My Talk at WIS2

May 17, 2013

There has been some discussion, including many tweets, about my talk today at Women in Secularism 2. I think some of the comments have been highly misleading. One of the principal points of my talk was the critical importance of advocacy for women’s rights, and how this advocacy was integral to CFI’s mission. This is something I emphasized at the beginning and end of my talk. You wouldn’t realize this from some of the comments. Anyway, here is the text of my talk (note the video recording may differ slighly, as I did not read it word-for-word; also, grammar and punctuation probably are amiss in places, as it was intended for my eyes only).

Let me begin with a reading, a reading that should be familiar to many of you, it’s from 1st Timothy chapter 2:

“Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. 12: I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. 13: For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14: and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15: Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty”

If you take out the references to Adam and Eve and salvation, similar pronouncements could have been made, almost surely were made, across the globe, from one to two to three thousand years before Paul write those words. And similar pronouncements were common at least up through about 1800 in the Christian west, and analogous pronouncements are still being made today in much of the Islamic world.

The suppression of women, their treatment as inferior, subordinate beings has a long history, encompassing virtually all human cultures. When precisely did the subordination of women begin? We can’t know with any certainty; some anthropologists speculate it began with the development of agriculture, and that a similar hierarchy did not exist in hunter-gatherer culture. Whether that’s true or not, the fact remains that the subordination of women has been a critical and common feature of human civilization for thousands of years. By contrast the slow, and very much incomplete, process of achieving equality for women has been a phenomenon of just the last couple of centuries.

The reading I just completed from the New Testament reminds us of a second point, that is, the connection between religion and the subordination of women. It is obvious that religions doctrines have often provided the rationale for treating women as inferior beings, beings who should not be allowed to speak, which of course is one reason many secular organizations regard advocacy for women’s rights as an integral part of their mission.  In working for a secular society, we are also working for a society free of oppressive doctrines. But the relationship between religion and the subordination of women is not an uncomplicated, straightforward cause-effect relationship.  It’s not as though we could say with confidence if there had been no religion there would have been no subordination of women. Seems to me the roots of the suppression of women are much deeper, and that they have affected and may continue to affect the attitudes and conduct even of nonreligious individuals. I’ll return to these points later.

One thing you may have noticed already is that I did not give you a formal welcome to Women in Secularism 2. Of course you are welcome here. We’re very happy to have you with us, but this is something you know already, and, although I don’t want to appear ungracious, why take up time to state the obvious, because the reality is we have much work to do, and presumably you came here for substance not rhetoric.

The first Women in Secularism conference was a ground breaking event, but that’s just it. It broke ground, it helped lay a foundation, but it’s not clear yet what’s going to be erected on top of that foundation. That’s in part what we need to find out over the next few days and that’s one reason CFI decided it was important to have a second conference.

The first conference raised a number of questions in my mind, and if the vigorous online debate that has occurred over the last twelve months is any indication, in the minds of many others as well.

What is the relationship between feminism and secularism? What sort of priority should secular groups give to advocacy for women’s rights? As many of you may recall, shortly after the first Women in Secularism conference, there was a call by some individuals to launch the Atheism+ movement, that is, atheism plus activism on social justice issues. This was not necessarily a bad suggestion, other than the fact that humanist groups like CFI or the AHA think that’s what they’re doing already, that is, they’re combining atheism with activism on selected social justice issues. Because CFI was already involved in social justice issues, including women’s rights issues, I was frankly lukewarm toward the Atheism+ proposal. Also, based on the rhetoric of some of its proponents, and I underscore some not all, it seemed to me to have the potential to be divisive. In fact, according to at least one proponent it was intended to be divisive. Upon further reflection, I’ve become more sanguine about the proposal. To begin, although nomenclature is not irrelevant, it’s not supremely important; at the end of the day, you cannot force someone to call themselves a humanist, so if people prefer to call themselves an Atheist-plusser, or whatever the term is, that’s fine. Moreover, it’s not intrinsically divisive to have another group or organization within the secular movement, provided the group collaborates on key matters with other secular organizations. Goodness knows, we have plenty of groups as it is and we still have found a way to collaborate on many issues.

 Still, some questions remain, for example, how should secular organizations, including any organization that styles itself as an Atheist+ group, set their priorities? You can’t do everything at once. Only the religious believe in miracles, and think that time will stand still for them. For those of us who believe in the natural world, there are three limiting dimensions to public policy advocacy, namely time, space and money. So what should atheists or humanists who are interested in social justice focus on? Women’s issues only? Presumably not. But which other social justice issues are considered critical? And who decides what’s included within the scope of social justice anyway? What is the definition of social justice?  I read a blog post by Louise Pennington the other day; she stated that although patriarchy may predate capitalism, we cannot destroy patriarchy w/o destroying capitalism. Is the destruction of capitalism considered part of a social justice program? If so, that position certainly has very significant implications.

This leads me to another set of questions. What is feminism and what are the aims of the feminist movement? There’s a definition that I’m sure many of you are familiar with, a definition supplied by bell hooks,  and that is the feminist movement is a movement that seeks to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. In the abstract, that seems about right. But the problem with this definition is it just pushes our questions back further. What is sexism? What actions constitute sexist exploitation? I don’t think you’re going to find unanimity of opinion on the answers to those questions even within the feminist movement.

Or would you? I know that I’ve had some conversations in which the claim has been made there is no significant division among true feminists. There may be people who call themselves feminists who sharply disagree with the correct understanding of feminism, but they’re just fake feminists. Worse, some of them are sister-punishers.

Well, I’ll grant that merely calling yourself a feminist does not mak
e you one. And it is true that some women seem to think that if you work outside the home that by itself makes you a feminist. Obviously not the case, But are there truly no significant divisions currently within the feminist movement? It would be surprising if that were the case b/c the feminist movement has had sharp divisions in the past. I just referenced a blog post from Louise Pennington in which she said capitalism had to be destroyed to eliminate patriarchy. Does everyone in this room who considers herself a feminist agree with Pennington?  If not, then you already have one very significant difference among feminists.

Also if there were no divisions among feminists, that would arguably make feminism unique among social movements; the secularist movement has significant divisions. For example, there are some secularists who think it’s a waste of effort to complain about/litigate so-called symbol cases. You know the type of case I’m talking about, there’s a cross somewhere on a piece of public property, so some of us think we need protest, maybe file a lawsuit to remove it. Others think not; why bother. People who take this position, assuming they believe strongly in a secular government and follow other secularist positions — are they not true secularists? I would think they are; I might disagree with them, but I don’t think I can mask that disagreement by the simple expedient of saying “you’re not a secularist, so I don’t have to talk to you.”
This brings me to the concept of privilege, a concept much in use these days. Let me emphasize at the outset that I think it’s a concept that has some validity and utility; it’s also a concept that can be misused, misused as a way to try to silence critics. In what way does it have validity? I think there is sufficient evidence to indicate that there are socially embedded advantages that men have over women, in a very general sense. These advantages manifest in various ways, such as the persistent pay gap between men and women. Also, I’m not a believer in a priori arguments, but I will say that given the thousands of years that women were subordinated to men, it would be absolutely amazing if in the space of several decades all the social advantages that men had were promptly and completely eradicated. Legislation can be very effective for securing rights, but changing deeply engrained patterns of behavior can take some time.
That said, I am concerned the concept of privilege may be misapplied in some instances. First, some people think it has dispositive explanatory power in all situations, so, if for example, in a particular situation there are fewer women than men in a given managerial position, and intentional discrimination is ruled out, well, then privilege must be at work. But that’s not true; there may be other explanations. The concept of privilege can do some explanatory work at a general level, but in particular, individualized situations, other factors may be more significant. To bring this point home let’s consider an example of another broad generalization which is unquestionably true, namely that people with college degrees earn more over their lifetime than those who have only high school diplomas. As I said, as a general matter, this is unquestionably true as statistics have shown this to be the case. Nonetheless in any particular case, when comparing two individuals, one with a high school degree and one with a college degree, the generalization may not hold.

But it’s the second misapplication of the concept of privilege that troubles me most. I’m talking about the situation where the concept of privilege is used to try to silence others, as a justification for saying, “shut up and listen.” Shut up, because you’re a man and you cannot possibly know what it’s like to experience x, y, and z, and anything you say is bound to be mistaken in some way, but, of course, you’re too blinded by your privilege even to realize that.

This approach doesn’t work.  It certainly doesn’t work for me. It’s the approach that the dogmatist who wants to silence critics has always taken because it beats having to engage someone in a reasoned argument. It’s the approach that’s been taken by many religions. It’s the approach taken by ideologies such as Marxism. You pull your dogma off the shelf, take out the relevant category or classification, fit it snugly over the person you want to categorize, dismiss, and silence and … poof, you’re done. End of discussion. You’re a heretic spreading the lies of Satan, and anything you say is wrong. You’re a member of the bourgeoisie, defending your ownership of the means of production, and everything you say is just a lie to justify your power. You’re a man; you have nothing to contribute to a discussion of how to achieve equality for women.

Now don’t get me wrong. I think the concept of privilege is useful; in fact it is too useful to have it ossified and turned into a dogma.

By the way, with respect to the “Shut up and listen” meme, I hope it’s clear that it’s the “shut up” part that troubles me, not the “listen” part. Listening is good. People do have different life experiences, and many women have had experiences and perspectives from which men can and should learn. But having had certain experiences does not automatically turn one into an authority to whom others must defer. Listen, listen carefully, but where appropriate, question and engage.

I started my talk with that reading from the New Testament which unmistakably assigned women a subordinate role.  Both the symbol of that oppression and the vehicle for enforcing that oppression was silence.  Enforced silence is always and everywhere the enemy of truth and progress.  If someone is forbidden from speaking, you are obviously not going to hear what they have to say. 

But enforced silence is also a way of robbing someone of their humanity.  Part of what allows us to give meaning to our lives is the ability to exercise certain core freedoms, such as freedom of conscience, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and reproductive freedom.  We need these freedoms to take control of our own lives, to give shape and direction our own lives; otherwise, we are just going to be forced into a role that has been assigned to us.

And this is where we see a fundamental connection between advocacy for women’s rights and humanism.  Humanists are committed to the autonomy of the individual, the right of the individual to make decisions for herself, to decide which occupations, which relationships to pursue or forego.  Women will not be able to secure that autonomy until they achieve complete social and civil equality and equal economic and political opportunity, and that is why CFI is committed to working toward those objectives.  The notion that people are assigned, condemned to a certain predetermined role in life, whether by the church, the state, or society, is antithetical to the humanist point of view.  Freedom, real freedom, authentic freedom, that is what we want for everyone.  Of course, how to get there  —  that is not yet determined.  But that is what we are here to figure out. 

I look forward to the conversation.