God’s (Alleged) Gender Proves Problematic for Some Parents

By Wendy Thomas Russell | February 18, 2013 | 16 comments

god

About a year ago — when my daughter was six — I noticed that she had been sitting in silence for a surprisingly long time.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“I’m sad,” she said.

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“Because,” she said, “God is a boy and not a girl.”

“How do you know?”

“I just know,” she said, glumly.

“And why does that make you sad?”

“Because,” she said. “I’m a girl.

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I don’t spend a lot of time complaining about religion. Usually, I just don’t see the point. Religion is so big and broad and amorphous. One person’s going-to-synogogue-on-Saturday is another person’s whipping-kids-for-talking-back. One person’s giving-to-charitable-causes is another person’s picketing-the-funerals-of-gay-soldiers. Just try to get two people to agree on the nature, purpose or value of “religion.” But some things are just plain hard to swallow — in a universal sense. And, ever since that conversation with my daughter, the “gender” of God is one of them. Rarely, if ever, do children hear “Her” as a pronoun or “Mother” as a descriptor for God. Even “It” — which is the gender-neutral way that Muslims describe Allah in Arabic — sounds completely foreign to us.

This isn’t to say, of course, that all religions conceptualize God as a man. They don’t — not literally anyway.

Christianity describes God as a Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (who the heck knows). The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that “God is neither man nor woman.” Yet, that statement is immediately followed by: “He is God.”

There’s that He again.

Similarly, in Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib is known for saying God was indescribable, but then the guru repeatedly referred to this indescribable being as “He” and “Father.” Even Hindus, which have goddesses out the yin-yang, still describe their top god — Brahma — in entirely masculine terms. Judaism’s God is, perhaps, the least manly of the bunch. Still, though, Jews — like Christians — are pretty tied to the language of the Torah/Old Testament. And, there, as we know too well, references to God are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

I Googled “God” today, and guess how many images of women came up?

Now, let me be clear: I am not weighing in on the debate over whether God is a man, woman, both or neither. That is one debate that will always be completely irrelevant to me personally. But there is no denying that we, as a society, continue to couch God in male terms. Even those of us who don’t believe in God do it. At very early ages, American children are encouraged to form their images of God as a man. Specifically, an old man. Even more specifically, an old man with a beard.

Now, if you’re a little boy, this is probably a nonissue. No big deal. Completely innocuous. But if you’re a girl — well, one need only look at the conversation with my daughter to see that the distinction is a huge deal. Just huge.

When girls hear — and they all hear it — that the entity in charge of the whole universe, the one who has all the power, is a boy (more boy than girl, at the very least!) it changes things for her. It gives her a new perspective on her life and life in general. It limits her. It may even sadden her.

And that — on a very personal level — saddens me.

I dare say, it should sadden us all.

Anyone else have similar experiences or thoughts on this? If so, I’d really love to hear them.


16 comments

  1. Lucinda says:

    A lot of great points have been made already so I’m not sure I have much to add except this. How a child reacts to gender bias is going to be as much about the child as it is about the bias. As a child, I never really thought about God being referred to as a man. It just was. My daughter is much like me. She believes in God but doesn’t think about its gender. The best I can do for my son and my daughter is to affirm that both genders are amazing and special and have much to add to this world. That we complement each other and our differences are our strengths, not our weaknesses. The best we can do it go out into the world with that attitude and hope others join us while protecting those who become victims of gender bias. So I’m sure however you respond to your daughter, it will be based upon what she needs rather than what “girls need.” Very though-provoking post.

  2. magpie says:

    1. we believe that there is no god, so, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a girl or a boy.

    that said,

    2. i’ve taught her that the way to sing America The Beautiful is:
    O beautiful for spacious skies,
    For amber waves of grain,
    For purple mountain majesties
    Above thy fruited plain!
    America! America!
    God shed HER grace on thee,
    And crown thy good with SISTERhood
    From sea to shining sea

  3. Tamarria says:

    I had to deal with a similar issue with my daughter. It can be challenging to have to explain this subject to a young girl who will have to grow up in a world that is male focused. Especially when our FAITH is the most important thing to us as a family. You’re right…we are programmed to see GOD as an old man with a beard; but on top of that, an old white man with a beard. Try explaining that to your young African American daughter. When it comes to GOD, since we make HIM the head and center of our lives, I try very hard to leave race and gender out of the picture. Yes, I still refer to GOD as HE, HIM, FATHER, etc., but I am also teaching my children to see GOD as they want to see HIM. After all, “HE” is the great “I AM” which means HE is everything and in everything. HE is no color, yet every color, no gender yet both genders. HE is the animals, plants, water, sky, and us. HE is LIFE. She is LIFE. The CREATOR of all things. All I can do is train my children to see GOD the way HE appears to them…even with all the “HEs” and “HIMs”.

  4. Janet says:

    Adding to Tammy’s point, many gender-neutral names we have for animals, such as “horse”, or “dog” are also used to refer specifically to males, (mostly by breeders, but historically as well), while special names are selected for the female, in this case “mare” and “bitch”, which carry the implication of bearing young. The mare or the bitch are often valued above the males because they can be bred to produce more horses and dogs, while males are often castrated if they are not needed for breeding, as intact males are more difficult to manage. (I know most people spay their female dogs these days, but that is a modern development, and mares are almost never spayed.)

    Masculine words are used as general terms not to disparage females, but because we require a general term that does not carry the implication of childbearing capacity. As such, the default pronoun “he” does not have to be thought of specifically as male, but as lacking sexual distinction, especially where a capacity for childbearing is unimportant.

    It grates in my ear when I hear “she” used as a gender neutral term, as has become the fashion in child-rearing literature of late. And not just because I am a mother of sons. I personally think of the pronoun “she” as an honorific title for which the male does not qualify. The feminine pronoun is reserved for the female because a woman is special in her childbearing capacity. But she is human first, and as a member of mankind in her own right, and for her value as a human being, a woman should feel comfortable being “he” as well as “she”. A woman is more than her womb.

  5. Charlie says:

    Two things.
    First, those who think telling her “there is no god” will fix the problem either don’t understand kids or the problem or both. Using logic to explain to children why they should not feel what they are feeling doesn’t work and doesn’t help. She is feeling sad because she is experiencing something real. Her sense of unfairness and bias is real. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to her whether god is. The problem is not god’s gender. She’s a 7-year-old girl seeing signs in the world around her that the world doesn’t value women the way it values men. She’s seeing gender bias in books – fiction or non-fiction. She’s seeing the message that maleness is the norm and femaleness is a deviation from the norm. She’s seeing that authority and power are associated more with men than women. That’s the problem.
    And second, as a boy, I don’t think gender bias/discrimination/inequality is as innocuous for boys as you’ve suggested. Boys might not respond to it the way girls do, but it has an effect on them all the same. The harm may be more long term, but discrimination hurts everyone.

  6. khadijah says:

    My experience is different because English was my other language and in my first language (we don’t have gender pronouns), and God is a non-persona entity, ergo no gender.

  7. Sirenella says:

    Your daughter would not have had to ask this question up to 1000 years ago – in many countries. She would have already learned her “Goddess” was more like her, than a man. Astarte, Maat, Vesta, Tiamat, Kwan Yin, Isis, etc have all been lost and renamed into newer male gods and finally, “God.” Women used to lead their tribes spiritually, and now they fight for the right to represent as godhead in their Churches and Organizations, their male “God.” Religion oppresses women. Keep her strong and read her stories from all faiths, highlighting the strengths and passions of female goddesses. All religions die. “God” is a boy now, to the masses, but who knows what the future holds.

  8. Doadet says:

    Tell your child: the whole idea is a load of crap anyhow! Boom: your child, male or female, can then easily become emancipated from the gender-normativity in the sky.

  9. Bryan Elliott says:

    “Sweetie, there’s no reason to believe God’s anything more than a storybook character. Do you get upset that Harry Potter isn’t a girl?”

  10. Well, commenting from a Christian perspective my point is probably irrelevant to you but I found it ironic that among the women I meet with on Sunday, this issue came up yesterday. (Was Sunday just yesterday?) I know people with such bad associations with their own fathers that the connotation of God as a father has proved problematic. At least as seeing God as loving. Some recovering Roman Catholics in my group (joke, see we Christians can joke about religion) talked about how Mary was on par with Jesus and God to them as children. And that as women/girls they found comfort in that.

  11. Craig says:

    Since the god that most in the west think of is a concept created primarily by white men who were in control of much of society, this is not a surprise. In fact, women still have a long way to achieve equality even in our supposedly egalitarian society. As you said, the gender of some mythical being is really irrelevant. What should be more upsetting for anybody with a daughter is the level of hidden discrimination that women still encounter in our society. They are still not paid equally for equal work, Congress still refuses to re-authorize the VOWA, so women have less recourse if they are attacked. There have been more attacks on women’s access to medical services of various kind in the disguise of eliminating abortion over the past two years than in the past 30 years combined.

    Yes, the god that most American’s worship is misogynist and racist, but there is much more to be sad about for young women growing up today. I worry about my daughter and my soon to be born granddaughter for that reason more than anything else.

  12. Harry Schaefer says:

    Good points. This might have something to do with civilizations (for the most part) patrilineality.

  13. Rich Wilson says:

    Ya. Pretty much. I have an X and a Y chromosome, and the extent to which we assume ‘male’ drives me nuts. Bechdel isn’t just for movies. I’ve noticed in reading my son books how many of them essentially fail that same spirit. And in trying to balance that (and to be fair it is easier with kids’ books than with movies), I’m reading him a lot of ‘girl targeted’ books, as opposed to books that happen to have an equal representation.

    The one that bugged me most recently was “I Need My Monster” in which we are told girl monsters are for girls and boy monsters are for boys.

  14. Tammy says:

    i suppose we could make this argument for minorities too. As I read this, i was thinking, god is always an old white male.
    I do want to point out that at one time , we used he as a default. Prior to s/he or the incorrect they, when we wanted to cover everyone. So it wasn’t just god back then. Every book, every article defaulted to he. It wasn’t right, but it could be some of the explanation for this.

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Due out in March 2015, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.
 

      Natural Wonderers is a new blog hosted by Wendy Thomas Russell and published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of Russell's previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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