Anthropology (248) of Religion
October 20, 2003
Almost everywhere, religious beliefs and rituals blend with/reflect cultural constructions of gender. Why is this the case? And why is it so widespread that women are most vulnerable to accusations of harming others via their access to supernatural power? Try to analyze these puzzling situations using Pascal Boyer’s approach to religion–how might they be explained in the context of evolution?
Gender is closely related to religious notions, because of its social connotation. Gender is not only relevant because other members of society judge and expect certain behavioral patterns from the ego based on gender, but also because it is a basis in establishing relationships among neighbors and kin members. An individual is to look at a neighbor of the same sex as an ally to strengthen relations with, but a neighbor of the opposite sex as a potential mate. A close kin of the same sex is a good friend, but marrying one of the opposite sex is a taboo in most societies.
Social relationships are a major concern in religion. The place where ritual is performed is a place of social gathering, and “not performing the ritual amounts to a refusal to enter into the same social arrangements” (Boyer 255). There often exists a social hierarchy between the priest and the followers. In fact, Durkheim goes as far as to claim that society worships itself, that society is god. (Durkheim, Hicks 14) Because gender establishes a certain social order, and social relations are a main concern to religion, does gender blend closely with religion.
Inversely, religion influences notions of gender, because society categorizes its constituents assuming that there is a natural difference among them. (Boyer 251) A forceful “biological” construction of gender, then, is a sociological phenomenon of such strength that few religious could do without.
There are many reasons why women are regarded as carriers of powerful supernatural powers. Dinnerstein points out that because of developmental reasons, the infant comes to depend completely on the mother for its feeding and subsistence in general. (Hicks 342) This influence remains even after the infant has grown up, leading to the and obscurantist view of the mother and female gender in general.
Women are also regarded as mysterious because they appear to surrender to natural forces. In many religious traditions, the menstrual and childbirth blood are considered impure because they belong to the natural order. Men, who can restrain any similar “natural” physiologies, are regarded as more cultural, in which forces of nature have been dominated. (Archer, Hicks 242)
In their social role of mysterious, powerful beings, women may also be regarded as sacred for the particular religious tradition. This sanctity, however, is violated because the woman is viewed as a sexually relevant entity. The same menstrual and childbirth blood, which confer upon them power, reminds everybody of the sexual and reproductive functions that the woman accomplishes. Again, the protuberant breasts (when compared to males’) are also a reminder of the reproductive function of the woman since it is the organ with which the infant is fed. This sanctity gone awry, however, is not tolerated by the society, especially in a patriarchal society. The Hijra of India, for instance, are a sacred group that perform rites for recent borne and marriages, but their value lasts only as long as they are known as chaste, for overt sexual activity not only takes away their sanctity but brings upon deeply negative views. (Nanda, Hicks 366)
Boyer explains that entries into the human’s cognition that violate a categorical predefinitions (such as, “people have volition” or “tools have substance”) present a special risk in the context of evolutionary survival. In this way, a person who may not talk, or a moving object moving through walls, become particularly dangerous in the person’s notion because a silent animal may evoke predators chasing around in silence. In this way, cognitive systems develop particular hyperactive reactions to violations of cognitive categories. In this context, an unholy but sanctified person may pose similar challenges. This may be the reason for which Judaic religious tradition consistently views the woman as that who enticed the man to original sin. (Sanday, Hicks 350)
A sanctified category, on the other hand, leads to the possibility of women being deified. A woman may act as a savior against patriarchal violence, the promise of life, and liberation from colonial powers, as it happens with the Virgin of Guadalupe among the Mestizo Mexican society. (Wolf, Hicks 357-8)
From the cognitive perspective, it is possible that the female gender may not be regarded as the same kind as the one in which the male gender is located. Boyer indicates that a reference to death creates strong social defensive mechanisms in people. (Boyer 205) Such reactions are triggered, in part, because the dead body is a possible source of pathogens, a source of pollution. (214) Now Wolf indicates that the woman, in her role of childbirth and rearing, represents not only a promise to life, but also of death. (Wolf, Hicks 356) If the notion of female gender can trigger the notion of death and this in turn activate socially defensive mechanisms, the process as a whole may explain the internal justification, not only to misogyny, but also as for why the menstrual and childbirth blood are considered polluting.
It is in this multiplicity of contradictory roles – of death, life, polluting agent, sacred icon, god, and predator- that the female gender is understood to represent and symbolize is a source of confusion for the human cognition. (Boyer 224) It is in this background that the proliferation of rituals and beliefs in religion could be explained, as a dialectic parchment to the gaps produced by the various cultural and symbolic positions that the female gender holds in society.