The Atlantic’s Emma Green has an interview with Washington University in St. Louis professor Leigh Eric Schmidt about his book, Village Atheists. Unlike similar efforts, Schmidt doesn’t shy away from the white straight male problem of atheism, which has been present for always. This is in no way a modern problem, although I’d venture to say it’s gotten worse, in terms of virulence and open bigotry. And yes, of course strides have certainly been made when it comes to atheist women, but unfortunately, many of the obstacles remain stubbornly in place, held firmly down by white male atheists. The whole interview is very good, and I highly recommend clicking over to read it in its entirety. This post, I want to focus on women.
“Male atheists are bad. Women atheists are genuinely considered monsters.”
Green: Why has the movement traditionally been so masculine?
Schmidt: In the 19th century, there are more women in the church than men. So there is an association with churches and pious femininity and domesticity. Freethinkers see women as supporters of the church, and supporters of evangelical Protestant politics, whether it’s temperance or other moral-reform causes, so there’s an alienation that arises there. They’re fearful that if women have the right to vote, they’ll vote for Christian-inflected politics. They’re afraid: What’s this going to do? Is this really going to advance the cause of reason, the cause of science, if we give women the right to vote?
Green: You talk about the perceived oddness of “woman atheists.” How have the experiences of women who are atheists differed from those of men historically?
Schmidt: Because there was such an ideal of pious femininity—women are supposed to be pious, women are supposed to go to church—there was greater horror associated with a woman being an atheist than with a man being an atheist. Male atheists are bad. Women atheists are genuinely considered monsters.
So that puts a lot of pressure on somebody like Elmina Drake Slenker or other women atheists to say, “Being an atheist does not deprive me of these maternal ideals.” Slenker writes domestic fiction in which freethinking, atheist women are also incredible housekeepers and homemakers. She wants to make sure there is no conflict over 19th century ideals and atheism—and no man has to worry in the same way she has to worry.
She is also much more interested in rethinking the marriage relationship, birth control, and reproductive rights. That’s something a lot of the freethinkers and atheists—the men around her—want to avoid. They see the issue as too controversial; that’s not an issue they’re willing to engage.
But she’s willing to engage it. And that gets her arrested for obscenity.
Green: If someone weren’t necessarily familiar with her story, they might read that and think of a 1970s-style women’s liberation movement, dedicated to deconstructing sexuality, etc. But as you write, Slenker was actually a part of Alphaism—a movement that promoted only procreative sex in monogamous relationships.
It seems like there was a kinship between freethinker movements and some of the vice-control impulses of the Victorian era, including Alphaism, or perhaps something like the temperance movement. Why was it that outspoken, freethinking women like Slenker went in this direction with their programs of reform?
Schmidt: It tells us a lot about the incredible pressures she experiences as a woman who has come out as an atheist and someone who wants to explore issues around sexual physiology. She could be so radical on the question of God, but she has to assure everyone, “I’m really this pure woman. I’m really this virtuous, domesticated woman. I always put my family first. I’m not a libertine.” For her, it’s about an image of purity that she maintains publicly, which also comes in handy when you’re being tried for obscenity.
Not much has changed, unfortunately. Women still feel this need to reassure society at large that yes, they are still a woman, in spite of thinking for themselves, for believing they should have full rights, including that of bodily autonomy, and no, it does not make a woman evil to contemplate or have a pregnancy terminated. Nor is a woman evil for using contraception and engaging in a sex life. Women are constantly judged, on hundreds of metrics, every single day. Women are still seen as the keepers of morality, while men are seen as requiring the constant watchfulness of women, as they can’t really be counted on to be thinking, moral people.
Schmidt: There is an element of suspicion that’s so deep-seated. You see it in John Locke: You can’t trust the atheist. There’s nothing to bind them to society. There’s this chaos they represent: a sense that they can’t be held accountable, and that you can’t trust them.
This is more intense by magnitudes of order when it comes to women, and many more magnitudes if women are anywhere under the queer umbrella. We’re already considered to be highly untrustworthy – that’s part and parcel of the oldest stories, it’s the basis of major religions, and it’s part and parcel of history.* When a woman declares atheism, that untrustworthiness hits an all time high. *Recommended Reading – Misogyny, The World’s Oldest Prejudice by Jack Holland:
Full article and interview is here.