SNR Episode 21 - The Godmother
Links to people mentioned during this episode:
Wicca for the Rest of Us - website written by historian Catherine Noble Bayer to debunk some of the myths that have grown around neo-paganism. Some other authors/historians who take issue with the theory of prehistoric matriarchy:
Journalist Rene Denfeld, author of "The New Victorians - A Young Woman's Challenge to the Old Feminist Order"
Cynthia Eller, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Religious Studies at Montclair State University in New Jersey, author of "The Myth of Prehistoric Matriarchy"
And links to authors who give the theory full backing. Please note that I have avoided mentioning any male authorities on the subject, although there are male advocates and critics of the matriarchy theory. I'm afraid I have seen too many instances where male writers have had their arguments dismissed on the basis that they are men and therefore natural defenders of patriarchy. So I thought I'd let the women fight it out alone. I hope these links will help you make up your own mind.
Stawhawk, women's activist and spiritual teacher, author of "The Spiral Dance"
Margot Adler, journalist and Wiccan priestess, author of "Drawing Down the Moon". Margot doesn't seem to have her own website, so I attach a link to her Wikipedia biography.
Barbara G. Walker, journalist and author of "The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets". Again, Barbara did not have a personal website, and the Wikipedia biography didn't really have much information. It might be better to refer to the list of her publications and read one for a flavour of her writing.
Riane Eisler, attorney and author of "The Chalice and the Blade". Raine has moved on to many other projects, but there is a brief mention of her support for the ancient matriarchy on the link below.
And quite apart from the matriarchy debate, here are a few additional links:
The Guardian Hay Festival of Literature in Hay-on-Wye, Powys, Wales
Simon Baron Cohen and his work with the Autism Research Centre based at Cambridge University
Carol Tavris, psychologist
Hello, and welcome to episode twenty one of The Naked Soul. I’m Heather Gout. It is typical for me to spend a few seconds at the beginning of each show making announcements or observations that don’t relate to the main topic of the podcast. I don’t happen to have any this time, which is good because I expect this episode will run longer than usual, though not much longer, I promise. I want to talk about a couple of issues that have been chafing the back of my mind. They haven’t been urgent enough to distract me from other ideas, but they have been nagging me, nagging me to make a decision or state my opinion one way or another.
The first issue is about non-believers. There is a certain percentage (I’m not sure how many, but a certain percentage) of SNR listeners who heard about the podcast because they belong to some kind of online group for atheists or agnostics. I spent a lot of time looking for these groups and posting advertisements for The Naked Soul. While I was there I also checked the discussion boards to see what questions people were raising whether and I could cover some of the popular subjects myself. And I was surprised by how often one particular issue was raised. I’ve seen this on just about every discussion board, and it usually appears more than once, where an argument starts over whether agnostics are exactly the same as atheists or not. Because you have some respondents who take the view that we don’t need two different words. This same line of thinking seems to conclude that agnostics are cowardly types who won’t take their doubts about God to a rational conclusion, and just say they don’t believe at all.
Conversely, there are agnostics replying in their own defence, fighting for the right to say ‘I don’t know’ and to be distinguished from atheists, whom they regard as more certain, though certain about what isn’t clearly defined. And this is why these particular debates bother me, and I why my conscience nags me to say something, because the word ‘God’ is thrown about so casually on these boards, as if that didn’t need any clarification. I don’t think we can have constructive conversations about belief or doubt without first defining the focus of the feelings, without being as detailed as possible about what, exactly, we doubt or don’t believe in. Only then can we start deciding how many vocabulary words we need to help us describe ourselves. So say, for example, I am absolutely sure the God described by the Hebrew and Greek scriptures that make up the Bible doesn’t exist, I could put myself forward as an atheist. As far as most Christians are concerned, that would be enough to make me one. But if I want to remain neutral over the question of whether any kind of higher intelligence might exist, then in honesty I should probably use the term agnostic. On the other hand, that same neutrality would demand that I shouldn’t hold any conceptions about the nature of this higher intelligence, and shouldn’t be trying to respond to those conceptions. Which means in practice I would be live my life on the same basis as an atheist who doesn’t believe in any non-material form of existence. He may be sure there is no God, but because I am unsure the default position for both of us is effectively the same.
Except that isn’t the end of the matter. Many of us who call ourselves agnostics aren’t exactly neutral about the existence of God. Some of us, if we’re honest, would have to say we are disinclined to the idea of God as defined by certain religions, while holding a vague inclination of our own about the ultimate reality. It doesn’t matter exactly what that inclination is, only that we could well be responding to it when we make decisions about personal morality. We might be reluctant to call this belief, because we don’t think we hold the ideas dogmatically and we’re unlikely to evangelise. But it’s definitely not atheism – or is it? Consider the opposite term – theism. Theism isn’t just about belief in any idea of non-material existence. It’s a specific belief, in a deity that exists as a person with attributes of personhood like emotion, with a purpose for creating the universe and a personal interest in those who respond to whatever indicators God uses to reveal itself. Strictly speaking, if your personal inclination about God tends toward the transcendental or the deist, I think you would be technically correct to call yourself an atheist. Just a warning: you’ll be misunderstood most of the time, and probably annoy a lot of people. But you’d be correct.
In the very first episode of The Naked Soul , I made this statement: ‘between the two extremes of belief in strict materialism at one end and unquestioning faith in one religion at the other, there is a big space. Several people could be standing in that space without being in any way close together’. And I said I didn’t like the term agnostic, because it was generally applied to all the people within that space, and how could one word fit all those variations of ideas? When it comes to religion, we take for granted that each one has its offshoots and sects and denominations. We know Christians and Muslims aren’t groups of homogenous believers, although we might make the mistake of talking about them as if they were. I don’t know if I’d advocate denominations for non-believers. I’d like to think we could rise above that. On the other hand, I don’t think the existing labels we have - ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ - are very helpful. I can see how tempting it is to try and make them more exact than they can be, to simplify the definitions so that we can make quick decisions about whether or not to form relationships with certain people. And maybe it’s because the internet throws us into contact with so many people so quickly, so...okay, maybe we have to find some way to pare down the numbers.
I’m going to take the view that these regular online arguments between atheists and agnostics are just attempts to spare ourselves the possibility of becoming too involved with someone who turns out not to be much like us. And given that assumption, I don’t think I am so annoyed by the discussions now. I certainly don’t want them to end. At least, if we keep them up, it means we haven’t come to any permanent conclusions about agnosticism. And each time the topic is raised, we get some insight into the viewpoint of another person, and we make a decision about how much we want to interact. It is possible that we could accidentally misjudge someone, maybe miss the chance to make a good friend. But whether that’s a bad thing might depend on how many friends you feel you need.
And isn’t it great when you do discover somebody, out of the blue, who agrees with a particular opinion that you’ve been holding in your head but not sharing with many people? That’s how I felt when I found Catherine Noble Bayer. She’s an historian who also happens to be a solitary practitioner of Wicca. I can’t remember how I found her blog; I only remember laughing out loud when I read the title: “Wicca for the Rest of Us – Stop the Fluff. Think for yourself. Fight the bunny”.
If this is the first time you’ve listened to The Naked Soul, I should be clear that I consider myself agnostic, but I like aspects of neo-paganism and I do have good friends who are pagans. There are four things I like about neo-paganism: Firstly, it has no central organisation and accepts solitary, eclectic participation. Secondly, it focuses on the seasons and the natural world, and I’ve always found nature a source of inspiration. Thirdly, it can do agnosticism. I know that might seem a contradiction, but it’s true. You can find pagan agnostics. There is no pagan creed requiring belief in doctrines about the nature of deity, or proof of the existence of particular deities, nor is there any sacred text holding anyone to a belief in anything supernatural. There are plenty of ordinary books (not to mention some very odd books saying some very odd things) but that’s all they are, ordinary books and not scripture. What an individual pagan chooses to believe is one hundred percent private.
The fourth reason I like neo-paganism, and this is the most important one for me, is because it is a 20th century invention. Now this is a controversial point. Perhaps this constitutes a denominational split among pagans, if you could have such a thing. A lot of pagans believe they have revived a pre-existing religion, indeed a very ancient religion. Catherine Noble Bayer does not believe this, and this is one of the opinions we share. And in her blog (the link to this, as always, will be at snrpodcast.livejournal.com) she takes time to refute this idea that neo-paganism is a revival of a more primitive faith, along with the equally popular belief that prehistoric human society was a political matriarchy with goddess centred worship.
The ancient matriarchy theory is the other thing that has been nagging me. It seems to have its roots in an obscure work written in 1861 by anthopologist J.J. Bachofen, but the idea has been appropriated and elaborated by many other writers. I had thought about using this podcast to present evidence for and against this matriarchy, but talked myself out of that pretty quickly. The subject is book sized, not podcast sized. And I have to assume that a fair number of my listeners have no interest in religion, and so they might not care whether our ancestors did or didn’t centre their worship around a great goddess. I wouldn’t want to bore those listeners. But I could talk about this theory of ancient matriarchy in terms of feminism, because the idea gained very wide acceptance among feminists in the 1980s and early 1990s, what is known as second wave feminism. It inspired a large number of popular books, and many of those titles are still in print. Since the concept still appeals to some feminists, and leads to a particular view of men and relations between the sexes, I think it qualifies as an important existential topic.
So matriarchy – what does the term mean? That is actually a tricky word to define. What is perhaps simpler to explain is the feminist concept of patriarchy, because as best I can tell, patriarchy according to certain feminists is everything we’ve got now, all the political and cultural systems with which we live. Patriarchy was also the world our ancestors knew, at least as far back as written history can take us. Before that, when all we have as primary sources of information are carved figurines and reliefs and cave paintings, that is supposed to be a time, according to the theory, when things were different.
And by different I mean better, because advocates of the theory stress that this alternative culture, this matriarchy, was more egalitarian and peaceful. That prehistoric cultures could have been more peaceful I can accept easily, because we have modern day examples like the Piraha in Amazonian Brazil (if you go back to episode five, the one entitled “Man With Two Brains”, you can get more details about this tribe). There are primitive societies existing now who rarely engage in violence between themselves, don’t fortify their settlements and don’t initiate wars. This only makes sense, because you need serious resources to wage war, which hunting and gathering cultures like the Piraha don’t accumulate. I don’t know what to make of the claim that ancient societies were more egalitarian; I’m not sure what is meant by that term. Does it mean that either gender could make decisions on behalf of their community? Does it mean equal division of labour? I’ve not yet read anything to suggest that women ever took an equal part in hunting big game, for example, or that men gave equal time to the raising of small children. Perhaps it refers to equal sharing of the results of labour.
And these questions highlight a problem I have with the ancient matriarchy theory. We have so little hard evidence about human prehistory. The only way to flesh out the details of life circa 10,000 years ago is either to examine existing cultures with similar artifacts or to guess. And that is all the experts are doing, regardless of where they stand on the matriarchy question. Unfortunately, there are too many popular books on the market which push the matriarchy theory as fact, and could easily give the inexperienced reader the impression that the case is cut and dried when it most definitely is not.
That’s why I am not going to wade in and offer any speculation about archaeological remains myself. Instead I’ve put as many links as possible on the SNR website, and distinguished between writers who agree with matriarchy and those who do not. I think it will be enough to let anyone judge for themselves. For me, I have to say that what bothers me most about the theory isn’t so much the lack of evidence. What really bothers me is the strong suggestion that there once was a human society where one group was responsible for most or all of its good qualities while another group with most or all of the bad. Consider this quote from Marilyn French, a proponent of the ancient matriarchy, from her 1992 book “The War on Women”.
“Archaeological remains from about ten thousand years ago reflect goddess worshipping communities living in egalitarian harmony and material well-being. War may have begun about ten thousand years ago, but not until about the 4th millennium BCE did men begin to build what became patriarchy-male supremacy backed by force...for women, it has been downhill ever since.”
That gives me shivers. I don’t trust the polarity inherent in that theory. I don’t trust any theory that believes there ever was a time when evil was less prevalent, or that when evil arrived it was created or given strength by a distinct group of humans, a group you could mark out and consider the enemy. I don’t like the implication that women are better humans, the master sex. It’s the Garden of Eden myth turned inside out, but that doesn’t make it any more acceptable than the original version. It’s a creepy idea; it slithers around in the same ideological ditch as the worst political and religious movements of the last century.
And I cannot see how this polarised view of society is going to help women. To begin with, it erases their individuality. It attempts to assign personality traits across an entire gender when, as psychologist Carol Tavris asserts in “The Mismeasure of Women”, ‘there is no persuasive evidence that women are naturally or even actually more pacifistic, (or) empathetic...than men’. Simon Baron Cohen, director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, put both sexes through a series of tests to measure empathy. He presented some of his results at this year’s Hay Festival. And while it was true that just over half the women tested achieved the highest scores, so did just under half the men. That is a lot of men. If, in our distant past, there was ever a more peaceful society, what is to say that women were mainly responsible for framing it or men mainly responsible for destroying it?
Thankfully, the heyday of the matriarchy theory has passed. In academic circles, it no longer has the acceptance it enjoyed in the 1990s. Newer feminists are writing more about present political issues and less about ancient religion and culture. But the theory lives on in reprints of older books that can still be bought and read by people who are searching for their own spirituality. I guess I just wanted to say, along with Catherine Noble Bayer, that however convinced and convincing those books might sound, the matter of our prehistory is not settled.
Well, it’s nice to have got those things off my chest. Now, since I was talking about pagan agnostics, I have been wondering whether there is space in other religions for agnostic participation and how well it works. I’ll be investigating that for episode 22 so I hope you’ll join me for that next time.