'Horrifically sexist attitudes' and other reasons women should abandon religion

In her new play Unholy, playwright Diane Flacks examines the misogyny inherent in organized religion and debates if women should walk away from it altogether.
L to R Barbara Gordon, Bahareh Yaraghi, Niki Landau, Blair Williams and Diane Flacks in the play Unholy by Diane Flacks, produced by Nightwood Theatre. (John Lauener)
Listen25:42

For her entire adult life, Canadian playwright Diane Flacks has been outraged with the "horrifically sexist attitudes" that exist within the religion of her birth - Judaism - as well as most other major world religions.

That outrage led Flacks to a question that underlies her most recent play, Unholy:  should women turn their backs on organized religions or try to change them from within?

The play takes the form of a four-woman debate. Two of the characters are against religion, the other two believe women should embrace it.

Why women should walk away from religion

L to R Diane Flacks and Barbara Gordon in the play Unholy by Diane Flacks, produced by Nightwood Theatre. (John Lauener)

Liz Feldman-Grant and Margaret Donohue are the two characters who believe women should give up on organized religion in its current form.

Liz is a committed atheist who argues the only way forward is for women to reject religion entirely:

"Religion is so harmful and damaging to women that it is really time that we ourselves say enough. They tried it, it didn't work. They tried it for five thousand years, it didn't work. It's dangerous to women and now it's time for us to say 'Ok, look, if you even support it a tiny bit,' if you even say 'I'm not religious but I believe in God,' you're fuelling this system that oppresses, dismisses, and harms women."  

The character of Margaret is inspired by the true story of a nun who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church after sanctioning an abortion to save the mother's life.

Flacks says this sudden exile led Margaret - and the real-life woman she's based on - to reject the Church as it is and advocate for major reform.

"She thinks the Church itself needs to be shaken up and Jesus' teachings of mercy and compassion and love are what the Church needs to come back to."

Why women should embrace religion

L to R Diane Flacks and Bahareh Yaraghi in the play Unholy by Diane Flacks, produced by Nightwood Theatre. (John Lauener)

The counter argument in Unholy is made by two characters who stand firmly within their religions.

Maryam Hashemi is a young Muslim who believes women are in the best position to bridge the differences between their feminism and their religion.

Flacks sums up Maryam's perspective like this:

"Women can multitask. Women hold duality of thought. Women can have cognitive dissonance because we are literally about life and death in the same moment. We can deal with pain and rage and we can deal with feminism and religion and we can have them both. Her argument is, it will nourish us."

The character Yehudit Kalb is a feminist leader within the Orthodox Jewish community. She believes her religion has so much to offer that women only stand to gain by embracing it and helping it progress.

"Orthodox Judaism is changing. They're recognizing that they need to let women in as leaders of the community because there's way too many questions that a lot of the male rabbis are just not able to answer."

Writing both sides of the argument settles playwright's mind

Writing Unholy served as a kind of thought experiment for Flacks as she wrestled with the diverse perspectives. She says creating the characters and working through their arguments affected how she regards religion and spirituality.

Before writing Unholy, Flacks was most aligned with the views of her character Liz, who believes organized religion and faith in God are impediments to equality.

It's a hard line view Flacks no longer holds.

"I don't think I would say that now. I would say, 'pick the best things and use it in your own way.'"


Diane Flacks is an award-winning performer, screenwriter and playwright. Nightwood Theatre has mounted a production of her play Unholy at Toronto's Buddies In Bad Times Theatre. It will be on stage through February 5, 2017.