Atheism has nothing to do with feminism or pro-choice positions

5/15/13 Update – This piece provides the full context of a quote which was attributed to me in the Houston Chronicle. Read this piece and my response to the article.

Amanda Marcotte, host of the RH Reality Check podcast, recently authored a post titled “Atheism is Consistent with Feminism and Pro-Choice Positions.” In this post, I will examine various reasons Amanda Marcotte gives for this assertion and show why I believe she is deeply mistaken.

Before commenting on the specific reasons Marcotte provides, it should be first important to note what atheism is. Atheism, as it is commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.

To note that atheism is consistent with something — such as ‘feminism and pro-choice positions — seems to be an empty statement. How is the fact that one lacks belief in any gods ‘consistent’ with one’s views on abortion and gender equality? It’s quite obvious that many atheists who oppose all forms of abortions and do not hold the same ideas about feminism as Marcotte exist (regardless of the strength of the arguments). What about feminists who are in opposition to abortion? Are these people also being ‘inconsistent?’

What, then, does Marcotte supply to warrant her assertion that atheism is consistent with feminism and pro-choice positions? She writes,

For me, being an outspoken atheist has always been firmly intertwined with my feminism, and in fact, really it’s the result of my feminism. I never really believed in a god of any sort, but the notion that atheism is important and should be talked about openly is one I only really developed because it serves the larger goal of creating a world that has true gender equality”

While it is possible that a position on one issue (namely that organized religion, as it seems Marcotte believes, is harmful to women) may lead one to be outspoken on another issue, this in no way means that Marcotte’s lack of belief in any gods is ‘consistent’ with her feminist positions. While being open about atheism may be serve the larger goal of creating a world that has true gender equality, this by no means supports the assertion that atheism is consistent with pro-choice positions or feminism.

Continuing, she writes,

Feminism and atheism are intertwined for me both on a philosophical and pragmatic level. Philosophically, I’ve always thought that making the question “are women people” a matter of theological debate is silly. One side quotes one Bible verse and another quotes one back, and really, the people who believe women are vessels aren’t wrong to think the Bible has their back. From the very first book of the Bible, women are cast as creatures that exist to serve men and not as full human beings in their own right. Various other religious traditions have the same problem of casting men as people and women as appendages. That runs so contrary to what seems obvious to me, that women are people just as much as men.

It’s quite possible to get ‘nowhere’ in a discussion which involves quoting Bible verses although, as Marcotte may not know, there are feminist theologians and the matter of ‘are woman people’ is likely decided for reasons other than appeals to religion, but that’s another story. While the Bible has, in many points, a grim view of women, an evaluation of ‘the Bible got it wrong’ does not mean that atheism is ‘consistent’ with feminism and pro-choice positions.

Marcotte then moves on to discuss atheist thinkers whom she identifies as feminists:

It was atheist thinkers who I first encountered who had an explanation for gender that comported better with the real world evidence. Simone de Beauvoir, author of the seminal text “The Second Sex”, laid out a rationale for feminism that was firmly rooted in her atheist existentialist philosophy. To wildly oversimplify her extremely long argument: There is no God. Therefore, there is no higher authority telling us what we are here “for”. Therefore we have the right to define our own purpose for ourselves. There is no rational reason that this right should only be extended to men, because again, there’s no higher power assigning one gender the role of leaders and the other of servants. Thus, women are equal to men, and as a matter of human decency, should have the same right to self-determination. Elegant, persuasive, and above all other things, logical and evidence-based. Atheism, by all rights, should lead to feminism, I thought. It’s just what’s rational.

Marcotte’s discussion about purpose is a philosophical one and not something that is a result of lack of belief in any gods. While some religious believers may believe that women and men have different roles in life or purposes, do it follow that a rejection of this should lead to feminism? One can, even without a god belief, hold on to the idea — similar to what some religious believers may hold — that women do not have the same right to self-determination as men.

Various non-theological reasons, I am sure Marcotte is aware of, which consigned women to ‘traditional roles’ need no appeal to gods including ‘women should be homemakers,’ ‘the main responsibility of women is to bear children and care for them,’ and ‘women should please their husbands.’ While religion may be associated with this, it seems foolish to suggest that a rejection of religious belief should, as Marcotte says, “lead to feminism” (or a particular position concerning the meaning of life or purpose).

It is also important to note, as I previously alluded to, that not all those who happen to lack a belief in any gods are very rational. Atheism is not arrived at by every person as a result of careful reflection, responding well to arguments from religious believers, and a good understanding of arguments against gods. Many atheists, as Marcotte and many who are active in the online community should know, are not very rational.

She continues,

Atheism in service of feminism drew me in for pragmatic reasons, too. The biggest battle over women’s rights in this country revolves around reproductive rights, which makes it a battle over faith, since there is no evidence-based, rational argument for restricting a woman’s right to choose if and when she gives birth.

While this may be the case (and I am pro-choice myself), there are many arguments against abortion. Although the arguments may fail, they exist. Although religious appeals may contribute to anti-abortion positions, it’s not simply a religious/faith-based issue.

Nor is there really an argument outside of a faith-based one to believe that a brainless embryo is the equivalent to a baby; to ignore the scientific reality that women create other people in our bodies by gestating them in favor of believing men create other people by ejaculating means a belief that the act of conception is supernatural, that a Christian idea of the “soul” is somehow injected into an egg along with a sperm.

Not all arguments against abortion stipulate that a ‘brainless embryo is equivalent to a baby.’ Some anti-abortion arguments are concerned not with whether an embryo is equivalent to a baby, but rather are concerned with potentiality or the ‘future like ours‘ – again, having nothing to do with religious appeals.

Even anti-choicers grasp this; they “believe” that “life begins at conception.” It’s a belief. It has no relationship with the facts. And that belief is fundamentally religious in nature. That’s why it’s important to understand that attempts to ban abortion or get fertilized eggs legally defined as “persons” are attempts to violate the First Amendment and use the state to impose a certain kind of religious dogma.

I’m confused here by Marcotte putting quotes around the word belief. A belief, as I understand it, is a proposition that one holds to be corresponding with reality. Stating that something is a belief that has no relationship with the facts means that something is, then, a false belief. Anyway, ideas that life begins at conception, again, are not all religiously-based. The matter of life, anyway, is a philosophical (not a scientific) issue although science may inform our belief of when life starts or what life is. While people who attempt to define eggs as persons or otherwise try to ban abortion might be operating under religious dogma, it is not the case that all of these attempts are religious in nature.

Marcotte continues,

For this reason, it seemed to me that supporting the growing atheist movement would benefit reproductive rights in the long run.

Sure, this might be the case because many atheists happen to be sympathetic to Marcotte’s causes of reproductive freedom and pro-choice positions (myself included), but not simply because they lack belief in any gods.

Anti-choicers insist that the debate over choice is a theological one over when “life,” i.e. ensoulment begins. If the public at large understood that a substantial percentage of Americans don’t believe in souls at all, then it would be much easier to see why the theological question of when “life” begins has no place in the law at all.

Not all persons, again, opposed to abortion, are crafting a theological debate. Even if persons didn’t believe in souls, there would still be opposition to abortion. While that opposition might go down, this doesn’t mean that atheism is consistent with pro-choice positions. The matter of what life, to restate, is is not merely a theological question (and not necessarily based on the soul).

Her last paragraph notes,

Of course, all these arguments depended on an atheist movement comprised of people who saw the way that religion and patriarchy are intertwined, and saw that refusing to believe in God, if followed to its logical conclusion, means abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men. In my interactions with the atheist movement, I would say most activist atheists do see these things and have logically come around to feminism because of it. But […] a not-insubstantial percentage of atheist men have convinced themselves they can both not believe in a god and somehow still conclude that women were put (by who?) here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men

I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to ‘the logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men. I would like to see a deductive argument for this. Anyway, Marcotte’s framing of issues, as we have already seen with her ideas concerning opposition to abortion, is very oversimplified. There is a vast array of positions falling under the umbrella of feminism and much disagreement amongst persons who consider themselves to be feminists. Is there really a ‘not-insubstantial percentage’ of people, as Marcotte asserts, who are activist atheists who believe that ‘women were put here on Earth for the purpose of pleasing and catering to men?’

There are certainly atheist activists who object to some ideas that atheist bloggers such as PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, ‘Surly Amy,’ Stephanie Zvan, and Ophelia Benson (and even Marcotte) hold… but I find it very hard to believe that these same people believe that women were put on Earth to please and cater to men. How does Marcotte arrive at this conclusion?

Amanda Marcotte does not effectively argue that atheism is consistent with feminism and pro-choice positions. She’s ‘dead at the gate’ considering that atheism is merely an indicator of one issue — whether a person believes in any gods — and does not guarantee anything else about a person – especially whether the person is or should be pro-choice or in agreement with Amanda Marcotte’s take on feminism. Marcotte grossly oversimplifies issues of abortion while asserting that a rejection of belief in God, as she writes, “if followed to its logical conclusion” leads to beliefs about women. Atheism has nothing to do with feminism or pro-choice positions – and it cannot considering that atheism is a position on one issue and secular opposition to pro-choice positions and ideas of Marcotte’s concerning feminism exist.