Sexist Unbelief?


I tried writing this post a couple of days ago, struggled with it, nearly deleted it, and then decided to take another shot. The problem is that I feel, on the one hand, that I don’t have the right to comment on the recent spate of allegations about sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault within the anti-religious movement(s) and organizations. (I’m going to use ‘anti-religious’ to try to encompass the various atheist, secularist, and sceptical organizations; I’m not singling out any particular group.) I’m not a member of any such organization, I don’t know any of the individuals involved, and I don’t know whether the allegations are true. On the other hand, I’m a woman — and I want to add my voice to the women (and men) who decry sexism in all its forms. I might have left this alone, but it’s clear from the comments on articles written by women about this subject (and from the vile threats made against women in the public eye, such as the classicist Mary Beard), that misogyny is alive and well and that women are facing serious threats to their right to express themselves and tell the truth as they see it.

I’m not going to discuss particular cases; I don’t know enough about them, and you can read about them easily enough if you follow the links in the articles listed at the bottom of this post. If you’re in the mood for an especially weird sexist atheist read, by all means have a look at Secular Patriarchy. I’m not posting the link because I don’t want to encourage the author, but it’s worth reading if you’re sceptical about the likelihood that there are sexist atheists.

I want to comment on one of Soraya Chemala’s remarks in her Salon article “5 reasons why there aren’t more women in atheism.” Chemala wrote:

“Sexism is real and has an effect on women’s participation and leadership within the atheist community. Rape jokes and sexual harassment, as penalties and tools to silence women, exist in atheist and secular groups as well as religious ones. Many people hold the tacit belief that atheism equals rationalism and rationalism is gender-neutral, and therefore sexism can’t exist among atheists. But critical thinkers do irrational things all the time — and unless they actively try to resist existing prejudices, they can easily fall into them. The discrimination based on class, race, gender and sexuality that we see in the broader culture exists in atheist and secular communities too, and requires the same dismantling.”

I think Chemaya’s right that sexism within atheism seems dismaying because of tacit assumptions regarding the connections between atheism, rationalism and gender. But rationalism has been associated with men, and irrationality with women, for thousands of years. We could say that it’s the default position in Western societies when it comes to thinking about gender. Not everyone thought this way — women such as Christine de Pizan defended their capacity for reason, and Descartes suggested that the mind has no sex. Francois Poulain de la Barre took that suggestion up in three feminist treatises written in the 1600s. But the Enlightenment adopted the idea that women and men had very different natures, with different purposes and roles to play in society. This notion was developed further in the 1800s to become the ideology of separate spheres for men and women (women’s place was in the home, as the ‘angel of the house’, while men should work outside the home).* Modern studies that purport to show that men’s and women’s brains work differently reinforce the very old idea that women are less analytical and more emotional than men.

I don’t mean to suggest that there are no differences between men and women. But I’m deeply sceptical about claims that intellectual differences are innate — and, as I’ve suggested about studies of intelligence and religiosity, we have to consider what agendas are driving studies of how men and women think.

I’m not surprised by the allegations of sexism within anti-religious organizations, or by what seems to be the marginalization of women within atheism. Atheism, and anti-religion more broadly, valorize rationality in ways that are strongly reminiscent of the Cult of Reason established (briefly) during the dechristianization phase of the French Revolution. Considering how strongly rationality has been and still is associated with being male, it’s no wonder that women struggle to be heard and respected within rationalist movements dominated by men.

What’s maddening about this, besides the impact on the women within these movements, is that religion’s oppression of women is a central plank in the anti-religious platform. Kind of makes you wonder just how much better things would be for women in a New Atheist world.

*Obviously, I’ve simplified the history of gender and rationality. If you’re interested in further reading on this subject, I recommend:

Knott, Sarah and Barbara Taylor, eds. Women, Gender and Enlightenment. Houndmills, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Meade, Teresa A. & Merry E. Wiesner, eds. A Companion to Gender History. Blackwell, 2004.

Poulain de La Barre, François. Three Cartesian feminist treatises.  Chicago UP, 2002.

Ross, Sarah Gwyneth. The birth of feminism : woman as intellect in Renaissance Italy and England. Harvard UP, 2009.

Schiebinger, Londa L. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Steinbrügge, Lieselotte. The Moral Sex: Women’s Nature in the French Enlightenment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Stuurman, Siep. Poulain de la barre and the invention of modern equality. Harvard UP, 2004.

Wiesner, Merry E. Gender in history: global perspectives. 2nd ed.  Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

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