Conservative theologians sputter with rage at the notion of using female or non-gendered pronouns to refer to God, but they have no rational explanation for why this offends them so deeply.

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The Church of England is considering gender-neutral pronouns for God. It’s about time a Christian church stopped looking away from this question.

When I was a boy and I first learned about the concept of the Trinity, I remember it struck me as weird and unfair.

Why was God made up of Father, Son and Holy Ghost? Why wasn’t it Father, Son and Mother? That would have had a natural logic, whereas this arrangement seemed unnatural. How could you have a child without two parents? And what was this “Holy Ghost” thing crammed in there? Fathers and sons are concepts that have analogues in everyday life, whereas none of us are familiar with ghosts, holy or otherwise.

Also, why weren’t women included in the godhead? Why did only men get to create and rule the universe? Even as a child, that seemed wrong to me, although I didn’t know the word sexist yet.

What does God have that makes him male?

For more than two thousand years, Western theology has insisted that God is male. By sheer repetition, we’re all familiar with this belief, and people tend to think of it as normal and unproblematic.

But it’s not normal. We need to look at it with fresh eyes, as I did when I first heard it, and contemplate how strange it is.

Our ideas about sex and gender are rooted in the body. We conceptualize people as male or female based on their physical appearance, the way they dress, and the body parts they have (although, unless you lead an unusual lifestyle, you don’t actually know what your friends and acquaintances look like under their clothes; most of us assume it based on other characteristics).

To state the obvious, none of these apply to God. Judeo-Christian theology believes that God is a bodiless spirit. He doesn’t have a penis and testicles. He doesn’t have testosterone or a Y chromosome. He doesn’t reproduce through sex. How could he be one gender rather than another?

Even the notion of gender roles—gender as something that’s in your head, something that’s defined by the way you relate to others—doesn’t help here. In the traditional, stereotypical view, men are providers and protectors, while women are creators of life, carers and nurturers. But God, as Judeo-Christian theology describes him, is both. He’s both caring and warlike. He’s both the creator of life and its defender. He created both genders in his image and relates to them both equally well.

Respect God’s pronouns

Christian apologists don’t deny this. However, their argument is that God uses masculine pronouns to describe himself, so we should act accordingly. For example:

God has no physical characteristics and no genetics. He transcends gender. At the same time, God has purposefully revealed Himself to us using masculine language. God is always a “He” in the Bible. Since God uses masculine pronouns to refer to Himself, we should continue using masculine pronouns to refer to God as well.

In other words, they’re saying that we should respect God’s pronouns! (Making it especially shameful that they’re so unwilling to extend this courtesy to others.)

This isn’t just a matter of courtesy, either. Religious authorities grow deeply upset, even infuriated, when people use feminine or non-gendered pronouns for God.

In a famous case, Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson wrote a book called Quest for the Living God that was condemned by the church’s Committee on Doctrine for, among other things, rejecting exclusively masculine language to refer to God. The (all-male) council of bishops roared that the book was “theologically unacceptable” and that it “completely undermines the Gospel and the faith of those who believe in the Gospel”.

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In another example, when the late Rachel Held Evans referred to God as “She”—just once!—Owen Strachan, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, went to social media to declare it “heresy, straight up“. Another theologian, Bruce Waltke, calls feminine imagery for God “inexcusable hubris and idolatry” (how is it idolatry to refer to God as female, but not to refer to God as male?).

The furious finger-wagging of these condemnations is remarkable. You can be an entirely orthodox believer in other respects; you can believe that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good, perfectly just, the creator of the world, the savior of humanity, and so on… but referring to this being in feminine terms makes male theologians quiver with rage.

A fossilized opinion

Even Christian apologists admit that God isn’t really male, or gendered at all. They can give no reason why it would harm, diminish, or offend him to use female or non-gendered pronouns. So why are they so insistent about it?

The answer, in historical context, is obvious. The Bible is a collection of books written by human beings—specifically, by men. Moreover, they were men from ancient patriarchal societies where sexism was deeply ingrained. They flattered themselves that men were better suited to rule and to lead, solely because of their greater physical strength. In short, they thought it was better to be a man than to be a woman.

Because they were steeped in this belief, the men who wrote the Bible couldn’t conceive of God as anything but a man. They echoed this prejudice in the texts they wrote, just as they echoed other prejudices of the time, like monarchy as a normal method of government or the acceptability of slavery. It’s a fossilized opinion that’s come down from a less enlightened time.

Likewise, this belief has endured for one reason: it advantages the men who continue to benefit from it. The exclusively male ruling bodies of most churches have had a cushy ride for centuries, enjoying wealth and power while keeping one-half of the population in a state of subjection to serve their desires.

For these men, recognizing a feminine aspect to God would come dangerously close to suggesting that they should give up some of their power. That’s something they’re determined to avoid at all costs. Their insistence that God is masculine and only masculine is just a convenient excuse to sanctify their hierarchy and fend off skeptics. It’s a dead giveaway that their religion is a patriarchy to the core.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...