This is a guest post written by out friend HJ Hornbeck:
In some ways, I was a feminist first: introduced to the topic in my teens, I did an assessment and was deluged by evidence of sexism around me. While I’ve never believed in any god at any moment of my life, in contrast, I didn’t think anyone else did either. I honestly didn’t believe in theists until my 20’s, when I encountered my first passionate believer. The experience rattled me, and I was soon browsing the online atheist community trying to figure out what else I’d missed.
What led me to abandon read-only mode, though, was Elevatorgate. It was obvious the atheist/skeptic community was woefully ignorant of feminist issues, so I rolled up my sleeves and hit the feminist books.
Back in those salad days, I viewed the two topics as wildly different. As kept reading and thinking, though, I started noticing connections between them. Much to my surprise, atheism has made me a better feminist, and of course vice versa.
A common insult tossed at atheists is that we’re nihilists who believe in nothing. That’s half true: nihilism does have a destructive streak, but it also asserts that the universe imposes no meaning on us, and that it is our responsibility to create it. This is commonly brought up as a reason for atheists to engage in social justice; absent any commands from above, why wouldn’t you try to make the world a better place for those around you? Absent any afterlife bliss, why wouldn’t you fight tooth and nail to improve this world for those that follow?
Atheists are people. These dictionary atheists are always quick to forget that. People have responsibilities to each other, and further, the rejection of religion and the understanding that the universe, and we human beings, lack any kind of grand purpose, shapes the pattern of those responsibilities. You simply cannot pretend that atheism is meaningless outside one philosophical abstraction.
Well, I suppose you can…but then how can you find any reason to even be an atheist?
Atheist apologetics gave me a reason to push feminism, to risk becoming a target of hate mobs, to spend hours educating myself and others on sexism.
But there’s something deeper here. With one minor exception, atheism is about following the evidence, even if that denies easy answers to life or the promise of eternal bliss. Anti-theism is about pointing others to the evidence, so that people don’t harm themselves or others through false beliefs. This makes both of them close relatives to feminism, which encompasses both following the evidence and leading others to it. Note to self: don’t write while hungry. They’re two flavors of ice cream in the same freezer.
If there was a connection, you’d expect those opposed to atheism and feminism to be operating contrary to the evidence. That’s been my experience; it’s rare for me to spend more than a few minutes puzzling over the gaps in logic of either type. This is backed by the experience of others, indirectly at least. Skeptics are probably familiar with crank magnetism, or the tendency of people that believe in one type of woo to endorse other woo too. On the social justice side, we have multiple studies which show that people who buy into rape myths also buy into myths about race, class, and age.
This puts intersectionality in a new light. Traditionally, that word was about how multiple identities “intersect” in complicated ways that can’t be easily separated. But this overlap of irrationality adds another meaning: as bigotry tends to depend on common cognitive biases, fighting against one form of bigotry means you’ll indirectly fight against them all. Atheists and feminists are natural allies, over and above the commonplace sexism in religion.
Interestingly, those same studies find that there’s also a correlation between rape myth acceptance and religious intolerance. The study populations consisted mostly of believers, admittedly, but it’s tough to look at some of the memes and rhetoric passed around the atheist community and not give a suspicious squint.
Ultimately, that may be the greatest benefit I’ve earned by being a feminist: it’s made it easier to spot the flaws in the atheist community, and turned me into a better atheist. I do not blindly follow my thought leaders around, nor make excuses for their bad behavior, because their thoughtless sexism prevents me. I’m better able to respect the humanity of the people I argue against, because I’ve been made aware of it. This flows both ways: I’m less taken in by some of the fluffy woo that sometimes pops up in feminism, because I’ve been trained to better sniff it out via the tool-set of reason and evidence I picked up from the atheist community.
Atheism and feminism shouldn’t be mortal enemies, but BFFs.
Thanks to HJ for the post.