25 May 2013

The gender of god

It's been long time since I posted anything, but time is scarce. Today, however, I was motivated by the silly response of someone identifying herself as Shirley J. Schultz in this posting from Sabio Lantz's Triangulations. She kept talking about god as if god were male:
... you also keep calling God “your God”. There is only one God. Different cultures call Him by different names. He is your God, too...
I don't understand why religious people (muslims, christians, jews, and others) don't ever wonder why they refer to god using the masculine personal personal pronouns "he", "him" and "his". Is it because they think god is male?

I raised this issue with muslims several times. Allah is gender-less, they respond. Fine then, I'll call Allah a "she". No, they reply. This is blasphemy.

Why can’t  religious people see the irrationality of attaching a male pronoun (and, therefore, a gender) to god? Let us consider the following two statements:
  1. It is a fact that god has (male) gender because the scriptures tell us so and we may not refute the scriptures.
  2. God has male gender because the concept was created by people in patriarchal societies.
Then statement (2) is much more likely than (1). If we were, therefore, to choose between (1) and (2) we ought to choose (2). Of course, both might be wrong, in which case a third option is needed. Since religious folk, like Shirley J. Schultz, seem to be firmly convinced that god has a (male) gender, they should either tell us whether they  accepts (1) or (2) or a third alternative which they should provide us with.

My fault, however, is that I tend to think that all people are rational. This is wrong. I devised the follloing hypothetical dialogue with  Shirley J. Schultz:

Shirley: God does not have gender. He is above human nature.
Takis: But you keep using “he”.
Shirley: Well, this is just a convention.
Takis: OK, I understand. So it’s fine if I say “God’s works reveal her glory”.
Shirley: No, you can’t say that.
Takis: Why not?
Shirley: It’s a blasphemy.
Takis: But you told me god does not have gender.
Shirley: Yes, but the bible says “he”.
Takis: Was the bible written by god?
Shirley: Yes, of course!
Takis: Then god tells us god prefers to be addressed by the male pronoun.
Shirley: This is not important. He does not have gender.
Takis: OK, may I then refer to god as “it”? Like: “God’s works reveal its glory”.
Shirley: You may not (emphatically) call god “it”. God is not a thing!
Takis: I didn’t say so, I was just trying to avoid assigning a gender to god. So, if “it” is not allowed, I will use “she”.
Shirley: No, you can’t do that.
Takis: Why not?
Shirley: It’s a blasphemy.
Takis: But you told me god does not have gender.

There is absolutely no way to get the argument resolved, because Shirley has no way to defend her position. She is falling into a contradiction. On one hand god has no gender, but on the other we are being told god likes to be called a “he”. So, even if god has no gender, god prefers the male pronoun.

A second version of the dialogue (I won’t bother writing it down) could start by Shirley supporting the idea that man is created in the image of god, so god has a gender. Now, why god has male gender is baffling, and Shirley won’t be able to defend the simple observation that this implies that god gives preference to men.

In either case, Shirley has no rational argument and/or will reach a contradiction. But such is the religious mind. It is not disturbed by the irrational even when the irrational is obvious. The religious mind would rather hurt itself or hurt other but would never admit violation of (elementary) logic.

Sabio gave me a response. He thinks that Shirley would have responded in this way:
“Jehovah, the one true God, has always been spoken of a as a masculine entity. God is certainly above our understanding, and this use of a masculine pronoun should not narrow our thinking, but it is the closest pronoun to describing God than any other. To assume God is anything like your common notions of the word “he” just illustrates how dimly you see into the nature of God. He is there for you, Takis, be open to his spirit and language will stop becoming an obstacle between you and God.”
 And continued, thus:
Shirley could have mustered together a fairly intelligent response, or she could have fumbled and given a totally contradictory rambling. But if you think you are going to trap her and it will change her, you may be wrong if she is more highly vested in her commitment than to a temporary argument. Even if you frustrate her argument, she will come back with some trite platitude and tell you how you must come to worship the one true God.
He is right. I still, however, would love a rational response  about god's gender from Shirley J. Schultz or other religious people.

P.S. Soon I hope to post another article, related to gender issues which are very important in Sweden.  As I pointed out before, they even have a government department dealing with these issues. A few months ago, I attended a couple of lectures on gender issues, and, in particular, on issues regarding women's under-represented positions, and asked the question whether they have ever considered the role of religion in connection with this. Surprisingly, the speaker didn't have a clue and hadn't even thought about it, apparently. More on this in a future post.


  1. Thanx for the mention, Takis. Here is another issue to make your question not such a big trap for Shirley as you imagine:

    The Puzzle of Gender
    In Germanic and Romance languages gender is attached to inanimate objects like chairs, dirt and shit. And you don't demand an explanation there, so why with God? I imagine if I asked the minimally schooled German why Scheisse is feminine, I would get some pretty hilarious rationales. Heck, I imagine linguistic theories of gender for sexless objects vary widely.

    And remember, as you mention in this post. Shirley was not irrational, your strawman argument was irrational. You were just hoping she would take the bait.

    If I ask people to tell how an eyeball could evolve from pure luck in evolution, if an atheist gave me a stupid reply, it doesn't mean evolutionary theory is wrong, it just means that atheist doesn't understand biology.

  2. Same in Greek. Three genders. But not all germanic languages have three genders. Swedish has two. Whereas romance language have two also, masculine and feminine, Swedish has two: person and neutral. Masculine and feminine are combined into one. For example university is neutral (ett universitet) but car is person (en bil). Go figure... However, for personal pronouns only, they have both masculine and feminine (han for he and hon for she), but they want to introduce a gender-free pronoun and have proposed "hen". They are already trying to implement it in some kindergartens.

    I was sidetracked. Yes, you are right. Shirley is not rational, at least as one judges from her responses.

  3. Yes, you were linguistically sidetracked - an irrational reply because it had nothing to do with the point which you avoided. :-)

    So I will repeat it:

    That God would have gender is not different from shit having a gender in German.

    Now address that and stay rational, please. ;-)

  4. Look, I wrote this at the end of my day and was tired :-)

    Let me address your point directly. That god would have a gender is entirely different from shit having a gender.

    Reason: God's gender influences religious people. They do care a lot about using masculine pronouns for god. God was created by patriarchal societies and was given a masculine gender because the feudal lord has always been male. By assigning a male gender to god, the patriarchal forebearers managed to pass on their concept of ruling to future generations.

    Even though Shirley may claim that god's gender is irrelevant, it is, very much so, for her (and others like her). Her way of thinking is influenced by this. And she will take offense if we call god a she.

    Now, compare this with shit. Suppose that some people in Germany started saying Das Scheisse (instead of Die Scheisse--the shit). OK, that would sound funny, but it would not become an issue. Suppose, instead, that some Muslims in Germany started calling Allah a She. This might lead to death threats.

    So, I think that if we say
    "Praise Allah and all Her glory"
    is very different from
    "I don't like your shit and his smell".
    People care about the former, but not about the latter.

    (Incidentally, shit is neutral in colloquial Greek and feminine in classical Greek. Hercules' fifth labour was the cleaning of the shit from the stables of Augeas, the king of Elis. In Greek, this fifth labour is called "Η ΚΟΠΡΟΣ ΤΟΥ ΑΥΓΕΙΑ" -- The Shit of Augeias, as every schoolchild learns in elementary school. Classically, therefore, shit is feminine. I know this is sidetracking, but I put it in parenthesis, so please don't tell me off.)

  5. I totally agree that for "God" having gender has real implications in a way that it doesn't for Scheisse. :-)

    But if a god-believer wanted to escape attempt to pin her down with logic, then a move to say that something can both have and not have gender simultaneously is seen in something as simple as language grammars, so why not in terms of a god who has it in some sense but not in a genitle sense which a limited human would imagine. After all, God's categories are beyond our own.

    But I still wonder that though some folks may say the gender in languages does not change their thinking about objects, I am suspect.

    That religious thinking is held sacred and not expected to be fuddled with is indeed a dangerous aspect of religion, but then, the gender of God, the reality of hell, the number of persons in the Divine are all things people have killed over but again, I just think this is the nature of rigid religious thinking, damnit (ooops, excuse my coprolalia)!

    Hey, back at one of my posts I have a reply for you.



What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
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Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
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