The Vagenda

The Penis Perspective: My Atheism Makes Me A Feminist

vagendaatheism



I was batting emails back and forth recently with a Christian journalist – that’s right, I know how to live it up – when, after I thought it critical to highlight the very blatant and very corrosive sexism in the Bible, the journalist told me that I had no right to “lecture” her on women’s rights.

Come again?

Calling into question a book that contains countless injunctions to consider women an inferior creation, frequently one deserving of rape, is something we should keep schtum about now? I had no idea. I didn’t get the memo.

To be that defensive, to wish to instantly shut down any discussion of such a weighty issue, seemed to me to betray a suspicious level of insecurity. If I didn’t know better I’d say she knew I had a point.

My argument was, and indeed is, that women indoctrinated into a religion whose books are grotesquely discriminatory and misogynistic might perhaps be better off not hooking themselves up to a drip-feed of sexism. In making this claim I would have thought it fairly apparent that my motivation is the desire to see women emancipated rather than forced to adhere to scripture written exclusively by men doomed to be repulsed and mesmerised in equal measure by the charms of the vagina. It is alarming and upsetting to see that this fate is exactly that to which the journalist, and millions like her, would like to commit themselves. 

My atheism, I would argue, makes me a feminist; or at least it does absolutely nothing to buffet me in my standing on equal treatment of the sexes. Religion by contrast can in my view do nothing but grave harm to the feminist cause. If you are a member of ‘the fairer sex’, I see no reason why you should wish to join such a chauvinistic boys’ club full of sinister sanctions and ludicrous laws. Once you join the club you’re doomed to spending a great deal of energy disagreeing with a large part of the club’s in-house rules and regulations; why not dispense with taking out membership in the first place?

In many ways, society has achieved a vast amount in the course of history to level the playing field between men and women – but there remains, of course, a huge deal of ground to cover. If society is moving confidently forward like a lion, religion is often tottering along like a tortoise with a spinal injury. The distinction is a clear one and it is that without the confines of scripture, society is alert to where it needs to be heading, and attempts to employ the best methods in getting there; but with the confines of scripture, saddled to the discussion are heavy, cumbersome and irrelevant standards that are becoming increasingly so in a world that needs desperately to look forward rather than backwards. As soon as the feminist cause wishes to take a step in the right direction, religion invariably places a wrinkly hand on its shoulder and tells it to get back in line.

It ought for example to be glaringly obvious that the women and girls of Afghanistan and Iran wouldn’t live as inferior citizens in constant fear of harm if these countries were governed by the ‘faithless’; by people to whom the equal treatment of women is infinitely more valuable than the barbaric customs passed down through a primitive text written by a man (plagiarised from other texts written by men), mediated entirely – quelle surprise – by men. Recently we were treated to the news that women in an Indonesian city under Sharia law were told that they couldn’t straddle motorbikes because the position is “anti-Islamic”. Imagine having a worldview so fragile that it was in danger of being shattered by the sight of a woman sitting on a vehicle with her disgusting groin in your direction. I am not trying to argue that the way in which women mount motorbikes is an issue of Earth-shattering significance, but the story is a perfect demonstration of the degrading ways in which absolutely no part of women’s lives is too trivial for religious authority to condemn. Is this an anomaly? Of course not. Wait only a few weeks and a similar story will break – then another, then another. Careful how you eat that banana; they could be coming for you.  

Examine any major religious news story and all too often you will find at its heart an unhealthy and impoverished attitude towards women. The Catholic Church condemns condoms; why? Because it believes women ought to have no autonomy over their reproductive cycle. The Church of England refuses to conduct gay marriage ceremonies; why? Because it believes that gay sex is gross and that women need to be used for the apparent purpose for which they were created. The Church of England fails to instate female bishops; why? Because there are countless verses in the Bible that explicitly condemn the teaching of men by women. This is all too easy. But it really, really shouldn’t be.

What is a feminist to do in the midst of such male-dominated prejudice? Fight it. Recognise the lunacy inherent in the belief that a celestial being would favour one sex over another. Shed the unnecessary load, the unnecessary burden; refuse to believe that you were put on this Earth to be ‘subservient’ to men, or simply to rear men’s children. Rise up against religious spokesmen who tell you that there are ‘degrees’ of rape or that rape is something that “God intended to happen”. Look at the courage it took for figures like Malala Yousafzai and the Pussy Riot to resist and to question tyrannical regimes. 

Atheism is in my submission (to use a loaded term) a liberating mind-set. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it an ideology, but in rejecting the ideology of religion it is already a substantially healthier and more emancipating framework in which to live one’s life. There are no rules nor absurd creeds to stick to. Anyone who believes themselves to value a woman’s life on equal terms as that of a man has, to my mind, a duty to put this consideration at the forefront of their mind and to dismiss religion and its oppressive doctrines as being exactly what they so obviously are: man-made.

-RJ

105 thoughts on “The Penis Perspective: My Atheism Makes Me A Feminist

  1. I think you can be a religious feminist, in the same way so many Catholics use contraception – there’s no reason why you shouldn’t pick-and-mix which bits you adhere to.

    • and I’m not convinced atheism is necessarily liberating – to my mind some atheists are overly dogmatic – I mean, just because you don’t believe in gods doesn’t mean there aren’t any…

    • Sure there is a difference between picking and choosing the bits and pieces. If everyone is picking and choosing why is it all classified as one religion? It’s more just a bunch of people choosing different bits from the same book. It also lends itself heavily to interpretation which is why you get the Catholic Church being against contraception, and justifying it.

      It’s pretty hard to justify something like that with only the Bill of Rights (for example) at your exposal.

      Essentially I think that one of the main factors is that if as an atheist you hold a point of view you are expected to be able to back it up, and rightly so. If as a Christian you hold a point of view, no matter what it is, you can pretty much say “Because the Bible told me so”. You are more accountable as an atheist. Being held accountable, even if it is only to yourself, makes you far more critical of any point of view which you choose.

    • I see a difference between the public face of religions (or other beliefs) and individuals’ personal interpretation. Whatever the religion etc may claim, people are delightfully different, and don’t really fit into ready classifications.

      I disagree that atheism needs more justification in some way, all (un)beliefs are inherently arbitrary, otherwise they’d be facts. It’s been suggested to me that atheism isn’t a belief, but I think it can be classed as an arbitrary belief in zero gods, as really there is no way to count them ?

    • Just a heads up, it’s pretty offensive to call anyone’s belief “arbitrary” especially when there is still a massive stigma around atheism and for many atheists the decision was by no means arbitrary.

      Belief is also a bad word. It’s sort of like gravity. Most evidence points towards there being gravity however if something comes along showing that what we call gravity is wrong the theory will be rethought. Similarly most evidence points to there being no god/s. The necessity of “faith” proves this. So atheists do not “belief in zero gods”. Atheists hold the view that all evidence points to there being no god/s and so the chances of there being one is negligible. If suddenly there is proof that without a doubt there is a god, there would be no atheists.

      If as you say, “people don’t really fit into ready classifications” why do they try so hard to fit into religious classifications? I couldn’t call myself a Christian except not believe in the Holy Spirit. So if the Bible is the Christian book, and the book through which God speaks, anything other than a literal interpretation would be something other than Christian. To use an arbitrary example.

    • ‘Just a heads up, it’s pretty offensive to call anyone’s belief “arbitrary”‘

      it wasn’t meant that way, what I mean is, belief is based not on fact but arbitrary guessing that suits the believer. Like you don’t need to believe in gravity to fall over.

      “Similarly most evidence points to there being no god/s.” – that strikes me as wildly ad hominem (feminem ?). If there were gods and they didn’t want to be evidenced they’d be well placed to conceal themselves effectively. And I posit that gods might not want to be provable as that would devalue faith…

    • Simon, there’s nothing one can say to beat your style of argument. God would have much more reason to display evidence of his existence, not conceal this evidence. The mature and logical deduction is that no evidence = no God.

      “most evidence points to there being no god/s” is absolutely true and not ad hominem at all. But ANYWAY, this wasn’t supposed to be an argument about the existence of God. The point is that if he existed, he wouldn’t value men over women, which is exactly how religious texts seem to think he’d behave. (Also, note ‘he’, obviously – that’s all the argument one should ever need in proving that religion is man-made.)

    • “most evidence points to there being no god/s” is a fallacy (clitoricy?) – you don’t know how much evidence remains to be collected, and in fact, I don’t think it’s possible to know. So all the available evidence may only be 0.001% of what there is. It’s utter hubris to think that it’s all been examined already.

      For instance, if you ask everyone on the planet if they’re that Simon Barnes, 7000000000 odd will say “no” (apart from the ones who thought you asked if they wanted cake). So the evidence for me is vanishingly small, yet in fact I 100% exist. Time will tell if huge scads of other evidence re gods yet exists to be discovered, and no one knows which way it will point.

      Also I object to the sexist pronoun “him” in relation to a god – wouldn’t it or they be ungendered even if there weren’t any?

    • “The point is that if he existed, he wouldn’t value men over women”

      I don’t see how you can know that, gods might prefer women twice as much as men – I don’t think there’s anything in the universe to prevent gods from being sexist, or if there were they could make another one, but that wouldn’t justify US being sexist.

    • “But ANYWAY, this wasn’t supposed to be an argument about the existence of God.”

      indeed not, though when mentioning atheism it’s never far away, but I don’t think the existence of gods even matters, there may be gods, and they may have opinions about our behaviour, but I don’t give a monkey’s. OTOH, I do believe in women. I also believe that gods and women are essentially orthogonal and that beliefs about one don’t reflect on beliefs about the other. Now it may be that people who are willing to believe in one or more gods may also be more inclined to sexism, but I think you’d have trouble proving it statistically.

    • Obviously there are many people who would identify themselves as religious feminists, just as many Catholics use contraception. However, this doesn’t excuse or justify the fact that religion institutionalises inherently sexist principles, even if they are largely ignored by subscribers of the religion in question. Obviously there are historical contexts to pretty much all holy books, but personally I still think that we should question these things, particularly if they’re discriminatory.

      Furthermore, you might argue that various parts are historical issues and therefore don’t count as cherry-picking, but many clearly still have a large impact today (contraception still banned, abortion still abhorred on religious grounds, women not allowed in positions of religious authority, gay marriage currently still banned etc.) so I think it’s still worth highlighting these things and pointing out why these principles don’t sit well with feminism, and challenging those things we find unjust.

      The point, I think, is not so much that you can’t have religious faith and believe in feminist principles, because it’s obviously untrue looking at the number of people who’ve commented. However, this doesn’t disqualify the point that religious dogma (as documented in texts such as the Bible) do have anti-feminist ideas, interpretations and instructions.

      If you take from religious texts only the positive, then that’s wonderful, but that doesn’t mean that the less positive parts aren’t there and for me that’s still an issue that’s worth addressing, particularly when those less positive aspects are being used every day to discriminate against and endanger women (among other groups).

      I appreciate that there are both literal and metaphorical interpretations of, but just because some of you don’t take literally the “bad stuff” doesn’t mean others won’t and, again, I think that should be challenged. A big part of the “religious feminist” side of the argument does seem to rely on a much more individualistic kind of religious belief (which some might call “cherry-picking belief”) which is fine for those who subscribe to that, but fails to give a proper account of the issues brought up by this post for when that’s not the case.

    • +1 to Inga.

      Also a quibble. Surely atheism is not the opposite of religion, as this article implies. It is another belief or system of beliefs isn’t it?

  2. This is fascinating, and much of it I agree with. But I think you’re framing the debate in quite restricted terms. I don’t think it’s religion per se that is anti-feminist – that is, I don’t think it’s impossible to have a feminist-friendly religion. True, most of the world religions are fairly anti-feminist if you interpret their holy books from a fundamentalist perspective. But that’s what comes of reading religious texts out of their historical context. Reading them from a standpoint of ‘what were the circumstances of the time when this was held to be true and do they still hold good today?’ ‘Does this injunction conflict with other, more important injunctions (i.e. to love your neighbour for example, I’d argue, trumps all other ‘rules’). The various world religions have sprung up in the context of overwhelmingly patriarchal societies, so it would be surprising if they weren’t influenced to some extent by that fact. But that’s not a reason to throw out the baby with the patriarchal bathwater: religions do evolve because they are human, and humans change. I don’t think doing away with religion altogether would necessarily lead to a more equal society, just as I don’t think belief in a deity is inherently anti-feminist.

    It also seems to me that all the criticisms levelled at religions for their anti-feminist stance could also equally be levelled at other fundamentalist, dogmatic ideologies: communism and fascism for example. Nazi Germany was as patriarchal as they come, and it was secular. I think the problem arises when people get bogged down in the detail (should women ride motorbikes) rather than the general principles. From my standpoint of Liberal Judaism, I don’t find anything in that to sway my commitment to feminism either. People will probably say I’m ‘cherrypicking’ those bits of religion that suit me. I’d reply that the alternative to ‘cherrypicking’ is either atheism or fundamentalism, neither of which make much sense to me, and that to some extent we’re all making things up as we go along. The important thing is to recognise that fact, and not assume our way is the best way for everyone.

  3. I’d strongly encourage the OP to do what s/he so persuasively argues religious people should do, and examine what modern atheism IS as opposed to what it purports to be (and what s/he wants it to be). Inasmuch as it was ever a movement, it is these days in the process of violently splitting apart over the combustive question of anti-harassment policies at public events.

    A significant minority of atheist activists & leaders seem to hold their right to intimidate and harass women so sacred, that they are literally pulling out of events & abandoning the movement rather than submit to the indignity of having it put in writing that this sort of behaviour is not very nice. I applaud their consistency in resisting the lure of a scripture, any scripture; but as to the pro-woman bona fides this betrays, I’d keep the pepper spray handy if I were you.

    This is without even mentioning the violent rape threats, angry diatribes & ongoing bullying of women that has always gone on in the community, and has dramatically intensified in a frightening backlash to women’s rebellion against the positively biblical attitudes of some in the male dominated movement.

    Never mind that virtually none of what the OP says in the article is factually true with regard to the implied degree of security & freedom that women outside of Islamic states enjoy. If one looks around one at actual real life atheists, if one examines the facts critically and considers the evidence, and still comes to the conclusion that a lack of belief in god is enough to make someone a feminist, one is at best suffering from Stockholm syndrome, and at worst is dangerously indifferent to the treatment of actual real live women in the pursuit of a killer argument against ideologies one despises. Bad show that, from a rationalist. Bad show.

    • I think this is part of what I was alluding to – it seems some atheists are rabidly sexist, though of course that isn’t inherent in their lack of belief, and you need to separate the idea from the actions of those using them as an excuse for bad behaviour, whether religious or irreligious.

    • Some atheists. Not all. By no means all and probably not the majority. Because insofar as atheism is a “movement” (which it isn’t) it’s overarching doctrine as laid down in any book it (actually doesn’t) follow isn’t sexist.

      I would love someone to point me to a religion, any religion that doesn’t have as it’s basic tenet that one gender is better than another. I’d give that one serious consideration if I were looking for one to peg my beliefs to.

      If God existed She would be Extremely Cross with the way men have interpreted Her actions.

  4. Ello. The author of the article here.

    Simon: I’d simply argue that ‘religious feminist’ is almost a contradiction in terms because of the sexism so enshrined in religious texts. One can claim to be one, but I just consider it to be very obvious cherry-picking. And yes, I’m sure millions of Catholics use condoms; but in doing so they are explicitly disobeying Catholic dogma and therefore presumably jeopardising their fate in the afterlife.
    Of course some atheists can be dogmatic – a) not nearly as much as the religious; b) atheism is not in itself dogmatic at all as there are no ‘dogmas’.

    LL: Yes, the alternative to cherry-picking might well be atheism or fundamentalism; as is my opinion and as I have made clear, atheism makes by far the most sense and doesn’t come laden with all of the horrible prejudices that religion brings with it. Male orthodox Jews thank God every day that they were not born a woman; do females state the corollary?
    P.S. Nazi Germany absolutely was not secular and certainly was not atheistic.

    Marina S: Please tell me which parts of the article aren’t “factually true”.
    I really don’t know what you’re getting at re. atheism “violently splitting apart”; there’s nothing to split apart. And atheists can certainly be sexist but there is no logical link from atheism to sexism as there so obviously is with religion. And what are you talking about when you say “the violent rape threats, angry diatribes & ongoing bullying of women that has always gone on in the community”? This is obviously abhorrent, but what ‘community’ are you talking about?
    I never said that a lack of belief in God is sufficient in making someone a feminist, I simply said that religion severely retards the feminist cause and that atheism – through lacking any official dogma or ‘ideology’ as such – wins by definition.

    - Ralph Jones

    • “but in doing so they are explicitly disobeying Catholic dogma and therefore presumably jeopardising their fate in the afterlife.”

      hmm, I think they believe it entails extended suffering in purgatory from what I recall but that’s really irrelevant to the fact that they do not conform, and in general my knowledge of openly religious people indicates that each picks and chooses what they consider to be importatnt about their faith.

      “b) atheism is not in itself dogmatic at all as there are no ‘dogmas’.”

      I agree on that, except that in practice many seem to find dogmas anyway, and I think believing in exactly zero gods IS dogmatic when there’s no way to tell. My preference is to say that I don’t know or care what the number is.

    • “each picks and chooses what they consider to be important about their faith” – exactly. So a “religious feminist” ignores all the bits that are obviously sexist and says that these passages are the product of a patriarchal age and society, but has no problem then saying that all the other bits that aren’t sexist must be divinely inspired/ordained. Cherry-picking, as I have said, of the worst kind; and it leaves the door wide open to those who obviously do believe that EVERY part of the texts is divinely inspired and thereby justify horrific harm done because of them. Any attachment to the texts is the problem in the first place, because one can justify virtually any reading of them one likes.

      Not believing in God is dogmatic? Wow. Interesting theory. The argument that “many seem to find dogmas anyway” is not an argument against walking away from religion, just that dogmatic people will behave dogmatically. Atheism doesn’t inherently lead to a dogmatic outlook on life, but religion very frequently and unsurprisingly does.

    • The bits where you imply that women not living in Islamic theocracies are NOT second class citizens, do not live in fear of violence, and are not routinely discriminated against.

      And if you don’t know about elevatorgate, “Dear Muslima” and Atheism+, as your haughty bewilderment seems to suggest, then you’re simply not qualified to write on this topic, even from the atheist perspective.

    • “Not believing in God is dogmatic? Wow. Interesting theory.”

      what I mean is, were a god to appear, atheists’ unbelief would be overturned – and note that I said “believing in zero gods is dogmatic”. Perhaps the more dogmatic ones would assume they were hallucinating or just keep looking the other way and insisting they were still right ?

    • Hi,

      I’m a Christian, a feminist, and a theology student. Whilst I appreciate (and share) your anger at religious organisations’ oppression of women, I have to say that I think your understanding of religious texts is overly literalistic.

      I personally only have academic knowledge of the Bible, so I can’t speak for other religious texts, but awareness of sexism in these texts is not the same as ‘cherry picking.’ Each book, chapter, and verse in the Bible has numerous interpretations, and readers of the Bible are free to choose whatever interpretation they see fit, there is no one meaning to any biblical text, despite what various churches might claim. To be sure, as an atheist, you are welcome to read the Bible in a way that furthers your cause, but as a Christian, and as a feminist, I choose to read it in a life-affirming way.

      To be aware of the context of a text is not the same as ‘cherry picking’ and the concept of divine inspiration is more complex than you allow for. Moreover, it is important to recognise that simply because the Bible might portray sexism, it does not necessarily condone it. For example, the story of the Levite and the Concubine in the Book of Judges in an appalling story, but its inclusion in the Bible does not mean that God condones gang rape! On the contrary, the horror of the story shows such violence for what it is, and it is included in the text for a reason, to show how terrible life was in the time of the Judges (at least, that is my reading.)

      As to following the ‘rules’ of religion, as a Christian I have never felt pressure in this regard, and my experience of my church and religion has been overwhelmingly positive. I disagree with the ban on gay marriage and women bishops, as many Christians do, and I know that I am free to do so. The claim that women are ‘indoctrinated’ or blindly follow the rules of their particular organisation does not do justice to the intelligence and objectivity of religious women. I myself was an atheist until the age of 19, and choose to identify as a Christian, it was never forced upon me.

      You say that atheism makes you a feminist, I say that my religion, and more importantly God, makes me a feminist. God created all humans equal, and it was this belief that initially interested me in feminism, and it is this belief that continuously strips away my own prejudices.

      Yes there are problems with religion and it is definitely right to point these out, and condemn those who oppress others, but this outlook is not exclusively atheist – indeed I would argue that the vast majority of Christians share this view. I do not believe that religion and feminism are incompatible, my faith actually makes me a stronger feminist.

    • Marina S: I certainly do not imply that women not living in Islamic theocracies don’t live in fear of violence, etc. My fairly obvious point is that life is a little easier for women here than it is for women in said theocracies and that this is due in large part to religion. To suggest otherwise would be insulting to the women living in the countries in which child marriage, acid attacks, stoning and the burka are all commonplace. You have done absolutely nothing to suggest that anything I said was factually untrue, let alone “none” of it being accurate.

      As to your second point, I simply had to ask you to clarify because your writing was so vague. I think your portrayal of the atheist community is a little hysterical but of course those problems should be tackled. My point remains that sexism is of course not enshrined in atheism’s founding documents but very obviously is in religion’s.

    • “atheist community” ??? Do they really need to cluster together for support ? As a lapsed atheist I’m going to suggest that it doesn’t actually matter what people say they believe, only what they do. Belief is no justification for nasty behaviour.

    • Well, yes, “atheist community” is meaningless, as I tried to make clear. Atheists don’t belong to any community in the sense that believers do. Atheists may behave badly, but atheism doesn’t. Religion itself behaves badly and is damaging in innumerable ways – my central point. Thus it is very salient to understand what people believe and why, and not JUST at the way in which they behave. (P.S. A staggeringly high percentage of those in prison are religious, which does seem to imply that religion is detrimental to one’s behaviour anyway.)

      CW: I’ll answer in full soon, but your sentence “Each book, chapter, and verse in the Bible has numerous interpretations” is the very crux of the problem here, and the one that epitomises how slippery and dangerous religion can be. Personally I don’t see how a passage like “God has commanded that a woman be under subjection to her husband and that he will bear rule over her. Women are to keep silent” can be interpreted positively through a feminist framework but hey, go ahead and try if you like; this is clearly selective reading of the highest order and I really don’t envy you the task. I wonder whether or not you realise how seriously you manage to undermine your own argument, that’s all – with sentences like “I choose to read it in a life-affirming way”. Yes, you choose to read it in a certain way and thus the results are pre-determined. Looking at the Bible with an objective and rational mindset can only lead one to the conclusion that it is a book that espouses sexism. This is a product of the time, but so is the rest of the Bible; you simply choose to highlight this fact when it damages your argument but not when it doesn’t (e.g. in the period’s lack of rigorous examination of evidence, or the conveniently commonplace nature of miracles when there were no means to record them).

      There are very clearly passages in the Bible that indicate that God – or supposedly divine people like Moses – either let rape happen or command rape to take place. The further one distances oneself from the book in which vile things like this happen, the closer one gets to acknowledging that it is we as individuals – not any form of religious authority – can and should have control over our own lives. This is an emancipating realisation, and one extraordinarily difficult to undertake while defending immoral and outdated pieces of scripture.

    • “Religion itself behaves badly and is damaging in innumerable ways – my central point” – I hope that *isn’t* your central point as it’s meaningless. A religion is an abstraction, and only the people claiming to follow it have behaviour, which may or may not be consistent with it. As far as I can tell most religions are fundamentally quite high minded yet somehow many of their adherents still end up wanting to kill people.

    • I think you make your case very well, but I don’t think you understand the importance of religious texts to their readers, and you don’t acknowledge all the good that can come from these texts and/or religions.

      The Bible is a complex collection of many books written over a long period of time, and as such it deserves careful consideration and interpretation. Your understanding of what it is to read the Bible only allows for a fundamental litertalistic reading in which everything must be true and accepted, or we must reject the entire thing. This is not the actual experience of people who read and study the Bible every day. I might be coming to the text with a bias, but all people come to all texts with a bias; it isn’t possible to read anything totally objectively, so we might as well admit our vested interest before we start reading. Obviously we are not going to agree on this point, but I would add that I don’t see the Bible as a list of rules or stories which are intended to be read to gain a moral message, rather it is a text which engages readers in conversation with it. This is very like the Jewish understanding of the First Testament.

      More importantly, I think it is important to acknowledge that many women do follow a religion or have a faith, and that for them it is not oppressive, but can actually be liberating. The nature of faith means that believers are unlikely to abandon or reject their beliefs (although obviously this does sometimes occur). In this case, I would argue that it is more important to encourage women to critically analyse their religious texts to find a reading that is feminist; to simply tell women that religious texts are sexist is not going to convince them to become atheists, it might actually put them off engaging in feminist discourse.

      That is to say, reading the Bible only as a sexist piece of literature denies the fundamental aspects of faith and scripture. A religious person is not going to reject their religious text, so surely it is better to encourage a positive reading than to tell them that they cannot be a feminist. I think you are setting up a false dilemma between feminism and religion, which could not only be discouraging to religious feminists, but could be actively harmful.

      On your last point, I agree that it is important to take control of our own lives. Indeed, responsibility for your life and actions is greatly espoused in Christian teaching. Religious authority does not control peoples lives, churches exist so that Christians can come into communion with one another and can help others. Sadly Church structures have often been abused and it is right to point that out.

      Thank you for writing such an interesting article, it has really made me think about my commitment to the Bible, to my religion, and to feminism and I’ll certainly be doing some research in my uni library. I would ask that if the Vagenda are going to publish articles about feminism and religion, they also take into account the positive aspects of it rather than force women to choose between the two.

    • Oh seriously? A mansplain AND a religio-splain from a non-Jew? I’m overwhelmed! You haven’t explained what’s wrong with cherry-picking. Do you live your entire life according to such all-or-nothing principles? Why can’t a religion evolve? It is a human construct after all. And please, please, don’t try to tell me what Jews believe or don’t believe. As I said, LIBERAL Judaism is not the same as Orthodox Judaism. Plenty of the things we do are on the face of it pretty weird: men have to have a ritual bath if they get semen on themselves for example, because it makes them ‘unclean’. Explain that if you can – pretty weird, right? Actually the thanking G-d you’re not a woman thing is quite interesting. Women DO thank G-d for making them as they are. It’s more a way of thanking G-d for making you the person you are, rather than ‘thank G-d I’m not female and therefore inferior in every way’.

    • Sorry if you feel I’ve ‘mansplained’ anything; but it is baffling to me that people equate a dislike of religion with an inability to understand it. I’m not trying to explain your religion to you as though you know nothing about it, I’m trying to express the way it looks to someone who passionately disagrees with it.

      What’s wrong with cherry-picking? Well, to me it’s acknowledgment that one’s religion is entirely man-made and the interpretations almost impossible to criticise. It’s an acknowledgment that the texts are flawed and open to an infinite series of increasingly sympathetic interpretations, as opposed to being clear messages from an all-powerful God. If they were divine they would not need this constant reinterpretation; the need to engage in it is indicative of the way in which people simply shape belief systems retrospectively to suit their needs. This is not in itself particularly harmful, and I am certainly not advocating fundamentalism, but I find it baffling from an intellectual point of view. You did this with your apologising for the daily thanks to God; the option is not open in scripture for women to thank God for not making them a man. Women can of course choose to thank God for making them the way they are, but they are doing so of their own volition – in order to counteract the sexist prayer in the first place – and not under any divine command. This, in my submission, is inherently sexist and oppressive towards women.

      Now why is it so insulting for me to suggest that men shouldn’t thank God that they weren’t born a woman? Why is it insulting for me to say that there should be a little more equality?

      P.S. I can’t explain the semen thing. I’m not sure anyone could.

    • Ralph, I don’t want to be the language police or to speak on behalf of another woman commenter, but if you are a man who identifies as a feminist I’d be a bit more careful about calling a woman’s comment ‘hysterical’.

      It’s a very loaded, gendered term.

      Thanks.

    • MW wrote a piece as a feminist Christian which I felt spoke to my experiences too. As a feminist Muslim I’d like to thank her for her articulate words, and to add my echo. Like her, I was not born into my religion but chose it from an informed position as a young woman, as a result of study, observation and following my heart as well as my mind. A major element in this WAS its empowering nature, building my confidence as a feminist to challenge the men around me who held me down due to their assumptions of superiority based on gender. These men were all atheists, and so was I (not that all misogynists are! Just happened to be in my case). But with conversion – redefining my value towards looking at – how merciful am I? How kind to the poor? How courageous in terms of speaking out against injustice? (Exactly the same value structure as for men, as we are EQUAL in the eyes of God). This shift caused me to reassess my initial outlook, encouraging me to move away from strange and messed up focuses defining my value in relation to glamour, sexual choices, sexual desirability or appearance, or how pleasing I was to men, which I’d gained growing up as an atheist from messed up popular culture ideas and cultural distortions. I became much angrier, much stronger, and a much more engaged feminist, seeing oppression I’d been culturally blinded to before, and standing up for myself when men tried to push me around or make me do things I was not comfortable with, things I did not want to do, but hadn’t had the voice or strength to put resistance into words for before. My feminism grew, rather than shrinking, as a result of my faith. I believe in the equality of humanity and the reality of justice in contrast to oppression, something tangible and important. Of course, some atheists believe similarly. But my point is that religion CAN, for some people, have this impact of empowerment.

      Yes, criticize these misogynistic crazies, with their messed up sensationalisation of women on motorbikes. Criticise the Taliban, criticize the Iranian regime! These oppressors are destroying women, murdering them, locking them up, suppressing their needs and seeking to silence them. I am right with you in terms of arguing against evil ideas and actions in some interpretations of religion, as in anything else.

      It would be wrong to reduce atheists to the Nazis and the Stalinists. But it’s what we’re doing here in discussing religion. Oppressing others is a particular HUMAN trait, which can exist regardless of creed, and the same is true for the trait of standing up against oppression. My faith, or your lack thereof, tells us nothing about how ‘feminist’ I am or you are. You can only learn that by talking with us, finding out how we came to these conclusions, what they mean for us in terms of gender, equality and our shared humanity. There are as many ways of interpreting a religion as there are stars. Don’t reduce women of faith to irrelevance or stupidity, or dismiss our resistance as ‘inferior’ to yours, as ‘backwards’. We live in the same time. We are not so different to you. Our battles are connected, and there is no need to make either side ‘superior’ – we should work together. We should celebrate our multiplicity – some of us focus on empowering ourselves through the spiritual. Some care more about institutional access or representation. Some of us focus on the law. Some of us focus on education. All of these approaches are valuable. One day, the actions of someone claiming to be directly inspired by God, and putting her life on the line in the name of women’s rights and gender equality, may take your breath away. Because human equality is universally expressed and sought after, in every culture, by some, and ignored or silenced by others. It’s not about where you’re born or which cultural language you use to express your ideals. It’s about what you SAY within that language.

    • As a Muslim, I can use religious language to empower myself, or to disempower myself. One fifth of the world’s population is Muslim, for heaven’s sake. Just knowing my faith tells you nothing, if you don’t ask what it means for ME. In my case, becoming Muslim, developing a faith in God and spirituality, made me stronger, braver, and clearer-sighted as a feminist, and led me to leave someone who was very misogynistic, physically and emotionally. It led me to stand up for myself and have pride in my identity as a woman, and confidence in my EQUALITY to men, as well as anger at how we’re held down on the basis of gender. Before God, we are equal.

      I’m not claiming religion always has this impact for everyone. There are so many interpretations, many of which are APPALLING in their oppressive content. But seriously? You know in Islam there are rules saying men should perform oral to please their wives, and make sure a woman always comes first. Rules saying they have a duty to engage in foreplay. Half of the Qur’an practically is a rant against the practice of female infanticide. In its time, a time when women were seen as chattel, it gave women the rights to choose their husband, to vote, to inherit, to divorce their husband, to own property, to keep their name through marriage, and their identity, to be educated, to be PAID FOR WORK IN THE HOME (aka if they are a housewife and it’s in the marriage contract), to work outside the home, banned domestic violence, to be respected for what we do, who we are, not how we look. Not everyone will tell you this history of Islam. But that’s just the point. You can’t just dismiss so many different people and worldviews as ‘anti-feminist’. We’re not all the same as each other, just as atheists are not all the same! I wish we were not constantly reduced to our religious identities as though we are only two-dimensional, while those who are secular are blessed with recognition for all of what they say, as vastly different beings with different strengths, focuses and beliefs, not just the label.

      For me, Islam is about emphasis on our equal worth as humans, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, before God, coming from the same and judged the same – based on personal conduct and morality (aka kindness towards others), not superficial outer things. I became much more vocal in standing up for myself, my rights, and respect, as a result of the inner strength faith gave me. Not everyone experiences it this way. But I’d be a less engaged feminist if it weren’t for my faith.

    • As MW wrote, “The claim that women are ‘indoctrinated’ or blindly follow the rules of their particular organisation does not do justice to the intelligence and objectivity of religious women… my religion, and more importantly, God, makes me a feminist. God created all humans equal, and it was this belief that initially interested me in feminism, and it is this belief that continuously strips away my own prejudices.

      Yes there are problems with religion and it is definitely right to point these out, and condemn those who oppress others, but this outlook is not exclusively atheist – indeed I would argue that the vast majority of Christians [and other religious people, my words not hers] share this view. I do not believe that religion and feminism are incompatible, my faith actually makes me a stronger feminist.”

      Recently, the Vagenda wrote a great piece on how ‘funny’ feminists should not be seen as less – how the movement needs the full diversity and plurality of women to step forward, to speak out, to stand together and share our different insights in a beautiful pluralist 3rd wave movement. Atheism is much more common in particular parts of the world. Women from so many other areas are more likely to embrace a religious discourse of empowerment – but they’re still joining!

      Just because we don’t sound the same as you does not mean we’re ‘less feminist’, or ‘less’ in any way, than you. Please don’t discourage women of faith from joining because of your prejudice in believing we’re somehow less informed, less intelligent, less angry, less wise, or less feminist, than you.

      God bless us all and keep us strong in our anger against injustice, our pursuit of equality for all people, and our support for one another across all superficial lines of difference in building a world where all are equal; after all, that’s pretty much the point isn’t it? Peace :)

  5. I enjoyed this, as I enjoy most of the posts at the Vagenda. I did just want to offer my own perspective on feminism and religion. I’m a Christian feminist (among many other labels). I’m often at odds with both groups. I heavily criticize the Bible, and much of my understanding comes from when I took “Feminist Biblical Interpretation” during undergrad.

    I think what may be hard for an atheist Christian to understand is WHY my religion is important to me. I fervently believe in an Ultimate Creator who I call God (I also use feminine pronouns when referring to Her because I believe God is something greater than gender). I also fervently believe that Jesus is the Son of God. Anything else about Christianity is open to criticism and reinterpretation, but I can’t just turn my back on these two basic tenets of my faith.

  6. I’m a Christian feminist. I believe everyone is equal and deserves equal rights, regardless of race, gender, beliefs. I believe in woman’s right to choose, separation between church and state and that everyone should be able to live their life however they may want to. I’ve never felt at odds between my beliefs, religious, feminist or otherwise. I don’t take the Bible literally, as a lot of people do, but I do try to adhere to Christ’s teachings as I see them as being about love and tolerance. I believe in my own judgement, not what someone in a pulpit tells me.

    You can be a decent person, with or without religious faith. Like wise you can be a feminist and have religious faith. We’re not all blind leading the blind types.

    Religion has a lot to answer for, there is no denying, but to claim that having religious faith means you’re not a feminist is a bit of a sweeping statement, and not entirely fair in my opinion. There are religious nutjobs aplenty in this world, but there also those of us who are not nutjobs. I’m not going to shove crucifixes in people’s faces, trust me.

  7. I used to be a right wing evangelical christian until I saw the light, I completely agree with this article. If you imagine faith as independent from all those religious texts that are ‘open to interpretation’ (which is their fundamental flaw, I’m studying the bible at the moment from the perspective of an ancient historian, and it is utterly useless as a philosophy when compared with other world philosophies which don’t require punishment by a celestial overlord) then all those images of God caring about who you sleep with/what you eat etc just fall away. The very first philosophers to consider the non existance of God were the pre-socratics in 800BC, I can’t believe people are still having this argument almost 3000 years later. In addition to the motorbike thing, what about the disgraceful fire in Mecca in 2002 in which religious police forced 800 schoolgirls back into a burning building because their hair wasn’t covered, claimed 15 lives? http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/1874471.stm

  8. My Judaism made me a feminist.
    Academically: The first chapter of the Torah/Old Testament tells us that men and women were created b’tzelem Hashem – in the image of G-D. Then, we were cursed with sexism. This tells us that sexism is not in the natural order, and is something we have to put right. Tell me again about sexism in religion?
    Personally: I don’t think it’s right that you tell me how to believe, any more than my telling you that bacon is sinful would be right. I thought this would be a safe space where I could believe what I believe without being vitriolically attacked, but apparently not.
    And by the way, my screen name? Garrett for Elizabeth Anderson, first female British doctor, and Dvorah? The Hebrew name of Deborah, a female Judge of Israel.

    • Well, indeed, we always have to put sexism right and ought to applaud any efforts to do so; my argument is that religion often does its hardest (and frequently succeeds) to prevent this from happening. It may succeed occasionally but this is very often against violent opposition from fervently religious individuals and organisations.

      Orthodox Judaism is horrifically sexist, for example, and has grossly retarded the lives of countless women.

  9. I can see where you’re coming from, but there are a lot of sweeping statements in this article, like “Religion by contrast can in my view do nothing but grave harm to the feminist cause”, and a really narrow view of religion.

    “It ought for example to be glaringly obvious that the women and girls of Afghanistan and Iran wouldn’t live as inferior citizens in constant fear of harm if these countries were governed by the ‘faithless’” is really simplistic. There are many excuses people use to dominate others and religion is just one of them. By taking religion out of the equation, things wouldn’t magically be fixed. It also glosses over the informed choice that many women make to believe in a particular religion.

    There is a lot of diversity within Christianity, as well as between different religions. Different churches will have different views. I once (never again) went to a church where they said “we have lots of strong women in this church, and we need strong men to lead them”. On the other hand, the church I go to back home is liberal, and believes in marriage equality and for equality for women. Feminist scholars like Phyllis Trible and Karen Armstrong have done work on reinterpreting the bible and questioning the sexist assumptions we take for granted in it (although there is a lot of weird stuff I have issues with in the bible, and I do agree we should be critical and questioning).

    But Richard Dawkins has said some horrible things about rape victims (http://www.shakesville.com/2009/10/polanski-business-in-which-emma.html#comment-19447573) and the atheist community doesn’t always sound like it welcomes women (http://www.shakesville.com/2011/07/point-you-are-proving-it.html). It’s a bit more complicated than just atheism=good, religion=bad.

  10. Lots of responses to give to the responses. Thanks all for your comments.

    1. CW (although it sounds like you’ve gone now): It’s obvious that we disagree radically. I think that the Bible is very obviously a ridiculous and MAN-made collection of texts and that it is patently ridiculous to assume that some parts are ‘divine’ and some parts not. I myself can’t see the point of interpreting the Bible ‘liberally’, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s wrong and irrelevant on so many things that it’s obviously just a flawed document with absolutely no divine guidance whatsoever.

    Anyway.

    I certainly do “acknowledge that many women do follow a religion or have a faith”, but I simply say that the faiths in question are fundamentally oppressive. I don’t say that all women think this, nor that they have to (obviously), simply that this is the very plain conclusion one reaches if one is not desperate to produce a sympathetic reading of the texts and thus attempt to include oneself in the religious organisation in question. I’d also say, by the way, that religion is fundamentally dreadful for everyone, just that it goes one step further for women because all of the texts are so palpably the product of ignorant and sexist men.

    Encouraging women to read religious texts “to find a reading that is feminist” is certainly not my aim, and I don’t think it should be anyone’s aim. When I attended the wedding of Christian friends of mine over the summer, both ceremonies included the injunction that the wife should ‘submit’ to the man. I don’t want to try to reach a sympathetic understanding of such an obviously sexist belief, I want women to be emancipated from it and reap the benefits it will bring. You say that simply telling women that religious texts are sexist won’t make them atheists; that’s not really my problem. I think they are deeply sexist and thus won’t lie about this obvious truth. If you want to do so in order to keep members of the faith, or conscript new members, I consider that an altogether more sinister motive.

    “A religious person is not going to reject their religious text”; millions of people do all the time. What a defeatist attitude.

    “Religious authority does not control peoples lives”. I think you just need to read that again and realise how ridiculous and insulting a sentence it is.

    2. Belle Vierge: ‘Feminist Biblical Interpretation’ sounds fun…

    Your belief that Jesus is the son of God is based on the Bible, so why shouldn’t that central claim also be heavily criticised along with all the other ridiculous claims? Also, in claiming God to be a woman you are contradicting all of the Bible; how have you managed to reach this conclusion? Why do you feel you know better than the Bible on this most fundamental issue?

    3. LNKruger: “to claim that having religious faith means you’re not a feminist is a bit of a sweeping statement”. I never claimed that; I just think those that claim to be religious and feminists are guilty of extreme cherry-picking and would be better off without the teachings of obviously sexist religions.

    • Short answers before work…

      Sophia. Female. Wisdom personified in the Bible. God is equated as Wisdom.

      When a language lacks a third pronoun, the default is almost always masculine because patriarchy values men over women. The Bible is flawed for hundreds of reasons, including the inherently flawed group of men who arbitrarily decided which books were canon. The Bible is also flawed due to restraints of language. I totally understand the Father language in regards to Jesus, since Mary is the earthly mother. That doesn’t mean God can’t be greater than gender.

      Pretty sure I didn’t say God is a woman. Said God is so great and beyond our understanding that God must be larger than a simplistic and flawed human understanding of gender.

    • “patriarchy values men over women”; just say “religious values men over women” and you’ve got there a lot more quickly. Simple.

      “The Bible is flawed for hundreds of reasons”; why should it be if it is divinely inspired? If it’s not divinely inspired then we can rightly expect it to be flawed in hundreds of ways; again, simple answer to a pointless problem. Made by men; has all the dreadful trademarks of a text made by men.

      You said you use feminine pronouns when referring to God; I’m asking you why. It seems very clear from the Bible that God is supposed to be male in character; I’m interested as to how you’ve reached a conclusion on which the very founders of your religion would disagree with you. It seems that anyone can just interpret scripture or ‘God’ in whichever way they please, with no apparent need to justify their beliefs. Totally bizarre to me.

    • Hi- think part of the problem here Ralph is that you have a set list of categories with which you expect people of faith to conform to. The debates far more interesting when you recognise that like so many things in life, from politics to sexuality there is a diverse ranges of views and lifestyles out there. In particular how believers and those of no faith use religious texts is varied. Many people of faith believe that history and tradition are shaped by the relationship and interaction of God and humankind, and that the bible is both a collection of writings done by humans inspired by their faith and relationship with God- so both human and fallible, as well as a source of divinely inspired wisdom.

      Think is oversimplifying to suggest the swap of patriarchy for religion. Pretty hard to find texts religious or not from equivalent times in history that do not use the masculine as the default. A more interesting question Genesis story emphasizes being made equally in Gods image- I doubt your very interested in theology but if you study the language it’s pretty amazing how given the patriarchal nature of middle-eastern culture at the time, that there is much that affirms and argument for gender equality. If the agenda of it being written was to give med ammunition for oppression, the writers could have done a much better job of ensuring from the word go women were viewed as second-best.Secondly why is it so clear that God is supposed to be male in character? Do you have a certain qualities that you believe are exclusively male or female, which you apply to God? If you want to go down the route of generalising then there are clear examples of ‘typical female’ qualities associated with God as well as ‘male’. I’m interested as to who you see the ‘founders’ of Christianity as, and how you interpret their views and intentions. Ultimately I respect your passion for rejecting what you see as oppressive, but it seems you feel you can just interpret/define the beliefs of people of faith whichever way you want.

  11. 4. Sophenisba R: Completely agree.

    5. I’m not telling you how to believe, but this would be an extremely dull world if none of us voiced our opinion on huge issues like religion. If you think my article was a ‘vitriolic attack’, you don’t know anything about vitriol and I’d suggest your faith in your faith might be shaky. Incidentally, my claim that religion is sexist is not comparable with an obviously ludicrous claim like ‘bacon is sinful’. Where do you stand on male Jews thanking God every morning that they weren’t born female?

    6. I didn’t say that taking religion out of the equation would ‘magically fix’ the situation, but I certainly claim that an increase in religion leads to an increase in sexism. Thus, the fewer people that adhere to sexist religious scripture, the less of a problem sexism becomes. This does NOT mean that sexism isn’t also a problem in non-religious countries, just that it is likely to be less of one. I think the article’s last paragraph makes clear that the situation isn’t just ‘atheism = good, religion = bad’ but come on; while there are UNDOUBTEDLY sexist atheists, just as there are believers perfectly free of sexism, atheism isn’t by definition sexist, whereas ‘religion’ – if we take imams, priests, theologians etc at their word and assume that the founding texts are crucial – is disgustingly sexist by definition. Masking this very very obvious point is in my opinion to ignore, or provide apology for, the suffering inflicted on women every day not just in the name of religion but explicitly BECAUSE OF religion. I concur with Dawkins in the sense that preaching hellfire to children could certainly do more lasting damage than physical abuse, but there is obviously a wide spectrum of abuse, as he acknowledges. What people don’t seem to understand is that if Dawkins says something sexist, atheists are perfectly at liberty to call these remarks inaccurate or not representative of their beliefs. Believers don’t really have this option at their disposal because texts have to be ‘interpreted’ in a certain ‘framework’, for example, rather than dismissed for being sexist relics of an obviously unenlightened time in which men owned women and people believed that a wandering preacher could cast out someone’s demons into a pig.

    We need to grow out of this ridiculous superstition and cast off the horrific sexist dogma it carries with it.

  12. Just to add something into the mix. I believe this was the elevatorgate incident Marina was referring too http://skepchick.org/2011/07/the-privilege-delusion/

    Adds a nice bit of balance to the piece. There are sexist, misogynist douches out there in all communities; all members of a boys-own club dictating how us sisters should act and what our priorities should be – politically, religiously etc. I personally think organised religion is oppressive and inherently sexist. That being said, I have been told by countless self-titled free-thinking lefty atheist men what my priorities as a feminist should be and I don’t dig that either! It’s my feminism that makes me a feminist and I’m not about to justify that to anyone else.

    • I think feminism or atheism are descriptive labels rather than prescriptions and as I suggested with religions, people can pick and choose their own interpretations. It always surprises me when people drag out Dawkins or Dworkin etc as if some individual could somehow represent the ideas of others they’ve never even met, without their consent.

    • is there really that much difference? Jesus said “be nice to people so you can sit at my father’s right hand side” and Dawkins says “be nice to people because it’s the right thing to do”. Actually heaven sounds appallingly boring, I’d just as soon pass on it!

    • Equating Jesus with Dawkins is insulting. To Dawkins.

      Dawkins – or any other atheist – has never said, “Follow me or go to Hell”. Anyone who does so is someone who preaches evil. Why Jesus is revered and not reviled is always a source of mystery to me. A separate debate, of course, but no – Jesus didn’t just say “be nice to people so you can sit at my father’s right hand side”; he said that anyone who didn’t agree with him would be cast into Hell. A disgusting individual.

    • “he said that anyone who didn’t agree with him would be cast into Hell. A disgusting individual”

      I must have cherry-pickingly forgotten that bit – my Catholic education was 50-odd years ago :) I mostly recall the parables which seemed to be about loving your neighbour, making the most of your talents and overturning the merchants’ tables in the temple. Whether or not Jesus ever existed, compassion and humility don’t seem such bad things. Mind you, I think Hell sounds more interesting than Heaven – and eternity of ease seems like a vicious form of torture and sensory deprivation…

    • well, I’m quite sanguine about insulting Dawkins after reading the Elevatorgate thing :)

      “he said that anyone who didn’t agree with him would be cast into Hell”

      I must have cherry-pickingly forgotten that part of my Catholic education – it was over 50 years ago after all, and what I recall was stuff about compassion and mutual respect, which seem to stand whether or not Jesus ever existed. Mind you, an eternity of ease in Heaven seems to me like a form of sensory deprivation torture, with nothing ever happening – so perhaps Hell would be more interesting…

    • Criticise Dawkins if you like, fine. My point – that you in fact supported – was that he isn’t capable of the evil inherent in Jesus’ teachings.

      Compassion and humility are of course not bad things, they are good things. The trick that religion has played is convincing the world that one needs to be religious in order to be compassionate and have humility etc. No; people knew how to behave before religion arrived on the scene, and those without religion know (to a greater extent, I believe) how to behave to their fellow creatures. Morality, as Christopher Hitchens said, precedes religion. We don’t need some deluded preacher who told everyone that they had to believe in him or go to Hell; that, as I have made clear, is an obviously evil preachment and we would be far, far better off without it.

      Hell would of course be more interesting. Mainly because there would be no sanctimonious Christians there.

    • Interesting question regarding how we view Jesus. Does it have to be black and white? Depending on whether you believe all of what you read about Jesus is historical or not, do we reject someone and their influence outright because of fundamentally disagreeing with a particular teaching? Given that Jesus was known for affirming and associating with some of the most rejected/oppressed people of his time, and was known for accepting women as followers (unheard of for Rabbis at the time), is there really nothing to gain from considering his influence even theres also things we reject? I guess I feel if I applied the same standards to people that have inspired me such as Martin Luther King, or Mary Wollstonecroft then I would’ve learnt alot less from their examples.

    • “Hell would of course be more interesting. Mainly because there would be no sanctimonious Christians there.”

      are you sure ? Seems to me the ranks of most religions are stuffed with hypocrites and n’er do wells who would rightly deserve severe punishment…

    • well, similarly, I don’t think anyone deserves the torment of eternal beatitude either, but neither are my idea – if I can’t live I’d rather be nothing at all.

  13. I know all about the Elevatorgate incident, yes. While it is obviously evidence of cowardly sexism on the part of many involved, and it should clearly be addressed head-on, I consider it problematic to equate this incident with the very real and life-threatening problems faced by women living in theocratic nations or bound by misogynistic scripture. This problem could have occurred anywhere with any group of people; things like female circumcision, on the other hand, can only really happen as the result of religion. One doesn’t have to alter the meaning of atheism to combat the sexism practised by a group of atheists, but to challenge the disgusting sexism in religion is a much, much more difficult thing to do, because this challenge alters the fundamental messages of the religion(s) in question and so many (men) in authority are willing to act in barbaric ways to prevent this challenge being successful.

    • I don’t know much about it but as far as I can make out FGM is a custom and not based on any relgious motivation or doctrine. Having read the skepchick piece I revile Dawkins too, but then I never thought of him as more than an annoying gasbag…

    • If you think female genital mutilation isn’t anything to do with religion you know nothing about it.

      You’re entitled to think of Dawkins as “an annoying gasbag” but there are many – myself included – who think that what he is doing is more valuable than the teachings of any pathetic and ludicrous religion. In years to come this will become more and more apparent as we discard the toxic religious garbage with which we are still saddled.

  14. Ah. It would now seem that we’ve come to an impasse which is usually always brought on by the use of the word “problematic” to shoot down any valuable discourse.

    I don’t really believe anyone here was trying to demean the real dangers, threats and limitations placed on women living under so-called theocratic nations. What I do think some responses were attempting was to add a more balanced view of the argument. Theologically, you’re never going to be able to challenge what people believe the real “fundamental messages of religion” are as – I’m lead to believe – that this varies from person to person. As I previously said, I personally believe that religious doctrines result in the oppression of others – female or no. And that yes, most religions that spring to mind are inherently sexist. Just as I don’t believe atheists are inherently feminist. I stand by my original douches comment.

    Once you become involved in weighing one method of oppression or sexism against another you ultimately risk becoming embroiled in theoretical discussions that end up trying to determining whose cause is worthier, whose experiences are more valid; whether or not being threatened repeatedly with sexual assault is in any way better or worse than female circumcision is something I don’t think anyone is entitled to judge. This sort of thinking doesn’t help anyone, is usually used by those who feel righteously entitled to their opinions and ultimately sets back any useful progress combating sexism and misogyny on a global and intersectional scale.

    • Thank-you, this was a helpful comment.

      I apologise if anyone believes I’ve tried to ‘shoot down’ any discussion of the topic; not my intention, I assure you. My concern is that religion tends to get a huge deal of support and apology and not enough harsh analysis.

      In essence my argument is that the discrimination is not at all balanced and that sexism in the countries in which religion really does play a major role is very frequently life-threatening. Does this down-play the sexism committed in other countries and in other spheres? It may well do, but exactly the same would be true of an article that examined sexism in sport, for example. People might rightly say, “Look how much worse it is for women in politics [or medicine, teaching, commerce...] – don’t pretend that the problem isn’t endemic”. Women have it harder than men in virtually every discipline. My focus, as I freely admit, is religion. My argument would be in fact be that religion was the first system of oppression, and has always perpetuated this gender prejudice; it seems to do absolutely nothing to remedy it.

      I think you’re setting up a false dichotomy, though, as are many people in the thread; my contention is that religion is inherently sexist and that atheISM is not. AtheISTS may be horrifically sexist, and religious believers may be beautifully prejudice-free (I see no evidence of it working this way round, although of course there are exceptions), but it would say nothing about my argument that sexism is a fundamental characteristic of religion. It is certainly not fundamental to atheism.

      I also think it’s false to say that one can never “challenge what people believe the real ‘fundamental messages of religion’ are”; people leave religion all the time and are, in my submission, better off as a result.

  15. This is a rather belated reply, but as a former Christian (from a church that was rather damaging to children) and now agnostic-atheist (in that I learn towards ‘there’s probably not a God’), this has been a really refreshing, excellent article and I’ve also enjoyed your responses to the comments. When at university we studied Anglo-Saxon England and the use of the Christian faith as a political, even millitary tool I realised how patriarchal and political religion is, and was finally able to let of my religion (what I’d been trying to do for years, but had been bought up with an all too clear vision of hellfire). I also cannot recognise a religion that does not see me as equal, and does not give me the same rights as a men as in any way valid. If I ever needed a reminder as to why I’m no longer a Christian, the issue of women Bishops has been it. Thanks very much for an excellent blog post.

    • Ab,
      Absolutely lovely to hear. Good to know you no longer subscribe to such oppressive and ludicrous ideas; my hope is always that more will find the same courage and emancipation.
      All the best.

  16. Loved this article, how exciting to see men writing about feminism. Sorry it will upset people but, as a 14 year old, I tore Genesis out of my bible, so angry was I with the punishment of all woman with child bearing and period pains, because Eve misbehaved. That’s not the kind of God I would choose to believe in, and faith/belief, is a choice, a reinforced thought. I am spiritual but not religious. Well done Ralph. V excited to find this blog site.

    • Charlie,
      Wonderful to hear; more wisdom coming from a 14-year-old than the vast majority of religious members of authority out there. I commend you on your maturity and on your clear-sightedness. A life lived without religion will be a much more fulfilling one.

    • “That’s not the kind of God I would choose to believe in”

      a very revealing remark, which to me reflects that we create gods rather than the other way round. It could be that some gods aren’t nice, and were that the case, not believing in them wouldn’t actually change reality. Or would it ?

    • Of course we create gods, not the other way round, yes. What Charlie seemed to be saying was that the God of the Bible is so patently ridiculous that it would be silly to believe he existed. And if he existed, he’d be too much of a dickhead to worship.

      It could be that some gods aren’t nice; there’s probably more evidence to that effect than there is to suggest that any of them are nice. What’s most rational is that there aren’t any, nice or otherwise. And no, obviously believing or not believing in something has absolutely no effect on its validity.

    • say WHAT?? There’s no evidence for for gods at all, but there IS evidence that suggests they’re not nice ? I’m sorry, but these are mutually exclusive – any credible evidence for nasty gods is also evidence for gods period. I think you just dismantled your argument!

      Please understand, I’ve nothing against atheism – I used to be atheist myself, but if you’re going to declaim about it you must make sense and be logically consistent.

    • Oh Simon, come on, come on, come on. There’s no evidence for God but IF he existed, in my opinion he’d be nasty, lazy and incompetent; a very common criticism of religion on atheistic terms. To note the existence of nastiness in the world is not to say that a nasty God exists.

      Nothing to do with sexism in religion and not (in my opinion) as interesting either.

  17. As a Buddhist, I can’t help but be pissed whenever I hear people rant and rave about “religion” and how it’s ant-woman blah blah. And it happens a lot. Do you mean Christianity? Islam? The Abrahamic religions perhaps? Because there are a lot of different religions dude :( And I’m starting to feel a bit put upon.

    • Ro.xxx:

      Buddhism is barely even a religion, but yes, when I say ‘religion’, I mean Christianity, Islam, Judaism – all of them. (‘The Abrahamic religions’ are Christianity, Judaism and Islam, mainly; that’s not a separate category.) In Buddhism the ‘Buddha’ is supposed to be male anyway: more evidence of sexism. And Buddhism has many practices that are almost as ridiculous and oppressive as any other religion.

      Do you think the fact that people rant and rave about religion being anti-women might be because it IS anti-women? Have you considered that possibility?

    • “Your religion, of which I am not a member, is not a proper religion. Furthermore your Godhead figure is depicted as male which is in and of itself inherently sexist.”

      Real strong argument you’re coming up with here fella

    • “Your religion, of which I am not a member, is not a proper religion. Furthermore your Godhead figure is depicted as male which is in and of itself inherently sexist.”

      Real strong argument you’re coming up with here fella

    • a) Are you really saying you have to be a member of a faith to criticise that faith? What a ludicrous point.
      b) The debate on whether or not Buddhism is a religion is a very real one, and it is clear that at the very least it is not a religion in the same way that the Abrahamic ones are.
      c) I say that the vast majority of godhead figures are male, which means it is safe to assume that it is men who invent gods and thereby attempt to control women. This is a point no-one has even come close to refuting.

      I think that it’s a strong argument; thank-you for agreeing.

  18. “In Buddhism the ‘Buddha’ is supposed to be male anyway: more evidence of sexism”

    now you seem to be arguing that any belief system based on a male entity is inherently sexist, yet 50% of humans have always been male. Statistically males seem to be favoured but any particular case doesn’t prove it either way. And history does not record the possibility that Buddha may have been transgender…

    • I’m very clearly arguing that all religions have as their divine authority a male figure; why? Because religion isn’t true, it’s very obviously false and man-made. God isn’t male or female, he doesn’t exist.

      I’d say that any belief system based on a male entity being divine and unchallengeable is inherently sexist, yes. I’m still yet to hear any coherent points to suggest to the contrary. If God were supposed to have been a woman we’d be living in a far less sexist world; but men create gods, not the other way round.

    • oh come on, by analogy are we then to suppose that all other male-dominated entities are also false ? You’ve already stated that belief in a thing doesn’t change its reality, so false religions don’t disprove the existence of gods.

      “God isn’t male or female, he doesn’t exist.” shouldn’t that read “God isn’t male or female, it doesn’t exist.” ?

    • a) False religions don’t by definition disprove the existence of ‘gods’, they just contribute to the mounting evidence that this existence is incredibly unlikely. Men have always dominated religion so have created male gods; you can be a deist and believe in a vague God-like force if you like, but I think that to give this force a gender (using as the basis for this assumption texts written by me) is simply incorrect.
      b) If you want to split hairs, as you clearly do, yes. It doesn’t exist.

  19. “Do you think the fact that people rant and rave about religion being anti-women might be because it IS anti-women?”

    you might as well argue that since society as a whole is anti-women, all feminists must be hermits

    • Ralph, you’re slipping – I think you’re so in love with your idea that you’re frantically grasping at straws. “Ridiculous” = I have no answer to that. Unless you can support your statement with a credible counter argument

    • Didn’t really want to reply to any more comments but thought I would this one. My whole stance here has been to provide a “credible counter-argument” to the idea that religions aren’t by nature sexist; I’m yet to see any evidence to the contrary.

      If someone says that they’re tired of religion being bashed for being sexist, my position is simple: this constant criticism is happening because it IS sexist. To say “Stop bashing religion for being sexist” is in my eyes a horribly defeatist stance to take. And for you to equate my argument – that women would be better off out of a religion that very clearly regards them as second-class citizens – with a suggestion for all women to just go off and live in caves, is, as I said, ridiculous. Living a irreligious life and ostracising oneself from society are two obviously and radically different things, and drawing a parallel between them like that is to say that it is impossible to fight against the sexism in religion.

  20. instead of arguing about the number of gods, I think a more fundamental question is “if there are gods, why do we have to do what they want?” – particularly when the only way we have to know what the gods may want is told to us by people who cannot prove to have communicated with it/them, and cannot even agree amongst themselves…

    meanwhile, you can actually talk to men and women and find out how they want to be treated

    • You were the one arguing about the number of gods; no-one else was having that discussion.

      The idea that we rely on obviously delusional humans to provide supposedly divine truths is what makes religion so embarrassingly easy to rumble; a man-made construct mediated entirely by men. So obvious it’s painful.

      Yes; actually talking to men and women and finding out how they want to be treated, is what we need to do. It is NOT what religion advocates. What you’re describing is humanism, a far healthier and more liberating framework for morality and ethics.

    • saying zero instead of one is still about numbers. I have no remit for any religions, I just don’t see them as any more sexist that many (most?) other institutions.

  21. for some reason I can only read the replies through the notification emails the blog sends – however, the more I think about this, the more I become convinced that religion and sexism aren’t causally connected and in fact all spheres of discourse are equally rife with sexism, because they are enacted by people who are often sexist – philosophy, business, politics, industry, sport, engineering – all sexist, so singling out religion makes no sense! I’m not suggesting accepting sexism, but if you are to be a part of society, you will encounter it, and its presence is not a reason to abstain.

    “What’s wrong with cherry-picking? Well, to me it’s acknowledgment that one’s religion is entirely man-made and the interpretations almost impossible to criticise.”

    very inverted logic I think! Nevertheless, I believe this is what most do, as however much we may be expected to conform, most of us still like to think for ourselves…

  22. Ultimately I agree that we should be free to critique the assertions of religious beliefs and teachings, and examine potential negative effects they may have.

    But as sad as it is to hear you’ve been faced by such a defensive/limited view, I can’t help but feel you’ve responded with the same blinkers on. You don’t need religious culture, texts or tradition to have blatant sexism and prejudice towards women, just look at statistics around the life-chances of women compared to men in china for example, particularly the high levels of infanticide/abortion towards baby girls compared to boys.

    Then we get to the bible a ‘grotesquely discriminatory and misogynistic text’. I think there are two questions to consider on the bible- firstly is it to be read as a list of endorsements of ‘copy and do as you read here’, or could it be that a book that has stood the test of time is more nuanced- a mixture of history, stating what has happened, for better or for worse (including plenty of examples of how humankind has repeatedly made a mess of equality, which I believe are best understood as warnings), combined with other text which is explicitly instructions and teaching on a pattern of how to live. Taken as a whole, it is important to ask when this was written, how did it compare to cultures around at the time? and as outdated as it might seem now, at the time was it a step in the right direction?

    Secondly is the question of how the bible is applied/used to justify the way in which people are treated, and I agree that sexism should be opposed, and such justifications challenged when they are used to sanction opression. You do not have to be an atheist to be angry and critical about the behaviour of religious institutions concerning equality, anymore than you have to be a female to to care about women’s rights. Just because individuals may embrace a very general term such as ‘Christian’ does not mean they have the same interpretation of religious texts or views on feminism as others that except the dogmatic examples of some religious views (e.g. anti-contraception.) that you have given (not that I want to downplay they very significant numbers that do support such views)

    If you believe in building an equal society, you have to accept that a significant proportion of people will have faith/follow religious teaching. It is not prejudiced to hold fast to your own personal beliefs concerning religion. Prejudice is acting on them in a way that limits others, or insisting that your beliefs are enshrined in the structure of society at the expense of others. Therefore to insist that either atheist or religious assumptions dictate how a society functions will only ever lead to prejudice in a pluralistic society- there has to be some compromise and coexistence of these two positions.

    It’s concerning to think that differing personal beliefs concerning faith in God/religion could be a dividing line between feminists when there are so many key issues concerning gender and social justice that are most effectively challenged when the common ground is emphasized rather than personal differences.

    T

  23. I think it a delicious irony that many of those who claim not to believe in any gods are quite specific about the number of those gods (one) and its (un?)gender! Are we to suppose that female characteristics extend not only beyond species barriers but even to hypothetical entities ?

    If we hypothecate one deity then what meaning can any gender have for it when it has neither the physical characteristics nor partners for the expression of sexuality ?

    It seems to me that Nature is irretrievably sexist with clearly defined sexual roles in nearly all non-hermaphroditic species, and it is a triumph of humanity (of all genders) that those natural roles can be overturned!

  24. my suggestion is to short circuit the pointless argument over possibly unknowable gods, and ask: if one or more gods exist, why does it matter ? Isn’t up to us to decide how we act? It doesn’t matter if gods exist if you decide your own moral code, especially if the evidence for religions being able to work out the intents of those gods is weaker than that for god(s) itself/themselves…

  25. MW wrote a piece as a feminist Christian which I felt spoke to my experiences too. As a feminist Muslimah I’d like to thank her for her articulate words, and to add my echo. Like her, I was not born into my religion but chose it as a young woman. A major element in this WAS its empowering nature, building my confidence as a feminist to challenge the men around me who held me down due to their assumptions of superiority based on gender. These men were all atheists, and so was I. But with conversion I redefined my perception of my own value and self-worth towards looking at – how merciful am I? How kind to the vulnerable? How courageous in terms of speaking out against injustice? (Exactly the same value structure as for men, as we are EQUAL in the eyes of God). This shift caused me to reassess my initial outlook, encouraging me to move away from defining my value in relation to glamour, sexual choices, sexual desirability or appearance, or how pleasing I was to men, which I’d gained growing up as an atheist from messed up popular culture ideas and distortions. I became angrier, stronger, and a much more engaged feminist, standing up for myself when men tried to push me around or make me do things I did not want to do, but hadn’t had the voice or strength to put resistance into words for before. My feminism grew, rather than shrinking, as a result of my faith. I believe in the equality of humanity and the reality of justice in contrast to oppression, something tangible and important. Of course, some atheists believe similarly. But my point is that religion CAN, for some people, have this impact of empowerment.

  26. Yes, criticize these misogynistic crazies, with their messed up sensationalisation of women on motorbikes. These oppressors are destroying women, murdering them, locking them up, suppressing their needs and seeking to silence them. I am right with you in terms of arguing against evil ideas and actions in some interpretations of religion, as in anything else.

    It would be wrong to reduce atheists to the Nazis and the Stalinists. Oppressing others is a particular HUMAN trait, which can exist regardless of creed, and the same is true for the trait of standing up against oppression. My faith, or your lack thereof, tells us nothing about how ‘feminist’ I am or you are. You can only learn that by talking with us, finding out how we came to these conclusions, what they mean for us in terms of gender, equality and our shared humanity. There are as many ways of interpreting a religion as there are stars. Don’t reduce women of faith to irrelevance or stupidity, or dismiss our resistance as ‘inferior’ to yours, as ‘backwards’. We live in the same time. We are not so different to you. Our battles are connected, and there is no need to make either side ‘superior’ – we should work together. We should celebrate our multiplicity. All of our varied approaches are valuable, if we work towards a world of equality. Human equality is universally expressed and sought after, in every culture, by some, and ignored or silenced by others. It’s not about where you’re born or which cultural language you use to express your ideals. It’s about what you SAY within that language.

  27. As a Muslim, I can use religious language to empower myself, or to disempower myself. One fifth of the world’s population is Muslim. Just knowing my faith tells you nothing, if you don’t ask what it means for ME. In my case, becoming Muslim, developing a faith in God and spirituality, made me stronger, braver, and clearer-sighted as a feminist, and led me to leave someone who was very misogynistic, physically and emotionally. It led me to stand up for myself and have pride in my identity as a woman, and confidence in my EQUALITY to men, as well as anger at how we’re held down on the basis of gender. Before God, we are equal.

    I’m not claiming religion always has this impact for everyone. There are so many interpretations, many of which are APPALLING in their oppressive content. But seriously? You know in Islam there are rules saying men should perform oral to please their wives, and make sure a woman always comes first. Rules saying they have a duty to engage in foreplay. Half of the Qur’an practically is a rant against the practice of female infanticide. In its time, a time when women were seen as chattel, it gave women the rights to choose their husband, to vote, to inherit, to divorce their husband, to own property, to keep their name through marriage, and their identity, to be educated, to be PAID FOR WORK IN THE HOME (aka if they are a housewife and it’s in the marriage contract), to work outside the home, banned domestic violence, to be respected for what we do, who we are, not how we look. Not everyone will tell you this history of Islam. But that’s just the point. You can’t just dismiss so many different people and worldviews as ‘anti-feminist’. We’re not all the same as each other, just as atheists are not all the same! I wish we were not constantly reduced to our religious identities as though we are only two-dimensional, while those who are secular are blessed with recognition for all of what they say, as vastly different beings with different strengths, focuses and beliefs, not just the label.

  28. For me, Islam is about emphasis on our equal worth as humans, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, before God, coming from the same and judged the same – based on personal conduct and morality (aka kindness towards others), not superficial outer things. I became much more vocal in standing up for myself, my rights, and respect, as a result of the inner strength faith gave me. Not everyone experiences it this way. But I’d be a less engaged feminist if it weren’t for my faith.

    As MW wrote, “The claim that women are ‘indoctrinated’ or blindly follow the rules of their particular organisation does not do justice to the intelligence and objectivity of religious women… my religion, and more importantly, God, makes me a feminist. God created all humans equal, and it was this belief that initially interested me in feminism, and it is this belief that continuously strips away my own prejudices.

    Yes there are problems with religion and it is definitely right to point these out, and condemn those who oppress others, but this outlook is not exclusively atheist – indeed I would argue that the vast majority of Christians [and other religious people, my words not hers] share this view. I do not believe that religion and feminism are incompatible, my faith actually makes me a stronger feminist.”

    Recently, the Vagenda wrote a great piece on how ‘funny’ feminists should not be seen as less – how the movement needs the full diversity and plurality of women to step forward, to speak out, to stand together and share our different insights in a beautiful pluralist 3rd wave movement. Atheism is much more common in particular parts of the world. Women from so many other areas are more likely to embrace a religious discourse of empowerment – but they’re still joining!

  29. Just because we don’t sound the same as you does not mean we’re ‘less feminist’, or ‘less’ in any way, than you. Please don’t discourage women of faith from joining because of your prejudice in believing we’re somehow less informed, less intelligent, less angry, less wise, or less feminist.

    God bless us all and keep us strong in our anger against injustice, our pursuit of equality for all people, and our support for one another across all superficial lines of difference in building a world where all are equal; after all, that’s pretty much the point isn’t it? Peace ☺

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