Religion and Patriarchy

    This post by Joyce Arthur originally appeared in Pro-Choice Action Network.

    Both religion and patriarchy have prehistoric roots. What was the relationship between these two ancient human practices? As food for thought, consider the following hypothesis.

    Prehistorically, women probably had more power and higher status living in hunting and gathering tribes than within ancient city-states. The introduction of agriculture fostered various developments that probably led to the oppression of women.

    Higher populations were living in permanent communities with greater resources, and this required many new rules to manage a complex society. Further, the concepts of private property and inheritance originated when a community produced more than it needed for its own survival, a phenomenon that accompanied the invention of agriculture. This brought about a fundamental change in the use of resources—instead of the communal sharing typical of hunter/ gatherer tribes, individuals competed for resources, with land ownership becoming the primary mark of wealth and power. Also, men began investing long-term, substantial resources in the specific children borne by their wives, not in all children of the tribe.

    The key to the origin of patriarchy probably lies in the biological need for people to invest in their own children. Evolutionarily speaking, individuals are compelled to spread their genes by reproducing. Animals do not generally take care of young that are not their own, since this would turn them into evolutionary dead-ends. In the case of humans, women always know that the children they bear are related to them, but men can never know for sure who their genetic offspring are, which can cause huge anxiety for them. This male dilemma matters little to women, since women’s biological priority is to find someone to help provide for their children, and it doesn’t have to be the father. In fact, female duplicity in this regard has always been common—overall, nine percent of children are raised by men who only think they are the fathers (Boster, 1997).

    In ancient human societies, the obvious and most practical way to ensure that men invested in their own children was to dictate and restrict women’s sexual behaviour. For example, adultery became a far worse crime for women than for men. Of course, this control of women was never consciously justified on biological grounds—but it had to be justified somehow. The most convenient and effective social explanation was this: Women’s subjugation had to be enforced because women were inferior to men and their sexuality was a source of evil temptation that corrupted men.

    How could such beliefs be justified and enforced? In a word, religion. Women’s confinement to the role of faithful wife and mother was God-ordained by default, because religion permeated early societies—it dictated everything about people’s lives. Divine laws and religious mythmaking fulfilled patriarchal needs by providing moral justification, strength, and endurance to beliefs about woman’s proper place. These beliefs became enshrined in the sacred books of organized religion, such as the Judaic Old Testament.

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