Nontheism and Feminism: Why the Disconnect?

Ophelia Benson

You would think that nontheism and feminism should be a natural combination. Women have the most to gain from escaping religion, after all: monotheism gives men higher status, starting with their allegedly being made in the image of God.

But atheism hasn’t always been very welcoming to women. Maybe there’s an idea that men created God, so men should do the uncreating.

Mostly though, it’s just a matter of stereotypes, the boring, stubborn, wrong stereotypes and implicit associations that feminism has been battling since,well, forever. The social psychologist Cordelia Fine sums them up in Delusions of Gender: “Measures of implicit associations reveal that men, more than women, are implicitly associated with science, math, career, hierarchy, and high authority. In contrast, women, more than men, are implicitly associated with the liberal arts, family and domesticity, egalitarianism, and low authority.”

The main stereotype in play, let’s face it, is that women are too stupid to do nontheism. Unbelieving in God is thinky work, and women don’t do thinky,because “that’s a guy thing.”

Don’t laugh: Michael Shermer said exactly that during a panel discussion on the online talk-show The Point. The host, Cara Santa Maria, presented a question: Why isn’t the gender split in atheism closer to 50-50? Shermer explained, “It’s who wants to stand up and talk about it, go on shows about it, goto conferences and speak about it, who’s intellectually active about it; you know, it’s more of a guy thing.”

It’s all there—women don’t do thinky, they don’t speak up, they don’t talk at conferences, they don’t get involved—it’s “a guy thing,” like football and porn and washing the car.

It’s incredibly discouraging, that kind of thing. I thought (naïvely) that stereotypes of women as stupid and passive and bashful had been exposed as,precisely, sexist stereotypes decades ago, at least among intellectual and political and progressive types. I thought everybody knew they were not just wrong but also retrograde. Would Shermer have said that if the question had been about race instead of gender? Would he have said “it’s more of a white thing”? It seems very unlikely.

Sally Haslanger, a philosopher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote about this stubborn problem in a 2008 essay, “Changing the Ideology andCulture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone).”

Why there aren’t more women of my cohort in philosophy? Because there were very few of us and there was a lot of outright discrimination. . . . In graduate school I was told by one of my teachers that he had “never seen a first rate woman philosopher and never expected to because women were incapable of having seminal ideas.” I was the butt of jokes when I received a distinction on my prelims, since it seemed funny to everyone to suggest I should get a blood test to determine if I was really a woman. In a seminar in philosophical logic, I was asked to give a presentation on a historical figure when none of the other(male) students were, later to learn that this was because the professor assumed I’d be writing a thesis on the history of philosophy.

If the stereotypes are that powerful, it’s not surprising that women get shoved to the side. Active, outspoken, pugnacious atheism is after all a rebellion against God, and rebellion too is seen as “a guy thing.” Prometheus, Lucifer, Huck Finn with his “all right then, I’ll go to hell”—all guys. Men do the rebelling; women make them lunch.

This is, as I said, massively discouraging. One begins to think that real progress in dispelling stupid limiting constraining myths about women is impossible.

One way of dealing with this brick wall of frustration is to give up on the dispelling and just flip the terms. Sure, that’s what women are like, but that’s a good thing. Enter difference feminism, in which it’s true that women are more caring and intuitive and empathetic than men and we all like it that way. Poor sad guys, off in their man caves and labs and offices fiddling with cold unfeeling numbers and measurements and photographs from Mars. Lucky relational women with their feelings and gossip and Real Housewives of New Jersey.

The trouble with that is, it just takes us right back to the Victorian Angel in the Parlor. What were we talking about? Oh yes, the rebellion against God.You don’t want the Angel in the Parlor for a rebellion against God. Angel qualities are the wrong qualities. You want people who are disputatious,stubborn, restless. You want people who get all up in God’s face asking questions and refusing to sit down and be quiet. You want people who leave the parlor and go out looking for trouble.

None of that is a guy thing, any more than science, logic, and reason are guy things. One of the less helpful claims of post modernism was that there can be different, identity-based “ways of knowing” and that science and reason are Western, white, Eurocentric, male institutions. This is often summed up withAudre Lord’s aphorism—“the Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house”—a fact that perhaps demonstrates the result of eschewing logic. Why on earth would the Master’s tools not dismantle his house? If he goes to town or gets drunk and falls asleep in the corn crib, his tools will work very nicely. But in any case, feminists need to resist any rhetorical move to hand those tools over to the Master, that is, to claim that logic and reason and argument belong to men, and women should claim what’s left over.

No. It’s the devil’s work; put it behind you. Women can do thinking and arguing; women don’t have a corner on the stupidity market; women aren’t too fragile to speak in public.

And women very much have a dog in the fight. Women need to declare independence from God even more than men do. “God” has been putting a veneer of respectability on all these dopey stereotypes for millennia, so we have every reason to rebel against “him.”

Ophelia Benson is the editor of the website Butterflies and Wheels and the coauthor (with Jeremy Stangroom) of Does God Hate Women? (Continuum, 2009), TheDictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir, 2004), and Why Truth Matters (Continuum, 2006).

Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

You would think that nontheism and feminism should be a natural combination. Women have the most to gain from escaping religion, after all: monotheism gives men higher status, starting with their allegedly being made in the image of God. But atheism hasn’t always been very welcoming to women. Maybe there’s an idea that men created …

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