A roar has erupted over the now-famous phrase “legitimate rape,” Rep. Todd Akin’s clumsy attempt to justify fundamentalists’ justification of strict anti-abortion measures. Echoing President Obama’s assessment that rape is rape, the Washington Post editorial board suggested that a code is in play, that “the remarks are not the first, nor are they likely to be the last, in a long-running effort to downplay the horror of rape as a way to restrict access to abortion” and what anti-abortion politicians suggest is “that not all rape victims are victims.”
I’d go a step further. The code from fundamentalists sends a message that good women are not raped.
Yet women, particularly the most vulnerable, have difficulty abandoning religion. They’re less likely to become nonbelievers, because the church, mosque, synagogue and other religious communities promise security that their families might not provide.
R. Elisabeth Cornwell works with Richard Dawkins at his Foundation for Reason and Science, and in her 2009 article “Why Women Are Bound to Religion: An Evolutionary Perspective,” she explains that religious organizations offer an instant support group, whether real or illusionary: “Why are women even more likely to be religious than men? The simple answer is that it is safe…. the fact that women are less likely to push the status quo for fear of social exclusion and even retribution makes a lot of evolutionary sense.”
Yet that safety factor could be in decline. Women can’t help but be skeptical about religious communities that resist women’s opinions on responsible family planning, education aspirations, career ambitions, and parenting goals – let alone parse the definition of rape. In competing for hearts and minds, religious leaders become strident, judgmental and exclusive, imposing rigid standards for good standing, not to mention a demand for financial support of such judgments.
The struggle to find security and religious perfection in a world of 7 billion people is leading to fragmentation and hyperdifferentation, suggest the editors of the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology. The most powerful tend to benefit from the fragmentation, repeatedly convincing many of the overwhelmed, women and men, to act against their own best interests.
Feminism tends toward inclusiveness, community and communication. The Internet, cellphones, air travel as instruments of modern globalization ensure that every community must confront constant, rapid change. Other recent trends associated with globalization – rising inequality, declining birthrates, intense competition among businesses and special interests to control every aspect of human life from habits on eating, clothing and shelter to education, work or religious values – contribute to disagreements within social groups, including longstanding religious organizations, and these prompt members to withdraw.
Skepticism about religion surged in the 1990s and now about one in five U.S. adults do not identify with an organized religion, suggest Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar, authors of “American Nones: The Profile of the No Religion Population,” based on the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey. Even Hispanics, the fastest-growing racial group in the United States, are also the fastest-growing minority group among Americans who don’t identify with organized religion, notes the report.
About 60 percent of the so-called Nones are male. “The most important and statistically significant finding is that American women are more religious and less secular than men in their belonging, belief and behavior,” report Kosmin and Keysar.
Religious leaders shouldn’t take women for granted. Whether it’s the Vatican scolding nuns for battling poverty rather than abortion, imans punishing women for running away from abusive homes or evangelists criticizing women for limiting family size during economic hard times, or fundamentalists questioning that pregnancy can result from rape, religious leaders are attacking their most dependable members. If religion no longer offers a safe haven, instead fiercely limiting interpretations and roles, women will walk away.
An early step toward disbelief is when an individual reconsiders religious beliefs held since childhood, trying a new congregation or religion. As religious leaders quarrel among themselves, new competition emerges, feeding into the discontent and offering alternatives.
Eventually, adults whose children are grown find it easier to drop formal worship altogether, taking up reading, bicycling, hiking, leisurely brunches and or a stroll to the local farmer’s market instead. For overworked Americans, some extra time during the weekend and one less financial obligation could become the bedrock of non-practice and disbelief. And these are reasons why atheists, agnostics and non-practicing theists may account for 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2040, as predicted by the American Nones report, a group that could outnumber the country’s Roman Catholics.
Competition among religions, inequality among men and women, both are contributing to searches for new possibilities. Women don’t have to rely on traditional organized religions or tough, male-dominated atheism for that matter. “Feminist ideologies and their connective practices, in short, may helpfully be described as vibrant and growing ‘imagined communities’ of justice for women, communities that will always reach out, will always receive from the other, and will always need to repent and start anew,” write Mary McClintock Fulkerson and Sheila Briggs, editors of the Oxford Handbook of Feminist Theology.
Religions need women more than women need religion. The fast-moving trends of globalization present new possibilities. If organized religions fail to accommodate women’s highest aspirations or worst fears, then women will seek out alternatives.
Susan Froetschel is author of Fear of Beauty, set in Afghanistan, to be published by Prometheus/Seventh Street Books in January 2013.