I’ll see if I can stir things up a bit by discussing a topic that has caused a significant stir in the atheist, as well as the Humanist, community for about as long as I can remember. This topic has been a source of controversy and has been a major focal point of social change all of my life and, based on historical data, for much longer than that. I’m talking about “feminism” and all that that implies. Of course I’m not foolish enough to think that I’m any kind of an expert or authority on this topic. This article is just my thoughts and musings on the subject based on what I’ve learned since I’ve been a part of the Humanist community and become much more aware of the many different perspectives of so many people in our local community and in the larger non-theistic community here in Arizona and across the United States. Of course this is much bigger than the non-theistic community and I’ll touch on some other examples as well.
My perspective on the feminist movement is that it’s about women being treated with just as much respect and dignity as men in all areas of our society. It’s about equal rights, equal pay, equal opportunities to achieve their highest potential, and just being treated as equals. On the surface, that sounds easy enough but in practice, it seems to be quite elusive. We see women not being represented as much in many areas of our society, not being paid as much for equal work as men, being endlessly harassed, having men making their health decisions for them (against their wishes), not being taken seriously when trying to bring charges against men who have assaulted and/or raped them, and largely being told by their peers not to make waves if a prominent male leader acts inappropriately, in order to avoid hurting the movement as a whole. These are just some of the reasons for the feminist movement still existing today. If you hold down or oppress any group of people long enough, you will eventually have a fight on your hands. It’s human nature.
The instances of egregious Misogyny” in our social media, especially aimed at feminist writers/bloggers, is evidence that this problem still runs deep in our society, no matter how far we think we’ve come. The attacks have been so harsh in some cases, the victims have been diagnosed with PTSD and some have been forced to leave their own homes in fear for their safety. And some of these instances have occurred in the atheist community! Of course it’s much easier to attack someone when you can remain anonymous, as with many social media accounts. But even some of our most prominent male leaders have made public statements that would seem to indicate that they don’t value the role of women in our movement or that western feminism is not important. And those kinds of statements provoke a great deal of ire and controversy regardless of their actual intended meaning or the overall contributions of these leaders. So why is this still controversial in our society?
I’m no sociologist or psychologist but I do have some ideas on the subject. We all know about “indoctrination”. When children are raised to believe that things are a certain way, and that they must behave in a certain way in order to get their needs met in their life, it tends to stick with them until something happens in their life to bring those ideas into doubt. For some, that never happens. Religious beliefs come to mind but that’s not what we’re talking about here. In our society, it would seem that there is still a tendency for parents to teach their daughters that they should be submissive and their sons that they should be dominant. Obviously, that’s not always true, especially not in our community. But I contend that it’s still true for the majority of people in our culture and is much more pronounced in other cultures around the world (more about that later). These paradigms help to define our roles in our society and tell us how to be accepted. It should be obvious that the desire to be accepted is a very strong force in our lives and bucking that can be quite a difficult challenge. Most don’t even understand why they might want to. Some think that there may even be a biological basis for this. I’m certain that I’m not qualified to posit an opinion about that but the concept may well explain Sam Harris’ comments about why he thinks there aren’t more strong women leaders in the atheist movement. He seems to feel that women have a natural tendency to be nurturing and, hence, more interested in building strong loving communities (my interpretation of his comments). The atheist movement (not the Humanist movement) appears to be more about swinging a bloody ax at religious ideology/dogma and that’s not very nurturing or community building and, therefore, isn’t likely to attract as many women leaders. How much of that is accurate and how much is more about cultural indoctrination is not for me to say. That could be quite a lively discussion indeed.
Another conflict that arose within the last couple of years was the comments that Ayaan Hirsi Ali made about American feminism focusing on “trivial bullshit” and the resulting backlash followed by the rather sarcastic comments made by Richard Dawkins, also aimed at American/western feminists. This incident made me think even more about how culture defines our thoughts and behaviors. Ayaan clearly came from a culture that was much more oppressive against girls/women to the point of girls having acid thrown in their faces or being shot for just going to school, and women being mutilated to ensure chastity. Imagine growing up a woman in that kind of environment and then being confronted with the current western feminism. It’s not hard to see where she might not quite understand that even here, we have a long way to go. She fights hard for the rights of women in areas of the world where things are so bad that we don’t even want to imagine what that’s like. So to me, there’s no big surprise there. And as for Richard Dawkins, his comments in support of the message that Ayaan was trying to give were not very understanding. I hope that I don’t offend anyone by noting that I perceive him as a crusty old British scientist and I’m not surprised at his lack of tact. Still, while I understand where they’re coming from, I do believe that we have much work to do to bring about equality, even here in the west.
So here’s the really hard part. What do we do from here? I recently watched a very inspirational video from Bart Campolo about building Humanist communities that are strong, form lasting bonds, and attract more people. To very briefly summarize his point, we will be much more successful leading by example than by arguing with people about why they’re wrong. Our tendency, naturally, is to set to swinging that bloody ax at obvious injustice but we may be more successful in the long run by being more enlightened ourselves, understanding what the underlying causes are, and showing how it’s done right. My two cents.