May 16, 2013

On the Relationship Between Atheism and Feminism

Userpage icon for pro-choice
Userpage icon for pro-choice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Women in Secularism 2 will be held in Washington DC this weekend, and many in the secular community are using it as an occasion to reflect on the relationship between atheism and feminism. Some of the resulting discussion has been thought-provoking and productive; some has not.

Feminism continues to be a controversial topic for many atheists. Some in our community have had difficulty separating feminism from the bad behavior of a small minority of prominent atheist bloggers who identify themselves as feminists; others have found it tough to separate disagreement from misogyny. And so the atheist world turns.

The controversy received a recent jump-start in the form of a recent article on Women in Secularism 2 in The Houston Chronicle. The author, intentionally or otherwise, seemed to pit Justin Vacula against Amanda Marcotte on the subject of whether atheism is consistent with feminism and/or pro-choice positions. Justin has been getting some heat for one part of the article in particular:
As Justin Vacula of Skeptic Ink Network said in response to another piece from conference speaker Amanda Marcotte, “I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to the ‘logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men.”
I come to this as someone previously unfamiliar with Marcotte's work and as someone who has the impression that some of the parties involved in discussing atheism and feminism seem to be talking past each other. This may be amplifying disagreement unnecessarily. Frankly, I think that both feminism and atheism are important enough that we should be able to have meaningful discussions of them.

Opinions Formed By Personal Experience

In Amanda Marcotte's 2012 article for RH Reality Check she explained,
Feminism and atheism are intertwined for me both on a philosophical and pragmatic level.
She's talking about herself and how feminism and atheism have been related in her experience. This makes perfect sense to me. Even though I have experienced atheism and feminism as being fairly distinct domains, I can certainly understand how they could be connected for others. After reading her description of her experiences with feminism and atheism, I see why they would be intertwined for her.

She says something similar about pro-choice positions. This time, I have an even easier time understanding where she is coming from because I share her experience of the two (i.e., atheism and being pro-choice) as being at least somewhat linked. In her experience and in mine, the two have been at least somewhat connected. After all, most of the anti-choice arguments I have heard have been religious in nature.

I enjoyed Marcotte's article, and I appreciated how she allowed the reader to walk in her shoes and understand how her experience has informed her opinions. I found myself in agreement with much of the article right up until I read the final paragraph:
Of course, all these arguments depended on an atheist movement comprised of people who saw the way that religion and patriarchy are intertwined, and saw that refusing to believe in God, if followed to its logical conclusion, means abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men. In my interactions with the atheist movement, I would say most activist atheists do see these things and have logically come around to feminism because of it. But as Natalie Reed and others have discovered, a not-insubstantial percentage of atheist men have convinced themselves they can both not believe in a god and somehow still conclude that women were put (by who?) here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men. And that therefore women who rebel against that by, say, demanding the right not to be sexually harassed just because some guy feels like it, are evil witches who need to be fiercely attacked. All these years, irrational sexists have thought they needed a God to rely on to tell women that our bodies belong to men and not to us. But it turns out that plenty of men feel that they themselves are the only authority needed to take away this basic right of women’s.
The first sentence of this paragraph struck me as being inconsistent with the rest of the article. What arguments is she referring to? Up until this point, she's been talking about herself and her experience. She's provided great explanations of how her experience led to her beliefs. She repeatedly referred to herself and the conclusions she has reached on the basis of her experience. She did not seem to be stating conclusions that would apply to others. With this sentence, she makes an abrupt shift to suggesting that others in the atheist movement ought to see things as she does ("that religion and patriarchy are intertwined"). Just because her experience supports a particular perspective for her (one which makes good sense based on her description of her experience) does not mean that this is applicable to anyone else. I'm not sure what happened here.

Atheism and Feminism

To understand the relationship between atheism and feminism, I think there are three relevant questions we need to ask and answer:
  1. Is atheism consistent with feminism and/or pro-choice positions?
  2. Is atheism intertwined with feminism and/or pro-choice positions?
  3. Does atheism logically lead to feminism and/or pro-choice positions?
Is atheism consistent with feminism and/or pro-choice positions? Yes! Of course it is. Atheism is consistent with everything besides god belief. There is nothing about the definition of atheism that precludes feminism, pro-choice positions, or anything else except for god belief. So yes, atheism is consistent with feminism and pro-choice positions. Of course, if we understand the meaning of atheism, we realize that this isn't a particularly useful question.

Is atheism intertwined with feminism and/or pro-choice positions? This is where things become more interesting and far more useful. The answer to this question depends on the person. For some people, atheism is absolutely intertwined with feminism and pro-choice positions. For Amanda Marcotte, it appears to be intertwined with both. Based on her descriptions of her experience, this is understandable. For me personally on the basis of my experience, atheism is intertwined with pro-choice positions but not with feminism. For Justin Vacula, it might not be intertwined with either. We've had different experiences, and as Marcotte so clearly illustrates up until that puzzling last paragraph, experience matters.

Do feminism and/or pro-choice positions logically follow from atheism? That is, should we expect all atheists to be feminists and to hold pro-choice positions because such views are a logical consequence of atheism? No. This does not seem to be the case. Marcotte notes that there are atheist men who reject feminism. I'm not sure why she neglects to mention that there are also plenty of atheist women who reject feminism, but they do exist. Moreover, there are atheists who are not pro-choice. One does not follow from the other. If Marcotte wants to suggest that one should follow from the other, she'd going to need to do much more than provide a good summary of why they have been connected in her life.

It was this last question that Justin Vacula was addressing when he wrote (Update: link no longer active):
I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to ‘the logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men.
He is saying here that Marcotte did not provide an argument for feminism being a logical conclusion of atheism in her post, and he's correct on this point. She did not provide any such argument.

I'd like to end with something that should be encouraging. There are plenty of atheists who accept many aspects of feminist ideology and who are pro-choice. I am one of them, and I know I am not alone. There are those of us who see no need to try to force atheism and feminism together; we find value in both even if we are not convinced that one logically follows from the other. There are those of us who are happy to see the discussion occurring around such important topics. And yes, there are those of us who think that both Amanda Marcotte and Justin Vacula make worthwhile contributions.

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