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.
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.