Patriarchy Personified: Morrison, Monkeys, and Removing God from Politics | Nanci Nott
Amid the new normal of lockdowns and protests, pre-COVID concerns can seem trivial. Holidays to Hawaii have fallen out of favour, and raging bushfires barely compare with the dread of bog roll scarcity. One particularly horrific topic has circled back into fashion, however, and I’m not referring to plague masks. The Morrison government’s Religious Freedom Bill – quarantined since 2019 – is set to return, in third draft form, by December 2021.
If passed, the bill would override preexisting Federal and State legislation, including anti-discrimination laws, because religious freedom matters more than equality. The first draft, you might remember, would enable religious medical practitioners to refuse to provide a variety of services, including abortion, contraception, and hormone therapy. A student with a disability could be told, by a teacher, that their disability is a trial imposed by God. A psychiatrist could say to a suicidal woman that she should look forward to arriving in the kingdom of heaven. To argue against these so-called protections would be considered discriminatory. However, the discrimination itself would be legally justifiable, under the umbrella of religious freedom. What new horrors will the final draft hold? Only time, and the internet, will tell.
Religion itself is neither inherently good, nor bad; the impact it has on society is what determines its worth as a cultural adaptation. In the evolutionary childhood of Homo sapiens, religion may have served important cultural functions, like enhancing social cohesion, or strengthening cultural morality. Conversely, crusades, witch hunts, massacres, religious persecution, holy wars, non-holy wars, and even run-of-the-mill-murders have all been carried out in the name of religion, across cultures, for thousands of years. There are many theories about the origins and purpose of religions, but few, if any, convincing arguments in favour of modern humans upholding ancient belief systems in today’s super-connected, scientifically-literate, digitally-enhanced Information Age.
The evolution of modern culture is deeply rooted in patriarchy, so it makes sense for us to have developed power structures, like religion, which have the potential to uphold a patriarchal paradigm. Patriarchal societies are characterised by an imbalance of power, in favour of males, at the expense of females. Societies described as matriarchal, on the other hand, are generally not female dominated, but gender-egalitarian, with a conspicuous absence of male subordination. This is an interesting double-standard in the language of power dynamics. So interesting, in fact, that I’m going to hone in on that for a moment.
Trigger warning: The following section may contain science, evolution, and traces of nuts.
Chimpanzees and bonobos share 98.7% of their DNA, and a variety of behavioural traits, with humans. Chimpanzees are known to commit murder and rape, whereas bonobos are more interested in cooperation and consensual sex. Humans are capable of both, or neither, or a combination of the two. To be clear, I’m not implying the existence of causal links, but by drawing parallels between relevant analogues I hope to illuminate properties of the human condition we have hitherto taken for granted. Our perceptions of primate behaviour can reveal hidden intuitions regarding our own.
Bonobos are often described as being matriarchal, despite no recorded evidence of male subordination or female domination, with the exception of rare cases in which force is used to protect females from misbehaving males. Bonobo society is egalitarian, and peaceful. On the rare occasion a bonobo male threatens a female, other female bonobos band together to protect her. Bonobos share resources fairly, and infanticide is unheard of, despite sexual dimorphism being present in bonobos as well as chimps.
Chimpanzees live in patriarchal societies, in which sexual dimorphism enables comparatively larger males to use violence and coercion to overpower females. Harassment, intimidation, infanticide, and rape are common reproductive strategies. A reduction of infanticide is thought to be the primary benefit of monogamy among primates, and may well be the driving force behind the prevalence of monogamy in human culture. Many cultural norms in the human species can be traced to evolutionary origins of male control over female autonomy, sexuality, and reproduction.
Without the epiphenomenal chokeholds accompanying human patriarchy, how might our species have evolved? Would murder, war, and torture (which are non-existent among bonobos, but common among chimpanzees) have played such a large role in shaping our history? What might culture look like today, had human societies formed under matriarchal or egalitarian, rather than patriarchal, influences? If humans had been more like bonobos, would the concept of a Christian god exist? These are questions we may never know the answers to, but the necessity of asking speaks volumes in itself.
It may seem strange that male-dominated societies are considered patriarchal, whilst egalitarian societies are labelled matriarchal, but it does, in a way, make sense. After all, patriarchal chimpanzees display traits reminiscent of characteristics we consider to be traditionally masculine, whereas bonobo behaviour is anthropomorphised as being traditionally feminine. When it comes to intelligence, bonobos excel at tasks we associate with female intelligence, strengthening the assumption that bonobo society is more feminine. Bonobos excel at social tasks, whereas chimpanzees are more likely to be skilled at tasks requiring tool use. Both chimpanzees and bonobos share an equal amount of DNA with humans, and yet, chimpanzees are generally considered to be most similar to us. This is a classic example of maleness being seen as the human default. Patriarchal paradigms necessitate aggressive behaviours one would never see among the peaceful bonobos, whose behaviours are perceived as female, and therefore other. Bonobos are smarter than chimpanzees, but, unlike humans, the bonobo neocortex hasn’t evolved to incorporate certain social adaptations, like religion, into the fabric of their society.
Many modern conceptions of the fictional character, God, could be viewed in a very literal sense as patriarchy personified. Or, at the very least, as embodied paternalism. And yet, religion continues to drive politics on national and global levels. Politicians who use religion as a get-out-of-hell-free card are upholding an outdated agenda. By using the words “religious freedom”, they justify acts they cannot logically defend, such as control over women’s reproductive agency, and women’s sexuality. And women’s rights. And… well, women in general. World leaders continue to drum ludicrous concepts into our cultural subconscious, and we are still letting them, in the name of “religious freedom”.
A 2015 study by Dr. Lori L. Heise and Andreas Kotsadam analysed data from 66 surveys across 44 countries, covering the experiences of almost half a million women. They found that ‘environments that support male control’ and ‘norms related to male authority over female behaviour’ were the greatest predictors of partner violence. Religion, in all its most prevalent forms, including Christianity, epitomises the concept of male control over women, and is therefore, accompanied by the social, political, and ethical issues associated with this particular power imbalance.
The main benefits of upholding Christianity in Australia revolve around money, power, and the ability to outsource moral responsibility. Many aspects of religious belief are in direct violation of human rights conventions and anti-discrimination laws. If an individual wishes to find comfort in a construct of God (or Santa, or unicorns), they should definitely have the freedom to do so, provided no harm arises from it. We should not judge people who have been conditioned to accept religion, but neither should we perpetuate cultural prejudice. Manipulating people into committing discriminatory behaviour, using tactics rooted in fear and shame, is deeply unethical. We don’t need Ten Commandments to know it’s not nice to kill our neighbours. We need intelligence, compassion, and an absence of delusion. By keeping religious agendas separate from politics, healthcare, education, legislation, and the workplace, we can effectively protect individuals – and, by extension, society – from religious discrimination.
Our patriarchal social structure may once have served an evolutionary purpose. But this theory does not excuse modern adherence to ancient ideals. I don’t see many politicians casually snacking on their buddies’ body lice during Question Time, despite social grooming being another choice behaviour from our evolutionary past. We can, and should, evolve beyond the heritage of maladaptive practices. But in order to do so, we need to address the social norms that serve to keep us stuck. Sexual dimorphism may have set us on a particular path, but that doesn’t mean humans are inherently patriarchal. The institution of Christianity, however, almost certainly is. With Christianity being Australia’s predominant religion, this is a genuine cause for concern. Attempts to hijack anti-discrimination legislation, in order to monopolise power, should be acknowledged as ethically questionable conflicts of interest.
The Morrison government’s Religious Freedom Bill is incapable of protecting any Australian, quiet or otherwise, from genuine discrimination. It serves to create an environment of state-sanctioned oppression. In today’s bizarre world, where the term ‘lockdown protest’ is used non-ironically, one might expect Australians to rebel against this medieval attempt to legalise bigotry. Indeed, the first draft alone received over 6,000 public submissions, most of which were vehemently opposed to the bill. And yet, there are many who support it. Whether or not the third draft will be an improvement on the first two, one thing remains clear; religious influence in politics is detrimental to the flourishing of modern society. The elevation of prejudice over equality is a dangerous precedent to regress towards.
Upholding tradition can be counterproductive, especially when circumstances differ vastly from the environments in which those traditions arose. Many human religions have developed in such a way as to reinforce the domination of powerful men, and the subjugation of everyone else. Religious institutions have perpetuated, condoned, and justified countless atrocities throughout history, and continue to keep society stuck in outdated paradigms. The question we should be asking ourselves is not whether humans should continue along this route, but which alternative path we should travel. Humans are capable of working together to create an egalitarian society. Peace will be possible when patriarchy dies, and its ghosts are exorcised from our culture. In a world full of chimps, be a bonobo.