Is Christianity Sexist? 1: Definitions

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This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Sexism Among the Isms


Recently I proposed that sexism is a human problem, not specific to atheism or to in fact to anything-ism. At the same time I suggested that atheism had nothing to offer by way of solving the sexism problem. No one disagreed, and I think there are both empirical and theoretical reasons to consider that a solid conclusion. Sexism is a human problem, and there’s no help for it in atheism.

As for the various religions and cultures, sexism pbviously runs rampant in Islam, traditional Chinese culture and Hinduism, and a host of other -isms besides. What then about Christianity?

I’ll have much to say about this, all of which will depend on getting our definitions straight.

Like “atheism,” the term “Christianity” can refer to more than one thing. There is the social realm of churches and those who call themselves Christianity, which constitutes Christianity in one sense. There is also the set or sets of ideas that form the theological/theoretical basis of Christian belief. The question, Is Christianity sexist? is therefore really two different questions and requires two different answers.

So as this series continues I will make clear which Christianity I am talking about when. The social aspect of Christianity I will call ChristianityS, and the theological/theoretical aspect I will label ChristianityT.

The term sexism has multiple meanings, too. For some, wherever women are treated differently than men, that’s sexism in operation. I cannot agree with that. Women and men are different, and for that reason it can be (it isn’t always, but it can be) right and appropriate to treat them differently.

There is a wrong and immoral form of sexism as well, obviously; and for this series I am using the term sexism only in that sense. I summarize it as the use of power by men to dominate or subjugate women. That power is typically expressed through a whole spectrum of means ranging from open violence to subtle yet strong social cues. It might be on an individual level, as in a man physically striking his girlfriend, or institutionalized power, such as for example the infamous corporate glass ceiling.

Now of course the line between (a) innocently treating the sexes differently just because they are different, and (b) culpably abusing power with respect to women, is hard to define and harder yet to agree upon. I do not mean to imply that the difference is obvious or easy to identify. There are gradations and other complications. Still I’m hoping you’ll see as I continue this series that we can make some headway on these questions anyway.

The time will come, later in this series, when I will have to address the question of men’s and women’s roles, and whether there are legitimate and proper differences between them. This is where that line of differentiation is most controversial. Some readers will want me to jump there immediately, since they take it that differentiated roles amounts to prima facie proof of Christianity’s (both S and T) sexism. I’m not starting there (though I will get there eventually) because I don’t want to feed the misconception that that one controversy is the whole story. There’s an historical backstory of which most people, Christian and atheist alike, are ignorant. And it makes all the difference.

This post sets the stage by defining terms. That’s enough for now; there’s more to come soon.

Series Navigation (Sexism Among the Isms):<<< Is Christianity Sexist? 3: Even If…If You’re Wondering What Happened to the Series on Sexism… >>>
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33 Responses to “ Is Christianity Sexist? 1: Definitions ”

  1. Great start, Tom.
    While doing the Biblical research on this issue, I came across some commentary series by Bob Utley that are included in our Logos package (You Can Understand the Bible series – you can do a library search for ‘Ephesians 5’ or ‘1 Corinthians”, and look for his series). He has some really insightful notes on Ephesians 5 in this regard.

  2. Sexism, like racism, probably can’t separated from specific contingent facts that give distinctive meanings to our current actions and policies. Among the significant facts are historical abuses, culturally ingrained attitudes and dispositions, unfair inequities in opportunity, and the personal, subconscious biases to which we are all susceptible (e.g., the kind of biases revealed by implicit association tests).

    Let me give an example. In the South, if a white bus driver has to ask one of two people to move towards the back of the bus, he has good reasons to ask the white man rather than the black man, if these are the only two choices and other things are equal. The white person who is asked to move towards the back of the bus in this circumstance has good reason not to feel slighted. These reasons have to do with the meanings that threaten to be expressed by the alternative requests, and these meanings arise in part from the South’s history of wrongful racial discrimination against blacks, discrimination that has come to be symbolized in the bus seating issue. Notice that these reasons have less to do with the bus driver’s current use of power to dominate or subjugate anyone. I think similar points will apply to sexism.

  3. Here’s a further thought, Bryan.

    There was a time in our past when blacks and whites were treated very differently in realms where there was no relevant difference–where to sit on a bus, for instance, using your example. Long years of that treatment eventually made the difference between the races relevant on buses, as you note. This is a socially constructed relevance, but it’s nevertheless a real one.

    There are a few respects in which the difference between African-Americans is inherently relevant. Whom will you cast to play George Washington? George Washington Carver? But such situations are few.

    Inherent differences between men and women are much greater and affect many more realms of life. Some of them are obvious and indisputable, whereas some of them are seriously tangled together with socially constructed, non-inherent differences. This compiicates things considerably, but we cannot set those complications aside. They matter. I’ll try to account for them as best I can as I proceed.

  4. Inherent differences between men and women are much greater and affect many more realms of life. Some of them are obvious and indisputable, whereas some of them are seriously tangled together with socially constructed, non-inherent differences. This complicates things considerably, but we cannot set those complications aside.

    Right. There’s the issue of what normative differences these descriptive differences give rise to, and this issue is not made any easier by the fact that many of these descriptive differences, and their origins, are themselves hotly disputed.

    Given the complexities here, maybe it would be helpful for you to enumerate a list of the potentially significant descriptive differences that you, as a Christian or otherwise, assume–along with some indication of what you take the causal source of those descriptive differences to be (e.g., do the differences arises contingently, as a effect of socialization, expectations, and opportunities, or are they more hardwired in the sexes?).

    In some cases I think we would have reason to overlook descriptive differences that might otherwise seem to carry normative significance. Suppose God decrees that we are to confer ruling authority to males over females. For questions about who should rule, would it then even matter if, descriptively speaking, women are biologically better adapted to management, complex decision making, and the level-headed and empathetic use of coercive power? Likewise, if East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews happen to have on average a higher IQ than other groups (or, alternatively, if some racially identifiable minority has statistically lower IQ) I would think that there are social imperatives that override any significance we would otherwise be inclined to ascribe to these differences in our public policy decisions–and even if these IQ differences were found to have a deeper, biological basis.

  5. Let me give an example. In the South, if a white bus driver has to ask one of two people to move towards the back of the bus, he has good reasons to ask the white man rather than the black man, if these are the only two choices and other things are equal. The white person who is asked to move towards the back of the bus in this circumstance has good reason not to feel slighted. These reasons have to do with the meanings that threaten to be expressed by the alternative requests, and these meanings arise in part from the South’s history of wrongful racial discrimination against blacks, discrimination that has come to be symbolized in the bus seating issue.

    At what point does it become unacceptable to expect others to cater to perceived bias, especially when none is actually present?

    All you really said in this case is that “Well, person X’s feelings are more likely to be hurt than person Y’s feelings.” Perhaps, “Person Y’s feelings being hurt would be more acceptable than person X’s feelings being hurt, given such and such a perspective and data.” But that’s not saying much at all.

    In some cases I think we would have reason to overlook descriptive differences that might otherwise seem to carry normative significance.

    What are those reasons?

  6. All you really said in this case is that….

    Why do think that this is all I really said?

    As for the reasons you asked for, they would of course vary from case to case. Consider the examples I gave.

  7. Why do think that this is all I really said?

    Because it’s the fact of the matter?

    As for the reasons you asked for, they would of course vary from case to case. Consider the examples I gave.

    The examples you gave cashed out to what I said they did. I find them less than compelling. They appeal, at most, to a vague feeling – not reason.

    I asked some reasonable questions – including this one.

    At what point does it become unacceptable to expect others to cater to perceived bias, especially when none is actually present?

  8. Crude, let’s just disagree. This line of questioning doesn’t strike me as interesting or productive. If you tried to cash out your own opinions and questions a bit more maybe that would help.

  9. Crude, let’s just disagree. This line of questioning doesn’t strike me as interesting or productive.

    No, let’s not just disagree. Let’s point out the obvious: I made a valid criticism of your statements and what they amounted to, and asked you a fair question. You refuse to answer that question.

    See, I happen to think this line of questioning is extremely important, because it highlights a few things. For instance, the vacuous nature of appeals to “perceptions of slight”. Sometimes, people feign offense to get what they want. Other times, people overreact to perceived slights. It’s entirely reasonable to start asking when and where the limits are to making decisions based on some kind of mental “economy of feelings”.

    Sometimes, the person who claims they’re greatly offended and outraged because someone said X doesn’t deserve an apology. Even if their whole community is up in arms, they don’t necessarily deserve an apology. Sometimes, they need to be told, “Get over it.” I’d like to know when those times are.

  10. @bryan
    Actually, your bus scenario is a false dilemma – there are at least two other possible solutions:

    Bus Driver: “look, guys, can one of you head to the back of the bus, for ( insert legitimate reason here)?”
    Option 1: bus driver lets the two passengers decide between themselves (perhaps one or both are Christians, and they apply Ephesians 4:1-4 and/or Philippians 2:3-4 to the situation. If they are both Christians, then they can always take the second option anyway)

    Option 2: bus driver tells them to flip a coin, play rock, paper, scissors, etc.

  11. Victoria, you’d be correct if originally I hadn’t explicitly added this stipulation:

    …if these are the only two choices and….

  12. Crude, sure we have to bear in mind those considerations too. But we shouldn’t hastily conclude that we’re simply dealing with “vacuous appeals to…perceptions of slight” or the “economy of feelings,” as you put it.

  13. @bryan
    Exactly – do you know what a false dilemma is? I brought this up because I think it will be relevant for the discussion on sexism and Christianity – too often atheists and skeptics present Christians with such an either/or choice, which we are not obliged to go along with.

  14. Your example is still a false dilemma, and I reject the choices you have presented to us as the only ones.
    Even thought experiments should represent reality! You have not presented any arguments for why those are the only choices – you have simply asserted that they are, and I don’t buy it.

    In any case, my reason for bringing up the point stands, and based on my experience in this blog, will surely be justified.

  15. Do you agree that in the real world, the situation can have more alternatives than the extreme case you have presented?

  16. I acknowledge that these are possibilities too. But they would be different situations. How are they relevant?

  17. How is your example relevant to the real world?
    The situation is the same – someone has to move to the back of the bus, which by the way, you have not justified as a necessary condition of your experiment (the reason why someone has to move to the back of the bus may very well be relevant to the choices made by the driver and the passengers). In the real world, there can be choices made by the participants that circumvent any perceived racial bias.

    We shall see how often the false dilemma is going to occur in this series, of that I am sure.

  18. It’s relevant in the real world because it illustrates a relevant point.

    Now how are your examples of very different scenarios relevant?

  19. See my updated comment
    Do you realize that you said “it is relevant because it is relevant”?

  20. Rather, the situations are the same except for one crucial factor–in the other situations other choices are available. So I’ve told you how my hypothetical situation is relevant. How are your hypothetical situations relevant?

  21. Just remember false dilemma when we get into the discussion of sexism and Christianity – you won’t be allowed to get away with it, as we will be talking about reality.

  22. Victoria, you aren’t being sufficiently careful here (if you re-read, you’ll notice that I didn’t say “It is relevant because it is relevant”). You are also avoiding the question I put to you.

    Now it might also be helpful to more carefully consider what a false dilemma actually is, and why it is considered fallacious.

  23. see here
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_dilemma

    I’m more concerned about real world scenarios than unjustified hypothetical ones.
    Now, if you were to provide a realistic reason (one that could happen in the real world of public transit) why (one of – why not both of them?) the boarding passengers would have to move to the back of the bus, and realistic justification for why the bus driver’s choices can only be determined by the race of the two passengers…..
    As I said, I reject your black-and-white unrealistic scenario.

  24. So, V, it sounds as if you are trying to make two distinct objections here. Are you complaining that my hypothetical scenario presents a false dilemma or are you complaining that it is unrealistic? I don’t think you can charge me with both.

  25. Well, one the one hand, there’s no false dilemma in the hypothetical scenario if there really are only two possible choices. On the other hand, Victoria seems to think that the hypothetical scenario is insufficiently realistic only because of the two-option stipulation.

  26. I’m going to wait until Tom moves forward with the next installment of the series, I think, as I am more interested in where that goes 🙂

  27. That’s fine Victoria. Going forward, however, I would encourage you to pay attention to how thought experiments or hypothetical scenarios are employed by philosophers–whether the philosophers happen to be Christians. Sometimes it may be relevant whether or not the scenario in question is “realistic.” Often, however, this isn’t obviously relevant. The difference might lay in the sorts of purposes to which the hypothetical scenarios are being put. What you won’t be able to show is that understanding can never be advanced through the use of “unrealistic” thought experiments.

  28.