Katha Pollitt – Is Religion Inherently Sexist?

May 20, 2013

Over the weekend, the Center for Inquiry’s Women in Secularism II conference unfolded in Washington, D.C.—and we caught up with one of the event’s most distinguished speakers, the feminist poet and author Katha Pollitt.

You probably know her “Subject to Debate” column in the Nation—always both insightful and also hilarious to read. It has been called, by the Washington Post, the “best place to go for original thinking on the left.” The column won the National Magazine Award in 2003.

Pollitt is also the author of four essay collections—most recently, Learning to Drive and Other Stories—and two books of poetry, the latest being The Mind Body Problem. In this interview, she discusses her talk at “Women in Secularism II” on the subject: “Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?”

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry from Monday, May 20th, 2013. This week’s show was recorded in Washington, D.C. at the Women in Secularism to Conference. Chris talks to feminist poet and author Katha Pollitt. They explore the question, is religion inherently sexist? 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney Port Macquarie is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. 

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So I’m here in Washington, D.C. at the Center for Inquiries, Women and Secularism to conference. And I’m sitting with one of the event’s most distinguished speakers, Katha Pollitt. Many of you have probably been reading her subject for debate column in the Nation since I don’t know how long. But for me, it’s since college. It’s always insightful as well as hilarious has been called by The Washington Post. The best place to go for original thinking on the left in the column won the National Magazine Award in 2003 for, I believe, commentary. Paul is also the author of four essay collections, most recently Learning to Drive and other stories and two books of poetry, the latest being the mind body problem. Katha Pollitt, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thanks so much for having me, Chris. It is great to have you. We’re here at Women in Secularism and you’ve been listening to some of the talks. What do you make of the conference so far? What do you see as its significance? 

Well, I’m fascinated by the whole thing. It’s really great. 

I I was blown away by Rebecca Goldstone’s talk yesterday about the map of mattering. It is explained so much. And Amanda Marcotte on Plan B was really great. And she had power points. She had power points that I didn’t have. And then I thought, oh, I shouldn’t have PowerPoint, too. But I hear different styles there. Yeah, I now know right now. And here’s PowerPoint. We’re very witty and funny. And then I thought there was this great panel this morning about leaving women, leaving religious environment. So, you know, like a family that had been really, really religious. And it was a struggle that is. And I I hadn’t really thought about it that way. I my own formation was so far from that. 

You told that story in your talk. You said that you d converted at six. 

Well, no, but I was never could convert. No. 

My whole family is very atheist, agnostic. My, my Jewish side, they, they do a couple of temple things and they’re active in Jewish things, you know, in their community. But do they believe in God? I have no idea. I have no idea. If you ask them, you get a very long answer. 

Well, there’s there’s actually a distinction has been made between first and second generation atheists and the ones who actually have to fight to leave a religion tend to then have a very different disposition toward religion. 

Yeah, well, my connection with religion, which may be gave me some of that edge you’re talking about, is I don’t know why they did this, but my parents sent me to a very kind of conservative girls’ private school that had chapel every day. So I know all those hymns. And we had to say the Lord’s Prayer. And we you know, there were Bible readings and it was all very religious in a kind of non-denominational Protestant way. And I deeply, deeply resented it. 

And that sort of light, my fire that lit my atheistic all fire and that ability to know the religious texts actually came out a lot in your talk that you just gave. So maybe we can transition to just some of the things that you said the title was Sexism and religion can not be untied. And who knew that this would be a funny such that the rolling in the aisles. 

Well, thank you. 

I you know, I chose this title because I wanted to think about a question. I didn’t know the answer to because if you look at the text, if you look at the practices, it’s drenched. It just seems like every religion, except I know that Unitarianism are Reconstructionist Judaism or something, something sort of a small, very refined and self consciously egalitarian religion. Maybe not them, but the big heavy religions are all drenched in sexism. And yet people. 

Seem to like them, even if they’re feminists, they want or very, you know, very modern in many ways, they they often feel that little connection. 

They want that. And not just because, oh, it’s hard to walk away, but because they they do get something intellectual and spiritual out of it. And so there’s been this whole movement for, I don’t know, at least 40 years, maybe longer of feminists looking at the Bible. And now Islamic feminists are looking at the Koran and trying to interpret it in a way that kind of makes the sexism go away a little bit. 

Watson, is there any examples that you had? 

Oh, well, one example I gave is. 

Is St. Paul, Saint Paul said to two things that seem quite contradictory. One is, he says in there’s neither Jun or Gentile and male or female in in slave nor free or male and female in Christ Jesus. You’re all one in Christ Jesus. OK, so everybody’s very equal then, he says, and women should be silent in church. And if you have a question, go ask your husbands at home. But just be quiet because you’re supposed to be that way. And and I did a little bit of just, you know, Googling around on the Internet about that second quote. And you find, well, maybe you didn’t really say that. 

Maybe it wasn’t him. It’s a later interpreted interpolation or. Well, he didn’t mean all women. He was just talking about this one church where there was some problem. 

It’s not like they know there was a problem. They theorize that there was you know, the women were prophesying in some crazy way. So he had to say, pipe down. So you can sort of you can go pretty far with that because it’s a form of literary criticism which can get very complicated when you get into textual analysis, when you get into historical analysis, when you talk about the corruption of the text, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. 

And you can pretty much you can you can pretty much make the Bible say what you want, which which they do. 

You know, all these religions being tied to patriarchy over such a long period of time. Let’s just ask this simple question. Why are they all like that? I mean, it’s just because that’s the societies they were born into and the religion follows the societies that you’re take on. 

Well, these religions are very old. Let’s remember them. 


They were actually created by human beings. And amazingly, God seemed to say exactly what they believed. Right. And I think they they were an expression of those of the codifying the values of those societies, which were incredibly patriarchal and sexist, and then they kind of take on a life of their own. 

And I think that the larger point I was trying to make in my piece was in my talk was that I think of religion. We think I think atheists especially, we think of it as a collection of texts which we set out to disprove. But actually, religion is more a social practice. That’s why, you know, you can disregard texts that you don’t like and that has happened all the time. That’s why religion changes over time. And an example I gave was the Virgin Mary. You know, the Virgin Mary is not such a big character in the Bible, but in Catholicism she is it. So that was all added later because they wanted that. People wanted a big female, powerful, merciful intercede her with God. And so they made up the Virgin Mary. So my point is that. I think religion is shaped it’s not just shaped by society is a kind of expression of society. And, you know, someone like Durkheim would, you know, would almost see it as it’s the way society it constitutes constitutes itself. And the real subject of religion is the society. And it’s everybody saying we’re here. You know, we have the kangaroo totem. 

So what this means is that, somewhat surprisingly, your conclusion is that the knot can be untied. 

Well, what I say. I think the knot can be untied to the extent that. Society modernizes religion to the extent that because and that and we’re seeing that, you know, I mean, I think our eyes are to our eyes are drawn to the fundamentalist reaction. But the larger thing that’s happening, or at least a big thing that’s happening. I wouldn’t want to weigh the two of them is that, you know, religion does modernize itself. Look, there’s Pope Francis washing women’s feet. That was a first. There are you go to a Catholic church and there are so few priests. Women are doing all kinds of things. 

They look at millennials, their views about religion or so. I don’t work with tradition. I know. 

And it’s just it’s much sort of more, you know, just do what you want. But I guess my point was that what is pushing this is the increasing egalitarian gender egalitarianism of the mainstream society. And religion lags a little behind that because it’s a great big heavy. Tedious institution. 

They apologize for Galileo, right? 

Right, exactly. It takes a while. 

But by the time this process has completed itself, I think religion will be suits will have to be so transformed. And its relation to society will be so transformed that it won’t even matter. 

You know, it really bothers me that this modernizing thing in religion, because I have that old atheist view. Look, you said this right here, you know, and now you’re saying, oh, we didn’t mean that, you know? 

And this is infuriating to me. But it’s it it is definitely one way that women make progress within religion is by kind of rewriting it and making the bad part disappear. 

Another way in which you could say that the knot has to be untied is just that. Actually, you can have men who are a complete atheists being sexist. 

So it’s not like religion is the only cause. Yeah, well, it’s true. You know, there’s this expression good with that God, which I’ve seen a lot around here and. OK. So you can be good without God, but you can also be sexist without God. And I think sometimes, you know, we’re so focused, we’re very focused on fundamentalism, which really is kind of almost organized around gender issues. 

I mean, they’re just obsessed with them. So you can think, oh, yeah, we can only get away with it. Get rid of that. We can only get rid of religion, then we wouldn’t be sexist anymore and see that religion as the cause of sexism. But I would say more. Religion is an expression of sexism. But it’s not the only one. And I gave some examples and one was the French Revolution. For example, the French Revolution. They were very anticlerical. In fact, the church in France has kind of never recovered from the French Revolution. But they at the end of the French Revolution, women had gotten nothing. And in fact, in terms of actually their actual legal status, it was lower in certain ways. So. I don’t think we can ever the same thing happened to the American Revolution also. They got nothing and women got nothing out of the American Revolution. So it’s not like these ideas are necessarily so mono causal. The idea of misogyny, misogyny is deeper than religion. I would say so. 

I think one of the really difficult things here and one of the things that’s in the background of everything people are talking about this conference is the following. A lot of evidence is being presented about how religion and various forms can be oppressive, the women. And yet at the same time, everybody here kind of knows and I will give you the data, as best I know it, that women are more religious. So according to Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer Colleges, the sociologist of Religion and Irreligion, one of them, he gives these stats. Men make up 58 percent of Americans who claim no religion, 70 percent of Americans who self identify as atheist. Seventy five percent of those are self identify as agnostic. I wonder why that’s men Menom hurt. Who knows? I don’t. 

So women don’t know they’re being oppressed. What. What do you make of those kind of numbers? 

Well, I think people are very good at overlooking the bits of something they don’t like. We all do this in our human relations, like with our husbands and wives. 

So we have to do that. And I think that, you know, I know women who go to church. 

A friend of mine recently returned to the Catholic Church, and she’s a total feminist. She’s had an abortion and she feels perfectly OK with that. And I asked her, said, sir, why are you doing this? And she said, I felt a great desire to worship. So that’s the piece of it she likes. And she just doesn’t really pay that much attention to the rest of it. Or she rolls her eyes at it. And I’m thinking. 

But I don’t understand it. You’re supporting this incredibly sexist institution. Every time you put five dollars in the communion plate, in the collection plate, you you’re helping this misogynist institution oppress women. 

But she just doesn’t see it like that. Oh, but I think that I think that, you know, women the question of why are women more religious? I think there is a piece of it that religion is connected with the socialization of children and it’s connected with family life. I heard a funny definition of Unitarianism was Athie ism with children. Racism for people with children. And but I think also and I’m only speaking Christianity here. 

But Christianity has long been derided by macho man as a femme, as an effeminate religion, and Nietzsche said, and I think this is such a brilliant inside of his. 

He said Christianity is the way that women and slaves have kind of made the made the strong. Be good to the week, because Christianity is all about. It’s not about I’m gonna be the big macho man. It’s all about you have to forgive, you have to be nice and good and you can’t be warlike. And in America, that was particularly true that in the 19th century, ministers, because women were the backbone of the congregations even then. And ministers were seen as these kind of effeminate servants of women. And then they would try to, you know, macho Christian, what is that, muscular Christianity. They’ve always, always tried to use the Promise Keepers. They’re always trying to gear up Christianity to be this big macho thing. But there is this other piece of it where it it it actually has kind of makes life better for women. Your husband is supposed to talk to you, for example. That’s huge. That’s huge. 

Do you think it’s we had a panel you actually mentioned it already. The women women who had left Yarragon were up there. It gets harder for them a lot. There was a lot of talk about social cost of leaving. 

Yes. Well, I thought that was what was it was so interesting. 

People really losing their families, losing their friendships and, you know, losing a whole community. And I think that is one of the things that keeps people bound up in religion. 

Religion is very useful to a lot of people, not to everybody, but to a lot of people. It is, for example, you get they will give you things. They will give you a bag of groceries. If you don’t have one, they will. You know, these big modern church mega churches, they have they have AA. They have all kinds of psychotherapy. They have family help them marital counseling. They have drug addiction counseling. And people have a lot of troubles in life. 

And there I think a lot of people look for things that will help them, you know, get back to a good place. And we all know you can be in psychoanalysis for 15 years and doesn’t make any difference. 

So this is mean in your view. Ultimately, you need completely secular women speaking out about equality. At the same time, they should be joining forces with religious women who have the same basic goals? 

Well, I think that people can always apply around. 

Common concrete issues. This is something that comes up in the nation all the time, which is they were this article gets written like every couple of years, which is so mean to Christians, were so mean to religious people, we should really be lying with that because they do a lot of good work. Well, OK. 

And where that where there is that common ground, people do, for example, the movement against the death penalty is a great example where, you know, the Catholic Church and a lot of Protestant denominations and Jewish denominations also are very, very big in the fight against the death penalty. And they do wonderful work. And as a secular, you know, so does the ACLU from a secular perspective. So why can’t they work together? They do work together. But I think when it gets kind of vague, which is, you know, we should just be nice to them because and then maybe they’ll vote Democratic. You know, I don’t I don’t see that. I don’t see that. 

So I read. Hopefully I didn’t get misinformed that you’re you’re writing a book now about abortion rights. I am. Maybe not much. You can tell us about it. All I’ve been noticing is that the Christian right is endlessly inventive in its ways of finding new ways to block. 

Well, it’s so true. And I think this is this is where, you know, we can all work together, really breaks down because that’s where we can work together. Turns out to mean we pro-choice ours can accept a whole bunch of restrictions. And maybe then the anti choices will go away. They’ll be satisfied. 

And that overlooks the fact that at the bottom, the anti choice movement is a religious movement. Now it happens. There’s nothing in the Bible about abortion. But that’s another example of how you can just make the Bible say what you want. Because they find texts that they interpret in that way. Although if God really wanted to be against abortion, you would think he would have put in a word about it specifically. So, yeah, I think that abortion rights is it is a fault line of a lot of things. 

It’s and it’s it’s a fault line between secular and religious, although there are secular people who are against abortion are very much in favor of lots of restrictions. But the real money in it, the real footsoldiers, the organizational structures, all come from religion. 

When you I did escorting at a abortion clinic a couple of months ago and it was very funny. 

First, the fundamentalist Protestants show up and do their thing and then they go away because they don’t like the Catholics either. And Catholics show up and they do their thing, you know, and you don’t see any you know, like I’m secular. Abortion is wrong. People there. 

Yeah. No. So they’re on a schedule. Yes, they’re on. One group feels that way and then the other group feels it. Yeah, exactly. 

Well, that although interestingly, the Catholics did not yell at women, the Catholics prayed, but they didn’t. It was the fundamentalist Christians who were saying horrible things and, you know, getting as close to the door as they could. 

The Catholic state across the street, it seems like a lot of the inventiveness that’s kind of a nice word for it is actually also making its making up science and then it’s making up new new legal approaches the same times. On the one hand, you can get a state to legislate some kind of restriction. But you also have to make up new facts in order to do it. A lot of the time you have to, you know, claim that the fetus is feeling pain at a time when nobody thinks it’s feeling pain. 

Right. And that’s a tremendous bad faith, for example. Now, in some states, you have to say the provider, the abortion provider is supposed to tell the woman that, you know, she has a great oh, all right, you’re going to have an abortion. Well, I hope you know that that means you have greater risk of suicide, a greater risk of breast cancer. You know, and these this is such a misuse of studies completely. And in fact, all the information on breast cancer is completely false. 

And the information on suicide is correlation. It’s not like if, you know, the abortion is what causes the suicide. It just has to do with the populations of people who have very large populations of people who do these things. 

And also that study was in Scandinavia, I believe were suicide car. 

So anyway, yeah, it’s completely a lot of it isn’t total bad. 

You got someone who’s so vulnerable and they’re already completely. I don’t know how to actually describe the state. I’m not sure I can describe the state. But then you tell them all these things that terrify. 

Well, yeah. And, you know, I wrote a long time ago, and I still think it’s true that if the anti choices were honest, they would say, you know, having this abortion might actually. To be a very sensible thing for you to do in terms of your common, your your your regular life. If you don’t want to be with that guy, if you’re not able to take care of a child, if you don’t have enough money, if you need to finish your schooling, it makes a lot of sense. 

But it’s still wrong. But they don’t say that. They have to say he’ll break up with you, too. Yeah. And you’ll become a true. Well, I went to the Right to Life march in Washington for the last two years. And there are these women who I regret my abortion and they give their testimony and it always is. 

You know, a man pushed me into this abortion and then I became an alcoholic or a drug addict for the next 20 years until I happened to meet a wonderful priest who told me that I could be forgiven. 

So it’s a narrative that it kind of makes them less responsible because a man pushed them into it and then they suffered. 

And then they were redeemed. Now, the idea that they might have all of the sex say she hadn’t gotten pregnant, not like she would be having some fantastic life, she’d still be with that guy. 

The temptations of drugs and alcohol or are there for everybody. So but that is one narrative. The narrative that abortion hurts you instead of abortion helps you. But you shouldn’t do it because it’s wrong. 

I want to shift to what this means about where we are in preparing for this interview, I read some of your columns going back to the mid to late 90s, which again, is where I first read you because I was a college student when I first read your columns, as I want to quote one from two thousand to get you to reflect on where things are now, because I’m struck by how how much it still sounds like the press here. No, that’s a good thing. And it was. Appreciate it. Right. So you’re writing this is 2000, the wave of mergers between Catholic and secular hospitals. Are you depriving women of crucial reproductive services from contraception and abortion to in vitro fertilization the morning after pill, even for rape victims? Wherever you look, religion is the main obstacle to providing women with modern reproductive care. 

This has not gotten better. 

There’s no easy way because it’s worse. There are even more Catholic. Yeah, secular hospital mergers. And somehow the Catholics always come out on top in these mergers. You know, it’s never like, oh, we want to merge with you secular hospital. So we will practice, you know, standard reproductive medicine. It’s always seems to go the other way. 

So I would say this is an area in which things have not gone. 

Why did we regress? What’s going to take the turn? 

Well, yeah, that’s a really good question. I think a lot of people would like to know because I know it’s a bit. 

But, you know, there there’s little bits of there is little bits of progress. I think, for example, under Obamacare. All methods of birth control will be provided without a copay. That is huge. That is huge. And even if all the religious you know, even if they had taken the largest interpretation of who can opt out for religious reasons there, there would still be a lot of people that would be covered who aren’t covered now. And I think that’s that’s really wonderful. So we have to celebrate these good things to. 

But it’s a fight that just doesn’t. 

Well, yeah. Because then the count. Because then the Obama administration, which did this wonderful thing with the Noko papers control, then it said, you know, refused to go along with the judge’s ruling that emergency contraception was completely so safe and should be sold over the counter. 

And that saying keeping it behind the counter and restricting it, you know, saying, you know, young girls have to have a prescription is just a lot of, you know, this doesn’t make any sense at all. And that would have been such a great moment for the Obama administration to say, OK, we tried, you know, and we got reelected. So now we’re just gonna do what the judge says. But no, they continue to fight it. 

So there let me just ask you one last question. I’m anyone who listens to the show knows that I’m a psychology buff. And so one thing we know about biases, you know, racial bias, sexist bias is that there’s elements that might be conscious. So that’s where you’re actually. You tell people you bigoted things. There are elements that are unconscious as well. So you could have a man, for instance, who is consciously sexist or you could have a man who really doesn’t want to be sexist. In fact, consciously would abhor that idea. But he turns out he is anyway, because it’s all these things that he’s not even perceiving that he’s doing. So what would you say to someone like that besides come to a conference like this? 

Well, you know, that’s something that shows up in every area of life and not just about gender and not just about men with regard to gender. I mean, women are sexist, too. And, you know, there’s been a lot of work on racial unconscious racial biases, which, you know, it turns out we have lots of and I think. 

There is no, sir. Well, two things I would say. One is there, you know, it’s a it’s a continual process to become more, you know, the unexamined life is not worth living. 

As Rebecca Goldstein reminded us yesterday, and you have to try to become more conscious and not be like that anymore. But I think the other thing. 

Another speaker said today, you talked about how if you don’t get outside your comfort zone, if you don’t know people having a different experience, you don’t you’re you don’t really you’re not really playing with a full deck about all these things. 

And so it’s so and she gave a wonderful example because she’s a rather large, heavyset African-American woman and her perky little blond friends were talking about being hit on on the street all the time, sexually harassed in the street. And she had no idea what they were talking about because that had never happened to her, which is amazing. 

I mean, you wouldn’t think of it going that way. But I think we’re all very much sort of stuck in our little worlds. And you have to make an effort to reach out and talk to some people who aren’t like you. You’ll learn something. 

Fair enough. I think that is very good advice always. So on that note, Katha Pollitt, I want to thank you for doing the show with us. 

Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun. 

Thank you for listening. 

This episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show, you can visit us at point of inquiry that or you can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry dot org, or you can send them to us on Twitter at point of inquiry or postum on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in AMR’s, New York. Although maybe he’ll do this one in Washington, D.C.. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney