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Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full c

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Boyarin, D. (1997) Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyd, S. B., Longwood, W. M. and Muesse, M. W. (eds) (1996) Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fiorenza, E. S. (1984) Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1987) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gross, R. M. (1996) Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gunnarsson, L. (2011) ‘A Defence of the Category “Women”’, Feminist Theory 12, no. 1, 23-37.

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 183-201.

Johnston, J. (Forthcoming 2013) ‘A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism’, in E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds) Contemporary Esotericism. Equinox, 576-597.

Juschka, D. M. (ed.) (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Continuum.

King, U. (ed.) (1995) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Korte, A.-M. (2011) ‘Openings: A Genealogical Introduction to Religion and Gender’, Religion and Gender 1, no. 1, 1-17.

Krondorfer, B. (ed.) Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post)Christian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kugle, S. S. (2010) Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld.

Looy, H. and Bouma, H. (2005) ‘The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons who are Intersexed or Transgendered’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3, 166-178.

Lykke, N. (2010) ‘The Timeliness of Post-Constructionism’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 2, 131-136.

Mollenkott, V. R. (2007) Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

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Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

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Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender

Gender has always played a significant role in the everyday lives of people. This is no more true than in the case of religion and there is a burgeoning field in religious studies dedicated to the study of the role of gender within religions. From dress codes to notions of purity to questions of the legitimate of power the topic of gender is one few scholars can afford to ignore. With a whole range of issues to be investigated Lisbeth Mikaelsson gives us an introductory insight into the complex topic of religion and gender: the issues it raises, the way we go about it, who’s doing it and why.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson is professor of religion in the department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen. More recently she has shifted her specialism from religion and gender to new religious movements and is currently studying the Prosperity Movement. She has published a number of books and articles in Norwegian. In English she has published on the topic of Gender in Armin Geertz’ edited volume New Approaches to the Study of Religion and the journal Numen.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.

Podcasts

Lived Religion: Part 1

Meredith McGuire shows how Lived Religion, a concept she has coined, is at the core of this distinction and offers a way of understanding religious experiences as creative, innovative and often unique enactment of power. This can be seen, as shown in one chapter of her book, within gendered spiritualities, as much as in the way she approaches the object of her studies.

In this interview, McGuire draws on her vast experiences on the field to talk about how religion is an embodied phenomenon that ultimately can’t be separated from the cognitive and the social. She also touches on issues of authenticity, normativity and authority in religious and ritual contexts, as well as important methodological aspects of her research.

Martin and Meredith. Part 2 will be published on Wednesday. You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on The Changing Nature of Religion, Believing in Belonging, and Religious Experience.

Why are Women more Social than Men?

 

This week’s interview with Marta Trzebiatowska is an amazing overview of the many arguments used to explain why women are more religious than men (her upcoming book). Trzebiatowska focuses on explanations relating to gender roles and socialization: women are responsible for many of the social components of human life—birth, death, charity, and so on. But this only pushes the question one stage. We must ask, “Why are women more involved in these social activities than men?” Trzebiatowska seems to side with the explanation that women are socialized into these roles. But, because I am a psychologist, I would like to propose some answers on a different level of analysis. Specifically, there may be underlying individual differences in cognitive and personality traits between men and women that promote different patterns of both social behavior and religiosity.

Cognitive Differences

In my previous piece for the Religious Studies Project, I noted that cognitive scientists of religion tend to operationalize religion as belief in supernatural agency (gods, ghosts, spirits, etc.). Many cognitive scientists of religion have argued that the tendency to see agency in the world underlies these kinds of religious beliefs. For example, Dominic Johnson and Jesse Bering (2006) argue that religion requires second-order theory of mind – the ability to imagine that God knows what you are thinking. This ability to see intentions, beliefs, and attitudes in the world around us is supposed to be the basis of both religious belief (where it is applied to supernatural agents) and human social interaction (where it is applied to the natural social world). And, indeed, research by Uffe Schjoedt and his colleagues (2009) on prayer and Justin Barrett and Frank Keil (1996) on thinking about the properties of God suggests that people think about supernatural agents in much the same way they think about humans. That is, they use the same brain regions in interacting with supernatural and human others, and they attribute the same kinds of psychological, physical, and biological properties to supernatural beings as they do to humans.

This has given rise to the hypothesis that the non-religious may (on average) see less agency, both human and supernatural, in the world. Ara Norenzayan and his colleagues (2012) tested this idea recently and found support for it. They discovered that mentalizing, the ability to see intentions in others, was a key predictor of belief in God. More importantly, differences in mentalizing were found to explain known differences in religiosity between two different groupings of people. Those with Autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are much less religious than those without, but this difference shrinks when the ability to mentalize (a proposed deficit in ASDs, see Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) is controlled. Similarly, the gap in religiosity between men and women was reduced when differences in mentalizing between men and women were accounted for.

This work is in line with Simon Baron-Cohen’s (2003) somewhat controversial theory of autism as a kind of extreme maleness, characterized, in part, by a deficiency in the capacity to infer the mental states of others. Men vastly outnumber women among those with ASDs (e.g., Baron-Cohen et al., 2001), ASDs are associated with mentalizing deficiencies, and ASDs are associated with non-religion. Men, compared to women, demonstrate a smaller version of the gaps between those with ASDs and those without in mentalizing and religiosity. Although work on the relationship between sex, religion, theory of mind, and ASDs is at an early stage, what is known has caused Norenzayan and others (for a description of research from another lab, see here to conclude that there may be a relationship between mentalizing, social behavior, and religion that could explain why men are less religious than women.

Personality Differences

Men and women differ in more ways than just mentalizing, though. Researchers have found that, across many countries, men and women have different personality profiles. Although the size of these differences varies from place to place, their direction is fairly consistent. In a study in 55 different countries, David Schmitt (2008) and his colleagues found that women across the globe tend to score higher than men on four of the five major personality traits known as the Big Five: neuroticism, agreeableness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Results for the fifth personality dimension, openness to experience, were mixed. Two of the Big Five personality traits are known to be associated with religion: agreeableness and conscientious (Saroglou, 2002).

Sociality and Agreeableness

People who are high in agreeableness are pleasant, empathetic, friendly, etc. In other words, they are congenial social actors. Some evidence suggests that agreeableness may be a pre-requisite for religiosity. Longitudinal research suggests that those who are highly agreeable as adolescents go on to become more religious as adults (McCullough et al., 2005). Another group found this same relationship—but only among women (Wink et al., 2007). This relationship isn’t surprising when you consider that agreeableness is associated with many of the same social traits that are often credited to the religious. Agreeable people are more prosocial and altruistic; they get along better with others; and they prefer to cooperate. Would it be surprising to find agreeable people more attracted to social domains of human life and to religion? It seems plausible that agreeableness is a candidate to explain the higher rates of both among women.

An Alternative Risk Aversion Account: Conscientiousness and Self-Control

The risk aversion account that Trzebiatowska briefly discusses goes something like this (courtesy of Stark, 2002): Men take more risks than women, as seen in their greater likelihood to commit crime, especially violent crime. The possibility of going to jail for committing a crime is akin to the possibility of going to Hell for not believing in (or practicing) a religion. Therefore, men are less likely than women to take Pascal’s Wager—the bet that one ought to believe because the potential cost not believing (eternity in Hell) is infinitely great, whereas the potential cost of believing (church attendance and the like) is comparably much smaller. Like Trzebiatowska, I find this account unconvincing. However, there may be more to the idea of risk-aversion and religiosity than merely Pascal’s wager.

Risk taking, men, and non-religion have something in common: an association with lower conscientiousness and self-control. Michael McCullough and Brian Willoughby (2009) have written an excellent review and synthesis of the research on personality, self-control, and religion. They conclude that religion attracts and promotes self-control and self-regulation—the abilities to regulate one’s thoughts and behaviors to achieve a desired outcome. Religions involve things like worship attendance and ritual practice that may not necessarily be enjoyable or provide immediate benefits but have longer-term social and spiritual rewards. The ability to suffer hard work to achieve distant goals is a key characteristic of conscientiousness. It’s not surprising, then, that conscientious people engage in less risky sexual and health behaviors and that they are more religious. If women are more conscientious than men, this might promote their ability to perform the self-regulation needed to engage in religion.

These psychological explanations for the greater religiosity among women, mentalizing, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, do not contradict the sociological ones offered by Trzebiatowska. Rather, they are complementary explanations at different levels of analysis. As a psychologist, my emphasis and interest is in the properties of individuals (or the situations of individuals) that underlie behaviors. Given that women are more agreeable and conscientious than men and that they mentalize more than men, it is not surprising that women are more involved in the social and ritual aspects of human behavior and, therefore, with religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full c

References

  • Baron Cohen, S. (2002). The extreme male brain theory of autism. Trends in cognitive sciences, 6(6), 248–254.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind?” Cognition, 21(1), 37–46.
  • Baron Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Skinner, R., Martin, J., & Clubley, E. (2001). The Autism-Spectrum Quotient (AQ): Evidence from Asperger Syndrome/High-Functioning Autism, Males and Females, Scientists and Mathematicians. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 31(1), 5–17.
  • Barrett, J. L., & Keil, F. C. (1996). Conceptualizing a nonnatural entity: Anthropomorphism in God concepts. Cognitive Psychology, 31(3), 219–247.
  • Johnson, D. D. P., & Bering, J. M. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 219–233.
  • McCullough, M. E., Enders, C. K., Brion, S. L., & Jain, A. R. (2005). The Varieties of Religious Development in Adulthood: A Longitudinal Investigation of Religion and Rational Choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(1), 78–89.
  • McCullough, M. E., & Willoughby, B. L. B. (2009). Religion, self-regulation, and self-control: Associations, explanations, and implications. Psychological Bulletin, 135(1), 69–93. doi:10.1037/a0014213
  • Norenzayan, A., Gervais, W. M., & Trzesniewski, K. H. (2012). Mentalizing Deficits Constrain Belief in a Personal God. PLoS ONE, 1–8.
  • Saroglou, V. (2002). Religion and the five factors of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Individual Differences, 32(1), 15–25.
  • Schjoedt, U., Stodkilde-Jorgensen, H., Geertz, A. W., & Roepstorff, A. (2009). Highly religious participants recruit areas of social cognition in personal prayer. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 4(2), 199–207.
  • Schmitt, D. P., Realo, A., Voracek, M., & Allik, J. (2008). Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(1), 168–182.
  • Stark, R. (2002). Physiology and faith: Addressing the “universal” gender difference in religious commitment. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41(3), 495–507.
  • Wink, P., Ciciolla, L., Dillon, M., & Tracy, A. (2007). Religiousness, Spiritual Seeking, and Personality: Findings from a Longitudinal Study. Journal of personality, 75(5), 1051–1070.

Why are Women more Religious than Men?

The relationship of religion to gender is a highly complex and disputed area. However, it is well-documented that (to take some UK-based examples), ‘men are proportionately under-represented’ in (mainstream ‘Christian’) ‘religious’ services (Brown 2000, 193), and ‘women outnumber men on all indices of religiosity and spirituality’ (Day 2008, 267). In fact, Marta Trzebiatowska and Steve Bruce, the authors of the forthcoming Why are Women more Religious than Men? (OUP, 20 September 2012) unambiguously state in their abstract that, simply, ‘women are more religious than men’.

In this interview with Chris, recorded at the BSA’s Sociology of Religion Study Group Conference in March 2012, Dr Marta Trzebiatowska us a fascinating whirlwind tour through the masses of sociological research which have been done into this area in recent years.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And please, take moment to rate us.

Explanations for this disparity in levels of religiosity include suggestions that ‘religion’ emphasises ‘‘feminine’ qualities of relationality and emotional expression’ (Aune and Vincett 2010, 222), and that ‘men tend to exhibit a greater degree of skepticism than do women’ (Bryant 2007, 844). It has been proposed that women explain their ‘religious’ experiences ‘in terms of protection [and] belonging’ (Day 2008, 274) and ‘value being caring and expressive, being a person through reciprocal relationships, and appreciate the value of improving the quality of subjective-life [in contrast to men, who concentrate] on improving the quality of life by way of autonomous, individuated and competitive agency in the world’ (Heelas et al. 2005, 110). Trzebiatowska extensively examines and critiques such explanations and concludes, with Bruce, that

the gender gap is not the result of biology but is rather the consequence of important social differences —responsibility for managing birth, child-rearing and death, for example, and attitudes to the body, illness and health — over-lapping and reinforcing each other. In the West, the gender gap is exaggerated because the social changes that undermined the plausibility of religion bore most heavily on men first. Where the lives of men and women become more similar, and where religious indifference grows, the gender gap gradually disappears.

For discussions on these issues and more, we recommend that you check out Marta’s other work, the references cited in this post, and the recently launched (2011) online journal previous interview with Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender.

Dr Marta Trzebiatowska is Lecturer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research focuses on ‘taking religion seriously’ and on the relationship between religious discourses and gender politics. More specifically, she focuses on sociologically examining the ways in which religious women construct their femininity under circumstances commonly perceived as restrictive, or even oppressive, by secular feminists. She is the author of a number of articles and chapters in these areas, including Habit does not a nun make?: Religious dress in the lives of Polish Catholic nuns (Journal of Contemporary Religion) and When Reflexivity is Not Enough: Researching Polish Catholics (Fieldwork in Religion), and is co-author, with Steve Bruce, of the OUP Book Why are Women more Religious than Men? (2012).

This interview is the second in our series on Material/Embodied Religion, which started last week with David Morgan on Material Religion, and concludes next week with Professor Kim Knott on Religion, Space and Location.

References:

  • Aune, Kristin, and Giselle Vincett. “Gender Matters: Doing Feminist Research on Religion and Youth.” In Religion and Youth, edited by Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 217–224. Surrey: Ashgate, 2010.
  • Bryant, Alyssa N. “Gender Differences in Spiritual Development During the College Years.” Sex Roles 56 (2007): 835–846.
  • Day, Abby. “Wilfully Disempowered.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 15, no. 3 (2008): 261 –276.
  • Heelas, Paul, Linda Woodhead, Benjamin Seel, Bronislaw Szerszynski, and Karen Tusting. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Religion as Vestigial States

We’ve been talking about Religion for some time now but perhaps the one question we haven’t begun to get to grips with is, what is religion? Recently we interviewed Tim Fitzgerald who already set us on the road to deconstructing the term religion. This week we speak to another member of the Critical Religions group, Naomi Goldenberg, who presents the first of our theories on what religion is. In this interview Professor Goldenberg takes us through the idea that religions might be vestigial states. She argues that religions are formed in distinction to governmental ‘States’ and represent the last vestiges of the previous order. At the same time this is a maneuver on the part of those States to delineate spheres of power. A vestigial state is both a once and future state, that which has gone and that which hopes to be. The idea of vestigial states throws into question our normal understanding of the term religion and Professor Goldenberg draws on such notable examples as the Islamic State, the Dalai Lama, Jewish history and even present day Wicca to illustrate the point. If you would like to know more about religions as vestigial states, Professor Goldenberg has also written on the topic on the Critical Religions website.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Naomi Goldenberg is professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa. Her specialisms include Psychoanalysis, Women and Religion, and Cultural Studies. Her publications include Resurrecting the Body (Crossroad Publishing, 1993), The End of God (University of Ottawa Press, 1981), and Changing the Gods (Beacon Press, 1979).

 

Double Trouble: Some Reflections on (En)gendering the Study of Religion

 

Engaging gender as an important category of analysis in the study of religion is to interrogate, destabilise, and interrupt the ‘business-as-usual’ of the conceptual and organisational assumptions often employed in our highly dynamic yet historically and oft-times structurally androcentric discipline. In the words of Judith Butler (1990: vii), one could arguably say that (en)gendering the study of religion frequently leads “time and again to a certain sense of trouble.” Indeed, in the first editorial of the new online journal Religion and Gender, Anne-Marie Korte states that the journal’s editors see “religion and gender, our two key terms, as an eye-opener, capable of opening up new debates exactly because of their destabilizing, even ‘troubling’ references” (2011: 7). As the academic disciplines of religious and gender studies are conceptually tangled and sprawling skeins of contested discourse and praxis, the drawing together of these two lively areas can, according to Jay Johnston, only create “trouble; trouble for conceptual categories, for binary logics, and for dominant discursive practices” in the interplay of both fields of study (2013: 576).

This interrogative, querying, and troubling sense of the mutual imbrication of religion and gender, however, was surprisingly sidestepped in Lisbeth Mikaelsson’s recent introductory podcast for the Religious Studies Project. Although presenting fascinating insights into the role of feminism in the development of gender studies, the relationship between secularism and socio-cultural gender constructs, and the issues of advocacy, personal commitment, and ethical engagement that inevitably arise in the study of religion and gender, the interview was regrettably (and ironically) permeated by such problematic and often outmoded binaries as man/woman, masculine/feminine, sex/gender, and nature/culture. These erroneous dualisms still exist in certain publications in the field of religious studies, which seem to give little or no recognition to the profound epistemological, methodological, and substantive changes that contemporary gender studies has produced over the last few decades. This response thus seeks to trouble and reflect on these issues and, in a concluding examination of the potentialities of the study of religion and gender, aims to serve as an addendum to the interview.

‘Essentialism’ and ‘Social Constructionism’

When asked for a definition of gender, Mikaelsson characterised gender as “the ideas and interpretations of males and females in society” and as “an emphasis on social and cultural dynamics and interpretations.” In two short statements such as this, we see the convenient erasure of the long and turbulent history of the academic debate between ‘essentialist’ and/or ‘social constructionist’ perspectives on gender. It must be said from the start, however, that there is no clear consensus amongst scholars on what is meant by the concept of ‘gender,’ as gender has different meanings and different valences in different cultural contexts. It is not the intention of this piece to step into these essentialist and/or constructionist gender debates or their mutual imbrication, and so a delineation of these terms is all that follows.

Essentialism, according to Diana Fuss, is most commonly understood as a “belief in the real, true essence of things, the invariable and fixed properties which define the ‘whatness’ of a given identity” (1989: xi). An essentialist theory of gender therefore distinguishes humans as (almost exclusively) ‘male’ and ‘female’ according to what are categorised as eternal, transhistorical, and immutable characteristics. By contrast, constructionists argue that social categories are, to varying degrees, culturally specific: they are the product of social dialogues and assumptions which vary between societies and eras. Constructionism even maintains that ‘essence’ itself is a historical construction, particular to a specific time and place (Weeks 1991: 95). Essentialist conceptions of gender have usually been tempered in contemporary gender theory with a constructionist perspective that gendered bodies are mutable; that they reflect lives and roles situated in particular historical and socio-cultural surroundings. This is the conceptualisation of gender that Joan Wallach Scott, the gender studies theorist and historian cited by Mikaelsson, employs in her work Gender and the Politics of History (1999). Scott depicts the category of gender as a critical agent of destabilisation, and believes that the following questions should always be asked of a historical text from a critical analytic perspective. These questions nicely parallel Mikaelsson’s presentation of the “different levels of gendered structures” worthy of analysis (the “mythical and symbolic level, the conceptual level, the organisational level, and the identity level”):

How and under what conditions [have] different roles and functions been defined for each sex; how [have] the very meanings of the categories ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varied according to time and place; how [were] regulatory norms of sexual deportment created and enforced; how [have] issues of power and rights played into questions of masculinity and femininity; how [do] symbolic structures affect the lives and practices of ordinary people; how [were] sexual identities forged within and against social prescriptions (1999: xi).

Indeed, such a programme endeavours to promote an investigation of the particular circumstances of all such historical instantiations. In so doing, Scott’s hope is to demonstrate that there can be no ahistorical or essential definitions on matters of gender, insofar as they prescribe ideal behaviour for women (and men). As Mikaelsson takes up Scott’s work and gives a simplified social constructionist definition of gender, she further implicitly discards the importance of notions of ‘strategic essentialism’ in contemporary gender theory. Although the essentialist-constructionist debate saw the majority of historians and sociologists fall in favour of the latter position by the start of the last decade, essentialism is still a vexed issue for the field of gender studies, particularly those in the ambit of feminism, due to the difficultly involved in rallying a political movement around unstable and shifting signifiers alongside the risk of biological determinism surrounding these universalist categories. There are theorists who believe that “there are properties essential to women, in that any woman must necessarily have those properties to be a woman at all” (Stone 2004: 86), and theorists who consider the notion of any material essence as nothing but a “regulatory” fiction: “the gendered body…has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality” (Butler 1990: 32, 136). Fissures are inevitable between universalist and identitarian feminisms on the one hand, whose political objectives and feminist epistemologies revolve around the experiential sense of a shared ontology, and, on the other hand, the intersectional relativism of ‘queer’ approaches which dispute the idea of a unified self and instead focus on fragmented, fluid, hybrid, and contradictory subjects in process (Brooks 1997: 21; Gunnarsson 2011: 25-8).

Recent feminist theory in gender studies, moreover, has seen the burgeoning of such fields as ‘materialist’ and ‘posthumanist’ feminisms, which aim to theorise bodily and transcorporeal materialities in ways that neither push feminist thought back into the traps of biological determinism or essentialism, nor “make feminist theorizing leave bodily matter and biologies ‘behind’ in a critically under-theorised limbo” (Lykke 2010: 131); these works argue that there is a pressing need for theories of sex and gender that can relate to pre-discursive “facticities” of bodies and transcorporeal relations (Haraway 1991: 200; Braidotti 1994: 186). Here we see that, in contradistinction to the simplified and homogenising ‘cultural’ interpretation of gender presented by Mikaelsson in this interview, ‘biological essentialism and social constructivism as the only two options available for the ontological conception of gender have…been critiqued: their mutual imbrication [is] now a feature of many contemporary approaches’ (Johnston 2013: 577).

‘Sex’ and (Dimorphic) ‘Gender’

Extending from the previous discussion, we see another pernicious logic at work throughout the duration of the podcast: ‘gender’ as a synonym for ‘women,’ and, following on from that, sex as biology distinct from gender as culture. Today, the distinction between these two categories of analysis has been thoroughly destabilised, and this process of destabilisation has a remarkable history to which we shall now turn.

In contrast to early feminist work, where gender was understood as a socially constructed product of patriarchal hierarchies and the cultural interpretation of a biologically given ‘sex’ (Oakley 1972; Wittig 1981, 1992), the current deconstructionist (queer and intersectional) approach to gender has a different aim: to disrupt and denaturalise sexual and gender categories in ways that recognise the fluidity, instability, and fragmentation of identities and a plurality of gendered subject positions. Within Marxist feminist accounts, for instance, gender and sex were dealt with as separate formative elements of human identity, so that sex was seen to establish kinds of bodies, while gender was thought to subsequently shape those bodies. In this understanding, sex marked bodies as differentiated and fixed, while gender invested such markings with meaning and mutability (this can particularly be seen in the work of early feminist forays into the study of religion and theology; see Daley 1973, Ruether 1975, and Fiorenza 1984). Gender was seen to follow naturally from sex, or gender and sex were seen as superficially connected in a consecutive fashion, e.g., male is to man as female is to woman. Sex itself however, alongside gender, has been demonstrated as socially constructed and historicised (see Michel Foucault’s (1987) work detailing how sex and sexuality are historically specific concepts as well as regimes of disciplinary knowledge structuring society and social relations).

Although it is helpful to move away from the assumption that one’s sex is ‘biologically given,’ this does not really go far enough. According to Butler in her foundational text Gender Trouble, gender is a powerful discourse that creates the sense by which we define and understand the bodies we live in (1990: 24-5, 140-42). Due to the Foucauldian notion that discourse defines reality, we cannot say that gender ends at a particular point at which the ‘basic’ anatomically and sex-based difference is eschewed. Biological determinism is not sui generis, but is itself a product of culture, constructed by practice and discourse (Butler 1990: 35-6). Being a woman or a man is inscribed and written onto certain bodies in a process that begins at birth (or before birth at pre-natal screening), when genital anatomy is scrutinised to determine whether the new baby is a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl.’ Gender then becomes, according to Butler, the performative effect of reiterative acts. These acts, which are repeated in and through a highly rigid regulatory frame, “congeal over time to produce the appearance of a substance, of a natural sort of being” (Butler 1990: 33). In other words, rather than being expressions of an innate (gendered, sexed) identity, acts and gestures that are learned and are repeated over time create the illusions of an innate and stable (gendered, sexed) core. Bodies become intelligible through a citational process that compulsively reinvokes and reinstates norms, the (material) effect of discursive regulations and normalisations that include the hegemonic effects of certain religious institutions, beliefs, and practices that perpetuate discourses of dimorphically gendered normativity.

What this argument leads to, however, is an idea of gender voluntarism. If bodies are made by discourse, it is possible to challenge accepted and expected gendered behaviour. Thus transvestism, transsexuality, or transgenderism offers examples of ways in which a person’s gender can be challenged by individuals beyond what is ‘given’ to them by their culture. As Henrietta Moore shows, Butler herself does not wish to argue too strong a case for such voluntarism, but her ideas do leave this open as one way of analysing (and challenging) cultural constructions of sex and gender (1999: 158). These are the central tenets of such developments in women’s and gender studies as queer theory and the study of intersectionality (the interrelations of various identitarian axes that comprise the assemblage of subjectivities such as race, class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, dis/ability, and ir/religion), which aim to denaturalise understandings of both gender and sex, and to critique the dimorphic polarisation of sex and gender as either (and only) male or female. Particular normative constructions of gender that presume a certain set of interrelationships between sex, sexuality, and gender are problematised within such fields, which locate and exploit the incoherencies that normalise heterosexuality and call into question the apparently unproblematic terms of ‘woman’ and ‘man.’ Mikaelsson, however, portrays gender to be the distinction between women and men and female and male. Gender is not dimorphic. There are not only those who identify as men and women, but individuals who identify, amongst other non-normative subjectivities, as transsexual, transgendered, intersex, gender-dysphoric, and gender-queer. Whilst discussing the gendered subjectivities of various intersexed individuals, moreover, Heather Looy and Hessel Bouma identified claims to a “third” gender and the inhabitation of a “genderless state” amongst certain subjects (2005: 169; see also Yip and Keenan 2009). As Johnston so eloquently states, the ‘normative categorization of dimorphic gender…has [thus] been the focus of sustained critical scrutiny leading to conceptualizations of gender as a spectrum of possibilities/possible subject positions’ (2013: 577).

(En)gendering Religion

Although this response has refrained, due to constraints of space, from the discussion of the vexing and equally troubling definitional and methodological issues attending the study of religion, it aimed to reveal the labyrinthine and destabilising definitions, boundaries, and constituents that are signified by the term ‘gender.’ Gender studies, when conceptualised with its troubling and dynamic genealogies, projects, and discursive matrices in mind, offers innovative epistemological tools for the scholarly reflection and understanding of the fluid, heterogeneous, and polymorphic dimensions of a variety of manifestations of religious sentiment. The consideration of religion and gender highlights the roles of marginalised subjects through a rereading and rewriting of dominant historical narratives, which include the uncovering of scholarly androcentric bias, and the redressing of the deployment of ‘gender’ to uncritically mean ‘women,’ dimorphically conceived in relation to men (Johnston 2013: 583). Employing the category of gender in the study of religion is necessary to better understand systems of belief and praxis, for certain religious discourses are powerful forces in the creation and perpetuation of hegemonic gender systems, and serve as an important locus of power for gender dimorphism and heteronormativity. More often than not, in congruence with Mikalesson’s presentation of the field of religion and gender, gender studies in religion have often centred on the experiences and subjectivities of women, frequently due to the need to overcome the deeply entrenched, traditional invisibility and marginalisation of women in certain parts of history and in certain societal configurations (see King 1995, Gross 1996, and Juschka 2001). Gender studies in religion, however, have also concerned the study of men (usually by men) as well as women, including their respective identities, representations, and individual subjectivities in addition to their mutually interrelated social worlds and the unequal power relations between them and women (see Boyd et. al. 1996, Krondorfer 1996, and Boyarin 1997). It is thus imperative for works that seek to operate within the ambit of ‘religion and gender’ to now engage in the sustained and critical examination of the contested role of religion and religiosity in the lives of individuals who occupy a plurality of gendered subject positions and who do not identify as cisgendered men or women (a couple of book-length studies on such matters are in circulation, albeit from a more ‘insider’ perspective, such as Mollenkott 2007 and Kugle 2010). They would also do well to consider the capacity of individuals to construct lived experiences by resisting, contesting, and adapting particular (if any) religious orthodoxies and cultural hegemonic systems, including the empowering and constraining potentials and outcomes of such an engagement. Such work, therefore, would evince the relationship of religion and gender as one in constant need of critical appraisal.

In further contradistinction to the content of this interview, moreover, religion and gender are not simply two parallel categories that function independently of each other; they are mutually embedded within each other. It is therefore appropriate to speak of ‘(en)gendering religion’ or ‘doing gender in religion’ than to speak about gender and religion in an additive manner (see Warne 2000, who effectively illustrates how gender thinking is neither natural nor neutral, and argues that a radical shift in thinking is required to make a ‘gender-critical turn’ in all disciplinary areas, including the study of religion). The (en)gendering of religion thus highlights the male-dominated, heteronormative, and dualistically-gendered structure of a number of religious systems, and how destabilising and deconstructing the bodily subject relates to wider issues of ordering gender relations, society, and configurations of power linked to contested religious histories and teachings. ‘(En)gendering religion’ is thus to destabilise and trouble the presuppositions, explanations, key principles, and accepted canons and methods that shape the disciplinary study of religion, incorporating into its framework a critical awareness of the role gender plays in shaping religion, and the role religion plays in shaping conceptualisations of gender.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

References

Boyarin, D. (1997) Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Boyd, S. B., Longwood, W. M. and Muesse, M. W. (eds) (1996) Redeeming Men: Religion and Masculinities. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Braidotti, R. (1994) Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia University Press.

Brooks, A. (1997) Postfeminisms: Feminism, Cultural Theory, and Cultural Forms. London: Routledge.

Butler, J. (1990) Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge.

Daly, M. (1973) Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Fiorenza, E. S. (1984) Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation. Boston: Beacon Press.

Foucault, M. (1987) The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley. Penguin: Harmondsworth.

Fuss, D. (1989) Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature and Difference. New York: Routledge.

Gross, R. M. (1996) Feminism and Religion: An Introduction. Boston: Beacon Press.

Gunnarsson, L. (2011) ‘A Defence of the Category “Women”’, Feminist Theory 12, no. 1, 23-37.

Haraway, D. (1991) ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London: Free Association Books, 183-201.

Johnston, J. (Forthcoming 2013) ‘A Deliciously Troubling Duo: Gender and Esotericism’, in E. Asprem and K. Granholm (eds) Contemporary Esotericism. Equinox, 576-597.

Juschka, D. M. (ed.) (2001) Feminism in the Study of Religion: A Reader. London: Continuum.

King, U. (ed.) (1995) Religion and Gender. Oxford: Blackwell.

Korte, A.-M. (2011) ‘Openings: A Genealogical Introduction to Religion and Gender’, Religion and Gender 1, no. 1, 1-17.

Krondorfer, B. (ed.) Men’s Bodies, Men’s Gods: Male Identities in a (Post)Christian Culture. New York: New York University Press.

Kugle, S. S. (2010) Homosexuality in Islam: Critical Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford: Oneworld.

Looy, H. and Bouma, H. (2005) ‘The Nature of Gender: Gender Identity in Persons who are Intersexed or Transgendered’, Journal of Psychology and Theology 33, no. 3, 166-178.

Lykke, N. (2010) ‘The Timeliness of Post-Constructionism’, NORA: Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research 18, no. 2, 131-136.

Mollenkott, V. R. (2007) Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.

Moore, H. L. (1999) ‘Whatever Happened to Women and Men? Gender and Other Crises in Anthropology’, in H. L. Moore (ed.) Anthropology Theory Today. Malden: Polity Press, 151-171.

 

Oakley, A. (1972) Sex, Gender and Society. London: Maurice Temple Smith.

Ruether, R. R. (1975) New Woman, New Earth: Sexist Ideologies and Human Liberation. New York: Seabury Press.

Scott, J. W. (1999) Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.

Stone, A. (2004) ‘On the Genealogy of Women: A Defence of Anti-Essentialism’, in S. Gillis, G. Howie, and R. Munford (eds) Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 85-96.

Warne, R. R. (2000) ‘Making the Gender-Critical Turn’, in T. Jensen and M. Rothstein (eds) Secular Theories on Religion: Current Perspectives. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 249-260.

Weeks, J. (1991) Against Nature: Essays on History, Sexuality and Identity. London: Rivers Oram.

Wittig, M. (1981) ‘One is Not Born a Woman’, Feminist Issues 1, no. 2, 47-54.

Wittig, M. (1992) The Straight Mind and Other Essays. Boston: Beacon Press.

Yip, A. K.-T. and Keenan, M. (2009) ‘Transgendering Christianity: Gender-Variant Christians as Visionaries’, in S. Hunt (ed.) Contemporary Christianities and LGBT Sexualities. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 87-101.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson on Religion and Gender

Gender has always played a significant role in the everyday lives of people. This is no more true than in the case of religion and there is a burgeoning field in religious studies dedicated to the study of the role of gender within religions. From dress codes to notions of purity to questions of the legitimate of power the topic of gender is one few scholars can afford to ignore. With a whole range of issues to be investigated Lisbeth Mikaelsson gives us an introductory insight into the complex topic of religion and gender: the issues it raises, the way we go about it, who’s doing it and why.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us.

Lisbeth Mikaelsson is professor of religion in the department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen. More recently she has shifted her specialism from religion and gender to new religious movements and is currently studying the Prosperity Movement. She has published a number of books and articles in Norwegian. In English she has published on the topic of Gender in Armin Geertz’ edited volume New Approaches to the Study of Religion and the journal Numen.

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

Meeting at the crossroads of public and private: sexuality and religion

By Jillian Scott.

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 24 February 2012 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Sarah Jane-Page on Youth, Sexuality and Religion (27 February 2012).

In a recent podcast on Youth, Sexuality and Religion, Dr Sarah-Jane Page discusses  research that she conducted along with several colleagues, that concerned young people, sexuality and religion. This is an immediately controversial subject and one that generates many questions. As this research focused on “lived religion”, that is how people experience religion in their everyday lives, the intertwining of these two topics is very interesting. She refers to the two as “uncomfortable bedfellows” within the daily experience of many religious young people. As a result, the study focuses on how young people  consolidate daily the vying values and morals presented to them through society, media and their faith. Although her presentation of the research is incredibly complex and thorough, I believe that there are some questions that she leaves unanswered in this interview.

Trying to get at the heart of how these people, aged 18 to 25, lived their faith and sexuality the questionnaires sought answers concerning idealistic aspects of the two subjects. These included gender roles, views about homosexuality, abortion, et cetera. The lived experiences of the participants became apparent through the use of video blogs because these turned into a diary for most of them. Here they detailed what books they were reading, the films they saw and so on. I cannot find fault in any of these research methods. However, Page’s presentation of her research questions and what she ultimately wants to discover about the relationship between sexuality and religion are left a little vague throughout the course of the interview.

In my personal studies concerning violence and religion, I have found that the contention between the public and private sectors of life create a tumultuous force behind many of the choices made by religious people. William Cavanaugh demonstrates that such competition jeopardizes the pure nature of the secular state and that nothing can be free of religion as it manifests within the public realm (2005). On a smaller level, personal religion crosses the dichotomy between public and private within the actions that people do or don’t do, such as not drinking or dancing in the moonlight. These are manifestations of religion within the public realm that also generate implications in the perception of others about their faith. Personal sexuality also suffers this same burden. Ann Pellegrini discusses the reality that when you talk about what you did on the weekend you are giving people a sense of your own sexuality (2004). Both of these elements of the human experience pivot on the fact that both religiosity and sexuality should be very private matters. Yet, they tend to be expressed within the public realm.

Therefore, I believe that the “uncomfortable bedfellows” nature of sexuality and religion comes from their frequent meeting at the intersection of public and private realms. Page understands that young people often face challenges to their values and ideas about what is private and public; particularly with sexuality and religion. She believes that the scholarly divide of private and public needs to be unpacked and reexamined. Yet this contention does not appear to be the motivation behind her research. Especially since she is working with young people I would have appreciated her mentioning what they felt about public and private particularly in the age of Facebook, Twitter and text messages. How do they express their faith and sexuality there? What platforms are private and which are public? This is an area that I think is vital to this study that has been omitted within her responses to Christopher Cotter’s questions.

Quite interestingly, this research does break some of the stereotypes about young people and religious faith and sex. Page and her colleagues found that many of the participants did not object to the controlling aspects of faith concerning sex. Many of them thought that they serve as an “anchor or security point”. However, others did voice their struggle in their attempt to match their religious ideals to their day to day life. Page takes pains to point out that those who are rule bound only represent a few. Others are still teasing out their faith in order to create their own trajectory. Those who are struggling represent a huge battle between sexuality and religion that Page does not address in the podcast.  Does this occur because of the public versus private conflict? Are these people making their own rules because of the religious dimension? Or the sexual? Does it happen because they do not have a strong role model within the church? Or does it occur because of the age group of the participants and how in flux their lives already are as 18 to 25 year-olds?

The age group of the people involved make this study all the more interesting because it makes it more complex. At this stage in their lives, it may not be possible for them be truly conscious of their negotiation of their faith and sexuality. Many are shifting in times and spaces that challenge what was the established norm. In their attempts to deal with this they must negotiate their own values and come to terms with their own identity. Perhaps Page does not address this because the young people could not point out the reasoning themselves. I agree with Page that the next phase of the study would be to ask the same questions of people aged 30 to 50. However, Page misses another crucial dimension of the study and further studies by completely eliminating the non-religious aspect. Particularly within the UK, many young people do not self-identify as religious. It would increase the complexity of the research and it would allow us to see what values young people have regardless of faith. It would also be valuable to learn if the views of the religious people clashed with their non-religious friends.

Ultimately, Page’s research is very interesting and pertinent to the field of religious studies. As this field continues to grow, my questions will be answered and new topics of debate will arise. At this time I would like to commend Page and her colleagues for striding out into the unknown and setting some foundations for the study of sexuality and religion.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author

Jillian Scott recently finished her Master’s degree in Religious Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Her dissertation was entitled “Ritualized Terrorism: Symbolic Religious Violence and the Secular State in a Globalized World”. Originally from San Francisco, California, Jillian lives in Edinburgh and continues to study the relationships between religion, violence and international relations.

 

 

 

References

Cavanaugh, W.T., 2005. The Liturgies of Church and State. Liturgy, 20(1), pp.25–30.

Jakobsen, J.R. & Pellegrini, A., 2004. Love the Sin: Sexual Regulation and the Limits of Religious Tolerance, Beacon Press.

Youth, Sexuality and Religion

The Religion, Youth and Sexuality: A Multi-faith Exploration project, based at the University of Nottingham, looked at 18 to 25 year-olds from a variety of faith backgrounds in order to understand attitudes and practices around sexuality and how this was negotiated in relation to religious traditions. Dr Sarah-Jane Page, one of the research fellows, talks to Chris about the project’s findings, which were sometimes surprising. Religion is found to be a significant influence, but one influence among a number of others. 

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes.

Dr Page completed her doctorate in 2009, in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Nottingham, investigating motherhood and priesthood as well as the non-ordained spouses of women priests in the Church of England. More recently, she was Research Consultant for the European Commission funded project, Citizens in Diversity: A Four-nation Study of Homophobia and Human Rights (www.citidive.eu). The British case study, with which she was involved, focused on ascertaining types of homonegativity encountered in the UK context, in order to understand the complexities and nuances relating to contemporary attitudes to homosexuality. She is now based at Aston University.

A .pdf of the full findings of the Religion Youth and Sexuality project can be downloaded here, and a podcast about the research is also available. Dr Page has also co-authored a book (with A. K. T. Yip) based on the research which will be published by Ashgate during 2012, entitled Religious and Sexual Journeys: A Multi-faith Exploration of Young Believers.