Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

with Naomi Goldenberg and Kathleen McPhillips

on their book The End of Religion: Feminist Reappraisals of the State

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

4-5 PM EDT

Audio recording available here on SoundCloud, and video recording available here on YouTube.

Mary E. Hunt, Introduction

I am Mary Hunt, codirector of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual. I am in the WATER Office in Silver Spring, MD with our other codirector, Diann Neu, and our staff colleague Anali Martin of Mennonite Voluntary Service.

Our topic today is a challenging one—Kathleen McPhillips and Naomi Goldenberg’s important volume, The End of Religion: Feminist Reappraisals of the State (London, UK: Routledge, November 2020)—available on Amazon, (buy the ebook for $36.99, hardcover for $160, or ebook rental starting at $12 for a month and increasing by $1.50 per extra month).

Naomi Goldenberg has proposed the term and theory of “vestigial state” “for understanding how the category of religion operates in the regulatory jurisdiction of states” (p. 3). Her feminist frame for this is the idea that if the feminist axiom “the personal is political” is to continue to be useful, it must include religion “in order to effectively address erosion of protection and support for women, persistent backsliding on reproductive rights and restrictions on gender expression” (p. 3). In other words, we need to interrogate religion as a category rather than simply accept it as a given and rearrange the deck chairs, as it were.

Authors of the 11 essays in this book extend “the central tenet of Goldenberg’s thesis [which] is that religions are continuous with government and not distinct from it” (p. 3). The authors look at this dynamic in Australian, Canadian, British, Mexican, and US contexts, laying out a new body of work that will, I hope, change the way we think about religion in feminist circles. This will amplify our efforts in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other traditions to see more clearly the pernicious ways that the assumption of religion’s being apart from the state subjects women to two interlocking and mutually supportive regimes of male authority, deceptively separated by the labels ‘secular’ and ‘religious.’

Like all of WATER’s efforts, this WATERtalk is not simply an academic seminar. It is a way to learn in order to bring what we learn to the creation of a more just and equitable world. By studying this new and challenging approach, we can bolster our efforts in feminist work in, dare I say, “religion,” to deconstruct structures more adequately.

Let me introduce our speakers, wonderful friends and colleagues:

Dr. Naomi Goldenberg is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada. She co-edited Religion as a Category of Governance and Sovereignty (Brill, 2015) and is the author of three books: Resurrecting the Body: Feminism, Religion and Psychoanalysis (Crossroads, 1993); The End of God (University of Ottawa, 1982); and Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religion (Beacon Press, 1979).

Naomi has served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion since its founding in 1985 and gotten me through a number of those board meetings with her brilliant sense of humor. She is active in the American Academy of Religion and the North American Association for Studies in Religion. I always consider our dinner at the AAR a highlight of that meeting.

Naomi’s graduate students are deeply appreciative of her teaching. It is fair to say that she has mentored several generations by now, including some of the leading lights in the field. Thanks for being here today, Naomi.

Dr. Kathleen McPhillips is a senior lecturer in the school of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Newcastle. I think we first met at a conference in Boston now some year ago, Kath, though I knew your late mother’s name through Catholic women’s circles in Australia. She was a contemporary and colleague of a WATER stalwart, the late Patricia Horsley. What a generation they were, and how lucky we were to have them.

Kath’s main areas of research are gender and religion. She is a sociologist of religion and gender and employs feminist, psychoanalytic, and sociological frameworks to issues around gender and religion particularly around institutional child sexual abuse in religious organizations. Kathleen has extensive experience in analyzing the Catholic Church at the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and has held numerous research grants. Her most recent publications are in Child Abuse and Neglect, Feminist Theology, Journal of Australian Studies, Psychoanalytic Dialogues and Journal for the Academic Study of Religion

We are indebted to you and your colleagues, Kath, for leading the way on the clergy criminal sexual abuse front.

Here is how we at WATER blurbed the book for our What We’re Reading page: “All of the feminist deconstructions of religions are for naught if the fundamental meaning of religion is not interrogated. This volume offers new insights into the whole enterprise, inviting foundational changes to the field if scholars are courageous enough to be sufficiently critical.”

Welcome my friends, and we look forward to hearing your presentation and engaging in conversation about The End of Religion.

Naomi Goldenberg

  • During a visit to the beach, saw a fin moving in the ocean – thought it was a toy, then realized it was a shark → was the only who seemed to notice, said nothing, pointed it out to her husband when saw it again, and then they started yelling at people to get out of the water
    • Thought about this in reference to this topic → seen something that a whole lot of people have seen before but is putting it in a way not seen before, and it will be built upon, improved, and changed
  • By the “End of Religion,” mean the end of religion as a separate thing, distinct/unique/mysterious/always-having-had-existed
  • Developing feminist theory about the category of religion, not a feminist theory of theology or thealogy
    • Talking about how ideas and behaviors get organized into a particular category with a particular relationship to government
    • Anything can go into that category, and go out → very flexible category
    • Concerned about the way it’s used by government and by the people who identify within that category
  • Two strands of theory feeding this, that have “let the shark be seen”
    • Critical religion theory: deconstruction of the category of religion
      • Taking apart the idea that there’s this phenomenon of religion that we can recognize overtime
      • Scholars enabled to do this because of feminism, getting the idea from the taking apart of the categories of male and female
    • The personal is political
      • From Simone de Beauvoir’s “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman.”
      • Judith Butler’s taking apart metaphysics and brings it down into political interest
      • g. Canada’s Royal Commission on status of women in the 70s: never mentioned spousal abuse/domestic violence because it was a “private matter”
        • Took the personal percolating into the political for a while until it came to the forefront—before that, it was invisible
  • Distinction between religion as a vestigial state and religion as a dominant state is the matter of violence
    • Violence is always controlled by the dominant state
      • Sometimes the state franchises it out, but it is never (or very seldomly) attributed to the category of religion
      • Once a religion gets violent, its status as a religion gets questioned
      • Violence is the “sine qua non” (without which it could not be) of the category of religion
    • The only exception is violence against women and children, which can be franchised out to religions where certain groups are allowed to have special courts about spousal assault, etc.
      • And we allow religions to “modify or attack the genitals of both male and female infants”—that’s a form of violence we put under the category of religion sometimes
  • Examples:
    • Judaism: group(s) of people defined over time as a religion because conquered by a succession of empires
      • Israel: vestigial state can become, “via the software of government,” a dominant state
    • Categorized as religions to domesticate
      • “Indigenous spirituality” – everything that isn’t indigenous government, and labeled as such to tame it and move it to the side
      • Hinduism: became so under colonialism, as everything that happened in the Indus River Valley became categorized as religion
      • Pagans: wasn’t a thing called paganism as a religion – these were ways of life that were categorized as religion after they were displaced and moved aside
      • Islam: There are Muslims who says Islam isn’t a religion, it’s a way of life – becomes a religion when it’s not part of the dominant state
        • Now exists as both a religion and a dominant state

    Kathleen McPhillips

    • Definitely a challenging concept that takes a bit to grasp
      • It’s a game-changer; can transform the way we thinking about religion as a phenomenon/category
    • When discussing this issue, a helpful technique is to try and NOT use the word religion but rather find other terms to describe it
      • Not as easy as it looks!
    • Religion is an organizing principle for governments and civil society
      • especially Western democratic society
      • Typically think of religion in the separation of church and state
      • But is actually the opposite is the case: religions have a particular function in society
      • Wool pulled over our eyes in we’ve been kept from seeing that religion is managing certain aspects of civil society → one of those things is violence against women
    • State gives certain privileges to religion
      • Exempt from anti-discrimination and human rights laws
      • Paying taxes differently from other institutions
      • Seen in separate/different light
    • “Tradition” separates religion from other institutions
      • Ahistorical claim that can’t change because “have done this for thousands of years,” etc.
      • Understanding how this works and how structural issues like violence against women are seen as natural that we have to accept because of these practiced traditions of religion
    • Chapter 5, “Multifaithism and secularism in the UK” by Sukhwant Dhaliwal: Multifaithism in Britain, policy enacted by Tony Blair
      • Secular state manages faith groups and brings them into the sphere of governance in a way that what is recognized are patriarchal formations
        • Women come out very poorly
        • Legitimating the control of men over women in new forms
      • Secularism is an important critique of multifaithism
    • Chapter 9, “The liberalization of modern Catholic social thought: contextualizing Catholic anti-feminism and homophobia in a vestigial state” by Andrew Pump: history of Catholic social thought
      • Historically, Catholicism is thought to have had a focus more on a moral agenda focused on poverty and discrimination, but in reality Church documents were focused on the perceived (im)morality of women’s sexuality and homosexuality
      • ideologically focused on alleviating poverty and discrimination, but actually focused on morality of sexualities, of women and homosexuality
        • Vestigial state in its managing this → controlling these discourses and rationalizing the control and regulation of women’s bodies
    • Chapter 2, “Religion as a vestigial state: a comment on religion, gender and violence,” by Kathleen McPhillips: Management and regulation of Islam in Australia, particularly by state and federal governments
      • Can see that the government is positioning Islam as a religion that wants to become a state so that when Islam makes certain claims that come too close to looking like a state, restrictions are applied to it
        • Not just state restrictions, but moral restrictions → specifically regarding women’s bodies which are positioned as the boundary between religion and state
          • This is focused on veiling and women’s sexual expression and piety
          • Response against rising Islamic sentiment manifests in violence against women, women being attacked on the streets for wearing the veil.
    • Chapter 3, “Towards an understanding of femicide: contemporary (patriarchal) state violence in Juárez, Mexico” by Larisa Garret: ways state of Mexico and drug cartels use religion as a patriarchal tool to take attention away from violence against women which is persistent and devastating. When women protest there is a violent backlash from the state, church and drug cartels
      • In 2012, when Pope came to visit, state and drug cartels stopped fighting to let Pope pass through → Both legal and illegal states recognizing there is a greater state in place: the Catholic Church
    • Authors in The End of Religion look at vestigial states on a case study basis in order to understand how violence is used to ensure the state is not “infected” by religion and to keep “religions” aka would-be-states compliant.
    • A challenge to feminism: it has accepted the category of religion uncritically
      • While feminism is happy to deconstruct religion and state as patriarchies, it hasn’t fully understood what religion is
        • Religion is seen as common sense and thus left alone → that’s dangerous and isn’t helping women’s liberation; leaves violence against women in place

    Naomi Goldenberg

    • In trying not to use the term “religion,” the point is to name things specifically
      • Use “Christianity” if you mean Christianity, or “Judaism” if talking about Judaism, etc.
        • Even though those are also general categories in and of themselves, it’s a way of not validating once again this HUGE category of religion
    • Religions are placed in charge of certain kinds of violence directed against women and children, but they’re also used to uphold male dominance
      • (and religions are forbidden to exercise the martial and police violence which are under the jurisdiction of the dominant state)
      • Things are recognized as religions if they validate male dominance
      • State seems more legitimate if there are men in charge, and women’s leadership seems flimsier → the vestigial states of religion are preserving the idea that men are the ones who should be in charge; leadership always returns to men and male dominance is reproduced
    • Tradition: there are good critiques of the word “tradition” by Vaia Touna (Fabrications of the Greek Past: Religion, Tradition and the Making of Modern Identities)
      • But it’s the word “religion” that gets put into constitutions and law


    Q&A Discussion
    1. How we talk about politics: who gets what and who decides? But this introduces a whole new question: how are these decisions justified? And I think your answer is that religion justifies who gets what and who decides – part and parcel of political analysis that explains a lot.

    • Naomi: Carole Pateman’s The Sexual Contract: talks about contract theory as ignoring an earlier contract, the sexual contract—how religion becomes a place where earlier contracts about the subjugation of women are preserved, bringing that into political theory
    • Kathleen: A good example of that is in Australia, the Catholic Church is the second largest employer, responsible for over 90% of government’s social policy
      • large corporation, but associated with moral discourse, so thought of as pastoral organization—but the numbers of congregants are dwindling while the corporation remains powerful
      • Not seen as corporation but seen as Church so it has all these special conditions, not having to meet human rights law, can discriminate, financial tax benefits etc.

    2.Where do indigenous traditions fit into this?

    • Naomi: Indigeneity had no idea about religion until their practices get defined as religion by colonizers
      • Tames their practices that could challenge dominant governments
      • In the colonization of Western Canada, bureaucrats trying to decide whether or not something is a religious practice because then, if religious practice, could be allowed, so indigenous groups started calling some of their practices religious so that they’d be allowed

    States define certain things as religion and thus can manipulate the definition and meaning of religion in order to enforce male dominance, but what does it mean to say that religion itself is a vestigial state?

    • Naomi: e.g. The Black Church by Henry Louis Gates: Why was the black church so effective in mobilizing and becoming a force of black culture? Because of its position as a vestigial state
    • Things get recognized as religions because they have a male divinity, most often
      • “Preserved in amber,” preserving male dominance and religion used to resurrect male dominance when challenged in government/state
    • Kathleen: If you looked at religions and their history, most religions were states and/or trying to become states e.g. Israel; the Islamic state; history of Catholicism and Anglicanism
    • The heart of the argument: Secular states are doing a deal with these special groups not to become states, instead offering privileges and particular functions such as committing both symbolic and real violence to women

    If the Catholic Church has such an enormous influence in Australia, and the Pope has spoken out for the abolition of nuclear weapons, Australia could then sign the treaty of the prohibition of nuclear weapons: the Church has a positive role to play in lessening male violence, too

    • Naomi: They also oppose capital punishment, and I wish they had more traction to oppose that
      • Religion is part of government that can both critique and support
      • But above all, religion unequivocally supports male dominance

    3. How does growing disinterest in religion—the “nones” (as in none of the above), or my favorites, the “never agains”—have an impact on your theory? Are they leaving religion for something else, or have they been thoroughly persuaded of your view so they so long want to affiliate with any religion? How to explain and what are the implications?

    • Kathleen: Yes, this has particularly impacted the millennial generations, bailing from mainstream religions but they also are keen on multiculturalism/inclusivity/diversity → they still think it’s a good thing to belong to religion, etc.
    • Central and powerful religious groups in Western society still act like corporations, but yes, their pastoral power has diminished
      • Certain kinds of practices are diminishing, but the church’s power is not
      • Transitioning into other kinds of organizations
    • But in other parts of the world, religion and numbers of followers are on the rise, like the Russian Orthodox Church has really grown, and their power increases
    • Naomi: The category still works in constitution and law –
      • Atheists still believe that they don’t believe in certain ideas
        • The category is still being maintained by the “nones” saying “I’m not part of such and such beliefs” because it still defines what those beliefs are
        • The category itself isn’t being challenged/rejected, the use of such terms reifies the category

    4. Distinction between work done in feminist theology and feminism in religion: given permission to take a grander, more political critique, and allowed to be disloyal to religion while remaining within the liberation of theology

    • Naomi: Exactly, this has nothing to do with God/Goddess – those are ideas and practices that inspire behavior, rather than the organization of anything under this special category of religion

    Continued Q&A after the session ended officially
    5. The problem with academic publication and the expense of this book (more than $100 to buy)

    • Scandalous pricing in that the ideas in The End of Religion are so important but the price of the book keeps them from being shared
    • When books are not accessible, there is colonization of knowledge
    • Paradox of getting it in paperback requires it to sell a lot of copies but the price keeps that from happening, but is available as an e-book and to rent from Amazon
    • Publishing model is to sell to libraries – encourage your local library to buy it
    • You don’t write academic books for royalties
    • Make fund to buy feminist books for places where there isn’t as much traction/resources to buy?

    6. Interfaith/ecumenical situation in Australia – male-dominated and patriarchal, but also possibilities for other perspectives: involved in ecological work and supporting LGBTQ groups locally – the pluses as well as the minuses

    • Rise in discourse of feminist theology/thealogy/spiritualities has been really important in liberation of women – don’t want to downplay that
    • Interfaith movement is good example of the possibilities for speaking across patriarchal ways of organizing; religious talk can be powerful
      • In book, show how interfaith spaces have also been very problematic
      • Terrible outcomes for women because the whole agenda for multifaithism got picked up by male religious leaders and was encouraged by the state
      • How to get women’s experiences and spaces to be encouraged rather than the patriarchal aspects of religious taking up that space
      • Women intimidated not just by religion but by the state
      • Susan Carland’s book Fighting Hislam: Women, Faith and Sexism

    7. What concrete next steps would you propose, especially to people who have relations with religion like ministers, nuns, etc., as they seek to implement your theoretical insights into their work and daily lives? For example, people in these positions who get advantages, like ministers in the US get certain housing tax advantages. Is this one more indication that they are really one with the government? How should they posture?

    • Naomi: Use the powerful fulcrum that you have – the government has constructed it for you, so use that power as best you can while realizing that’s what you’re doing: the pressure to continue male dominance is huge within that context
      • Work against it while using it
      • Like the Black Church, using what they have as a quasi-governmental space while recognizing that’s what it is
    • Kathleen: Vestigial state theory is a tool can use to understand the work we’re doing here – how is it constrictive and how is it enabled?
      • Speaking up about violence against women is important, wherever you are
      • Rise of women’s anger has been very profound this year in Australia, specifically, after sexual violence exposed at both state and federal parliament levels
        • State and federal parliament mimic vestigial states in thinking they are safe from forms of violence against women because they uphold the laws when in fact parliaments are some of the worst places for women in terms of violence
        • Problems exposed when the nation was ready to hear it – couldn’t hide it away anymore
        • Women’s protest marches, reported in Washington Post

    8. How did Roman Catholic Church in Australia react to this exposure of violence?

    • Kathleen: How did the leadership respond? They didn’t; they’ve been silent
    • Big study just completed on violence against women/domestic/family violence in the Anglican/Episcopal church in Australia
      • Highly likely that sexual/domestic violence is higher in faith traditions
        • partly because of theologies of headship and male dominance, giving men license to abuse women
        • partly because religions fly under the radar and don’t have the regulations that others do
      • Note that the Anglican church in Australia has a long history of women being ordained – so that has no impact on violence against women?
        • Claim that ordination of women improves quality of ministry, or do they still have the same problems

    Naomi: Kathrine Stewart’s Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism

    • Interesting connections between patriarchy and racism
    • Abortion as a unifier for the right
      • US Protestant churches trying to get tax-exempt status for segregated schools, and latched onto abortion to grab for power
      • Used patriarchy to disguise from their upholding racism

    9. Do vestigial states have the same impact on racism as sexism?

    • Rallying cry for keeping religious power is oppression of women, which is used to distract from/aid the oppression of other groups
    • Thus doubly so at the expense of Black women: repression of Black women’s leadership, etc.

    10. Germinal idea of vestigial state and see many examples of it: drawn to Larissa Garrett’s work—a student of Naomi—when she explored femicide in Mexico. She cites Nancy Pineda-Madrid’s work Suffering and Salvation in Cuidada Juaraez (May 2011 WATERtalk). This is a useful exposition of how the concept under consideration applies in a Catholic context.

    11. Kath, when you applied Naomi’s insight in the Australian context it seems to fit well both with the colonial narrative and the capitalist ends. Have you thought about what it would mean in an African context, or a Latin American one? Are there ways in which this analysis is most relevant in developed countries where there is great advantage to pretending that religion is a ‘thing’ over against growing secularization, and perhaps less useful with indigenous populations, for example?

    • Kathleen: First iteration of the book, and there are many more accounts that can flesh out this concept and can increase our understanding and larger conversation
    • Method of the book is to set out the principles and then give case study examples
    • In many countries of Africa and Asia where the church holds a lot of power, there has been very little examination or investigation into sexual abuse in the church
      • Hypothesis by many theorists looking at child sexual abuse that there are many accounts but that it will take years for them to come out because of the power the church holds and the states will be uninterested/unable to address it
      • Reputation of church put above anything
    • People taking this up and running with it

    12. Hope reviewers can see this feminist methodological dimension as saliant and exemplary

    • Opening floodgates and many people can pick this up and see where and if it works in their contexts
    • Naomi: e.g. in India, religion introduced into the country which Prime Minister Narendra Modi picked up to establish male dominance and his power – implemented as both dominant and vestigial state

    Mary E. Hunt, Closing

    There is lots here to process and consider. Thank you for joining, and deep thanks to Naomi and Kathleen for sharing this foundational work with us.