Why Atheism is Consistent with Feminism and Pro-Choice Positions


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.

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.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte

  • freetobe

    I am not an atheist because I believe in Jesus but I also do not believe in Religion. I know that as a woman I am definitely a human with all the same basic wants and needs as other humans and my DNA would confirm that. There is no question women are human!

    If you look at the animal and plant kingdoms all creatures were given a strong will to survive.  The strongest make it, the others don’t. I think that we are all still evolving.  Evolution is a very slow process so therefore I have come to think that humans just have not evolved enough to be past the point of survival ism.

    In other words something I have noticed in pets and some wildlife is the ability to think differently than just surviving. To get      past the fear and desperation of survival to learn something new out   of the usual.  Example: Chickens can learn their name.  Dolphins can help lost ships find their way. Elephants who were saved by a kind man returned to his home on their own when he died and stayed a week to grieve and pay their respects. (fascinating real story) Wolves mourn for thier dead up to 9 days and some birds stay with their recently killed mates to grieve.

    All of these animals have gone outside the normal survival mode and learned something new.

    Humans are animals we always forget that. We are the highest of animals regardless of being created by God or not. We are still animals and so therefore I beleive this is why human instinct that we try to deny, is much stronger than what we have always though. Survival is ever calling. Instincts, natural and very strong are always guiding us even when we don’t want them to like for some, the urge to reproduce. People think that it is just and act but it is actually one of the most important acts to insure survival of any species. The main reason that abstinence only does not     work! Our animal instincts are much stronger than what we seem to beleive. That is why most relegious organizations want us to fight those natural instincts for a higher and better existance. To please the creator and show Him we are evolving into spirits of a purer nature. The soul is the most important thing in many religions, it is the real existance of who we are in relation to God.

    It is my humble thoughts that this is purely about evolution not sexism. I have to keep kicking myself over and over to practice what I preach because really it feels bad to be thought of as a punching  bag, door mat and baby machine. We women have evolved a little faster than our counterparts. We are still waiting for the male of species to catch up.  it is the only hope I have left for our sisters of the future. I sense so much aggression,control,anger (all survival in the wild actions) and self hate (evolutional) in the male gender and it is not very pleasant to be around anymore.

     

     

  • lioness

    Sometimes it seems like the assholes will be with us always.

  • dasregal

    Atheism and Feminism are certainly consistent and complimentary, but to claim that one leads to the other philosophically is to go too far.

    Feminism is not simply a rejection of the idea that one sex was created to serve another.  Today Feminism is the idea that both, any, and all genders should be held in equal esteem.

    To show that inequality is not by design, is not to show that equality is how things should be.  You’re confusing an is and an ought, unless you’re not making the claim that one logically leads to another, in which case Hume isn’t shaking his head in disapproval.

  • curiouscliche

    This is a great post. I don’t mean to attack Atheists, because as an Agnostic I realize that Atheists do the vast majority of the work for religious liberty, and most Agnostics just snipe at them with a sense of ungrateful self-superiority. But I do want to point out that there’s historical precedent for the existence of misogyny among groups who don’t believe in God(s).

     

    Confucianism is considered to be a secular/humanist philosophy amongst most scholars, as opposed to a religion (although there are certain Deist aspects, and Neo-Confucianism is highly influenced by Daoism and Buddhism). However, patriarchy, strict gender roles, and the primacy of a certain narrow family structure are integral components of the philosophy. The justification was that social order was thought to be impossible without sexism. Of course, like all philosophies and texts, there have been thousands of years of conflict between groups trying to entrench or claim power by trying to deploy Confucianism in the name of their own causes. So, it’s wrong to say that Confucianism was monolithic. But I think this does show that abandoning Theocracy won’t guarantee the end of gender-based oppression. It’s almost definitely necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

     

    Most likely, the only way to truly end gender-based oppression is to end every form of oppression. As long as there are systems that put one group of people over others, whether they’re white, male, rich, religious, straight, or some other category, there’s always the potential to create new forms of oppression, or revert to older ones.

  • julie-watkins

    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.

    I’ve ranted a lot about biology — for the sake of evolving a larger brains childbirth for human females is much more risky than for other primates. If evolution happend that way because god wanted it, then a lot of women were forced/are forced to make an unchosen sacrifice for the sake of the species as a whole. And society tends to take advantage.

    I guess I’m agnostic, leaning heavily toward atheism (of the non-activist sort). I say this because I know of many social justice people who are profoundly religious, and I consider myself a fellow traveler with their social justice activism.

    But personally, my thoughts are that if god exists

    He’s sexist and classist

    She’s not all-powerful

    or

    It isn’t a personal god (acts on a macro level)

  • prochoiceferret

    It isn’t a personal god (acts on a macro level)

     

    I always thought it was funny that if there were a Supreme Being who created the universe and everything in it, and had as much regard for humanity and human civilization as Donald Trump has for the ants living at the edge of one of his golf courses… people of faith really wouldn’t find that much better than atheism.

  • kuroukaze

    Confuscianism isn’t a secular or humanist philosophy, as its whole foundation is based in The Mandate of Heaven. Without the idea of Heaven and Right Action (which are based in religious moralizing), it wouldn’t have a foundation. As well, Tao and Buddhism are both non-deistic theological systems – no gods but there’s definitely supernatural elements and religious thinking.

    All of these systems are also theological. They’re not based on rigurous philosophy, they’re based on moralizing statements.

    Atheism does lead, necessarily, to abandoning reasoning based on theosophical and theological presumptions. If one eliminates theological systems and force rigorous philosophical constructs, oppression should evaporate as there is no rigurous and logical reason to oppress anyone.

  • kuroukaze

    There is no confusion of Is and Ought. It’s a matter of logical conclusions.

    If one removes theological and theosophical assumptions and follows rigurous philosophical examination, one cannot find a reason to deny feminism. In fact, one fines only reasons to support feminism.

    Likewise, if one follows feminist thought all the way to end, the false authority and irrational basis that theosophy and theology rely on in order to create moral organization is irrational and useless.

    Rigurous philosophy always defeats theology on a long enough time line due to the difference in need and difference in focus. Eventually, all religions hit a wall where they are either irrational or anti-feminist. Even the goddess-worship, non-confrontational, moderate neo-pagan religions.

    I think you’re looking at the upper levels, the very skin on the water, and determining that these statements are the absolute and essential elements of both philosophies. Follow those philosophies to their logical conclusions, though, and they eventually coincide.

  • julie-watkins

    Heh. That was a grin, thanks.

  • euphony618

    The recent publicity of sexual harassment has really brought the sexist atheists out of the woodwork. Through some acquaintances, I know one of these bloggers personally. He’s a bigshot in Northeast PA and can’t quite hide his sexism while claiming to be feminist (the one time I talked to him, he criticized my use of the word “feminist” to describe myself and said humanist is better because it isn’t exclusive to women). He picks apart your article on his blog.

    http://www.justinvacula.com/2012/08/atheism-has-nothing-to-do-with-feminism.html

     

    Clearly sexist atheists do exist when they take your personal account of your beliefs out of context…

  • curiouscliche

    I wouldn’t say its foundation is the Mandate of Heaven (which seems to only apply to the emperor and the political realm). If there’s a foundational concept, it seems like it’s The Way. The arguments for sexism in Confucianism mostly rely on a naturalistic fallacy, so women are confined to narrow gender roles because that’s how it should be, and this ensures harmony with nature and social order. To say that this is a religious justification seems to be a stretch to me, because what it most resembles is the misogyny of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology is dominated by charlatans, but I don’t think one can reasonably call it a religion. Besides, the analects themselves say that they’re concerned with humanity, and not the supernatural: “The Master never talked of: miracles; violence; disorders; spirits.”

     

    Anyway, the point of my comment is that I think it’s over-optimistic to think that opression can be ended with only rigorous logic and philosophical constructs. I think what’s necessary is a cultural change where equality and justice are considered the most important social values, and while religion can get in the way of those values, it’s not the only obstacle. Capitalism is just as big of a problem.

  • maiac

    …called deism? AKA what most of the U.S. Founders believed?

    :)

  • prochoiceferret

    …called deism? AKA what most of the U.S. Founders believed?

     

    Deism is where God doesn’t intervene in the natural/human world (a.k.a. “clockwork universe”). I don’t think it says anything about God being concerned or not with human affairs.

     

    (So it could be like where God is watching us on a reality TV show, eagerly following all the sniping and bickering and killing each other, but can’t call in to vote anyone off the island…)

     

  • caldreaming

    Powerful stuff.  I do agree with you that there is still plenty of sexism in the world and especially here in the U.S.  As a male atheist myself though, I’m not a sexist but it still does exist, I know.  I think racism is just as huge a problem here as sexism.  Some of the biggest racists I have met claim to be religious. Every race brings something value to the table, (male and female), and we really need all that available talent to help make our country successful again.  As long as religions seek to influence our government then Democracy is in peril.  ”Live and let live” has always been my motto until these last years.  I can’t sit by and stick my head in the ground while the religious wrong wing tries to change the laws that all of us have to live by.  I do believe in freedom of religion but that means not trying to force others to follow you.  

    Science admits openly that it works with theories while religion attempts to eliminate the scientific process to be replaced with fiction.  Religion hasn’t done mankind one bit of good.  All religion is radical and all gods are false.  All religion leads to war and corruption since absolute power corrupts absolutely.  All you have to do is study the history of the Vatican to see the blood, murder, corruption and war, all in the name of comic book superheroes.  Only the mythical god knows what we could have become if we hadn’t been side-tracked with mythology.  

    One thing is certain though; evolution marches forward.  I think we will find that the disease of religion will be eliminated from our species as we continue to evolve.  We are scientific creatures not magical creatures.  There’s no such thing as gods, ghosts or superheroes and the only monsters are human.