Is religion created by society? Read any of the atheistic tomes that pepper the shelves of the modern bookshops and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the case was closed – society makes religion.
It’s a stance not shared by Bettany Hughes, an academic at King’s College London and the presenter of Divine Women, the BBC’s latest historical documentary series.
The three-parter, broadcast on Wednesday, features the award-winning scholar charting the role of women in early religion, and how they were effectively sidelined to a point where modern women are forced to battle for ordination in the UK, while in the Middle East subjugation is such that simple education remains a distant aspiration for many females.
But it hasn’t always been so, according to Hughes.
“The role of women in the first 300 years of the church was a vigorous one, and has been played down by history,” she tells the Huffington Post UK.
“A lot of the early churches in Rome were founded by women, paid for by women and dedicated to women.
“Females were also clearly involved not just in the administration but also the theological practise of the early Christian church. We know this, as there are wall paintings of women administering Eucharist, and women dressed as priests.”
According to Hughes’ thesis, women were effectively removed from front-line Christianity when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fifth century.
“Suddenly Christianity had this huge geographical territory to cover, so the value of the military became that much greater,” she suggests.
According to Hughes’ research, during the first 30,000 years of human society women had a central role in faith, a status that gave way to male-dominance in what she calls the “hard politics of Christianity”.
It was a shift towards subjugation made easier by “an underlying suspicion of women”.
“If you look at the writings of the great classical authors, such as Aristotle, he refers to women as ‘deformed versions of men’, and as creatures that leak and ooze. “Women were seen by their very nature as unclean,” she argues.
For Hughes, it was a mindset that was easily co-opted and adopted by theologians, who were quick to suggest that women were “somehow dirty and shouldn’t have a key place in the church”.
To 21st century framing, it is easy to surmise that ostracising half the human species has left religion in a shabbier and more marginalised state, at odds with the egalitarianism of much of the modern world.
It is an interesting thought experiment to ponder how different the modern church would be had women been given more equal footing over the past 1500 years.
“It’s the million dollar question,” admits the 44-year-old academic, adding that despite the inequality, women remain the “backbone of the church”. A 2007 Tearfund report stated that up to 65% of all churchgoers in the UK are women.
“Maybe if women had more say in how it was run it would be in a more vigorous state, rather than in the beleaguered state it is at the moment,” she adds.
Hughes is quick to point out that she has no axe to grind with church or religion. She is not a crusading ‘new atheist’, bent at driving a wedge in increasingly visible cracks of the religious edifice.
“I go to church,” she says, “so I have no agenda in putting this history forward… but the question of women is a very interesting ‘what if?’”
Hughes draws the line when asked if the problems of the modern church stem from this patriarchal model.
“I wouldn’t say that… the issue of the modern church is an incredibly complex problem worthy of a lifetime of historical study. As a historian you should never live in the past, but you should definitely live with it.”
Filmed at at various historical locations, the BBC2 series does not only confine its gaze to Christianity, taking an equally searching look at Islam, and societies in which religion plays a much larger role in everyday life.
Once again, Hughes finds a similar pushing aside of the female sex from holy office. “Two of the first converts to Islam are women, two of Mohammed’s wives,” she said.
“Women were actually teaching in the mosques in Medina, in Syria, in Cairo and in Jerusalem… so women were an integral part of early Islam, which is something that’s been lost.”
In the programme, Hughes travels to the oldest religious building in the world, an 11,500-year-old monument on the Syrian-Turkish border called Göbekli Tepe.
“It was built when humans were still living in nomadic tribes,” she said, adding that what brought people together in early societies was the “need to worship together”.
It is this “need” that for Hughes has ensured that even in a secular island such as the UK, religion remains the hottest topic out there.
It also the basis for her notion that religion isn’t created by society, but that religion creates society. “I think it’s within our DNA as a social species,” she said. “Religion is what makes civilisation.”