Russell Blackford (@Metamagician) made a problematic assertion on twitter (the following paragraph is from four sequential tweets):
Just to be clear. My stance as a pro-feminist man does NOT follow from the fact that I am an atheist. Even if I became a philosophical deist overnight, I would maintain the same stance. Let’s not oversellMere atheism what mere atheism entails. None of which is to deny that actual religions can be used to provide false rationales for some abhorrent views.
That’s a bit of a mess, so let’s unpack it. I find interesting because my pro-feminist stance does follow from the fact that I am an atheist; perhaps we ought to recognize that there is more than one way to be an atheist, something I’ve been saying for a long time, and apparently Blackford and I are very different kinds of atheist.
There are some peculiarities in that statement. There is also more than one way to be a feminist, so announcing that one would still be feminist if they were a “philosophical deist” is both trivial and irrelevant: irrelevant because no one denies that there are religious positions that are compatible with feminism, and trivial because Blackford selected as an alternate a philosophy that’s about as close to atheism as you can get. I think we’d have a very different answer if he had speculated about an overnight conversion to Southern Baptist, or Amish, or conservative Muslim. As he notes at the end, there are religions that would impose abhorrent views that are incompatible with feminism. So about half of his comment is empty noise that contributes nothing to his thesis.
The interesting part is this: that “mere atheism” does not entail feminism. I both agree and disagree.
The agreeable side is that if we assume he means “mere atheism” the simple position that no gods or supernatural forces exist, then it’s true that that does not directly promote feminism. We could have a hypothetical atheism that postulated other, non-divine phenomena that contradicted feminism. For instance, a libertarian atheism that rationalized virtual enslavement of half the population to serve the other half, which just happened to recognize that it was easier to maintain the existing patriarchal framework, rather than going to all the trouble of inverting it. Or we could imagine a scientific atheism on a world with extreme sexual dimorphism, where the female sex was significantly smaller brained than the male sex. Or we could postulate a solipsistic or psychopathic atheism, in which an individual atheist considered members of the complementary sex to be resources to be exploited.
Blackford says he is pro-feminist (and he lives on this planet), so presumably none of the above scenarios apply. So why would an atheist be feminist?
In my case, the absence of a god invalidates all truth claims by revelation and all the traditional authority of holy books. It creates an epistemic gap, which I suppose someone could fill with just about anything: whim, utility, emotional needs, dice-rolling, whatever. I have no idea how Blackford explains cause and reason, but I know how I do: by an acceptance of natural causes which can be examined empirically and by experiment…by science. I also concede that where I can’t apply science in evaluating human motives, I use empathy and the principle of equating another’s condition with my own.
My atheism entails using those methods to resolve ethical decisions, for instance. That’s my toolkit. My atheism has stripped me of the tools of dogma and authoritarianism (and good riddance).
So now my atheism compels me to confront the question of the status of women by evidence and empathy. And what answer do both of those give? That women are my equals. That they share all the attributes of humanity that I have; there is no deficit in the quality of the experience of being a woman vs. being a man. That I cannot make assumptions about the capabilities or desires of a person on the basis of their sex.
This same reasoning applies whether I apply it to sex, to race, to class, or religious belief. My atheism requires me to be egalitarian because the evidence of our common humanity demands it. My reliance on that evidence is not independent of my atheism, but of course people who are not atheists can also share that same appreciation of others; the difference is simply that my form of “mere atheism” which is driven by naturalism means I have no other recourse, no other way of justifying my interpretation of the world.
But then, I don’t need any other mechanism — it seems to me that science and love of my fellow human beings is more than sufficient argument to guide the entirety of my life. And those are necessary axioms that I am compelled to accept by my atheism, even if there could exist alternate axioms that would also fill the gap left by the absence of gods.
It’s just that those alternate axioms, those other atheisms, also make one a jerk.