“The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger. -Mary Wollstonecraft (Shelley)
There’s been a stir on the subject of misogyny within the atheist “community” lately, with predictable cracks and fissures between the male-guru caste of new atheism and their anointed bloggers, and a number of outspoken atheist women who say, in a nutshell, Enough is enough.
The origins of the latest tension are explored in an article by Julia Galef for Religion Dispatches. In it she examines an “incident” involving Skepchick blogger Rebecca Watson and an unnamed man at a July Skeptics’ conference.
Watson produced a video on the episode which has become a point of reference in a larger discussion of the status of women in the atheist and skeptics movement.
New atheist hierarch Richard Dawkins and outspoken anti-religionist P Z Myers responded to Watson’s concerns, Myers with unusual tenderness, and Dawkins by suggesting that “zero harm” had come to her in the “elevator incident” (Watson was propositioned), suggesting that (a) her situation could not be compared to the indignities foisted on women in Islamic theocracies (small comfort if not irrelevant) and (b) the incident itself had no specific relevance to the atheist community, being part of much broader social patterns of marginalization (read: the genus of sexism is not atheism).
The remarks were interpreted as male thuggery and seemed to lend credence to Watson’s complaint: Even atheist men are Martians. Many of us back on earth were unaware that the simple profession of atheism had taken us to equality-heaven.
I knew this was coming. A-many years ago, when Madalyn “Murray” O’Hair was dubbed the most hated women in America by no less a cultural beacon than Life Magazine, atheism was closely identified with the ridicule of religion, a kind of cultural side-show that seemed strategically incapable of making itself sexy and appealing to large numbers of people. Those who watched her did so for the same reason they watched other freak TV sensations like Tiny Tim and the Loud Family.
There wasn’t much more to it: Try repeating the mantra “There is no God” fifty times, eyes shut. Feel better? Of course not. It’s like saying the rosary.
Now try lighting in to some of the absurd beliefs that religious people want to perpetrate on non-religious people (some of them lost or dormant battles, but not forgotten): there’s a better life after this one, if you play your cards right; prayer and Bible readings in school, creation science, God on the currency, myths of the “Christian” founders, selective ignorance of the First Amendment, especially in political seasons, and a dozen or so social and even economic policy issues for which the engodded public think the Bible has the answer–beginning with the “right” to life, death with dignity, and harvesting stem cells in medical research (the last, not an issue in 1972).
Strictly speaking, these issues are independent of the God-question and in some cultures where spiritual traditions and ideas of the divine flourish these issues are irrelevant.
But this is America, and to the degree that domestic atheism is at least as much about how religion expresses itself in real time as it is about metaphysics, women until very recently have been under-represented in the fray.
It did not begin with Rebecca Watson’s video, or a proposition in an elevator that could have as easily happened at a real estate brokers’ convention. But the video has raised the spectre that big top modern atheism, as opposed to the atheism of the fringe solists like O’Hair, may have developed along hierarchical lines not altogether different from the religious structures it condemns: a community of bishops (like Dawkins), priests, and down-the-scale nuns with little to say about the agenda, the issues, or how the show is run.
It also raises the question of why God-denial requires or assumes any ethic at all, or at least one transcending what we expect of real estate brokers.
About the same time as Madalyn was doing the talk-show circuit in the seventies, another formidable presence, this one in England, was speaking out about atheism, sexuality, and secular values: her name is Barbara Smoker (b. 1923), and she presided with magisterial importance over various British humanist groups, including the National Secular Society, and at the post-biblical age of eight-eight is a current Honorary Vice Presdient of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
Smoker, with whom I was once associated through the Council for the Critical Study of Religion in Oxford, far outdistanced her male contemporaries as an advocate for euthanasia, non-religious marriage and naming ceremonies, and separation of religion and state (which, recall, are not officially separate in the United Kingdom).
Hardly any work being pursued in these areas today by secularist and humanist organizations does not owe something to Smoker. Equally outspoken humanist advocates followed in her footsteps–notably Jane Wynne Wilson in England and June Maxwell in Scotland. If their sex, in any sense, marginalized them in the movement it did nothing to impair their organizational abilities or distract them from their goals.
The difference between Smoker and O’Hair is, or was, a difference of cultural contexts and métier, as the French say. O’Hair’s battle–to the extent it was ever coherent–was uphill and almost hopeless in God-besotted America. What it gained in media coverage it lost in influence.
Smoker, with plenty of help from her intellectual consort Harold John Blackham (d. 2009) and dozens of friends within the British Humanist Association–many of them academics–worked at a distinct advantage. –Interestingly, both Smoker and O’Hair were army veterans, neither “highly” educated, but tactically smart and possessed of a certain battlefield savvy that made them both personally formidable and able to stand up for their unbelief.
Whether their Gibraltar-like advocacy excited onlookers or turned them off is anybody’s guess–the Church of England and the Catholic Church had at least one thing in common in 1970: their hatred of Barbara Smoker. And while atheist advocacy does not have a strong record of success in über-religious America, unbelief in Europe has been the result of cultural forces (collectively, “secularization”) which nourished humanist advocacy but are not explained by it. Smoker prided herself on a terse and effective literary style; O’Hair (who was five years Smoker’s senior and a dismal prose stylist) on stump speeches, “encounters,” and interviews. The clear impression is, however, where the atheism of the era was concerned, there be women.
And yet. The new atheism and even its weirdly named predecessor “secular humanism” has primarily been a man’s movement with female contributors, financial supporters, and fans.
I can point to a dozen names of personalities–Margaret Downey, Ophelia Benson, Greta Christina, and a range of younger women such as CFI’s Lauren Becker and Debbie Goddard, and Watson herself–who were energized for unbelief before the current wave of atheism washed onto the scene, beginning roughly, if not exactly, with the publication of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2005.
As other literati joined ranks the fan club grew. That the team was half British (Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on the British side, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, though Oxford-educated, on Yankee Doodle’s) and highly intellectual situated its influence within the ranks of the university educated–especially young secularists, the culturally disaffected, and those who were simply fed up with the nostrums of religion. Its intellectual base distinguished it from the rough n’ tumble atheism of the previous generation, the names of whose promoters were conspicuously absent from the New York Times best sellers’ list.
Humanist groups, skeptical groups, and secular groups–whose edges often blur–were equally affected. And I think it would be fair to say that while the horsemen were men, the base included women and men in surprisingly equal measure.
There are also some key women independent thinkers, who would probably prefer to be judged by their work rather than their political allegiance to a movement: Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose work on Doubt is a thoughtful exploration of the integrity of skepticism as an act of faith in human reason; Susan Jacoby (Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism), who is on record as deploring indiscriminate nastiness towards all religion; and, above all, Rebecca N. Goldstein, whose new work of fiction (36 Arguments for the Existence of God) is an ironic and deflationary account of philosophical atheism (and thus also of faith) quite unlike anything that has hit the market before now.
Not all women atheists were movement atheists, and some, just like their male counterparts, were squeamish about the requirement to self-identify with an atheism that was simply about hating religion.
There is, bluntly put, now as then, no shortage of women writing and speaking out on the subject of unbelief, though in my opinion the most eloquent and creative ones are not necessarily the ones that get the most attention, nor are they the ones who feel entirely comfortable with the intellectual constraints imposed by “movement atheism” and labels like new atheism. They are also the ones least likely to think that their nuanced approach to the topic is in any sense less deserving of credit than the flatfooted atheism of their activist contemporaries.
At least some of the blame for the constraints felt by women involved closely in atheist advocacy has to be pinned on the movement itself and on organisations like the American Humanist Association and the Center for Inquiry (CFI) with their almost unpunctuated history of men on top.
The secular movements that were founded after World War II included theorists like Corliss Lamont and Paul Kurtz, who absconded from AHA to found the constituent bodies of the Center for Inquiry. Collectively, along with other groups, like O’Hair’s former bailiwick American Atheists, they laid much of the groundwork that made (an ungrateful) new atheism possible.
Secular sectarianism (seculatarianism?) emerged early on between these groups and became entrenched in the way the organizations competed with each other for supporters and did business.
While women’s and later gay and lesbian rights movements swirled outside the doors, for example, the humanist movement paid only glancing attention to them. The recipient of the 1975 Humanist of the Year Award and a contender for the title most influential feminist of her generation, Betty Friedan, went so far as to question whether humanism was suited to pursue the feminist agenda. Part of her concern, as expressed in a 1988 address to the International Humanist and Ethical Union, was that movement humanism did not seem fully engaged in the social and equality- battles of the generation–that secular humanism was theoretical while women’s equality and civil rights issues were practical.
Scores of atheist writers, intellectuals, poets, artists, musicians and others declined to self-identify as “atheist,” not because their unbelief was tepid, nor even because the position was politically unpopular and even, sometimes, economically risky, but because the whole style of American atheism–in particular its science worship, religion-bashing, and naive view of cultural intellectual history–made the option unappealing. In fact, the degree to which American atheism was marked by contrarian impulses and a odd kind of humanistic anti-intellectualism has yet to be fully explored–and won’t be here.
But turf was turf: Paul Kurtz, to take one example, was determined not to have secular humanism identified with the the bold, brash, ridicule-based (and gaffe-prone) atheism of Madalyn O’Hair, whom he more than once accused of giving atheism a bad name. Thus was born the “Let’s not call it atheism” form of atheism, a move that created further divisions between full-frontalists (“Atheist and Proud of It”) and fig-leafers (“Ethically Disposed Philosophical Naturalist”).
By the same token, even the erstwhile “Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism” (now the Council for Secular Humanism), wasn’t very “democratic” when it came to women. I can remember any number of all-male meetings where the principals around the table wondered why more women weren’t signing on, why more women didn’t accept invitations to speak at CFI conferences, or why, if they did accept, sometimes changed their mind late in the game. When, in 2004, I organized a conference on the topic of religious violence which included eight women, all experts on the subject, out of a dozen speakers, a senior CFI operant at the opening cocktail hour asked, in all earnestness and simplicity, when the scholars (already all present) were going to arrive. No one savoured the moment more than the women.
And so, the question lingers, why have things not changed more quickly? Why is organized humanism more like the Catholic Church than a big tent?
I have two answers.
One is that the primary targets of movement humanism and atheism were, in the early days, men–and the battle, like all battles, was joined (mainly) by other men. It’s easy to forget that beginning with the unctuous born-againism of Billy Graham and the faith-healing Oral Roberts, America’s repetitive Great Awakenings in the latter part of the twentieth century were associated with protestant prophets: Graham himself, Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Jerry Falwell, John Hagee, and spit on the floor and call it polish charismatics like Jimmy Swaggart, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, and countless others.
Some, like Bakker, were merely crooks; the majority of others a Crayola box of charlatans. The threat of extreme forms of evangelical protestantism in political terms (which was real then and real now) seemed to call for a response that was not “mere” atheism but mobilization of large numbers of smart people who (before the rise of the “Moral Majority” and its lineal descendant, the Tea Party) thought that protestant fundamentalism existed only on the fringes of American Christianity.
To their credit, Kurtz’s organizations rejected that premise and actively sought to combine a critique of religious dogmatism with education in the democratic and secular values that the Christian Right regarded as un-American.
Women were certainly part of the demographics of the disaffected, the escapees, but ex-born-again protestant males formed a significant majority of converts to the secular humanist form of unbelief. Former Roman Catholics, adrift from the dogmatism of their church and its sexist politics (since unmasked as a pedophile paradise) were the second largest demographic, with secular Jews coming in at a healthy third–and increasing numbers of ex-Muslims at the dawn of the new millennium.
There were women within each group–talented, engaging, brilliant women. But the “authoritative” voices–the teachers–were still almost exclusively male.
The circumstances surrounding the disappearance of O’Hair and her family in 1995 and subsequent (2001) discovery of her chainsawed remains on a Texas ranch was the conclusion of a sordid chapter in the history of American atheism. O’Hair’s estranged son William testified that his mother had a tendency to hire “violent atheist criminals” because “She got a sense of power out of having men in her employ who had taken human life.” The net benefit to secular humanism, which had always seen her as a PR problem, may have been minimal, but the damage to atheism in America, and perhaps also to large-scale women’s involvement in movement atheism, courtesy its female prophet, was enormous.
Studies of religious cults in my own tendentious field are instructive: while women often form the backbone of support for the leaders of religious-social groups, the “authority structure” normally consists of a charismatic leader who achieves prophetic status and beta- and gamma- followers who perform secondary services, the value of which is determined by the prophet himself. (Think Jesus-disciples-women attendants.) It’s easy to overstate the relevance of this sociology, but what Rebecca Watson experienced was at least a vestigial form of secular tribalism.
In my opinion, it used to be far worse–though to the extent prophets remain males, the potential for abuse will always exist. If anything, the new atheism reasserted the primacy of male opinion about God, while at the same time elevating the discussion in a way that made the atheist “option” intellectually respectable, as it had not been under O’Hair. Doubtless the male leaders do not (cannot?) see it this way because their status depends on the willingness of women to acquiesce in their authority. It’s an old pattern.
The second reason for the implicit misogyny of the atheist community is more complicated, more directly explanatory, and might be instead a reason why women have often bypassed atheism in favour of other, more pragmatic, struggles.
As a graduate student at Harvard in the ‘seventies, there was never a time when I sensed that women were ”underrepresented” or voiceless. The professoriate, still largely male, was changing–but the student body of the Divinity School, where most Godtalk was analyzed, was equally or about equally divided between men and women.
Harvard moreover was a microcosm of the secularisation of liberal religion in America during that era, and also expressed the fact that in most Christian denominations the carriers of tradition and the demographic majority of adherents are women. And while male voices still tried to dominate the discussion professionally (as in published books and papers), women had seized the conversation.
While O’Hair did what she did, hundreds, if not thousands, of women were radicalized–in the positive sense of that word–in the liberal divinity schools of North America in the seventies and eighties, which were more closely in touch with radical trends in European universities and European feminist theology and philosophy than any equivalent groups in America. By contrast with the generation of women theologians concerned with questions of religion and secularization between 1970 and 2000, the contributions of women associated with movement atheism was, to be kind, unimpressive.
With its visceral tendency to dismiss theology as intellectual chintz, both men and women atheists have habitually overlooked the fact that the best and the most scorching critiques of religion in the last third of the twentieth century were produced by theologians, many of them women. Furthermore, they did this not just against the odds but within structures, both ecclesiastical and academic, where male authority had predominated for centuries.
For many, the question of God’s existence was yesterday’s news; it had been soundly laid to rest in the nineteenth century. The burning questions were now about the social implications of that death for systems still governed by male privilege based (directly or indirectly) on metaphors of male sovereignty over women.
To name only three of dozens of these women: Mary Daly, who died in 2010, was one of the first Americans to bring the discussion of repressive patriarchal structures based on biblical and other religious images to English speaking readers. Trained in Europe, her first book, the Church and the Second Sex (1968) drew on the feminist philosophy of Simone de Beauvoir, and her more popular book, Beyond God the Father (1973), challenged the authority structure of the Catholic Church directly as being an antiquated system of privilege based on outdated images drawn from tribal societies where God is an alpha-male who dominates others through physical stength, abuse, sexual dominance, and the demand for obedience:
“Patriarchy is the homeland of males; it is Father Land; and men are its agents…. Women who are Pirates in a phallocentric society are involved in a complex operation. First, it is necessary to Plunder — that is, righteously rip off — gems of knowledge that the patriarchs have stolen from us. Second, we must Smuggle back to other women our Plundered treasures. In order to invert strategies that will be big and bold enough for the next millennium, it is crucial that women share our experiences: the chances we have taken and the choices that have kept us alive. They are my Pirate’s battle cry and wake-up call for women who I want to hear….• The fact is that we live in a profoundly anti-female society, a misogynistic ‘civilization’ in which men collectively victimize women, attacking us as personifications of their own paranoid fears, as The Enemy. Within this society it is men who rape, who sap women’s energy, who deny women economic and political power.”
Rosemary Radford Ruether, who along with Daly (in Gyn-ecology, 1978) styled herself an eco-feminist, was one of the first women theologians to apply the Reformation idea of freedom of conscience to the early debate about abortion in the United States, challenged traditional ideas about God, and implicated the Church (in her 1974 book, Faith and Fratricide) in the pepetuation not only of anti-Semitism (which, she alleges, it virtually invented) but in the modern political plight of the Palestinian people.
As to Christianity’s record:
“Christianity is riddled by hierarchy and patriarchy… a social order in which chaste women on their wedding night were in effect, raped by young husbands whose previous sexual experience came from exploitative relationships with servant women and prostitutes. . . . Modern societies have sought to change this situation, allowing women education, legal autonomy, paid employment and personal freedom. But the sexual morality of traditional puritanical patriarchal Christianity has never been adequately rethought.”
The critique continues in the work of countless women theologians and religious studies scholars; Ursula King (Religion and Gender, 1995); Hedwig Myer-Wilmes (Rebellion on the Borders, 1995); Judith Plaskow (Standing again at Sinai), Luise Schotroff (Lydia’s Impatient Sisters, 2000), Elisabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza (In Memory of Her, 1983, 1994), Phyliss Trible (God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 1978).
Almost every issue the religious right considered “pivotal” and defining for their understanding of Christianity is explored and deconstructed in these works, perhaps most memorably in the work of my former Harvard classmate Daphne Hampson who was one of the first writers to use the term “Post-Christian” to describe the critical work in religion that future generations of theologians needed to do:
“I am a Western person, living in a post-Christian age, who has taken something with me from Christian thinkers, but who has rejected the Christian myth. Indeed I want to go a lot further than that. The myth is not neutral; it is highly dangerous. It is a brilliant, subtle, elaborate, male cultural projection, calculated to legitimise a patriarchal world and to enable men to find their way within it. We need to see it for what it is. But for myself…I am not an atheist.”
For many observers of the current crisis about women’s voices, the question has to become, Where are you looking, and what are you hearing? Are you aware of these voices? Or is half a century of women’s thinking and writing about the very structures that atheist women are only beginning to consider irrelevant to your analysis of religion? Does the fact that their battles were fought with the Church or within the repressive institutions they tried to change nullify their critique or make it incomplete?
If the complaint against their writing is that they did not go far enough, the question then becomes How far is far enough? And since when is mere polemic a worthy substitute for profound analysis of religious belief and hardcore scholarship in history and anthropology? What additional weight is achieved by self-identifying as an atheist when the concept and images of the biblical and koranic god have already been carefully and systematically dismantled and when the conversation has, frankly, moved on to questions about values and ethics ?
That is what the atheology of the Dalys, the Hampsons, the Tribles and dozens of others has provided, with intellectual rigour and sophistication. Furthermore, there are virtually no male voices here to distract us from their project–no one to say, “Come up to my room and we can compare notes.”
I very much doubt that the paradigm for women in the atheist movement will be greatly enriched by simply accepting the bluff and underanalyzed paradigms of the male atheist polemicists–who, by the way, based on more than a glance at their bibliographies and footnotes, are equally unacquainted with this strand of feminist thinking about God. Why am I not surprised? Forgive us our debts.