Washington, D. C., May 17-19, 2013
Note on Critical Religion: It is my assumption that scholars engaged in critical religion are essentially the atheists, feminists and de-colonists in the field of Religious Studies. I had dinner with a group of Religious Studies majors a few nights ago, and I was interested and somewhat disappointed to note that they generally defined ‘the religious’ as those who self-identified in that way. While Religious Studies departments can be replete with scholars drawing lines around ‘religious’ art or ‘religious’ clothes, implicitly using the adjective as an analytical category rather than as data itself, to my understanding, ‘Critical Religion’ particularly is a meta-religion-studies, looking at what people are calling ‘religion’, who is employing this label and for what reasons they are doing so. Critical Religion means examining the modern social attitude called ‘religious’, rather than apologetically calling human behaviour ‘religious phenomena’, something which does not exist, so naturally it is impossible to track or even define. Feminists have challenged and reconstructed history with a place for women within it, and de-colonists have given voice to a historically silent subaltern perspective. A large and contemporary body of work in Religious Studies is in many ways surprisingly still engaged in writing histories as (patriarchal, colonizing) Cultural Christians. Feminist and de-colonial theory, devoted to revealing and questioning unexamined systems of power, are the avenues which lead to Critical Religion. This seems to produce atheism, which is why the Women in Secularism conference series is relevant to Critical Religionists.
Atheism & Feminism
On May 17, 2013, some 50 core participants gathered at the Downtown Marriott Centre in Washington D. C. for the second annual conference about women’s involvement in secular movements. Up to 200 others attended for the keynote speakers. The conference was organized by the Centre For Inquiry, a not-for-profit organization which mobilizes on a variety of issues surrounding ‘secular’ concerns, such as scientific education in public schools, grief services for nonbelievers, and the demystification and de-vilification of all things contraceptive.
Over the course of the weekend, women engaged in atheist feminist activism had the opportunity to meet and discuss their work. Some women were best-selling authors, others scientists in the academy, and others were leaders in support groups within their communities. It is important to note that most of these women were and are actively engaged in journalistic activism via online blogs, Twitter, and other social media. (For a list of all the speakers and their lectures, click here.)
Toxic Religion and Toxic Patriarchy are the Same
Many of the activist-oriented conference speakers and panelists encouraged a coalition between the feminist movements and the secular ones, both to get more feminists to be atheists and to make the secular movement less elitist and oppressive. Essentially the secularists were engaged in convincing the feminists of the toxicity of religion and religion’s interference with the state, and the feminists were convincing the secularists that the fight to empower women is the keystone in reducing religion’s political influence. The result was feminists getting equipped with a more detailed understanding of the role of Christianity and Islam and patriarchy, and the secularists gaining a deeper appreciation for the role of feminist struggles in working towards secularism. Secularists and feminists were engaged in a process of seeing the dismantling of toxic masculinity and the dismantling of toxic religion as the same endeavour.
CFI Washington D. C.’s president and conference organizer Melody Hensley said that “issues of secular movements are issues of women’s safety and freedom.” The anti-feminist thrust of the predominant atheist movements, led by Richard Dawkins and others, suggests this is not a universal notion. Atheist groups consisting largely of wealthy, educated white males are focused on the science of anti-God-ness. Dawkins calls himself a “cultural Christian”, supporting ‘traditional marriage’ and other Christian constructions while intent on disproving the existence of an all-powerful God, male or otherwise. It follows that Dawkins supports ‘traditional’ gender roles and the idea of the father as head of the household. In this way, atheist movements may protect and inscribe oppression of women; they can erode Grand Narratives in one way, and perpetuate them in others. While I see feminism and atheism as part of the same project, it troubles me that this Dawkinsian atheism, disproving God with science, could potentially be the extent to which the secular movement goes. It is incredibly important to demonstrate the connection between the cultural institutions of Christianity and the cultural institutions of patriarchy. As Kathlyn Pollitt said, “religious texts are the rulebooks of misogyny.” Radio personality Sarah Moglia pointed out that statistically speaking, all social movements that do not reach the working classes (and women make up 70% of the world’s poor) are doomed to fail as they do not reach the institutionalization phase. The conference made clear that secularism as a social movement will not take root until it is inclusive, pervasive and skeptical, deeply penetrating not only the imaginary god but the system which both creates and is created by notions of it.
Another important discussion at this conference was that of nomenclature. There were many discussions and disagreements about what the movement should be called, how people should self-identify, and other issues which can be (and were) paralleled to the gay rights movement. I got the sense generally that although there were a few people who disliked the ‘secular’ title and preferred out-and-out atheist, there was an acceptance of allies in the movement. It was noted that as the term ‘feminist’ often precipitates a strong counter-reaction, so the word ‘atheist’ denotes criticism of the hegemonic paradigm and can’t be softened. This makes me think of Richard Cimino’s definition of atheism, which is “an oppositional identity in a culture of theism.” This oppositional identity creates many apologists, and potential allies of the secular (and women’s liberation) movements often focus on religion as a notion of ‘The Good’, or the positive effects of religions rather than the endemic oppression they inscribe. There has also been a great deal of ‘historical’ focus on religious persecution and religious freedom, and church-related abuses and violence are called ‘situational’, or ‘representative of the times’. Pollitt remarked that one need only read the Bible itself for an account of human rights abuses. The pervasive desire to imagine religion as ‘The Good’ results in a social forgetfulness that obscures the modern and political projects deploying God in state and in law. God went on the money and in the Pledge in the United States in the 1950s, and in contrast, France separated church and state in 1905. Investing the state with God-the-Father, and pretending he was always there is both anachronistic and political. Speaker and writer Jennifer Hecht notes that the feminist atheist movement needs to “establish a long history of secular women because the Christian world can be overwhelming,” and that “we have to be the ones to cultivate this memory.” When asked what the future would look like if atheist and feminist movements were successful, Pollitt responded that it would look as though atheism and feminism had always been popular. Whether or not that is the case remains to be seen, but every story told and every voice that speaks moves the discourse forward.
One of the most interesting parts of this conference was that scholars of Religious Studies were not invited. The doctors of Science, Political Studies, History and Women’s Studies seemed to recognize that much of the work in Religious Studies, while likely well-intentioned, is apologetic and somewhat evangelical. Ultimately, Religious Studies scholars seem to be more committed to their subjects of study than to human rights, or perhaps conventional Religious Studies departments do not offer the anti-oppressive theoretical education which has become typical in some Social Sciences.
Critical Religionists are often adept at pointing out the flaws of our peers, but the work which is crucial to developing the movement lies in constructing better theoretical frameworks than the ones which exist currently in the field of Religious Studies. Work like Goldenberg’s Vestigial State Theory move beyond “standing in the conceptual space carved out by theistic religion” (Sam Harris, 2007). Indeed, scholars of religion are only beginning to have the language with which to describe “vestigial states called ‘religion’”. Feminist and post-colonial academic and activist circles are a fantastic place to see these developing frameworks in action; these are the frameworks that Critical Religion needs.
Videos of the entire conference can be found here.
[Editor’s note: This article was modified on 11 April 2016 at the author’s request]