The cover article of the latest issue of the Economist: “Gendercide – What Happened to 100 Million Girls” is must reading (unfortunately, the link is to the editorial only; not the article, which is behind a subscription wall). Albert Mohler rightly draws attention to it. So does Robert Colquhoun. It’s an embarrassing topic for standard-issue feminists who regard abortion as a choice to be protected rather than a moral defeat of the first order. Below the jump, I explain why the Economist article is to be commended for raising awareness on the issue, but deserves to be harshly criticized for the unrealistic proposals it puts forward to bring down the rate of femicide in places where it is culturally accepted.
A plus of the Economist article is its admission that neither wealth nor education reduce femicide rates in those places in which the cultural preference for male offspring is deeply ingrained:
Gendercide exists on almost every continent. . . . Wealth does not stop it. Taiwan and Singapore have open, rich economies. Within China and India the areas with the worst sex ratios are the richest, best-educated ones.
Nonetheless, the article misses the obvious when it makes the following misleading assertion (deliberately omitted in the above citation):
Gendercide exists on almost every continent. It affects . . . Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Christian alike.
It does not affect Hindu, Muslim, Confucian and Christian alike. The article is unable to draw the obvious conclusion that robust forms of Christianity alone have proven to be an effective antidote to mass femicide. The article grossly misunderstands the case of South Korea when it asserts:
Baby girls are thus victims of a malign combination of ancient prejudice and modern preferences for small families. Only one country has managed to change this pattern. In the 1990s South Korea had a sex ratio almost as skewed as China’s. Now, it is heading towards normality. It has achieved this not deliberately, but because the culture changed. Female education, anti-discrimination suits and equal-rights rulings made son preference seem old-fashioned and unnecessary. The forces of modernity first exacerbated prejudice—then overwhelmed it.
It is partially true that the change was not achieved deliberately, but it is quite misleading to suggest that modernity overwhelmed “ancient prejudice” to defeat femicide in South Korea.
The chief trigger for the end of mass femicide and the mass entrance of girls into school and women into the workforce in South Korea has not been modernization but Christianization. For statistics on religious adherence in South Korea and the cultural and political importance of Protestant Christianity in that country, go here and here. The upticks and downticks, significant though they are, only begin to reveal the tectonic shifts underway in Korean society. In order to get a sense of the dynamism of Christianity in South Korea, one must look beyond statistics. Examples: here and here.
Korean Christianity, schools open to girls, and increased opportunities for women in the work force (however non-deliberate) have gone together in post-war South Korea. It is probably not too much to say that the enculturation of Christianity in the Korean context, in particular, in its Presbyterian, Methodist, and Roman Catholic permutations, has been the primary cultural slope on which cultural change has occurred in South Korea. For a first orientation with respect to Korean Protestantism, see the review article of a study by Chung-Shin Park here; the volume is partially available on Google books.
Korean Christianity remains strongly complementarian in the pulpit and the home: hardly surprising, given the compatibility of New Testament teaching with traditional Korean mores in that sense. At the same time, the essential content of the Christian message as transmitted in Korea stands in contradiction to femicide, not to mention abortion of any kind. This has had results in the formation of new taboos whose influence has been far-reaching. Roman Catholicism in particular has taken off in the last twenty years in South Korea. A stronger bulwark against femicide is difficult to imagine.
This is nothing new, as Cheryl Cline rightly points out, Rodney Stark did not put too fine a point on it in his blockbuster book entitled The Rise of Christianity. Stark summarized his findings with respect to Christianity of the first five centuries in a 1994 interview; key graf:
You seem to argue that Christianity was an overwhelmingly good social force for women.
RS: It was! Christian women had tremendous advantages compared to the woman next door, who was like them in every way except that she was a pagan. First, when did you get married? Most pagan girls were married off around age 11, before puberty, and they had nothing to say about it, and they got married to some 35-year-old guy. Christian women had plenty of say in the matter and tended to marry around age 18.
Abortion was a huge killer of women in this period, but Christian women were spared that. And infanticide—pagans killed little girls left and right. We’ve unearthed sewers clogged with the bones of newborn girls. But Christians prohibited this. Consequently, the sex ratio changed and Christians didn’t have the enormous shortage of women that plagued the rest of the empire.
What about in the Church itself? How did women find their place?
RS: Women were leaders in the early Church. Paul makes that clear. And we have Pliny’s letter in which he says that among the people he’s tortured were two “deaconesses.” We’re not helped by Bible translations that render “deaconess” as “deacon’s wife.” I’m not saying the Church was ordaining women in those days. Of course it wasn’t. But women were leaders, and probably a disproportionate number of the early Christians were women.
Some of their husbands may or may not have been, but the women were there. There’s another thing we don’t understand: In every single society of which we have any evidence at all, women are more religious than men. We’re not sure why. But what that has meant is that religious movements are disproportionately female. That’s certainly turned up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when we have good numbers. People in the early Church remarked on it back then. The early church fathers noticed that the movement had more women.
What chance is there that capitalists of the kind that write for the Economist, social conservatives like Albert Mohler and Robert Colquhoun, and mainstream feminists will agree on a path forward such that femicide is eliminated in our lifetimes? Nil, because the solutions democratic capitalists and feminists reach for have already been tried, and have failed. Femicide is illegal in India and China. [It was legalized in Sweden in 2009. Go figure.] But you can only coerce people into doing what you want so far. The Economist nonetheless hopes that government policies will turn the tide. That is unrealistic. Pathetically unrealistic.
At some point, a culture’s innermost values have to be turned upside down. Robust and relatively traditional forms of Christianity are best adapted to do this, if the goal is to end mass femicide. Believers and non-believers ought to be able to agree on that. But they won’t. Regardless, I can’t see how the next 100 million girls to be aborted or starved to death in India and China have a chance in hell not to be, without the adoption by their parents of a culture of life of the kind classical forms of Christianity are best adapted to disseminate in traditional contexts.
If this topic has been touched on by other bibliobloggers, I haven’t run across it.
Mark Noll, “What Korean Believers Can Learn from American Evangelical History,” in idem, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009); Chung-Shin Park, Protestantism and Politics in Korea (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003) [review article here]; Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996)