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