Gender

In “(En)gendering Religious Studies,”[1] Randi Warne argues that religious studies have played an important role in the construction of gender. Specifically, according to this feminist perspective religion has played no small part in the establishment of the “rational” male gender in opposition to the “emotional” female gender: “the prescriptive gender ideology of separate spheres, marked by an aggressive, rational, public, culturally authoritative male and a passive, receptive, emotional, private and nurturant female was naturalized, ontologized, and authorized in the scientific study of religion from its origins” (Warne, 149). For Warne, this “prescriptive gender ideology” deeply embedded within religious studies is methodologically problematic. Indeed, for Warne it has had “a deleterious effect on the adequacy of the scholarship that the scientific study of has produced” (Warne, 152).

Warne argues that androcentrism has become so omnipresent within religious studies that it is generally taken for granted and no longer even noticeable to the uncritical observer. For Warne, “The continued male domination of the field of the scientific study of religion is both symptomatic of this gender ideology and a mask if its male gender-embeddedness, facts which served and still serve to distort and render unreliable the knowledges being generated about religion” (Warne, 149). For Warne then, our knowledge and understanding of religious traditions is very much a story told by men about other men, and to the extent that female actions have been omitted, the story thus told is at best incomplete. The traditional emphasis on male actions has effectively, if artificially, elevated the relative importance of male actions vis-à-vis their female counterparts, while the impact and significance of female actions have been largely underreported, undervalued and deemphasized throughout history.

Warne further explains how this male gender-embeddeness within religious studies is made possible through the workings of a kind of “circular” process. According to this process, knowledge is derived in the first place from observations made through decidedly androcentric lens. As such “knowledge” is then accumulated throughout the history of the academic discipline, it eventually grows to encompass the field’s entire frame of reference, forming the basis for all subsequent research work. As further knowledge is built upon this androcentric base, such knowledge is falsely labeled as “objective,” since the specifically androcentric tendencies of both the researchers and the objects of their research effectively removes from view any other points of reference. This process is deemed “circular” insomuch as an already androcentric knowledge base in and of itself continues to drive the further collection of similarly androcentric knowledge in a kind of ongoing, endless cycle: “The asymmetry of androcentrism assumes that what men do is of preeminent human importance. The ‘self-evidence’ of that importance is then naturalized and its gender-embeddedness obscured. When men do what is now considered ‘objectively’ important … men and their actions become not only a ‘serious’ subject for intellectual investigation and analysis, but also representative of humanity overall” (Warne, 150).

Considering all this, one might wonder to what extent Warne might be overstating the corruptive effect of the “prescriptive gender ideology.” While Warne does provide some interesting examples of possible gender distortions, such as her questioning of the validity of secularization theory in Euro-North America, as she cites the fact that female per capita church membership in the United States actually increased (rather than decreased) throughout the nineteenth century (Warne, 150), Warne’s general indictment of the scholarship produced by the academic study of religion on the basis of a few identifiable incidents of male bias seems a tad severe. An important point that appears to be absent from Warne’s analysis is the recognition of the fact that much of humankind’s religious history was in fact driven by the actions of men. The rational, aggressive and authoritative qualities of men have in fact allowed them to implement and coordinate much of the human religious phenomena observable throughout history. To deny this fact is on the basis of a prescriptive gender ideology simply amounts to replacing one historical distortion with another.


[1] Darlene M. Juschka ed., Feminism in the Study of Religion (London : Continuum, 2001), Randi R. Warne, “(En)gendering Religious Studies,” pp. 147-156.

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