Losing My Religion to Keep My Faith

“Did you know that Orthodox Jewish men thank God in their prayers that they weren’t born women?”

The male Israeli tour guide asking me the question was either yanking my chain or seeking to inform. I didn’t know which. I was leaning against an ancient building in Jerusalem to peel off all the outer clothing I had been required as a woman to don in order to tour some of the religious sites in the Holy City. 

“Yes, I am aware of that.” I responded, recalling a presentation on prejudice I had given in a college psychology class in which I had shared that sexist gem. 

My male business colleagues and I had all dressed the same for the desert heat — conservative knee-length, walking shorts worn with a t-shirt and comfortable shoes. Not inconvenienced by additional clothing requirements, they walked on ahead down a side street looking for souvenirs for their families. They were laughing and chatting with one other, totally oblivious to my forced separate-ness and unaware of their own privilege. I felt very alone.

That business trip to Israel in the late 90’s was my first exposure, outside the U.S., to the fundamental way religion is used to propagate societies in which women are valued less than men.Yes, that includes Christianity as practiced by many denominations in my own country.

I’ve traveled far and wide in the last five years and I’ve seen, first hand, how religious teachings form the foundation for subjugating half the population. It hasn’t escaped my notice that women have achieved more equal rights in countries that have shed religious trappings and embraced the secular in all public institutions. 

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I find it sadly ironic that these secular societies often exhibit more empathy in regards to human rights than societies proclaiming themselves devout Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.

I am touring a part of the world that is culturally rich and wonderfully exotic in its beauty; but by most estimates, Asia is missing more than 100 million females due to gender-specific abortions, infanticide, and neglect.

Thailand enjoys a medical tourism trade in which the Chinese, Indians and Eastern Europeans account for as much as 80% of medical procedures undertaken solely for the purpose of sex selection, according to the Asian Center for Human Rights. Sex selection is not illegal here.

I was touring Chiang Mai yesterday and I visited Wat Chedi Luang in the Old City. This is a magnificient ancient temple that was partially destroyed in a 15th century earthquake.

Wat Chedi Luang

The site also contains a shrine built on top of one of the city’s original pillars. Women are not allowed to enter.

Men only.

I walked around the exquisite structure and found the exit where a young, American woman stood waiting on her boyfriend. She pointed to a sign which explained that women were not allowed to enter because they menstruate. 

The “no women allowed” rationalization – – superstitious tradition.

“Do they think we’re going to bleed all over the floor?” she sarcastically  asked me.

I imagined a reality in which men were not allowed to enter a public structure because they get erections and ejaculate. A ridiculous reality? Yes. But, so is the one women actually find themselves living.

Today, I returned to Wat Chedi Luang with my husband to chat with a Buddhist monk. He was a sincere young man who pointed out that the restriction for women was based on “local superstition” not the teachings of the Buddha.

No surprise that. As former President Jimmy Carter has observed: “The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.”

In my own life, I struggled to differentiate my faith in Christ and the truth of his teachings from the anti-woman hierarchy and dogma of the organized religion known as Christianity.

In the end, I lost my religion to keep my faith.

Yet, women worldwide remain devout followers of religious systems that perpetuate discrimination, and even violence, against themselves and their daughters. Why?

To answer that one will require a great deal more contemplation. I’m sure the young Buddhist monk I met today would approve.

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