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40. Piety as a Social Habit
What remains of the alleged piety of women is little more than a social
habit, reinforced in most communities by a paucity of other and more
inviting divertissements. If you have ever observed the women of Spain
and Italy at their devotions you need not be told how much the worship
of God may be a mere excuse for relaxation and gossip. These women, in
their daily lives, are surrounded by a formidable network of mediaeval
taboos; their normal human desire for ease and freedom in intercourse is
opposed by masculine distrust and superstition; they meet no strangers;
they see and hear nothing new. In the house of the Most High they escape
from that vexing routine. Here they may brush shoulders with a crowd.
Here, so to speak, they may crane their mental necks and stretch their
spiritual legs. Here, above all, they may come into some sort of contact
with men relatively more affable, cultured and charming than their
husbands and fathers--to wit, with the rev. clergy.
Elsewhere in Christendom, though women are not quite so relentlessly
watched and penned up, they feel much the same need of variety and
excitement, and both are likewise on tap in the temples of the Lord.
No one, I am sure, need be told that the average missionary society
or church sewing circle is not primarily a religious organization. Its
actual purpose is precisely that of the absurd clubs and secret orders
to which the lower and least resourceful classes of men belong: it
offers a means of refreshment, of self-expression, of personal display,
of political manipulation and boasting, and, if the pastor happens to be
interesting, of discreet and almost lawful intrigue. In the course of a
life largely devoted to the study of pietistic phenomena, I have never
met a single woman who cared an authentic damn for the actual heathen.
The attraction in their salvation is always almost purely social. Women
go to church for the same reason that farmers and convicts go to church.
Finally, there is the aesthetic lure. Religion, in most parts of
Christendom, holds out the only bait of beauty that the inhabitants are
ever cognizant of. It offers music, dim lights, relatively ambitious
architecture, eloquence, formality and mystery, the caressing
meaninglessness that is at the heart of poetry. Women are far more
responsive to such things than men, who are ordinarily quite as devoid
of aesthetic sensitiveness as so many oxen. The attitude of the typical
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