Regular listeners to my podcast will know that last week I interviewed an atheist activist, Amy Davis Roth, who has been working as part of a larger effort to fight a particularly nasty and virulent form of sexism in the community of activist atheists. The ugliness Amy discussed has continued, and this week, it’s unfortunately meant that an excellent blogger has decided to quit rather than continue risking outing by a man who has a remarkably aggressive commitment to making conferences safe for sexual harassers. This blogger, who goes by the name Natalie Reed, has written a moving piece about her disillusionment that I highly recommend you read.
I share Natalie’s distress at the recent discovery that the atheist/skeptic movement has a not-small and certainly loud subset of participants whose sexism is so strong that they’d rather run women out of the movement altogether rather than endure the indignity of treating women like people. For me, being an outspoken atheist has always been firmly intertwined with my feminism, and in fact, really it’s the result of my feminism. I never really believed in a god of any sort, but the notion that atheism is important and should be talked about openly is one I only really developed because it serves the larger goal of creating a world that has true gender equality. Atheist activism for me has always been about the long game, because I believe that undermining religion’s death grip on power is what needs to be done for women to be truly equal.
Feminism and atheism are intertwined for me both on a philosophical and pragmatic level. Philosophically, I’ve always thought that making the question “are women people” a matter of theological debate is silly. One side quotes one Bible verse and another quotes one back, and really, the people who believe women are vessels aren’t wrong to think the Bible has their back. From the very first book of the Bible, women are cast as creatures that exist to serve men and not as full human beings in their own right. Various other religious traditions have the same problem of casting men as people and women as appendages. That runs so contrary to what seems obvious to me, that women are people just as much as men.
It was atheist thinkers who I first encountered who had an explanation for gender that comported better with the real world evidence. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal text “The Second Sex”, laid out a rationale for feminism that was firmly rooted in her atheist existentialist philosophy. To wildly oversimplify her extremely long argument: There is no God. Therefore, there is no higher authority telling us what we are here “for”. Therefore we have the right to define our own purpose for ourselves. There is no rational reason that this right should only be extended to men, because again, there’s no higher power assigning one gender the role of leaders and the other of servants. Thus, women are equal to men, and as a matter of human decency, should have the same right to self-determination. Elegant, persuasive, and above all other things, logical and evidence-based. Atheism, by all rights, should lead to feminism, I thought. It’s just what’s rational.
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Atheism in service of feminism drew me in for pragmatic reasons, too. The biggest battle over women’s rights in this country revolves around reproductive rights, which makes it a battle over faith, since there is no evidence-based, rational argument for restricting a woman’s right to choose if and when she gives birth. Nor is there really an argument outside of a faith-based one to believe that a brainless embryo is the equivalent to a baby; to ignore the scientific reality that women create other people in our bodies by gestating them in favor of believing men create other people by ejaculating means a belief that the act of conception is supernatural, that a Christian idea of the “soul” is somehow injected into an egg along with a sperm. Even anti-choicers grasp this; they “believe” that “life begins at conception.” It’s a belief. It has no relationship with the facts. And that belief is fundamentally religious in nature. That’s why it’s important to understand that attempts to ban abortion or get fertilized eggs legally defined as “persons” are attempts to violate the First Amendment and use the state to impose a certain kind of religious dogma.
For this reason, it seemed to me that supporting the growing atheist movement would benefit reproductive rights in the long run. Anti-choicers insist that the debate over choice is a theological one over when “life,” i.e. ensoulment begins. If the public at large understood that a substantial percentage of Americans don’t believe in souls at all, then it would be much easier to see why the theological question of when “life” begins has no place in the law at all. Same story with gay rights; if you don’t believe in a supernatural higher power assigning gender roles and telling us what sex and marriage are “for,” then there’s no argument against equality for gays and lesbians. It’s not that I thought everyone needs to de-convert to get these things, but more that if the public at large accepted atheism as a legitimate way of life, that would make it easier for them to understand why religious arguments have no place in making policy, because the law should serve the religious and non-religious alike. The only way it can do that is by letting those matters be decided on a personal level, and not by imposing one group’s religious dogma as law.
Of course, all these arguments depended on an atheist movement comprised of people who saw the way that religion and patriarchy are intertwined, and saw that refusing to believe in God, if followed to its logical conclusion, means abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men. In my interactions with the atheist movement, I would say most activist atheists do see these things and have logically come around to feminism because of it. But as Natalie Reed and others have discovered, a not-insubstantial percentage of atheist men have convinced themselves they can both not believe in a god and somehow still conclude that women were put (by who?) here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men. And that therefore women who rebel against that by, say, demanding the right not to be sexually harassed just because some guy feels like it, are evil witches who need to be fiercely attacked. All these years, irrational sexists have thought they needed a God to rely on to tell women that our bodies belong to men and not to us. But it turns out that plenty of men feel that they themselves are the only authority needed to take away this basic right of women’s.