Atheism is a social justice issue – contraception edition

This is part of a series of articles intended to illustrate the usefulness of treating atheism as a social justice issue, rather than trying to wall atheist discourse off from social justice discussions. Read the introductory post here.

As I intimated in the panel discussion of masculinity we had last weekend, the fight over women’s access to contraception was a particularly illustrative example of the existence of gender oppression at the expense of women. No moment was more visually perfect than what occurred in a panel about the right of religious organizations to deny insurance coverage of contraception to their employees. This image is forever burned into the feminist discourse:

Five men sit on a Congressional panel about contraception

“The uter-what? That’s where the irrational emotions and original sin come from, right?”

But that image, hilarious though it may be, typifies a reality for women in America that is anything but funny:

While a few rational courts have recognized that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (the federal law the companies are using to challenge the benefit) “is not a means to force one’s religious practices upon others” — duh — eleven companies so far have received temporary relief so that they can breathe easy and keep imposing their religious beliefs on their employees as they pursue their claims in court. No rest for the weary (bigots), as they say.

A few choice quotes from the article, describing the statements of the companies, justifying why they should not have to provide their employees with medically-necessary health care coverage:

A Pennsylvania-based wood cabinet and specialty products manufacturer run by Mennonites who think some birth-control products such as Plan B are “sinful and immoral” and “an intrinsic evil and a sin against God.”

The Kortes “are adherents of the Catholic faith” and “wish to conduct business in a manner that does not violate their religious faith,” according to the suit.

The founders say they embrace the belief embedded in Triune’s mission statement that each individual be “treated with the human dignity and respect that God intended” and that the contraceptive mandate imposes a “gravely oppressive burden” on their religious beliefs.

Yet, the men argued that they are devout Catholics who are “steadfastly committed to biblical principles and the teachings of the Catholic Church, including the belief that life involves the creative action of God, and is therefore sacred. Lind and Janas therefore believe that any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation is an evil forbidden by God.”

The atheist critique of this stance is clear: employers do not have the right to impose their religious beliefs on their employees. The right to freedom of conscience means that you are free to believe as you like, and cannot be punished by government for expressing an opinion or holding a belief. It does not, however, license you to require others to respect or abide by your belief, no matter how deeply held that belief may be. By requiring employees to comply with the beliefs of their employers, those employers are actually violating the ‘freedom of religion’ of their employees – those employees may or may not choose to purchase whatever they like with their insurance, and it is not the employer’s place to throttle access or otherwise involve themselves in health care decisions.

The feminist critique of these statements is equally clear: women are people with full bodily autonomy and should be allowed to make their own health care decisions. Employers (most of whom mentioned are male, probably for reasons that could be the subject of a whole other feminist critique) should not be empowered to make reproductive choices for their employees, as it violates the principle of autonomy. Deciding that access to contraception is justified, but that access to other things that might violate “deeply held religious beliefs” – any judge would strike down a mandate saying that employees weren’t allowed to buy meat on Fridays with their salary – are likely grounded in misogynistic and paternalistic attitudes about the role and ‘purpose’ of women.

Both of these critiques are valid. Neither critique is sufficient.

Christianity, like other Abrahamic religions*, is patriarchal. It places an explicitly male god at the pinnacle of creation. It creates a hierarchy that places men above women in terms of who is ‘meant to’ lead and have authority. It holds up reproduction as synonymous with femininity. It ascribes rigid gender roles. And above all, it lends the weight of the almighty to its claims, making a failure or refusal to comply with its rigidly- and narrowly-cast strictures a “sin” – a rejection of all that is good and moral and right in the world.

The ‘mere’ atheist can see that these pronouncements are based on facts not in evidence – there is no god, so while a prohibition of contraception might be justifiable on some grounds, religion is not one of them. Conversely, the ‘mere’ feminist can see that the pronouncements of Christianity are run through with misogyny, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s anything really wrong with the religion. The feminist atheist, however, recognizes that both of these positions are so illogical as to be absurd: the presence of misogyny in Christianity acts as a ‘fossil record’ that shows the manufacturer’s signature – humankind.

The feminist atheist position requires appreciation for both axes – you have to be aware of and understand the mechanics of misogyny to recognize Christianity as misogynistic. You have to be aware of and understand the fallacious claims of religion and be versed in counterapologetics to recognize the falsity of any moral claim grounded in a supreme being. Religion and sexism are not separate and independently-acting forces in this example – they work together. To be able to critique only one or the other is to fail to be able to propose workable solutions.

So to suggest that atheism and feminism are things that must be kept separate, or even ought to be kept separate, is to insist that the atheist community refuse to equip itself to respond meaningfully to situations like this. It is to intentionally blind ourselves to relevant details in criticisms of religious oppression of women. It is to require, for no justifiable reason, that atheists be completely useless to propose meaningful and useful solutions to problems, and thus be rendered irrelevant by our own belligerent insistence.

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*Which isn’t to let the non-Abrahamic religions off the hook by any means


  1. Suido says

    I think your first critique would be better called a secular critique than an atheist critique. The critique is based on the idea that government and religion should be separate, so while an atheist would arrive at it from the premise that religion is false, a theist could arrive at it from an appreciation for the benefits of a secular government. Hence, it’s not necessarily an ‘atheist’ critique.

    The ‘mere’ atheist can see that these pronouncements are based on facts not in evidence – there is no god, so while a prohibition of contraception might be justifiable on some grounds, religion is not one of them.

    That’s the atheist critique in its most ‘mere’ form. That’s what should have been in the earlier paragraph, to prevent muddying the waters between atheism and secularism.

    Oh, and for any dictionary atheists reading, this doesn’t in any way invalidate the main point of the blog post. Stop being so damn pedantic and I’ll try to as well. Pot, kettle of colour, etc.

  2. mythbri says

    If employers who belonged to Jehovah’s Witnesses were using the same tactics to prevent their employees from having access to blood transfusions, we would not even be having this conversation. Because the larger population, religious or not, can see the folly in outlawing effective and life-saving medical treatment for ridiculous religious reasons. But when it’s applied to women’s health issues, of course, all of a sudden those issues have nuance.

    Taking control of fertility out of the hands of individual women and women as a whole is a remarkably effective tool in keeping them from attaining status. Denying people rights has the happy result of preventing people from exercising those rights, which keeps power safely in the hands of the few.

  3. iainmartel says

    This is tangential to your main point, but my understanding was that in the US, employers can impose religious requirements on their employees, including such invasive and religiously-based provisions as banning them from purchasing meat on Fridays with their salary. An employer can fire an employee for having an abortion, or even for using contraceptives. Only government is barred from such discriminatory behaviour. The constitutional question is whether the government is allowed to override these rights of employers in pursuit of some other legitimate governmental aim. (Canada, as usual, is more enlightened.)

    In the Obamacare/contraception case, I’d say the underlying systemic problem has to do with neither religion nor feminism. Rather it is a result of government trying to force employers to implement social policy that government itself should be implementing – i.e., government should be providing adequate healthcare to its citizens itself, not requiring that employers do so.

  4. says

    Sure, there’s a legal argument about the Constitution to be had as well, but my attempt was to illustrate how someone might frame the issue as an atheist (I reject Suido’s distinction between ‘atheist’ and ‘secular’ as being only semantic in this context) vs. as a feminist, and noting that neither critique sufficiently captures the issue. There is a legal layer to be added on to the specifics of this actual case, to be sure, but I am thinking a bit more ‘zoomed out’.

    It’s definitely a religious issue though. Nobody besides you is saying otherwise. Maybe you didn’t mean to say that the issue has zero religious content at its root, but that’s how your sentences parses.

    I would be shocked to learn that an employer could legally fire an employee for eating meat on Fridays. The USA is theocratic, but I can’t imagine it’s that theocratic.

  5. Pteryxx says

    Crommunist: in “right-to-work” states, employees can be fired for any reason, at the employer’s discretion. Then it’s up to the now-jobless employee to take the employer to court and prove that discrimination of a recognized type was the cause. So even if it’s illegal to discriminate against you, the employer just has to work up some plausible complaints and then attribute the firing to incompetence instead – which is really easy in a racist, sexist, trans- and homophobic society. See Cerberus’s current situation over on Pharyngula.

  6. says

    Pteryxx – holy hell. I hope that’s not how it works here. Does anyone know?

    By way of follow-up: it appears that the recourse for fired workers is to go to the provincial government’s department of labour, which has a procedure. There are also human rights commissions that deal with workplace discrimination. Every job I’ve ever worked (which, admittedly, isn’t a huge number) provided training during which employees were apprised (either verbally, in writing, or in most cases both) of what their rights were. I have never known anyone to be fired for failing to adhere to an employer’s religious dictates, although there WAS a case where a kiosk owner had a claim filed against him for insisting that the kiosk display a religious symbol, although I can’t find the story for the life of me now.

    Does the USA have something like the Human Rights Act (1985)? Pay particular attention to section 12 in this case.

  7. says

    @6: It might be in Ontario if Tim Hudak gets his way.

    My understanding is that the Human Rights Commissions/Tribunals system was set up to prevent: to provide a low-threshold entry to a means of legal redress in cases of discrimination. (Whether HRCs should also be handling hate speech issues is a separate question — I tend to think “No”).

  8. iainmartel says

    Sorry, should have checked my facts before posting that comment. There are, in fact, general non-discrimination provisions that apply to most employers – and which would rule out religiously-based discrimination. But those don’t always apply to religious institutions or non-profits – which is where the contraception debate centres. Religious colleges in the US frequently have extremely restrictive codes of conduct, that all employees and students are required to live by. (When applying for academic jobs, you quickly learn which colleges to avoid.) This includes bans on extra-marital sex, abortion, etc. And this is all perfectly legal, because they can claim it is central to their purpose as a religious institution. So I do believe a religious institution could legally fire someone for eating meat on Fridays, if it were a part of their code of conduct.

    I’m certainly not saying this is not a religious issue (or a feminist issue) – it is clearly both. My point was that, in this case, there is another dimension that is neither religious nor feminist, and which is the underlying cause of the problem. Governments shouldn’t be in the position of telling employers that they have to pay for a woman’s contraception coverage, because governments should just be providing that coverage themselves. And the reasons that they aren’t, in this case, have to do with standard left/right politics – government isn’t providing medical care, in general.

    But none of this affects your main point, which I completely agree with.

  9. says

    BTW, the linked article here: so while a prohibition of contraception might be justifiable on some grounds discusses abortion, not contraception (unless it’s way down at the bottom, after I stopped skimming).

  10. says

    it’s layered though. A corporation operating in a right-to-work state (euphamism much?), could use that rule to fire someone, however corporations have their own rules trump right-to-work laws. I worked at Borders Books for a long time and their anti-discrimination policy was exceptionally good. Even if a local store manager wanted to use the right-to-work law to fire someone, the higher-ups would put a stop to it.

  11. says

    Eamon – I couldn’t find an atheist group that was opposed to contraception, but felt that there was a reasonable parallel here, saying that women’s reproductive health could and should be decided by the state for reasons that are non-supernatural.

    Iain – there’s a bit of a difference between saying that employers should have to buy contraception for their employees (which they don’t) and saying that employers who offer insurance as part of their compensation must choose a plan that includes contraceptive coverage (which is what is being legislated). You are absolutely correct that this whole fight could be easily avoided if the state simply recognized its duty to its citizens and provide health care.

  12. Pteryxx says

    A bit more about religious organizations getting around anti-discrimination laws: cases like this one, where a woman’s fired not for being pregnant per se (pregnancy being legally protected), but because as a condition of employment she had to sign a lifestyle contract prohibiting “sexually immoral behavior”. So she’s fired for contract violation, which supposedly isn’t discrimination. Using contraception could be considered sexually immoral behavior too, obviously. The first article references a firing for artificial insemination.

    (h/t Rev BDC who just posted this in the Lounge)

  13. mythbri says

    @Crommunist #11

    I couldn’t find an atheist group that was opposed to contraception, but felt that there was a reasonable parallel here, saying that women’s reproductive health could and should be decided by the state for reasons that are non-supernatural.

    If you’ve been following the ever-increasing erosion of abortion rights and access in the States, you’ll find that many of these restrictions are put in place ostensibly for “safety’, “protection” and “information”. We all know that they’re motivated by religious reasons – these politicians will come right out and say it in their campaigns and when they comment on these ridiculous laws. But the religious part cannot be written into the law.

    Those kinds of restrictions, though they are motivated by religion in these cases, could just as easily be enacted by secularists who happen to place an equal or greater value on a fetus than they do a woman or female-bodied person.

    So while the intersection of atheism and feminism here is clear, atheism must give way to feminism in the case of respected and absolute bodily autonomy.

  14. says

    atheism must give way to feminism in the case of respected and absolute bodily autonomy.

    Atheism has nothing to say about bodily autonomy though. One could (theoretically) be an atheist and believe that the state has the right to plug you into a semi-liquid goo and generate power like in The Matrix without having any internal inconsistency. “There are no gods and therefore women should/shouldn’t have bodily autonomy” is a non-sequitur argument. Saying that atheism would have to yield to feminism in this case, while true, is like saying that doctors should leave the job of arresting criminals to the police – nobody would (or could) make the counter-argument.

  15. mythbri says


    I disagree that atheism has nothing to say about bodily autonomy. There are plenty of scriptural examples of God or Gods doing what they see fit with human bodies.

    In Mormon doctrine, it is explicitly stated that our bodies don’t really belong to us. They’re gifts (not really) from God, which we surrender to him upon our deaths but he will restore after the Second Coming. That’s why the Mormon Church is traditionally iffy about cremation and burials at sea – because how could God bring those bodies back? (Yes, I know. Apparently an omnipotent being can handle land-based corpses but not burned or submerged ones.)

    Thus, as an atheist who was formerly Mormon, I realize that my body belongs to no one but myself. I don’t have to cover it up in order to be “modest” if I don’t want to. I don’t have to wait until I marry someone to have sex. I don’t have to bear children if I don’t want to.

    I think you underestimate the level of control that religion asserts over human bodies – especially female ones.

  16. says

    Okay, I see what you’re saying. Atheism as a critique of religion would be able to say “the gods do not own your body”, but cannot necessarily make the affirmative case that women control theirs. Yes, I’m in 100% agreement with that.

  17. mythbri says


    Atheism as a critique of religion would be able to say “the gods do not own your body”, but cannot necessarily make the affirmative case that women control theirs.

    It would be much easier if I could just hire you to say my things for me, because you do it so much better. 😉

  18. John Horstman says

    FYI, there are many branches of Jewish scholarship that construct Yahweh as genderless, not explicitly male. They still generally construct rigidly patriarchal social structures, though oddly (for patriarchies – that said, given the inability to determine paternity before genetic testing, matrilineal identifications make a lot of sense) with matrilineal ethno-religious heritage.

  19. John Horstman says

    @8: The current ‘debate’ and lawsuits are not coming from religious institutions, however, as they were exempted from the requirement. They are coming from religious capitalists (business owners) operating businesses that have nothing to do with religious practice.

  20. says

    It would be much easier if I could just hire you to say my things for me

    There is literally no more flattering thing you could have said there.

  21. km says

    I grew up in a Mennonite-run town in southern Ontario. All the major businesses are run by Mennonites, and if you want to get elected to local political office, you’d better have a Mennonite name. For a long time, they ran things as they saw fit.

    But in the last decade, there’s been a glimmer of hope. A gay cousin of mine was fired for being gay (the official Mennonite policy on homosexuality is that you’re allowed to hang out, but you can’t have a relationship– She sued, and was awarded a nice settlement.

    But there’s still a lot of businesses who think they can run their employee’s lives. There’s a reason I got the hell outta Dodge when I still had the chance.

  22. sambarge says


    In Mormon doctrine, it is explicitly stated that our bodies don’t really belong to us. They’re gifts (not really) from God, which we surrender to him upon our deaths but he will restore after the Second Coming.

    I attended my uncle’s funeral recently and heard a Catholic priest make the same argument. It was curious because you don’t usually hear a sermon about abortion at an 80 yr old man’s funeral and I’d never heard that from a priest before. I went to a Catholic school and I remember a lot about why they thought abortion was wrong but I don’t remember hearing anyone say our bodies belonged to God and were on loan ergo you have to have all the babies God puts in you.

    Is the Catholic Church borrowing from the Mormons now?!

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