If you have been following my blog for a while, you may have read several posts I have written about the issue of women’s rights and gender equality: the lack of ratification of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by the United States; the opinion that feminism does not mean hating men; statistics regarding where the US ranks on certain important issues such as infant mortality and wage equality; and an in depth focus on the word feminism and how it has changed over the decades. This week, I spent several hours listening to YouTube videos on the subject of atheism and feminism. These videos included The Amazing Atheist (T. J. Kirk), Jaclyn Glenn, Thunderf00t (Phil Mason), the late Christopher Hitchens, Steve Shives, Brittany Simon, Sargon of Akkad (Carl Benjamin), Kristi Winters, Peter Boghossian, and Stefan Molyneux. At the outset, it is important to emphasize the problems with YouTube. Just like an author hopes to sell lots of books, a YouTuber wants to increase the number of subscribers, views, and Patreon donors. However, compared to books or magazine articles that must go through at least some editing and a review process, YouTubers can put up any content they wish. This means that arguments can be made without references to support them and there is not the fact checking that occurs in most publications. That said, we are in a digital age and YouTube is the reality of a great deal of dialogue on virtually every subject. And someone who has gained a million views on any topic cannot be ignored.
I must admit that two years ago, when I chose the name Faithless Feminist for my blog, I had not seen any of these videos or read much beyond Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan. However, I have been a member of NOW and NARAL since the early 1980’s and long active in women’s politics. I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, long before social media arose. I also grew up in a time of more limited opportunities for women where they had fewer rights than today – an age before accessible birth control and legal abortion, as well as limited occupational role models beyond teacher, secretary, and nurse. When I chose the name Faithless Feminist, my vantage point was clearly in the past. To me, feminism had always meant gender equality.
Today, however, I am warming to the idea that we need a new word. Back in the 60’s, there was a large movement to increase access to many rights that were denied to African-Americans. It was not called the African-American or the Black Rights movement however. It was known as the Civil Rights Movement. I once attended a workshop put on by Oregon lawyers who volunteered to go to the south to work with African-Americans fighting for voters’ rights, etc. Given the time, these were mostly white male lawyers. Their passion in securing rights for African Americans was memorable because of the dangers they faced in doing so. When it passed in 1964, The Civil Rights Act outlawed “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” It also “prohibited unequal application of voter registration requirements, racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.” It was a monumental moment in the history of our country. This act would never have passed Congress, however, without the support of whites, as there were only five African Americans in Congress. By the way, there were only 14 women at this time in Congress. The reason I bring this movement up is because of its name – Civil Rights. While the struggle was long fought, the name itself didn’t focus on only one side of the equation. There was much opposition to the movement and to the Civil Rights Act that it spawned, but I don’t remember anyone railing against the title itself.
One of the authors in my first book, Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion, is Sylvia Benner, a woman who grew up in Germany and immigrated to the United States. In her essay, she states that she is not a feminist. I think it’s fair to say that I had never met a woman who was an atheist, highly educated, and with a business of her own, who did not identify as a feminist. Her rationale was that, at least in the United States, women have equal rights today. She further stated that there is now a problem in many areas where men are at a disadvantage. I will admit that I was at first very surprised at her position. These conversations, however, have been in the back of my mind for quite some time and her ideas were found throughout the videos I watched. I also learned a lot when a friend and I wrote one of the blogs mentioned above – Feminism Does Not Mean Hating Men. After posting it to a Facebook group called “No Gods, No Masters: Atheist Feminists,” I was kicked off simply for stating in a comment that women would not have gotten the right to vote without the support of men. That event educated me about the position taken by what many call extreme or radical feminists.
What did I learn from the videos I watched? Here are a few take-aways.
When Thunderf00t states that “feminists have infiltrated, derailed and effectively destroyed what had been until then an exciting and vibrant new atheist movement,” you know that he is interested more in a diatribe than a reasoned debate about the issue. One can certainly argue that asking an atheist conference to address every issue of intersectionality – race, gender, sexual orientation, economic status – rather than just a focus on non-theism, might be too much to ask (Atheism Plus). But his examples of one or two incidents that got blown out of all proportion certainly did not “destroy” the movement. The number of atheists is steadily increasing in the United States and more and more books are being written by the “new atheists.” He also cites the example that adopting a code of conduct at the Reason Rally means that the movement is now “infested with parasites.” I attended the Reason Rally in 2016 and didn’t see a single parasite – well okay, maybe some ants. He also stated that he doesn’t care about “genderisms,” yet has produced 54 videos about feminism. Enough said.
Attacking versus solving problems
As Jaclyn Glenn stated in her video “Atheists: Beware of the Extreme Feminist,” it is much easier to attack than to solve real problems. Many of the videos made valid points about issues concerning men’s incarceration rate, differing sentences for men for the same crimes as women, etc. Instead of addressing ways to deal with these issues, they simply attacked feminism for not dealing with them. Vitriol rarely leads to solutions. A video giving data and information on the ways in which men are disadvantaged in our society would be useful. It does not need to be about attacking feminism. One wonders what the men in the videos are actively doing themselves about issues where they believe men are at a disadvantage. Are they working toward solutions? Or are they doing just what they rail against?
Interspersed with the hyperbole, exaggerations, anger, and rants, a number of valid points were raised that need to be addressed. To me, the word feminist means gender equality. But the word itself doesn’t say that. It emphasizes one side of the equation – rights for women. T. J. Kirk, The Amazing Atheist, pointed out a number of areas where men are disadvantaged. Should only men be subject to sign up for the Selective Service? Should women be drafted in equal numbers? What would the attitude be toward going to war if our daughters were required to participate? I would also not be surprised if Mr. Kirk was accurate in stating men may receive harsher sentences than women for similar crimes. But on YouTube there are rarely footnotes. Male circumcision, while not having as severe repercussions as female genital mutilation (circumcised men still can have an orgasm), should still be examined as perhaps an outdated and historically religious practice. It is also probably true that domestic violence against men is unlikely to evoke the same outrage as violence against women.
The video I watched between Peter Boghossian and Stefan Molyneux raised many important points. Atheism is the result of looking at the world in a rational way. We need to look at gender equity in the same manner. We need to have civil discourse that is not shut down by bullying. Anonymous comments in social media should be avoided. Furthermore, extreme anger, as many of these comments are evidence of, does not facilitate rational discourse. In addition, it does not help your cause by constantly stating that you are a victim. While I personally have experienced incidences of discrimination on the basis of sex, I do not consider myself a victim. These incidences taught me a lot and simply caused me to become more vocal and more active. As an example, I held two executive positions in my career. In both instances, the runners-up were men. I didn’t get these positions because I was a woman. I got them because I did my homework and was the best candidate. I also think we need to stop looking at people as a single category. I am not just a woman. I identify with my Norwegian heritage. I am an atheist. I am left-leaning in my political views. I am married. I have a son. I am in a comfortable economic status. I speak three languages. But they all combine to make me who I am.
When I discussed my thoughts on this post with my son Samuel, he stated that when you enter a negotiation with “I’m fighting for both of us” versus “I’m fighting for what I want,” you are likely to get more accomplished. It may be time to avoid the labels of feminist or men’s rights advocate and come up with something that means, wherever possible, men and women should be treated equally in our society regardless of the many categories they may identify with. If you agree, please make a comment about what word should be used. Mr. Kirk’s “universal self-determinist” might be just a bit too complicated.
Karen L. Garst
The Faithless Feminist
June 24, 2017