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Women’s rebellion against religion

Atheist 2

More American women than ever before are living without religion. And, if history is a guide, this bodes well for the future of a feminism that seeks to end the systemic oppression of women—beginning with the very language that moralizes the subjugation of women.

Data from a 2015 Pew Research study found that, while women on the whole remain more religious than men, there is an ever-increasing percentage of women identifying as atheist, agnostic, or “none” (having no religion), with one recent estimate stating the number of nonreligious women in the United States tripled between 1993 and 2013.  

Even as far back as the late 19th century, leading thinkers understood the connection between religion and the subjugation of women. As Leigh Eric Schmidt notes in his new cultural history of atheism in America, Village Atheists, the U.S. census of 1890 reported that five million people—eight percent of the population—said they had no religion. These people were known variably as freethinkers, secularists, or atheists, or contemptuously as infidels. Whatever the appellation, many of them, both male and female, understood how religion normalized and validated women’s oppression. In fact, the popular atheist cartoonist Watson Heston, credited with making atheism visible to mainstream America through his cartoons in over 600 issues of the Truth Seeker journal, made the plight of women one of his causes. Take, for example, his cartoon “Women as St. Paul Would Hav[e] Her,” which enumerates the many strictures placed upon women solely because of their gender.

Courtesy of Center for Research Libraries; as found in Schmidt’s Village Atheists.

“You must not have any authority”; “You must not have any pleasure,” the Saint’s Creed commands. Watson paraphrases Christian scripture to illustrate how women are forced into a life of servitude and subjection by religious society. Christianity, America’s dominant religion, secured patriarchy. Leading feminist and abolitionist Lucretia Mott expounded upon how religion promulgated sexism in her 1854 speech at the fifth National Woman’s Rights Convention. Knowingly “tread[ing] upon delicate ground,” Mott spoke about how religion “disab[led]” and “restrict[ed]” women’s liberty, explaining how “[woman] has become enervated, her mind to some extent paralyzed; and like those still more degraded by personal bondage, she hugs her chains.” These sentiments were echoed by vociferous religious critic and feminist Matilda Joslyn Gage in her 1893 book, Woman, Church, and State; women’s “inferiority of position and intellect [are] taught from the pulpit” as her “natural” condition. To break free from religious constraint is to effectively free women’s minds. It is the first step to liberty and equality.

Many preeminent figures of the women’s movement—from Ernestine Rose to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott to Frances Wright—advocated for women’s rights through a critique of religion and the espousal of secularist principles that aligned with America’s burgeoning atheist movement in the 19th century. While abolitionists can be credited with teaching political protest strategy and tactical skills to feminists, it was arguably atheism that fueled the ideology of their movement. Secularist principles provided the necessary counterpoints to the accepted, religious narrative about the submissive nature of women.

Mott, Gage, Stanton, and even Susan B. Anthony never outright called themselves atheists but rather leaned on the appellation freethinker to impart their secularist beliefs, as well as to proffer religious critique from a strategically more moderate, and less noticeably contentious, standpoint. Stanton, author of the highly controversial two-volume The Woman’s Bible, told the 1885 National Woman Suffrage Association convention: “You may go over the world and you will find that every form of religion which has breathed upon this earth has degraded woman.” She was more blunt in her letters to Susan B. Anthony: “The Church is a terrible engine of oppression, especially as concerns woman,” she penned in 1852 to her collaborator and companion. By the time she published the first volume of The Woman’s Bible in 1895, the proverbial gloves had come off. Stanton was unmitigated in her criticism of Christianity, declaring it completely antithetical to women’s liberation:

The Bible teaches that women brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgement seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man’s bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home.

To this day, many of the political forces that seek to control women are based in religious ideologies. Touchstones of feminism that are still critical to the movement depend upon the atheist principles that shaped the movement over a century ago: autonomy, individuality, liberty, equality, freedom of thought—and an understanding of the female sex as free from the pre-existing condition of evil. Women are not morally or intellectually inferior to men; their subjugation is not “natural”; and the purpose of their existence is not to serve men or reproduce. With the resurrection of the fallen “Nasty Woman” trope in the presidential election, it’s important once again to apply secular thought in America’s feminist movement. Thanks to feminism, we are seeing more women leave their religion because they refuse this fictitious religious logic of sexist oppression. And refusing to accept the fictitious moralizing discourse of our oppression is a giant leap toward our liberty.

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