"What is this Slouching Toward Bethlehem? – Is it a New Feminist Defense of Religion?"
The title references W.B. Yeats’ poem The Second Coming with the intention of beginning to identify and interrogate the effort by academics, activists and policy makers to redeem ‘religion’ from feminist critique. First, I will ask whether it makes sense to label such work a new feminist defense of religion by pointing to themes and arguments that seem to constitute a reevaluation of ‘religious’ traditions in regard to women’s rights and political status. Then I will raise these questions: 1. To what aspects of feminist theory is the new defense reacting? Work by Saba Mahmoud and Joan Scott will be discussed as examples of critical commentaries aimed at correcting or modifying feminist thought. 2. Does the new defense of religion take sufficient account of recent work in religious studies about the category of religion? The sub-field termed “critical religion” has developed theory about the modern creation of ‘religion’ as a colonialist concept that has served the goals of Europeans by imposing Christian models of culture in non-Christian contexts. Such work argues that because what gets recognized in law as ‘religion’ is that which conforms to stereotypical ideas about Christian ideology and behavior, a standardization of culture and society is promoted wherever ‘religion’ gains special status. 3. Is there sufficient recognition of the male domination that calls for greater respect for ‘religion’ authorize? Luce Irigaray has suggested that movements urging a return to religion arise when male power is even slightly threatened. Could this be a factor in the new feminist defense? I will mention research by Sukhwant Dhaliwal in London about the effect of the empowerment of faith-based groups by the Blair government that supports Irigaray’s assertion. Instead of recommending ‘religion’, I will suggest other ways to protect the rights of women and to encourage their political participation.
Naomi Goldenberg is Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies and former Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa, Canada. Her current interests in teaching and writing pertain to the emerging field of ‘critical religion’ that focuses on the construction of the category of religion and its relationship to other categories such as the secular, the state, identity and politics. With Trevor Stack and Timothy Fitzgerald, she is co-editor of Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty (Brill, 2015) and is at work with Kathleen McPhillips of the University of Newcastle in Australia on a collection titled The End of Religion: Feminst Reappraisals of the State (forthcoming from Ashgate).