps and other smart creatures, who might take note of such sights as waterfalls, volcanic eruptions, lightning fires, and even, perhaps, slow changes like the growth of a tree from a seedling. Also regular occurrences such as the change from day to night, seasons, the movements of the sun, moon and stars. But human apes would likely go further than a sense of wonder and awe. They would come to wonder what, and why. And lacking any handy explanations they would turn to inventing them – and those whose inventions seemed most convincing, and who seemed most familiar with the forces at play, either through delusion, calculation or conviction, might attain a power of sorts over the group, something seen as innate and special, and perhaps passed down to offspring. The forces and vagaries of wind and water, heat and cold, of food abundance and scarcity, might seem to be manipulable by the powers and spirit of these chosen few, the adumbrations of religious figures, shamans, a priestly caste. And given that, apart from a few notable exceptions – some ancient Greeks and the odd Egyptian and Chinese – science as we know it is a very recent phenomenon, religions held sway for ages, not only explaining and ‘controlling’ the powers of nature, but inventing plausible enough stories for how it all began and who to thank or blame for it all.

If this just-so story about the origins and purpose of religion has some truth to it, then it follows that religion has a conservative element. This is how the world began, these are the forces that created it, and this, that and this is what they want from us, in payment for the life they’ve given us. It’s unchanging, and we need to maintain our roles, eternally. For example, the Judea-Christian origin story has woman as almost an afterthought, man’s helpmeet, shaped from a supernumerary rib. The Islamic creation story is altogether more vague, but both myths took shape within highly patriarchal societies, and served to maintain those societies largely unchanged for centuries, until we began to find better explanations, at an accelerating rate.

Still, we’re left with the legacy of those religions and, for example, their views on leadership. It strikes me that some of the Catholic hierarchy would rather be burned at the stake than allow women to become priests, and I doubt that there are too many female Imams. There are debates of course, about whether restrictions on female leadership roles are cultural or religious, or indeed about whether culture and religion can be separated, but they often work together to maintain a perennial status quo.

Until, of course, they don’t. Modern science has knocked us off our pedestal as the darlings of the gods, and has reframed what used to be our whole world as a tiny planet revolving around a bog-standard star on the outskirts of a fairly nondescript spiral galaxy in one of possibly countless universes. It’s been a bit of a downward spiral for our sense of specialness, and it’s all been quite sudden. We can pat ourselves on the back, though, for having brought ourselves to our senses, and even for launching ourselves into the infinity of progress – a world of particle colliders, tokamaks, theory-of-mind-AI, quantum computers and space tourism and much else beyond the horizon. And yet, the old patriarchy is still largely with us. Men in suits, or in uniforms, leading the military, dominating the business world and manipulating the political arena. There’s no good reason for it – it’s simply tradition, going back to early culture and religion. Some of these cultures seem incorrigible in spite of their new-found WEIRDness. Will Japan, for example, ever transform its male business and political culture? When will we see another Chinese woman in the Politburo? As to Russia’s Putin and his strong man allies – when will this kindergarten club grow up?

With the success and growth of modern science has come great international, and inter-gender, collaboration. I can think of no greater model for our future development. With the current pandemic, too, we’ve seen follow-the-science politicians, many of them women, emerging with the greatest credit. Co-operation among women has always been powerful, but too little recognised. I would like to see more of this co-operation, especially in the service of keeping men in their place. It works for bonobos. I truly feel that a bonobo culture, but with human brainpower, would make the human world more exhilarating, in its compassion, in its sexiness, in its sense of connection with the biosphere and all its delicate mechanisms, than any other cultural change we can make. I actually think it will happen – though sadly not in my lifetime.

Written by stewart henderson

August 18, 2021 at 8:24 pm

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: