Threshold: The Crisis of Western Culture
Chapter 6 - The XX Factor
Chapter 6 — The XX Factor
Resolved, that the women of this nation in 1876, have greater cause for
discontent, rebellion and revolution than the men of 1776.
—Susan B. Anthony
Women who seek to be equal with men lack ambition.
A Modern Reformation
On October 31 in the year 1517, so the story goes (and it appears to be true), an Augustinian monk and University of Wittenberg professor, Martin Luther, walked up to the front door of the church within the Wittenberg Castle carrying a hammer, nails, and a sheaf of four papers containing ninety-five paragraphs (“theses”) of specific accusations and arguments against the current state of the Catholic Church. As this door was the common place for people to post notices of upcoming events or discussions, Luther nailed his four pages to it, bringing to a high-profile head a long-simmering debate within the Catholic Church about a variety of topics, but mostly the sale of indulgences.[xxiv]
Thus formally began both the Protestant Reformation and a reformation within the Catholic Church itself. But this wasn’t just about religion. The Reformation ultimately came to influence all aspects of life, from the cultural to the political to the economic, as well as the religious.
A few generations before Luther’s birth, Europe had been wracked by the Black Death, an epidemic of bubonic plague that in many countries killed as many as a third to a half of the working-age population. The immediate result of this fourteenth-century depopulation of Europe was a labor shortage that drove up the price of labor, producing the first emergence of a relatively widespread and politically active middle class over the following four generations. With this middle class came leisure time, affluence, philosophy, music, political change, and a general challenge to the old order of things. We refer to this period of European history broadly as the height of the Renaissance, although the Renaissance itself arguably dates back to the writings of Dante and the discovery during the twelfth century by European scholars of long-lost (but, ironically, preserved by Muslims) writings from Plato, Pliny, and other Greek philosophers.
The Renaissance was, ultimately, a challenge to the assertion and power of organized religion. In part, this came out of disillusionment with the claimed supernatural powers of religion—the failure of the Church to stop the Black Death and the cultural collapse that followed it.
The Enlightenment, which followed the Renaissance inasmuch as it’s a period principally focused in the 1700s and led directly to the creation of the United States of America, was an even more secular time; the most influential of the Founders of the United States were Deists (Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Rush, etc.) who, while not atheists, had outright contempt for organized religion.
In many ways, today we are seeing both the thesis and antithesis of this scenario being played out across the globe. In much of the world, organized religion is very much on the ascendancy—the Catholic Church announced in 1999 that it had surpassed a billion members, a number greater than the entire population of the planet in 1800. Similarly, Islam—the fastest-growing religion in the world right now—claims between 1.3 and 2 billion followers, depending on whose numbers you use and how you define a Muslim. (Most “Islamic Republics”—organized Islamic states—claim that 100 percent of their citizens are Muslim. For many, though, this is probably more a political than a religious definition.)
But there’s something about organized religion that is ingrained in our culture. In Denmark, for example, about 1 percent of most citizen’s payroll tax goes to pay for the Danish Lutheran Church—an institution that only a tiny fraction of the nation’s population ever visits (so much so that many churches are having to rent themselves out for other functions to maintain the justification for keeping their buildings). Yet while the 1 percent church tax is voluntary—any Dane can opt out—fewer than 10 percent of Danes choose not to pay it.
Culture and Tribe
At the bottom of it all, we humans are a tribal animal, just like most primates (and many other mammals). We feel most comfortable with “our own,” although the definitions of this term change constantly. Nonetheless, the basis of this instinct is grounded in the very biologically sound urge to protect one’s own family. Extensions and projections of “family” include tribe, clan, neighborhood, community, town, city, county, state, and nation. At every level, it’s possible to invoke “membership,” and thus evoke a powerful emotional response (see how the word “patriotism” is used, for example).
Thus, religion and its institutions become part of our identity, another form of “tribe” we use in order to feel part of something; and even if we don’t subscribe to its particular catechisms and rituals we still use our religion as an aspect of our identity and culture.
When Religion Becomes Toxic
There are crosscurrents at work here. On one level, we can see religion as a healthy response to the need for community, as well as a way to help make sense of the senseless and experience transcendence, and as an evolutionary response to an environment. (This latter is best seen in things such as halal and kosher laws, which used the language of religion to proscribe foods with a high likelihood of being contaminated or evoking an allergic response.) But when religion defines the cultural, political, and social laws of humans, those laws need to evolve as the culture evolves. The environmental and cultural sea changes we are now facing are causing cracks to show in the armor of organized religion, whose outdated rules and behavioral codes are coming up against the pressing demands of an overpopulated world.
In 1993, I first went to Bogotá, Colombia, with Salem International, a German-based charity on whose behalf I’d done relief work and negotiation since 1978. Some people associated with the Catholic Church had offered us the possibility of taking over a property in the Medellin Valley and using it as a facility for street children from Bogotá. The problem of street children had become so acute that international (and embarrassing) attention was being drawn to these Peter Pan–like societies where such children had taken over entire neighborhoods (and the sewers under them), killing any adults who wandered in, and driving an epidemic of theft, burglaries, and child prostitution.
One of the fastest-growing businesses in Bogotá at that time (it may still be; I haven’t returned to check out the situation) was providing private security—guards with AK-47s, mostly—to wealthy homes and/or middle-class neighborhoods. (One particularly memorable billboard showed a smiling woman and child in front of a Beaver Cleaver middle-class home … all behind a chain-link, razor-wire-topped fence with a uniformed and armed man standing in the front. It was an ad for a gated, “protected” community.)
Elizabeth Blinken, a German married to a Colombian (which had brought her to that country and made her efficiently trilingual in German/Spanish/English), was running the Salem program in Bogotá when I flew there to meet with her, Horst von Heyer, and Gottfried Mueller (whom I mention at the opening of this book) to check out the Medillin Valley building and some other possible properties. When we determined that the property in Medellin wasn’t appropriate for our needs, Elizabeth and I made an appointment to meet with the Archbishop of Bogotá.
I got off to a bad start. After waiting several hours, we were ushered into a huge office converted from an old Spanish church. When the Archbishop extended his hand, apparently expecting me to kiss his ring, I, being Protestant and not wise in the ways of Catholic protocol, shook it instead. He looked offended, and didn’t even bother to extend his hand to Elizabeth, whom he seemed to be trying to ignore. I thanked him for the possibility of our using the land in Medellin, and told him it wouldn’t work for us but that we appreciated his consideration and looked forward to working closely with the Church on our projects in Bogotá. He said a few words about how there were so many street children and all help was appreciated.
At which point Elizabeth spoke up, very simply and gently asking him what he thought of the possibility of some sort of special dispensation (she was speaking in Spanish, so I didn’t get all the nuance) for people who worked in family planning, or even pharmacists and retailers, so they wouldn’t fear going to hell if they sold or distributed condoms or other means of birth control.
The Archbishop’s face turned red and the muscles in his jaw and necked bunched up. He turned to me, pointed a finger in my face, and, pounding his fist on the arm of his throne-like chair, started shouting, in English, words to this effect: “This population explosion is all the fault of women! It began with Eve, the original deceiver of the first man. They know when they’re fertile and when they’re not. They must learn to be chaste and control themselves!” He was trembling with rage.
Saying, “Sorry, sorry,” in Spanish and English, Elizabeth and I backed out of his office as fast as we could.
On April 22, 2008, The Christian Science Monitor[xxv] reported on the growing crisis of rice shortages in Asia, noting that one of the biggest problems in the region is the Philippines, which is experiencing a population explosion of about 2 percent per year. The Philippines is also the only large country in the region that is predominantly Catholic.
The Archbishop was correct in his theology (if not in his ethics). You could argue that thousands of years ago, as agriculture and stockbreeding became widespread and led to rapid increases in human population, placing stress on local environments and bringing tribes into collision with each other in the search for food, the group with the largest army ultimately was the one with the greatest probability of survival. This meant that while the men were increasingly being dedicated to and worshiping a male, violent, angry, warlike god, women had to move away from the role as co-equal member of society that had characterized pre-agricultural times (and still generally characterizes pre-agricultural indigenous societies today) and into the role of breeding stock.
For Americans, perhaps one of the most visible relics of this is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), which in 2008 was involved in a high-drama battle with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Central to the teachings of this church is the idea that one of the fastest and most reliable routes to salvation and eternal life (in the afterlife) is for men to have as many wives as possible and for women to have as many babies as possible. A result of this was the spectacle the nation witnessed in the summer of 2008 where groups of five, ten, fifteen, and in some cases as many as twenty women were appealing (mostly through Larry King Live on CNN) for their more than four hundred children to be returned to them—the total number of “fathers” of these children was minuscule.
In a warrior society, a society embroiled in constant violent battle with other tribes, this kind of situation wouldn’t be considered abnormal or problematic. With so many men killed off in battle, polygamy and fecundity would be evolutionarily appropriate responses. Thus Solomon with his seven hundred wives, the widespread tradition in Arab society of up to four wives, and so on.
But in north-central Texas the men aren’t dying in droves at the hands of other men. So, instead, the FLDS keeps a careful watch on their young boys. If any of them shows the slightest inclination to challenge the power structure of the older men, or has any deformity or defect that the society doesn’t find useful, when they became teenagers they are expelled, sometimes as brutally as being driven to the “skid row” part of a nearby large town and forced out of the car. This has led to entire colonies of hundreds of “lost boys” in towns near FLDS communities, while back at the ranch their mothers take daily ovulation tests to determine when they were most fertile, and teenage girls are sometimes married off at first menstruation, playing a role only slightly elevated from that of the cows in a factory farm.
While this is an extreme example of how dysfunctional a culture becomes when its core belief system is based on driving up its own population, it is also an example of a culture that, because of that growth, has survived. There are more FLDS members in the United States now than there were a century ago, when the group split off from the main Mormon (LDS) church over the issue of polygamy. For that matter, there are more FLDS members now than there were Mormons during the lifetime of Joseph Smith, who founded what became both sects.
At the other end of the extreme are the Shakers, a religious community that originated in Manchester, England, in 1747 and then moved to the United States. The Shakers believed in total celibacy, so the entirety of their community came either through conversion or the adoption of orphans, a practice (adoption of individual children by a religious institution) that most states came to forbid over the course of the twentieth century. Although hundreds of thousands of people were converted to Shakerism during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the United States, as of 2006 there were only four known living and practicing Shakers.
Both of these groups illustrate how religious beliefs can influence population, in two rather obvious ways. But the truly toxic—and effective—way that religion has been influencing population worldwide is far more subtle, and far more destructive, than either of these near-caricatures of religion.
Egalitarianism versus Patriarchy
Two parallel trends are happening today in the developed world, producing an enormous amount of hand-wringing on the part of religion and cheap-labor advocates. The first is that population numbers among “white” Europeans and Americans of European ancestry are dropping. People are having babies later, not having babies at all, or having on average fewer than the 2.1 babies per couple necessary for population replenishment in the modern world.
The second is that immigrants to Europe and the United States—particularly Muslim and Catholic immigrants—are having lots of babies, and their populations are exploding. Within the next decade “white” Americans will have become a minority group, and over the next few decades a number of European countries, particularly France, Spain, and Italy, are looking at similar scenarios.
This follows four centuries of pretty steady population explosion on the part of whites in both the United States and Europe, which caused a relatively small tribe of pigment-challenged people to fan out and take over much of the world.
In both cases—the old white population explosion and the ongoing variety of “brown” and “yellow” population explosions all over the world—the main driver is the belief of “women as cattle.” In other words, it’s the culture. And at the basis of each culture, the main authority that explicitly says that women should be powerless and the property of men is religion.
This has changed in many countries (even extremely Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain), but that change is relatively recent and has not reached many of the most populous corners of the world. As recent research shows (I’m thinking mainly of the brilliant work done by Jeffrey Sachs in The End of Poverty), the empowerment of women in a society has a direct effect on the birthrate. The more economic and social equality a woman has, the more control she has over her reproductive rights.
Setting aside the moral arguments about women being the property of men and belief systems that promulgate that status, the reality is that religions driving that cultural meme have been very successful in an evolutionary context. They have grown, outnumbered, and in many cases destroyed their competitors. The Christian/American concept of “manifest destiny”—a religiously based rationale for whites to exterminate and steal the lands and resources of Native Americans—is another example of how this “dominator” type of mentality has been successful. Today there are many more whites in North America than there are Native Americans.
Riane Eisler uses the terms “dominator culture” and “cooperator culture” to describe two ways of looking at the world, the former being what I’m describing here. Daniel Quinn uses a metaphor that explicitly brings in the natural world, describing “taker cultures” and “leaver cultures.” In The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight I use the term “younger culture” to describe the culture we have, and “older culture” to describe those who learned from thousands of years of trial and error and ended up living in cooperation both with their environment and with each other (from the tribal to the gender level).
All three of us make the point that creating a culture that is not toxic to the world, that doesn’t destroy by overpopulation, and that is a pleasant place to live isn’t something we need to “create new,” entirely from scratch. Every culture in the past that experienced the cataclysmic consequences of its dominator/taker/younger behavior and survived went on to transform itself into a cooperator/leaver/older culture. And the main vehicle for this transformation was the culture, and the religion that drove it, empowering women at a level relatively equal to that of men.
I say “relatively” because the evidence from today’s developed world is that even though women have not achieved equal power with men, in most of the developed world they’ve passed a threshold of sorts (yet to be quantified, but probably measurable) where they have acquired sufficient power (or, at least, power over their own reproductive functions) that population in those cultures is either stable or declining.
Thus, it can be argued that if the biggest problem facing us—the one driving all the other problems ranging from climate change to energy shortages to famine to pollution—is overpopulation, the single most powerful solution to that problem is the empowerment of women.
Interestingly, in some religions this is clearly happening, and happening rapidly. Numerous Protestant denominations and Jewish synagogues have ordained women, and many are also blessing the marriage of women to each other (as well as men to each other, the oppression of gay men historically having been culturally associated with the oppression of women). Italy—historic home of the Vatican—has one of the highest rates of birth control use in the world (behind highly Catholic Spain).[xxvi]
Mostly this is happening in countries that saw significant male depopulation during World War II, which brought many women into the workforce; some postulate that this was the main driver of women’s acquiring enough power to reduce population. Others point to the widespread availability of the birth control pill in the 1960s and the decriminalization in the United States in that same decade of other forms of birth control (and the decriminalization of abortion a decade later) as being prime drivers of this phenomenon.
The question of whether culture is driving changes in religion or vice versa is one that probably tilts in the direction of the former, but regardless of the process, the outcome is that both culture and religion are changing in ways that give more power to women.
The problem is that not enough of the world’s religions and cultures are changing this way, and the ones that are changing aren’t doing so fast enough. The Catholic Church, for example, no longer functionally punishes its members for divorce (at least not in the First World), although it still maintains the forms and functions that would appear to. The attitudes expressed by the Archbishop of Bogotá would rarely come out of the mouth of a clergyman in Massachusetts. But it is the same church, and the authority is drawn from the same source. And many largely Islamic nations have taken on largely secular governments (ironically, one of the most successful of these in terms of women’s equality was pre-invasion Iraq, where women openly participated in government, business, and professional life, teaching in universities, working as physicians, and so on), though in many countries (such as Iran), the government shares power with religious leaders who dictate fundamentalist Islamic law.
Driving the Change in Religions
The Iroquois Confederacy was, at the time of the American Revolution, the oldest and most enduring representative democracy in the known world. [xxvii]
The Iroquois were largely population-stable, like many Native American tribes that had achieved stability. (There were some notable exceptions to this, particularly in the American West and Midwest, as apparently the “Little Ice Age” drove Athabasca-speaking people, later known as Apache and Navajo, from what is now Canada down into the range of the Pueblo people known as Hopi, producing considerable conflict.) Numerous ethnographies and commentators of the time note how these population-stable tribes typically considered having a baby more than once every seven years “bad form,” and looked upon the baby-breeding women among the colonists with concern or amazement.
Reports of the technology of Native American birth control run from various herbs, to the use of animal intestines (sausage casings to us) as condoms, to herbal- or other-source suppositories to alter vaginal pH (a vaginal suppository of crocodile dung was used for thousands of years in Egypt to prevent conception, as cited in the oldest-known medical text, the Kahun Medical Papyrus, dating from more than 3,800 years ago), to non-vaginal sexual practices. It’s pretty well documented that infanticide was not a Native American birth control practice, although abortion may have been herbally induced.[xxviii]
Regardless of how it was done, the simple reality is that the Iroquois kept its population relatively stable, and one key to that may have been that in five of the six Iroquois Nations, only women could make the final votes on the most important issues. While men would fulfill the roles of sachems, representing tribes and transporting information and news, it was only the women who voted. They had power and respect in their culture and a role in society beyond expanding the population.
Empowering Women to Save the World
Since the times of Thomas Malthus, when population first became a front-and-center issue, there has been a healthy debate about how individual nations or the world can control their populations.
Economists have pointed out that zero or even negative population growth seems to accompany the emergence of a fully empowered middle class, as can be seen in much of America, Europe, and Japan. Therefore, goes their logic, the way to solve the population problem of the planet is to raise the standard of living of all seven billion of us to that of the West and of the Japanese middle class. The only problem with this solution is that if the three to four billion humans on the planet today living on less than five dollars a day were to start living a lifestyle (and consuming goods and fuel) at the rate of that aforementioned middle class, it would take between four and six planet Earths to provide for their raw materials and absorb their waste.
And this solution doesn’t resolve the paradox of countries in the Middle East where people are paid by the government out of oil revenues simply for being citizens—a large number of people there live at the level of our middle class—and they still have average family sizes of between six and eleven people. So it’s clear that the “economic solution” is both unworkable and flawed in its basic hypothesis.
Another idea put forth by believers in technological solutions suggests that the problem we are experiencing is one of a lack of access to birth control technology. A July 10, 2008, report from the World Bank noted, “Fifty-one million unintended pregnancies in developing countries occur every year to women not using contraception.”[xxix] The report said that more than five million women a year are either disabled or die from unsafe abortions, and as an example, the report pointed out that in Nigeria the $19 million spent annually to care for victims of botched abortions is more than four times the $4.3 million it would have cost simply to provide all Nigerian women with access to birth control.
But, again, fifty-one million unintended pregnancies every year worldwide is not the driver of a billion people being added to the planet every decade and a half. While it’s true that there’s a worldwide crisis associated with a widespread lack of modern family planning, it’s the intended pregnancies that are driving the population explosion. Looking again at wealthy Middle Eastern countries, where birth control is widely available, we still see huge families.
It turns out that there is only one single variable that consistently—from country to country, culture to culture, for tens of thousands of years of culture and history—determines whether a culture’s population will explode or be stable. That variable is the empowerment of women.
As Sadia Chowdhury, senior reproductive and child health specialist at the World Bank noted, “Promoting girls’ and women’s education is just as important in reducing birthrates in the long run as promoting contraception and family planning.” Education, along with economic and political power, said Chowdhury, “gives [a woman] the power to say how many children she wants and when. And these are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters as well.”[xxx]
The worldwide movement to educate and empower girls and women is the most important part of cultural transformation necessary to bring us through the current crises and into a stable and sustainable future.
When the Founders of this nation noted that in five of the six Iroquois nations only one gender, women, could vote, they thought that was a fine idea to adopt. The problem is the Founders picked the wrong gender.