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Ch. 7: Ethics and Religion

The laws of physics were at work before we were on earth, and continued to work on us long before we had intelligence enough to perceive, much less understand, them. Our proven knowledge of these processes constitutes "the science of physics"; but the laws were there before the science.

Physics is the science of material relation, how things and natural forces work with and on one another. Ethics is the science of social relation, how persons and social forces work with and on one another.

Ethics is to the human world what physics is to the material world; ignorance of ethics leaves us in the same helpless position in regard to one another that ignorance of physics left us in regard to earth, air, fire and water.

To be sure, people lived and died and gradually improved, while yet ignorant of the physical sciences; they developed a rough "rule of thumb" method, as animals do, and used great forces without understanding them. But their lives were safer and their improvement more rapid as they learned more, and began to make servants of the forces which had been their masters.

We have progressed, lamely enough, with terrible loss and suffering, from stark savagery to our present degree of civilization; we shall go on more safely and swiftly when we learn more of the science of ethics.

Let us note first that while the underlying laws of ethics remain steady and reliable, human notions of them have varied widely and still do so. In different races, ages, classes, sexes, different views of ethics obtain; the conduct of the people is modified by their views, and their prosperity is modified by their conduct.

Primitive man became very soon aware that conduct was of importance. As consciousness increased, with the power to modify action from within, instead of helplessly reacting to stimuli from without, there arose the crude first codes of ethics, the "Thou shalt" and "Thou shalt not" of the blundering savage. It was mostly "Thou shalt not." Inhibition, the checking of an impulse proven disadvantageous, was an earlier and easier form of action than the later human power to consciously decide on and follow a course of action with no stimulus but one's own will.

Primitive ethics consists mostly of Tabus--the things that are forbidden; and all our dim notions of ethics to this day, as well as most of our religions, deal mainly with forbidding.

This is almost the whole of our nursery government, to an extent shown by the well-worn tale of the child who said her name was "Mary." "Mary what?" they asked her. And she answered, "Mary Don't." It is also the main body of our legal systems--a complex mass of prohibitions and preventions. And even in manners and conventions, the things one should not do far outnumber the things one should. A general policy of negation colors our conceptions of ethics and religion.

When the positive side began to be developed, it was at first in purely arbitrary and artificial form. The followers of a given religion were required to go through certain motions, as prostrating themselves, kneeling, and the like; they were required to bring tribute to the gods and their priests, sacrifices, tithes, oblations; they were set little special performances to go through at given times; the range of things forbidden was broad; the range of things commanded was narrow. The Christian religion, practically interpreted, requires a fuller "change of heart" and change of life than any preceding it; which may account at once for its wide appeal to enlightened peoples, and to its scarcity of application.

Again, in surveying the field, it is seen that as our grasp of ethical values widened, as we called more and more acts and tendencies "right" and "wrong," we have shown astonishing fluctuations and vagaries in our judgment. Not only in our religions, which have necessarily upheld each its own set of prescribed actions as most "right," and its own special prohibitions as most "wrong"; but in our beliefs about ethics and our real conduct, we have varied absurdly.

Take, for instance, the ethical concept among "gentlemen" a century or so since, which put the paying of one's gambling debts as a well-nigh sacred duty, and the paying of a tradesman who had fed and clothed one as a quite negligible matter. If the process of gambling was of social service, and the furnishing of food and clothes was not, this might be good ethics; but as the contrary is true, we have to account for this peculiar view on other grounds.

Again, where in Japan a girl, to maintain her parents, is justified in leading a life of shame, we have a peculiar ethical standard difficult for Western minds to appreciate. Yet in such an instance as is described in "Auld Robin Gray," we see precisely the same code; the girl, to benefit her parents, marries a rich old man she does not love--which is to lead a life of shame. The ethical view which justifies this, puts the benefit of parents above the benefit of children, robs the daughter of happiness and motherhood, injures posterity to assist ancestors.

This is one of the products of that very early religion, ancestor worship; and here we lay a finger on a distinctly masculine influence.

We know little of ethical values during the matriarchate; whatever they were, they must have depended for sanction on a cult of promiscuous but efficient maternity. Our recorded history begins in the patriarchal period, and it is its ethics alone which we know.

The mother instinct, throughout nature, is one of unmixed devotion, of love and service, care and defence, with no self-interest. The animal father, in such cases as he is of service to the young, assists the mother in her work in similar fashion. But the human father in the family with the male head soon made that family an instrument of desire, and combat, and self-expression, following the essentially masculine impulses. The children were his, and if males, valuable to serve and glorify him. In his dominance over servile women and helpless children, free rein was given to the growth of pride and the exercise of irresponsible tyranny. To these feelings, developed without check for thousands of years, and to the mental habits resultant, it is easy to trace much of the bias of our early ethical concepts.

Perhaps it is worth while to repeat here that the effort of this book is by no means to attribute a wholly evil influence to men, and a wholly good one to women; it is not even claimed that a purely feminine culture would have advanced the world more successfully. It does claim that the influence of the two together is better than that of either one alone; and in especial to point out what special kind of injury is due to the exclusive influence of one sex heretofore.

We have to-day reached a degree of human development where both men and women are capable of seeing over and across the distinctions of sex, and mutually working for the advancement of the world. Our progress is, however, seriously impeded by what we may call the masculine tradition, the unconscious dominance of a race habit based on this long androcentric period; and it is well worth while, in the interests of both sexes, to show the mischievous effects of the predominance of one.

We have in our ethics not only a "double standard" in one special line, but in nearly all. Man, as a sex, has quite naturally deified his own qualities rather than those of his opposite. In his codes of manners, of morals, of laws, in his early concepts of God, his ancient religions, we see masculinity written large on every side. Confining women wholly to their feminine functions, he has required of them only what he called feminine virtues, and the one virtue he has demanded, to the complete overshadowing of all others, is measured by wholly masculine requirements.

ln the interests of health and happiness, monogamous marriage proves its superiority in our race as it has in others. It is essential to the best growth of humanity that we practice the virtue of chastity; it is a human virtue, not a feminine one. But in masculine hands this virtue was enforced upon women under penalties of hideous cruelty, and quite ignored by men. Masculine ethics, colored by masculine instincts, always dominated by sex, has at once recognized the value of chastity in the woman, which is right; punished its absence unfairly, which is wrong; and then reversed the whole matter when applied to men, which is ridiculous.

Ethical laws are laws--not idle notions. Chastity is a virtue because it promotes human welfare--not because men happen to prize it in women and ignore it themselves. The underlying reason for the whole thing is the benefit of the child; and to that end a pure and noble fatherhood is requisite, as well as such a motherhood. Under the limitations of a too masculine ethics, we have developed on this one line social conditions which would be absurdly funny if they were not so horrible.

Religion, be it noticed, does not bear out this attitude. The immense human need of religion, the noble human character of the great religious teachers, has always set its standards, when first established, ahead of human conduct.

Some there are, men of learning and authority, who hold that the deadening immobility of our religions, their resistance to progress and relentless preservation of primitive ideals, is due to the conservatism of women. Men, they say, are progressive by nature; women are conservative. Women are more religious than men, and so preserve old religious forms unchanged after men have outgrown them.

If we saw women in absolute freedom, with a separate religion devised by women, practiced by women, and remaining unchanged through the centuries; while men, on the other hand, bounded bravely forward, making new ones as fast as they were needed, this belief might be maintained. But what do we see? All the old religions made by men, and forced on the women whether they liked it or not. Often women not even considered as part of the scheme--denied souls--given a much lower place in the system--going from the service of their father's gods to the service of their husbands--having none of their own. We see religions which make practically no place for women, as with the Moslem, as rigidly bigoted and unchanging as any other.

We see also this: that the wider and deeper the religion, the more human, the more it calls for practical applications in Christianity--the more it appeals to women. Further, in the diverging sects of the Christian religion, we find that its progressiveness is to be measured, not by the numbers of its women adherents, but by their relative freedom. The women of America, who belong to a thousand sects, who follow new ones with avidity, who even make them, and who also leave them all as men do, are women, as well as those of Spain, who remain contented Romanists, but in America the status of women is higher.

The fact is this: a servile womanhood is in a state of arrested development, and as such does form a ground for the retention of ancient ideas. But this is due to the condition of servility, not to womanhood. That women at present are the bulwark of the older forms of our religions is due to the action of two classes of men: the men of the world, who keep women in their restricted position, and the men of the church, who take every advantage of the limitations of women. When we have for the first time in history a really civilized womanhood, we can then judge better of its effect on religion.

Meanwhile, we can see quite clearly the effect of manhood. Keeping in mind those basic masculine impulses--desire and combat--we see them reflected from high heaven in their religious concepts. Reward! Something to want tremendously and struggle to achieve! This is a concept perfectly masculine and most imperfectly religious. A religion is partly explanation--a theory of life; it is partly emotion--an attitude of mind, it is partly action--a system of morals. Man's special effect on this large field of human development is clear. He pictured his early gods as like to himself, and they behaved in accordance with his ideals. In the dimmest, oldest religions, nearest the matriarchate, we find great goddesses--types of Motherhood, Mother-love, Mother-care and Service. But under masculine dominance, Isis and Ashteroth dwindle away to an alluring Aphrodite--not Womanhood for the child and the World--but the incarnation of female attractiveness for man.

As the idea of heaven developed in the man's mind it became the Happy Hunting Ground of the savage, the beery and gory Valhalla of the Norseman, the voluptuous, many-houri-ed Paradise of the Mohammedan. These are men's heavens all. Women have never been so fond of hunting, beer or blood; and their houris would be of the other kind. It may be said that the early Christian idea of heaven is by no means planned for men. That is trite, and is perhaps the reason why it has never had so compelling an attraction for them.

Very early in his vague efforts towards religious expression, man voiced his second strongest instinct--that of combat. His universe is always dual, always a scene of combat. Born with that impulse, exercising it continually, he naturally assumed it to be the major process in life. It is not. Growth is the major process. Combat is a useful subsidiary process, chiefly valuable for its initial use, to transmit the physical superiority of the victor. Psychic and social advantages are not thus secured or transmitted.

In no one particular is the androcentric character of our common thought more clearly shown than in the general deification of what are now described as "conflict stimuli." That which is true of the male creature as such is assumed to be true of life in general; quite naturally, but by no means correctly. To this universal masculine error we may trace in the field of religion and ethics the great devil theory, which has for so long obscured our minds. A God without an Adversary was inconceivable to the masculine mind. From this basic misconception we find all our ideas of ethics distorted; that which should have been treated as a group of truths to be learned and habits to be cultivated was treated in terms of combat, and moral growth made an everlasting battle. This combat theory we may follow later into our common notions of discipline, government, law and punishment; here is it enough to see its painful effects in this primary field of ethics and religion?

The third essential male trait of self-expression we may follow from its innocent natural form in strutting cock or stamping stag up to the characteristics we label vanity and pride. The degradation of women in forcing them to adopt masculine methods of personal decoration as a means of livelihood, has carried with the concomitant of personal vanity: but to this day and at their worst we do not find in women the _naive_ exultant glow of pride which swells the bosom of the men who march in procession with brass bands, in full regalia of any sort, so that it be gorgeous, exhibiting their glories to all.

It is this purely masculine spirit which has given to our early concepts of Deity the unadmirable qualities of boundless pride and a thirst for constant praise and prostrate admiration, characteristics certainly unbefitting any noble idea of God. Desire, combat and self-expression all have had their unavoidable influence on masculine religions. What deified Maternity a purely feminine culture might have put forth we do not know, having had none such. Women are generally credited with as much moral sense as men, and as much religious instinct; but so far it has had small power to modify our prevailing creeds.

As a matter of fact, no special sex attributes should have any weight in our ideas of right and wrong. Ethics and religion are distinctly human concerns; they belong to us as social factors, not as physical ones. As we learn to recognize our humanness, and to leave our sex characteristics where they belong, we shall at last learn something about ethics as a simple and practical science, and see that religions grow as the mind grows to formulate them.

If anyone seeks for a clear, simple, easily grasped proof of our ethics, it is to be found in a popular proverb. Struggling upward from beast and savage into humanness, man has seen, reverenced, and striven to attain various human virtues.

He was willing to check many primitive impulses, to change many barbarous habits, to manifest newer, nobler powers. Much he would concede to Humanness, but not his sex--that was beyond the range of Ethics or Religion. By the state of what he calls "morals," and the laws he makes to regulate them, by his attitude in courtship and in marriage, and by the gross anomaly of militarism, in all its senseless waste of life and wealth and joy, we may perceive this little masculine exception:

"All's fair in love and war."

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Charlotte Perkins Gilman