Atheism, therefore Feminism

Does being an atheist imply that one is (or should be) a feminist? The answer, according to me, is “yes”. Like many others , I implicitly thought that people who were skeptics and atheists, who rail against the oppression of fundamentalist religion, must stand for a whole bunch of Good Things and against a whole bunch of Bad Things. I assumed they were for liberty, justice, and equality, and against racism, homophobia, sexism, and misogyny.

It turns out that I, and the many others, were wrong. In case you missed it, one bit of the internet has spent some considerable proportion of its time discussing sexism and feminism. The bit of the net I am talking about is the section of the blogosphere centered around the freethought and skepchick blog networks .

A year ago, Rebecca Watson said “Guys, don’t do that” and craziness ensued . The subsequent debates about what is or isn’t acceptable behavior and what does and doesn’t count as sexual harassment led to discussions about sexual harassment policies at conferences . In June 2012, Rebecca explained why she wouldn’t be attending a conference.

Later in June, freethoughtblogs added Thunderf00t to their roster, and he immediately started spewing all kinds of nastiness about sexual harassment. In early July he was booted from the network, and in August it was revealed that he had access to confidential information about freethought bloggers . This led to a very distressing post by Natalie Reed.

Then there’s the campaign against skepchick Surly Amy . And the “feminazi” name calling aimed at freethoughtblogs and skepchick. And probably a whole bunch of other stuff that I don’t remember or didn’t see, given the vast amount of traffic on sexism and feminism.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, and don’t have several hours to read everything I linked to above, here’s the brief summary: it turns out there are many people in the atheist/skeptic community who really hate feminists and feminism, and are willing to wish horrible fates on women who dare to argue that sexism exists within the community and should be dealt with.

So, given the fact that many people who identify as atheists, skeptics, and freethinkers clearly do not identify as feminists, why should I claim that atheism logically implies feminism. Well, there is a sense in which it doesn’t. Atheism means not believing in gods. Nothing else. From a definitional standpoint, arguing that atheism implies anything other than not believing in gods is incorrect. However, atheism as a movement has moved beyond the dictionary definition of the term. A lot of people have stated that dictionary atheism isn’t enough, and that being skeptical should go beyond debunking bigfoot, Loch Ness monster, or alien sightings. What is missing from the old-school of skepticism and atheism is an interest in social justice.

Yes, tarot readers and mediums do prey on their customers, and shouldn’t get away with it, and of course we should be combating religious institutions’ interference in secular life. But we should be asking ourselves why we care about these things. We could say we care about religious interference in secular American life because it is unconstitutional/illegal, and we could argue that the whole point of the United States is freedom of religion, and this is true but, again, it is a narrow technical explanation. If true, then people in other countries should not be trying to promote secularism and we shouldn’t care what happens in those countries as they do not have legal protection against religious influence.

We care about the influence of religion, not just because it violates laws, but because of the real-world outcomes. These include outcomes that atheists and skeptics have been working against for decades, such as the dilution of science education in order to weaken evolution and promote creationism. A good science education is incredibly important, but there are other negative outcomes to fight against as well. Anti-choicers are largely driven by religious motivations, as are those who do not want gays to marry. Those in the middle east who do not like the idea of girls getting educated, and who don’t want women driving, using cell phones, going out in public on their own, or wearing what they want are driven, at least in part, by their religion.

We care about what happens to people who belong to minority ethnic groups, what happens to gays, what happens to the poor, what happens to the starving, what happens to inhabitants of war-torn countries, and what happens to women all over the world for a reason. That reason is not that their suffering is caused (or aided and abetted) by religious individuals and institutions. The reason is that we care what happens to people: we do not like to see others suffer. Why? Because we are moral beings with empathy.

I have often heard the argument that morality derives from faith in the divine, and that atheists in particular have no reason to be moral beings. In fact, just recently one of my friends was relating an anecdote about a conversation he had in his workplace. My friend’s atheism was mentioned by one colleague to a second colleague; the second colleague turned to my friend, shocked, and asked whether my friend was really a nihilist and whether he really thought that life was meaningless and that we have no reason to behave well towards others.

One of my earliest memories of my teenage proto-atheism is my reaction to these words from chapter 9 of The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge :

Now that we know that the only thing on the other side of the sky is more sky, the idea of an afterlife has finally been slid into the history books alongside the rest of the quaint and forgotten religions. With heaven and hell gone we are faced with the necessity of making a heaven or hell right here. What with societies and metatechnology and allied disciplines we have come a long way, and life on the civilized worlds is better than it ever was during the black days of superstition. But with the improving of here and now comes the stark realization that here and now is all we have. Each of us has only this one brief experience with the bright light of consciousness in that endless dark night of eternity and must make the most of it. Doing this means we must respect the existence of everyone else and the most criminal act imaginable is the terminating of one of these conscious existences.

My reaction: Oh, wow, that is so evidently true. And coherent.

I was thinking about this quotation just a few days ago. The next day Harry Harrison , the author of the Stainless Steel Rat books, passed away .

My point (I realize that it may not be clear yet) is that atheism does not end with the dictionary definition. I find it hard to see how one can state “I believe in no gods” and then move on without considering the implications. The passage quoted above was the first implication that was made clear to me. This is all there is. There is not afterlife, no eternal reward; putting up with oppression and abuse in the hope that it will all be alright in the next life is tragic. Oppressing and abusing others, whilst offering them hope of some karmic balance in another life, is criminal.

Another implication of atheism is feminism, as described by Amanda Marcotte :

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.

Other implications of atheism relate to reproductive rights and gay rights:

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.

This is why so many people were so shocked and confused when a number of men and women who identify as atheists started a campaign of verbal harassment, abuse, and threats against other women and men who identify as atheists and feminists. The confusion derives from the incoherence of an atheist taking an anti-feminist stance. As Amanda Marcotte puts it,

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.

Paul Fidalgo, the Communications Director for the Center for Inquiry, also points out that there has to be more to atheism than disbelief :

This movement (not merely the community of heretics, but the movement) is about lessening the power of religion, superstition, and credulous thinking because we want to live in a world guided by facts, science, and reason, because (and here’s the part I might lose some of you) we want to live in a world that maximizes human happiness, morality, freedom of thought and expression, and equality. Atheism and skepticism for their own sakes are not “causes.” They are not, in and of themselves, worthy of a movement. But we pursue these goals because we know they will bring about a society in which we are more free and equal, and in turn we will be more fulfilled and enriched as a result.

This quotation comes from one of fifteen (so far) statements made by men in leadership roles that have been posted on skepchick, in response to a request made by Surly Amy. These statements are just one of several positive things that have emerged from the discussions of sexism and feminism (although I do want to be clear that lots of *very* negative things have happened too, as outlined at the beginning of this post). A second major outcome is the formation of Secular Woman , a society whose mission is “to amplify the voice, presence, and influence of non-religious women”. A third outcome is in progress: it is fairly clear that the sense of direction and identity of the atheist movement is changing. I think it has been moving beyond the “second wave” of atheism spearheaded by Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett for some time, but recent events have put a sharper focus on issues that go beyond whether there is a god. Jen McCreight is calling for a third wave of atheism :

It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

The future of atheism will, I hope, be a movement that both implicitly and explicitly stands for humanism.

8 thoughts on “Atheism, therefore Feminism

  1. I started reading your article and felt that I was similarly bemused by the issue you’ve identified.

    I often struggle with the term feminism, because I see it as a onesided logic. We’re all human, so lets just drop the gender differentiation altogether and be egalitarians. Using the “fem” in feminism just implies an ongoing battle of one gender over another, a seesaw effect or a two sided battle, which it shouldn’t be. In my view, feminists will never achieve last equality until they ditch the “us Vs them” label. Hopefully one day that will happen. Hopefully that gives you a flavour of my stance.

    On reading your summary (i confess to not reading the links), and seeing the logical explanations of the atheist feminists whom you quote, it actually all seems to slide into place quite logically: patriarchal and monotheistic religions are just that; pro male and therefore at least sometimes quite sexist. What also seems like a logical progression for me, is that they’re promoted and propagated with a bunch of made up stories and rules, intended to control people, sometimes these stories are great anecdotes to help live a positive life but sometimes too, they follow the rules that the sexists within the pro male religions want people to believe.

    It doesn’t make much imagination to see why sexists may have come up with rules of gender hierarchy or authority within these abrahamic relgions.

    I find it interesting that I too had always assumed that pro atheists would also be egalitarians and generally right on in other ways. Perhaps what you’ve identified is actually the beginning of an areligious denominational divide! In the beginning of Christianity, there was only a bunch of people who accepted the teachings of some great teacher, story teller or rabbi. Later, the followers started to come up with their own twists on his views and started to assume logical development of his rules or teachings. Pretty soon after the church began to split up and now we have catholics and protestants blowing each other up for the shared love of an imaginary bearded man who lives in the clouds.

    In conclusion, perhaps it would be safer to stick to the dictionary definition of atheist, and leave the sexists to it. I’m all in favour of also being an egalitarian and using that as my defining label. Doing so is certainly safer than assuming all atheists believe the same things, over and above the lack of a belief in god. Now, let’s go and research who has hijacked the term “egalitarian”!

    • Hi Chris!

      You raise a couple of interesting points. First, it is quite common for people to completely agree with equal rights and privilege for women but claim they are not feminists, which seems contradictory to me. Part of the problem here is that has been a lot of negative spin on the concept of feminism, leading to the caricature of the radical, militant, man-hating, feminist. This leads people who should consider themselves to be feminists (on the grounds that they don’t think women are inferior) to shy away from identifying as one because they think this implies female superiority and the ongoing gender battle you refer to. So there is a need for feminism to equate to egalitarianism in the public consciousness. (NB. I do realize that there are many different types of feminism, and they are not all the same, but I use the term in a basic “equality” sense).

      Second, regarding the split in atheism. One way it could go is that there are two groups, one is purely atheist, the other atheist/humanist/egalitarian. However, as I describe above, I think being a sexist (or racist, or homophobe) atheist is problematic, so I would sooner see the public space of atheism evolve into a place in which bigotry is not welcome. This does not, of course, stop bigots from identifying as atheists, but would hopefully lead to an implicit concept of atheism as being egalitarian.

    • Interesting points. The very concept of gender roles as we experience them in this century are 100% made up of civilisational/cultural descendants of religious patriarchy. Abandoning celestial sky daddies is quite easy, significant percentages of the population do so, what is hard to do apparently is throw away the BS (NOT science based patriarchal opinions) that accompany that belief system.
      No, being ant-god is certainly not enough, it is indeed an incomplete definition of “atheist”, to reject gods must come with rejecting the BS moral codes that man-made gods create in the name of “gods”.
      That is where a large percentage of the two last decades of atheists fails miserably, we’ve reduce the definition of atheist to its lowest possible denominator.
      But I disagree with you on the “social justice” aspect. That is an moral absolutist perception (common among Humanists).
      The reason there are few females active in atheist circles is because of the rampant sexism. This was brought about by the male dominated egalitarian movement “be my equal but don’t mess with my authority”. Females content with egalitarianism are just as deluded as males content with decrying gods without decrying the moral BS.
      It’s not about social justice, it’s not about the stupid atheism+ crowd, it’s about science and knowledge. As we argue to faithers that there is no evidence of gods, as a biologist working the fields of paleontology and archeology and anthropology, I can assure you that there is no evidence for patriarchy being intrinsic to the human experience.
      So it’s not a matter of social justice or “rights” or “minority groups” that females must stand up and emancipate ourselves, it’s because there is absolutely no biological foundation to behave any other way. Our sex is male and female and before patriarchy took over the world (different places at different times), females were not the breeding/cleaning slaves of males. In fact there is not anthrolopological evidence that we even shared our daily existence. Our biology simply does not display that evolutionary pattern. Gender (as opposed to sex), gender roles, are a social construct, to the very same extent that patriarchy and faith are social constructs.
      Feminism must become atheist to advance, I would not for a second wait for the male atheist movement to make that happen. And the small percentage of females who have career and economic privilege in this world must stop bitching against the feminism that allowed this return of female emancipation to happen.

      It’s two-fold, down with gender, up with sex/sexual emancipation!

  2. Agreed. I’ve taken a Camusean perspective on all this and think that: there’s no God and no afterlife, therefore we should do as much as we can to improve the lives for as many people as we can (i.e., feminism and social justice) so they can live the one life how they want, rather than struggle and flounder in an uncaring society. An “I am, therefore we revolt,” kind of thing.

  3. My one issue is with the quote by Amanda Marcotte. It is a flagrant strawman. The vast majority of the opposition on the various issues thrown about this past year do not feel this way. Most, if not all, have spoken directly against this view when confronted. Most would (and many do) loudly decry the second hand status of women in countries like Saudi Arabia. The major problem is that they do not see or appreciate from their privileged position the challenges that women face even in the first world. They seem unable to empathize with women who have been subject to harassment and bullying and can’t see how it’s different from the hazing they themselves may have experienced online. They are reacting largely defensively to what they incorrectly perceive as an unjust attack upon themselves and their movement. Before you change their minds and address their arguments, you have to at least know what they are.

    • I agree that many of the men (and women) in opposition to the pro-feminist issues have revealed themselves to be lacking empathy, and do not identify with flaming misogynists. I also agree that this distinction is important for exactly the reason you outline. However, it is also true that there are many who have revealed some very disgusting and disturbing true colors (see the comments that Greta Christina has recently discussed, for example)

  4. Pingback: Check your privilege! Part 2 | Cognitive Revolution

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