Sexists, Skeptics, Symbols, and Sepsis

Archive for the ‘Symbols’ Category

Note: This post will largely be focused on Wicca since Wicca is the only religion I have serious experience with outside of Christianity; however, the criticisms can be generalized to belief systems in which specific traits are essentialized to a specific gender.

I vividly remember the appeal that Wicca held for me as a newly deconverted Christian. Although my Christianity hadn’t been too noxious in its patriarchal worldview, it was still anti-sex, anti-choice, and held that women could not hold leadership positions in churches. I wouldn’t have identified patriarchy as a reason that I had left, but the sudden experience of a religion in which my gender was not considered a liability was unbelievably refreshing. Having never realized I was dying of thirst, I drank, endlessly cherishing my value in my new faith.

In the tradition from which I sought initiation we repeated this, ad nauseam, , like a prayer:

The Lord and Lady are equal.

It was so very refreshing to hear this coming from the mouths of people who were training me to be a priestess–a priestess!–in a religion that could finally accept me as I was, as a woman. Rather than pretending that we did not exist, that the divine could not wear our face, that we were the bodies in which sin originated, this religion celebrated us for being fully woman. We learned about the correlation of elements to gender-specific traits: air (“communication, reason, and memory“) and fire (“inspiration, passion, and courage“) were the realm of the masculine; water and earth, however, correlated to femininity. Water–the element of “intuition, dreams, and emotions“–was obviously feminine, since women are intuitive and emotional. Earth–the element of “fertility, stability, and practicality“– was obviously feminine as well because women bear life within their bodies and provide the stability and practicality that keeps households running while men pursue outside interests. The Goddess was fertility and light and intuition; she was the sow that eats her own young and Sekhmet drinking rivers of blood. She was complex, but her beauty and her terror were uniquely feminine rather than neutral or masculine.

It seemed, at first blush, as though this new religious framework was taking the traits that made females women and turning them into positives instead of denigrating them after the fashion of more patriarchal religious traditions, and I was more than happy to accept this. Without spending time in a religious tradition (one, might I add, out of many; the divine feminine is far from exclusive to neopaganism) that recognized a feminine face of deity, I would not have come as quickly or willingly to feminism.

Feminism, however, came with skepticism for me, and the two combined into a powerful critique of the once-empowering divine feminine I had once worshiped (along with its corresponding divine masculine).

In order to understand a) how these correlations are gender essentialist and b) how gender essentialism is damaging, it is necessary to understand that we, as humans, communicate largely through tropes. (Some of you may, as I did, have come to be familiar with the concept of tropes through the website TVTropes. While that site is a fine way to spend all of your time for days on end, its definition of tropes is only half-useful here. If you are unfamiliar, my deepest apologies for introducing you to your new time-suck.)

The trope that is necessary in order to understand this discussion is metaphor, as defined by Kenneth Burke. According to Burke, metaphor can be substituted forĀ perspective. To use metaphor is to see a thing in terms of, or from theĀ perspective of, another thing, and the savvy reader will understand that this means that we are surrounded by metaphor. Language itself is metaphor; pictures are metaphor. We cannot function without metaphor. That does not mean, however, that we cannot choose the metaphors with which we populate our self-expression. The metaphors through which we communicate, both as individuals and as a society, actively shape the way in which we understand the reality that we live.

Some neopagans would argue as to whether the gods are metaphors at all, and hard polytheists would likely disagree with the softer polytheism that I was taught. From the relatively soft polytheist/pantheist perspective that I was taught, however, the gods are all metaphors for a genderless and/or all-gendered greater power that lies behind it all (some traditions, including mine, call it Dryghton; others may not have a name).

I would argue, however, that it does not matter whether you consider big-G God, little-g gods, or whatever other form of deity you may engage with to be actual distinct beings, metaphors for a generic higher power, or metaphors for aspects of our human experience. (Not all pagans identify as theists.) If we are going to argue, as I assume from experience most pagans would, that the misogyny that is endemic to the Abrahamic religions–particularly to the more extreme expressions of these religions–is in part derived from the view of God as male, then it is necessary to ask what, precisely, pagans are telling men and women about themselves through their own understanding of spirituality.

If women are, by nature, more intuitive and emotional than men, and men are more reasonable and passionate than women, there is very little to differentiate the neopagan understanding of gendered relations from that of the mainstream culture around it. It is true that paganism cloaks these interpretations of gender in the divine and does not claim that these attributes necessarily belong more to men or women (although many pagans would claim exactly this, just as many non-pagans would), but to view intuition and emotion solely as feminine is to perpetuate a dangerously gender-essentialist vision of what it means to be a woman. Rather than encouraging people to develop these traits because they are a fundamental part of what it means to be a complete human being, neopagans may be encouraged to “seek the Goddess” or “call upon Goddess energy.” The same process occurs with men.

If the Christians are right and you can know worldviews by their fruits, then the fruits of neopagans are rife with evidence of the ways that gender essentialism harms those who do not fit into neat gendered boxes. To provide one example, those who are familiar with the pagan community may remember the hubbub last year over a ritual at Pantheacon, led by Z. Budapest (a respected elder in the community), that called for “genetic women only.” The ritual purported to represent “the beauty and grace of the feminine form in all of her infinite variety” while limiting itself to cisgender women.

While many pagans were outraged with this exclusion (as was I, from a distance), if you are going to assert that certain traits are essentially feminine–even symbolically–then it leaves room for a situation in which only cisgender women are women, or only women who have given birth are women, or only straight women are women, et cetera, ad infinitum. To essentialize traits like reason and passion, or intuition and fertility, is to deny the true diversity of humanity. This is a steep price to pay for the sake of providing simple pigeonholes in which to slot human experience, god/s, the elements, or whatever other things that rituals and spirituality purport to represent.

The “divine feminine” is not feminist because it denies the essential femininity of women who lack the traits that are purportedly feminine. Some women are not expressive with their emotions. Some women are autistic and have difficulty sussing out others’ moods and intentions. Some women were born with penises and some women keep their penises. Some women are hotheaded and intellectual. It is not feminist to erase these bodies by claiming to uplift essentially “feminine” traits. A truly feminist paradigm would uplift intuition, reason, fertility, passion, emotion, intellect, all alike, as essentially human.

Why is it necessary for feminists, and particularly skeptical feminists, to be aware of these problems?

To put it bluntly, pagans aren’t the only ostensibly feminist-friendly demographic that thrives on these gendered tropes. Skeptics have enormous problems with equally woo-based gender essentialism, and we need to kick the fox out of our henhouse. I will see you next time for that discussion.

This post is crossposted at and you lovely folks should go there because everyone there is awesome.

Why Symbols?

I apologize, truly, for any imprecision in this post; this is an idea that is still not entirely firmed-up in my head, but perhaps you, as readers, can help me to refine it, and correct me where I seem to be going wrong. I would appreciate any input on this idea in particular because it is, as far as I have seen, I’m the only one saying some of this or, at least, the only one who has taken some of these critiques, which do not originate with me, to this conclusion.

I’ll open this with a rhetorical question (ha! I see what I did there!): Was Kore kidnapped and held against her will by Hades? More importantly, did this have to happen in the real world to be meaningful? Keep this in your head.

This also requires a bit of personal digression. You see, I am a freshly minted college graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric. Much as I love writing, I honestly came to love the rhetoric side more than the listening-to-the-sound-of-my-own-words part, and engagement with rhetoric as a field has brought my conflict with skepticism, as outlined in my last post, to a head.

Although there are plenty of working definitions for the word “rhetoric,” my personal favorite is the first one that I received: Rhetoric is the study of how symbol systems move bodies to action. Keeping in mind that “symbol systems” references all manner of things–from language (which, at best, attempts to describe reality while failing utterly to encapsulate its entirety) to political ideologies to religions–this is a pretty broad operating framework and requires a great deal of care (particularly since I have my own preferred symbol systems and must disentangle those from the differing ones of others in order to attempt to observe the world with any fairness).

This came to interest me in regards to skeptics specifically as I was in the process of writing a long-ish paper about the issues that the skeptical community has with sexism. While trying to unpack the origins of sexism in that community–an issue that I am honestly thoroughly tired of, but will likely discuss here–I gradually came to realize something that I couldn’t fit into the limited space that I had to write. Skeptics have serious symbol problems.

Remember that I said earlier that language is a symbol system. An excellent example of this is the famous painting by Magritte (Ceci n’est pas une pipe), which serves to remind the viewer that a representation is not reality. Language is such an integral part of our function as a species that it can become very difficult to remember that language is the map and reality is the territory that we are attempting to describe, using deeply flawed physical equipment and sounds and images that can, at best, only approximate what we ascertain with that equipment. I’m not even approaching going so far as to say that we can know nothing about reality as a result; I think that it’s important to reach as much of a consensus as we can on what we can, and to use natural explanations where they exist without falling prey to the urge to use supernatural explanations solely because of the current absence of a natural explanation. However, we must be mindful of our own lack of precision which, although not our fault (excepting when it is a result of negligence, as it frequently is in the case of our horrible media coverage of scientific discoveries), is still a built-in part of our existence as a hodgepodge of evolved mechanisms. Symbol systems are, essentially, all we have with which to communicate with one another about our experiences of the world.

The problem with this is that a lot of skeptics do not seem to realize that words are not descriptions of reality. I think this stems from a lack of appreciation for symbols, which are, in the skeptical mindset, “not real”; this renders them as having no value because they do not bring us closer to understanding what is real. Since words are all we have to communicate with, they have to be able to describe reality, because otherwise we’re just working with shadows here. Make no mistake; I am not saying that your average skeptic is incapable of appreciating a work of fiction as having great meaning to them, or ceding that words are an imperfect means of communication, but I think that there is a problem with the sharp delineation between “real” and “not-real” that is usually a built-in part of the skeptical OS.

If you accept the idea that things are, ontologically, either real or not-real, and that there is no ground in between, then that doesn’t leave room for symbols. Symbols–be they words, deities (in religions and denominations that don’t require a literal, interfering god), or rituals–must either describe reality or be completely false, with no real room in between for them to bring meaning through metaphor. Words must be either true or not-true, without the possibility that the metaphors that we use to describe science actually elide the public understanding of science (Richard Doyle has done some great work on this topic) or that our metaphors actually create a space where we have entire gaping holes in our understanding. Words are either true or not-true, which means that either they describe reality or they don’t, and if they don’t then they are either fiction or lies.

Taking this into mind, and considering that I do not believe in the supernatural, paranormal, or pseudoscientific, it would seem as though I am stuck with religious-symbols-as-lies or I am an accommodationist. (If I am an accommodationist then very well; I have been called far worse in my life.) I disagree with this dichotomy, and think that this failure to understand the function of the symbolic in ordering people’s lives creates very real problems with communication between skeptics and liberal theists, who should be natural allies in the pursuit of a society that is more scientifically literate (despite our imperfect mental and rhetorical equipment) and more tolerant of a multitude of religious views. I, and many nontheists, can both believe that fundamentalist and literal interpretations of religion are dangerous lies and that there is a great deal of good to be found within symbolic readings of religious texts and praxis. It is unbelievably damaging and condescending to refer to religious practices as mere superstitions without any basis when, for many people, they create a symbolic order around which people make sense of their lives, and the supernatural nature of the beliefs is frequently secondary to their importance as symbol systems. Science as a working symbol system simply does not provide the richness of metaphor that many people require in order to feel fulfilled, and a lack of provision for people’s metaphor-hunger creates a skeptical movement that is impoverished both in its understanding of its own flawed symbol systems (which are “true” under the “true-not true” dichotomy) and in its understanding of why so many people do not feel satisfied with science as a symbol system, regardless of its accuracy in interpreting reality.

The problem with this goes beyond the ability of skeptics to empathize and communicate with a largely theist public. It extends into their understanding of how symbols, even when they are firmly in the not-true half of the dichotomy, influence the way that people view reality and so, not-true as they may be, create the realities that entire societies inhabit. This is part of why it is important to be intellectually honest enough to delineate between different religions and different forms of the same religion in order to make accurate critiques: the difference between, say, a member of Westboro Baptist and a Christian who attends a Unitarian Universalist church is vast, and the way that the latter interprets the symbol system around which they arrange their lives creates a reality around them that is far kinder and more open to people who think differently from themselves. We shape the reality around us, which includes reality for the people who disagree with us, through our interpretation of it and through the symbol systems that we choose to order our lives around. If we are not mindful of this, then we both have difficulty understanding the reality that others inhabit as well as understanding that our own reality is shaped by the symbols that we choose to interpret it with.

Stories aren’t just stories. I don’t believe that Kore descended to the underworld and emerges as Persephone, but I do know that that particular story resonates with me as someone who, as do too many women, entered into mature sexuality through sexual assault and coercion. That symbol, that story, is important to me, just as it may be important to someone else that a mad god condemned all of humanity to Hell until his son willingly died on behalf of them, or that a man sat under a tree until he reached enlightenment. They may not be Real, but they are real to the people who believe them (whether literally or metaphorically), and they shape the world.

Until skeptics understand what symbols mean to people and why, they are not going to be able to communicate, or understand how they are communicating. They will not be able to understand the ways in which they are making the world in their own image. They will not be able to understand that so many of them view the words of marginalized bodies as unreliable because they cannot trust others to accurately render their own experience through symbols, as opposed to white cisstraight wealthy educated atheist men, who describe Reality and impart it to the masses.

As a rhetorician, I’ve got to say: Skeptics, we’ve got a major problem. The inability to communicate keeps wounds in the shadows and, neglected, unseen, they go septic, poisoning the body.


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