A few years ago, this would have been hard for me to say but now it's easy: Thank the stars for Nicholas Kristof. He proved his pricelessness as a voice of real reason on the NY Times op-ed page yet again by tackling the nuclear question of the role that religion plays in human rights abuses around the world . Of course, since said human rights abuses involve oppression of women, they're often not seen as human rights abuses, but from American purity balls that imply that men own their daughters to female genital mutilation, women's rights are being oppressed, with religion and tradition as the excuses. Kristof doesn't pull his punches but directly describes this uncomfortable reality in which one culture after another hates on women while blaming God or gods for hating women.
The politic line on religion's role in misogynist cultural practices is to claim that it's not religion's fault, but that it's being "misused" by people. To Kristof's credit, he ignores this intellectually bankrupt idea and points out that misogyny isn't a distortion of religion but built right into the original texts and practices of many religions, including Christianity. To suggest that religion is being misused when it's used to oppress women is like arguing that hammers aren't meant to be used to bang down nails, just because they can also be used to pull out nails.
Still, just because religion has always been used to justify male dominance over women doesn't mean it has to be that way, as Kristof points out. Religion has changed its tune on many grave injustices it has traditionally supported, including slavery, genocide, and even the divine right of kings. And now many political and religious leaders are insisting that religion change its tune about women and start recognizing women as full individuals in their own right and not just appendages and servants of men.
As an atheist feminist, I find this entire debate interesting, because I both fully support the movement of religious leaders toward feminism and think they're mistaken if they think that religion is going to survive this march to justice as intact as they like it. They underestimate the importance of justifying oppression as a reason for religion to exist. Not that this is the only reason religion exists-it satisfies needs for identity, community, and spirituality as well-but one major reason that religion has persisted in the face of natural skepticism of magical claims is that people with power cling to it as a means to justify their power. If we guilt oppressors into relinquishing their arguments for oppression, religion won't be as attractive anymore and will lose its potency. After all, if the need to bang down nails disappeared, we'd probably stop making hammers even if we still had a need to yank nails out of walls. We'd just invent something else, something more efficient, for this task. And so I suspect will happen with religion if drained of its usefulness as a tool of oppression.
The evidence for this assertion is easy enough to demonstrate-look at Western Europe and America. As our cultures become more married to the ideals of justice and equality for all, the enthusiasm for religion dries up. The strong inverse correlation between a nation's religiosity and its standards of living is hard to deny, but the question is why. Does indifference to religion promote more humanitarian social policies, or do people stop caring about religion once they stop wishing to oppress their neighbors? I'd argue that it's probably a little of both.