I’ve just read Does God Hate Women? by Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom. They very effectively point out how conservative religious doctrines on gender roles subordinate women.
I got the book not just because of Benson and Stangroom’s excellent reputation as no-nonsense skeptics, but because I wanted a single go-to source I can use or cite as representative of secular liberal opposition to conservative religious insistence on confining women to the domestic and reproductive realm. Does God Hate Women? works very well for this. Not only does the book capture the disgust religious subordination of women often provokes among secular liberals, the philosophical background of the authors lets them develop a case that has more depth than just an elaboration of discomfort.
The book does not do everything. For example, it will probably resonate little with readers who do not already take a secular liberal point of view. And its arguments opposing group rights and setting aside concerns for cultural integrity are cursory. They will not convince too many who do not already emphasize liberal individualism in their moral outlooks. But all this is not any criticism of Does God Hate Women?. Addressing all such concerns in detail is not the job the authors set for themselves. Instead, they appear (quite sensibly) to keep their argument short and to the point. If the very real suffering presented in the book will not move readers to stand more firmly against conservative religious demands to constrain the lives of women, little else will. A more in-depth analysis of multicultural views, for example, would of dubious relevance to that task.
Now, having said that, I do like indulging in thinking about what counterarguments conservative religious people might have. (It’s altogether good that a book provokes such questions; it does not have to answer them.)
Religious figures talk about the equal dignity but complementary natures of men and women. But men remain in control of public life. Women are restricted in the life options open to them, not just in matters such as careers but even intimate matters such as a choice of mate. Those of us with a secular liberal point of view are not much impressed with allegedly divine authority as a reason for social arrangements. We also tend to celebrate choice, control, and even self-invention. So we usually see traditional gender roles, especially as manifested in Islamic societies, as oppressive.
Still, the argument can’t end there. Consider what could happen if we were able to take the liberal insistence on personal autonomy, choice, and self-authorship to a further limit. Right now, the choices available to us are still restricted. For example, we have no easy way to choose our own personality. Many of us try, with limited success, through self-help literature or Prozac. We attempt to not just evaluate possible life goals, but also to change the sort of person we are—which would affect the way we evaluate our options. Let’s say that the technology of self-adjustment becomes much cheaper, routine, and easily available. Imagine that we can pop a pill not just to choose our mood, but change our “happiness set-point,” as some transhumanists desire. We have access to choices that are so consequential that they change how we respond to our choices.
The result, I suspect, would be a kind a liberal vertigo. We would begin to lose a sense of stability, a background we can hold relatively fixed while evaluating more trivial choices. Indeed, choices would flatten out, with personality traits being as easily accessible as brands of toothpaste. Even rationality would not help much. We might be able to think about a best choice against a stable background of goals and values. But now some of our choices include popping a pill or rewiring our brain in such a way as to see our choices very differently. We might even see that if we rewired ourselves, we would be perfectly happy with choices that are not attractive to us with our current personality. How, then do we choose, especially if external signposts like a divine moral order are not available? Choice, taken to the limit, leads to vertigo, which is much like paralysis.
A conservative religious person, then, can perhaps argue that we should not overemphasize choice. If we are not to beg the question in favor of secular liberalism, we should not do this. Being traditionally religious means valuing some of the unchosen aspects of our lives and our persons. Indeed, especially where religion is concerned, the unchosen and change-resistant aspects of our identities can be most central to who we are. If we must use the language of choice, then conservative religion offers a more radical choice: the choice of opting out of the liberal game of submitting as much as we can to individual choice. Such a radical choice can be attractive. In some ways, it is similar to radical critiques of our hypercommercialized consumer culture. Many of us want an option to opt out of a life that demands that every choice become similar to a choice between five hundred flavors of toothpaste.
Moreover, even a secular liberal who wants to avoid vertigo can be sympathetic to some parts of this religious response. We need, perhaps, a balance between choice and stability. And more sensible secular liberals have other arguments they can appeal to, besides a desire to maximize choice come what may. But once liberals concede this, then the argument starts over what kind of balance is best. Conservative religion offers a different sort of balance—a stable way of life that is in fact attractive to many people. Why should they prefer a liberal position that, for their taste, goes too far in the direction of vertigo?
I am not sure that there is any universal answer to such a question. From where I stand, given my interests and aspirations, secular liberalism makes a good deal of sense. Politically, I will work toward what in this context I see as an emancipation of women (and men). Others will see things differently, and I don’t think this is remediable by finding the right sort of argument. We are political competitors, and that is all.