The ‘Catholic’ Thing and the Allegory of the Leggy Brunette

Two articles on the “value” of Catholic education got me thinking about my own recently.

Both pieces are nostalgic and mainly wrong.  One, from former LA mayor Richard Riordan spearheads a drive for $100,000,000 for Catholic schools in his region, thrumping the well-known fact that inner city public schools have failed, that charter schools are expensive and aren’t much better, while Catholic schools send most of their graduates on to college and provide “beliefs, values and standards that children will carry all their lives. They provide a safe learning environment for those from high-crime neighborhoods as well as structure and a faith-based education.”  Does anyone see a stop sign here?

What Riordan doesn’t want to stress is that in the last forty years, and in Los Angeles like everywhere else, Catholic schools lost all of their nuns (who, by the way, were indentured teachers), most of the curriculum that made their brand distinctive, fully half of their student population nationwide (in one Miami school, St Monica, from 368 students in 2004 to 196 in 2008 when closure was mandated), and much of the financial support of their parishes.  If there ever was a golden age of Catholic education, the age is long gone. New school closures, consolidations and transfers from parochial to charter school status are announced every month.

Rescuing parochial schools is not a way to rescue public education; it’s a way to sink both. My younger daughter, in fact, benefited from a “Catholic education” in the largely dysfunctional innards of Buffalo, New York, a few years ago.  That education set me back about $10,000 in a single year, not including loafers.  But this was not your average parochial parish school–the kind I  went to, virtually for pin money.  It was a private Catholic “convent” school for girls, a sister institution to the academically reputable Jesuit boys academy, Canisius  Prep. Even here, Catholic “identity” was a romantic notion: other than the school president and a confused and veilless retired nun  who showed up at special events, the convent was empty and Catholic consciousness was mainly limited to the school uniform and a graduation Mass.

The average downtown parochial school suffers from the same uncertainties, tensions, and personnel issues that most public city schools suffer from–underpaid faculty, multilingualism, economic distress, to which has to be added despair and increasing irrelevance.  Throwing gobs of money at the sinking ship won’t raise it. Throwing city kids into the remaining parish schools–a remedy that might have worked a generation or more ago–won’t work now.

But most of all, throwing Catholic values at the public system (without any discussion of what these values might be) is just a very bad idea–one which once upon a less desperate time would have met with stiff political resistance.

Better days?

Perhaps the cynicism of asking non-Catholics to entrust saving city schools to Catholic education is obvious.  Less obvious is the premise put forward by Paul Wallace in his reaction to comments made by Richard Dawkins concerning the religious “identity” imposed on children by parents.  Dawkins’s comments coincide with the founding in Britain of the first “atheist college” by A.C. Grayling and some of his associates (really an option for degree validation within the sprawling and often academically sketchy University of London) and, of course, the publication of his children’s book, The Magic of Reality.

The faith-values that Riordan thinks might benefit intellectual deadened and deadend “inner city youth” (and which Dawkins thinks amount to the imposition of magical thinking and indoctrination in unsupportable beliefs), Wallace says are essentially benign. Moreover, they are “values” that no child is going to avoid merely by receiving a  science-friendly education: the competition for attention and credence is intense in our culture, the argument runs, and “no child can stand above the fray of competing worldviews and let reason eliminate all but the best, like a cautious consumer.”

Recalling a classroom experience with a certain Father Kavanaugh who encouraged students to question the core premises of their belief, Wallace says,

Imagine it! Who are you? Do you disbelieve in God? Why? Do you disbelieve in God because your mother disbelieves in God? Do you believe there’s no God because smart people told you so? Precisely what God do you not believe in? Might there be another you could believe in?, etc.

What many Catholics know, and what Richard Dawkins appears not to, is that the idea of children moving through life without serious intellectual and moral direction—in this insane world, of all places—is a terrible joke and a recipe for social catastrophe.

In reality, Wallace’s argument is the intellectual equivalent of Riordan’s economic one: “Catholic education” offers students the tools for critical thinking: it begins from faith but does not ask people to stop with faith.  Catholicism, it’s argued, has a long history of asking questions about itself,  questions not substantially different, even if differently intoned, by atheists: Who are you? Do you believe in God? Why? Why do you believe God loves you? Do you believe God loves you because your priest told you so? As the destination is at least as important as the starting point, why should a student choose unbelief over belief as the only right road for getting there?

It’s a fair but I think fatally flawed question and since others are answering it with favorite stories from their days at St Ignatius School for Recalcitrant Youth, let me have a turn.


I escaped from the designs of Irish-born nuns and randy priests unmolested (knuckles intact, surplice unruffled) but not unaffected.  My Catholic training–like the sort described by Julian Baggini in his little Oxford introduction to Atheism–was basically benign. In primary school, I loved religion classes.  In high school, what we had begun to call “theology,” (and now, where it exists, is called religion) and in university, philosophy.  It seemed a natural progression.

I make no grandiose claims or  accusations about the role of the Church in education. Catholicism contrary to popular belief did not “cause” the dark ages and without the university system incumbent in the medieval monasteries, things would have been dark a lot longer.

Professional Catholic-haters–and there are many–point not just to a history of psychological and physical abuse during the worst episodes of church history–Jew-killing, inquisitions, Magdalene laundries, and predatory pastors for starters–but to the ongoing role of the church in opposing scientific research, women’s reproductive rights, and the intimidation of Catholic politicians who differ from their Church’s theology on a range of issues that have nothing to do with Rome’s vaunted magisterium: its teaching “authority” in matters of faith (relatively unimpactful) and morals (the bedroom).

The acceptable modern argument against Catholic education, however, really goes back only to Pope Pius IX and his campaign against “modernism” (read: modern scholarship and science) in the Syllabus of Errors, promulgated in 1864.  It was then that Catholic universities took a southward turn, failed to promote the natural sciences, and found themselves in thrall to a papacy whose greatest contribution was to pronounce itself infallible.  There is no doubt that the legacy of Pio Nono was the Church’s most shameful intellectual moment since the Inquisition.  By the same token, it corresponded to the death throes of a church that had lost power, prestige, land, and authority all over Europe–the beginning of the secular era. Not coincidentally, Catholic or “parochial” education as it came to exist, especially as an alternative school system in Britain and the United States, dates from the same unpromising period.

Pope Pius IX

And yet. In a world where Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Martha Coakley can be threatened by their Church with excommunication for their stand on abortion –but not Rick Santorum (who is renowned for having introduced a dead fetus to his living children as their brother), or Scott Brown, a good Catholic boy from a lapsed family that had turned divorce into a recreational activity–the very idea that Catholic education produces mono-opinionated troglodytes is clearly absurd.

But it does seem to produce an unusual number of intellectual apostates and satirists.  I submit that the reason the Church has produced comedians like George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Julia Sweeney and Bill Maher is that Catholic training is a survival lesson in enduring contradictions. Would you walk across the street to buy a ticket to see a “Christian” comedian?  Not likely.  Protestant comedy is inherent in the seriousness with which its practitioners take their dogmas.  A Muslim funny man? Pfffft. Remember Denmark?

Jewish? of course, fellow sufferers in being smart, guilty, alienated and irreverent.  In fact the only difference between a Catholic comedian and a Jewish comedian is that the Catholic is told he has to feel contrition for his abuse of the Church while the Jew is simply plunged into a perpetual state of unforgivable remorse for not being Jewish enough.

But the key thing (and why isn’t anybody getting this?) is living with contradiction.  Catholics perfected this more than a thousand years ago when they started talking about faith and reason being compatible means of getting to the same intellectual end: certainty about God.

It was never an even match: Ubi fides est ratio fallitur (“Where reason fails, faith prevails”), and there was always a penchant for mystery when reasons weren’t at hand for particular beliefs–like the Trinity.  But reason had a place at the table, and reason was an honorable way to get to God.  It would take until the Reformation for faith to take center position and stay there in a way that leads finally to Michele Bachmann.

Faith is what made this country what it is.

In my academic work, I never miss a chance these days not to re-read Aquinas on the subject of faith and reason, and you can bet on the fact that most Catholics, whenever they passed through the system, but especially those who went through after about 1975, have never read a paraphrased tiddle of his work.  Yet it’s Aquinas whose transformative work on Aristotle still forms the fundament of christian doctrine in the Roman tradition.  Try these on for size:

Because we cannot know what God is, but only what He is not, we cannot consider how He is but only how He is not.  God should not be called an individual substance, since the principal of individuation is matter.

or this:

Because philosophy arises from awe, a philosopher is bound in his way to be a lover of myths and poetic fables. Poets and philosophers are alike in being big with wonder.

–and especially this (are you reading Rick perry?)

Beware of the person of one book.

According to the most learned voices the church has produced, the human race is essentially ignorant of God’s attributes and the Bible is a book of poetry that cloaks his identity in allegory. Yet the Catholic faithful have had to wrestle with some of the most explicit images of God (and Jesus as his incarnation) ever manufactured–think Michelangelo, think Botticelli and a hundred others.  Catholic churches are stuffed with images ranging from the merely explicit to the grotesque–Jesuses hanging on the cross, weighed down with the sins of the world.  To complete the dramatis personae, there are images of his family (blessed, persevering mother, carpenter father) and an array of saints “who have done his will throughout the ages.”  Plenty to keep the eyes occupied and the mind numb.

This is an impressive explosion of love, though sadistic and highly invalued around the edges.  It is also highly specific.  Not taking account of regional variations and post-Vatican II injunctions about keeping things iconically simple, walking into a Catholic church is a little like taking out your family album.  You already know who’s in it because you’ve seen it all before.  But it’s nice to visit, nice to feed your memory.

God the father (1654) in papal attire with the whole world in his hands

Yet the official philosopher, that lover of wisdom and angelic doctor, Aquinas tells us that this God “is not even an individual substance.”  Not even knowable as an integer but only in terms of what cannot be said about him.  You see what I mean: contradiction–a long history of squirmy little boys and girls paying homage in the light of flickering candles to images and formulations that the church officially teaches have no greater relevance to the reality of the subject than the shadows in Plato’s cave to the world beyond.

Many of these children, with respect to what they think is the core of their religion, will remain children their whole life long.  The lucky ones will leave and become comedians. The unfortunate ones will become politicians and try to have their Church and leave it too.

It’s as if to say: Today class we are going to discuss Wisdom.  Wisdom is beauty in the mind. It is seductive.  It is desirable.  It is what we all long to possess, the object of all our intellectual drive and energy.  The only thing that will give us satisfaction.  Do you see this picture of a leggy brunette? Look closely.  Wisdom is nothing like that.


And that of course is just the problem;  Catholicism does not resolve the Platonic allegory for believers.  It preserves it.  It encourages it.  From the time of the church fathers, the founders of the church’s intellectual tradition, the church of the orthodox bishops was not the same church as the church of believers.  From time to time they would gently remind the flock (the word speaks volumes) that they were not to actually worship the images.  But in the same breath they would condemn to the pains of a nonfigurative hell anyone who refused to believe that a little bread and wine held aloft by a priest was, in actuality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

At the core of Catholicism is living with appearance and reality, with the contradiction between what our eyes and minds tell us and what we are told is true.

These contradictions are very old, and they have now become the familiar devotions of a billion people, more or less, around the world.  Their propagation does not render them harmless, and their historical success does not make them a recipe for educational practice.

Given that the educational goal set by Plato was for the prisoners to escape from the world of appearances into the world of knowledge where they would see the shadows for what they are, and the enforced darkness of an institution that still goads people to view the images as good enough, which model would you choose for your children?

Does Atheism Hate Women?

“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


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.

Rebecca Watson

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.

Madalyn O’Hair

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.

Barbara Smoker


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.

Ophelia Benson

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.

Evangelical Fright

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.

Judith Plaskow 

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.