Women in Secularism 4 Conference


On September 22, I flew from my home in Oregon to Arlington, VA to attend the Women in Secularism 4 Conference. I had not heard about this conference until someone told me about it at the Reason Rally I attended in June in Washington, D.C. I am sure that the first question will be “Why do women need a separate conference?” so I’ll answer that first. Then I will discuss some of the key issues that were raised.

While the attendance at the conference was composed primarily of women, men participated as well. In fact, I even recognized one or two of them from the Reason Rally. Yes, the atheist community is rather small. Even calling it a community is a stretch because the only thing in common is a lack of belief, not a set of doctrines that everyone agrees upon such as in a church community. Having a separate conference, however, does allow women to focus on issues that directly affect them. The Reason Rally’s mini-convention addressed many of these issues and included some of the very same speakers. This conference just allowed an opportunity to explore them in more depth. Twenty-six women with diverse backgrounds spoke either individually or on panels throughout the two-day conference.

One of the speakers outlined the demographics of both church attendance in the United States as well as the characteristics of the atheist community. Not surprisingly, more women attend church than men. Reasons cited are that churches are not “male-friendly,” have boring services, have too much “romantic” music, and are too judgmental. Some churches are trying to attract more males by having such activities as “Tail-gate Sunday.” Good luck with that! Some academics maintain that women are biologically pre-disposed to be more religious because of lower levels of “risk promoting testosterone.” In addition, research has shown that more socially oppressed groups such as racial minorities turn to churches for support systems. Sikivu Hutchinson does an excellent job of exploring this issue in her book, Moral Combat. Another research point cited was the fact that women who have higher levels of income and more security are likely to be less religious. More millennial women are also less religious than their parents. Melanie Brewster’s presentation was well annotated. Check it out as well as the other presentations when it gets posted online here.

Speakers from the ex-Muslim community, such as Maryam Namase and Sarah Haider, outlined the dramatic suppression of women’s voices in Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is hard for us in the West to even fathom the lives of women in certain Muslim countries. Iran recently upheld the right of a man to marry his adopted daughter. Veils effectively erase women from the public sphere much as the packages where women’s faces are blacked out if they are sold in these countries. An interesting note revealed that 10 million copies of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in Arabic had been, albeit illegally, downloaded.

Gulalai Ismail, a courageous young woman from Pakistan, outlined her and her sister’s effort in founding Aware Girls to educate young women to strive for gender equality. Programs include HIV awareness, micro-entrepreneurship, and leadership skill building. They founded this growing organization in their teens. Their work is truly impressive and inspiring. Pakistan recently banned 200,000 websites, which shows the degree to which this once secular government has moved to the oppressive regime it is today.

The most interesting panel discussion, one among many, discussed the current topics of “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and “SJW’s.” A bit of definition is in order. Safe spaces, seen mostly on college campuses, are defined as places where people can meet and not be challenged because of their differences such as sexual orientation, race/ethnicity, etc. Trigger warnings are given by professors if a topic is going to be discussed that might disturb someone in the class and SJW refers to “social justice warriors.” Needless to say the advocates for free speech such as Maryam Namase and Sarah Haider on the panel strongly voiced their opposition to the censorship that happens on campuses today through these means. Namase stated that one of her presentations at a university was cancelled because of objections to the topic of her presentation. To me, the free speech advocates won the day. I can understand the need for minority groups to meet and not be disturbed. That should be a given for any group that wants to have a private meeting. But to cancel a public lecture because it might offend certain segments of the campus population simply goes too far. In my opinion, college is designed to promote critical thinking and expose students to a wide variety of views. If you want to protest a presentation Namase does fine, get your picket sign and stand outside. But to cancel it entirely is a huge mistake. Namase also objected strongly to “identity politics” stating that it is not a single part of her identity, whether as a woman or as an ex-Muslim, that is important, rather it is the political message she has to share that is paramount. It is important, however, to listen to voices such as Kayley Whalen, a transgender woman, and Diane Burkholder, a queer black woman, to understand how these characteristics affect them in a society that is not supportive of them and, all too frequently, puts them in danger. Melanie Brewster, a professor of psychology, also shared how speech can impact mental health.

Linda LaScola from the Clergy Project discussed the voices of women who have left the clergy. She asked three of us, myself included, to play women whom she had interviewed. Linda does qualitative research for the project. Imagine being a clergy person who discovers they no longer believe what they are preaching.

Having attended conferences throughout my career, I was impressed at how well organized the WIS4 Conference was. The breadth of qualifications of the speakers was particularly impressive. Questions of panelists were encouraged and provided insight into the audience’s opinions, which often differed from those on the panel. We were even treated to a night of great music with Shelley Segal who recently moved to the US from Australia. The only downside to the conference was that more people were not able to attend. Travel costs, time off work, and multiple demands undoubtedly created barriers to coming to the conference. A special thanks to Debbie Goddard, outreach director for the Center for Inquiry, who organized the event.


Karen Garst

The Faithless Feminist



About the Author Karen Garst


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