• Feminism: Christian vs atheist misogyny and sexism

    I have been involved in long and protracted, and not to say a little tiring, debate on facebook about misogyny with regards to atheism, and the apparent schisms in the “atheist community”.  Though most feminists will probably sigh at another man giving their tuppence on what should be a fairly straightforward point, I do feel the need to pass comment in the context of atheism and theism. Feminism in its various waves has become more and more nuanced in its outlook in what is now, in some sense, a broad collection of ideologies.

    Personally, I see misogyny as an extreme form of sexism. Sexism is about disadvantaging someone on account of their sex or gender. Misogyny is hating a woman on account of it. To be purposefully sexist, one is being to some degree misogynistic, even if hate is too strong a word (and that much of the time it is implicitly done through indoctrination of societal norms). Certainly there is a debasing of value.

    Feminism itself can be defined as follows (from the SEP):

    Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms. However, there are many different kinds of feminism. Feminists disagree about what sexism consists in, and what exactly ought to be done about it; they disagree about what it means to be a woman or a man and what social and political implications gender has or should have. Nonetheless, motivated by the quest for social justice, feminist inquiry provides a wide range of perspectives on social, cultural, economic, and political phenomena. Important topics for feminist theory and politics include: the body, class and work, disability, the family, globalization, human rights, popular culture, race and racism, reproduction, science, the self, sex work, human trafficking, and sexuality

    Historically, feminism has been seen to have had three waves. The first wave was in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, coming from a white, Anglo-American / European perspective. The second-wave movement started in the 1960s looking to both build on and correct ideas of the first-wave in arriving at legal and social equality. The third-wave movement of more recent times has looked to reacts against the notion that feminism was historically the pastime of white, middle-classed intellects. It became more overtly cross-cultural, post-colonial and intersectional. This means that feminism looks to work in the context of intersections with racism, classism, sexism and other aspects of oppression and inequality. And there is still much disagreement. Subjects like pornography and the sex industry remain hotly debated – are they reflections of the will of independent women, or the bending to the will of objectifying men?

    Recently, there has been a lot said of and by feminists within the context of atheism. Conferences have sparked debate over harassment, harassment policies and the behaviour of men and women. The fact that the atheist ‘movement’ is chock full of middle-classed literal intellects who are largely internet savvy, equipped with social media platforms such as Twitter, You Tube and blogs, has meant that any issue in the atheist ‘community’ is very quickly exceptionally public.

    That is a good thing; a very good thing. After 2,000 years of heresy and not feeling free to denounce people and ideas in the social context of religion, of not being able to criticise religious institutions and people, and blind obeisance of doctrine, it is a wonderful thing to have the freedom of speech in such a way.

    Atheism is growing as a worldview. But it still only entails a lack of belief in God, or a positive claim that God does not exist, depending on how you view it. It says very little about anything else. That is left either to science or to philosophy, for which there is great deference. There is no ancient holy text, born of its historical era, of its parochial socio-geographic context. Such dogma and doctrine is as absent from atheism as God. Which means that what we ought to do and how we should behave is hard-fought and debated. It thus relies on rational thought. Rational.

    People are not always rational and this applies to adherents of every worldview.

    So on facebook, on the Unbelievable page (Unbelievable is a podcast featuring discussion between theists and atheists) there was this post by a very regular poster called Helen:

    Two atheists, engaged in a rational attempt to resolve conflict in the Atheist Movement. Dont tell me that Elevatorgate is old! Own your sh*t atheists!


    The video being:

    The video is of the recording of David Silverman and Justin Vacula arguing about feminism and other matters on Justin’s blogtalk radio show. Now, first thing to mention here is that Justin used to blog here and this interview was part of a range of things that got Justin into trouble and led to his eventual exit from this network. I don’t want to comment on this per se, since I don’t know enough to give an informed opinion. Instead, whether it was right or wrong that he went, the fact that there was action taken over perceived issues about sexism can only be seen as a positive. Forget Justin for a second, remember, this is not a comment about whether he should have been asked to leave or whatever. This is to highlight the difference between the sceptical movement and the theistic one. Things happen, and either there are repercussions, or people shout about it on social media platforms. Performance, feedback, revision. It’s intellectual natural selection.

    That the atheist ‘community’ actually has vociferous debate about (real or otherwise) instances of sexism is a great thing. We are open. We are free to challenge each other. In 2,000 years the Christian faith is nowhere near where we have come in a few hundred, and collectively, probably only a decade or so.

    So in this light of open debate and discussion in opposition to the dogma and doctrine of religion, I get this:

    Johno. If religion drives sexism and it is not about men being sexist and using religion as a prop, then we would see a complete absence of sexism in your movement. Instead it is rife, and much more cruel.

    So not only is sexism rife, for which there is no evidence given throughout the thread other than the blog posts of Greta Christina and Rebecca Watson, but apparently our sexism is crueller. Wow. Just wow. Whilst Christina and Watson may have some valid points (or not, depending on your view), the misogyny by atheists does not even come close to that of theists.

    Let me provide two points here:

    1)                    Atheism is in no way causally connected to being misogynistic. I don’t want to have to explain this, it is so obvious, though not apparently to Helen, the commenter. A lack of belief in God, or the positive belief that God does not exist, depending on your view, does not cause you to hate women or be sexist. People are sexist AND they are atheist, not BECAUSE they are atheist.

    2)                    There is reason to think that sexism in Christianity has some doctrinal and institutional basis, thus meaning that you can be sexist because you are Christian. Or, at the very least, one’s sexism can be encouraged and rationally (!) defended through appealing to Christian thinking and/or scripture.

    So there is good reason to think that sexism is entangled with Christianity. Let me pull out some empirical evidence of this, which is sooo easy to come by and in stark contrast to a commenter on the thread who stated:

    Peter AR: I understand why Helen laughs. The idea that misogyny is rife somehow within Christianity community is pretty absurd. And contradicted by most Christians experience in their everyday lives. Yes, there is among some a distinction of gender roles, but that doesn’t equate to misogyny as to how it is worked out in a loving community.

    No, he did seriously say that.

    Helen continued:

    Pound for pound the atheist movement is tons worse …just cuz.

    This is literally insane. And given the sheer volume of incidents of sexism within religion and Christianity especially, simply empirically false. It is also particularly amusing that she claimed:

    I mean the ideas…..the philosophy….obviously. If the philosophy is good then the fruit will play out in a person’s life.

    Such that if the core claims of Jesus are sound, then the fruits will follow. Except they don’t. They just don’t. Moreover, the claims of Paul and the epistles, as well as other biblical verses, play into the hands of sexists and can be used to justify any sort of oppressive outlook. Here is just a very, very tiny collection of examples of theistic sexism:

    Elizabeth Esther talks about the New Misogyny in Christian culture.

    Valerie Tarico lists sexist quotes from Christian leaders throughout history.

    This ex-Catholic feminist explains how feminists cannot be religious (Catholics).

    At the weekend, the head of the Church of Scotland claims the institution is sexist.

    In the black rights movement in the 60s, there is “the now famous story of how women were shut out of leadership in the 1963 March on Washington, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC.) No woman gave a major speech at the March or accompanied movement leaders afterwards to meet with President Kennedy.”

    University of Manchester report: Christians airbrushed women out of history’

    Sexism in black churches.

    The Vatican’s Risky Sexism: The archaic politics of the Catholic Church threaten both women’s lives and the church’s own survival.

    Sexism runs deep in the Church of England: I’ve experienced prejudice working as an engineer and as a priest – the only difference is, in the church it’s institutionalised

    The General Board of Church & Society, The United Methodist Church: Sex and the Church — Countering institutional sexism (their own report)

    “I have to wonder if this cultural acceptance of sexism has to do with the fact that sexism is still sanctioned and preached in many churches (while racism is generally condemned).  Perhaps churches do still hold sway on the morality of the country – at least in determining who deserves to be loved and who can be treated as scum.”

    The Vatican expelled me for supporting female priests

    Women In Ministry & Sexism Within The Christian Church

    Belfast Telegraph: Catholic Church needs to end its sexism

    New Pope Survey Finds U.S. Catholics Think Church Is Out Of Touch, Must Change Course

    A Priest Takes a Stand on Sexism, and is Expelled by the Church

    Nun: Roman Catholic church is last bastion of sexism

    Even Cherie Blair gets in on it: Cherie Blair Says Catholic Church Sexist

    I got bored of looking. There was too much to choose from. But apparently it’s not rife, despite various heads of churches and nuns and what have you admitting that, well, it is. What annoyed me is that Helen then claimed:

    well…it could be fun to post examples of sexism all day Johno. My argument is that one could argue for egalitarianism from a christian perspective as many scholars do, and from an atheist perspective as many do.

    My reply was:

    Johno Pearce You are funny Helen. One minute you say it is not about the philosophy but about the fruits. When I show you rotten fruit, you claim it is about the philosophy. Brilliant. Like a pea in the conman’s shell game.

    Here are a few more comments to whet your appetite, summing up the annoying-ness of such an arguer as Helen, on the Unbelievable forum on facebook:

    Look, as I said before to you, Bristol university Christian Union still does not allow female speakers, so don;t you dare go around and talk about atheist misogyny.// And the tokenism of the all male lists of great atheists! Give me a break Johno. I am a feminist. Which community do I feel that I can be free in? You have got to be kidding me…truly!

    I was referring to how Bristol University Christian Union banned women from speaking at their events in obeisance to scripture. I would like to know how atheism could have any group which would officially espouse such a ruling. And remember, we are supposed to be crueller!

    But then what do you expect from someone who states:

    I am a feminist…

    “you don;t seem to have a clue what you are talking about.”//floundering male.

    A feminist who is also a sexist, it seems! She has some interesting turns of phrase:

    History shows that the moral degradation of woman is due more to theological superstitions than to all other influences together” – Elizabeth Cady Stanton.//
    Lucky for her that she did not live to see manslag dawkins and his irrational difficulties with a woman asking that men do not scare women in elevators at 4 am

    Dawkins, whilst not doing himself any favours at the moment (here is a good analysis from the Friendly Atheist about his latest comments on paedophilia), is not either an elected or self-imposed ‘leader’ of the atheist ‘community’. There can be no leader as there is no official movement. He is a very well-known atheist with a loud voice, but we, as atheists, tend to agree with some of what he says but disagree with other claims and comments. This obsession from theists with Dawkins is annoying since he is held up as representative of atheists and atheism, like some effigy of a straw man.


    Yup. Because that is representative of feminist theory. Right.//Whatever theorising is not matched by practice. You are attempting to tell a follower of the judaeochristian tradition that she should be impressed by mantheories that do not translate into loving practice, respect and submission? Once again Johno…are you nuts?

    Damn my mantheorising, which was funny, because I had just quoted something like three different feminist theorists and said nothing else, and apparently that qualified as mantheorising.

    What is rocking the social media sites of atheists with regard to sexism is both bad and good as mentioned. It is bad that people are sexist at all, though this has nothing to do with their atheism. It is great, though, that people are empowered enough to shout about it. So when a theist tells me to sort out my own shit, I say sort out 2,000 years worth of shit. And when a theist claims that atheist sexism is crueller than theistic sexism, I say… WTF? In what way? Do we burn witches? Do we a priori deny women access to positions of power and responsibility on account of their sex or gender? The Enlightenment and secular age we are teetering on has done more for women’s rights than religion by a country mile.

    Part of the problem is that the Bible is flatly contradictory. Theists, though, will try to claim certain verses carry more weight and that other, more difficult verses, should be seen in the light of these first verses. It seems rather ad hoc and question begging. The Bible is a concoction of different genres and accounts written by a myriad of people with differing agendas. There will always be contradiction, especially when (at the time of writing) no formal doctrine had been asserted.

    All holy books in every single religion since the dawn of time have been patriarchal, arising out of patriarchal societies. There is little surprise that the Bible amongst them is equally sexist. To argue otherwise seems to special plead, and this is often founded on a basis of ad hoc rationalisation and looking for understanding and meaning from an interpretation for the biblical verses which simply isn’t obviously there. One has to think that if the Bible requires such a complex and intellectual reading, such a gamut of highly refined interpretive skills, then it is not a very universal revelation. It is not a book for the whole community.

    And I haven’t even mentioned Islam.

    [My next post on the subject will be on the Catholic claim that women shouldn’t be priests, or serve in any middle or upper management positions within the Church.]


    The commenter, Helen, mentioned above, replied to the posting of this piece on the Unbelievable, as follows:

    If you think I am going to read a blog by an atheist male about sexism Johno you can think again!

    I can only manage a paragraph at a time of your hypocritical nonsense. x

    You havent convinced me on the posts so Im not about to red some longer nonsense. Thanks.x

    Category: GenderReligion and Society


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce