Thursday, February 17, 2011

How do you measure the social power of monotheism?

By its ability to strip rights and moral protections from people. Whether it is women, other religions or denominations, intellectual or religious dissenters or queers, the social power of monotheism can be measured by its ability to strip people of rights and moral protections.

(Or, to put it another way, it never just stops with the queers.)

This is blindingly clear in Islam. We can tell the social power of Islam due to the repression of women, the treatment of apostasy, the repressed state of other religions, the persecution of queers, the intellectual restrictions.

But it is equally clear in the history of Christianity. After all, if we look back at Christianity in its C15th (given it is currently the year 1432 by the Islamic calendar) we would see very much the same pattern of behaviour. The main difference would be the legal treatment of women was better. The main reason for that being that Christianity does not have God’s law.

The progress of the Christianisation of the Roman Empire can be measured by the steady stripping of rights from pagans, queers, Jews and women.

In the Anglosphere, given Protestantism was the established religion, the retreat of the social power of Christianity can be measured by women getting back legal rights and status they had previously lost, religious tests being abandoned, discrimination against Catholics receding, Jews getting legal equality and (something still in progress) queers getting legal equality.

If one looks at the struggle for Jewish emancipation in the C19th, one of the clear patterns is conservative Christians (particularly Catholics) being enormously frustrated that this group that they have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, getting full legal rights. Indeed, that the issue was even being raised. The outrage, but also the frustration, was patent. If you do not have the social power to strip rights and protections from a vulnerable minority you have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, what social power do you have?

One gets exactly the same outrage and frustration from conservative Christians (particularly Catholics) nowadays about queer rights, that it is even being raised. If you do not have the social power to strip rights and protections from a vulnerable minority you have successfully repressed and denigrated for centuries, what social power do you have?

It is all about the burden of God as the absolutely trumping moral authority and the use of God to strip people of moral and legal protections. Which is why the best measure of the social power of monotheism is its ability to strip rights and moral protections from people.


  1. Does it have to be monotheism?

  2. Oh no. I am just interested in the specific patterns of monotheism.

  3. When monotheists get in power, they do bad stuff. But when polytheists get in power, they also do bad stuff. (In polytheist Rome, men had the right of life and death over their wives and children; and women didn't even have names -- they just had their father's family name plus a number. And the status of women actually seems to have fallen slightly in the transition from the Middle Ages to the early modern period.) And when atheists get in power, they do bad stuff too (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot). So I wonder whether there's really anything special about monotheism here.

  4. Your understanding of Roman law is a bit faulty: women had a far better deal than you state. Monotheism tends to be better for children and general compassion, worse about sex and for women. The argument is not that monotheism has some special evil, just that we can measure its social power in a particular way.

  5. Well, it depends on which era we're talking about; the right of life and death that fathers exercised over wives and children -- and women's status generally -- was legally reformed over time. Likewise women actually began to get names in the later period. But Rome wasn't exactly growing more polytheistic as these changes took place; if anything the opposite (under Greek influence, monotheism with polytheistic trappings became increasingly common among Roman intellectuals, though how much of this trickled down to the average person is hard to say).

  6. Misogyny is wider than monotheism. But any Greek intellectual influence would have denigrated the status and rights of women, not improved it. Classical Athens was much more misogynist than the Roman Republic at the same time.

    It is quite clear that the Christianisation of both Roman law and what became common law lowered the rights and status of women.

  7. At no point in Roman law did Roman husbands have power of life and death over their wives. Indeed, this was explicitly forbidden in the 12 Tables, in passages we still have extant. There is considerable scholarly speculation that early Rome was the first or among the first literate civilisation to prevent men from selling their wives into slavery. There is no record of any law to the contrary. The first sanctioning of domestic violence in Roman law occurs in lex of Justinian, long after the conversion to Christianity. It was forbidden in the 12 Tables, in large part because that was what one did to slaves, not one's citizen wife (remember, this society was deeply unequal in other respects).

    Similarly, the 'high point' for Roman women was what my Roman law tutor calls the 'prosperous pagan' period -- the late Republic and early Empire up to about AD 230. Women (including married women) had full contractual capacity, unilateral no-fault divorce and complete retention of rights in their dowry (indeed, repayment of the women's dowry took priority over secured creditors and judgment debts if a family business had to be liquidated).

    May I suggest some Borkowski, Birks or Schulz on Roman law? Some of us have to study this stuff for our practicing certificates, so the constant misrepresentation gets a little wearing.

  8. SL

    At no point in Roman law did Roman husbands have power of life and death over their wives. Indeed, this was explicitly forbidden in the 12 Tables, in passages we still have extant.

    While I am delighted to see you have reconsidered the significance of the 12 Tables to Roman law, from the dismissive pose you adopted when we last discussed this issue, I must nevertheless advise that your legislative embrace is no free lunch. Your payment comes from having to acknowledge its Athenian origin, and the reasons why plebeian Romans insisted on the laws in the first place, and why from Greece. Here’s a hint. It had nothing to do with the proto-feminist Roman mens.

    THE key takeaway from the Twelve Tables was that Rome’s attempt at the democracy, Athens bequeathed to the world - the inextricability of property, citizenship, and written law - while sadly a spectacular failure, nevertheless set Rome up for much its history. Sorry, but the Twelve Tables was written by neither proto Mary Wollstonecrafts, nor – perhaps more lamentably – Roman senators cavorting in Euripidean drag.

    The first sanctioning of domestic violence in Roman law occurs in lex of Justinian, long after the conversion to Christianity.

    SL, this an astonishing misstatement of Roman law, from one we assume should be familiar with such issues, which quickly turns to bigoted pantomime when you wade too far out - sans floaties - and try and drag Justinian, and his creation of what many argue is Europe’s greatest gift to the world - Corpus Juris Civilis - onto your meringue of ignorance. I understand that my being so forward might be considered uncivil, but let’s be clear here. You are speaking immitigable arrant nonsense. WHERE do you get this shit?

    One wonders how the Sabine women might respond to your pimping for the pagan wimminz rights campaigner dudes, let alone Augustus’ own fricking daughter Julia? I really, really hope you know this already – but it kinda puts your whole icky rant into a sticky situation if you do - Julia was convicted under her borther’s 18 BC law Lex Iulia de Adulteriis Coercendis, and thus osatrcised for 5 years to the island of Pandateria.

    The law went into exquisite detail as to when, and by whom, an adulteress might be killed. Just as in Greek jurisprudence, the key elements were the wife actually being act in flagrante delicto, and whether it was in the father’s or husband’s domicile. All of this of course is just so much effortless Greek copying and pasting, though more often less faithfully to Greek law than Athenian tragic plots.

    The right to murder a daughter or a wife depended very much on whether the marriage required the wife’s paterfamilias to remain her father, or to be transferred to her husband. Again, the different types of Roman marriage and the laws regulating them were very much tied to changes in property rights, especially the extent to which the law distinguished between a woman’s dowry versus other claims to property she might have.

    The practical implications across space and class were so complex, and so NOT ultimately decided by the legislation makes the Law your less that fair-weathered friend here.

    As I think I might have hinted before, you seem to have overdosed on the lawyer's fallacy.

  9. Lorenzo, while there is no doubt I respect your education, knowledge, and wit immensely, I think on this particular topic, you have allowed the passion of the positions you - so rightly - hold, regarding particular issues alive in 2011, to colour your trademark historiographical deftness so much, I fear you are starting to stumble into the garish.

    I say this as a friend, but each new post of yours on this issue reads more and more like a pastiche of the worst sort of 17/19th century Protestant bigot.

    The material you are wrestling with is hard, and therefore irresistible. It also has a life of its own, whose biographies would speak only of their own times and concerns. Since the deaths of many of those bigots, the challenges - evidentiary, scholastic, dynamic, and sociological - have captured some of the very finest minds (though to be sure, modern medical technology has ensured a few of the old Protestant bigots still get about, who are probably also unaware of the advent of colour television).

    The period should be treated with the respect it deserves. And that means better than Dan Brown's 'research assistants'. ;)

  10. Peter: in your second comment, you do not manage to actually say anything. What factual claims are you disagreeing with?

    In your first comment, surely the Roman republic based its institutions on Sparta not Athens (hence the two consuls instead of two kings, for example, and the mixture of democratic and oligarchic elements). When the Roman Republic was being set up, the Spartan model had far more oomph behind it -- in both established longevity and success -- than the Athenian one. (Not least because Sparta had recently rescued Athens.) In which case, one of the features of Spartan life the other Greeks founds weird was the role they gave to women. (Sort of necessary, if the young and prime-aged men were off in the barracks, someone had to run the estates and be in charge of the younger children: there was some similar elements in medieval Europe for similar reasons.)

    When one looks into the history of the common law and proto-common law, it is quite clear that Christianisation worked against women. Coverture marriage was just bizarre to Germanic and Celtic law, for example. It really is true that a woman in C8th England had more legal rights and social opportunities than in C18th England.

    Just as the introduction of Christianised Roman law in the late medieval period was also bad for women. The notion of women being absolutely barred from voting would also have appeared somewhat strange to the medievals, for example.

    The notion that the rights/status of women is linear progress is wildly ahistorical, it bounces up and down: the Dark Ages was a high point, the C18th a low one.

    Anthropology also makes it clear that gender, marriage and property can have widely variant connections in human society. My business partner once had an African student whose father came from a society where all land was owned by women. He was a striking fellow apparently so several women had picked him to be their "breeder" (aka husband) and he spent his life rotating from house to house. His son thought monogamy was a terrific idea.

    SL can speak for herself, but in the Roman Republic we are talking about centuries of legal evolution and we have more surviving legal and lawyer words from the period than anything else. It is important to interrogate that evidence from itself, not from preconceptions. To give an example, we have 30 surviving wills from the Anglo-Saxon period: 10 are from women. Earlier scholars either ignored this embarrassment or claimed that the 10 survived because they were wildly exceptional (operating asd they did under the notion that "of course" women were legally subordinate). Later scholarship pointed out that the women's wills were the same in content and concerns as the male wills. In other words, women and men had essentially the same property rights and hence wrote the same wills. Operating in societies which no longer presumed female subordination, they could now see the evidence in front of them.

    There are similar patterns in biology: more female biologists meant folk stopped assuming male dominance in breeding patterns and strategies, biologists operating in queer rights societies stopped presuming that it was always a female underneath or that what they were seeing was some wild aberration. Similarly, I trust lawyers to be able to understand legal evolution a lot better than ordinary historians. Not least when, for example, one finds the Sifra complaining that the pagans allowed women to marry women and men to marry men. What may have at one time seemed a bizarre slander looks very different with clear anthropological evidence of same-sex marriages in many cultures and that Roman law had come to permit same-sex marriage.

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