Questionable Motives

April 29, 2010

Why should feminism embrace reason and shun religion?

Because religious ideas harm women and restrict their lives on a daily basis.

There is a terrific article with rich resources by Amy Clare over at ButterfliesandWheels from which I have taken a few excerpts and indented below. I urge all readers to enjoy the well-argued and entire piece here titled Why feminism must embrace reason and shun religion.

This fact has been commented on before, and it should be well known among feminists; rather than waste space quoting verses, I will direct you to the website ‘The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible’, which contains lists of the verses relating to women in the Koran, the Bible, and the Book of Mormon. More about Islam can be found at the blog of Kafir Girl, whose article ‘Swimmin’ in Women’ is an irreverent and detailed analysis of the behaviour of Islam’s prophet Mohammed towards women and girls. While there is simply not enough space to fully analyse each religion’s treatment of women, there is some information about the inconsistency of the Hindu texts in relation to women’s rights here, an analysis of misogyny and Buddhism here, and this page shows that even the non-violent Jains apparently can’t handle a little bit of menstrual blood. The only reason that on-demand abortion is not available to women worldwide is the prevalence of religious (most notably Catholic) beliefs that a fertilised egg is a human being. The rise of unwanted pregnancies and STDs including Aids in many countries can be directly blamed on religiously-funded abstinence programmes which are based on beliefs that contraception and sex before marriage are evil. Strong beliefs about the sanctity of a girl’s virginity and the wickedness of female sexual behaviour lead to predictable, sometimes appalling and horrific results, such as girls being buried alive, lashed and stoned to death. And even as women are being harmed by such religious beliefs, they are told that the originator of these ideas, God, loves them.

It is as though mainstream feminism has a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to religion, but it is not alone in this. Religion has managed to carve itself a very nice niche in society whereby any questioning of religious faith is seen to be extremely bad form. Religion seems to have a monopoly on hurt feelings, entirely unfairly in my opinion. It seems to me that some feminists are afraid of a critical discussion about religious faith, because of the ever-looming label of ‘intolerant’, ‘prejudiced’, or, when it comes to any religion besides Christianity, ‘racist’.

Given all of the above, I anticipate in reaction: what business is it of yours what people believe? A person’s private religious faith is none of anyone’s business and you should tolerate it. You’ve got no right to tell people what to think! And so on. These are arguments atheists come across often. Indeed this seems to be the tack that many feminists take. It appears quite difficult to argue against, but here goes. First of all, as Sam Harris points out in his book ‘The End Of Faith’, belief almost always leads to action, therefore, beliefs are very rarely truly private. Believe that it’s going to rain, and you’ll take an umbrella out with you. Believe that a clump of cells is a sacred human life, and you will join a pro-life group and lobby the government to ban abortion; you may even be successful, in which case you will contribute to the suffering and even deaths of large numbers of women. As Harris says, “Some beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.” Indeed feminists do not tolerate every belief. We reject many commonly-held beliefs, most notably the belief that males are fundamentally different from, and superior to, females.

Also, people’s religious beliefs aren’t necessarily freely chosen. The vast majority of religious people are so because they have been brought up to be religious; it has been impressed upon them from an early age that there is a divine creator, and that he should be worshipped in the following ways, and so on. In this way, ‘telling people what to believe’ is really the preserve of religion. All atheists do, if anything, is ask people to question what they believe. If children were allowed to grow up without religious influence and then asked to evaluate the evidence and decide for themselves as adults if there is a god, then it would be a different matter entirely. But this doesn’t happen.

Even in the light of all of the above, there are some who will still insist that merely believing in a loving god – having ignored or ‘reinterpreted’ all the misogynist trappings of their faith – is harmless. I don’t agree. This belief is still based on blind faith, not on evidence, and such a mindset, while promoted by religions as a virtue, is in fact damaging to society. What is the difference between a person who simply ‘feels’ that there is a god, and a person who simply ‘feels’ that males are superior to females? Answer: nothing. Both ideas are uncontaminated by evidence. But the difference, for some feminists, seems to be that the latter view is to be fought against and the former to be tolerated and even praised.

Feminists can all perhaps agree on one thing: that the status quo in the majority (if not all) of the world’s societies is harmful in many ways towards women and girls. A large part of the harm is done by religion, both directly by influencing laws, attitudes and behaviour, and indirectly by promoting the idea that faith is a virtue and thus discouraging the questioning attitude that is so vital for debunking sexism and promoting equality. It is time for feminism to be brave and have a discussion about the real effects of religious faith on women’s place in societies worldwide, not placing the blame on a few extremists but critically examining the whole institution. Perhaps one day all feminists will end up at the same conclusion I came to many years ago: it is not just that the emperor has no clothes, it is that there is no emperor at all.

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