About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Churches as symbolic wombs?

I have just started reading "The Vagina Monologues," by Eve Ensler (so far, I've never been able to make it to the live performance). The British edition I picked up at the airport in London has a foreword by Gloria Steinem. I am reproducing an interesting bit below it. I am not saying that I buy it (for one thing, I don't have the necessary expertise in the history of architecture, and there are obvious alternative "explanations"), but it sure makes for entertaining and thought provoking reading, if a bit of a stretch...


"In the 1970s, while researching in the Library of Congress, I found an obscure history of religious architecture that assumed a fact as if it were common knowledge: the traditional design of most patriarchal buildings of worship imitates the female body. Thus, there is an outer and inner entrance, labia majora and labia minora; a central vaginal aisle toward the altar; two curved ovarian structures on either side; and then in the sacred center, the altar or womb, where the miracle takes place -- where males give birth.

Though this comparison was new to me, it struck home like a rock down a well. Of course, I thought. The central ceremony of patriarchal religions is one in which men take over the power of creation by giving birth symbolically. No wonder male religious leaders so often say that humans were born in sin -- because we were born to female creatures. Only by obeying the rules of the patriarchy can we be reborn through men. No wonder priests and ministers in skirts sprinkle imitation birth fluid over our heads, give us new names, and promise rebirth into everlasting life. No wonder the male priesthood tries to keep women away from the altar, just as women are kept away from control of our own powers of reproduction. Symbolic or real, it's all devoted to controlling the power that resides in the female body."


  1. I gather you haven't read The DaVinci Code then, either. That book takes this idea and runs with it.

  2. Adrienne, don't want to come across as an intellectual snob (oh, what the heck :-) but I have read the Code, and found it boring after the first half, and quite ridiculous from the perspective of historical and artistic research. Gloria is a bit more interesting (if not perfect, by any means!).

  3. Hey, I wasn't *endorsing* The DaVinci Code, don't get me wrong. :)

    I read it, in large part because as a grad of an Opus Dei school, I was curious how accurately "The Work" was portrayed in the book. For my part, I found reading it comparable to my experience of reading Crichton's Jurassic Park -- it was a fun and entertaining but fluffy page turner. I certainly didn't find it a master work of intellectual or historical inquiry, though!

    As a side note, one Catholic woman who wrote a lengthy article refuting various claims in Code put forward the hypothesis that Brown wrote it specifically to appeal to women involved in book groups (who buy and read a lot more books than the avg person). Hence, all the stuff about "the sacred feminine" in the book. This, she posits, is why Code has become the mega best-seller it has.

    As far as Steinem goes, I find her work about as credible as what's in The DaVinci Code.

  4. I can see one problem with this contention already:

    "Thus, there is an outer and inner entrance, labia majora and labia minora; a central vaginal aisle toward the altar; two curved ovarian structures on either side [emphasis mine]"

    While a typical ancient or medieval male who had biblically known a woman might easily have been aware of the vagina and labia, where would he have gotten the idea about fallopian tubes and ovaries? That took dissection and observation to discover, and it would hardly have been obvious to medieval church architects.

    The problem is that it is trivial to describe as a womb any large single-room building with a prominent front door. In general, one can easily find parallels between two dissimilar things if one isn't too particular about the vagueness of the parallels (especially if the dissimilarities are ignored).

    Describing communion or baptism as males giving birth is also a real stretch.

  5. J.J., I had the same thought about the level of anatomical knowledge during the Middle Ages. However, see here for the suggestion that in fact women's internal anatomy had been known for a millennium before the Renassaince, possibly as far back as Aristotle. I'd like to know if anybody knows more about this.

  6. Fair point, although I'm not too sure about how much a medieval architect would know or care about Galen and Vesalius. The rest about playing games with vague parallels stands, though.

    Also, the problem with saying that "[t]he central ceremony of patriarchal religions is one in which men take over the power of creation by giving birth symbolically" is that the whole metaphor of being born again is from Christianity and comes in particular from John. AFAIK, neither Judaism or Islam have being "born again" as part of their theology, and they are at least as patriarchal as Christianty.

    You mentioned "priests and ministers in skirts." What is inherently feminine about a skirt?

  7. J.J, I didn't say anything about skirts being inherently feminine (though that's largely true, unless you are from Scotland :-) -- I was simply quoting Steinem. And, again, I simply offered her paragraph as food for thought, not with a full endorsement on my part.


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