In this month’s column, we apply our thought experiment to the delicate topic of religion and consider how religious practice and its application in society might differ without the “sinfulness” of sex.
(Author’s note: This month’s thought experiment is limited by my own past spiritual experiences (Christianity—Southern Baptist, to be precise), as I have neither the knowledge nor authority to speak to other religions except in the most general of terms. This is not intended to exclude those religions but to refrain from characterizing them incorrectly. I invite writers to apply this thought experiment to their own faiths.)
Writers who create lush new realms for their speculative novels often develop corresponding religious or magical systems to augment their world-building. After all, it’s damn near difficult to visualize a society that hasn’t developed some form of divinity or otherworldly power to worship and blame misfortunes on. Faith also provides motivation, goals, and even traits for characters and offers convenient and believable sources of conflict.
For those wishing to make their fictional worlds deeply matriarchal or even egalitarian, building a religion is not as simple as referring to the primary deity as a Goddess and calling it a day. Writers should also consider the role of women as leaders within their religious communities, the way women are portrayed in holy texts, and how governing systems incorporate those beliefs into their societies, whether they are secular or not. Unfortunately, we cannot draw inspiration from our own world, as most modern religions are predominately and painfully patriarchal.
Consider the role of female leadership in the church. In “Priestesses, Power and Politics,” on the Suppressed Histories Archives (a great read if you have a bit of extra time), author and historian Max Dashu notes that, “Barring women from ritual leadership and religious authority has been a key focus in the drive to undermine female power.” Controlling female power controls women, and by extension, their bodies. Only in recent years have women held top positions in either religious priesthoods or denominational governing bodies in the United States. Some groups have not yet had any female leaders, and do not seem poised to add women to their ranks anytime soon, though even the mighty Catholic church is signaling that it may soften its stance.
Traditional interpretations of leading religious texts not only inform the lack of female power within the church but also in the home. For centuries, they have depicted women as either the property of, or subordinate to, men. It was a woman’s duty to “lay with her husband” just as it was his duty to “spread his seed,” often to multiple wives. This ordained (and conveniently male-preferenced) outlook perpetuated the idea that a woman’s ability to sexually gratify her husband and birth his offspring was the raison d’etre for her body.
Such interpretations have generally mellowed over time as churches modernize to keep up with the pulse of secular society. Communities still exist within most major religions in which women and girls continue to live under the yoke of strict obedience and guardianship, and the sinfulness of sex and the wickedness of wanton women are loudly condemned from the pulpit. Here, men are the protectors and owners of women’s virtue—a prized commodity in the eyes of men, and by extension, in the scriptures of their male deities. Religion thusly objectifies and idolizes women’s virginity. Remember, we cannot be saviors or gods, but we may be the mother of gods if we are pure.
Religious ownership of women’s sexuality in secular society is interpreted through more nuanced means of control: religious bans on birth control, the growing theistically-influenced tightening on abortion laws, forbiddance or discouragement of divorce (or highly imbalanced difficulty for women to obtain divorce), and abstinence advocacy that focuses more on girls’ sexual statuses than boys’.
Now, imagine that as mammals evolved from single-cell organisms, they developed an asexual, or at least a perfunctory and non-pleasurable sexual, means of reproduction. How does that potentially affect religion as we know it? Let’s first consider the deities we worship.
Our heavenly creators have an equal chance of being male or female in a world without sex. In fact, the divine feminine was once worshipped because women were the “creators of life.” Since our thought experiment still allows for female pregnancy and childbirth, it is far more likely that the gods we create and worship would be female. Also, remove the instinctual drive for gendered domination and control, and you remove the impetus to develop monotheistic religions in which one god (a male one) sets the rules for behavior and the requirements for salvation. Co-ed polytheistic spirituality is much more reasonable in a world in which desires, needs, and outcomes are often at odds.
At this point, everything else falls into place for much more equitable treatment throughout religious communities and society at large. Societies that establish feminine (or non-gendered) religious deities would likely have little to no need to control the soft power that spiritual leaders hold. Priests could also be priestesses. Reverend Doe could be John or Jane.
Removing the religious justifications for protecting the chastity of girls and the virtue of women also dis-incentivizes many of the harsh practices that relegate women to subordination, both in the religious communities themselves and in nations and governing states which integrate those beliefs into laws and cultural practices. I might even propose that the concept of holy matrimony—the ultimate religious means of ownership and control of women—could disappear, to be replaced by casual partnerships that offer companionship at a more equitable price for all.
So, my fellow authors, as you create multiple, in-depth religious systems for the warring factions of your new worlds (of which only two percent may appear in the novel), keep in mind your intent for the nature of your societies. Take time to consider how such societies might develop the deities they believe created them. After all, neither novel nor world can be created in six days.