Monday, November 17, 2014

How People Speak of Gender of God As Predictor of Their Stance on Same-Sex Marriage: Recent Sociological Findings

At Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg reports on a recently published article by sociologist Andrew L. Whithead which shows that the gender people choose to associate with God is a predictor of their attitudes about same-sex marriage. Whitehead's article, entitled "Male and Female He Created Them: Gender, Traditionalism, Masculine Images of God, and Attitudes Towards Same-Sex Unions," is in the September issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. The site to which the link I just provided points allows you to read a précis, but requires you to buy the article if you want to read it in its entirety.

In his current article and a previous one he published on this theme in the Review of Religious Research, Whitehead maintains that how we view God — specifically, our use of gendered images to speak of God — reflects how we look at the social, economic, political, and cultural world around us. And our gendered view of God functions, in turn, as a prism through which we confirm the presuppositions we've made about our world.

Religion reinforces social constructions of reality to which many of us have already committed ourselves, that is to say. When those social constructions of reality assume that keeping women in their places and assuring men dominance are essential to the maintenance of right order in the world, religion frequently becomes a powerful tool for bolstering gendered assumptions already strongly present in the worldview of many people.

Not surprisingly, Whitehead's research finds that people who insist that the divine must be spoken of as male tend to hold conservative views on a wide range of issues from same-sex marriage to capital punishment to issues of women's rights. And vice versa: his research supports the findings of priest-sociologist Andrew Greeley in 1988 that those who are open to viewing God in maternal terms often trend liberal in their political thinking.

As Whitehead puts these points in his Review of Religious Research study,

Individuals who believe God is a male are more likely to believe most men are better suited for politics, a preschool child is likely to suffer if his or her mother works, it is God’s will that women care for children, or that a husband should earn a larger salary than his wife. . . . Individuals who believe God is male, and especially females, will be less likely to question or subvert male authority because men are believed to represent God’s authority on Earth. To counter men’s authority would be to question the entire ordering of the cosmos.

And so vis-a-vis same-sex marriage, this is what Whitehead's latest study finds:

Because God is masculine, and men are a direct representation of God and so receive a certain amount of authority in family life, women are to submit to that authority. Therefore, same-sex unions clash with this understanding of the "traditional" family and threaten a stable social order, which should, again, comply with the underlying gendered nature of all reality.

What he also discovers is that many religious believers who are adamant about viewing God as masculine are unnerved by homosexuality because it calls traditional gender roles into question, by "mixing" the genders: by appearing to be gender-transgressive, gay men and women test the boundaries of gender roles that traditional believers prefer to think of as set in stone: 

The researcher found that respondents who hold traditional gender beliefs are generally unfavorable toward LGBT individuals because they see them as exhibiting traits of the opposite sex and subverting gender roles.

As I've said a number of times before, isn't it astonishing that so many religious bodies are expending so much energy today in shoring up notions of gender that have for very good reason come under increasing critical scrutiny in the culture at large? Many religious bodies are deploying an amazing amount of energy today as they seek to uphold "traditional" notions of gender and gender roles (notions that are inevitably historically conditioned), and as they attempt to make this quest foundational to religious belief in the 21st century, central to the mission of religion in the world. 

Stripped of its layers of rhetorical disguise, this quest is inevitably about attempting to keep women subordinate to men in the name of God. It is about denying the power of Mary Daly's prophetic insight in Beyond God the Father (1973): "If God is male, then the male is God."

As I said back in January when I posted a video of the group Cantus singing a gender-provocative rendering of the 23rd psalm, have a look at the hair-raising comments some people make in response to this video at the You Tube site (video link). Ask people to think carefully about the fact that all language about the divine, including language about gender, is analogical, and their heads seem to explode. Because they've invested everything in notions of heterosexual male supremacy, and to ask them to question those notions is, they rightly perceive, to ask them to unravel their entire cosmos.

I hope someone has brought copies of Whitehead's articles to that colloquium in Rome (and here) on male-female complementarity.

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