Occasionally I read an article about religion that is so irritating, I obsess over it. It’s not, say, a writer who looks into the deep abyss and experiences nothing, or complains about an institution’s excesses. I can handle a well-informed atheism, including those that still see the world and its traditions and history as complex and interwoven.

And then I read articles that claim all religion is oppressive to women.

I’m sympathetic to a point. After all, just look at some texts. It seems pretty obvious.

But religion is not the same as the bible, or any specific religious text. The assumption seems to be: just give us a book, and we religious people are happy as pie. I’m sure some of us do wake up and let the book fall open like an oracle and let it tell us what to do. That works until you’re asking what kind of pizza God wants you to order, and it opens to the first chapter of Matthew. Hint: God wants you to order whatever you want, but just remember, back in the day they called Jesus the One True Olive, and asked for the church to be coagulated together like cheese.

What does that mean? I’m just saying get a good bottle of red to wash it down.

So when religious people fling verses at one another like food in a high school cafeteria, one reply could be “why don’t you all just agree on the food?” or “just go to a different restaurant than the religion one.” But they don’t see what’s happening: we’re having a conversation. And as long as we’re not throwing bullets, verses are a lot safer. 

We’re accused of cherry-picking the bible to choose verses that agree with what we already believe. To be honest, that’s a pretty solid accusation. But also of everyone. Hunting for facts to back up a position already held is the most popular way to have an argument except for the few lukewarm souls. Does this mean that Kant was wrong? That there aren’t some universal moral or metaphysical principles? No – it just means we must reside in humility and charity along the way while we get there. Our hope is that in the course of the conversation we’ll remember where our true priorities are.

For most of us who are in religious institutions, scripture has a life. It’s not a rulebook that moves us as if we were marionettes, but the ingredients with which we understand an interior reality. It’s not static – its meaning will change for us over time. That’s why we consider it sacred and canonical.

Is religion oppressive? A better answer is: yes, and no. Religion is a lot of things, and it reflects whatever culture it comes out of.  But if secularism is a good (which it is), then it was not because it arose simply as an alternative to religion, but because it mediated the multiplicity of religious voices. Secularism is weaker when there is only one religious voice out there. 

From my vantage point, I have seen both a decline in women’s rights and a decline in the power of liberal religious institutions. I believe the two are linked: without powerful faithful voices supporting the basic idea that women are human beings, secular feminists will remain on the defensive, especially in the areas of the world where women need the greatest support.