Mocking Versus Understanding Religion

Today a friend* posted this on Facebook:

I’m here at the Detroit airport waiting for my flight back to New Jersey. There’s a Jewish fellow here who was just doing his morning prayers, complete with the little boxes strapped to his head and arm, and the strap coiled around his arm, bobbing back and forth and talking to himself.

I’m not trying to make fun of him nor mock him but doesn’t he feel silly? He should. I don’t want to be mean to him but I just want to ask him, “Why are you doing that? What do you think that actually accomplishes? Do you feel silly when you do it in public?” I understand ritual as a part of how humans make sense of their environments, especially in unfamiliar places, it can be comforting. But I have no respect for this type of behavior. It’s so obviously manmade and cultish.

http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tefillin

This predictably started off a long discussion, in which some people implied that asking the man, “Don’t you feel silly?” is a form of mockery. The OP and others insisted that there’s nothing mocking about such a question, to which I responded:

Some questions aren’t just questions. They carry assumptions within them. Asking someone if they feel silly doing something presumes that there’s a reason for them to feel silly doing that thing. Plenty of people do “odd” things in public, for religious reasons or cultural reasons or mental health reasons or just they feel like it. Why single out an “odd” religious thing for this line of questioning?

Further, what does it matter? Why are you so curious how he feels about this? He almost certainly does not feel silly about it, and I know this because I’ve actually spoken to many Orthodox Jews for reasons other than to mock them in front of my Facebook friends. They are very aware of how others perceive them, but it doesn’t matter to them very much because they’re used to it. In fact, if you approached him and asked about his religious practice, he would probably calmly and politely answer all of your questions, because Jews in this country are so used to being interrogated about our practices, beliefs, and culture all the damn time by random people who don’t know very much about us. I include myself in this “we” because, as a Jewish atheist who grew up in an area where there were almost no Jews, I was always treated as the sole representative of an entire culture to whom all questions could reasonably be directed, and I answered them patiently because the alternative would be to allow these people to continue believing all sorts of stereotyped, bigoted rubbish.

I’m not saying you, personally, believe stereotyped, bigoted rubbish, but your response to this person comes across as ignorant and callous, like you’re gawking at an exotic animal at a zoo. Worse, like you’re doing it in order to score political points on Facebook. If you’re genuinely curious and interested in starting off a discussion about religious practices in public and how people feel about them and why they do them, I would be happy to suggest some language that could’ve started this discussion without alienating so many people (mostly atheists).

I wanted to hash out some of the points I made there because it’s an interesting topic.

About the questions that aren’t just questions: the OP themselves specifically stated that the Jewish man “should” feel silly, which is a judgment. (Right or wrong, it is a judgment.) So there’s no way to ask the man whether or not he feels silly in a vacuum. As I said, asking someone that usually implies that you think the answer ought to be “yes,” and this is no exception.

I’ve met many people who stubbornly insist that everything they say be taken in the most literal manner, without any implicit content. This is facile. The majority of the time, someone who says, “Don’t you feel silly?” or even “Do you feel silly?” is implying that they think there’s a good reason for the person to feel silly. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to assume that a given person who asks such a question is including that implication in it.

Often, questions like these are merely a passive-aggressive way to say, “I think you look silly,” or “You should feel silly.” But these things are very inappropriate to express in our culture, so we’ve developed other ways to express them–ways that have plausible deniability. “I wasn’t saying I think they’re silly! I was just asking a question!” Yeah, right.

Ditto for the OP’s other questions, such as “What do you think that actually accomplishes?” If you really, earnestly have to ask a religious person this, then you don’t know much about religion. If you earnestly ask it, they will probably say, “It helps me feel a connection with god,” or “It helps me feel good,” or “It allows me to ask god to keep me and my family safe.” That’s why I think the question is not earnest, and it’s not really a question. It’s a statement, and the statement is, “Prayer doesn’t accomplish anything, you know.” You should say what you mean.

This whole post is weirdly presumptive. Why should a random person care that the OP thinks they “should” feel silly, or that they “have no respect for this type of behavior”? Plenty of people think I “should” feel silly because I like games, and even more people “have no respect” for the fact that I dress the way I do, have sex the way I do, and interact with people the way I do. If you’re hoping to change people’s behavior, expressing an opinion about it that they aren’t likely to care about isn’t going to do it. (Neither is attacking the extremely low-hanging fruit of “silly”-looking public prayer, but that’s a separate issue.) Jewish people in particular are very accustomed to non-Jews expressing judgmental, ignorant, and rude opinions about their practices, religious and otherwise. This has been happening for millennia. If ridicule hasn’t deconverted them yet, it’s not going to.

Some atheists think of religion and religious privilege in very stark terms: religious people are privileged, atheists are oppressed. Even if this is true in the strictest sense, Jews do not command religious privilege comparable to that of Christians. I don’t think I need to try to provide a catalog of the ways in which Jews have been oppressed, including in the United States, including today. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, despite being an atheist.

In fact, a number of people in the thread said that they would be scared to fly in an airplane with someone that they had just noticed openly wearing tefillin and praying. I’m not sure how this is anything other than a grossly bigoted thing to say. While the OP did not themselves say such things, neither did they call out in any way the people who said it. That’s how discussions like these allow anti-Semitism and other bigoted attitudes to flourish. I’m sure the OP did not cause the people who said these things to have those opinions, as they probably had them before, but their unremarked upon presence in the thread normalizes the idea of presuming a religious person to be dangerous simply because they prayed in public. While this is a type of bigotry more dangerous to Muslims (and people perceived as Muslims), I’m not exactly happy to see it spreading to Jews.

I mentioned that I’d be happy to offer some language for asking people about their beliefs and practices (religious or otherwise) that is less likely to be pointlessly hurtful. The OP has not taken me up on that offer, but I will include it here:

  • “I noticed you praying in public. I’m curious about it. Do you mind telling me about why you do that?”
  • “What’s it like being a member of a minority religious group in such a visible way?”
  • “Do you ever feel self-conscious when you pray in public? How do you deal with that?”

Notice how all of these questions get at the issues that the OP claimed to be curious about, but in a way that communicates interest and curiosity rather than judgment and scorn. And maybe the OP really does feel judgment and scorn (at least, that is the impression I got from the post), but most people understand that there are times judgment and scorn can get in the way of learning and understanding. Even if you’re looking to ultimately change their mind, you’re going to be more successful if you don’t make them feel shamed and judged from the get-go. Shaming is actually not a good motivator.

Of course, if your actual goal is to mock religion, that’s different. That doesn’t interest me at all, but some people do it for personal reasons or political ones or some combination. Whatever, I’m not interested in telling people what to do so much as in telling people when their stated goals are not compatible with their actions. The OP said they wanted to understand, not mock. To me, it seemed like a bunch of statements with plausible deniability, and very little attempt at understanding.

But I suppose the real source of disagreement here is that I can’t bring myself to care about the mere fact that some person is religious and prays. If that’s all the information I have, I don’t care. I care about the ways organized religion harms its adherents, other people, and society. This is why I argue with people about things like abortion, sex education, separation of church and state, coerced prayer, science education, homophobia, and so on. If a religious person has views on these things that I disagree with, then I will argue with those views. The religious belief itself is something I also disagree with, but doesn’t harm me, so I don’t care about it. I don’t believe that religious belief somehow necessitates sexism, homophobia, or anything else, and I don’t believe that sexism, homophobia, or those other bad things can be fought simply by fighting religious belief, and I do believe that people will continue to believe in supernatural entities until we find a way to provide what they’re looking for without religion. We haven’t done that yet.

~~~

*I intentionally left this person’s name out of this thread even though the post was public. That’s because I want this to be a discussion about these ideas (and my ideas), not about this person and what else they may have said before and who they are as a person. There’s nothing wrong with discussing that, but I’m not interested in hosting that discussion here. I will delete or edit comments that name this person, or go off-topic. If the OP wants to identify themselves in the comments, they are welcome to.

Religion vs. Mental Illness, A Bit More Concisely This Time

Chris Stedman, author of Faitheist and blogger at the Religion News Service, asked me to comment on why atheists should stop calling religion a mental illness for a piece he published today. I ended up giving him a way longer comment than he necessarily wanted or needed (#bloggerproblems), so I thought I’d publish the full thing I sent him since it’s nevertheless a way more concise explanation of my views than my huge post on this was.

Equating religion with mental illness is harmful for a number of reasons. First of all, when done to make fun of or put down religion, it also puts down by association people struggling with problems like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or schizophrenia. People with these serious mental illnesses already face plenty of stigma and discrimination, so derogatory remarks about how religious people are “all crazy” or “belong in a mental institution” are harmful.

Second, this comparison ignores the fact that religion and mental illness are different psychological processes. Religion largely stems from cognitive processes that are essentially adaptive, such as looking for patterns, believing in things that are comforting, and getting joy out of connecting with others and feeling like a part of something larger than oneself. Mental illnesses, by contrast, are fundamentallymaladaptive. People who cannot leave the house without having a panic attack, who feel a compulsion to wash their hands hundreds of times a day, or who are convinced that everyone hates them and they are better off dead, are experiencing symptoms that interfere with their ability to go about their lives. Except in extreme cases, religion does not operate this way. It is important to point out when religious beliefs and observances reach a level at which people cannot function normally, but we do the secular movement no favors by focusing on these instances to the exclusion of the vast majority of religious people who are healthy, happy, productive members of our society.

Third, calling religion a mental illness keeps us from asking serious questions about what actually does attract people to religion. Often, it’s the sense of community, the support available to people who are struggling financially or emotionally, the quick way to make friends, and the opportunity to mark important life occasions such as births, marriages, and deaths using traditions that feel meaningful. Although some of us are trying, atheists are still not that great at providing these types of communities. Many refuse to even acknowledge that most people value–even need–such communities. Calling religion a mental illness is a convenient way to avoid thinking about what we could actually be doing to make the secular community more welcoming and inclusive, and what sorts of resources we are lacking that people can find in religious communities.

Finally, claiming that religion is a mental illness obscures the fact that we all–yes, atheists too–regularly engage in irrational thinking. Religion is a type of irrational thinking, but it is not the only type; introductory psychology textbooks catalog dozens of biases, fallacies, and other ways in which our minds trick us. While it’s impossible to become entirely free of cognitive bias, we can become more free of it by learning to notice it. If thinking irrationally is a mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, and the term loses its meaning. As a survivor of mental illness myself and as someone who plans to work as a therapist, I think we should save that term for situations in which people are truly suffering and having trouble going about their lives.

Don’t forget to go read Chris’s piece!

And incidentally, I’ve been quoted by journalists a bunch of times and it has almost always come out sounding weird and out of context and not like what I meant at all. Chris avoided this issue entirely and even let me see a draft of the piece to make sure he wasn’t misrepresenting what I said or getting anything wrong. If he ever asks you for a quote, say yes!

What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness

[Content note: mental illness, suicide, abuse]

Some atheists love to compare religion to mental illness, or directly call it one. I won’t link to examples; it’s pervasive and has probably happened on this network.

While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.

This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.

Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.

“Nobody in their right mind would ever choose to observe a religion.”

Calling religious people mentally ill suggests that they do what they do because they’re “crazy.” I get that religious beliefs and rituals may seem bizarre to atheists who have never had any desire to hold those beliefs or perform those rituals. Sometimes when I’m at religious Jewish functions I sort of look around myself and feel like a bit of an alien. This is so weird, I think. Why would anyone do this?

A major component of mental illness is that it is maladaptive. People with OCD sometimes can’t function because they can’t stop performing their rituals or thinking about their obsessions. People with depression sometimes can’t get out of bed, shower, talk to people, go to work for weeks or months at a time. People with schizophrenia sometimes lose all sense of the distinction between reality and fantasy.

Religion can be maladaptive when taken to extremes, but that’s a problem with the manifestation, not with the core component: believing in a god. In and of itself, believing in a god can actually be very adaptive. When people feel like they have no control over the universe, when they lose someone they love, when a grave injustice happens, it can be comforting to believe that there’s someone up there pulling the strings. It’s not comforting to me, personally, but to many people it is. That doesn’t make their beliefs accurate, but it does make them understandable. You don’t have to be “crazy” to want to believe in a religion.

“Your religious friends may seem happy and well-adjusted, but they’re actually sick just like you are.”

We often hear about people who are restricted, cut off, or even abused by their religion. These cases are tragic and deserve every bit of the attention that they get. But what about all the people living happily with religion?

Atheists who claim that religion is a mental illness seem to be saying that these people are just kidding themselves. Sure, they’re happy, but that happiness can’t be real because it’s the product of a mental illness. Or they think they’re happy, but they’re really not.

If this is what you believe about religious people, ask yourself why you think you know more about their mental state than they themselves do.

“I consider myself qualified to diagnose millions of people I’ve never met with a mental illness.”

Armchair diagnosis is a bad idea. It promotes the idea that mental illness is whatever we feel on a whim that it is, and that random internet commenters are qualified to determine whether or not someone has a mental illness despite never having even spoken to them, let alone spent time with them in person as a diagnosing psychologist would.

“Whether or not I think someone is mentally ill is more important than whether or not they think they’re mentally ill.”

And in addition to that, the fact that probably zero religious believers think that their religion qualifies as a mental illness is a good indication that you should stop saying that it is. Of course, you can and should disagree with them on other things, external things, like whether or not god exists or whether or not religion is a net good in society or whether or not people can be ethical without religion. But what goes on in their own minds is something they know much more about than you ever will.

“People who say their faith helped them deal with their mental illness are just kidding themselves.”

Can’t fix a mental illness with another mental illness, right?

This is a tricky area because I do think it’s very fair to question the presumption that religion helps people with mental illness in general. First of all, people (religious and not) with mental illnesses are often told that they need to pray or “have faith” or repent or whatever, because some religious people believe that mental illness is a sign of insufficient faith or a punishment from god or both. Second, some religious people find that religion actually makes their illness harder to cope with, whether because of these responses or other factors. Some people may even become more vulnerable to mental illness as a result of something their religion taught them, such as shame or a preoccupation with doing things a certain way.

However, there are also many people who say that religion helped them cope with their mental illness, whether it was the faith itself, a supportive religious community, or both. I do not feel comfortable claiming that these people are lying to themselves or to us.

I wish that people didn’t need faith to cope. I wish we had foolproof treatments for mental illness. I wish everyone had access to those treatments. I wish we never had to send patients home saying that we don’t know what else to do for them. I wish we knew exactly what–which genes, which environments, which neurotransmitter deficiencies–caused mental illness, so that nobody ever had to feel like it was either a random accident of chance (terrifying) or an act of god (slightly less terrifying, for some people).

But right now, we don’t have any of that. So it makes sense that some people would cope by telling themselves that it’s part of god’s plan and that they can’t possibly comprehend that plan.

I want people to be happy and alive. That’s my first priority. Once they’re happy and alive, I can think about trying to get them to think more rationally and scientifically. If thinking irrationally and nonscientifically is what keeps someone from suicide (or from a miserable life), I accept that.

And as far as the community aspect goes, having a strong support system can be both a protective factor against mental illness and also a mechanism that helps people cope or recover. Building humanist communities is extremely important for all kinds of reasons and this is one of them. We’re making progress, but humanist communities still don’t have the scope or resources of religious ones. There are also still plenty of atheists publicly decrying these projects and boasting about how they don’t need them and such things are useless and pseudo-religious and for the weak-minded. That’s harmful. If a religious person feels that their church or synagogue is the only source of support they have for their mental illness, they might not necessarily be wrong.

“Religious beliefs are inherently bad and harmful to the individual, just like the distorted thoughts associated with mental illness.”

Some people, such as Greta Christina, have made powerful, compassionate arguments for the idea that religious belief is universally, intrinsically harmful to society, separate from the harmful effects that organized religion can have. I’m not sure yet how I feel about these ideas, but I’m still much more comfortable with the opinion that religious belief does harm to other people and to society as a whole than that necessarily does harm to the individual who holds it.

Most religious people would probably say that their religion helps them be happy, charitable, kind, and strong. I may feel skeptical about this, but they know better than me.

On the contrary, the symptoms of mental illness are very, very clearly harmful in a way that is undeniable. While people with mental illnesses may sometimes deny that there is anything wrong, they are often clearly unhappy, and their denial is often caused by fear of the stigma of mental illness. (All the same, though, if someone tells me they are not mentally ill, I would never argue with them.)

“All mental illness means is having irrational thoughts or believing something without evidence, and it is possible to completely stop having irrational thoughts.”

I hate to break it to you, but irrationality is probably part of the human condition. Everyone is, to some extent, subject to cognitive biases. Almost everyone at one point or another engages in superstitious, fantastical thinking. Clearing your mind of irrational beliefs that aren’t based on evidence is something that can only be accomplished intentionally, with effort. Even then, you will never be perfect. There’s a reason the popular rationality site Less Wrong is called Less Wrong, not Perfectly Right or Not At All Wrong.

So if being irrational is a sign of mental illness, then we are all mentally ill, atheists included. But more likely, (extreme) irrationality is only one component of mental illness. Others might include engaging in behaviors that are harmful to oneself, behaving in ways that are not considered normative in that particular cultural context (a problematic criterion, but a useful one when used in conjunction with others), being unhappy with one’s mental state, and not being able to function properly in one’s daily life.

“My desire to make a point is more important than what the psychological evidence says about religion and mental illness.”

To put it simply, the processes that lead people to be religious are not the same ones that lead them to be mentally ill. As I mentioned above, religious belief is a subset of the sort of irrational thinking to which all humans are prone. Humans look for patterns in the world and easily form superstitions on the basis of those patterns. Humans also generally enjoy the feeling of being part of a group or having a community, and religion is an easy way for a lot of people to experience that feeling. Many people who are religious were born into religious families and were taught that god exists and [insert religious tenets here] from birth, so it sticks.

On the more abusive end of things, people may stay in harmful religious sects or communities for similar reasons as they stay in abusive relationships. They are made to feel by their abusers that they will never be complete without the faith. They are taught that they will go to hell forever if they leave. They are made to feel worthless and powerless. They are told that people outside of the religious communities are bad people.

Being affected by abuse does not mean you’re mentally ill. It means that someone who knows how to take advantage of people took advantage of you. Furthermore, religion is but one of many props people can use to abuse and control each other.

On the contrary, mental illnesses have substantial genetic and biological components to them. Studies on identical twins, including ones reared apart, have demonstrated fairly high concordance rates for some disorders. While the chemical-imbalances-cause-depression theory has now been shown to be drastically oversimplified, mental illnesses clearly do have some sort of neural causes, triggers, and effects. Mental illnesses are often (but not always) triggered by major stressful life events; they can occur when an individual goes through hardship with which they are not psychologically equipped to cope.

Unlike religion, mental illnesses are not taught to people by other people; they tend to occur when genetic/biological susceptibility lines up with stressful environments or adverse life circumstances. Unlike religion, people do not try to remain mentally ill so that they do not lose their support systems or because they are afraid of what would happen if they stopped being mentally ill. They remain mentally ill until they receive proper treatment, or until the illness remits on its own. Unlike (non-abusive) religion, people do not have a choice whether to stay or leave. Those who suffer from eating disorders, substance abuse, or OCD may claim or genuinely feel that they have a choice, but they actually don’t, and that becomes evident as soon as they try to stop. Yet countless people voluntarily leave religion every day. That doesn’t sound like a mental illness to me.

“You chose to have your mental illness, just like people choose to be religious.” 

Some atheists who make this comparison believe that having religious beliefs is a choice (and abandoning them would also be a choice). If having the symptoms of a mental illness is a choice, what does this say about the rest of us?

“Mental illnesses (like religion) can be cured by making fun of people’s irrational beliefs and shaming them on the internet.”

Normally recovering from a mental illness requires therapy, medication, a strong social support system, or some combination of those. I rarely see atheists agitating for better mental healthcare services for religious people to help them deconvert. In fact, providing people with the resources they would actually need to leave religion (as opposed to simply telling them they’re wrong over and over again) is not a major focus of very many atheists. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the work done by groups like Recovering From Religion and the Clergy Project. But I also haven’t personally witnessed anyone associated with these groups claiming that religion is a mental illness.

“Religious people can’t be held responsible for their beliefs; they’re just victims of an illness.”

If you do agree that mental illness is not a choice, however, that implies that being religious is not a choice either. That implies that religious people do not have agency over any part of their religious belief or observance. Not only is this offensive to religious people, but it actually suggests that we shouldn’t hold them responsible for their beliefs. You wouldn’t blame a person with anxiety for feeling anxious, would you?

“I don’t care about mental illness unless it’s religion.”

Relatedly, better mental healthcare is not a major concern of many atheists (the ones who don’t have mental illnesses, that is). It really should be. Mental healthcare is stymied by both religion and pseudoscience, and advocating for more research, funding, and concern in this area is a project that I think would be of great relevance to the secular movement. But the only time I see most atheists bringing it up is when the “illness” is religion. What about the 25% of American adults who will suffer from an actual mental illness (or more than one) at some point in their lives?

“Mental illness is bad and shameful; that’s why I’m using it to disparage religion.”

Sometimes when I see the religion-mental illness comparison being made, it’s being done in a way that is clearly meant to ridicule and put down. Atheists frequently employ language that stigmatizes mental illness to refer to religious people, such as “crazy,” “insane,” “nutcase,” and so on. Even when you’re not using such clearly hurtful language, though, you can still be perpetuating stigma by saying that such-and-such Islamist “belongs in a mental institution” or that such-and-such fundamentalist Christian “needs to see a shrink.”

If you think religion is horrible and then you compare it to the condition I have, how am I meant to think you see me?

“You are a rhetorical prop for me to use to disparage religion.”

And that’s why I feel like people with mental illnesses are being used as convenient stand-ins when someone wants to diss religion. I feel like our suffering is just a tool for you to pull out of the antitheist toolbox when you need it. “Look how stupid religion is! It’s just like a mental illness!” you say. My depression is not at all like a religion. Unlike a religion, I didn’t choose it. Unlike a religion, it has never provided me with rituals and communities. Unlike a religion, it was not something taught to me by people, not something I could’ve avoided. Unlike a religion, it can’t go away no matter how many times you tell me I’m wrong. Unlike a religion, it has no positive effects, ever. Unlike a religion, my depression didn’t just make me empirically wrong about certain things; it broke my entire life into pieces and took away my ability to enjoy anything. Please stop using that awful legacy to score cheap points against religious believers.

“Attacking religion is more important to me than being inclusive and supportive of atheists with mental illness.”

I tell other atheists over and over again that this is hurtful, inaccurate, and completely pointless. And over and over again, despite the massive support I get in these comment threads from other atheists with mental illnesses, they insist on using this stigmatizing, alienating language. They ignore our knowledge of psychology and mental illness and continue to claim, against the evidence, that religion can be categorized as a form of mental illness. Rather than diving in and learning more about how mental illnesses are defined and which mental processes contribute to religiosity, they refuse to let go of this rhetorical tool.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think that deep down many people think so poorly of people with mental illnesses that they know how effective it can be to compare anything you think is bad to a mental illness. It happens all the time.

But considering how many people I know in this community who are diagnosed with a mental illness, I would cautiously say that maybe you shouldn’t keep alienating us. I’m just one person, but I have serious qualms about working with an atheist leader or organization that holds the view that religion is a mental illness. I doubt I’m the only one.

Find a better argument. Find one that is accurate, first of all, and that stomps on as few already-marginalized people as possible.

~~~

Moderation note: I have finals this week and am unlikely to be around to answer every single question and argument I get. I will moderate strictly for comments that stigmatize mental illness, though. If this piece sets off lots of debates in the comment section, hopefully they can flow smoothly and somewhat productively without much input from me.

Open Letter to the CFI Board of Directors

This was sent to the CFI Board of Directors today as they prepare to meet this week to discuss the controversy surrounding Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks at the Women in Secularism conference. It was signed by 33 of the conference attendees. If you have something to say about this, the CFI Board of Directors can be reached via the Corporate Secretary, Tom Flynn, at [email protected]

To the Board of Directors of the Center for Inquiry:

As attendees of the recent Women in Secularism conference, we are writing to express our disappointment with Dr. Ron Lindsay’s opening remarks and his subsequent behavior. We support the recent letter written and signed by thirteen of the conference speakers and would like to add our voices to theirs.

Dr. Lindsay’s comments about the misuse of the term “privilege” to “silence” men miss the point of the term. It is not that men must “shut up and listen” to women forever; it is that, historically, the voices of men have been heard the loudest, and perhaps it is time for them to make more of an effort to listen to the voices that have been drowned out.

Dr. Lindsay’s remarks were addressed to an audience of activists for women’s rights, both within the secular movement and beyond. Rather than allowing us to defend that activism, Lindsay chose to lecture us about “taking it too far” while betraying a serious misunderstanding of what it is we’re fighting for.

Dr. Lindsay spoke about the supposed silencing of men, but he did not speak about the silencing of women. The reason many of us attended this conference is because the position of women in secularism is currently a tenuous one. In response to their advocacy for increased inclusivity within the secular movement, women activists have been subject to a divisive campaign of bullying, harassment, and threats. Several prominent activists have dropped out of the movement or decreased their involvement in it due to this ongoing silencing campaign. But rather than expressing support for these activists, Lindsay cautioned us to avoid taking our activism too far and “silencing” men. In fact, during the conference, he chose to personally welcome one of the harassers who was in attendance.

To be clear, Dr. Lindsay is entitled to his opinions about feminism and the concept of privilege. But if he had concerns about these issues that he wished for the conference organizers and speakers to address, he could have done so before the conference and in private. His decision to do so during his opening remarks was particularly inappropriate given that merely weeks before, Dr. Lindsay used his position to advocate discussing objections privately and, of all things, listening more.

As secular activists, we welcome discussion about feminism and its role in the secular movement. But a condescending lecture is not a discussion, and the opening remarks of a conference are a time to welcome and thank participants, not to air grievances against them.

We are asking Dr. Lindsay to apologize in full for his behavior at the Women in Secularism conference. While we appreciate that he has apologized for his incendiary blog post about Rebecca Watson, we would like to see him acknowledge that his opening remarks were inappropriate given his position within CFI. In addition, we are asking Dr. Lindsay to make every reasonable effort to ensure that there will be a third Women in Secularism conference, because we believe that the secular movement cannot move forward without standing up for women’s rights.

Signed,

Miri Mogilevsky

PZ Myers

Nathan Hevenstone

Catherine Fiorello

Monica Beck

Nicole Harris

Stacy Kennedy

Mark Waddell

Mai Dao

Michael X

Corinne Zimmerman

Lotte Govaerts

Bogdan Cvetkovic

Virginia R. Brown

Shaun McGonigal

Jason Thibeault

A. L.

Kate Donovan

Andrew Tripp

Daniel Samuelson

Alexander Gonzalez

Ania Bula

Adam Lee

Steve Croker

Peggy Clancy

Yukimi

Caitlin Quinn

Zachariah Pidgeon

Xenologer

Alicia Kuhl-Paine

J. Bradley Emery

Amy Cook

~~~

If you’d like, feel free to send this letter to the CFI board in your own name, with or without modifications.

[#wiscfi liveblog] What the Secular Movement Can Learn from Other Social Movements

The WiS2 conference logo.

After just four hours of sleep, I’m back to blogging. This is a panel with Debbie Goddard, Carrie Poppy, Desiree Schell, and Greta Christina, and moderated by Soraya Chemaly.

9:08: Soraya: We’re going to compare the secular movement to other social movements, expanding secularism through social justice, and the marginalization of women in social movements.

Greta gets cheers and applause just for introducing herself!

9:12: Soraya: Let’s talk about the life stages of social movements.

Greta: I think the reason I’m here is that I’ve been involved in the LGBTQIA-etc. movement for many years. I do think there are parallels between the atheist/secular/skeptical movement and that one. I think we’re about 35 years behind it; I think we’re where that movement was in the 1970s, after Stonewall. We’re learning the importance of coming out and visibility; I think that’s the most important thing you can do. It’s about making atheism a safe place to come out. It’s also about not quibbling about nomenclature; the LGBT movement had a lot of arguments about that. Letting firebrands be firebrands, letting diplomats be diplomats. The LGBT community has sort of learned to play good cop, bad cop.

One thing we can learn from the LGBT movement comes from one of its early failures: diversity. They sucked at racial diversity, class diversity, etc. That continues to harm the movement. It set patterns into place that are hard to get out of and created resentment. There are a lot of things about not being inclusive that are self-perpetuating. If you’re wondering why many of us are so passionate about inclusivity in atheism, talk to anyone in the LGBT community and ask if they’d get into a time machine, go back, and fix the diversity issue from the beginning.

I’m upset about the fights we’re having now, but I’m grateful that we’re having them now because it means we won’t be having them as much in 10 years.

Desiree: One of the things that’s interesting about the labor movement is that we were so effective that y’all have forgotten. The 8-hour work day, occupational safety, weekends–those came from the labor movement. What the secular movement can learn from the labor movement is the importance of celebrating your successes, because when you don’t, you forget those successes. Celebrate your militancy, current and past. I call myself a militant unionist and I haven’t blown anything up.

Carrie: Thank you Desiree for the weekend. [applause] In all social movement there’s a period where men running everything. Then you get to a stage where women are engaged and are the foot soldiers. That’s the do-or-die moment. This conference is especially well-placed because we are in the women’s stage and it’s do-or-die time.

Debbie: When I was in college I got involved with LGBT activism because I joined groups and was like, “Oh I want to hang out with these people” and ended up doing rallies, etc. Realized that if we promote secularism and critical thinking, we won’t have to fight for gay marriage because everyone will just be like, duh. Eventually they hired me at CFI as a field organizer. I didn’t even know organizing was a thing you could do.

It’s not about getting everyone to join an atheist group. It’s about representation.

I was really impacted by Greta’s talk about how when we succeed, people will just be atheists. They won’t be badasses for being out atheists. They’ll just be atheists, who cares.

There are a lot of young atheists; it’s hip now. But they’re not necessarily doing activism.

9:25: Greta: That’s what you see in the LGBT community. Early on, if you were out you were an activist by definition. That is to some extent true for atheism. Now you see a lot of gay people just living their lives. In 20 years maybe we’ll be seeing that with atheists. That is still to some extent activism. Being an out LGBTQ person is very powerful. It’s a huge part of why that movement has succeeded.

Soraya: My daughter’s class was talking about difference and her teacher, who was gay, asked her what it’s like to be an atheist. Before this wouldn’t have happened; that’s a huge change. Can you talk about the downsides and benefits of alliance-building?

Greta: We’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t do alliance-building. Sometimes there’s this resistance because we think it’s mission drift. But there’s a lot of overlap. I was talking to Teresa MacBain about someone in the Clergy Project who can’t come out because his wife has a chronic illness and he needs the health insurance. Is there an intersection between atheism and healthcare? Yes. Religion oppresses people and perpetuates poverty.

The downside is, it’s hard. You have to do things that aren’t comfortable. You have to do things differently, you can’t just do the same kinds of events. You have to acknowledge when you screw up. It is really, really hard. I have been on the receiving end of it. It’s really hard to try to be an ally with people and suddenly 100 of them are piling on you telling you you screwed up. It’s hard,  but too bad, you have to do it anyway.

Desiree: I don’t think it’s just that it’s hard. If you look at feminism, there was definitely a point in women’s suffrage when it was considered a wealthy, educated woman’s pursuit–until they got working class women involved. Many historians say they wouldn’t have won women’s suffrage if they hadn’t included working class woman. It’s not just this idea that we should be inclusive; sometimes that’s the only way to win.

9:31: Carrie: It’s so apparent to me that you have to ally yourself with social justice movements because that’s already your goal–to promote happiness and end suffering. It’s inherent in any movement that you’re heading towards social justice. This may not be a popular opinion, but I think interfaith work is a great place to ally yourselves. I grew up a believer and for me, there was a stepping-down process and becoming a liberal religious person was a very important part of that process. Our liberal religious friends are very important allies in finding common goals. We won’t find that often among conservative religious people.

The downside is that it’s really hard to get people to listen to you when you’re proving more than one point at a time. It’s hard for me to talk about being an atheist vegan if you’re none of those. But it’s good to think about what you guys have in common and use that as a base point.

As far as mission creep goes, I used to work with someone who would often talk about it. And my response was, YOU’RE a mission creep.

9:35: Debbie: I think sometimes the goals are different and the interest other groups have in working with us is different. Even with interfaith people feel like they have to swallow their integrity. Sometimes it feels like we have to hide a part of ourselves if we can’t say, “I think you’re wrong about Jesus.” A lot of us feel strongly about that. I can’t just hang out with religious people and not tell then how wrong they are all the time. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but I see why people are uncomfortable.

Trying to ally my atheist and freethought groups with LGBT groups, they didn’t want us. They didn’t want us saying that Jesus hates them. We have to swallow some of our ego to accomplish our goals.

Desiree: This is a good time to talk about diversity of tactics. It just means you have a variety of tactics in your arsenal and you use them based on the situation, the political atmosphere, who you have in your group, etc. When we’re talking about interfaith work, diversity of tactics means that we support each other in those endeavors. Even if we don’t agree exactly with the way they do this. We have to stop snarking on each other every time someone does something we personally wouldn’t do, because it’s all really really valuable.

Greta: One challenge is, as Debbie said, do they want to work with us? In the LGBT movement, some have tried to distance themselves from the view of gay people as godless. How do we make that case that we are worth allying with? I don’t know that I have an easy answer, but there are a lot of us and we’re also on the internet and raising money.

9:39: Soraya: That to me is a really key question. I think the question of branding these words and how we communicate goes beyond just coming out and talking about it. It requires a much more systematized method of communicating. If we could talk about the language of it and the stigma of some of these words.

Debbie: The Outreach department at CFI talks about this a lot. We like the word “secular” because it allows us to work on both political and social issues. But one of the downsides is when we say secular and mean atheist, then the Religious Right doesn’t want to support a secular agenda because it’s anti-religious, it’s atheist. Maybe 10 years ago that should’ve been a consideration. I subscribe to some right-wing newspapers and they use “secular” as a dirty word.

I saw Gloria Steinem speak. Someone asked her if we should be using feminism given that people think it means hating men. And she said that with the agenda that we have, any word would come to mean that.

I do think it would benefit us to have alliances with groups that are willing to support a secular agenda.

Carrie: I personally have always preferred the word atheist because it’s the most honest. Anything else, people just see through anyway and think you’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes. But organizations can have very different tactics from individuals. They can try to destigmatize the word atheist, but in your personal life you can choose not to use that word.

Desiree: I work with primarily women of color, most of them are new Canadians working in low-wage jobs. We have a lot of conversations. I do talk about the fact that I’m an atheist, but I don’t say “I’m an atheist.” I say that I don’t have a god, and that seems to resonate with people. If you can build a personal relationship with someone, after they already think you’re great, bring up the fact that you don’t believe in god, and they’re much more likely not to care or even be interested.

Greta: Some of us are going to be more comfortable being softer, doing interfaith work, and some of us are going to be more comfortable being more in-your-face and using stronger language. I think all of that is useful. Those of us who are more in-your-face move the center. In the LGBT movement, we’re been talking about same-sex marriage for 20 years and now it’s become the mainstream position. But building bridges and using softer language is important, too.

It’s not about the word we pick. It’s not the word they don’t like; it’s the fact that we don’t believe in god. In that sense it’s different from other social movements. There’s no way to say you don’t believe in god without implying that you’re wrong, so there’s always going to be a bit of tension when working with believers.

9:47: Soraya: Sometimes it seems from talking to people that there’s something unique in what’s happening with women in the secular movement. But I don’t think that’s really true; there are parallels to other movements.

Greta: There’s a lot of pushback against feminism in the atheist movement. It’s everything from, “Why can’t we just get along?” to “Stick a knife in your cunt.” Seriously, I’ve gotten that. Some people ask why we’re “blaming” atheism. But these conversations are happening everywhere–in the gaming world, in the tech world. This happens whenever men are dominating a movement. We’re not saying that atheism is special. But we have the opportunity to do something about this in our movement. It would be like a Chicago police officer saying, well, murder happens everywhere. Why do you want to focus on murder in Chicago?

Desiree: I agree with most of what you’re saying. But I do expect more of the atheist movement. We talk so much about how smart we are. Why is status quo ok for this, but in every other area we’re supposedly better?

9:52: Carrie: Usually it’s helpful to see a broader concept, but in this case it’s actually not. It’s like saying that your family is just as bad as the family down the block. If your mom is beating you up and saying, “Well Sally’s mom beats her up too,” my response would be, “Fuck you mom.”

Debbie: The Human Rights Campaign uses shiny white dudes living in suburbs, not the dykey lesbian types. Movements use certain people who will be accepted and listened to. I was reading about the role of churches as organizing spaces for African Americans in the 1950s and 60s; the ones who were organizing a lot of those meetings were women. They couldn’t put themselves in top-level position, but they were bringing people together. A lot of times women have been the organizers more than the men.

I don’t know how that works with the feminist movement but I see some reflections of hierarchy and structure there.

Is it new and how do we change it. We have to think of ourselves as a movement like these others ones, not that we came up with this whole new idea. We should learn from the way these over movements have incorporated people and stayed relevant.

Soraya: During the Second Great Awakening, there was great diversity–people of color, women. Thanks to secularism in our country, these religions could explode. Today, when I look at religious media, which is incredibly successful, I wonder what we can learn from their success.

9:59: Debbie: There are a lot of people who rail against the fact that Black atheists organize; “I don’t see color” and all that. One of the things with the Christian mass communication is that people aren’t that kind of arrogant about how they think.

Greta: I saw a talk once on the differences between liberals and conservatives. It said that conservatives are really good at following authority and working in lock-step. But if liberals aren’t so good at that, and we can’t do that or else we’ll fail at our goals. We should play to our strengths. I don’t think we’ll ever be a movement that marches in lockstep.

The demographics of this country are changing, and getting a diversity of genders, races, classes, sexual orientations front and center plays to our strengths.

10:09: Reader questions: How can we address class if we hold meetings in luxury? What about global secularism and regional issues?

Greta: re: the luxury thing: That’s important. That’s why I’m really happy to see free, student-run, regional conferences. There’s also a lot of organizations that use conferences as fundraising, and I get that, but I do think that we’re not going to get diversity of class at a conference unless we find some way to address that, whether it’s scholarships or having more free conferences.

Desiree: I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Class is a great gateway oppression. If we’re talking about intersectionality, people have a hard time thinking about race or gender issues. But everyone gets class because everyone can vaguely understand what it’s like to be vaguely broke. So if we’re going to talk about different kinds of oppression, it’s great to start with class.

Back in the day, the left-wing movement was a collection of the upper class and academics working together. There’s a lot of progressivism now that doesn’t speak to working class people. It’s an academic pursuit. If we don’t speak to people’s personal interests on a day-to-day level, we’ve got nothing.

Debbie: There’s a lot of this attitude that people who are poor must be lazy. A lot of people can’t conceive of not having a safety net or support structure, where one bad illness in your 20s can wreck everything for 15 years.

There’s a lot to be learned from looking internationally. Class is a big aspect of it.

10:22: Reader questions: Can you touch on some specific examples of allying with other groups?

Carrie: There’s a great group called Interfaith Youth Corps and they’re very accepting of atheists and agnostics. When I’ve gone to their events people come up to me and want to know why I don’t believe, and I’ve never had them push their beliefs on me. The conversation is immediately about how we can work together to help people in the community.

Debbie: I think all around we don’t do service much, and that is a class issue in the first place. A lot of the Black churches would do a bunch of service stuff, whether that was volunteering at soup kitchens or collecting clothes or help build houses. I don’t often see atheist/secular groups doing this.

Desiree: Single issue campaigns. You don’t have to agree with the majority of what someone thinks. You only need to agree with what they think about one specific issue and use that to build relationships.

20:28: Soraya: Closing statements?

Carrie: I’ve been thinking about how a lot of people here feel ostracized by people in the community who don’t support the issues they care about. It reminds me of how in high school I used to write letters to this boy I liked about why he should like me. And it didn’t work. Instead he went around and told everyone how I was fat and stupid. I realized that he’s the idiot, not me, but I wasted all that time trying to get him to like me. These people who don’t like you and think you’re an idiot and a waste of time? They’re a waste of time.

Debbie: I was really excited to come to this. I’m really excited that we’re talking about these issues. I want to see people do stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it when people think about stuff or write about stuff–I was a philosophy major, I like that stuff too. But I also like doing stuff. I would like to see us all do more stuff in person, get involved in service projects, get involved in tutoring. Help schools with crappy science classes.

Desiree: Scandinavian countries have the lowest rate of religious adherence. They also have the highest union density. You have to look at atheism from different perspective–race, class, etc.

Greta: When social change movements get the “woman thing” right, they flourish. When they don’t, they fail. We have to get this right. Stop telling me to stick a knife in my cunt, stop telling me this doesn’t matter. Stop telling us not to feed the trolls, stop telling us to think about something happy like bunnies. If we do this right, we win. So, let’s win.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today (Susan Jacoby)

How Women’s Concerns Can Best Be Advanced within the Context of a Secular Agenda (Panel)

The History of Atheism, Feminism, and the Science of Brains (Jennifer Michael Hecht)

Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide (Maryam Namazie)

[#wiscfi liveblog] Secularism: A Right and Demand of Women Worldwide

The WiS2 conference logo.

Next up is Maryam Namazie, a blogger and activist who’s been involved with tons of secular organizations: Equal Rights Now, the One Law for All Campaign against Sharia Law in Britain, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, and Iran Solidarity.

5:00: Namazie is talking about secular activists in the Muslim world who are being persecuted for speaking out. At the end of her talk, she will ask us all to write them a message.

5:04: There have been protests over the treatment of Malala Yousafzai, Amina Tyler, and others. You can see the immense resistance taking place day in and day out in response to Islamism, US-led militarism, and cultural relativism. Today as an era or revolutions and uprisings in the Muslim world, and many of them are women-led.

It may seem that Islamists are making gains in the area, but change is palpable. Yet many feminists, cultural relativists, and others are on the side of Islamists and believe that any opposition to Sharia law is tantamount to racism and cultural imperialism. But they’ve bought into the notion that Muslim communities are homogenous–Islamic and conservative. But there is no homogenous culture, and those in power determine the dominant culture. These relativists claim that Islamists represent authentic Islam.

5:07: A professor received death threats for posting this cartoon on his office door:

BKk7wNaCIAAze1b.jpg-large

Conflating Islamism with Islam is a narrative that is peddled by Islamists to prescribe the limits of acceptable expression.

The demand for secularism is no more imperialist than the demand for women’s suffrage. Post-modernists who demand “respect and tolerance for difference” no matter how intolerable that difference is are siding with oppressors.

5:12: Islamophobia is used as a tactic to scaremonger critics into silence. It’s made not out of actual concern for Muslims, but out of a desire to support Islamism. If you really wanted to support Muslims, you would oppose Islamism, which kills more Muslims than anything else.

5:14: Everyone has a right to their religious beliefs. But Islamism isn’t just personal beliefs. Saying that people have a right to Islamism is saying that women’s liberation is only for white American women.

The idea that islamism is just a “misinterpretation” of the religion is inaccurate. The Koran and the Hadith are full of anti-woman laws and principles. Stoning to death for adultery is a Hadith; Mohammed himself stoned a woman to death for adultery. In the Koran there are suras on wife-beating.

5:17: Is  there a “good” interpretation of religion?  [audience: "No!"]

For instance, a Sharia court said that it’s ok to beat women as long as you do it “lightly” and don’t leave any marks. But no violence against women is acceptable.

Women are freer the lesser the role religion plays in the public sphere. Secularism is a precondition for the improvement of women’s status. All women, not just those who are Western.

5:20: If people really wanted to live under these rules, Islamists would not need to enforce them with such brutality.

Of course there are some people who prefer Sharia law to secular law, including some who are born in the West. Some people support racial apartheid, too. But there is no right to oppress. Post-modernists who suppose Islamists say that our demands are Western, but since when is secularism a Western demand?

When it comes to women’s right, when it comes to freedom, these rights suddenly become “Western.”

5:24: Reader question: How should those of us who are not of Middle Eastern/African descent walk the fine line of criticizing this? How should a progressive secular organization approach bigoted anti-Muslim activists like Pamela Geller?

Namazie: It doesn’t matter where you come from. If you think something is wrong, you should be able to say it. The Islamists have made it impossible to speak up and criticize because of this label of racism, which we should rightly fear. But they will also tell me that I don’t have the right to speak about Islam because I’m an ex-Muslim, or that I wasn’t a “real Muslim” because I was Shia. There’s always an excuse for why you’re not allowed to speak. But we have a right to speak about any injustice anywhere.

Racism exists. As an ex-Muslim I face racism. There are lots of people who aren’t Muslim who face racism. Racism doesn’t stop if you stop criticizing people’s beliefs; that’s a cop-out. You’re not going to deal with racism against Muslims by stopping free expression. These are bogus arguments to stop the debate from taking place.

Far-right European/American movements against Islam attack all Muslims because they blame them for Islamists’ crimes. And Islamists attack innocent people on buses and in discos because they blame them for American militarists’ crimes. If we don’t criticize Islamism, we leave the space open for far-right racists to attack it. They seem to be the only ones speaking, but we have to stand up and speak from a purely rights-based perspective–everyone should have the same rights. It’s not anti-racist to demand different rights for different people; it’s actually racist to do that. Secularism is good not just because you’re white and Western, but because it’s better for women. Not all Muslims want the laws that Islamists want.

5:30: Reader question: What percentage of the population in Iran is secular or atheist?

Namazie: I don’t know because it’s a crime to be an atheist in Iran. I would say it’s a large percentage. The Iranian Revolution wasn’t an Islamic revolution; it was a left-leaning revolution and the Islamic movement appropriated it and has ruled with sheer terror for the past several decades. Iran is the center of a mass anti-Islamic backlash.

The problem is, though, that it’s hard to gauge who’s who. I met a woman who was an atheist but she was wearing a burka. It’s hard to know the real numbers.

5:33: Reader question: There are people who make statements that because Muslim women have it so bad, Western women should just be quiet about their own experiences. How do these statements strike you?

Namazie: I don’t agree with those statements. You can always find a situation that’s worse. When I discuss women’s rights in Iran, people say, “Oh, but it’s so much worse in Saudi Arabia.” Women can drive in Iran. Yay. Of course there are degrees of oppression. For instance, some people want to call honor killings domestic violence. But that’s a very different thing. So it’s good to be able to name it, label it, and speak of the differences.

But the situation of women in the West is not perfect, either. And this is a fight that is global. I don’t find the comparisons very helpful.

5:35: Reader question: Revolutions in the Muslim world may be initially led by women, but how long do they remain positive towards women?

Namazie: What have secularists here done to support those women-led revolutions? Not very much. Both Western governments and Islamists want Islamic regimes because they’re a great way to control the population. What greater oppressor than a theocratic state? In Iran, the West supported the Shah’s regime, but when the revolution happened, Western leaders decided that they preferred the Islamic regime.

This happened during the era of the Cold War, when the U.S. was trying to build a green Islamic belt around the Soviet Union. They supported the Taliban and an Islamic regime in Iran. Some of the greatest allies of the West are now Islamic states, such as Saudi Arabia.

[#wiscfi liveblog] Why the Lost History of Secular Women Matters Today

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Susan Jacoby is up! She is a journalist and author who’s written a bunch of awesome books, including The Age of American Unreason, which I recently read.

1:50: Susan Jacoby opens with a poem published in 1837 about the trend of women speaking publicly about political causes. Oh, the humanity:

1:53: The reason we’ve been having all this debate about whether or not the government should pay for contraception is because people have forgotten what it was like before women could control their own reproduction. They don’t know the history of women’s struggle, beginning at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848.

The forgetting of the history of marginalized groups is both a cause and an effect of their marginalization. If you’re marginalized, you may not have the power to have your stories included in schools and what we teach about history.

Every brand of religion is a mechanism for transmitting ideas and values, whether or not you agree with those values. Secular organizations, which have loose and non-hierarchical structures, can’t necessarily transmit their histories so efficiently.

1:57: Most men of the Enlightenment didn’t give much thought to women’s rights; not all Enlightenment thinkers were feminists. But all feminists born in the 19th century were descendants of the Enlightenment.

Women who were agnostics/atheists, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were largely written out of history after the 19th century by women’s suffrage organizations because they “could not afford” to be “identified with ungodliness.” Stanton was largely unknown until the revival of American secularism in the 1970s, but there was a similar trend then to downplay the influence of secular feminists. But secular feminists, especially secular Jews, played a large role in the new feminist movement.

As a Jew, it’s difficult to support feminism given that Jewish men say a prayer every morning in which they thank god for not having been born a woman. Similarly for Catholic women.

The fact that feminism has become a part of religion to some extent is part of an accommodation by religion to secular values.

The difficulty for feminists to embrace feminism’s connections to secularism is part of the belief that there can be no morality without faith.

2:04: There have been no secular activists who have made women’s rights an issue, except insofar as they are threatened by radical Islam. Telling the truth about radical Islam and women is important, but we need secularists to understand that discrimination and violence against women are hardly confined to the Islamic world.

Robert Ingersoll is the only male secularist who is an exception to this. Ingersoll’s 20th century biographers failed to recognize this, however, perhaps because they were writing before the emergence of second-wave feminists in the 1970s. Ingersoll sided with Stanton in viewing religion as the main cause of women’s oppression and, along with Stanton, disagreed that giving women the vote would be enough. In this sense he resembled second-wave feminists as opposed to his contemporary suffragists.

He also understood that compulsory childbirth was used both by the Church and by individual men to stymy women’s goals. “Science must make woman the owner and mistress of herself.” Women would always be oppressed as long as they had to “rely on the self-control of men” to prevent pregnancy. He criticized the idea that fear is superior to knowledge and that virtue stems from ignorance (or slavery).

Think of the comments of Rush Limbaugh regarding Sandra Fluke, who he claimed wanted the government to “pay” for her to have sex.

2:10: Ingersoll noted that women were more religious than men. But unlike religious leaders, he attributed this not to women’s superior virtue but to the fact that they were so uneducated compared to men.

I’m not suggesting that secular women need a man such as Ingersoll to speak for them. Rather, that the secular movement needs more people, men and women, who have a passion for what was once considered exclusively “women’s issues.” Just issuing press releases is not enough. This is the case for all social causes that have relevance to secularism, even if that relevance is not immediately obvious.

2:12: The reason demographics show fewer female than male atheists is because atheism is a social pejorative, and women may be more sensitive to this than men. Some women worry that being out atheists will affect how their children are treated.

But we need more women involved. That’s why it’s important to recognize this historical connection between feminism and secularism.

2:16: McCollum v. Board of Education is a case that many people sadly don’t know about because it’s not taught in schools. But the case concerned whether or not schools can set aside time for religious instruction. The case was brought by Vashti McCollum, a mother whose son was being ostracized for skipping the religious classes. The family’s cat got lynched. It’s understandable that women would worry about speaking out about atheism.

2:21: Audience question: Can you tell us more about Helen Gardner?

Jacoby: She’s another one of those lost women secularists. She wrote Men, Women, and Gods, which sided with Stanton and Ingersoll in calling out religion for its role against women’s rights.

Audience question: Where are some good starting points to learn about women in secularism?

Jacoby: Look up the writing of women like Gardner and Stanton. Don’t go to the New Yorker article about Shulamith Firestone, though. That article took a disturbed person who did write some important things and used her to represent all feminists of the 1960s and 70s. It serves the purpose of people who oppose feminism and secularism to present portraits of feminists as unhappy, bitter women.

2:26: Audience question: Frederick Douglass was also a secularist and a feminist, but that’s never recognized. Is this due to racism?

Jacoby: Maybe. But how much of a feminist was he really? He did support women’s right to vote, but he didn’t speak out much about women’s issues. But he definitely had a lot else on his plate [audience laughs], so we can give him a pass for not being more vocal about women.

Audience question: What about Susan B. Anthony?

Jacoby: She was an agnostic but kept it private. She and Stanton were good friends, but she actually begged Stanton not to publish her book about secularism.

2:29: Audience question: How will history look on those who have stifled the concerns of women in this movement becuase they’re not “as bad” as those in other countries? I assume you are a psychic.

Jacoby: It depends on who writes the history.

Audience question: Can you talk about Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex?

Jacoby: Do I have to? [audience laughs] It’s not a book I ever liked that much because I felt it was dishonest in a way. While it explored the psychological roots of women’s oppressions, she did not draw from her own life and her own relationships, this brilliant women who subordinated her own intellect to that of men. It’s certainly a foundational work, but it doesn’t go far enough.

2:31: Audience question: What about the role of women in anti-war activism? Does military culture support sexism?

Jacoby: What better example do we have of this than sexual assault in the military? The idea of a culture in which superior physical strength is what prevails is certainly not good for women. And yes, I know, somewhere in the past there was Xena Warrior Princess. But in fact we know that warrior cultures have not been good for women. Is it worse in the military than in any government department? Sure it is, because the military is something in which physical abilities is highly valued and war is thought to be a separate state in which ordinary rules do not apply. Nazi Germany, for example–women were to be the child-bearers. Warrior culture is not good for men. It’s not so great for men, either.

2:34: Audience question: Are we going to have to fight this battle every 50 years?

Jacoby: I would hope not. But I was taken aback by how many emails I received from women who didn’t know that as late as the 1960s, a married woman would’ve had great difficulty getting birth control. One might say that that’s a good thing because nothing bad’s going to happen along those lines anymore, but that’s not true. Bad things are happening.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

Gender Equality in the Secular Movement (Panel)

[#wiscfi liveblog] Sexism and Religion: Can the Knot Be Untied?

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m finally up and watching Katha Pollitt speak! Pollitt is a poet (say that five times fast) and a columnist for The Nation.

10:10: I chose the topic of my talk today because I didn’t know the answer: can religion be disentangled from the misogyny in its texts and its practices. I asked a random selection of people what they thought. My cousin Wendy (an observant Jew) said no. My daughter, a militant atheist since kindergarten, also said no.

The world’s religions are all deeply shaped by patriarchal ideas of a woman’s place. For some, that extends even into the next world. For Mormons, men in the afterlife can have many wives, but a woman can only enter the afterlife if her husband calls her by her “secret name,” which only he knows. Also, she will be perpetually pregnant in the afterlife to produce people to populate her husband’s planet, because he gets a planet after he dies!

In the Islamic afterlife, men also get a bunch of wives. Meanwhile, in Christianity, men and women are supposedly equal before god. But regardless of whether or not that’s true, the society Christianity establishes on earth is not egalitarian at all. (See: St. Paul on women.)

There are no female prophets in the bible, no female founders of a major new faith (except Christian Science), very few female religious leaders with independent power. To find a woman-centered religion, you have to go back to prehistory, and we don’t even know much about those religions. In any case, men are quite capable of worshipping a female god (i.e. Athena) while repressing women.

10:16: What about the bible? It’s full of misogyny, of attempts to control women’s sexuality (evidenced by the obsession with prostitutes).

The atheist in me wants to answer my question with a resounding “no.” The subordination of women has historically been one of the main purposes of religion. It’s the rulebook of patriarchy.

Today, priests and rabbis tend to talk in terms of complementarianism: men and women are equal; they’re just different!

Up until 100 years ago, there was none of this separate-but-equal stuff. Women’s sexuality was considered dangerous and potentially polluting. Today, though, you’d have a hard time finding a rabbi who’d say that the reasoning behind the menstrual taboo in Judaism is just that menstruation is disgusting. Instead, they say that the ritual bath “honors” women and is empowering and whatnot.

10:19: Orthodox Jews claim that men refusing to shake women’s hands has nothing to do with women being taboo; it’s just about “modesty” and “respect.” “We just think the sexes shouldn’t be so quick to touch each other.” They’re reframed it as no longer about a specific resistance to women, but a general thing.

When American Muslim women talk about why they wear the hijab, they invoke it as a simple of religious identity, not as something to keep men from being lustful. Some Muslim women choose to start wearing it even though their mothers didn’t. After 9/11, some well-meaning liberals suggested that non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who were being harassed. My suggestion was, maybe men should wear the headscarf. That did not go over well.

10:23: You can historicize away and reinterpret away anything that doesn’t fit modern liberal values. Some Muslim feminists argue that everything objectionable in the Koran is applicable only to Mohammed’s time, and everything good in it is inherently true.

“I don’t know what the difference between a skeptic and an atheist is…” [audience groans] The question is, why did god put his word in such a way that, up until the day before yesterday, it was understood for certain that it meant a certain thing, but now we claim that it was all misinterpreted? In terms of literary criticism, this is interesting, but people actually try to dictate their lives and social policy by their holy books.

God could’ve given the Ten Commandment to Miriam and said, “Thou must have equality between men and women.” But he didn’t. He spent four of the commandments demanding that he be worshipped. Somehow, he sounded exactly like the patriarchal society in which he was made up. But “God didn’t have to write like an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.”

So feminist theologians have their work cut out for them.

10:28: People today are hungry for a Christianity that is woman-positive and sex-positive. That’s why The Da Vinci Code, a terrible book, was such a huge success. We like the idea that the church was originally an egalitarian place and that this history was erased by sexists. This requires a lot of historical revisionism.

For instance, Mary and Miriam were fairly marginal figures in the bible, but some try to elevate them to mean more than they actually did.

10:30: Christianity still has its obsession with virginity and hostility to sex. This probably originally made it stand out as a religion. But you can’t derive our contemporary sex-positive gay-friendly culture from the New Testament. But some theologians try to do it anyway.

Atheists get mad when it looks like the goalposts are constantly moving. Now you say there’s nothing wrong with women wearing pants. That’s not what you were saying when you were burning Joan of Arc at the stake.

But in reality the goalposts have always been moving. When Europe was ruled by kings and queens, the Church underwrote monarchy and Jesus was described as the “king of kings.”

Religion changes when society changes. Well, maybe 50 years after society changes.

That process only looks dishonest if you think religion is a set of fixed rules and decisions. That’s how many of us atheists tend to see it. But you can also see it sociologically: it’s not really about the proper analysis of texts, it’s a social practice that reflects the society in which it is practiced. As society changes, people sift through the grab-bag of religion and pick out the bits that make sense.

Religions themselves don’t put it like that. They have to make it seem like there’s a direct line going back to the beginning, because that’s where their authority comes from.

This constant rewriting of history while never admitting what’s happening is how religions claim moral weight and power.

Some people believe that Judaism is inherently socialist, that Jesus was a pacifist, that Mohammed was a feminist, and that we need to get back to this original vision. But others believe that the “original vision” is that it’s okay to cut thieves’ hands off.

The bible used to be cited as a justification for slavery and Southern Baptism was invented to justify it. But nobody nowadays claims that the bible justifies slavery and we should really get back to that. Witchcraft was always condemned with the bible, but Pagans believe that witches are actually considered good in the bible. In any case, most people in the West don’t believe in witches, so nobody really cares.

10:36: The modernization theory would predict that, as human society progresses, people abandon religion or it becomes a shadow of itself. But reactionary religious movements are gaining strength while resisting modern roles for women. We see this in many faiths around the world. Does this prove the modernization theory wrong? Does it prove that the knot cannot be untied?

I’m still fond of the modernization theory. I see reactionary movements as a testament to the lack of modernity.

Fundamentalism is a vehicle for patriarchy, but that doesn’t mean that if people dump religion they will become feminists. The French revolution was made by men of the Enlightenment who were hostile than religion, but it did nothing for women’s rights. In fact, they were slightly worse-off legally. Ditto for the Soviet Union and Communist China. When the Soviets wanted to increase the birth rate, abortion was outlawed.

You can be good without god, and you can be sexist without god. We’ve seen plenty of secular justifications for inequality–evolutionary psychology, for instance.

10:40: When we do have gender equality, religion will be reinterpreted to support it. The bible will be said to have always supported feminism.

10:43: Religion is comforting to some women because it gives them a measure of power. For instance, a wife has to be her husband’s helpmeet, but in return the husband has to come home at a reasonable time at night.

The knot between sexism and religion will be untied when feminism becomes the norm, but religion will get all the credit.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress (Rebecca Goldstein)

Women Leaving Religion (Panel)

[#wiscfi liveblog] The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress

The WiS2 conference logo.

I’m liveblogging Rebecca Goldstein’s talk, “The Mattering Map: Religion, Humanism, and Moral Progress.” Goldstein is a novelist and professor of philosophy at Barnard College. Follow along!

4:18: “Amanda just said in her wonderful talk that she wasn’t going to bore you with philosophy. That’s my job.”

I agonized over this talk. Should I publicly address the gender issue for the first time? [Audience: yes!!!]

4:21: Criticism of literary criticism can be used to unearth biases. For instance, that it’s okay for women to write certain kinds of books that are mostly read by other women, but those books are then dismissed as being “for women.” Subconscious gender biases undermine women and make them unwilling to enter the fray–though that doesn’t seem to be an issue at this conference.

In preparation for this talk, I polled some very prominent women and asked them if they ever feel that their gender undermines them professionally. Virtually all of them reported saying something in a discussion or meaning and being completely ignored–until the comment is picked up and reported by a man. Then, suddenly everyone jerks to attention.

Obviously it’s true that compared to more violent manifestations of misogyny, being ignored/interrupted/talked over is easy to dismiss because it’s an experience of privileged women. We privileged women can feel petty and ashamed voicing complaints about these things.

Psychologists call these experiences “microaggressions,” and they cite evidence that for women (and other marginalized groups), these small attacks take a greater toll than the more outright expressions of misogyny.

Derald Wing Sue, a researcher on microaggressions, says that it’s easier for marginalized people to deal with the more outright expressions of bigotry because there’s no guesswork involved. You can easily dismiss them as bigotry.

4:26: As secularists with strong scientific orientations, we’ve concentrated almost exclusively on the way religions exploit the “will to believe.” We’ve used science to argue against this. And that’s important, but we’ve largely ignored another issue: the “will to matter.”

I first thought of this idea through one of my fictional characters. I was invested in being “rigorous” and these ideas seemed to lack rigor. My editor said, “I don’t really understand Renee [the character].” Renee, like me, was a rigorous philosopher. She started coming up with these ideas about “mattering.” We’re invested in “mattering” and will give up our lives to causes for the sake of “mattering.”

Her other idea was “the Mattering Map.” A person’s location on the Mattering Map is determined by what matters to them and their perception of people–who the somebodies and nobodies are, who the heroes are, who should never have been born. We differ on who we think the heroes are because we differ on what matters. If what matters is intelligence, then the heroes are the geniuses. (In fact, Renee, the character, married a genius and regretted it.)

4:31: The idea of the mattering map has become a working theoretical concept in certain areas of psychology. The idea of my fictional character has been incorporated into actual theoretical work! I Googled it and got tens of thousands of hits, more than I got for me. [audience laughs]

It was even written about in the Harvard Business Review: an article called “How Mattering Maps Affect Behavior.” The article even quotes Renee herself.

4:35: What is it that keeps intellectually sophisticated people clinging to propositions about the world so improbable that they can be described–if you’ll allow me to use the technical terminology of epistemology–as crazy-ass shit?

These beliefs extend at least 30,000 years to Cro Magnon man, whose cave paintings are interpreted as expressions of spiritual beliefs. But the religions that still resonate with people were all originally forged during the period called “the Axial Age“–between 800 and 200 BCE. At the same time, secular philosophy and tragic drama emerged in ancient Greece. This period is called “the axial age” because these traditions still extend into our own age, including among the secularists who are the inheritors of Greek tradition.

What they have in common is a preoccupation with the issue of mattering.

Some lives achieve mattering and others don’t. Perhaps there’s something a person can do that will make the difference when it comes to his or her mattering. The question is, what is the human life that matters?

The belief that you might mess up and have a life that doesn’t matter, that you might as well have not even had, erupted during the Axial Age.

4:38: Why did this preoccupation emerge in this age? One possibility is that it was spurred by the emergence of cities, and the greater anonymity and choices that they provided. Markets and money, which provide an impersonal measure of wealth, could also have provoked this development.

The ancient Greeks had religious rituals to ward off evil, but when it came to the issue of what makes a human life matter, the Greeks did not really use religion. They used human terms. This is what allowed philosophy to develop in ancient Greece.

The belief is that life must be extraordinary in order to matter; ordinary lives are not worth living. It’s not immortal attention you need to attract, but that of other mortals.

In The Apology, Plato has Socrates compare himself to Achilles, who chose a short extraordinary life over a long ordinary life. Of course, Socrates was already 70 years old…so it was too late to have a short extraordinary life. But still, this shows that Socrates/Plato bought into this general Greek idea of the “ethos of the extraordinary.”

4:45: On the other side of the Mediterranean, the Hebrews were grappling with the same issue. They approached the problem of mattering in divine terms, not human terms.

But only one of these approaches has been self-correcting, and that is secular moral reason, initiated by the Greeks.

Back to microaggressions. What do they do? They undermine a person’s sense that they matter. And they’re even worse when they come from someone who matters to you, who can’t be dismissed as the ranting bigots and slobbering misogynists.

4:50: Without sensitivity to the will to matter and how it gave rise to religion in the first place, we fail to understand the secular ethical progress to which we are the heirs, and upon which we wage an assault, macro or micro, every time we undermine a person’s sense that he or she matters.

4:54: Audience question: What about the tendency to matter by notoriety rather than popularity? When people like negative attention, is that because they feel like mattering by something positive isn’t an option?

Goldstein: The various ways that people want to matter are interesting. The Greeks had a concept of celebrity too (having poets fawn over you). Maybe when you’re a secularist and you think that this life is all you have, the attention of many people becomes all the more important. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to lead to a satisfactory life, though, and that’s an empirical question. That’s something for the psychologists to figure out.

4:56: Audience question: How do you justify the claim that we secularists are the heirs to the Greeks when there’s such a strong aversion to philosophy and the liberal arts in the atheist movement?

Goldstein: I think there should be a correction to that. A lot of times when we make points in the atheist movement, we’re relying on philosophy whether we know it or not. The idea that science is the best way of knowing is an epistemological claim. People are always wondering into philosophy without realizing it, and I think philosophers should be given some credit.

4:58: Audience question: Can you comment on traditional gender roles in terms of mattering?

Goldstein: One can become convinced of these things because they’re so rigidly imposed. They’re often just handed down to us–men/women, slaves/owners, adults/children. The empirical question is, do they work? Do they make people feel as though they really matter? Is it conducive to the greatest good of the greatest number of people? But throughout history, these roles break down. The suggestion is that they don’t work. It took so long to realize that slavery is wrong, that racism is wrong, that sexism is wrong, but after that you never go back. People never start owning slaves again. They never become racist again. It’s progress. It’s just as much progress as scientific progress, and the two are linked together.

5:01: Audience question: Can you bring your ideas on mattering and your ability to develop complex characters to understand the psychology of the reviled misogynist?

Goldstein: I feel like I do understand reviled misogynist. I’ve had quite a few in my books. I’ve never created a character that I don’t in some sense sympathize with, understand what’s motivating them. I think the explanations for misogyny are fairly well-understood. How wonderful it must be to be born and think that everything is coming to you, and that even if you don’t matter very much, you can be sure that there are people who matter less than you. That’s why, again, social justice is the answer to all of these questions. One has to make all people feel like they matter and don’t need to put down some group to feel like they matter.

~~~

Previous talks:

Intro

Faith-based Pseudoscience (Panel)

How Feminism Makes Us Better Skeptics (Amanda Marcotte)

[blogathon] Top Ten Reasons I Can’t Wait for Women in Secularism 2

The WiS2 conference logo.

This is the second post in my SSA blogathon! Don’t forget to donate! This post comes from a reader’s request.

In less than two weeks, I’ll be off to Washington, DC for the second Women in Secularism conference, to which I get to go primarily thanks to the generosity of an FtB reader who gave out a bunch of grants. Yay!

Check out WiS2′s awesome schedule here.

Here’s why I’m really excited:

10. Cards Against Humanity. It’s not a secular con without it. It’s always the first thing to go into my duffel bag.

9. Washington, DC. I rarely have occasion to travel there, but it’s a beautiful city. Last time I was there it was December, which was slightly unpleasant, but this time it won’t be. Maybe I’ll have a bit of time to just walk around and explore, too.

8. Using my new business cards! I didn’t really give them out at Skeptech because I basically knew everyone there. But I’ll probably find a use for them at WiS2. Check them out, I designed them myself!

7. Seeing Susan Jacoby speak. I laughed out loud numerous times while reading her book The Age of American Unreason recently, and that rarely happens while reading nonfiction. I disagreed with her on some things, primarily relating to technology, but for the most part reading the book made me want to shout “fuck yes” periodically. She’ll be speaking about the history of women in secularism and I’m sure it’ll be similarly awesome.

6. Getting out of Evanston for three days. Every time I do this, I feel refreshed and destressed. There are great things about living at a university campus, and there are not great things about it. I look forward to sleeping in a comfortable bed and without drunk students yelling beneath my window (and now that I’ve said that won’t happen, just watch it happen anyway :P).

5. Friends!  I’ll get to meet a bunch of lovely people with whom I correspond online but have never actually seen in person–Tetyana of Science of Eating Disorders, Ania and Alexander of Scribbles and Rants, and Melody of CFI-DC (who just might be involved in this conference somehow…). I’ll also get to see people I’ve already met: Kate and Andrew, obviously, Sarah Moglia, and tons of other people I’m probably forgetting.

4. Getting to see Stephanie, Greta, Rebecca, and Amanda speak–again. While seeing and meeting new speakers is always exciting, seeing the ones that I already know will be awesome is arguably even better.

3. Blogging! Lots of blogging! I’ll be doing it. I might even liveblog if I can get good enough wifi access. Taking notes/writing about talks is not only helpful for those who end up reading it; it also helps me better remember what I’ve learned, which is often a problem for me since I’m not an auditory learner at all. So sharpening my liveblogging skills will be great.

2. I know I already mentioned Amanda Marcotte, but her talk seems so cool that it warrants its own list item. It’s called “How Feminism Makes Better Skeptics: The Role Rationality Plays in Ending Sexism.” I think this is extremely important because there are so many people who still believe that feminism and skepticism are incompatible. There are also many feminists who take a very anti-skeptical stance to both feminism and other issues, which is why you sometimes see extreme science denialism and adherence to pseudo-religious dogma in the feminist movement. So I’m very curious to see what Amanda has to say about feminism and rationality.

1. Spending a weekend with a bunch of fantastic secular activists. Although I always enjoy the actual talks and panels at conferences, the best part by far is the feeling of being around so many people with whom I can fit in. There’s no other feeling quite like that.

If you’re going to WiS2, let me know and come say hi! :D

~~~

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