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God & Gender

Is God Really Male?

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In many religions throughout history, gods have been portrayed variously as male and female, often embodying important masculine and feminine attributes. The tradition of philosophical theism, however, has had some difficulty with the issue of gender because of the conflicts between religious beliefs and Greek philosophy. Many people act as though God is male rather than female or genderless, but theologians often argue that God is genderless. Why does this difference exist?

On the one hand, the religious systems which rely heavily upon philosophical theism have traditionally portrayed God as male. On the other hand, the absolute perfection postulated in Greek philosophy excludes the possibility of God having any gender, whether male or female. Under this conception, gender categories simply cannot apply to a being as totally “other” as God.

The influence of classic philosophy over time has caused religions like Christianity and Judaism to abandon explicit arguments that God is male. Nevertheless, gendered references continue to abound as people refer to God as Him, He, His, etc. Believers defend this by references to things like tradition or the fact that Jesus, the incarnation of God, was male.

English, however, does have the option of using “it” instead of male pronouns — but people don’t normally use that. Believers object that “it” is somehow “wrong” when it comes to God because that pronoun doesn’t normally get used when it comes to persons — but it is certainly no more wrong than the use of “he” because gendered pronouns aren’t normally used when it comes to genderless objects.

If the use of “he” were genuinely the non-problem that believers so often portray it, then they wouldn’t mind if people used “she” instead. Female pronouns are indeed used in reference to persons, so they don’t suffer from the same alleged drawbacks as the use of “it” does. Female pronouns should be no more or less of a problem than male pronouns, but so many believers still object when they are used. Not all object, to be sure, but many do — and with great indignation.

Such anger makes little sense unless, on some level, perhaps people really do imagine God to be male and are offended at the idea of a male God being portrayed as female. Another possibility may be that they really do think that God is genderless, but regard male portrayals as positive or neutral while female portrayals are negative.

Either way, the reactions suggest prejudice against women, thus lending credence to the argument that continued references to God as male are simply part of a larger situation in which religion serves to perpetuate stereotypes about and discrimination against women. Arguably, gender-neutral language about God would serve to reduce the prevalence of both stereotypes and discrimination, goals which should be important for religious organizations.

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