This Easter at least 65 per cent of those attending Church of England services will be women. In the US, 86 per cent of the female population describe themselves as members of faith-organisations and 66 per cent pray every day – as opposed to less than half of men. How so? Aren’t we told the story of religion as a cautionary tale of gender mismanagement? That an early, matriarchal, goddess-worshipping society gave way to warring, patriarchal monotheism – and from then it has been pretty much downhill for women?
On the face of it, broad historical patterns could bear this out. Women are conspicuous by their presence in the early societies that honour the goddess. On the wild borders of Syria and Turkey the oldest religious building in the world is being excavated at Göbekli Tepe. Here, gouged from a tablet of stone is a striking image of a woman; she seems to be giving birth and having sex at the same time. As child-bearers, women were thought to have a special connection to the powers of fertility and the earth – and so, like their divine counterparts, had to be celebrated and kept onside.
But then civilisation got greedy; populations stabilised, citadels were built, and we wanted more. An all-powerful, smiting god (Zeus, Yahweh) appears on the heavenly scene as populations engaged in ever more ambitious territorial expansion. Warriors needed a warrior god to lead them.
Christianity too, once it became the official religion of the vast Roman Empire, began to value the muscular foot-soldiers of God more highly than the handmaids of Christ – deaconesses, priestesses, the female owners of house-churches – who had originally helped to establish the Christ cult.