I was recently challenged to expand my thinking on interfaith religious dialogue and education when I was presented with the idea that religion is a personal manifestation of both selfhood and belief. From this perspective, to hold the position that religion is a personal choice is actually to hold a narrow and privileged view of the religious dynamic since many people hold religious beliefs without the benefit of choice. Furthermore, because some beliefs are so closely tied to a sense of self through cultural identity, to abandon the “faith” would be to abandon the “self.” This is a fascinating and troubling idea for me, but it makes for an interesting and potentially lively discussion with respect to women and the problematic relationship between personhood and religion.
Philosopher John Dewey refers to the idea of achieving full personhood as becoming an “integral unified being.” This idea is tied to both the person as individual and the individual as inseparable from the community through education, a democratic government, social activity, etc.; in other words, through the cultural whole. He argues that in order to become a full person, the individual must be so committed to, and involved with, the community, that she holds positions of authority, direction, and responsibility. Additionally, personhood must include the fulfillment of one’s potentialities and preferences, which requires levels of both autonomy and respect that historically have not been available to women. Only through understanding the self as an active and equal contributing part of a greater whole can one make sense of the self as an individual. Dewey articulates a created individual self through relation, not through strict individuality. Importantly however, Dewey does not maintain that this requires consensus in thought or belief.
My feminist and philosophical work deals with whether women are able to become full persons according to Dewey’s standard, but I would like to set this aside for a moment in order to think about a different question. Namely, is religion, in fact, a choice at all? The obvious and rather knee-jerk reactionary answer is that yes, of course, religion is a choice. This is born out in the fact that many people religiously affiliate voluntarily through conversion, while others, opt out altogether. But what if we take seriously the argument that this opinion emanates from a privileged, Western idea of liberal autonomy in thought and action?
As a secular feminist who is a product of a Western, liberal, and democratic framework, I believe that religion effectively can be articulated as containing dangerous, limiting, and sinister expectations for and authority over, women. It is reasonable, therefore, to argue that women are better served and better able to live as full persons without the toxicity of patriarchal religious influence. However, if this is the only position from which I engage feminism, am I perpetrating as great a violence against women from other cultural frameworks as I claim patriarchy does to my own?
Scholars must address the tension that exists here to begin to understand what is possible for feminism to mean within religious discourse. Specifically, does feminism have a responsibility to look the other way when it comes to sexist religious injustice against women if those women claim that their identity is inexorably linked with the cultural framework surrounding their faith? In other words, is liberation from sexism only applicable to those women who live within an environment where liberalism is prized?
There is no one answer, which will speak meaningfully to everyone and satisfy each individual’s religious and non-religious sensibilities. However, each perspective on this issue provides an opportunity to come closer to understanding how feminism may be able to bring out the dual dynamic of womanhood; namely, woman as individual and woman as part of the collective women. While I would like to maintain sensitivity to each individual woman’s sense of agency and self, larger philosophical and theological issues of possible structural abuse lead me to take a specific stance on the subject of women and personhood within religion. To this end, my discussion in this paper is one perspective, emanating from a liberal, democratic framework, which benefits from and relies on both Western feminist theology and feminist philosophy of religion.
There are three basic assumptions that undergird my thoughts. First, that at this time in our history, there exists no such thing as human equality. Men and women do not stand on equal footing in legal, religious, or philosophical conceptions of humanity. Second, that philosophy has perpetuated the notion that women are not able to be fully human due to their alleged lack of rationality and inability to free themselves from their base physical work (for a simple and clear example think of child bearing and rearing). Third, that religion has taken the structure of traditional philosophy to create and make sacred a male God and hierarchy of the family and state in relation to the ideal of rationality. This combination of efforts has made woman not only subservient to man and man-God, but unable to be heard and, consequently, to claim her full personhood. Importantly, she is unable to seek justice as she lacks the fundamental tools to initiate and sustain meaningful communication with ‘Him-God’ and ‘him-man’ in the first place.
Feminist philosopher of religion Grace Jantzen asks, “But if the subject, human and divine…is a male subject, then what has become of women…can women become divine…indeed can women even be admitted as subjects?” Jantzen is referring to the pernicious grip that the masculine figure has on our conceptions of what it means to be a subject and to be in the world, our understanding of what it means to occupy human space, and our ideas about how the self is identified and put in relation to the world around it. A certain subjectivity is assumed in philosophy simply because we are all subjects and are necessarily subjective. However, a gender-specific component to subjectivity has become so natural, so obvious, that it has been subsumed as part of the subject itself; that is, that subjects are masculine.
Feminist Theologian Daphne Hampson argues that ultimately, “the fact that God has in the west been conceived as ‘male,’ and the world of the bible [sic] has been considered to be normative for human relations, has served to legitimize the place which women have occupied in western culture and to thwart their striving for equality. To question the social order was to be disobedient to God.” This makes clear that something within the structure of the system has caused the feminist movement to hit a decisive roadblock. In my opinion, to be a feminist is to be a fearless champion: a necessarily heretical, undeniably revolutionary, and antagonistically questioning she-beast stationed ever ready to be accused and condemned. To stand up for the rights, needs and desires of women is to place oneself at the crux of dominant traditions and patriarchal thinking. Furthermore, it can mean a necessary disassociation with the past in order to combat the inequalities of today.
Hampson argues again, “It may be far more powerful to live free from the past, weighed down as little as possible by how women have been perceived, or have perceived themselves, in that past.” This is what feminist theology and feminist philosophy of religion do, leading to the questioning of some of the ‘big-ticket’ items within theology and philosophy.
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Picture from Wikimedia Commons, by Moros.
 This idea requires the unification of the body with the mind—resulting in “an integral unified being” who is able to recognize his own place within society through his being an active contributor to it. Therefore, “He must have the power of self-direction and power of directing others, power of administration, ability to assume positions of responsibility.” School, consequently, is not simply an institution for learning how to read, write, and do arithmetic. It is the place where democratic individuals with senses of purpose, progress, and duty to participate, are developed. Curriculum becomes the vehicle through which a child’s understanding of himself and his environment grows into his ability to add to the vitality of the nation, through individual personhood. Larry A. Hickman and Thomas A. Alexander, editors. The Essential Dewey, Vol. I. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955), 246-247.
 Elizabeth Cole Browning provides a clear explanation for the goal and view of feminist philosophy with which I agree and in which I situate my work. She says, “Thus feminist philosophers diverge from the traditional or stereotypical image of the philosopher in two ways: (1) They address themselves to particular historical situations, avoiding the flight into abstraction wherever possible; and (2) Their philosophical thinking is oriented toward a specific goal: the liberation of human beings from all forms of oppression, foremost among which stands the oppression of women; crossing race and class boundaries, spanning known history, gender injustice is the great constant of human experience.” Eve Cole Browning, Philosophy and Feminist Criticism: An Introduction (New York: Paragon House, 1993), 2.
 In accord with how many feminists understand politics and gender biases, Dewey explains that, “…philosophy did not evolve in an unbiased way. It had a mission to perform…It became the work of philosophy to justify, on rational grounds, the spirit, though not the form, of accepted beliefs and traditional customs.” Philosophy holds itself out as an authority on matters of the highest significance—especially what constitutes knowledge itself. Philosophy is believed to have a responsibility to float above matters of the everyday or physical in order to get all the real truths or first truths. In this way, it has always sided with religion and theology. Philosophy has received much authority by aligning itself with the absolute truth of God. John Dewey, Reconstruction in Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1920), 17.
 Grace M. Jantzen, Becoming Divine: Towards A Feminist Philosophy of Religion (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999), 32
 Margaret Daphne Hampson, Theology and Feminism (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1990), 3
 Ibid, 36