Those of you who have followed this blog for a while, or for those of you who know me personally, also know that I have been a long-time supporter of the Centre for Inquiry. Even though much of the CFI’s work has been focussed on secular and atheist issues and less on skeptical ones, I nevertheless felt that having a large, national (and international, thanks to CFI-Canada) organization to work on the behalf of secularists, atheists, and skeptics was a good thing.
But I’ve also had my reservations, lots of them. I’ll be a bit blunt here; I don’t particularly care about ‘atheism’. Non-belief simply doesn’t figure much into my life, because a non-belief is just that, nothing. Do I believe in theistic notions? No. Done, end of story. A non-belief is as solid a foundation to build on as a non-language, or a non-concept. Of course others will disagree with me, and they’re welcome to, but for me, atheism is less important than the mechanism or reason why someone doesn’t believe. I’ll ramble on a bit about that later. The point here is that when it comes to struggles for social justice, or struggles against social inequality or exploitation, atheism makes for a far crappier tool or even starting position than skepticism.
I figured that I could work within the framework of the CFI to advance the cause of reason, of evidence-based thinking, and yes, of social justice; after all, what is the effort to reduce the influence of oppressive, authoritarian religious institutions in our society but an exercise in social justice activism?
But I was wrong. At the national level, the CFI does not seem to share my interests. Oh, there are CFI conferences and events that claim to be all about the awesomeness of science, reason, and discovery, but in my experience, much of the enthusiasm for these things only extends so far. Does an atheist want to talk about biology? Wicked; we atheists fucking love science, amirite? Want to talk about how religion oppresses women? Damn straight it does, and we have the studies to prove it! Let’s smash these institutions and foster equality all around the world! Want to discuss the exclusion of women from the upper echelons of power, or the glaring lack of women speakers in the atheist and skeptical movement? Well, that sounds dangerously close to ‘feminism’ my goodgentlesir, and I’ll not hear of it!
The atheist movement (and the skeptical movement, if we’re honest) has a rather large blind spot in this regard, a blind spot that is often coupled with a particularly nasty form of appropriation; the struggle for women’s rights is a cause worth fighting for but only insofar as that struggle allows us to vilify religious institutions or personalities. Think about it: demanding that women have the right to become full citizens in Islamic countries, or that women be allowed to exercise sexual or even social agency in conservative Christian ones is a quintessentially feminist argument, yet all too often it seems as though it is only used in atheist circles as another form of ammunition to be fired against the ‘real’ enemy. I’ve known any number of atheists who will lambaste religious leaders (usually men) who try to use their influence to deny women the right to an abortion, for example, but who will then turn around and stubbornly refuse to consider that such a thing as ‘institutional sexism’ exists.
I’ve even seen atheists argue that religious institutions are evil because they attempt to prevent women from having abortions (the whole, ‘fetuses are sacred, but once they’re born, forget about them’ argument often used against religious anti-choicers), while at the same time accusing feminists of being ‘misandric’ for opposing the idea of letting potential fathers exert some control over the mother’s pregnancy (aka: ‘father’s rights’). So religious opposition to reproductive rights = evil, but men gaining the power to exert control over a woman’s body, agency, and free will = totally reasonable.
Okay, so that was a bit off-topic. Deal with it.
Here’s the long and the short of it; feminism and women’s rights are not merely tools to be used to further the agendas of the secularist movement, and when organizations use them as such, it cheapens everyone involved. If religious institutions oppress women, then it’s the act of oppression that is evil, not the fact that it’s being done by religion. The CFI sponsored a Women in Secularism event, but if we were to use Ron Lindsay’s (the CEO of CFI) speech at the conference as an indicator, we could be forgiven if we concluded that CFI’s sponsorship of the event was primarily done for themselves.
In other words, CFI didn’t sponsor WiS because they are interested in genuinely fostering the growth and flourishing of a vibrant, diverse group of women’s voices in the secular movement; they did it in order to make themselves appear to be the ‘de facto’ voice of secularism in North America. I mean, when the CEO of an organization gives a speech on the subject of feminism that is so ill-informed that it becomes a parody, and when his response to well-deserved criticism of said speech comes in the form of crappy ad homs and aspersions, how can we think anything else? For Vecna’s sake, the man actually tried to argue that reminding men of the privileges that can often accompany their gender is little more than a ‘silencing technique’ and that feminists would be better served if they tried to ‘tone it down’ a bit when discussing sexism! “Hey, women gathered here for this conference about women in the secular movement, you would be doing yourselves a service if you made sure that men’s perceptions and men’s feelings about your efforts were front and center in your discussions, m’kay?”
I won’t be a part of that. I’m nobody, CFI; I don’t rate very high in the world of secular bloggers or atheist speakers. But I’m still a part of the population that you are claiming to speak for, and I’m done with you. I’ll continue to support my local skeptical and atheist groups, provided that they are explicit in their desire to be as inclusive and welcoming as they can be, but I will not have anything to do with the CFI at the national or international level. At least not until they get their crap together.