A Pro-Science, Skeptical Woman Speaks

In my last post on another blog, “Feminism and Religion: Where Do I stand?” I talked about how I support an atheistic, secular, and liberal feminism that criticizes organized religion and certain religious beliefs.  I figured that having a brief interview with a woman who holds these sorts of views would be a good way to introduce them to this blog.  I met Anondah Saide at a course at Claremont Graduate University titled, “Evolution, Economics, and the Brain,” taught by the Executive Director of the Skeptics Society and Founding Publisher of Skeptic MagazineDr. Michael Shermer.  Anondah was the TA for the course, and I found her comments in class to promote science, reason, and skepticism towards religious and spiritual claims of all kinds.  So without further ado, here is the interview:

Anondah Saide, kile Jones, atheist woman speaks

1) Why is being an atheist important to you as a woman?

Philosophically, it isn’t. Does not believing in the existence of Atlantis shed any light on what it means to be a man or woman? Not really. Well, not believing in a supernatural force that can impact my life has no bearing on my feelings pertaining to my gender. However, the consequences of the social stigma attached to being a woman and an atheist is an entirely different story. Aside from the stigma, being an atheist isn’t important to me, it isn’t something I necessarily value, and in some respects (emotionally, existentially) it isn’t a position I’m very fond of. What IS important to me as a woman, a scholar, a human, is my scientific worldview. Being scientifically literate has had a profound impact on how I view myself as a woman socially, physically, and psychologically. The tools that science provides us to understand the world has aided me in understanding what makes men and women similar/different; and what makes women, similar/different among each other.

Looking at this question another way, practically speaking, when evaluating socio-political arguments, my stance on the legitimacy of religiously informed beliefs is relevant. For example, as an atheist, I find religious arguments, on their face, absurd. As a social scientist, I find them illegitimate simply because any argument brought into the debate must be able to withstand scientific scrutiny. In my eyes, religion does not have a privileged position on social issues, which include those that directly impact women’s rights (e.g., abortion, birth control, child rearing).

2) What problems do you have with the postmodern issues with science?

Well, a central problem is the counterproductive attempts of postmodern extremists to invalidate the most reliable method of knowledge attainment we have. But importantly, aside from that, I wonder if postmodernists are simply dismissive of the ways in which science has contributed to their goal of validating peoples from many different cultures.

It seems to me that it is not in the best interest of underrepresented groups or their allies to deny the objective reality science seeks to shed light on. Science, as a self-corrective enterprise, has in many instances, aided members of underrepresented groups by debunking unkind assumptions that served to dehumanize them. For example, the idea that a person’s physical traits (e.g., cranial size, skin color, etc.) bear on one’s intellect is now obviously false. With the development of new and improved tools, comes new and improved data on what it means to be human (e.g., the mapping of the human genome has been revolutionary).

Science has found that as a species, despite the numerous cultures in existence, we have more in common than not. In Donald Brown’s seminal work, Human Universals, he cited no fewer than 373 human universals; universals being “those features of culture, society, language, behavior, and psyche for which there are no known exceptions to their existence…” All the work it took scientists to gather such data in order to unearth the innate web that connects us, is something to be celebrated (especially by those who are activists for human rights), not scorned. This is not to say that science is infallible (lets leave the philosophy of science discussion for another day), but rather to make the point that the attack on science by postmodernists is often unhelpful and misguided.

3) Why is belief in a Goddess, spirit, or feminine vision of the divine troublesome to you?

I like this question a lot because it is something I’ve contemplated for many years in great detail. All the women I was raised around are very deeply intertwined—philosophically and socially—in New Age social networks, or what is often referred to as “New Age.” Although a social scientist and atheist myself, I’ve found that I have much more in common with the women who hold such beliefs than one might expect. On one hand, many of them are socially liberal and thus we differ very little when it comes to politics (though our reasoning for or against our positions often speak past each other). However, on the other hand, there are two central themes that I find troublesome, more so in recent years as I’ve learned more about the history, biology and sociology of our species. The first is the false dichotomy between women and men that is promoted. In other words, I often see an over valuing of “masculine” or “feminine” energy rather than a focused understanding of the similarities between the sexes; or even an understanding of intra- versus inter- variability.

The second theme that I find troubling on many levels is the idea of  “magnetism” in all of its forms; the idea that whatever happens to you (good or bad) is a result of you calling it forth. Not only is that idea asociological and egoistic because of its hyper focus on you as an individual; but it also unintentionally perpetuates the oppression of women by not laying blame where it deserves to be (not necessarily at the individual level, but at the societal level). It ignores all the other factors completely out of your control that contribute to your life circumstances. For example, if you are poor, a proponent of the idea of magnetism might simply say that the reason for your poverty is because you aren’t magnetizing wealth to your life (whatever that means in a literal sense I’m unsure, its a quite fuzzy concept to begin with). That response doesn’t account for all the other factors not of your choosing that contribute to poverty (e.g., what country or society you were born into, what ethnicity you are, whether or not your parents had a formal education, and what socioeconomic status they achieved, etc.) All of which have been found to factor into your socioeconomic status later in life. For those of you that would suggest that someone has any say in those demographic variables, I say, the burden of proof lies with you. Don’t oversimplify very complex situations.

4) What would you say to religious women who fight for feminism and women’s rights?

This is a very good question, a tough one because it must be highly contextualized. I suppose it would depend on the religion (e.g., Islam versus Buddhism) the woman belonged to, the degree to which she was religious, and her definitions of feminism and women’s rights. If her definition of women’s rights meant fighting to keep women fully covered by a burqa and/or within the control of their husbands, then there would be a huge discrepancy between our definitions. I would need to deconstruct the woman’s argument in order to understand where our views diverge. But let’s say that the woman believed in a woman’s right to use birth control at her own discretion, I don’t know that I would have much to converse with her about on that issue. Not all religions and not all religious women are mired in nonsensical arguments when it comes to women’s rights.

Anondah Saide has studied within the disciplines of sociology, education, and psychology for the central purpose of understanding spiritual and religious belief systems. She currently works as a full-time program coordinator for a graduate program, as an assistant to the editor for a peer-reviewed journal, and as a graduate assistant for a professor of evolution and paranormalism.

This was first posted on Feminism and Religion.

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  • Your interviewee sounds like a nice person. I do wonder what she means by what would seem to be a crux position for her. “As a social scientist, I find them illegitimate simply because any argument brought into the debate must be able to withstand scientific scrutiny. In my eyes, religion does not have a privileged position on social issues, which include those that directly impact women’s rights (e.g., abortion, birth control, child rearing).” I do not think religion has a privileged position exempt from scrutiny and the need to be coherent and consistent with what we think we know. However, if by “able to withstand scientific scrutiny,” she means able to be “proved” scientifically, most of what really matters to us humans is not available to scientific “proof” even though it is able to be tested for coherence and consistency with what we think we know to be facts at the present time. Trust in God needs to be critiqued with the same honesty with which we critique loving someone, being loved by someone, valuing beauty, valuing treating people well, trusting someone is telling us the truth about what they think and feel, etc. These are not anti-scientific beliefs as the radical empiricists wanted to claim; they are just partially beyond the abilities of scientific methodology to test. And, all of our brain and chemistry knowledge which has grown by leaps and bounds still cannot touch the “meaning” part of values, trust, love, beauty, etc. I would argue that this is not because we haven’t moved far enough scientifically, but because science is incapable of addressing these categories without reducing them to the mundane and meaningless. Let’s be thrilled with what science can do, and be honest about what it cannot do. Atheism is not derived from science any more than faith is. Both reflect a deeper part of humanity that can be consistent or inconsistent with science, and should be answerable at that level, but cannot be reduced to what science can measure without destroying what makes it wonderful to be human.