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Feminism with atheism: two great tastes that go together

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, November 23, 2009 16:15 EDT
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Image by Kate O’Brien.

It’s been fascinating to me, as someone who takes an interest in skeptical and atheist activism, to watch the growing feminist/egalitarian consciousness rising up in the movement, as women and people of color have started to protest their marginalization. This series of posts is well worth reading; I’d like to gently suggest to PZ that the problem that I see is more than benign neglect. When I was at The Amazing Meeting, what was immediately obvious to me was that the movement is afraid of what they’d do without libertarians, in terms of numbers, and the problem with attracting libertarians is that you can’t offend their sexist/racist beliefs without them threatening to take their ball and go home. But because of this, the movement is missing a great opportunity to recruit women and people of color. It’s also inculcating an analysis of religion and belief in the supernatural that’s off-base, because it doesn’t incorporate feminism.

I went to the movie “Religulous” and enjoyed it; however, it’s more than a little bit counterproductive to have a raging misogynist like Bill Maher be a leader in an atheist/agnostic movement. This is because you can’t really understand the rising tide of fundamentalism if you ignore its anti-feminist reactionary aspects. It’s far from a coincidence that fundamentalism rose up after women worldwide started to taste freedom of the likes we have not traditionally had and that fundamentalists are preoccupied with using the fear of female sexuality as a scare tactic to give them cover to oppress women. Someone like Maher can only get as far as resenting that fundies want to restrict his access to sex as part of the program, but he’s disinterested in going further, because to do so is to admit that women are that important. Christopher Hitchens is an even bigger dingbat, because his racism against non-white people has caused him to treat Islam as if it were a special threat. But history shows that all religions have the power to help rationalize violence and justify oppression, and his racism prevents him from taking this truth seriously enough, and he gives atheists a bad name. Luckily, Maher’s star is falling as he continues to plug his irrational fear of vaccines and “Western” medicine (does he think that if you go to the East you won’t find medical doctors and scientists?), but if people had been paying attention to his irrational sexism, they would have been less surprised.

Because sexism is irrational. PZ Myers gets this, and I’d argue that not only does Richard Dawkins get this, but a lot of his atheist ideas stem directly from feminist analysis, sometimes radical feminist analysis. For instance, Dawkins’ special focus on children’s rights is some radical shit, but the idea that children are oppressed and denied the right to conscience within the family unit is something straight out of radical feminist critiques of the patriarchy. Dawkins has also forwarded arguments against the objectification of animals in a way that echoes feminist critiques of the mistreatment of animals that fall in line with the objectification of women. Dawkins has fallen into the trap of focusing on modest dress over other issues at times; men should be careful around that issue, because of the danger of sending the signal that you’re more interested in seeing more female flesh than you are liberating women from the shackles of patriarchal religion. PZ Myers is pretty good at handling this sensitively; he often blogs about the way that religion is used as a cover to devalue female lives and bodies in ways that are often deadly. I’d also like to offer a shout out to Austin Cline, who has always put a feminist and anti-authoritarianism spin on his atheism, and has always seen religion’s power to coerce and control as central to its popularity.

During The Amazing Meeting—and I think I blogged about this before—some sexist and alienating jokes were made onstage. Female skeptical bloggers protested, and were met with a combination of claims they were overreacting and jokes about how of course the men in the movement want more women, because that increases their visual pleasure and chance at getting laid. These jokes are intended to defuse women’s anger through flattery, but they do neither, because jokes like that dismiss women’s concerns and also suggest that the main thing women bring to the world is sex—and that women the joke-maker doesn’t find sexually attractive might as well not exist at all. I wanted to reassure the women making the complaints that I’ve seen this sort of thing get really ugly in the past, but that progress actually occurred because of it. Nowadays, women are better represented in the netroots, and feminist concerns are much less likely to be treated as second tier by male bloggers.

And the latter is what I think feminists in the skeptical/atheist movement need to angle for as much as reaching for better representation. For liberal men, getting to the point where you start to really believe that the opposition is strongly motivated by sexism can be a painful journey, for reasons I don’t quite understand, but I’ve nonetheless seen enough men make the journey to sympathize with how hard they worked to get to the point where they were willing to accept that a lot of our politics in this country go back to the struggles in the hearth between women who want more power and men who fear it. (And women like Sarah Palin who side with sexist men because they think they’ll go further that way.) The struggle may be even more painful for a lot of the men in the skeptical/atheist movement who have not thought much about the importance of sexism in our country, and the amount of energy that sexists put into defending it.

But I believe you cannot understand religion’s enduring popularity without understanding its role in systems of oppression. The belief that some people are lesser than others, and should be relegated to a servant class, is unscientific and irrational, and so religion is better for defending these beliefs than science. Oh, people try with pseudoscience, they really do. And I’m a fan of resisting armchair evolutionary psychology aimed at rationalizing racism and sexism. But on the ground, most people skip even trying to come up with something that sounds rational to defend their bullshit, and go straight to “god said so”. The stampede into evangelical churches that aim at shutting down the brain seems to be a straight up reaction to women/non-white people/gays and lesbians making serious gains in our society. Overt racism has slipped out of vogue from the pulpit, but that’s a recent innovation, and I’d argue that the surge of a Christianity that’s about putting a religious gloss on right wing ideas functions to reinforce racist systems.

Obviously, that’s not the whole story, and there are a few small Christian churches that are genuinely dedicated to social justice, demonstrating that the situation is very complex. But if you take the feminist/anti-oppression lens off the table, you’re going to be bad at understanding the big picture.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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