Good enough to be an acolyte

Melissa McEwan at Shakesville has her experience of being both an atheist and a woman.

The religious community in which I’d been raised did not allow female ministers, did not allow female presidents of the congregation, did not allow female elders, and did not, for most of my childhood, even allow female lectors to read the selected Bible readings during the service each week.  Women were for teaching children—and for cleaning: Communionware, the kitchen, maybe a vestment.

I started asking questions about this disparity at age 7, possibly earlier.  I got the usual bullshit answers that are used to justify these things.  I was good enough to be an acolyte (especially since there were precious few teenage boys willing to do it) and scrub the toilets—both of which I did countless times—but not good enough to be ordained.  I was less than.

Further, my objections to being told, on the one hand, that we are all equal in the eyes of god, and, on the other, that my gender nonetheless rendered me incapable of serving god in every capacity available to men, were greeted with contempt—and sometimes outright hostility.  One minister told my mother that I needed to stop asking questions.  Another told me I was “divisive,” at an age that required my looking up “divisive” in the dictionary when I got home from church to understand his meaning.

She disliked all that, a lot, and she got out of it before she got out of theism.

Then she found movement atheism – and found the same inequality all over again.

There were precious few visible atheist leaders: The most prominent male atheists were very enamored with one another, and not particularly inclined to offer the same support to women, via recommended links and highlighted quotes and inclusion in digital salons about Important Ideas.  They wondered aloud where all the female atheists are, and women would pipe up—”Here! Here we are! We’re right here!”—only to then go back to the status quo, with explicit or implicit messaging that women just weren’t working as hard as they are, just aren’t as smart as they are, or else they’d be leaders, too.

That’s a very good point. I’d noticed the phenomenon, but hadn’t quite managed to see it in those terms. You know what it reminds me of? I’ll tell you. It reminds me of the all-male mutual admiration society that was the group consisting of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie and Christopher Hitchens. They were very enamored with one another, and not particularly inclined to offer the same support to women.

That business of wondering where all the female atheists are, and women saying right here, god damn it, and being ignored – that’s one reason I found the Cara Santa Maria-Michael Shermer exchange so irritating: the gabbling about “why so few” when we’re not so few and at this stage of the game both of them should know perfectly well that we’re not so few. And then from “why so few” it’s such an easy hop to “it’s more of a guy thing” – i.e. we’re just not working as hard as they are, we’re just not as smart as they are, or we’d be on that panel too.

There was the exclusion from conferences, the sexist posts, the sexual harassment, the appropriation of religious and irreligious women’s lived experiences to Score Points and the obdurate not listening to those women when they protested.

In fact, female atheists’ protests were greeted much the same way with which my protests had been met in my patriarchal church.  Silencing.  Demeaning.  Threats.

All of this felt terribly familiar.  A bunch of straight, white, male gatekeepers pretending there’s no gate.

And it’s still going on, while we’re still pushing back, and on and on and on.

Comments

  1. theoreticalgrrrl says

    As an ex-Christian, I experienced the same disillusionment. When I first heard prominent atheists attacking religious sexism, I assumed it was because they believed sexism was, like, a bad thing. It was so refreshing to see sexism being criticized. I thought I had finally found a movement that treated women like we were actually equal human beings. Boy was I wrong. It was just the typical and disgusting “appropriation of religious and irreligious women’s lived experiences to Score Points.” Not just to score points, but to use to bash over the heads of atheist women to get us to shut up about the sexism we experience.

    “In fact, female atheists’ protests were greeted much the same way with which my protests had been met in my patriarchal church. Silencing. Demeaning. Threats.”

    If it’s not religiously motivated, silencing, threatening and demeaning women makes you a brave hero and champion of free of speech (for men that is, apparently women are not allowed the same free speech rights).

  2. Ulysses says

    Melissa makes an excellent point with her concluding paragraph:

    I would say I felt exactly as welcome in movement atheism as I did at my Missouri Synod Lutheran Church, but that would be a lie. No one at St. Peter’s ever called me a stupid cunt because I disagreed with them.

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