Free Expression and Women’s Rights

Ronald A. Lindsay

This issue of Free Inquiry highlights two very important concerns: namely, the need to ensure that people throughout the world can freely express their views about religion and the need to promote women’s rights and end sexism, both outside of and within the secular movement. Some might think these concerns are unconnected. They would be mistaken.

There is no mystery about the primary motivation for blasphemy laws. Blasphemy laws are a means (an effective means, if they are enforced) of immunizing religion from criticism. The recent push by various Islamic countries to have the United Nations enact an international law prohibiting attacks on religion makes this clear. As Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi put it, “Egypt respects freedom of expression” but not a “freedom of expression that targets a specific religion.”

Protecting religion from criticism also serves to preserve those policies, customs, and beliefs that are derived from religious dogma. This is one reason that there is a close connection between the suppression of criticism of religion and the suppression of women.

Religion has played a critical role in the subordination of women. As Susan Jacoby emphasizes in her vigorously argued essay in this issue, there has always been “a huge conflict between women’s rights and traditional religion.” The three Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have historically treated women as inferior beings or worse, and their doctrines have provided rationalizations for onerous legal and societal restrictions on women. Admittedly, in the last century or so, “liberal” religious denominations began to acknowledge grudgingly the full humanity of women, but this was only under pressure from secular forces. Few arguments in favor of political, social, and economic equality for women have been premised on scripture.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that those regions of the world where secular forces have not been very strong—for example, the Islamic nations—are also precisely the regions where restrictions on women remain stringent. And the more steeped in religious dogma a country is, the worse the conditions for women are. I do not think I would want to be a woman in Morocco, but I would rather be a woman in Morocco than one in Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Given the close connection between religion and suppression of women, it is no wonder that humanists and atheists have often been energetic advocates for women’s rights. Once we discard religious dogma, there is little remaining ground on which to base an argument for the inferiority of women. True, various pseudoscientific claims have been advanced regarding alleged deficiencies of women, but most, although certainly not all, religious skeptics have been skeptical of these claims as well.

Accordingly, secular organizations, especially humanist organizations such as the American Humanist Association (AHA) and the Council for SecularHumanism/Center for Inquiry, have usually incorporated advocacy for women’s rights into their missions; they have acted on these commitments, whether by pushing for enactment of the Equal Rights Amendment, equal pay for women, or the right of women to control their own bodies and reproductive process.Indeed, the AHA supported the legalization of abortion as long ago as the 1950s. Furthermore, humanist organizations have opposed, to the full extent of their capabilities, the dreadful treatment of women in countries where oppressive religious doctrines still hold sway. Advocacy for women’s rights has not been, and should not be, considered something foreign to the work of humanist organizations.

But although the battle for the right to criticize religion does have a direct and close connection to advocacy of women’s rights, they are distinct issues. The distinction between the two becomes clear when we turn our attention to sexism within the secular movement. Some might argue, half in jest,that a few secular leaders have acquired cult status and any criticism of them is viewed as insufficiently deferential, but the reality is that restriction of “blasphemous” speech within the movement does not exist, nor is there an effort to create such restrictions. In contrast, one can plausibly maintain that sexism exists within the secular movement.

The extent of this sexism, and what steps should be taken to eliminate it or blunt its effects, has, within the past year or so, been the subject of much discussion, especially in the blogosphere. Much heated discussion. And the heated exchange of views is not limited to male-female quarreling. Women with different understandings of the implications of feminism have traded verbal blows, with charges of “feminazi” being answered by accusations of“sister-punisher.”

Some have expressed concerns about this internal debate, in particular its tone, which has at times been vicious and vile. It’s no exaggeration to say that some of the discussion has revealed a misogynistic underbelly among those who call themselves atheists. But I see no reason to think that the misogynists represent more than a very small number of those who are active in the secular movement. Yes, they are there, but they have little to no influence indirecting the actions of secular organizations. And at the end of the day, should we be that surprised that there are hard-core women-haters among atheists? As the number of nonbelievers increases, the atheist population is bound to reflect some of the prejudices found in society at large.

I am more concerned that, in the worst-case scenario, the discussion may lead to a fracturing of the movement over matters that, while important, should not result in deep or permanent division among humanists and other secularists. For example, excepting the misogynist fringe to which I have alluded,there’s no dispute that sexual harassment is a serious matter and that secular organizations should do what they can to prevent it. Moreover, my sense is that in many instances, there is wide agreement over what constitutes harassment. Given that, should we invest substantial time in analyzing the precise conditions under which an invitation to a drink can constitute unwelcome or harassing conduct? I suggest that lack of unanimity on how best to combat sexism in all cases doesn’t imply that we can’t work together in the vast majority of cases.

Of course, to combat sexism effectively, we do have to listen to what women have to say. For men—even well-intentioned men—to try to figure out on their own how best to combat sexism is like a surgeon removing his or her own tumor. Not usually a good idea. This is one reason (not the only reason) that theCenter for Inquiry (CFI) was pleased to sponsor the “Women in Secularism” conference in May 2012. And it’s one reason we are pleased to hold a second such conference in May 2013.

Not everyone has been pleased by these conferences. Some have criticized CFI for holding them because they have “stirred up trouble.” I prefer to regard them as stirring up discussion and providing women with a better opportunity to have their voices heard. If we do not listen to what women have to say and encourage their full participation in our movement, we’re cutting ourselves off from half of humanity, which doesn’t seem like a very prudent course of action for a movement that purports to be working on behalf of all of us.

This brings me full circle. I started this editorial by pointing out how the struggle for the freedom to criticize religion connects and coincides with the struggle for women’s rights. I then pointed out a significant difference between these two concerns. I’ll end by tying them togethe
r again. Silence is always and everywhere the enemy of truth and progress. Whether that silence comes about through legal bans, the weight of custom, intimidation, benign neglect, or indifference doesn’t change the result. To overcome religious dogma, we need to be able to speak about it openly and candidly; to overcome sexism, we need to be able to speak about it openly and candidly. Free expression is the only path forward, the only way for all of us to realize our potential as humans. May the words continue to flow.


Ronald A. Lindsay is the president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry.

Ronald A. Lindsay

Ronald A. Lindsay is the former president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. Currently, he is senior research fellow for CFI and adjunct professor of philosophy at Prince George’s Community College.


This issue of Free Inquiry highlights two very important concerns: namely, the need to ensure that people throughout the world can freely express their views about religion and the need to promote women’s rights and end sexism, both outside of and within the secular movement. Some might think these concerns are unconnected. They would be …

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