(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., October 17.)
Power and control. In the final analysis, that’s what most organised religion comes down to.
To those three words you can add two more: power and control by men. This is the defining characteristic of virtually all hierarchical religions.
It's strikingly at odds with a society in which women have rightly demanded, and often obtained, equality in other spheres. But it has ever been thus. You don’t need a PhD in religious studies to understand that organised religion depends heavily on the ability of a small, male elite – a priesthood, in other words – to exercise control over its followers.
I have been more than usually aware of this in recent weeks, partly because of a couple of challenging films.
In the 2017 drama Disobedience, two women from an Orthodox Jewish community in London risk ostracism by rekindling an illicit relationship. It’s a film whose claustrophobic settings powerfully convey the stifling atmosphere of an insular society in which the rules are dictated by men for the benefit of men.
Even more unsettling, because it’s factual, is the Netflix documentary One of Us, which follows three people who face isolation and harassment after leaving an oppressive Hasidic Jewish community in New York.
By coincidence, I recently interviewed a man named Imtiaz Shams, co-founder of Faith to Faithless, a British-based organisation that supports people trying to break free from repressive religions.
Shams himself was raised as a Muslim, but Faith to Faithless welcomes defectors from all faiths. In Britain, former Jehovah’s Witnesses and Orthodox Jews as well as ex-Muslims have turned to it for help.
Many keep their apostasy secret out of fear, because “coming out” as non-believers often has serious consequences, not the least of which is estrangement from their families. The male leaders of these religions understand only too well the power of family ties, and how they can be exploited to deter prospective dissenters.
In One of Us, a Jewish mother is tormented by the prospect of being cut off from her children because she has exercised her right to leave the faith. In New Zealand, the Exclusive Brethren sect and the Gloriavale religious community follow a similar practice of shunning anyone who leaves.
This is a particularly cruel and effective tool of control. When someone has been immersed since birth in a tightly knit community that deliberately isolates itself from wider society, it takes an act of massive courage – or desperation – to walk away and start afresh in an unfamiliar and intimidating world.
Shams described this experience as like entering a black void. Islam so totally defined his existence that it took him a long time to realise he could leave. And when he finally quit, he thought he must have been first person ever to do it.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, the conservative strands of Islam and nominally Christian sects such as Gloriavale and the Exclusive Brethren all operate at the extreme end of the religious control spectrum.
The men who run these religions – and they are always men – impose their will by prescribing elaborate and often arcane rules that govern the way their followers must live their daily lives: the clothes they wear, who they should marry, the way they style their hair, the food they eat (right down to the ingredients and how it’s prepared) and, in the case of sects like Gloriavale, the names they go by.
There is little rationale for these oppressive rules other than that they provide a means of control and domination.
At the other end of the spectrum there are religions which seem to avoid male-dominated hierarchical structures and allow a reasonable amount of room for followers to act according to their conscience. The Baha’i Faith strikes me as one example; Quakers another.
In between these extremes there are Churches that we generally think of as liberal, such as the Church of England. But even here, there has been a marked reluctance by men to relinquish power. In British Anglicanism, the male establishment fought a determined rearguard action against the ordination of women.
Yet the Bible indicates that Jesus Christ respected and valued women. Would he have approved of religions in which women were expected to be subordinate to self-important men with a fondness for dressing in peculiar costumes? I don’t believe so.
As for Catholicism, you can only sigh. On the rare occasions when determined women such as New Zealand’s own Suzanne Aubert have achieved positions of influence in the Catholic Church, it has often been in the face of resistance and disapproval from the male hierarchy.
For now at least, men remain firmly in control of Catholicism. But they have made such a grotesque and scandalous mess of things that you have to wonder how long it will be before the long-suffering Catholic laity, male and female, demand that the whole rotten structure be torn down and rebuilt.