Radical Feminists emphasize the patriarchal nature of some mainstream religions such as Catholicism and Islam. They argue that such religions have developed in patriarchal societies and have been ‘hijacked’ by men. Men have interpreted religious doctrines in order to justify their positions of power.
Radical Feminists also believe that religion often serves to compensate women for their second class status within religion and society more generally. For example, by providing psychological rewards if they accept their role as mothers and limit their horizons to fulfilling that role well.
However, Radical Feminists do not necessarily see religion as inherently patriarchal. Historically, for example, Goddess religions have celebrated the creative and nurturing power of the feminine. It is really men hijacking religion and downplaying the role of women in the development of some religions over the past couple of thousand years which is the problem.
It follows that women can use religion to lead fulfilling lives, but need to fight oppression within mainstream religions organisations to do so, or even to develop their own unique, individual paths to a feminine spirituality.
The mind map above summarises the following Feminist perspectives on religion. Please click the links below for more details:
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Carol Christ is critical of any religion which is based on the idea of there being ‘one true God’ or ‘one true interpretation’ of what religious practices people should engage in.
And although the Enlightenment challenged the authority of the church, Carol Christ is also critical of Enlightenment thought.
In the Enlightenment, knowledge was held to be something independent of the individual, and thus objective and true. The Enlightenment also championed the ‘rational man’, someone who was dispassionate and detached from the process of uncovering true knowledge.
However, Carol Christ believes that detached, objective knowledge is not actually possible, as it is always tied up with the values, beliefs and interests of the person who creates that knowledge.
In at least two significant ways, the Enlightenment attitude towards knowledge is similar in that of traditional religious organisations’: they both believe that the source of ‘true knowledge’ is external to the individual and yet within both traditions, knowledge is basically created by men and reflects male values.
An alternative to both is what Carol Christ calls ‘embodied spirituality’ in which
‘we think through the body, we reflect upon the standpoints embedded in our life experiences, histories, judgments and interests…. Embodied thinking enlarges experiences through empathy… Empathy reaches out to others, desiring to understand the world from different points of view.” (1997).
Carol Christ argues that through such knowledge, traditional theology (in which men interpret religion) can be replaced with a new thea-ology, which means ‘reflection on the meaning of the Goddess’.
She believes that if embodied knowledge is the basis of spirituality, then we can overcome dualistic ways of thinking such as rational and irrational and mind and body because The Goddess is found all around, in everything, forming a web of life which integrates all things into a universal whole.
Historical Representations of the Goddess
Symbols and statues of the Goddess have been found in a wide variety of civilizations going back 25000 years.
Mythical stories which pay tribute to an Ancient Mother Goddess whose fertility and abundance give nourishment to a culture date back to prehistoric times.
One of the earliest examples, from the Paleothic era, is the ‘Venus of Willendorf. She is fat, showing her abundant life-energy, and representing the nurturing and support which mother-hood offers.
Later examples from the Mesopotamian era are the clay figurines of the Ishtar (circa 2000 BC) in her characteristic breast-offering pose which suggests her function as the Goddess of all nourishment and fertility.
A more recent example is found in the Macha Earth Goddess – a fertility goddess who was worshiped in ancient Ireland by the Picts before the arrival of the Celts and adopted by them. She is associated with war, horses, and independence.
How individuals can find the Goddess
Carol P Christ believes that people need to find their own spiritual paths through personal experience.
Christ had something of a traumatic time discovering the Goddess for herself. As a student of theology, she became increasingly frustrated with traditional interpretations of God as male, with God always being associated with the father, with Kings, and even with war. This all built up to a head one evening when she shouted out
‘I want you to know how much I have suffered because you let yourself be named in man’s image’, after which she heard a female voice in her head that said ‘In God is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering.’
Christ’s ideas on the Goddess were further developed by attending a workshop led by a woman called Starhalk who saw the Goddesss as Mother Earth, who was found in nature and in the spirit, emotions, mind and body of everyone.
Her understanding and spiritual awareness developed further in a women’s spirituality group called Rising Moon.
Carol Christ ultimately believes that personal experience has to be the starting point of valid knowledge. She believes that every woman on a spiritual path has a story to tell and their own spiritual journey to go on, but each finds a similar power through the Goddess.
In terms of Feminism, everyone can work together with other Feminists and valid spiritual knowledge can be co-created.
Evaluations of Goddess Religions
While it is hard to doubt the authenticity of Carol P Christ’s views (i.e. it is clear that she really believes what she saying), there are certain problems with this approach.
Firstly, It is difficult to evaluate an approach which rejects empirical research. It is difficult to assess its reliability or validity.
Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible to make generalisations from personal approaches – for example, it is easy to find examples of religions which are not patriarchal.
Sources/ Find out More
Haralambos and Holborn (eighth edition) Sociology Themes and Perspectives