Winning a Two-Front War Against Anti-Feminists

This past weekend, while I was attending Women in Secularism 2, I was also reading Kathryn Joyce’s Quiverfull. Joyce’s book is an outstanding piece of reporting on the network of fundamentalist Christian churches and preachers who teach that the only role of women in life is to get married, to be completely obedient to their husbands and to bear as many children as possible. Depending on how extreme they are, Quiverfull preachers and other members of the Christian patriarchy movement teach that it’s a sin for women to be in positions of power over men, to work outside the home, to get an education, or even to vote. But they’re all unified by their undisguised intent to win the culture war by outbreeding their opponents rather than by marshaling better arguments. (This is the movement Mitt Romney publicly aligned himself with, urging young religious conservatives to have “a quiver full of kids“).

I’ve written about aspects of Quiverfull theology in the past, including the revolting way they view children not as individuals, but as weapons, mindless drones to be indoctrinated and turned loose on the world to vote in lockstep. There’s also Debi and Michael Pearl, two heroes of the movement, who argue that battered women should quietly submit to abusive husbands and bear whatever violence their partners choose to inflict on them. There’s also the misogyny of past religious leaders, like John Knox, who, no surprise, is a hero to many Quiverfullers.

The Christian patriarchy movement is a sharp reminder of how religion has always been the ally of sexism and the source of rules for male dominance and female submission. Although there are pseudoscientific misuses of evolution, speciously claiming to derive rules for modern living from just-so stories about our ancestors, these are always transparently after-the-fact rationalizations for already-existing prejudice. Through the entire span of human history, the most powerful enforcer of arbitrary gender roles has been the claim, “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

This is precisely what Amanda Marcotte was getting at when she wrote that atheism and feminism are natural allies, because when belief in God drops away, the other associated beliefs it was used to prop up, like female inferiority, almost inevitably go with it. This isn’t a logical correlation, in that becoming an atheist doesn’t necessarily mean giving up sexist beliefs, but it is a factual correlation, in that it does happen this way in reality far more often than not.

That’s why atheists are the most pro-choice demographic in America, more so than Democrats, more so than women. And that’s also why the (numerically few but obsessive and vocal) sexist and anti-feminist atheists, whether they know it or not, are giving aid and comfort to the religious cause – and not just religion in general, but the very worst manifestations of religion: the most patriarchal, the most authoritarian, the most cultlike and fiercely opposed to modernity.

What’s more, this patriarchal viewpoint is coming to define religion as a whole. Whether it’s Roman Catholicism and its all-male hierarchy cracking down on “feminist” nuns, Ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on girls for going to school, evangelicals teaching women to be submissive Stepford wives, or Muslims pushing for compulsory veiling, the world’s major religions are increasingly staking their credibility, if not their very existence, on the demand for women’s submission and enforcement of gender roles. (Of course, the insistence on rigid gender roles has always been a major component of organized religion, but as that viewpoint slips from favor and wider society becomes more egalitarian, they’ve become much more forceful and shrill about it.)

The battle over gay rights and marriage equality, which the religious right is losing badly, is just a smaller skirmish in this much larger culture war. They’re not going to win, in the long run; we’re never going back to the world they pine for. But if we don’t have to fight a two-front war – against religious patriarchy, and against sexist stupidity in the atheists who should be our allies – then our victory will come faster and will be more complete.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • smrnda

    I think that the emergence of the ‘quiverfull’ strategy is a sign that the religious right has pretty much lost the culture wars. Unable to win recruits or persuade anybody, their only hope is to create a closed, parallel society and indoctrinate their own kids, and from what I read online, the indoctrination isn’t always taking.

    Being an atheist doesn’t necessarily make anyone rational; it just means rejecting one particular irrational conclusion, but people have this amazing capacity to compartmentalize – I can’t think of anything except a religious based objection to homosexuality, but I have met atheists who felt homosexuality was ‘wrong.’ Part of the problem is religion has influenced all aspects of society, making people think of certain ideas that come straight from religion as if they’re just obvious facts about the world.

    On sexism, just being an atheist doesn’t mean that a man might not prefer a society that privileges men over women, or that he might not feel the whole ‘privileged distress’ thing as women start asserting their rights as equals, and when people feel threatened by social change they invent all sorts of justifications for the status quo.

  • Heisenberg

    Religion isn’t inherently patriarchal. Patriarchy is intrinsic in post-agricultural societies. Virtually every great religion – Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and others – radically rejected patriarchy and included women as equals in their early days. But as the society around them adopted those religions, they found ways to use those religions to enforce the patriarchy. Let atheists run a patriarchal country long enough, and I assure you, that country will find good, solid, atheist reasons to be patriarchal.

  • GCT

    That sounds really good, except for the fact that it’s not at all accurate. Those religions are patriarchal – just look at their holy writings. What you are engaging in is religious privilege and logical fallacy.

    Secondly, the fact that atheists do have sexist elements is noted in the OP, but the facts again speak against you. Atheists are less likely to be patriarchal according to the very real statistics. If this were a separate issue from religion, we would not see this disparity. Besides, how does one go from a disbelief in god to “reasons to be patriarchal?” It can’t happen.

  • Azkyroth

    [Citation needed]

  • Bdole

    I’m more than a little uncertain about your contention.

  • David Simon

    Christianity [...] radically rejected patriarchy and included women as equals in [its] early days.

    Have you even read the Bible? Try reading the Sermon on the Mount, or really anything Jesus had to say about women ever, and see how that compares with what you’re saying.

  • K

    Actually that’s what happened with the Mormons long ago, they couldn’t get members so they decided to take the initiative and start reproducing like rabbits. But in general, religions are not as patriarchal as people think, and if preachers are telling people that… then there is something wrong with them. I’d stay away from churches that preach something that doesn’t align with the Bible.

  • Sally Strange

    Let atheists run a patriarchal country long enough, and I assure you, that country will find good, solid, atheist reasons to be patriarchal.

    1. Define “good”

    2. Define “solid”

    3. Give an example of a “good, solid, atheist reason to be patriarchal”.

  • DavidMHart

    Pretty much everything in the bible doesn’t align with something else in the bible – it’s a heck of a contradictory work. Thus no matter which bits any given church chooses to emphasise, they will almost inevitably be ‘not aligning’ with other bits. The only sensible course of action in these circumstances is to stay away from churches full stop :-)

  • Heisenberg

    GCT,

    As long as there are men, they will find reasons to be patriarchal. And they will distort the meaning of any text to find reasons to be sexist.

    As it happens, in our time, Western atheism is associated with liberalism. So yeah, a lot of atheists in the West tend not to be patriarchal. But that doesn’t necessarily hold historically. For example, a lot of ancient Chinese philosophy manages to be both patriarchal and atheist at the same time.

    The early Christian church was egalitarian in practice. But as it grew in popularity in a very patriarchal culture, it became more patriarchal. To the point where some of the New Testament writing that’s egregiously written to be patriarchal was by an author fraudulently pretending to be Paul. (1 Timothy, for example.)

    Modern Muslim scholars who try to use the Qu’ran to support patriarchy end up basically not doing so at all – because the Qu’ran is, compared to the culture it arose in, almost radically egalitarian. To the point where Muslim Imams like Averroes in the 12th Century were actually pushing for complete equal rights for women. During the Muslim Golden Age, women were running households, businesses, and universities.

    And since Buddhism doesn’t actually have any holy writings (since the Buddha basically rejected the idea of holiness), I don’t know what you’re referring to as Buddhist “holy writings.” In fact, Buddhism is pretty much an atheist – or at least non-theist – religion.

    The Buddha himself, however, didn’t place any barriers on women achieving Enlightenment. Though again, as Buddhism became more popular within patriarchal cultures, it became more and more patriarchal.

    As you look through history, when you look at people leading the charge for feminism, you keep running into people who are religious. Hell, in the U.S. feminism had its origins in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

    I get where you’re coming from. I’m an atheist. But part of why I’m an atheist is because I acknowledge the facts of the world before. And the facts of the world before me is that there’s nothing inherently sexist about religion. It’s that post-agricultural civilization is universally sexist. It appears to be endemic across cultures with radically different philosophies and religions once they abandon the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. That’s especially true when you look at China, which has the highest concentration of atheists on Earth and whose philosophic history (especially vis a vis Confucionism and Chan) is pretty non-theist. And yet, it had a pretty patriarchal culture.

    But most new religions – especially those of the axial age – were born of liberals who were angry at the hierarchical nature of society and opted for more radical egalitarian experiments in the name of their religious ideas. But as with most radical ideas, they got co-opted by the status quo. Were they perfect? Of course not. Of course, neither is our society or atheist culture!

    We’re too quick, in the atheist community, to attribute to religion those cultural ideas that often predate those religions and co-opt them. A lot of my local allies in the feminist movement are Christian and Muslim feminists. And they happily cite scripture to support their feminism. I think it’d be hard for me to convince them that they’re really patriarchal!

    As atheists – and I know I make this same mistake – we’re often too quick to just accept fundamentalist interpretations of scripture and not educating ourselves on the diversity of philosophies found within religious traditions.

  • Heisenberg

    “The only sensible course of action in these circumstances is to stay away from churches full stop :-)”

    Like the Soviets did?

  • Izkata

    Reading about this “quiverfull” strategy, I can’t help but be reminded of the opening to Idiocracy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icmRCixQrx8

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    No, because “stay away” is not a synonym for “persecute”. Amazing how often otherwise sensible people can’t seem to grasp that difference.

  • Heisenberg

    What do you think is the end result of the attitude that everything about religion is bad? Haven’t you read a history book? We atheists aren’t immune to human nature, and I wish more of us would recognize that.

  • Jason Wexler

    I think Heisenberg has a valid point here. Science has in the past been used or misused to promote bad ideas and specific social agendas. While it is not a foregone conclusion that Atheism Ascendent would envelop patriarchy and chauvinism, it’s also not assured that it won’t. If, in the hopefully unlikely event, that Atheism Ascendent does envelop patriarchy and chauvinism, you can bet there will be all sorts of “Darwinian” explanations for why.

    The analogy isn’t perfect and I don’t like it, but this is a lot like the chicken and the egg, has patriarchy permeated our culture to the point where it can stand on its own independent of what ever first cause it may have, or does it predate all of the corollary cultural artifacts which are usually assumed to be its first cause, and can therefore stand without them? In either case Heisenberg makes a valid argument that Atheism Ascendent is not immune to picking up bad cultural traits from the culture that surrounds it; regardless of how historically accurate his claims below are.

  • Jason Wexler

    There is a rich history of second and very early third century sources from which Heisenberg is drawing from, or probably drawing from. Christianity did target women very strongly in its early years as an institution or institutions, since the Roman Bishopric hadn’t quite yet consolidated power. In any event very early Christianity in the Roman Empire was a very empowering tool for women, which is why it was regarded so poorly by the state which normally embraced and enveloped new religions with ease, since it broke down the Roman social order and violated the Civic Virtues.

  • Jason Wexler

    I am treading carefully here, because I don’t support patriarchy, and this isn’t my claim to have to defend, nor am I positing that this is a true reason only a potentially good and solid atheist reason, however, if there were studies which found neurochemical differences in the way men and women approached certain types of decisions and that the affected brain regions were related to how one governs, it could be argued that women are less effective governors. I am aware of course that we could currently refute such a claim with great ease based on voluminous neuroscientific and historical evidence, and since I am only posing a hypothetical, I will posit that said above studies meet rigorous scientific standards and have reasonable explanations for why we are currently getting the “wrong” answers we are from our current data set. Now let me reiterate, I don’t believe that will happen, but this is an example of a possible reason for “atheist patriarchy” if atheism were ascendent, again as I state in a reply to GCT above, I believe what Heisenberg is suggesting isn’t that atheism must or is likely to become patriarchal and chauvinistic, but that it isn’t immune from becoming such, and this is just an example of how that could happen.

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    What do you think is the end result of the attitude that everything about religion is bad?

    And who said that, again?

  • Heisenberg

    What I mean by “good, solid” is “consistent with atheism.” Not necessarily valid. (Since patriarchy isn’t actually good thing.)

  • Heisenberg

    Uh, didn’t you say that “religion has always been the ally of sexism and the source of rules for male dominance and female submission”?

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    Yep, I said that and I stand by it. Notably, that’s not the same claim as “everything about religion is bad”.

  • Heisenberg

    Thank you, yes. That’s what I’m drawing on. And these are sources that are discussed right here on Patheos in the liberal Christian blogs.

    David, If you haven’t read Marcus Borg, I’d highly suggest that you do. He’s a liberal Christian historian who very much demonstrates historical support for Jesus as a social justice reformer who very much supported women against the patriarchal culture of the time.

    There is rich support for feminism and social justice that can be found in most of the major religions.

  • Heisenberg

    Thank you, Jason. This is exactly what I’m getting it. Patriarchy seems to have its roots, not in religion, but in post-agricultural societies. Patriarchy, as I mentioned earlier, is universal among post-agricultural societies. However, many – if not most – hunger-gather societies are egalitarian or occasionally even matriarchal. But hunter-gatherer societies certainly didn’t lack for religion!

    I’d suggest that patriarchy has its roots in the innovations related to agriculture – permanent cities, property rights, and a hierarchical social structures. Blaming it on religion will not only serve to alienate our potential allies in promoting feminism, but missing the cause could well lead to an atheist society that ends up co-opting patriarchal structures and ideas.

  • Heisenberg

    So when Guru Nanak founded Sikhism, and wrote in Sikh scripture that men and women are equal, and encouraged women to lead congregations, he was somehow an “ally of sexism”?

    When Muhammad banned female infanticide, decreed that wives were not their husbands property, decreed that women have the right to own & inherit property, and to teach, was he handing out “rules for male dominance and female submission”?

    Throughout history, there have been people who have found in their religious traditions the weapons to reject patriarchy. And there have been those who have found in their religious traditions the means to perpetuate it.

    Likewise, there are prominent atheists who find in secularism , as I do, the weapons to fight patriarchy. But there are also plenty of atheists happy to use pseudoscience or bizarre – but secular – reasons to oppose feminism. Take Ayn Rand’s “Why I Wouldn’t Vote For A Women President” essay, for example. Or, you know, just the rabid misogynist atheists that are all over the Internet.

  • David Simon

    I’ll tentatively agree with this claim, pending not having looked into these sources myself. Could I ask you to provide a more specific link?

  • David Simon

    I’ll agree with your historical claims provisionally, since I’m not familiar with that period. However, could you provide some more specific links or citations for me to follow?

    Additionally, I am wondering if you agree with my claim that the Bible, taken on its own, is very unsupportive of women. This doesn’t completely contradict the idea of early Christian egalitarianism, given the long delay before much of the NT was initially recorded; but it does still seem odd that the book would paint such a different picture.

  • David Simon

    As you look through history, when you look at people leading the charge for feminism, you keep running into people who are religious.

    This doesn’t mean much, since throughout history (Western history, anyways) the vast majority of people in general were religious (or closeted atheists). This includes both people for and people against feminism, or most any other social change.

  • David Simon

    Well, atheism is a very easy thing to be consistent with, given that it makes only a single narrow rejection of one claim.

    How about consistent with humanism?

  • Heisenberg

    Sure. “Adam, Eve and the Serpent” by Elaine Pagels and “The First Paul” by John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg explain the radical egalitarian teachings of Paul. (And show the historical scholarship explaining how several of the “letters from Paul” were written by other people, writing decades later, to cut against Paul’s egalitarian message.

    “Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary” by Marcus Borg goes into detail about an exegesis of Jesus as preaching social justice. “God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome” covers similar themes.

    Phillip Jenkins’ “Jesus Wars” explains how Imperial Rome pretty much beat the subversion out of Christianity and made it hierarchical and patriarchal.

    Bart Ehrman’s work in books like “The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture” shows how the “orthodox” New Testament was born.

    And one interesting book to read is Marcus Borg’s “Evolution of the Word” – which presents the New Testament in the chronological order that the books were written. That’s fascinating in and of itself because you can see Christianity start radical and slowly get more conservative.

  • Heisenberg

    Much more difficult, as humanism basically subsumes feminism. But I’d argue that one can be religious and humanist, as well as irreligious and non-humanist.

    As an atheist humanist, I consider myself having more in common with liberal Christians, Muslims, etc. than I do atheists like, say, Communists or Objectivists or the HBD crowd.

  • DavidMHart

    Here are two factual claims:
    1) “Everything about religions is bad, and all our problems will be solved if we can get rid of them by any means necessary”
    2) “Religions are, on balance, more bad than good, and some of our problems will be lessened if we can get rid of them by some means that don’t create greater problems”.

    Please reassure me that you understand that position 2 is far closer to what most actual atheists actually think than position 1.

  • Jason Wexler

    Heisenberg has already provided you a list of modern scholarship on the question although he does seem to rely heavily on Marcus Borg as a source. I am a medievalist so the second century is somewhat out of my bailiwick I will have to dig through some of my old graduate texts to find the original sources which Heisenberg’s sources are no doubt citing.

    Yes I will agree with your contention whole heartedly and I suspect so too would Heisenberg, that proto-Christian egalitarianism was inconsistent with the text of the Bible is it ended up being conceived. However in any time period there are people who are broadly behaving in ways which are inconsistent with their holy texts, sometimes for the better other times for the worse.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Since all those religions were created in patriarchal cultures, you would expect to find they reflect those values-and we do, regardless of what they preach on paper, which I’d say you vastly overstate anyway.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    We are dealing with religions created by those societies. No major religion has roots in hunter-gatherers’ belief systems.

  • http://avoiceinthewilderness-mcc1789.blogspot.com/ Michael

    Well, there are non-religious objections to homosexuality (although they are presented in general along with religious ones). They’re fallacious, but they exist: the ever popular “it’s unnatural” claim (naturalistic fallacy), “if more people are gay humanity will die out” (slippery slope, among others), and so on.

  • GCT

    As long as there are men, they will find reasons to be patriarchal. And they will distort the meaning of any text to find reasons to be sexist.

    Ugh. This sounds a lot like the common complaint that religions don’t foster violence, and even if they did people will still find reasons to be violent, so why should we even bother? It’s a horrible argument to make.

    To make matters worse, you’ve combined it with the ultimate in No True Scotsman fallacies and religious privilege. Religions aren’t corrupt, they are lily-white, perfect things that are egalitarian, just, and good. It’s only us imperfect and horrible humans that come along and sully those perfect ideals. It’s as if you think religions are formed in vacuums by some ultra-moral paragons of virtue, and the ideas are later corrupted by the masses. It’s bullshit, through and through.

    The Bible is sexist from the start and doesn’t let up, even when Jesus arrives on the scene. It was written by patriarchal men to reflect their society which included patriarchy. Duh. Same goes for all the other religions. True, religion need not be inherently sexist, and I don’t think I’ve argued that. What I’ve argued is that the religions we have are inherently sexist.

    We’re too quick, in the atheist community, to attribute to religion those cultural ideas that often predate those religions and co-opt them.

    Again, this smacks of religious privilege. You seem willing to blindly accept that all religions are good and it’s only people that corrupt them. This idea is born of the religiously privileged idea that religion must somehow be good and pure. It’s not, and you’re not helping by feeding that trope.

    As atheists – and I know I make this same mistake – we’re often too quick to just accept fundamentalist interpretations of scripture and not educating ourselves on the diversity of philosophies found within religious traditions.

    Except, the fundies are generally more correct in their interpretations than the modern theologians that try to take our modern morality and shoehorn it back into the Bible. The Bible is anti-woman. It is anti-equality. It is homophobic. It is pro-slavery. Once those positions become unpopular, the modern theologians look for ways to selectively find verses that they can try and re-interpret in order to claim that the Bible was on the right side of the morality divide all along. It’s dishonest and you should not be aiding these religiously privileged pushes to rewrite history.

  • GCT

    Science has in the past been used or misused to promote bad ideas and specific social agendas.

    Oh really? Then, please point out the teachings of science that say to be patriarchal? Can’t do it? Then, I guess this point isn’t so valid after all.

  • GCT

    He didn’t state that atheism isn’t immune. He stated that it would happen.

  • GCT

    Even if I were to claim that everything about religion is bad, that’s not the same as deciding that religionists or theists should be persecuted. I think that being a homophobe is bad, but I’m not persecuting homophobes.

  • GCT

    Throughout history, there have been people who have found in their religious traditions the weapons to reject patriarchy. And there have been those who have found in their religious traditions the means to perpetuate it.

    And, throughout history, the ones advocating for equality have had to do so against greater opposition from religionists and their church leaders. IOW, they only came to that position by ignoring the over-riding sentiment of the day and trying to impose their morality back onto the book in order to convince the majority of others to see things their way. Religion has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into better equality throughout history, only to claim after the fact that they were on the right side all along and had to drag the rest of us along – only for you to come along and swallow that bullshit and try to convince others that their religiously privileged bullshit is true and that we are the real fundies that want to persecute them.

    Likewise, there are prominent atheists who find in secularism , as I do, the weapons to fight patriarchy.

    Would that include the weapon of standing up for religious privilege and religious misogyny? I’m not impressed with your tactics or your claims to be on the right side of this issue.

  • DavidMHart

    I can’t speak for Sikhism, because I know almost nothing about it, but as for your comment re Mohammad, the answer is “Yes, he was handing out rules for male dominance and female submission” – albeit possibly not as extreme rules as some people contend were in place beforehand. If the official rules of Islam stipulate that women inherit a lower share of their parents’ estate than men, that women are to have much higher restrictions than men on getting divorced, that they are to have the dice automatically loaded against them in child custody disputes, and in court proceedings, that they are to be stoned to death for some non-islamically-sanctioned sexual activity, then yes, absolutely one can say that. Because – and this is really important – Muslims claim that their rules come directly from God – and if you are claiming your rules come from a perfect, omnibenevolent being, you have absolutely no excuse for any unfair treatment of people.

    We can give a bit of credit to Mohammad (if he existed, or whoever wrote his legends if he didn’t) for improving on things, while still condemning his failure to go anything like far enough.

  • Sally Strange

    I suggest that you write with more clarity next time. “Good” and “solid” when applied to “reason” mean far more than just “atheist.”

  • Azkyroth

    What the fuck is a “post-agricultural” society, anyway? There wouldn’t appear to be any such thing on a straightforward reading of the term.

  • Loren Petrich

    I find it hard to be very impressed, since it seems like they are making Jesus Christ and Paul in their moral likeness.

  • David Simon

    Heisenberg probably meant “post-agricultural-revolution”.


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